“Poetry readings and concert attendance—and often a chat over vodka—were not only forms
of escapism, but also a search for better, more substantive aspects of human beings, a search
which would end, more often than not, in complete disillusionment. If it could be possible, to
discern, in these notes even if only for a moment a measure of humanity in that time of
inhumanity, the goal of this publication would be fulfilled.”
– Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz
The most discussed portion of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s life is his work; as an incredibly influential poet, playwright, essayist, and translator who deeply affected the Polish art scene, this is not surprising. What is surprising is the depth of information about his life that is too often glossed over. From his participation in hiding Jewish refugees, his information stopping an attempted Nazi coup in Denmark, and his consistently loving relationship with his wife and children as a gay man, there is much to discuss outside of his writing.
Born in Kalnyk on February 20, 1894, Jarosław was exposed to many different religions from a young age. Surrounded by relative tolerance, his understanding of life and national identity was deeply shaped by his environment and the financial consequences of his father’s participation in the 1863 Polish insurrection. He developed a deep suspicion of nationalism and after his father died and he and his mother left his hometown, he maintained a connection to the idea of solidarity between religions.
After finishing high school, he enrolled in a music conservatory while also studying at Kiev University Law School. Though he completed neither program it was during that time that he began writing. After his schooling, he travelled with his cousin to Sicily and South Africa. Shortly after the end of World War One, he settled in Warsaw for some time.
While he began writing while attending university, his work thrived in Warsaw. He joined a group of young artists and became close to them. Through his growing connections, he was able to help form Skamander, a literary group of experimental Polish poets, many of whom were Jewish. Becoming particularly close with Julian Tuwim, Jarosław watched his friend’s work repeatedly looked down upon because of the growing antisemitism in Poland and grew more and more frustrated.
At the same time, he met fellow writer Anna Lilpop; she was at the time engaged to a prince but ended the engagement to marry Jarosław. Though he knew of himself as a gay man, he did deeply love Anna and was open with her from the very beginning, even writing:
"of course knew very well who she was marrying, not from rumours, but from my own mouth."
Anna, who was bisexual herself, seemed happy enough with the arrangement, as Jarosław secured her a connection to the art world of Poland.
Though Anna’s family was quite wealthy, Jarosław made a point not to rely too heavily on them and worked on translations to keep them afloat. It was only after the birth of their first daughter Maria that he allowed for Anna’s family to buy them a house, as Anna said it would make her feel more secure. Just four years later they had their second daughter, Teresa. He doted on them both.
Though he was very close with his direct family, after Anna’s father’s death, her family decided Jarosław shouldn’t have any access to the finances. That decision was retracted after the man they put in charge gambled much of it away; Jarosław was able to take over and use his writing to pay back many of the debts.
In pursuit of a more stable income, he began to move into politics, becoming secretary of Maciej Rataj from 1923 to 1925. In 1932, he was sent to Copenhagen as an ambassador. He wasn’t the most qualified for this position, but he had a decent understanding of Danish language and culture from having translated the works of Danish writers such as Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen, and Herman Bang.
This job was one that paid much more than Jarosław was used to, and he spent more on luxuries and furniture than most of the citizens of Denmark expected from an ambassador. Still, people seemed to enjoy him. While Anna did come for a short time and enjoyed throwing parties with her husband, homesickness and already poor mental health became too much and she returned to Poland with their daughters. During this time apart Jarosław would write his daughter's letters, addressed from their cat.
His work as a diplomat was a surprising success, and he made many connections in Denmark that he treasured and wrote about for much of his life. One of the lesser-known events from his connection to Denmark was when Jarosław was awarded the Order of the Dannebrog, one of Denmark’s second-highest awards. Though the reason was initially kept a secret, with no one in Warsaw even knowing it had happened, the reason was discovered in 1994 when Andrzej Zawada found this passage in one of Jarosław’s book which had the paragraph:
“Before the Easter of 1933, a certain foreign diplomat relayed to Copenhagen the news that 250 Nazi troopers were set to cross the German-Danish border during the holidays and annex Schleswig. The disclosure of these plans and a reaction from the Danish side resulted in the coup’s failure.”
While this in itself doesn’t decidedly indicate anything, Jarosław had added a simple annotation above the passage:
This was not the end of Jarosław’s involvement in the Second World War. Both he and Anna were horrified by what was happening to their Jewish friends, and Jarosław was shocked to find many of his former gentile friends were not reacting to this. Formerly an optimist, watching many people around him who had previously espoused equality and humanism do nothing or actively participate in the violent antisemitism hardened his idealism.
He and Anna started small, smuggling money and goods to the people who were forced into ghettos. In one instance, two brother’s had bought land from the family just before Poland was taken, but the deed was not in their name yet. When the brothers were taken to the ghetto, Jarosław and Anna sold the land and got the money to them, which they used to bribe the guards and get out.
Later they would hide people in their house, get IDs for them, and use their connections to obtain medical care. Most of those who survived remained lifelong friends.
Jarosław also worked with the Polish Underground State, but the majority of what he did was on a personal level: feeding people, giving them room in their house, or arranging other accommodations. Arranging places for people to stay was particularly dangerous for Jarosław because many of the people he had thought would be as horrified as he was simply were not.
This delt a hard blow on Jarosław’s faith in humanity and goodness, and where he used to be quite optimistic in his work and life, much of that was gone after the war.
Many saw his work after the war as opportunistic, Aleksander Wat saying:
"[Iwaszkiewicz] was always a courtly writer, always complaisant with the authorities, the high-life, the elite. It’s understandable that when the government changed, he was still complaisant with the elite"
Jarosław would go on to win the Golden Laurel, the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, the Order of the Builders of People's Poland, the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, the Medal of the 10th Anniversary of People's Poland, Lenin Peace Prize, the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and honorary doctorates from the University of Warsaw and the Jagiellonian University.
He died in 1980, and eight years later the Yad Vashem Institute posthumously awarded Anna and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz the titles of the Righteous Among the Nations after their daughter Maria revealed the work they did during the war. In her report she wrote:
"For my parents, helping people in danger was so natural that they did not seek any distinctions or awards."
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Aleksiun, N. (2014 August). Story of Rescue - The Iwaszkiewicz Family. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Retrieved from https://sprawiedliwi.org.pl/en/stories-of-rescue/story-rescue-iwaszkiewicz-family
Brenner, R. F. (2019). A Remarkable “Emotional Community” of Rescuers in Occupied Warsaw: The Cases of Zofia Kossak and Jarosław and Anna Iwaszkiewicz. Journal of Genocide Research, 21(3), 398–417. doi:10.1080/14623528.2019.1631511
Gliński, M. (2014,February 27). The Other Life of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. (P. Schlosser, Trans.). Culture.pl. Retrieved from https://culture.pl/en/article/the-other-life-of-jaroslaw-iwaszkiewicz
Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. (2015, August 24). Retrieved from http://www.roh.org.uk/people/jaroslaw-iwaszkiewicz
Szleszyński, B. (2003 March). Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Culture.pl. Retrieved from https://culture.pl/en/artist/jaroslaw-iwaszkiewicz
Three Lullabies to words by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz op. 48 (1922). (2013, December 30). Retrieved from http://www.karolszymanowski.pl/watch-listen/songs/trzy-kolysanki-three-lullabies-to-words-by-jaroslaw-iwaszkiewicz-op-48-1922/
Wieczorek, M. (2019, July 15). The Danish Connection: Iwaszkiewicz’s Scandinavian Life. Culture.pl. Retrieved from https://culture.pl/en/article/the-other-life-of-jaroslaw-iwaszkiewicz
Włodek, L. (2019, May 8). Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz: European Artist in a Divided Europe. Retrieved from https://www.bklynlibrary.org/calendar/jaroslaw-iwaszkiewicz-central-library-info-20190508