By Juliette Bretan
‘Where else do people feel as good as here?
Only in Lviv!
Where else they lull you to sleep and wake you up with a song?
Only in Lviv!’
(‘Tylko We Lwowie’, 1939)
In the region straddling the border between Poland and Ukraine, there is a single interwar melody which is almost guaranteed to be familiar to any ear, young or old, from the first few bars. It possesses such a crucial position in the cultural sphere of the area that it is still seen today as an anthem for a unique, transient sense of Polish topophilia – localised in Lviv.
So typical of its era and origins, ‘Tylko We Lwowie’ is sonorous in tune, yet flourishes with an almost smirking pride at its content, truly revelling in its topic of the city of Lviv. Written in 1939, just before Eastern Europe would alter forever, the song captures something so wholesome and true; a feeling of real-life existence which would soon find itself struggling for survival. Its confidence, unlike the thousands of other immensely popular interwar pieces, is not founded in individual emotions or an energy of life, but rather a burst of warm community feeling which allows you an impassioned, if brief, view of the city. And perhaps this is why its influence has endured against the cold annihilating hand of history.
At the time the song was written, Lviv (or Lwów in the era) was Poland’s third largest city, boasting a reputation as the birthplace of many of Poland’s best known artists, and well-known for its cultural prominence.
But it was also situated in Galicia, which had struggled in the interwar period as an economic nightmare for the Polish state, with primitive industry and infrastructure. The area was also renowned as a hub for social tensions, with vast swathes of minorities (or majorities in some areas) of Ukrainians and others coming into tension with the rise in Polish national feeling. Lviv had formerly been under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was briefly included in the West Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1918 – but was soon subsumed into the sprawling Polish state, and passionately defended as a Polish city, despite the fact that only 60% of its population in 1931 were Poles, with many from the area speaking multiple languages. The Polish interwar state in general reflected such statistics, however, meaning that any attempt at patriotic feeling would by default encompass a wider pool of influences.
Though the interwar period was marked by attempts by the Polish government to promote Polish sentiment in Lviv, the city remained a melting-pot for all nationalities until WWII. ‘Tylko We Lwowie’ epitomises these conflicting currents impeccably, its energy undoubtedly stemming from an influence of folk art and local feeling, including small hints of Lvivian dialect, but also reflecting a wider spirit of belonging. The song itself was imbued with artistic diversity, written by two popular cultural players, Henryk Wars and Emanuel Schlechter; the latter of Jewish descent who lived the majority of his life in Lviv.
The song’s vast reach and continuing influence was perhaps due to its introduction onto the cultural scene as the central song in a popular pre-war film, Włóczęgi (Vagabonds) (April, 1939). It is sung only a few minutes into the picture, in a scene which curtails an emotional hospital visit. The camera jumps to a colourful procession of singing street musicians, who wield accordions and violins as they mingle with a crowd of cheerful, headscarf-wearing inhabitants beside market stalls. By the second chorus of the song, a swell of children’s voices can also be heard alongside the musicians’, cementing its accessibility to all generations. It positively screams Lviv.
‘Tylko We Lwowie’ in the film Włóczęgi, released in 1939
From the premiere of the film, ‘Tylko We Lwowie’ was consumed to an unparalleled degree by the public – the following month, it was released on Syrena Electro, Poland’s central record company, sung by the Polish cultural heavyweight Mieczysław Fogg, with the orchestra conducted by Wars. It very quickly became one of the most popular songs of the area, with some even suggesting its impact in the interwar period means it is familiar on some level to any Pole.
But even after the war struck, the song did not perish. So many others interwar tunes had been lost to history, with notes burnt; lyrics reduced to rubble; and artists and musicians wiped out, including Schlechter, who died between 1942 and 1943.
But geographical fortune meant this suffering was not the fate of ‘Tylko We Lwowie’: Lviv fell into the hands of the Soviet Union in 1939, which was at first more open to an endurance of Polish culture, so long as it also reflected Soviet values. For many Polish interwar artists, Lviv thus became an escape route. Wars moved there in 1940, and was quick to establish a popular Tea Jazz Orchestra to provide light cultural relief to the area. One of the stars to follow Wars to Lviv in the same year was the immensely well-known Polish singer and actor Eugeniusz Bodo, who performed his charming interwar hits in perfect Russian.
But one of the earliest hits he played was not his own – it was a new rendition of ‘Tylko We Lwowie’, under a different title: ‘Czekamy Was We Lwowie’ (‘We are Waiting for You in Lviv’), or in Russian as ‘Ждем вас во Львове’. Its new name and altered lyrics reflected the passion for Lviv, which had so rapidly become a second capital for the beloved artists of the interwar period. And, compared to life in German-occupied Warsaw, Lviv must have seemed almost a paradise. It is unsurprising that the artists who had managed to get away saw a resurrected interwar Poland in Lviv, and wanted to encourage as many others to settle there too; using Bodo, the poster-boy of the interwar period, as an advertisement. The song’s earnest celebration of the city brought its inhabitants a little closer together against the wartime horrors, and its Russian variant meant it could have an even more expansive reach across the region, in a reflection of that diversity so innate to Lviv and the Polish interwar Republic.
Eugeniusz Bodo’s Russian version of the song, released in 1941
But the dream of waiting for a new Poland in Lviv would not continue, with a turn in fortunes following the German invasion of 1941. Wars left Lviv to tour across the Soviet Union – and Bodo was arrested on false charges of espionage, eventually perishing in a gulag in 1943.
And yet the glimpse of a more hopeful existence in ‘Tylko We Lwowie’ remained. The song was passed down through the generations of all the many nationalities who found their home in and around Lviv, and is now an emblem of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian connections, much like the history of the city from which it came. Only in Lviv can this zeal for the feeling of being home continue.
Ukrainian version recorded in 2002 by Viktor Morozov and his band Halychyna
English (with Ukrainian) version, recorded in 2012 by Los Colorados