Polish Hipsters Reviving Jewish Musical Treasures From Before the Holocaust

In light of Poland's 100th anniversary celebrations and the current preoccupation with its image and its past, young Polish musicians find a renewed interest in the Jewish interwar soundtrack

Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki. "A renewed perspective is developing that is shaping our world view.'
Kobas Laksa

An outside observer would have found it hard to believe that the young Poles sitting in the small café in Jaffa and watching a soccer game last summer – enveloped in a cloud of marijuana smoke and dressed in what can only be described as hipster Eastern European rags suffused with seawater – was actually a glittering big-band ensemble, which that evening would turn Tel Aviv's Einav Center into a dimly lit, early 20th-century-style nightclub.

The members of the Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki would replace the morning’s joint and vodka with fitted tuxedos and “Black Coffee” – or, in Polish, “Czarna kawa”: a romantic, melancholic and clever 1930s foxtrot song, which opened their performance. That song, written by the prolific Jewish songwriter Andrzej Wlast, aka Gustav Baumritter, is only one of an endless number of marvelous hits that were written and set to music by Polish Jewish artists in the interwar years, and have become classics.

LISTEN: Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki's song 'Abduł Bey,' by Fanny Gordon and Ludwik Szmaragd

A selection of these hits are featured in the unique soundtrack of the Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki, the seven-member ensemble created two years ago, by soloist Jan Emil Młynarski and pianist Marcin Masecki, that returned to Israel this week. The group will perform Thursday at the Red Sea Jazz Festival, the winter edition of the Eilat Jazz Festival.

The success of the band in Poland and abroad, especially in light of the country’s 100th anniversary celebrations and the current preoccupation with its image and its past, has revived awareness of the stories of the forgotten Jewish artists who wrote the music they perform. These include Andrzej Wlast (who in his day was dubbed “king of trash,” thanks to the huge number of hits he wrote); Julian Tuwim (considered the greatest 20th-century Polish-language poet); Jerzy Peterburski; Marian Hemar; Paul Abraham and many others – whose indefatigable talent and tremendous output laid the foundations of popular Polish culture, and influenced music in the Land of Israel as well.

The cover of Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki's album 'Noc w Wielkim Mieście.'

Indeed, the Jazz Band Mkynarski-Masecki are not the only ones finding inspiration in works written by Jews during those years.

“You can see a real renaissance of this music in recent years among young Polish musicians,” says Młynarski in a conversation with Haaretz. “In Warsaw alone there are at least five different bands doing similar things. You can even find klezmer bands that play material from Galicia. I believe that we’re all looking for the lost heritage that was once so widespread and present in Polish cities and throughout the country.”

In Poland, he adds, "a renewed perspective is developing that is shaping our world view. It’s important to us to honor our great artists, and to talk about the missing chapter in Polish history. We are discovering our heritage in light of our longing for the world of multiculturalism and eclecticism of the interwar period. A period when there was coexistence among Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies, Germans. One of the places where you can rebuild these relationships is the world of music, and that’s one of the reasons why we started the band in the first place.”

Jazz Band Mlynarski-Masecki's 'Czarna Kawa.'Jazz Band Mlynarski-Masecki's 'Czarna Kawa.'

But the utopia Młynarski describes didn’t really exist. The cabaret culture at the time gave Jewish artists a space that was an escape from a reality of oppression and discrimination they were experiencing, explains Marek Karliner, a professor of theoretical physics from Tel Aviv University, and an avowed fan of Jewish-Polish music. The Warsaw music scene was greatly influenced by the cabaret culture of Paris and Berlin, and by American jazz; along with the growth of the movie industry, it provided fertile ground for composers, writers, actors and singers.

Jewish songwriter Andrzej Wlast, aka Gustav Baumritter.

