Separation and Belonging: Polish Jews, Jewish Poles and Their Music

Editorial by Maja Trochimczyk [1]

How does one define Polish Jewish identity? Is there one? In 1996, Rafael F. Scharf, a Jewish scholar from Poland who settled in England, wrote:[2]

The personal pronoun is the most suspect part of speech. How we relate to the ‘I’ defines our personality.[…] Poles have always taken me for a Jew, Jews for an Englishman, the English for a Pole. I myself could say that I look upon England as a wife, Israel as a lover, on Poland as a step-mother.

In naming Poland a (wicked?) stepmother, Scharf bemoaned the non-inclusivity of the traditional definition of Polish national identity, according to which being “Polish” is equated with being “Catholic.” Obviously, if this was the case, there could be no “Jewish Poles,” or “atheist Poles,” or “Protestant Poles.” Another British writer, Clifford Longley, expressed this position in the following observation:[3]

The term “Pole” seems to be used almost as an everyday synonym for Catholic, in this context: it is not claimed by or applied to the Jews. Yet . . . I would have thought it was a truism that the Polish national community both then and now consisted and consists of both Catholics and Jews. Are not Polish Jews Poles? is there no real identification of the Jewish community as part of the Polish nation? I write as someone who regards himself as fully Catholic and fully English, who would not dream of suggesting, and who would be deeply shocked to hear it suggested by others, that Jews cannot be just as English as I am. Indeed, I would regard someone who suggested such a thing as coming very close to committing the crime of incitement to racial hatred.

The ethnic “Polonizing”[4] of Poland after World War II stemmed, in part, from external circumstances (the Holocaust[5] and the change of Polish borders defined in the Yalta Treaty); it was also a result of government policy. The post-war Communist regime undertook a massive project of ethnic cleansing and propaganda to create a “Poland for the Poles” within the ancient Slavic borders. In addition to reducing Polish citizens to one “ethnicity,” the populational shift allowed for the expansion of the religious (Catholic) aspect of Polish identity.[6]This religious nationalism, controversial after World War II, predated the communist regime and was particularly strong among National Democrats in pre-war Poland.In a recent issue of Jewish Studies, Moshe Rosman discussed various models of Jewish-Gentile relations, with particular attention paid to “authenticity versus influence” (older model) and “polysystems of relations” (newer model). Rosman wrote:[7]

Given that Jewish culture is continuous with past tradition, a dichotomy is often drawn between “authentic” Jewish culture that grew out of the Jewish past and alien “influences” which impinged on it from other cultures. In the Polish context, to some extent discussions of Jewish culture in Poland have even emphasized its genuine Jewishness by noting how little it was influenced by Polish culture. . . Certainly, as a matter of policy, the Poles made no attempt to Polonize the Jews as they did with other ethnic and religious groups. . . Perhaps the metaphor for Jewish-Gentile cultural interaction should not be that of two magnetic fields coming into contact with each other and influencing or distorting each other; but rather a metaphor of recombinant DNA that originates from a widely available repertoire of building blocks, but achieves a unique character by virtue of the combining process. Put differently, it is a kind of intertextuality that defines Jewish culture, not the degree of purity of the origins of the “texts” themselves. Authenticity is dependent not on pedigree, but on practice.

