Listen: Musicologist Barbara Milewski on Music of Holocaust Survival in Poland's First Postwar Feature Film
Barbara Milewski on "The Music of Holocaust Survival in Poland's First Postwar Feature Film"
In April, Associate Professor of Music Barbara Milewski discussed the music of Holocaust survival in Poland's first postwar feature film. In it, she shares the hidden story of Jewish survival during the Holocaust embedded in the first feature film released in Poland after WWII and provides a comprehensive analysis of the film’s music.
Milewski has said that the culturally iconic film, Zakazane Piosenki [Forbidden Songs], raises pressing questions. 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 explored that question and others with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Milewski is a Polish music specialist who has lectured extensively on Chopin and folk music, Polish musical memory, and music of the concentration camps. Her work has been generously supported by fellowships and prizes awarded by Fulbright, the American Musicological Society, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, and the Kosciuszko Foundation.
Tom Whitman: Good afternoon and welcome. I'm Tom Whitman, chair of the Department of Music and Dance. It's a great honor and also a pleasure for me to introduce my friend and colleague, Barbara Milewski. Barbara's an associate professor of music in the Department of Music and Dance. She earned an AB from Bowdoin College, an MA and PhD from SUNY Stony Brook and Princeton University respectively. A Polish music specialist, she has lectured extensively on Chopin and folk music, Polish musical memory and music of the concentration camps. Her scholarship has appeared in 19th Century Music, Polin: Studies in Polish Jewery, 19th Century Music Review, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, a lot of other places. I won't [label 00:00:40] all of this.
Her work has been generously supported by fellowships and prizes awarded by Fulbright, the American Musicological Society, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where which, by the way, she worked at for a number of years, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, and I can't even pronounce this one, I'm sorry, Barbara. Kosciuszko-
Barbara Milewski: Kosciuszko Foundation.
Tom Whitman: Kosciuszko Foundation. She's also recipient of a Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award in 2015, with theater scholar, Allen Kuharski secured a prestigious Pew Center for Arts and Heritage Grant, to bring Michal Zadara's acclaimed theater work, Chopin Without Piano to Swarthmore, Philadelphia and Boston for its North American premiere. This year she received an NEH Fellowship for her research project, Hidden in Plain View: The Music of the Holocaust Survival in Poland's First Postwar Feature Film, which is going to be the topic of today's talk.
In addition to that work, she is currently completing a book length study provisionally entitled, Musical Mementos from Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz-Birkenhau. To this, I just would like to add a couple of things about what she does at Swarthmore, which is so hard to enumerate, so maybe I'll just give you a list of some of the courses that she teaches. You need to understand that we are a very small department, and it's important that each of us cover more than one thing. I don't know anyone who covers the range of things that Barbara covers. Here are some examples of her courses: The Symphony, 20th Century Music, 19th Century European Music, okay, so far so good, Honors Seminar in Chopin. Okay, how about Field Work of Music and Dance, which she collaboratively teaches with [00:02:19]. How about Music and War and how about my favorite, Zombie Art: Why Opera Will Never Die. Barbara Milewski.
Barbara Milewski: Thanks, Tom, for the nice introduction and thank you all for coming. It's a really lovely audience. It's nice to see so many familiar and supportive faces. Before I begin, I'd like to first thank Swarthmore College and the National Endowment for the Humanities for generously supporting the research leave that allowed me to do this really interesting work that I hope you find interesting as well that I will present here today.
As many of you know, this dive into film music is a relatively new thing for me. In 2014, I was invited to give a talk in Las Angeles at an international symposium devoted to music and censorship in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Because I had recently given a string of talks about music of the concentration camps, I thought it would be refreshing to take a closer look at a new gloomy and heart-breaking wartime topic. I set my sights on Poland's First Postwar Feature Film, Zakanase piosenki, or Forbidden Songs: A Cinematic Tribute to Polish Resistance Songs Banned During German Occupation, that itself had been censored by the Soviet authorities after its release in 1947. What follows then as the result of numerous trips to Warsaw to conduct interviews and work in the Polish National Film Archive, is this excursion into the heretofore missing chapter in the story of the film. Here it goes.
In late summer for 1945, just a few short month's after Poland's liberation and the end of the European war, the erstwhile sonarist and songwriter, Ludwik Starski, posted a newspaper advertisement soliciting forbidden songs. Warsaw lay in ruin, sociopolitical chaos reigned, and much of the populace lived from hand to mouth. But early efforts to rebuild Polish cinema were improbably taking place in the nearby city of [00:04:40], which served as the country's de facto capitol in the initial postwar years.
There, the nation's surviving writers, directors, actors and technicians, were given living quarters and requisitioned apartment buildings and enlisted to work for Film Polksi, Poland's new state run film industry, housed in a repurposed athletic pavilion. Along with other Polish prewar filmmakers who had endured the difficult war years, Starski was eager to get back to making films. His curious request, however, caused an unexpected stir, especially less than two weeks after a studio called for extras, sent numerous [00:05:19] of people inexplicably being asked to sing songs.
Ordinary citizens enthusiastically responded to the advertisement and Starski, aided by director, Leonard Buczkowski, and cameraman, [Adolf Farbet 00:05:34], shot footage of a dozen or so authentic street songs, roughly thirty minutes of cinematic musical reportage. Starski's collection of defiant, patriotic, satirical, anti-Nazi songs, as matter would have it, was to be a tribute to the everyday role that music played in psychologically sustaining the capitol's inhabitants during the years of Nazi oppression.
I want to play for you now an example of the sort of songs that he collected. [inaudible 00:06:04] was among the most popular tunes that were banned by the Nazis. It had countless variants, but it's strongest light motif concerned the terror inducing daily roundups in which Polish civilians were taken to the infamous transit camp on [inaudible 00:06:20] Street, before being sent to concentration or forced labor camps. [music playing 00:06:26]. Starski's project then was not unlike other early postwar Polish publications of wartime [effemora 00:07:16]. Subversive cartoons, anecdotes, jokes, song books, so-called folklore of the street that had surfaced alongside the more sobering memoirs of survival and initial tallies of the nation's losses.
It was intended as an authentic, if fragmentary record of Polish cultural resistance during the war. Likely the documentary was also a means of processing personal trauma. An escapist project that helped Starski start life anew, with gratitude for the popular song that had been central to his prewar days. From this humble premise came Poland's first postwar feature film. Today, Zakazane piosenki remains an important commemorative symbol of national survival, an iconic record of Polish wartime history. It is broadcast yearly on Polish television before audiences who still appreciate the film's heroics, wit, romantic subplots, treasured movie stars, and evergreen songs. For all its enduring popularity as an official memory marker, however, neither the scholarly community nor the public at large has heretofore recognized that the film's soundtrack is the key to its less apparent personal backstory, a tale of Jewish survival.
In this talk, I briefly trace the initial steps taken to make Poland's first postwar feature film. I then explore the conversions of autobiography, cinematic narrative, and musical choices that characterize the film. Relying on a reconstruction of various drafts of the screenplay and interviews with Ludwik Starski's family members and colleagues, I argue that the core of Zakazane piosenki preserves not only clues to a personal history of survival that might otherwise have passed into obscurity, but also provides insight into the ways Polish Jews and non-Jews alike, struggled to recount their personal wartime odysseys, alongside the broader perspectives on the national catastrophe of war. For Starski, as for so much of Poland's surviving population, the war and the losses left in its wake were too incomprehensible to take any other form than an immediate and very personal one in those first postwar years.
Zakazane piosenki might best be understood as a window on a moment in Polish 20th century history that had not yet congealed into an official state narrative of wartime events nor into the later and by and large Western construct of a Holocaust narrative. During this brief period before the consolidation of Soviet political power in 1947, and the super imposition of Stalinist cultural aesthetic dictates in 1949, Polish war narratives, cinematic or otherwise, were not silent on the suffering of Jews. Put another way, Polish and Jewish wartime experiences were not only both represented but in their intertwining and wide-ranging perspectives, far from the mutually exclusive constructs they would later become in later years of remembrance.
