In the Scope of Hierophany: Sacral Motives in Polish-Jewish Poetry

Ryszard Zajaczkowski, Catholic University of Lublin

Polish-Jewish poetry constitutes a phenomenon in Polish literature in the period 1918-1939. The trend comprises various works of Jewish writers (approximately 60 authors) who wrote in Polish. The works reflect customs, culture and aspirations of the Jewish Diaspora in Poland. The issue, although significant for the literary world of Poland in the period of the country’s twenty years of independence after World War I, has been described in two books written by Eugenia Prokop-Janiec: Międzywojenna literatura polsko-żydowska jako zjawisko kulturowe i artystyczne (Polish-Jewish Literature from the Period between the Two World Wars as a Cultural and Artistic phenomenon, 1992), Międzywojenna poezja polsko-żydowska. Antologia (Polish-Jewish Poetry from the Period between the Two World Wars. Anthology, 1996).

The above-mentioned works contain an outline of literary discussions presented in Jewish publications printed in Polish before 1939, a rough description of some of the motifs typical for that poetry as well as selected poems.

No detailed study of sacral motifs typical of Polish-Jewish literature has been performed so far; yet sacral subjects constitute the main tissue and basic ideological and aesthetic keystone of this extremely diversified poetry.

The range and character of sacral ties in Polish-Jewish poetry constitute the main subject of analysis. The most obvious observation is that the scale of sacrum differs considerably among particular authors. Sacral motifs are the most explicitly pronounced in the works of two best known Polish-Jewish writers: Roman Brandstaetter and Maurycy Szymel. They present two substantially different modes of use of sacral motifs in poetry. In case of the first author sacral themes intermingle with social and political issues described in his poetry while in the case of the second one with private intimate moments and pictures of local societies.

Generally speaking, sacral motifs of the Polish-Jewish poetry indicate existential, historical and cultural threads. The themes discussed above are manifested on seven planes: (1) references to the Old Testament (quite often in connection with topics related to the fight for national independence or with existential problems); (2) images of Judaic rites (references to various Jewish festivals ); (3) references to private religiousness (numerous poetic prayers, praising of God or rebelling against Him); (4) references to motifs derived from the New Testament; (5) poetic descriptions of nature (often enriched with sacral symbolism when the moon and the stars constitute an acanthus, or a religious “spectacle”); (6) descriptions of particular protagonist-heroes of the poetry (mothers, elderly people, children – in the case of the last the sacrum passes through their own consciousness and becomes an element of myths or fairy tales); (7) primeval motherland of Israelites and Jewish little towns (in which everyday life intermingles with the transcendence).