Ordonówna, Hanka (1904–1950)

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Ordonówna, Hanka (1904–1950)

Polish actress and singer who was the star performer at Warsaw's leading cabaret of the interwar decades, Qui pro Quo, and also appeared successfully on stage and in films. Name variations: Hanka Ordonka; Hanka Ordonowna; Maria Anna Tyszkiewiczowa; Marysia Pietruszynska; Maria Anna Pietruszyskich. Born Maria Anna Pietruszynska in Warsaw, Russian Poland, on August 11, 1904; died in Beirut, Lebanon, on September 2, 1950; married Count Michael Tyszkiewicz.

A melancholy hit song of the 1930s, "Milosc ci Wszystko Wybaczy" ("Love Forgives Everything"), was the signature tune of Hanka Ordonówna, a wildly popular cabaret and film star of interwar Poland. Warsaw was then one of Europe's liveliest cities. The defeat of Germany during World War I, as well as the political chaos in Russia precipitated by two revolutions in 1917, enabled Poland to be reborn as a nation in November 1918. Under foreign rule since the end of the 18th century, the Poles struggled to create a society that was both stable and prosperous in the 1920s and 1930s. In both instances, success was minimal. Much of the country remained mired in rural poverty, and by 1926, when war hero Marshal Józef Pilsudski overthrew the democratic parliamentary regime, which had disillusioned the populace with its inability to initiate reforms, many Poles turned away from the frustrations of politics. By the mid-1920s, most of Warsaw's artists and intellectuals chose to ignore the seemingly intractable woes of their young nation, concentrating instead on their creative endeavors.

Soon after World War I, with newly independent Poland still struggling, a 16-year-old student at the Warsaw Opera and Ballet School was offered a job at the Sphinx, one of the capital's better-known cabarets. Her director decided that her name, Marysia Pietruszynska, was too ordinary, so he settled on Hanka Ordonówna, thus launching a stellar career. Soon, Hanka moved to a cabaret named Mirage. After a fire shut its doors, she danced for a while in a second-class theater in Lwów, then toured Wilno and other Polish cities. Though she began her career as a dancer, Ordonówna soon switched to singing. Her voice, low-pitched, throaty, and highly evocative, would bring her great success over the next two decades.

Ordonówna returned to her native city of Warsaw to continue her career. While talented and ambitious, she had no serious training, but she was fortunate enough to become acquainted with one of Warsaw's best-known cabaret lyricists of the day, Zofia Bajkowska . A talented writer, Bajkowska had also achieved a celebrity of sorts, often shouting obscene phrases at those who had given her offense. Bajkowska noted that Hanka had picked up "some bad habits": she waved her hand under her nose and rolled her eyes, both "provincial" mannerisms. Even Ordonówna's hat was dismissed as old-fashioned and "definitely not Warsaw." After several weeks of intensive coaching, Hanka auditioned for a job at Warsaw's Qui Pro Quo. Since its opening on April 4, 1919, in a former rollerskating rink, this 500-seat cabaret had showcased the nation's most talented performers. Though the manager Jerzy Boczkowski saw considerable talent in Ordonówna, he did not feel she was ready; she did a spell at another the Stanczyk (The Jester) before he hired her.

At the time, the Qui Pro Quo boasted several female star performers, including Zula Pogorzelska and Mira Ziminska. Equally talented as a singer and dancer, Pogorzelska was often compared to the French cabaret star Mistinguett , while Ziminska, who had a long career in cabaret, films, and stage productions, specialized in portraying young wives who betrayed their husbands. Hanka soon became an indispensable member of the ensemble, which numbered about 16 artists. The leading personalities of Warsaw attended the cabaret. On one such occasion, shortly before he seized power in the bloody coup d'etat of May 1926, Pilsudski heard Ordonówna sing a pretty song entitled "Mimosa"; he was pleased.

In 1926, now the toast of Warsaw's cabaret crowd, Ordonówna made her film debut in Orle (The Eaglet), directed by Viktor Bieganski. A pioneering docudrama, the movie was based on a successful Warsaw to Tokyo flight by a Polish aviator. Its premiere at the Apollo Lejman Cinema on Marszalkowska, Warsaw's equivalent of Broadway, was one of the social events of the year. In attendance were such political luminaries as Polish president Ignacy Moscicki and the deputy foreign minister, Józef Beck.

For five years (1926–31), Ordonówna was the star at Qui Pro Quo while living with Hungarian-born Fryderyk (Fritz) Járosy, the cabaret's master of ceremonies. With his faulty Polish grammar and syntax, Járosy delighted audiences; indeed, his manglings became part of everyday speech. In a city with many problems, all but the poorest citizens could scrape together a few zlotys to buy a ticket to the cabaret. Zofia Chadzynska recalled, "It was an antidote for sadness."

Newly established cabarets began to offer stiff competition, however, and there may have been a decline in the quality of Qui Pro Quo's acts when a number of its talented writers, including Andrzej Wlast, moved on. In March 1930, the cabaret celebrated its 11th anniversary with "Qui Pro Quo's Jubilee," for which Ordonówna's most memorable contribution was a song, "Trudno" ("It's Difficult"), about trying to retain the love of her man. The show was a smash hit, Qui Pro Quo's finest hour, said Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski in Warsaw's influential Morning Courier. It was also near its final hour. By 1931, the world depression had made terrible inroads into the Polish economy, and the cabaret closed its doors for good that April.