Ludwik Starski was born in [inaudible 00:10:23] on March 1, 1903 as Ludwik Kaluszyner, the son of an assimilated and cultured Jewish family. After completing [inaudible 00:10:32] and secondary schooling, he launched his career in the early 1920's as a journalist. Then, under various pen names, began contributing sketches and songs to [Woodge 00:10:43] cabarets and city's popular variety shows. Eventually he changed his sir name permanently to Starski in honor of the brash, young, womanizing and penniless aristocrat in Boleslaw Prus' famous novel, Laika, or The Doll. He met and courted the talented dancer and choreographer, Maria Bargielska, who frequently traveled from Warsaw with her dance partner, [inaudible 00:11:07], to perform in Woodge's theater reviews. In 1941, Starski moved to Warsaw to write for Poland's most successful variety theaters in [inaudible 00:11:17] cabarets. Collaborating with an impressive number of cabaret luminaries, [inaudible 00:11:23]. During those early years in Warsaw, Starski converted to Catholicism and married Bargielska at the Church of the Holy Cross, famous for being the resting place of Frederick Chopin's heart.
By the time the war broke out, Starski had moved on from cabaret to become Poland's leading screenwriter and the author of numerous hit songs made memorable by the country's matinee idols, [inaudible 00:11:51] and [inaudible 00:11:53]. The transformative movement came in 1934 when Starski collaborated with [Bordot 00:12:00] to create the wildly successful film, [inaudible 00:12:03], or The Singer of Warsaw. Here, I'll give you a brief sample of Starski's songwriting talent, delivered by Bordot performing the film's hit song, [inaudible 00:12:14]. Hopefully, the volume is okay on this. [Music playing 00:12:20].
Some three dozen songs that Starski penned provided the musical soundtrack of Polish popular culture in the 1930's and in short, is placed among the nation's greatest songwriters of the inner-war period. His creation of several brilliant musical comedies also standardized the convention of screenwriting in Polish cinema, lending it a professionalism it had previously lacked. With his love for the Polish language, his exceptional wit and brilliant storytelling, Starski made Poland laugh, sing, and if just for a moment, escape the political tensions building all around.
When Germany invaded Poland, Starski, like many close friends in the entertainment industry, fled eastward to escape the chaos and deprivation of Germany's aerial bombardment of the capitol. He made it only as far as the country home of Maria's parents, some 100 kilometers to the northeast. After Warsaw capitulated, Starski and his wife returned to the capitol, believing it more advantageous to be among the larger circle of family and friends in the city and perhaps optimistically hoping circumstances there would be less dire than in the countryside. One year later, Starski, like many assimilated Jews, ignored the German decree of forcible relocation to the ghetto, imagining that he might escape detection by maintaining a low profile on the so-called Aryan side.
By the summer of 1942, however, the Germans had begun mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto. Once again, Warsaw citizens were reminded that penalty for harboring Jews was death. Sometime toward the end of summer, while still living with Maria in their apartment, Ludwik was betrayed and forced into hiding. During several trips to Poland, I was able to meet with members of Starski's family, who shared with me details of his survival that had previously not been made public. This is what I learned.
Starski was aided by his wife, Maria, who remained in their prewar apartment in [Judavia 00:16:02] Street in the center of Warsaw and judiciously sold the family's possessions to survive. Starski was hidden on [Zorta 00:16:09] Street by Bargielska's long time dance partner, [inaudible 00:16:12]. During Starski's two years in hiding, his wife took risks to visit him when she could. At least twice, he was forced to abandon [Maran's 00:16:22] apartment because circumstances in the building proved dangerous. During those episodes, each lasting about two weeks, he stayed with Maria's niece, [Hanya Bargielska 00:16:31], only a block away. There too, a suspicious neighbor created a terror-inducing atmosphere.
Amid these challenges, on New Year's Day, 1943, Maria gave birth to their son, Allan. Approximately two weeks later, Jews attempted armed resistance in the ghetto, pre-staging a major revolt four months later. By June 1943, the ghetto lay in ruins and nearly all its inhabitants killed. Just over a year later on August 1, 1944, a final attempt at resistance in the capitol was launched, this time by the Polish underground. Starski, his wife and young son, were rounded up in a house-by-house search and forced into [Puschkuff 00:17:15] transit camp, where approximately a half a million inhabitants of Warsaw, the city's remaining civilian population, were processed and transported either to labor camps in the [Reich 00:17:25], concentration or death camps or to other locations in the general government for release.
