Watowa Ola

Ola Watowa - Personal data
Date of birth: 26th April 1903
Place of birth: Warszawa
Date of death: 9th February 1991
Place of death:
Occupation: translator, writer
Related towns: Lviv

Watowa Ola (26.04.1903, Warsaw - 9.02.1991, Paris) - translator, writer

Ola Watowa was born as Paulina Lew on 26 April 1903, the daughter of Aaron and Sara Lew, wealthy Warsaw Jews. She is remembered primarily as the guardian of her husband's legacy, the eminent poet Aleksander Wata (1900-1967).

Watowa described the circumstances of meeting Aleksander in her memoirs Wszystko Co Najważniejsze... and as she herself admitted: "everything that is most important in my life is connected with Alexander"[1.1].

They first met at the Drama School in 1923, which Ola Lew enrolled in secret from her parents. At a graduation party of the first year of studies, the elite of the capital's cultural scene at the time turned up, including futurists Anatol Stern and Wat. Despite her desire to become a professional actress, she succumbed to her husband's urging and gave up not only her career but also her studies. Watowa herself commented on the end of her dreams concerning the stage in the following way: "It is true that, despite his youthful futuristic extravagances, he later turned out to be a traditionalist, because he did not want me to become an actress, he wanted to have a wife exclusively for himself, under his protection"[1.1.1].

The fiancé, poor and without a specific trade, did not appeal to the father of the future Mrs. Watowa, and it took four years after the meeting before the parents gave their consent to the marriage. The wedding was traditional and, as Watowa recalls: "On the twenty-fourth of January 1927, we stood at noon under a canopy of dark red damask. We were given a vow by a rabbi in a black satin long dress and a sable cap on his head. Candles were burning. I was in a white dress sparkling with rhinestones and a tiara on my head. Family all around. And among the immediate family was also Julian Tuwim, who was very keen to take part in this rite"[1.2]. Even though the wedding was lavish, her father decided to punish Paulina and she did not receive a dowry like the other sisters. Her sister Joanna, who married the poet Jerzy Kamil Weintraub, was similarly excluded.

Aaron Lew was born in Wołkowysk, from where he fled at the age of thirteen because he could not stand his despotic father's behaviour. He reached Warsaw and came to his fortune through his own hard work. He was a violent and difficult man, so it was the mother - a person of gentle character - who provided her daughters with an atmosphere of calm and balance. As Watowa recalled: "My father's parent was lucky to die a natural death. Whereas, my parents, my younger sister, my uncles and aunts all perished at Treblinka. They were deported from the Umschlagplatz. It was September 1942. My mother was fifty-seven years old at the time"[1.3].

After her matura exam, Paulina began to study at the Free Polish University, then at the Drama School, but having abandoned her studies she devoted herself to family life. Even though she was a secretary at the editorial office of the "Miesięcznik Literacki", of which Wat was the editor-in-chief, but her main occupation was looking after the house and her son Andrzej, who was born in 1931. Andrzej, who died in 2021, was an art historian living in Paris. Admittedly, Watowa was not professionally active, but her marriage to Aleksander placed her in the cultural centre of the capital[1.4]. Their open house was home to a literary salon frequented by well-known and acclaimed Polish authors of the inter-war period.

A few weeks after the birth of his son, Aleksander Wat was arrested for communist activities. After more than three months, he left the Mokotów prison and began working as a literary manager at Gebethner and Wolff. Due to his views - hostile to the Sanation camp - he was to be imprisoned in Bereza Kartuska, which did not happen because war broke out. Watowa herself felt that her husband's involvement with communism was to the detriment of his work, as he was immersed in promoting ideology and had no time to create.

They spent a happy time on holiday in Jurata, from where they returned to Warsaw in August 1939. After the outbreak of war, the Wat family fled Warsaw for Lviv. Aleksander began working for "Czerwony Sztandar", a Polish-language periodical licensed by the Soviet occupying forces, in which well-known authors with leftist views wrote before the war. Watowa recalls this period as a time of great fear.

As a result of an NKVD provocation, Aleksander Wat was arrested in January 1940. Other detainees included Władysław Broniewski, Anatol Stern, and Tadeusz Peiper. Meanwhile, in April, Ola and her son were deported in a cattle car to Kazakhstan. She recalled the deportation as a traumatic event: "the torture of time, of hunger, and especially the most terrible torture of human resentment, of terrible suspicion, with the addition of anti-Semitism sickening at this bottom of human misery and loneliness"[1.5]. Not used to hard physical work, in Kazakhstan Watowa had to perform work beyond her strength, including brick-burning. In Iwanówka near Żarma, she lived in harsh conditions suffering from hunger. They did not find each other with Aleksandr, who, after stays in Soviet prisons, verified his attitude towards communism, until 1942, but they were not allowed to return to Poland until 1946. They found themselves back in Warsaw, where Wat began working for the State Publishing Institute and published in post-war literary magazines. After the war, Ola urged Aleksander to return to literary work, while she herself took up translation[1.6]. She has translated from Russian literature, for example Vassa Zheleznova by Gorky and Konstantin Paustovsky. In the 1970s, "Zeszyty Historyczne" published Paszportyzacja, and London "Wiadomości" at the same time published the short story Sznur - the works were inspired by the events of the exile to Kazakhstan. 

In 1959, the Wat family left Poland. Aleksander received a Ford Foundation scholarship and they went first to Italy, then to France, where they lived for the rest of their lives. In the years 1963-1965, at the invitation of the University of California, they lived in Berkeley, where Wat took up the position of an assistant, and later returned to Paris. In 1967, the ailing Wat committed suicide, and his wife decided to become a custodian of her husband's memory and a populariser of his work.

 

Maria Antosik-Piela

 

References:

  • Cieliczko M., "On jest mistrzem, ja to wiem" - pisarka, tłumaczka, edytorka, żona. Życie twórcze Oli Watowej, Anny Iwaszkiewiczowej i Janiny Broniewskiej, Warsaw 2013.
  • Watowa O., Wszystko co najważniejsze..., Warsaw 2011.

 

The biography was created as part of the project "Polskie Żydówki dla Niepodległej" (Polish Jewish Women for the Independent), implemented with a grant from the Totalizator Sportowy Foundation.

 

 

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Watowa O., Wszystko co najważniejsze..., Warsaw 2011, p. 9.
  • [1.1.1] Watowa O., Wszystko co najważniejsze..., Warsaw 2011, p. 9.
  • [1.2] Watowa O., Wszystko co najważniejsze..., Warsaw 2011, p. 10.
  • [1.3] Watowa O., Wszystko co najważniejsze..., Warsaw 2011, p. 13.
  • [1.4] Cieliczko M., "On jest mistrzem, ja to wiem" - pisarka, tłumaczka, edytorka, żona. Życie twórcze Oli Watowej, Anny Iwaszkiewiczowej i Janiny Broniewskiej, Warsaw 2013, p. 38.
  • [1.5] Watowa O., Wszystko co najważniejsze..., p. 62.
  • [1.6] Cieliczko M., "On jest mistrzem, ja to wiem"..., p. 39.
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