If we were to consider the putative “national” or “ethnic” identity of Ignacy Friedman’s Three Songs, Op. 25,[8] written to Polish texts by Leon Idzikowski, the choices would have been quite limited: the songs could be considered “Jewish” because of the “ethnic” and religious identity of the composer, “Polish” because of the language of poetry used for the settings, or “Jewish-Polish” to give justice to both elements of the songs, the verbal and the musical.[9] Friedman’s compositions (about 100) include chamber pieces, songs and music for piano (transcriptions of 18th-century pieces, large-scale, original compositions, and charming miniatures, such as the Tabatière à Musique, a “music-box” composition set in the highest two octaves of the piano). His choice of song texts ranges from folklore and its stylization, through verse by Poland’s greatest poets (Adam Mickiewicz, Maria Konopnicka, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer), to symbolic and modernist poems of the fin-de-siècle, mostly in Polish. Many songs are pastoral in character as they recount the beauty of love and nature; many feature Polish folk dance rhythms. Songs to more serious poems include a melancholy reflection on the experiences of life by Adam Mickiewicz (Polały się łzy [Tears fell], Op. 23, No. 2). The symbolic, expressionist songs are set to dissonant accompaniments and use more chromatic melodic lines than the folk music stylizations. With their expressive and captivating texts, highlighted by charming and poignant melodies and alluring, vivid piano accompaniments, these songs found appreciative audiences in Polish salons. Did non-assimilated Jews, speaking Yiddish and living within the area of historic Polish lands, ruled by Russia or Austria, consider such songs to be a part of their cultural heritage? Probably not. Did Polish music historians consider Friedman’s compositions, as an important part of Polish music heritage? It does not seem so; as other works destined for salon consumption, his songs and solo piano pieces remain forgotten. They fell between the cracks in the conceptual framework of Polish music history emphasizing the substantial “public” genres of the symphony and opera and neglecting the “private” songs and piano music, destined for home use, mostly by women.The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online describes Friedman as a Polish pianist and composer; the “Jewish” aspect of his complex identity is not even mentioned. Is it important to know that he was born as Solomon Isaac Freudmann in a family of Jewish musicians and that his father and uncle ran a family orchestra which travelled on concert tours throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. playing Jewish and popular music? Friedman toured with this ensemble before deciding to embark on the career of a “classical pianist.” Four years of study with Theodore Leschetitzky in Vienna transformed him into a world-class virtuoso, but his earlier experiences of making music with the family orchestra cannot be ignored as a part of his musical background.Friedman’s example suggests the complexity of cultural belonging for “Jews from Poland” or “Jewish Poles” or “Polish Jews” or “Poles of Jewish descent” even without examining issues of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We would do them a great disservice if we reduced them to one identity as either a Polish or Jewish composer. It is important to be aware of the complexity and interrelationships of national, ethnic, religious and artistic self-definitions, but this awareness cannot arise without knowledge of the basic facts, without the recovery of a forgotten repertoire created by musicians of Jewish descent active in Poland.

The purpose of the International Conference “Polish/Jewish/Music!” held in November 1998 at the University of Southern California was to highlight the Jewish contribution to Polish musical culture. This conference, the first of its kind, attempted to fill some of the larger gaps in Polish music history by: (1) highlighting the richness of achievements of Polish composers of Jewish descent and Jewish music in Poland, and by (2) emphasizing the complexity of cultural relationships between the two ethnic groups, including both assimilation and coexistence. The conference included lectures, lecture-recitals and panel discussions as well as two concerts presenting rarely-heard solo and chamber music. One of the goals of the conference was to demonstrate that one cannot write a history of Polish music without acknowledging the contribution of musicians and composers of Jewish descent. At the same time, the focus of the conference was on the achievements of the Jewish community in Poland, not on its loss. The organizers did not want to avoid difficult and controversial issues, but saw this meeting as a celebratory and educational event. It was hoped that by outlining this new subject area, the conference would serve to further Polish-Jewish dialogue as well as highlight the role of this particular community of musicians for the world. The conference’s program (reproduced in the documentation segment of this issue of PMJ) included sessions on individual composers (Karol Rathaus and Aleksander Tansman), surveys of Jewish musicians, composers, performers, and publishers in Poland, various aspects of concert life, and folk music.The conference benefitted from the resurgence of scholarly interest in composers of Jewish background in Poland—one of the positive effects of the fall of communism in 1989—which resulted in the publication of several monographs about Koffler, Rathaus, and Tansman. (The significance of this topic for the new Polish government was expressed in the generous financial support provided for our conference by the Ministry of Culture and Arts of the Republic of Poland.) Invited scholars from Poland (Marian Fuks, Maciej Gołąb, Anna Granat Janki, Jolanta Guzy-Pasiak), Israel (Issachar Fater), Germany (Martina Homma and Martin Schüssler), Canada (Piotr Wróbel, Anna Szpilberg) and the U.S. (Michael Beckerman, Halina Goldberg, Paul Knoll, Barbara Milewski, Hankus Netsky, Bret Werb) were likely to differ in their views and approaches. Considering the fruitfulness of dissent in the history of ideas, I juxtaposed speakers from different cultural and methodological traditions and planned a round-table panel for the closing session, made more poignant by its location in the prayer hall at the Jewish Institute of Religion, under the gilded doors salvaged from a synagogue in Poland. Of the planned participants, which, in one phase included the now-world-famous Władysław Szpilman (whose war-time memoirs provided the outline for Polansky’s film The Pianist), several could not attend in person: Marian Fuks, Issachar Fater (their papers were read by USC students, Diane Diskin and Eric Smigel), and Martina Homma (whose paper was cancelled). Anna Szpilberg’s contribution to the concert programming did not take place due to a hand injury.

