Musicologist Barbara Milewski Wins NEH Grant to Study Iconic Polish Film

Barbara Milewski

Barbara Milewski

Associate Professor of Music Barbara Milewski will spend next year probing the first feature film released in Poland after World War II, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The culturally iconic film, Zakazane Piosenki [Forbidden Songs], raises pressing questions for her. Chief among them: “Why would the Poles release a musical comedy to a traumatized nation?”

“That’s as strange as it is compelling,” she says.

Milewski’s eight-month NEH fellowship, announced today, is aimed to fill a void in the legacy of the film. While much has been made of how it was censored by Soviet authorities after its initial release and the ensuing controversy, there has been scant light shed on its music.

“The more I explored it, the more I realized no one had really touched on that,” says Milewski, whose efforts intensified after making a presentation on the film's music at the The Colburn School in 2014 on “Music, Censorship, and Meaning in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union: Echoes and Consequences.”

“It provides a specific geopolitical example of the popular protest song genre," she says, "and it elucidates the role music has played in preserving a sense of national identity and cultural continuity in Poland.” 

Conceived and written by Ludwik Starski, a Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, the film portrays the diverse experiences of Warsaw’s inhabitants during the period of Nazi occupation and holds a hidden tale of Starski's own survival. It has broad interdisciplinary value, says Milewski, spanning the fields of Polish World War II history, Holocaust studies, and film studies.

“These are the most exciting projects to work on,” she says. “The beauty of looking at something so well known and seemingly over-examined is that if you come at it from a different angle, you might find that we actually know very little about it.”

Milewski will complete her research on Forbidden Songs and create a fluent English translation of its songs and script so that it can be released with English subtitles for the first time. She will interview persons who knew Starski and the film’s composer, Roman Palester, following a fruitful meeting last fall with Starski’s son, Allan.

“When Allan heard the film wasn’t in English subtitles, he said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’” says Milewski. 

Milewski said she was “surprised” and “honored” to receive the fiercely competitive grant, which the NEH has awarded to just seven percent of 1,250 applicants, on average, over the last five years. Atop the list of hurdles for attaining the grant is finding time to craft a strong proposal. Then there’s the grant application process itself, for which Tania Johnson, director of Sponsored Programs, “helped tremendously,” says Milewski.

Spending eight months immersing herself in Forbidden Songs is a passion project for one of the leading American experts of Polish music and a heritage speaker of Polish.

“The chance to be able to sit calmly and do the scholarly work that really is at the heart of why I became a musicologist is a lovely gift,” says Milewski. “I will get to keep asking the questions, following the leads, and telling the stories of Polish music."

It also vindicates her early-career interest in concentration camp songs, which others deemed “too fringy” a genre for serious scholarship.

“Getting this grant tells me that you have to follow your gut instincts,” says Milewski. “That's what I tell my students all of the time. Some of the most interesting scholarship comes from asking the questions that seem obvious, that others may think are not that important."