Cabaret, as a medium in which one can express oneself with relative freedom, enabled the Jewish artists not only to participate in Polish culture, but even to criticize it; they could also add Jewish motifs to their works, even if they were forced to make do with the one place designated for them: behind the scenes. Only few performed publicly on cabaret stages or participated in films. But this fruitful period soon came to an end with the outbreak of World War II, when most of the great Jewish artists were sent to ghettos and to concentration camps, where many of them met their deaths. Among them was Wlast, who was murdered when he tried to escape the Warsaw Ghetto.

Just last week, a survey was published by the Polish Embassy in Israel that showed that most Israelis recognize the fact that Poles, too, and not only Jews, fell victim to the Nazis during the Holocaust (Ofer Aderet, February 7). While the Polish ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski, urged Israelis to get to know “modern Poland, Polish cuisine and Polish jazz” – he forgot to mention that the story of Polish jazz is to a great extent also the tragic story of Polish Jews during that era, whose tremendous cultural contributions have been kept behind the scenes.

Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki, the seven-member ensemble created two years ago, by soloist Jan Emil Młynarski, left, and pianist Marcin Masecki.
Kobas Laksa

My uncle, Arthur Rubinstein

Like those songwriters and composers whose obviously Jewish names constituted an obstacle that had to be removed (most of them changed their names to ones that sounded Slavic or Western), the same happened with Młynarski, who has a very important (non-Jewish) name, familiar to every Pole: His father, the late composer, singer and satirist Wojciech Młynarski, was one of the most famous and productive artists in the country, wrote over 3,000 songs and was hugely successful in the 1960s.

“In Israel terms it’s as though you were the son of both [singer] Yehoram Gaon and [composer] Naomi Shemer,” Karliner explains. As if his father’s shadow is not enough, the soloist's grandfather was also a successful musician, one of the founders of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. But instead of rebelling against his past, young Młynarski decided to burrow even deeper into the musical history that constitutes his heritage.

Polish-Soviet Jewish composer Fanny Gordon.

Mlynarski is careful to mention his own Jewish connections and those of his partner, Masecki (who recently composed the music for the Polish film “Cold War”).

“One of my grandfather’s famous students was Arthur Rubinstein,” says Mlynarski. “Later on he married [my grandfather’s] daughter, my aunt, Nela Mlynarska, who was a ballet dancer before World War II, and died in New York at the beginning of the millennium. I’m still in contact with the Rubinsteins in New York.”

Watching the performance of Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki in Israel is a twofold pleasure: Not only due to the prodigious talent of the musicians, but also because of the many cultural connections that surface during the concert, which tell not only the story of the emergence of independent Poland, but also reveal the cultural roots we share with the Polish people.

When the band performed the song “To ostatnia niedziela” ("Last Sunday"), composed by Jerzy Peterburski and written by Zenon Friedwald, during their performance in Tel Aviv, Młynarski suddenly began to sing the Hebrew rendition of "Last Shabbat" (“Shabbat Aharona,” originally sung by Polish singer Adam Aston (under the name Ben-Lewi) and Aliza Gabbai in the 1930s. And when the band performed a number composed by Shmuel Farshko in Poland, Młynarski told the audience that they would probably know Farshko as the composer of the music for Haim Gouri’s poem “Bab el Wad.”

Jazz Band Mlynarski-Masecki' in concert in Tel Aviv. A twofold pleasure: Not only due to the prodigious talent of the musicians, but also because of the many cultural connections that surface during the concert.
ינינה זסלבסקי / המ

“After the concert in Tel Aviv a gentleman in his 70s approached me, shook my hand and told me that his mother escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto,” says Młynarski. “He was born in the basement of a house in Warsaw in the 1940s. He had tears in his eyes. He told me that his mother used to sing him the songs we performed on stage, and he was very emotional. That’s the greatest gratitude we could have expected, and the most profound understanding of the importance of what we do.”

Jewish-Hungarian composer Paul Abraham.
Adam Aston - How do you do Mr Brown
Check out Jan Emil Młynarski's other band: Warszawskie Combo Taneczne