Against odds, the family managed to stay together and avoid arrest. They were instead among the first refugee transports sent for resettlement to [inaudible 00:17:41]. Liberated there, the Starskis made their way to Woodge. The forced expulsion of ethnic Germans from Polish lands after Germany's defeat meant that living quarters and factories now abandoned were theirs for the taking. This is how Starski and his family found themselves among the first to be settled in a trio of apartment buildings on [inaudible 00:18:02] Street, which served as an ad hoc film colony in those initial years of postwar rebuilding.
Though the terror, destruction, and human casualties of the German occupation were now in the past, it would be difficult to overstate the subsequent chaos and suffering that marked the early months of Polish liberation. Depending on one's orientation, the Soviet occupation and Soviet installed provisional government that ruled from Moscow, caused either apprehension or dread [or 00:18:33] unbounded enthusiasm for building a new Communist future. A ruthless civil war fought between remnants of the Polish home army and Polish communists aided by Soviet troops served as a backdrop to mass expulsions and repatriation, homelessness, severe food scarcity, starvation, looting, and mob rule.
The social trust and cooperation among the country's surviving populations of Polish Catholics and Jews, ethnic Germans and other minorities have not already been destroyed. It was further frayed. Then again, many Poles had staked out a middle ground, meeting the nation's new political reality with cautious optimism and a hope that Poland would become a parliamentary democracy with a Socialist culture supportive of arts institutions. The war's history had yet to be [cautified 00:19:24] by the new Soviet appointed cultural authorities and ideas concerning the appropriate representation of Polish identity were not only in flux, but actively contested among the populace, film makers, artists, composers, and bureaucrats from the new ministry of culture.
Eager to throw themselves into any sort of productive activity, Poland's surviving film creators quickly set to work to create a studio that might satisfy the nation's formidable hunger for homegrown cinema after years of Nazi censorship, propaganda and deprivation. Dozens of film sketches and scripts were soon created. Of the handful that received serious consideration, all unsurprisingly concerned the German occupation. Try as they may though, the moguls at Film Poski could not agree on an "appropriate war narrative". Amid the indecision, in-fighting and rewriting, Starski's modest song documentary found itself at center stage. Topically benign as well as optimistic and uplifting, the short film about music as resistance provided an ingenious framework on which to build a chronological retelling of the occupation. It was agreed that Starski's actual experience collecting the music would provide a meta-plot for the fictional film.
Actors were hired. An undestroyed Warsaw was recreated in Woodge. Thirty minutes were expanded to a hundred. Poland's first feature film improbably took the form of a light musical comedy, shaded dark at select moments only by familiar betrayals and personal losses that contextualized the war. With its unifying theme of resistance and emotional immediacy, it struck the right chord for a war weary populace eager to celebrate the nation's defiance and courage in the face of oppression. This is how the film unfolded. The movie's protagonist, a musician named Roman Tokarski, responding for a call to songs in the paper, appears at the [inaudible 00:21:26] of Film Poski. Through reminiscences at the piano, Tokarski initiates a series of flashbacks that enfold each of the film's forbidden songs into larger narratives about the fate of his family and other residents of their apartment building and more broadly, that of Warsaw civilian population as a whole.
Starski commissioned [Roman Polestar 00:21:50] to create the film score. Before the war, Polestar was a formidable talent among the younger generation of Polish classical composers finding their way not only in Polish music, but also among the broader European musical milieu. He also composed or arranged the music for nearly a dozen films created by industry notables, Starski among them. Polestar, as it turns out, was a sympathetic colleague whose wartime experiences were arguably as perilous and fraught as Starski's. He survived the war years mostly in Warsaw, remaining in the capitol after the Germans invaded. As the city's cultural institutions were disbanded and his professional livelihood dried up, Polestar relied for a while on modest contributions from the council of musicians and continued, rather remarkably, to write concert music, including a number of excellent works.