As the conference program chair and organizer, I was particularly interested in the identity issue—which fascinates me for personal reasons—I am, after all, a Polish Canadian of partly Byelorussian background who emigrated from Poland to California. My paper, “The Question of Identity: Polish-Jewish Composers in California,” posed a number of issues arising from an attempt to fill in the blanks on the identity map of fellow immigrants to California. Much enlarged in subsequent revisions, this text will appear in vol. 19 of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in England, for the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies and the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies. Other papers presented at the conference have already been published: studies by Anna Granat-Janki (on Tansman) and Linda Schubert (on Vars) appeared online in the Polish Music Journal 4, no. 1 (2001). Articles by Barbara Milewski (on Tansman’s mazurkas), Halina Goldberg (on Jewish salons in Warsaw) and Jolanta Guzy-Pasiak (on Rathaus sonatas) will appear elsewhere. The initial plan to issue a book of conference proceedings was replaced by the current “monographic” issue of PMJ, while the Polish Music History series will feature as its vol. 8, Prof. Maciej Gołąb’s pioneering monograph of Józef Koffler, Poland’s first twelve-tone composer and a victim of the Holocaust.In addition to original research articles, the Polish Music Journal usually includes reprints or translations of source readings and documents pertaining to the subject matter. For the “Polish-Jewish” issue of the Journal, I decided to publish some rare matarial from the collection of the Polish Music Center. Letters from Aleksander Tansman to Tadeusz Kaczyński (1971-1985) translated from Polish, Tansman’s laudatory letter about Szymon Laks (1984), translated from French, come from collections donated by Joanna Kaczyńska and Andre Laks respectively. A reprint of a 1901 article by pianist Józef Hofmann about early childhood music education, or rather his own early experiences (from The Century Library of Music, edited by Ignacy Jan Paderewski and donated by Teresa Domanska) expands the limited bibliography dedicated to this eminent musician. Three reprints from The Etude highlight the musical views and achievements of Polish-Jewish keyboard players Wanda Landowska and Moritz Rosenthal. Landowska’s text on interpreting Bach (1906) is one of the earliest texts she wrote on this subject. Rosenthal’s name appears among “the greatest pianists” of the world (1907) and, as an author, in a Master Lesson on Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 42. Finally, interests of composers are illustrated by Roman Ryterband’s text in praise of contemporary music (1963), reprinted from The Baton of Phi Beta (a fraternity newsletter, donated by Clarissa Ryterband).While presenting selected results of our 1998 Conference, I am particularly grateful to two scholars who did not attend or present their work there: Dr. Irene Heskes (musicologist, the past editor of Jewish Music and the author of Passport to Jewish Music: its History, Traditions and Culture (New York, 1994)[10] and Prof. Stanislaus A. Blejwas (historian, author of numerous books and articles on Polish American culture).[11] They provided much-needed “moral” support for this project. Both scholars, sadly no longer with us (Heskes died in 1999, Blejwas in 2001), believed in exploring Polish-Jewish topics and the borderlines of both cultures, seeking to reveal the mutual enrichment that stemmed from such cultural interactions. This volume is dedicated to their memories.


