Irena Tuwim – poet, translator and the Pooh Lady

The younger – and only – sister of Julian Tuwim, one of Polish best-known poets. She gained universal acclaim as an excellent translator of ‘Winnie the Pooh’.  Stanisław Lem stated that in his eyes the translation exceeded the original version.

She was born on the 22nd of August 1899 in Łódź, a city she later described in the following words: ‘Łodź of the olden days, Łódź of my gloomy childhood, I always see it in the glow of fires’. Her parents were assimilated Jews, Yiddish was never spoken in their family home. Their marriage was a mismatch. Izydor Tuwim (1858 – 1935), the father, worked as an accountant in a branch of the Azov-Don Commercial Bank. He would escape the reality of family life by getting lost in the world of books. Fluent in a number of languages, a stay-at-home type, and an avid linguist – as such he would spend hours poring over dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Adela Tuwim, the mother, was several years younger than her husband. She came from the Krukowski family, her father was an owner of a printing house, and two of her cousins became well-known artists – the singer Kazimierz Krukowski, famously known as Lopek, and the actor Włodzimierz Boruński. A rich social life was her dream, she wanted to attend theatre premieres and artistic events, yet her introverted husband was never keen. She was nervous and neurotic, tormenting her family with her fears and anxieties. She constantly worried about the birthmark on the cheek of her son, which she tried to remove for years, seeing it as a bad omen. She convinced her daughter, Irena, that she would become an old maid since she wasn’t beautiful enough to attract a man. Adela and Izydor waged a silent war against each other. Arguments would break out often over the family’s financial situation. To make matters worse, an aggressive nanny looked after the children for a while, venting her anger and frustrations primarily on little Irena. Fortunately – it didn’t last long: soon, another nanny joined the family and took care of the sensitive and emotionally neglected siblings. Antosia, as this was her name, was the family’s treasure. She managed the Tuwim household for 20 years alongside supporting the children. In the evenings, Irena and Julian would read Polish literature to her aloud as Antosia refused to learn how to read. When the siblings grew up, they dedicated numerous of their literary works to her.

The siblings shared a very strong emotional bond. They couldn’t stand being separated for too long. Despite their mother’s manipulation and the cruel caregiver, there was no rivalry between them. To the contrary, their shared passion for literature (among other things) kept them close. Julian often claimed that his younger sister was more artistically gifted. He expressed this claim in a rather unconventional way: he rewrote several poems written by 13-year-old Irena and published them years later in his poetry collection ‘Czyhanie na Boga’ – mentioning of course, who the real author was.

Irena, as a student at the Eliza Orzeszkowa Polish Gymnasium in Łódź, made her debut in 1914 in the pages of the journal ‘Życie Łódzkie’. Her poems, titled ‘By the Fireplace’ and ‘Happiness’, were published under the pseudonym Ira Blanka. Two years later, the poem ‘The Maiden’ was published in the Łódź newspaper ‘Godzina Polski’. Shortly after her first romantic disappointment, the young poet was introduced to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, who – in a rather uncomplimentary manner – would refer to her as a ‘poetess’. Years later, Iwaszkiewicz recalled, ‘She was very pretty, dark-haired, although with irregular features, and she didn’t resemble her brother. But I didn’t like her. She was very affected’. In 1921, Irena published her first collection of poems, ‘24 Poems’, in the prestigious Jakub Mortkowicz publishing house, which previously published her brother’s literary work. In these poems, she depicted various stages of love with remarkable maturity. She soon became a member of the Skamander poetic group. She did not achieve immediate success after her debut, she did gain, however, an influential admirer.

Stefan Napierski was a renowned translator and an outstanding literary critic. Yet, he struggled as a poet. Socially, he was associated with the Skamander group, even though his poems were aesthetically closer to the Young Poland movement; to the extent, that he was referred to as the ‘last decadent of Young Poland’. His real name was Stefan Marek Eiger. He hailed from an affluent Jewish family. His maternal grandfather was Markus Silberstein, one of the wealthiest 19th-century factory owners in Łódź. Napierski’s father, Bolesław Eiger, was also a prosperous Jewish entrepreneur. Stefan’s eldest sister was the famous Maria Eiger-Kamińska, known by her pseudonym ‘Klara’ and famously called the ‘millionaire communist’. Stefan himself changed his surname to the more Polish-sounding Napierski and converted to Catholicism.

Napierski won the heart of Miss Irena Tuwim with resounding success. Enthralled by her verses, he appeared at the doorstep of the Tuwim household in Łódź, bearing an enormous basket of flowers. He immediately charmed her parents, especially her mother who was utterly sure that Irena would become an old maid due to her perceived lack of beauty and dowry. Three months into their acquaintance, in June 1922, they exchanged vows in the Catholic Church of Saint Joseph in Łódź. A few years passed, however, and his motivations proved to be all but romantic. Undoubtedly, he was impressed by the talented fiancée and her equally talented brother. But – very likely – he also needed this marriage to hide his homosexuality. Irena underwent a religious conversion for him. For their honeymoon, they traveled to Berlin, among other places. In the book ‘Mój wiek’, Aleksander Wat described the rather decadent revelries of the groom in Berlin’s gay clubs. The newlyweds proceeded to visit the Frisian Islands. Irena was delighted by these journeys. Her wealthy husband finally put an end to her financial troubles.

