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Cabaret Identity: How Best to Play a Jew or Pass as a Gentile in Wartime Poland

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 7, Number 2, July 2014
pp. 15-33 | 10.1353/jji.2014.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the late 1980s, Stefania Grodzieńska (1914–2010), a Polish Jewish cabaret artist and satirical writer, composed her first work of nonfiction on a wave of fury. Titled Urodził go Niebieski Ptak (The Bluebird Brought Him), her book began as a biography of the great Warsaw cabaret director Fryderyk Járosy, and evolved into a personal recollection of the Holocaust and World War II, when she and her husband, songwriter Jerzy Jurandot, became close friends with him. Grodzieńska explained that she felt compelled to write “the truth” about Járosy after she had seen an inaccurate portrayal of him in the film Miłość Ci Wszystko Wybaczy (Love Forgives Everything; 1981): “I was furious. My rage exploded when [the film showed] a humiliated Járosy walking into the Ghetto.”1 Like many interwar cabaret artists, Járosy disappeared during Warsaw’s occupation, subsequently quit Poland, and was not permitted to return. That he should be slandered in absentia and posthumously was more than Grodzieńska was willing to bear.

Yet “the truth” that Grodzieńska writes about Járosy is more broadly revealing. In foregrounding her Gentile professional idol, mentor, and beloved friend, she evokes a complicated portrait of her own, in parts spotlighted and elsewhere obscured. Grodzieńska explicitly seeks to restore Járosy to an ignorant Polish public, to bear witness to his consummate cabaret persona and his unseen artistry and bravery during the war. In the process, The Bluebird Brought Him underscores and validates Grodzieńska’s artistic development and its uses—her cabaret identity—and minimizes her identity and humiliation as a Jew during the Holocaust. As she writes it, Grodzieńska’s awed description of Járosy’s direction and performance showed her how best to play a Jew or pass as a Gentile in wartime Poland.

The Bluebird in Grodzieńska’s Life and Work

Grodzieńska’s The Bluebird marks a serious departure from the writing she produced before and after its publication in 1988. In the postwar decades, when her career flourished, Grodzieńska presented herself as an attractive, sophisticated performer, a purveyor of light, well-made entertainment to an educated Polish audience. She regularly appeared in Syrena, a cabaret that she helped her husband and other prewar entertainers build in Warsaw, as the capital city was rising from the rubble. Syrena was to continue the tradition of the Polish-language literary cabaret insofar as this was possible under the increasing political censorship of the People’s Republic of Poland.2 A writer as well as an actress, Grodzieńska created sketches for the stage and contributed a bimonthly feuilleton to the satirical magazine Szpilki, a prewar periodical which resumed publication in 1947.

Grodzieńska’s postwar work extended and developed the professional career that she had begun before the German invasion of 1939 overturned her world. She and Jurandot (Glejgewicht) (1911–1979), both well aware of their Jewish background, had been raised in acculturating households and steeped in Polish language and culture since childhood. It may have been that “their desire for acceptance as Poles only deepened the suppression of their Jewishness,” as Karen Auerbach observes of the group of postwar survivors she analyzes in The House at Ujazdowskie 16: Jewish Families in Warsaw after the Holocaust.3 Certainly, the couple resembled other Jewish survivors in their primary attachment to their profession, though this term does not adequately convey the all-consuming work, lifestyle, and visibility of a performing artist’s career. Grodzieńska’s popular persona on stage and in print likely reinforced her cautious references to the still dangerous fact of being Jewish in postwar Poland.

By the early twenty-first century, when Grodzieńska, in her 90s, wrote somewhat more extensively about her prewar life in the 2007 memoir, Nie ma z czego się śmiać (There is Nothing to Laugh About), she revealed a short, barely rooted family tree. In contrast to the many-branched, multi-generational history of acculturating Polish Jews that Joanna Olczak-Ronikier chronicles in In the Garden of Memory: A Family Memoir (2005), Grodzieńska’s memories hinge on just a few family members: her free-spirited mother, her stern maternal grandmother...



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