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Wednesday, September 13, 2006
  Tuwim, or why I like wikipedia
In my last Polish language post, I threatened inaptly to talk a little bit about one of my favorite Polish poets Julian Tuwim. Tuwim wrote many poems that could perhaps be comparable to Silverstein (in the the realm of children's poems, not the more erotic stuff). One of the best has a very good translation by Walter Whipple (a relative of mine) in "Locomotive."

Tuwim was Jewish, making his experience during World War II uniquely tragic. One cannot help but imagine the audience he lost when Milosz writes of him,
Noisy at the Picadore they did not guess
That laurels sometimes have a bitter taste.
Tuwim dilated his nostrils when reciting,
Shouted "Ça ira!" in Grodno or Tykocin,
And set the crowd of native youth trembling
At a sound belated by a hundred years.
He would meet his admirers who survived
Years later at a ball the Security Police,
Which brough a fiery circle to its close:

After reading this passage (especially in bold), I often imagined a potential movie scene: Julian Tuwim standing on his stage, speaking to a throng of admirers. Yet the scene is shot in time lapse, and as Tuwim grays, it eventually dawns on film viewers that the audience is diminished. The camera turns away from Tuwim toward his former audience to focus on rows upon rows of empty chairs. This brings the supposed dictum that there couldn't be art after the Holocaust into focus. As tough as lives can be, I don't suppose many dealt with the trials of Tuwim, who faced antisemitism well before the Third Reich's eventual genocide against Polish Jews. This is perhaps most evident in an unlikely source.

Wikipedia's article on Tuwim contains one of the best examples of why Wikipedia is at times worthwhile. I like the search engine best when it provides anecdotes and information completely unavailable in any other information/encyclopedia site (from my experience with Wikipedia, these types of neat insights are more likely in little visited or edited sites, like Tuwim's). In Tuwim's entry is the following anecdote:
At a party, sometime during 1930s, Adolf Nowaczyński, writer and columnist, known for his sharp tongue as well as nationalism and strong antisemitic views, proposes following toast:

“There would be no Polish literature without Mickiewicz, there would be no Mickiewicz without Pan Tadeusz* and there would be no Pan Tadeusz without Jankiel** — hurray for Tuwim!”

To which Tuwim replies:

“There would be no Polish literature without Mickiewicz, there would be no Mickiewicz without Pan Tadeusz, nor Pan Tadeusz without Jankiel. And there would be no Jankiel without dulcimers*** — hurray for Nowaczyński!”

*Pan Tadeusz — a 1834 epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz about Polish gentry in Lithuania during Napoleonic War
**Jankiel — Jewish innkeeper and musician playing on dulcimer in Pan Tadeusz
***dulcimers — in Polish, the name of musical instrument cymbały is a plural form of cymbał, which means, somewhat humorously but not vulgarly, a stupid person.

One of the recent developments in Polish historiography, especially through Jan Gross's landmark work Neighbors, is the recognition of antisemitism as a constant element of some aspects of Polish culture, even prior to German influence. Nazi control over Poland surely facilitated the massacres that took place during the occupation, but years of blood libel and the like allowed some Poles to become perpetrators of horrible atrocities. In Tuwim's anecdote, the antisemitism, even among the literary set, is apparent. Tuwim's wit in turning the insult back toward Nowaczynski presents him as a artist worthy of much admiration. In this case, Wikipedia's shortcomings are its strengths because a more typical encyclopedia entry would not have included this ostensibly random story out of history. Not knowing the source of the story nor able to vouch for its provenance, I guess one has to take it with a grain of salt, yet I am quite glad to be acquainted with it. Interestingly, but not surprisingly the Polish entry on Tuwim doesn't contain any kind of similar story, appearing more as a typical encyclopedia entry. Poland still is dealing with its past of antisemitism, and until it does, the bigotry will plague its present, but in those like Tuwim, Bruno Schulz, or even Isaac Basheevis Singer, the appreciation of Polish past intertwined with Jewishness is a moral delight.
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