He considered enlisting in the Polish home army but early in 1940, was rounded up in a surprise raid, charged with associating with members of the Polish [intelligencia 00:22:54] and sent to the infamous [Pavlok 00:22:57] prison. He was released six weeks later, thanks to the intervention of [inaudible 00:23:03], who had become his wife in June of 1942. Later that same year as the German frenzy to liquidate the ghetto and hunt down the city's remaining Jews reached new levels of terror and brutality, his relative security became evermore tenuous. For months at a time, Polestar was forced to abandon Warsaw, the final time after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, which he witnessed at close range.
In the immediate postwar period, Polestar quickly found professional fitting, thanks to his prewar reputation. As one of the few seasoned film composers to either survive the war or remain in Poland, between 1945 and 1947, he was called upon to compose music or serve as musical director for six of the first eight feature films made in Poland. Polestar's music [inaudible 00:23:55] contour to the earliest cinematic expressions of Poland's wartime losses and traumas. The musical score for Zakazane piosenki was undoubtedly quick work for Polestar. His principal task was to arrange the songs Starski had selected for the screenplay. In addition to the forbidden street songs featured in the film, Polestar incorporated as the main theme, the jaunty and hugely popular [inaudible 00:24:20], or Heart in a Rucksack. Composed for a Polish army song competition in 1933, it was largely unknown until it became a wartime favorite of Polish soldiers and partisan fighters, alike, undoubtedly because of its inspired text.
Other archival material suggest that Polestar may have considered using various Nazi era waltzes and marches to represent the Germans portrayed in the film. In the end, however, he settled on the oppressive refrain [inaudible 00:24:49], extracted from the popular Nazi [inaudible 00:24:54] as the film's German musical marker. Two other forbidden songs that Roman Polestar recounts in the film deserve lengthier discussion here. The first, a lyric rhapsody on the losses of a nation, titled [inaudible 00:25:09], or Leaves Are Falling, was composed by Frederick Chopin in 1836. As such, it is the only art song included in the film. Musically, it features Polish dance rhythms such as the mezerka and the [karkoviak 00:25:27] around a prominent march at the song's center, an all together topically common approach to Polish patriotic songs of the 19th century. It's text, by the Polish poet/geographer, [inaudible 00:25:41], was written in exile to honor the insurgence of the failed November uprising of 1830, in which Poles tried to wrest control of their nation from czarist Russia and in which Polestar himself took part.
When Chopin's opus 74 song collection first appeared in Warsaw and Berlin in 1859, the controversial [inaudible 00:26:03] was omitted to appease the Russian impression censors. Indeed relentless censorship of overtly patriotic texts compelled Poland's poets to convey national identity evermore inventively in response to the partitians of the late 18th century when Polish national expression was first harshly suppressed by imperialist Russian oppression and Austrian rulers. As a strategy of cultural continuity, composers turned to particular national dances as enduring aesthetic placeholders. [inaudible 00:26:39] krakoviaks and especially mazurkas, which came to be seen as most typically Polish, thanks in part to Chopin's successful export of the genre to the West, took on evermore significance as a means of sustaining a sense of nationhood until Polish independence was restored at the end of World War I.
Thus the role subversive music making had played in support of the nation during more than a century of foreign domination made its resurfacing during the German occupation seem a rather natural response. By that time, Chopin's music had become an unassailable symbol of Polish culture, a fact well understood by the Germans who promptly and contemptuously banned the composer's works from concerts and other public gatherings in the occupied Polish territories.
Poland's tradition of circumventing bans on cultural expression is of course what Starski enacts throughout Zakazane piosenki. But at approximately 32 minutes into the film, he uncharacteristically pays nearly religious homage to Chopin's music when the storyline retreats from the public setting of Warsaw's streets into a private gathering of family and friends in Tokarski's home. Tokarski, narrating it first to the Film Polski director in the setup to the scene, explains that even tried and true musical strategies of defiance were targeted by the Germans. "It wasn't just words that made them crazy. They were threatened by music itself so long it was Polish. [inaudible 00:28:16], you couldn't play such things. They were forbidden melodies, and Chopin was entirely banned. But could they really enforce this? For example, at our house every Saturday at 6 p.m. ..." At this point, we first hear Mezerka Opus 59, Number 1, one of Chopin's more wistful examples in the genre performed onscreen by a young [Yankrenz 00:28:43] who would become one of Poland's most important conductors in the postwar period. It is a performance of precisely the sort of coded text less music that historically preserved Poland's cultural identity.
