Questioning Tuwim. About an interview from the interwar period

Apparently, Tuwim did not like interviews. And according to Nojech Pryłucki, he also was not good at giving them. And yet, we have enough interviews with Tuwim to publish a small volume.

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In rich, multilingual press collections of the JHI, among the interviews with Tuwim printed in Polish, we can also find a conversation that was published in Yiddish (such interviews were often published simultaneously also in Polish-Yiddish press). It was conducted in 1926 by a well-known writer, poet and translator of Polish literature, Szmuel Lejb Sznajderman, who was a guest at Tuwim’s place. It was not his first visit. From the previous ones he remembered „a wide, green, plush sofa with various shaped, colourful cushions scattered around as if they were miracle-fruit on the green land.”

The complete interview was published in weekly „Literarisze Bleter”, the most important Yiddish literary magazine of the interwar period, Jewish equivalent of „Wiadomości Literackie”.

Interestingly, Tuwim had a quite stereotypical idea of the Yiddish language, also common among the circle of „Wiadomości Literackie” (and not only). As he admitted himself, he also did not know much about the proper language use of the language which at the time was spoken by the majority of Jewish residents of Poland and one quarter of the Jews in the world. In one of the interviews he admitted that he did not like „this mix of languages, called jargon, which I can so often hear on the streets.”

„This jargon,” replied the journalist. „Already has its own literature — it is generally considered a language cultivated by many members of the Jewish intelligentsia.”

„Yes, I have acquainted myself with the works, in my opinion, of very talented Jewish writer, Markisz. Besides, I know some of the translations. I myself can’t read in Yiddish, when someone reads it to me, I can know what it is all about (...)”.

This negative, but quite common (and still paying for it today), attitude to the Yiddish language, the Yiddishists could not forgive Tuwim. Therefore, he, along with the entire circle of „Wiadomości Literackie”, was subjected to frequent and fierce polemics.

This thread does not appear in the interview with Sznajderman, and the entire conversation has a completely different undertone. Even from the interview quoted above, we can see that in defiance of his ideologized attitude towards Yiddish, Tuwim simply succumbed to the power of good literature.

Sznejderman and Tuwim talk about the latter’s plans and current works and translations. Finally, Sznajderman asks the poet about Yiddish writers. He admits to having lack of knowledge and he seems reluctant to answer the questions, but at the same time, as if he was a pupil called up to the blackboard, he lists the authors he knows (from translations): Szolem-Alejchem, Perec, Asz, Opatoszu, speaking highly of them. Today, it is hard to determine the extent of authenticity of these opinions. It is possible they were only courteous. At the end, he states that he does not like being asked about a particular subject. He would rather read his poem to the interlocutor.

Then, he reads a poem „About a poet”, which ends with the following words: „...Be my friend/ Oh you fluent in secret Kabbalah! /Come tonight. I am waiting / You poet-provincial!”. Sznajderman translated it, still a manuscript, into Yiddish and published it in the next issue of „Literarisze Bleter“.

After the reading of the poem, they continue discussion about the asymmetry of Polish-Jewish cultural relations. About the closeness of „so close, and yet so distant literary camps.” About the fact that when H. Lejwik comes from America to Warsaw, nobody even bothers to meet him, but everybody runs to meet Majkowski or Max Jacob.

„Why are we strangers to one another? Why do we never meet?” Tuwim asks himself such questions. „Not once have I thought,” he confides to Sznajderman. „About the translations of works of Jewish poets, but I don’t know Yiddish enough to be able to do translations freely. If you helped me with it, I would compile a small anthology of new Jewish poetry. First, I would publish it in „Skalamandra”, and then in a form of a book. (...) And let it at once put an end to the opinion of my negative, bad attitude towards Yiddish literature.”

They part having almost a ready project; Sznajderman promises to support Tuwim, feeling that this time there is a chance for some real closeness. Tuwim also asks Sznajderman to give his regards to Yiddish poets: Mojsze Broderzonow and Melechow Rawiczow and to acquaint him with other writers.

As far as we know, the plans to create the anthology were never put into action.


„Rozmowy z Tuwimem”[Talks with Tuwim], selected and edited by Tadeusz Januszewski, Warsaw 1994.

Translations (into Polish) of the excerpts of the interview conducted by Sznajderman: Karolina Szymaniak

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