Polish musicians reclaim Warsaw's Jewish past with song

Polish flutist Ania Karpowicz and WarszeMuzik reconnect the community to its Jewish past

MUSICIANS PLAY during the WarszeMuzik Festival Warsaw, Poland. (photo credit: ANITA WASIK-PLOCINSKA)
MUSICIANS PLAY during the WarszeMuzik Festival Warsaw, Poland.
(photo credit: ANITA WASIK-PLOCINSKA)
 When classically trained flutist Ania Karpowicz and pianist Marek Bracha play works by composer Wladislaw Szpilman in the Warsaw neighborhood of Muranow, they are doing more than honoring a well-known Polish composer. They are placing him back in a Jewish-Polish framework that many in the audience – local residents of the neighborhood where the Jewish Ghetto once stood – may not know of.
Many Poles love the song “Red Bus” (“Autobus Czerwony”), which describes a joyful ride through the streets of Warsaw, few are aware that Szpilman composed it. Even fewer make the connection between the iconic song, which is often played on public radio at springtime, and the protagonist of the 2002 film The Pianist by director Roman Polanski.
“Modern Warsaw had almost wiped out the memory of pre-war Jewish Warsaw,” Karpowicz told The Jerusalem Post.
Nathan Rapoport’s 1948 monument for the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, located at Muranow, was commissioned by the Central Committee of Polish Jews, which was backed by the recently established Communist-controlled Polish state. With the exception of that important landmark, other indications that one-third of the Polish capital’s residents were Jewish before the Nazi occupation are mostly the result of activists and scholars.
The Warsaw Ghetto boundary markers, for example, were created by the Jewish Historical Institute and Warsaw’s Monument Protection office in 2008. Sixty years passed between Rapoport’s monument and the markers being placed in public space, roughly three generations of people encouraged not to examine the complex history of the land beneath their feet or the streets they walk in.
“We honored US President Woodrow Wilson by naming a public square after him and US President Ronald Reagan with a [2011] monument,” Karpowicz points out, “but very few public remains of the Jewish presence in the capital are present.”     
The Warsaw Music Project [WarszeMuzik] began in 2017 and emphasized that open-air concerts will take place in the backyards of local residents in Muranow with their consent. 
Among the composers being played are Mieczyslaw Weinberg, now famous for his opera on the Holocaust, The Passenger. It was first performed in 2006 following renewed interest in his work and Alexandre Tansman, who composed musical works inspired by both Chopin and Jewish musical traditions. The duo also plays works by modern Israeli composer Yair Klartag and others. Karpowicz also performed at the Israeli opera two years ago, where she played works by Weinberg and Zbigniew Preisner as part of a concert titled “Warsaw Musical Memories”, which was supported by the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.  
“In all large modern cities people arrive to them in order to find work and live in apartments and office spaces and do not know, or even care to find out, what was there before their own moment,” she told the Post. “In our case, people who live in Muranow may not realize the hills on which their own block of flats were built are not hills at all but rubble created from the destroyed ruins of the Jewish Ghetto.”
Warsaw’s situation is unlike other European capitals due to the mass destruction it experienced after the Warsaw Uprising. If other European cities like Paris, Prague and Budapest suffered but remained largely intact and maintained a sense of continuity, Warsaw had been nearly obliterated by the Germans. 
When Andrzej Wajda released his 1958 film, Ashes and Diamonds, foreign audiences asked him how he created the ruins needed to shoot the movie, he explained that these ruins are still there. He did not need to fabricate them from scratch. 
In their performances, Karpowicz shares that members of the audience are often so moved by the music they are willing to discuss personal stories with her about how, for example, their mother spent the Warsaw Uprising in a cellar or share other painful histories.
“We do not judge who has a bigger pain, Catholic-Poles or Polish-Jewish people,” she told me, “we look only at the personal history.”
She shares that her interest as a musician is to present Weinberg as “a boy from Warsaw” who composed for the Jewish theater as well as studied Polish composers. This is one aspect of a pre-war multicultural Poland many modern Poles wish to learn more of and find ways to celebrate. Hence the success of the 2016 novel The King of Warsaw about fictional Jewish-boxer Jakub Szapiro and the attention given to the same-titled adaptation to television by Canal+Polska now being screened in Poland.
“I was raised in Poland and as children we read the poems of Julian Tuwim and the books of Janusz Korczak and their Jewishness was rarely discussed,” she told the Post. “Unfortunately, there had been a tendency within Polish tradition to remove Jewish connections from Polish culture as well as Public spaces. This is changing however, and today in Warsaw each May activists screen an image of the Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Germans, on the modern skyscraper built on the same location.”
The interest is not only from the Polish direction to the Jewish one, Jewish-Israelis and Jewish-Americans also find increased interest in the land which Jewish people have called home for nearly 1,000 years. Israeli composer Noam Zylberberg created the Mala Orkiestra Dancingowa, which explores pre-war tango and jazz music, genres to which Polish-Jewish performers and managers contributed a great deal. Israeli film director Chen Shelach created Muranow, a film which explores the Jewish “ghosts” that haunt the neighborhood and will be screened on Friday at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People.
Having grown up in Warsaw, Karpowicz explains that the Jewish issue is “the biggest wound” for her while being open to the idea that, had she been raised in other parts of the country, she might have found other missing cultures just as fascinating. 
“We are happy to be young enough to deal with it,” she explains, “our own grandparents and parents were too close to the pain and were not free [under Socialist Poland] to openly do so.” She compares the discovery of Polish-Jewish lives to a discovery of so-far undiscussed family tree.
“Polish-Jewish people were once a part of a larger family,” she told me, “for me, it is like discovering an uncle I never knew about.”
While COVID-19 had put a stop to the annual WarszeMuzik performances, she says she is looking forward to them returning as soon as health conditions permit a return to open-air concerts. 
An album of the music can be listened to online at: http://warszemuzik.org/pl/audio/warszemuzik-vol1-album-lp. Muranow will be screened and the director will speak with the audience present at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People on Friday, April 9, at 10:30 a.m. The admittance to the screening and the following discussion between Shelach and Prof. Dina Porat is free, but it is obligatory to preregister by phone 03-7457880 or via email [email protected]