In a voiceover, we hear Tokarski explain, "Those who came to those forbidden concerts took great risks, but they took them and they came because for an hour or two, they were here in Poland, not in the general government. And that was the miracle of Chopin. It was worth taking such risks. Such concerts provided people with spiritual uplift or drew them away from the entertainments with which the occupier tried to debase their Polish slaves. Rather the music German propaganda gave us trashy little tunes. Rather than theater, tingle, gambling and casinos. They wanted to have slaves with slave souls."
Against the classical strains of Chopin's mezerkas [inaudible 00:29:45], Starski's screenplay calls for a juxtaposition of "tawdry German light music, ubiquitous in Warsaw's cafes during the occupation. For this moment, Polestar obliges, providing a cacophonous collage of rhythmic, jazz inflected motives in a jagged modernist style. [inaudible 00:30:04] mezerka performance is nearly drowned out by Polestar's original jazz sequence while a montage of Cancan dancers, a Nazi officer dancing with the female [inaudible 00:30:15] informant of the film, and spinning roulette wheels overwhelm the scene of the intimate Polish concert. As the mezerka battles through this "degenerate onslaught" and draws to a close, in another voice-over, Tokarski explains, "But we also had our own propaganda." Thus prepared at 34 minutes and 30 seconds, we finally hear Chopin's [inaudible 00:30:41]. [Music playing 00:30:46].
This is underground education. Here's the central march. The underground press. At this point in the film, it's abruptly cut off and you see a cut to Nazi soldiers singing [High Lee High Low [00:34:11].
Given the general uplift of the film and its strong message of resistance, [inaudible 00:34:20] would seem an odd sort of homegrown musical propaganda. Those familiar with the entire song would know too that its text shifts decidedly at the moment to an apocalyptic Polish landscape of post battle destruction and continued occupation, obliquely but undeniably at the hands of the Russians. But even with that knowledge of the text's entirety, [inaudible 00:34:44] signals bleak resignation. How then might we square it with the film's overwhelmingly inspiring populaced songs? Could the scene I suggested be borrowed from Polestar's own wartime experience of performing it among a circle of intimates?
Perhaps its inclusion in the film was a daring provocation in its own right, registering not only the nation's devastation during the just ended war with the Germans but significantly replaying Poland's age old need to defend against its aggressive neighbors to the east. More significantly, could the song have subtlety signified the destruction of Warsaw due to deliberate Soviet inaction during the tragically failed uprising? Might we understand the interior moment of [inaudible 00:35:28] then as a bold revoicing of a historically censored text that builds a longer and broader arc of meaning, conjoining Poland's eastern and western oppressors?
The strangeness of this musical moment is matched by an equally mysterious song that appears at the very heart of the film, the [inaudible 00:35:49], My Warsaw. When Ludwik Starski wrote the nostalgic text, setting it to the familiar melody of [inaudible 00:35:57], the Polish language version of the 1932 American Yiddish theater hit song, [inaudible 00:36:05] by Jacob Jacobs and Alexander [Oshinetski 00:36:08]. Apart of course from Chopin's song, it is the only one featured in the film not drawn from the repertoire of topical anti-German and resistance songs popularly performed during the occupation. It is Starski's own singular contribution. Precisely halfway into the film, we meet a character who had been briefly introduced to us earlier as a Jewish man, hiding out in an apartment next to the Tokarskis. He now receives provisions from Helena Tokarski just returned from a weapon smuggling expedition to the countryside. We never learn the Jewish man's name.
In the next scene, he's seated at a table, speaking the words he writes in his diary. As he cadences on the [inaudible 00:36:54], "If not for these people, I would die of hunger," the camera pans to the window. In the courtyard below, a Jewish mendicant accompanied by a fiddler, sings Starski's song [inaudible 00:37:06] while passerbys discreetly slip the girl food. As these scene continues, the hidden jew visibly moved by the beggar girl's singing, drops money to her from the window ledge. Doing so, he reveals himself to the watchful [jondon 00:37:23] whom he then must bribe to save his life. I'm going to play you this moment in the film. It literally is at the very, very center of the film. [Music playing 00:37:32] the spoken text is at the top there.
