Portrait of a Man (Aleksander Wat). Aleksander Rafalowski, 1956. Oil on canvas. (© Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw, Poland / The Bridgeman Art Library)

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Wat, Aleksander

(1900–1967), poet, prose writer, and publicist. Aleksander Wat (born Chwat) studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Warsaw. As a young poet, Wat cofounded the Polish futurist movement and participated in the drafting of its manifestos. He also coedited avant-garde literary journals and expressed his pro-Communist sympathies in the left-wing press. Imprisoned by the Soviets in 1940–1941, he spent the remainder of World War II in Kazakhstan and returned to Poland in 1946. Seriously ill, Wat traveled several times for treatment to France, where he eventually settled in 1963.

Wat’s published works include a volume of stories Bezrobotny Lucyfer (Lucifer Unemployed; 1927); collections of poetry titled Wiersze śródziemnomorskie (Mediterranean Poems; 1962) and Ciemne świecidło (Dark Tinsel; 1968); as well as literary translations from Russian, French, and German. His “spoken memoir,” consisting of transcriptions of his conversations with Czesław Miłosz, titled Mój wiek (My Century; 1977, issued in English in 1988), was published posthumously, as were his essays Świat na haku i pod kluczem (The World on a Hook and Locked Up; 1985) and his autobiographical notes, titled Dziennik bez samogłosek (Diary without Vowels; 1986).

Wat underwent a radical evolution that led from futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism with catastrophic overtones to mature lyrics expressing the existential experience of illness and suffering rooted in Mediterranean and biblical traditions. His “spoken memoir” explores the fate of the intellectual embroiled in the historical, political, and ideological upheavals of the twentieth century.

Born into a rabbinic family, Wat abandoned Jewish tradition in his youth. War experiences were one of the reasons behind his decision to be baptized in 1953, but he never became a practicing Christian. With time, he increasingly stressed his double Polish–Jewish identity. Jewish themes appear in some of Wat’s early work, in, for example, the story “Żyd Wieczny Tułacz” (Jew the Eternal Wanderer; 1927); some critics find a kabbalistic concept of language in his dadaistic writings. The Jewish topic is central in Wat’s unfinished novel, Ucieczka Lotha (The Flight of Loth), written in 1948–1949 (complete edition, 1996), the story of assimilated and patriotic German Jews who are witnesses to and then victims of German antisemitism. The novel also explores broader philosophical and religious issues, including the nature of evil and relations between Judaism and Christianity, as well as social and historical questions of German fascism, antisemitism, and the totalitarian state. Wat’s postwar poetry—described as Judeo-Christian by some critics—draws on Jewish and Christian biblical traditions, emphasizing Jewish elements.

Suggested Reading

Władysław Panas, “‘Antykwariat anielskich ekstrawagancji’ albo ‘święty bełkot’: Rzecz o Piecyku Aleksandra Wata,” Teksty drugie 1 (2001): 107–119; Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, “‘Żyd Wieczny Tułacz’: Dialektyka, publicystyka, katastrofa,” Teksty drugie 5 (1992): 74–84; Tomas Venclova, Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast (New Haven, 1996); Sławomir Jacek Żurek, Synowie księżyca: Zapisy poetyckie Aleksandra Wata i Henryka Grynberga w świetle tradycji i teologii żydowskiej (Lublin, Pol., 2004).



Translated from Polish by Christina Manetti; revised by Magda Opalski