[1]. This editorial includes some ideas from my paper, “The Question of Identity: Polish-Jewish Composers in California” forthcoming in Polin, vol. 19, published by The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. The first version of this paper was read at the International Conference, “Polish/Jewish/Music!” organized by the Polish Music Center at the USC School of Music, on 15-16 November 1998. A different version of this text was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, held at Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland, in June 2000. [Back]

[2]. Rafael F. Scharf, Co mnie i Tobie Polsko. . . Eseje bez uprzedzeń [Poland, What have I To Do with Thee. . . Essays without Prejudice] (Kraków: Fundacja Judaica, 1996), 189.[Back]

[3]. Clifford Longley, “A Case History: Jedwabne-A Response,” in Jews and Christians in Conversation: Crossing Cultures and Generations, E. Kessler, J. T. Pawlikowski, and J. Banki, eds. (Cambridge: Orchard Academic, 2002), 167-173; cited from p. 168. [Back]

[4]. Studies of earlier experiences: Symbiosis and Ambivalence: Poles and Jews in a Small Galician Town by Rosa Lehmann (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001); Warsaw Before the First World War: Poles and Jews in the Third City of the Russian Empire, 1880-1914 by Stephen D. Corrsin (Boulder: East European Monographs distributed by Columbia University Press, 1989); Together and Apart in Brzezany: Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians, 1919-1945 by Shimon Redlich (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002); Poles and Jews: A Failed Brotherhood by Magdalena Opalski, Yisra’el Bartal (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1992). [Back]

[5]. For studies of Polish-Jewish approaches to the Holocaust see: ‘My Brother’s Keeper?’: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust , edited by Antony Polonsky (London; New York: Routledge in association with the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies, 1990); Holocaust and Memory: The Experience of the Holocaust and Its Consequences. An Investigation Based on Personal Narratives edited by Barbara Engelking-Boni and Gunnar S. Paulsson (London; New York: Leicester University Press, in association with the European Jewish Publication Society, 2001); Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945 by Gunnar S. Paulsson (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2002); Contested Memories: Poles and Jews During the Holocaust and Its Aftermath by Joshua D. Zimmerman (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003). [Back]

[6]. For a history of religious-national identity in Poland see Cyprian Wilanowski, ed. Millennium polskie: walka o rząd dusz: Z Archiwum Akt Nowych [The Polish Millennium: A Struggle for Power Over Souls] (Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax, 2002). [Back]

[7]. Moshe Rosman, “A Prolegomenon to the Study of Jewish Cultural History,” Jewish Studies, Internet Journal, vol. 1 (2002);, accessed on May 5, 2003. [Back]

[8]. Ignacy Friedman (born in Podgórze, near Kraków, 13 February 1882; died in Sydney, Australia, 26 January 1948) was a Polish pianist and composer. He studied composition with Hugo Riemann in Leipzig and in 1901-4 dedicated himself to piano studies with Leschetizky in Vienna. He also studied musicology with Adler and heard lectures by Busoni. “After a Vienna début in 1904 he performed throughout the world until 1943, giving some 2800 concerts” with the most famous conductors and orchestras of his time. With Huberman and Casals he played Beethoven sonatas and the “Archduke” Trio for the composer’s centennial festival in Vienna in 1927. “Until 1917 he lived in Berlin, then in Copenhagen, then in Siusi, Italy (1919-39) and in 1940 settled in Sydney.” Biographical information based on an entry about Friedman by Alan Evans in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed on 21 September 2003), [Back]

