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  • Julian Tuwim's Strategy for Survival as a Polish Jewish Poet
  • Giovanna Tomassucci (bio)
    Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Christian selling trousers: 38 Krucza Street· · · · · · ·Jew buying trousers: 38 Krucza Streetantoni s łonimski and julian tuwim,W oparach absurdu

the poet who wanders

From the very start of his poetic career, Tuwim presented his literary alter ego as wandering about the city in search of spontaneous adventures, a twentieth-century flâneur with spare, aimless time on his hands.1 Sometimes his 'idyllic walk' or brisk, Whitmanesque pace changed into a 'sad and crazy' meandering, leaving sluggish footprints behind. This inventive part poet, part vagrant, part rogue—like Socrates or the demonic Feliks struggling in the cellars of the Vatican2—was also known to creep about stealthily, 'on the diagonal' or 'at a hound's pace'. Thanks to the visit of a certain 'unpleasant guest', his way of walking underwent another change, and then he plodded about the world 'with steps on the edge of the abyss'.

Tuwim's alter ego was often a man of the streets, not belonging to any specific environment but alone and free, observing urban life, sometimes delighted by his surroundings, sometimes critical of them. Tuwim, however, had another mask: he sometimes took on the role of the clown and buffoon, which allowed him to highlight his personal attitude to his surroundings and at the same time provide a satirical image of the era. Tuwim performed a voluntary balancing act, living his life 'in between': in between the Polish literary tradition and the world of the European avant-garde; in between the sublime and the ridiculous; and in between [End Page 427] Polish and Jewish society (with neither of them regarding him as theirs, because he refused to belong exclusively to either of them).


All members of Polish society of Jewish origin struggled with their identity as a result of strong social pressures which refused them the right to define themselves as multi-ethnic (what Janusz Korczak called 'being chequered'). The advantages of multi-ethnicity were not appreciated in the Second Polish Republic: the contributions of ethnic minorities—especially Jews—to Polish culture were generally regarded as dangerously contaminating. Korczak was one of the few Poles who promoted cultural and linguistic pluralism and a sense of solidarity and community among the ethnic groups living in the Polish lands. His 'bold plan to rebuild the world' aimed from the start at the acceptance of cultures and languages and the creation of a new, pluralistic way to be a Pole.3

Korczak's interesting, but unfortunately little-known, novella 'Pieśń wiosenna' ('Spring Song'), first published in Herold Polski in 1906, anticipates the sort of provocative remarks made by Witold Gombrowicz's characters. One fine spring day, the narrator accosts a series of people who sit down on his bench 'in the avenues', making rhetorical appeals to them for love within the family and within society. When one of them asks whether he is 'white or red', he unexpectedly answers that he is 'chequered', prompting his interlocutor to admit that he is afraid of 'chequered people'.4

The man 'from outside' is the same sort of anti-conventional hero. The art of being 'chequered' that Korczak promoted, harmonizing in oneself the disparate elements of one's identity (ethnic, cultural, and sometimes linguistic), was extremely difficult and thus very rare in twentieth-century Poland. Writers of Jewish origin in particular were expected to be totally Polonized and to reject their Jewish identity, but, in the interests of 'cultural healing', were refused a place among 'Polish artists' because of their ethnicity or for stylistic or linguistic reasons.

According to the extremely deeply rooted convictions of a large part of Polish society, being Jewish was a handicap which should not be acknowledged, not even to oneself. Thus Polish writers of Jewish origin seeking a reconciliation between the Jewish and Polish worlds were obliged to create a particular public reputation for themselves, an example of so-called 'self-fashioning'. However, this does not mean they renounced important aspects of their dual personality. In 'a homeland [where] to a foreign faith | God does not descend',5...


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pp. 427-440
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