The earliest preserved version of this screenplay provides us with some revealing details. In Starski's original script, the jew in hiding records in his diary the date, September 8, 1943, as the one year anniversary of his being in hiding. This specific date, however, we know is omitted in the later script and the film. Another interesting revelation is a marginal note in Starski's hand next to the title of the song, [inaudible 00:40:35], which reads, "Girl from the ghetto, [inaudible 00:40:39]." In this, the only instance in the entire film script where Starski assigns a particular song to a particular performer, the singer/actress he had in mind was [inaudible 00:40:50], herself a Holocaust survivor. Along with the actor, [inaudible 00:40:57], who played the nameless jew in hiding, they are the only Polish Jews identified as such to appear in the film.
In light of what we know of Starski's wartime experiences, including his own period of hiding which closely corresponds to the dates given in the original screenplay, it is difficult not to see [inaudible 00:41:17], the forbidden song, at the very core of the screenplay as anything but a sincere expression of the author's personal helplessness and otherwise unspeakable sorrow. For Starski who at the outbreak of war was at the apex of his career, the feeling of separation from the everyday life of the capitol may very well have felt real and unbearable. Might then the film's most inauthentic song, the invented ode to Warsaw, actually be its most emotionally true, daring to memorialize the distinct suffering of Warsaw's Jews as varied as that suffering was, amidst the larger story of the Polish capitol's trauma and destruction? Likely for Starski, the song [Boes 00:42:00], that quintessential set piece of nostalgia, crystallized a separation from the past too painful to articulate, too complex to explain, and one too distant from the more familiar national experience of the war portrayed in the film. Was the Jew in hiding perhaps a stand-in for Starski himself? Starski's son, Allan, an internationally celebrated and Academy Award winning set and production designer in his own right, expressed regret that he never pressed his father for more information on the subject.
[inaudible 00:42:36] the cast member who played Tokarski's lovely sister, Helena, having spent much time working with Starski in those early years, believed it more than probably that the film was in part autobiographical and a gesture of gratitude given what Starski had endured. She explained to me just before her 100th birthday, "At the time, we didn't talk about our wartime experiences. Everyone had endured so much. We were just so happy to be alive and to be working. When we were offset, we just tried to have fun. By the way, Starski had the finest sense of humor of anyone I ever met. But of course, there's no way not to think of the war."
[inaudible 00:43:20] also raised a number of questions. How could a Polish Jew trying to survive the occupation in Warsaw consider "longing for Warsaw," a fate worse than the fatal environment of the ghetto? How could Starski have penned these words? Cynically, one might argue he knew his audience, predominantly Polish Catholic to be sure, but also a Jewish one that might or might not have experienced the ghetto firsthand. An homage to the capitol could steer clear of controversy and perhaps even elicit sympathy. Then again, could one song, real or invented, passibly represent the totality of inhumanity and suffering that defined the Warsaw ghetto? Starski likely would have had access to the repertoire that had been performed there, but to feature any such topical song from the ghetto would not have suited his nor [inaudible 00:44:09] objective of paying tribute to banned music. To remember a particularly Jewish experience of the occupation, all Starski could do perhaps was try to give voice his own poetic ruminations of a Warsaw that was and during the time of the song's creation still remained forbidden, buried under the rubble.
When the film was released in movie houses around the country amid great anticipation on January 8, 1947, audiences cathartically wept. Critics, however, went on the attack. The influential columnist, poet and essayist, Adam [Vajik 00:44:45] who returned to Warsaw from the Soviet Union with the first Polish army, complained that the film appealed to cheap sentimentalism and portrayed a barbarized view of the occupation that had little to do with reality. Other critics chimed in, calling the film a falsified view of history that wallowed in the trivial atmosphere reminiscent of prewar bourgeois films. Vojik also went for the [ad hominum 00:45:10] attack, suggesting that such a film could only be produced by people who knew nothing about Nazi cruelty. This, from a man who hadn't experienced the German occupation firsthand.