Upon returning to Poland, they took up residence in a luxurious villa opposite Saski Park, with Irena’s in-laws. Unfortunately, the family soon experienced turbulent and challenging years. Stefans’s young brother committed suicide, and his sister was imprisoned for her communist activities. To make matters worse, the father and his brother passed away. It was uncertain who would continue to manage the family industrial conglomerate. Fortunately, their cousin Marek took up the responsibility. The young couple eagerly made use of the family’s wealth, frequently relocating to increasingly opulent properties always situated in the heart of the capital city. Yet, Irena was not happy. It remains unknown whether she knew about her fiancé’s sexual orientation prior to their marriage. They were bonded by friendship marked by profound respect. However, her verses written at that time take on a bitter tone: ‘You do not look me straight in the eyes. You’re silent. Say something. Do not speak’. For a year, the couple lived in Paris but it did not heal their marriage.

Irena published her second collection of poems in 1926, which received mixed reviews from critics. The subsequent collection was significantly better received. Her poems were compared to the works of eminent poets such as Anna Akhmatova and Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. Yet, soon after, Irena began to withdraw from writing poetry. She dedicated her talent to the art of translation.

Unhappy in her marriage, she fell head over heels for six years younger Julian Stawiński, a diplomat and translator. They met at a bridge game night. Afterward, they had a date at a pastry shop. Her husband, upon witnessing her infatuation, proposed a year-long separation. She never came back. In later years, she called her overpowering love an obsession. She even fled to Paris, hoping to escape her lover. Upon hearing about the potential end of their affair, Stawiński attempted suicide. Yet, the bullet didn’t reach his heart, grazing his lung instead. Irena decided not to abandon him. With her husband’s consent, she moved in with her lover in Ostrowia Mazowiecka, where Stawiński secured a job as a judge.

Finally, she found happiness as her beloved husband helped her conquer her old fears and anxieties. The significant financial decline didn’t bother her. She was happy to exchange luxurious villas for small, rented apartments. The title of her poetry collection ‘Happy Love’ published in 1930, sums up this stage of her life. The new selection of poems was praised for the maturity of its “intimate experiences.”

In 1935, after 13 years of marriage, she finally divorced Napierski and married Stawiński. They wed in an Evangelical church in Vilnius. In 1937, they returned to Warsaw. They never had children. Stawiński worked as a lawyer at the Appellate Court and Irena dedicated herself fully to translations. She specialized in English and Russian literature, translating both world classics, such as Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, and children’s books – which soon became her primary focus. Contrary to rumours, as noted by her biographer Anna Augustyniak, neither her husband nor her brother assisted her in this work, despite all three being renowned translators. Quite the opposite, actually: she translated her first children’s book – Alexei Tolsty’s ‘The Golden Key’ – on behalf of her brother, with his name appearing in print. Julian did, however, pass the entire renumeration to Irena.

Before World War II, she translated works such as “Mary Poppins,” “Fernando,” many of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, and books about Snow White and Mickey Mouse. She also authored several books for children herself.

However, universal acclaim came with her translation of A.A. Milne’s ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ and ‘The House at Pooh Corner’, which were first published in 1938. She believed that translations of children’s literature should be simplified to suit their age. Children may not grasp or appreciate sophisticated linguistic constructs or cultural references. Therefore, in her most famous translation, she used Polish names for the characters. She even changed the gender of Winnie-the-Pooh, as in her translation, the female bear got a male name ‘Kubuś’. Tuwim created iconic phrases for her version of the beloved character, which entered the Polish language for good and became a potent cultural reference. The success of her translation was exhibited by the numerous post-war editions. In England, she was even called ‘The Pooh Lady’.

During World War II, she spent time in France and the United Kingdom, where her husband worked as a Polish diplomat. Whenever possible, she exchanged letters with her beloved brother, with whom she was separated over the course of the war. In 1942, in London, a new member joined her family: a terrier named Kubuś (eng. Winnie), who sadly succumbed to canine typhus two years later.

Irena and her husband emigrated to Canada in 1945 and then to the USA. It was in the States that, after five years of separation, she reunited with her brother, Julian. They returned to Poland in 1946. Unfortunately, World War II took away two important people in her life. In 1940, her first husband was shot by the Germans in Palmiry. He never recovered after she left him and did not even consider escaping war-torn Poland despite his financial means. Devastated, Irena dedicated ‘A Poem for an Unknown Day and Hour’ to him.

In 1943, her mentally ill mother lost her life, murdered by German soldiers in Otwock, who threw her corpse out of a window. It wasn’t until the next day that Adela’s body was properly buried. In December 1953, Julian Tuwim, Irena’s beloved brother passed away. His death made her fall into depression. She attempted to write a book about him, yet it was never completed, nor was the promised collection of their letters. In the subsequent years of her life, Irena battled her husband’s alcoholism, which began during their time in emigration. He made several suicide attempts, but she remained with him until his death in 1973. Aside from caring for her ailing husband, her post-war life revolved around her work as a translator. She revised her pre-war translations and, together with her husband, went on to translate classic English works, such as ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. She also translated extensively from Russian. Despite all that, she often found herself without a job, she once stated: ‘I walk in torn shoes and faded fur’.

Irena Tuwim lived for 89 years and passed away on December 7, 1987. Her biographer, Anna Augustyniak, calculated that only in the ‘Nasza Księgarnia’ publishing house, between 1946 and 1976, thirty books by Irena Tuwim were published with a combined circulation of over three and a half million copies.

She was buried at Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw.

Agata Olenderek