[9]. There is a distinction between “Jewish Music” and “Music of the Jews.” See A. M. Rothmüller, “On Jewish Music,” The Music of the Jews (London, 1953), 218-27; H. Fromm, ‘What is Jewish Music,” On Jewish Music (New York, 1978), 3-5; E. Werner, “Identity and Character of Jewish Music” proceedings of World Congress on Jewish Music: Jerusalem 1978, ed. J. Cohen (Tel-Aviv, 1982), 1-14. For a recent comprehensive study of the subject see Irene Heskes’s Passport to Jewish Music: Its History, Traditions, and Culture (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994). [Back]

[10]. Dr. Heskes’s writings include: The Cantorial Art (New York: National Jewish Music Council, 1966); Studies in Jewish Music: Collected Writings of A.W. Binder (New York: Bloch Pub. Co., 1971); co-authored with Suzanne Bloch, Ernest Bloch, Creative Spirit: A Program Source Book (New York: Jewish Music Council of the National Jewish Welfare Board, 1976); Music of the Sephardic and Oriental Jews: Program Resources from the 1972 Jewish Music Festival (New York: Jewish Music Council of the National Jewish Welfare Board, 1972); Highlighting Jerusalem with Music: Guidelines and Sources (New York: JWB, 1980); Music as Social History:American Yiddish Theater Music, 1882-1920 (Champaign, Ill.: Sonneck Society and the University of Illinois, 1984); A Duty of Preservation and Continuity: Collectors and Collections of Jewish Music in America (Philadelphia, Pa.: Music Library Association, 1983); The Resource Book of Jewish Music: a Bibliographical and Topical Guide to the Book and Journal Literature and Program Materials (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985); Yiddish American Popular Songs, 1895 to 1950: A Catalog Based on the Lawrence Marwick Roster of Copyright Entries coauthored by Irene Heskes and Lawrence Marwick (Washington: Library of Congress, For sale by the U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., 1992); Passport to Jewish Music: Its History, Traditions, and Culture (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994). [Back]

[11]. Prof. Blejwas’s writings include: Warsaw Positivism 1864-1890: Organic Work as an Expression of National Survival in Nineteenth-century Poland Thesis/dissertation/manuscript, New York, 1974; East Central European Studies: A Handbook for Graduate Students (Columbus, Ohio: American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, 1974); A Polish Community in Transition: The Origins and Evolution of Holy Cross Parish, New Britain, Connecticut (Chicago: Polish American Historical Association, 1978); The Poles: In their Homeland, in America, in Connecticut by Lynda Slominski, Stanislaus A. Blejwas and Frank A. Stone (Storrs, Conn. : World Education Project, University of Connecticut, 1979);Realism in Polish Politics: Warsaw Positivism and National Survival in Nineteenth Century Poland (New Haven and Columbus, Ohio: Yale Concilium on International and Area Studies; Distributed by Slavica Publishers, 1984); Pastor of the Poles: Polish American Essays coauthored by John P. Wodarski and Stanislaus A. Blejwas (New Britain, Conn.: Central Connecticut State College, 1982); Intergroup Relations and Ethnicity, The Peoples of Connecticut coauthored by Lynda Slominski, Stanislaus A. Blejwas and others. Archival Material at the University of Connecticut. 1975-1980; The 44 Club, 1939-1989: Celebrating Fifty Years of Fraternal Association (New Britain: [The Club], 1989); St. Stanislaus B. & M. Parish, Meriden, Connecticut: A Century of Connecticut Polonia, 1891-1991 (New Britain, Conn.: Central Connecticut State University; St. Stanislaus Parish Council, 1991); Perspectives in Polish History (New Britain, Conn.: Polish Studies Program, Central Connecticut State University, 1996); A Rhode Island Ethnic Group: Polish Americans (Providence, R.I.: Rhode Island American Polish Cultural Exchange Commission, 1995); St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, Bristol, Connecticut: 75th anniversary, 1919-1994: A Book of Memories (New Britain, Conn.: Art Press, 1994); The Polish Singers’ Alliance, 1888-1998 (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2003). [Back]