Józef Wittlin and his wife Halina, on their honeymoon, Lwów, 1924. (YIVO)

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Wittlin, Józef

(1896–1976), poet, prose writer, essayist, and translator. After serving in the army during World War I, Józef Wittlin studied philosophy and linguistics in Vienna and in Lwów. A follower of expressionism in 1919–1920, he later joined Skamander, a moderately innovative group of poets headed by Julian Tuwim and Antoni Słonimski, and the circle of writers associated with the weekly Wiadomości Literackie.

Wittlin emigrated from Poland in 1939—first to France and then to the United States, where he edited Tygodnik Polski. He also established connections with Kultura, a Polish émigré monthly appearing in Paris; Wiadomości, the London weekly edited by Mieczysław Grydzewski; and Radio Free Europe. He died in New York.

Wittlin’s publications include a collection of poetry, Hymny (Hymns; 1920); a volume of sketches, Wojna, pokój i dusza poety (War, Peace, and the Soul of a Poet; 1925); the novel Sól ziemi (Salt of the Earth; 1936); an autobiographical volume titled Mój Lwów (My Lwów; 1946); and the collection of essays Orfeusz w piekle XX wieku (Orpheus in the Twentieth-Century Hell; 1963). He translated The Odyssey (for which he received the PEN Club award; 1935), and works by Cervantes, Herman Hesse, and Wittlin’s personal friend Joseph Roth.

In his early writing, during his period of inspiration by German and Polish expressionism, Wittlin dealt with the experience of World War I from a distinctly pacifist position. In his most important work, the novel Sól ziemi, he narrates the story of Piotr Niewiadomski, a Hutsul from the eastern Carpathians who traverses the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an Austrian army soldier. Although Wittlin was baptized and considered a Christian writer, he always spoke openly of his connection to the Jewish world. In Psalm, he introduced himself as “I, Józef Wittlin, of the generation of Judah.” In the interwar years, he published reviews of Polish Jewish poetry and foreign literature on Jewish subjects (Książki o prześladowaniu Żydów [Books about the Persecution of the Jews]; 1934). The Holocaust inspired some of his best poems: “Żydom w Polsce” (To the Jews in Poland) and “Na Sądny Dzień Żydowski roku 1942/5703” (On the Day of Atonement 1942/5703) as well as “Pokłon poetom ghetta” (Tribute to the Poets of the Ghetto), and an introduction to a collection of poetry, Z otchłani (From the Abyss), originally published in an underground Polish edition in 1944 and reprinted in the United States by Jakub Appenszlak.

Suggested Reading

Anna Frajlich, ed., Between Lvov, New York and Ulysses’ Ithaca: Józef Wittlin, Poet, Essayist, Novelist (Toruń, Pol., 2001); Wojciech Ligęza, “Wyznania moralisty (O poezji Józefa Wittlina),” in Wybór poezji, by Józef Wittlin, pp. 5–21 (Warsaw, 1998); Zoya Yurieff, Joseph Wittlin (New York, 1973).



Translated from Polish by Christina Manetti; revised by Magda Opalski