Within three months, the film was withdrawn. Over the next year and a half, it was minimally reworked to meet the demands of Soviet propagandists who called for corrections, specifically, more German brutality and greater emphasis on Soviet liberation. The songs of the film too overwhelmingly escaped closer scrutiny. Only Chopin's [inaudible 00:45:43], criticized as too pessimistic and too historical, was cut. No doubt the censors were concerned that its 19th century romantic revolutionary text would all too easily inflame age old Polish Russian enmity and distract Poles from despising their real enemy, the Fascists.
As a result of this singular musical edit, Soviet censors, in effect, reanimated the ban of 1859 and semi-reanimated the 1939 ban on the public performance of Chopin that was enacted under to Nazi occupation. An irony, hypocrisy, and ultimate betrayal the film's artists, audiences, and critics surely could not have missed. At the very heart of the film, however, Starski's song, the haunting [inaudible 00:46:32] about the experiences of Warsaw's Jews, remained. As a tribute to the capitol, it didn't matter that the message was delivered by a Jewish girl from the ghetto. It was not yet impossible for Poland's Jews to be represented alongside other Polish victims as fellow patriots, as would be the case beginning in 1949. Moreover, precisely due to its evenhanded treatment of Jewish wartime experiences, Starski's parody of [Bose 00:47:00] could powerfully continue to evoke for Polish Jews a particular longing for an unrecoverable time, place, and identity, a homeland forever altered now by the mere total destruction of its Jewish population.
Textually Polish but musically marked as a Jewish melody, [inaudible 00:47:17] could possess at once a national universality and an ethnic particularity, allowing it to hold profoundly different meanings for different audiences. During this early postwar period, many Polish Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide returning home were confronted with fears of possibly being assaulted, robbed or even murdered. They had been ultimately slotted for extermination and yet against improbably odds had survived. To make matters more complicated, that more Jewish survivors returned from the Soviet Union than those who managed to survive in occupied Poland led to overt accusations of Jewish complicity in the imposition of Communism.
But Poland citizenly had experienced a collective national destruction unlike any other European nation during World War II. Non-Jewish Poles and Polish Jews would increasingly come to represent two communities with two tragic but different wartime experiences. Against the historical backdrop, forbidden songs is an unusually valuable ethnographic document. One that captures a nuanced portrayal of Polish life under German occupation before narratives of Polish and Jewish wartime suffering diverged into mutually exclusive histories, largely driven by accounts that surfaced in the West. It serves as a testament to how Poles in the immediate aftermath of the war tried to make sense of unprecedented ordeals of displacement, upheaval and violence. By integrating the many starkly different experiences of Warsaw's inhabitants, through musical narrative, Starski, it would seem attempted to not only to process personal trauma, but also reestablish the contours of a multi ethnic community devastated by war, the Holocaust and the collapse of the state.
For a man who had devoted so much of his life to writing songs, the theme of musical resistance central to the film was a natural one, an attempt at trying to put things back together and carry on. Yet the quality of unresolved tragic lament that characterizes both [inaudible 00:49:27] and [inaudible 00:49:27] reveals how fraught such an optimistic endeavor inevitably was. Despite their different fates at the hands of the censors, considered side by side as in the original, these two songs can be understood as a sensitive cross cultural keening in the face of foreign and authoritarian oppression. Their sorrowful tones heard as related national questions that call forth the defiant responses offered throughout the rest of the film. By 1949, even in its revised state, the film's overall aura of uplifting thanksgiving for survival would be interpreted as postwar anomaly. The film would be shelved for nearly a decade as the Soviets exerted greater control over cultural messaging during the 1950's. Until the collapse of Communism, it only remained in limited circulation to commemorate anniversaries of its release. But the striking film is also a reminder for us to consider the frictions of official and private memory.
While it might be tempting to maintain the more popular thesis of Poland's postwar forgetting or repression, Zakazane piosenki, Forbidden Songs, reminds us that themes of Jewish loss and redemption were indeed remembered and sometimes hidden in plain view. As during other times in Polish history, it would take a close listening to the music to understand fully the deeper meaning of such apparently light entertainments. In the past and as in the past, music here again proves the key to unlocking some of Poland's most closely guarded narratives. Thank you.