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Lec, Stanisław

(1909–1966), poet, satirist. and aphorist. Stanisław Lec, whose surname means jester in Hebrew (lets), was born in Lwów into a family of wealthy landowners and bankers. With an aristocratic title and socialist views, and his education at the best academic institutions in his home city and Vienna, Lec represented a unique combination of now-extinct Austro-Hungarian, Jewish, and Polish cultures.

After making his literary debut in 1929, Lec wrote lyrical poetry, contributed to left-wing satirical magazines, and set up a literary cabaret in Warsaw. In 1935, he helped establish and edit Szpilki (Pins), Poland’s best satirical magazine, known for its biting mockery of politics. Arrested by the Nazis in 1941, Lec escaped from the Tarnopol ghetto and labor camp in 1943 and fought with the left-wing underground in central Poland. In 1946, he was appointed Polish press attaché in Vienna. In 1950, he moved to Israel but, failing to adjust, returned to Warsaw in 1952.

As a writer, Lec expressed himself in two literary forms: while poetry dominated his early output, aphorisms and epigrams prevailed in his later. In poetry, including Notatnik polowy (Field Notebook; 1946), Rękopis Jerozolimski (The Jerusalem Manuscript; 1950–1952, reedited in 1956 and 1957), and Do Kaina i Abla (To Cain and Abel; 1961), Lec probes social reality with irony, melancholy, and sometimes nostalgia. His aphorisms, on the other hand, brilliantly compress deep philosophical thoughts into single phrases and sentences, mixing elements of literary games such as wordplay, paradox, nonsense, and abstract humor, with didacticism. Lec described his aphorisms as “six thousand years old”; their themes being “so ancient that the world has long lost memory of them.”

In addition to secondary German, French, and ancient Greek influences, Lec’s aphorisms drew on biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinical traditions, along with Jewish proverbs and maxims. He modernized their content while preserving the underlying concepts of wisdom and wisdom-seeking, and the universality of their message. Collections of Lec’s aphorisms and epigrams include Z tysiąca jednej fraszki (From a Thousand and One Trifles; 1959), Fraszkobranie (Gathering Trifles; 1967); and Myśli nieuczesane (Unkempt Thoughts; 1957, followed by sequels in 1964 and 1966). His work has been translated into a number of languages.

Suggested Reading

Karl Dedecius, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec: Pole, Jew, European (Kraków, 2004); Stanisław Jerzy Lec, Unkempt Thoughts, trans. Jacek Galazka (New York, 1962); Stanisław Jerzy Lec, More Unkempt Thoughts, trans. Jacek Galazka (New York, 1969); Jacek Lukasiewicz, “Wstęp [Introduction],” in Utwory wybrane, by Stanisław Jerzy Lec, vol. 1, Liryka, pp. 5–27 (Kraków, 1977); Helena Zaworska, “Lec medrzec,” in Spotkania: Szkice literackie, pp. 250–267 (Warsaw, 1973).