Shortly before, Ordonówna had discovered that Járosy was having an affair with a young dancer, Stefania Górska . Outraged, she ended the relationship and married Count Michael Tyszkiewicz in a quiet ceremony at Warsaw's Holy Cross Church. But her in-laws regarded her as a permanent outsider, a woman known to "have a past"; when the newlyweds arrived at Michael's family estate near Wilno, they learned that his relatives had vacated the estate, leaving only the servants behind. She would always be regarded as an alien by certain members of the Polish szlachta, the landed gentry that traditionally dominated the nation's intellectual, social and political life.

Soon after, Ordonówna made her first solo tour of Europe, giving critically acclaimed performances in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. Despite her family situation and Poland's perennial problems, Ordonówna's career flourished throughout the troubled 1930s. In 1933, she starred in the film Szpieg w Masce (The Masked Spy), playing opposite two of Poland's best-known actors of the period, Boguslaw Samborski and Jerzy Pichelski. One of the film's songs, which she later

recorded, quickly became her trademark tune. Written by the famous poet Julian Tuwim, "Love Forgives Everything" was a sensation from the moment the film opened in Warsaw at the Adria Theater on Theatter Square.

By the mid-1930s, Ordonówna wanted to branch out into other artistic areas, particularly as a dramatic actress. Her opportunity arrived in the person of Juliusz Osterwa, then one of the most important Polish stage directors, who while living in Russia during World War I had come under the influence of the great director Constantin Stanislavski and the innovative Moscow Art Theater. Back in Poland after the war, he was appointed director of Warsaw's National Theater, assumed control of Cracow's prestigious Slowacki Theater, and directed the Reduta Theater on Copernicus Square, where new Polish plays were staged. During the Depression, he hit on the idea of engaging Ordonówna in order to rescue his theaters from financial ruin. She first appeared in a play directed by Osterwa, Wieczór Trzech Króli (Night of the Three Kings), and then played opposite him in a comedy entitled Teoria Einsteina (Einstein's Theory). They also became romantically involved. After the affair was broken off, apparently by Hanka, Osterwa showed some of her letters to her husband. The count's reaction is not known, but the marriage survived.

Ordonówna continued to delight Warsaw audiences over the next several years. In 1936, she starred in Frontem do Radosci (A Smiling Face), a revue directed by Járosy. Less successful was a show she produced herself called Widowiska Nr. 1 (Spectacle No. 1). All in all, however, she was regarded as Poland's equivalent of a Hollywood superstar. Her performances played to full houses, and her records sold extremely well, particularly "Love Forgives Everything." Some performers tried to emulate her, while others caricatured her; none of it bothered her in the least.

In 1938, Ordonówna made a month-long tour of the United States, appearing in shows in New York and other cities with large Polish-speaking populations. In 1939, her glamorous world came to a sudden, violent end. In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, German units attacked Poland with overwhelming force, destroying the nation's armed forces within days. Late in August, when war with Nazi Germany appeared inevitable, Hanka had met with Tadeusz Wittlin to prepare a song program she could take to the front lines to entertain Polish troops. The program never went beyond the planning stage; the only entertaining Ordonówna did during these tragic days was to sing for wounded soldiers at Warsaw's train station.

The next years would be difficult for Poland and for its artists, including Ordonówna. Along with other entertainers, she was arrested by the Gestapo, allegedly on a tip from the director Tymoteusz Ortym. After being released, she was observed in the Europejski Hotel bar, looking frightened and disheveled. With conditions in Warsaw deteriorating from day to day, Hanka and Michael went to his family estate outside Wilno, where she and other former Warsaw stars were somehow able to recreate their own small cabaret. Eventually, however, Michael was arrested by the Soviet NKVD and taken to Moscow. After the "liberation" of Lithuania by the Red Army in the summer of 1940, Hanka was invited to perform in Moscow, where she attempted to establish contact with her husband; she also entered into friendships with Soviet officers that some Poles have described as being "scandalous" in nature. After giving a few performances in Moscow, Hanka too was arrested and sent to a labor camp in Uzbekistan.

In the harsh conditions of the labor camp, Ordonówna's health broke down, and she contracted tuberculosis. She did not die, however, and when the Stalin regime allowed the formation of a Polish Army under General Wladyslaw Anders, in 1942 she became part of an epic exodus of Poles from the Soviet Union to the Middle East. Here she was reunited with her husband, who had also survived a Soviet prison camp. Hanka's health remained fragile, and she was hospitalized in several sanatoriums, including one in Jerusalem. There, a Jewish physician fell in love with her. His affection was not reciprocated, and one night while Hanka was absent from her apartment, the doctor entered it and hanged himself. After the war, Ordonówna and her husband settled in Beirut, at that time a beautiful city in a prosperous and peaceful Lebanon. There, in the summer of 1950, far from her beloved city of Warsaw, she contracted typhus and died on September 2, 1950. On April 30, 1996, Poland's postal service honored Hanka Ordonówna by depicting her on a 40 Groszy commemorative postage stamp.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia