Journalist Juliette Bretan is not musically-inclined, but as she was researching her roots, particularly the lives of her Eastern European grandparents, she was captured by the sounds of an obscure musical genre. Interwar Polish tango combined Argentine tango, Jewish klezmer, and Polish folk music to produce sad, sentimental, and strangely patriotic songs. The heyday of Polish tango was 1918 to 1939, so it was both birthed and killed by war. You can hear some examples here, here, and here.
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Bretan fell hard for Polish tango, which, in an article for culture.pl, she described as “merging pinches of the age-old Polish romantic and sentimental melodies with Jewish inflections and a more modern, brassy sound, dripping in glissandos and vibrato.”
The Jewishness of Polish tango is essential to understanding the source of these sounds, which means it’s important for those of us in 2020 to understand what it must have been like to be Jewish in Poland during the interwar years. Briefly put, it was no picnic, in particular because of the overt antisemitism of the popular National Democratic Party, which organized successful boycotts against Jewish-owned businesses. For the fascists and racists who waved the banner of the NDP, antisemitism was nothing less than a prerequisite to Polish patriotism.
Even so, being a Jewish composer, musician, or performer in Warsaw, whose population between the wars was roughly one-third Jewish, offered Jews a rare measure of personal and professional freedom. That’s because many interwar Poles, whose country’s borders had been erased from maps by Russia, Germany, and Austria in the late 18th century, were ready to celebrate their nation’s newfound independence. Thus, for large swaths of the Polish population, especially those in Warsaw, Jewish composers, musicians, and performers were tolerated, and even welcomed, to the extent, that is, that they were entertaining.
Read about the rise and fall of the unique interwar Polish tango at Collectors Weekly.