Marian Hemar (1901-1972), Polish poet and writer buried in Coldharbour, Surrey
The final resting place of Polish literary giant Marian Hemar can be found at Christ Church in the idyllic Surrey village of Coldharbour. The grave, which is close to the front entrance of the church, has recently been restored (2015) and is in a beautiful location in the Surrey Hills.
The following two images show the grave of Marian and Caja Hemar at Christ Church, Coldharbour, Nov 2015 (photo: courtesy of Tom Bolonski)
Born Jan Marian Hescheles in Lwów, Poland, Hemar was a prolific poet, journalist, playwright, comedy writer, and songwriter. He worked under a number of names including Jan Mariański and Marian Wallenrod. After studying at university and briefly fighting for the pro-Polish forces against the Russians in 1918-1919, Hemar moved to Warsaw and became a key figure in the Polish cabaret scene. He was director of the Warsaw National Theatre and also wrote hundreds of radio sketches.
When Walt Disney’s first full-length colour cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hit Polish cinema screens before the Second World War, it was Hemar who provided the whole Polish version for the film’s dubbing. The voice of Snow White and her songs were provided by Maria Modzelewska, whom Hemar married in 1935. The relationship broke down in 1939 when Maria left Poland for the USA in the entourage of Polish minister for Foreign Affairs, Józef Beck. The couple later divorced.
Wartime struggles and recognition
When war broke out in 1939, Hemar’s anti-facsist views rendered him a target for the Gestapo. He had previously written a sarcastic song depicting Hitler’s moustache, which instigated the German ambassador to complain to the Polish government. When the Germans invaded Poland, the Gestapo sought out Hemar in Warsaw (Lwów was occupied already by the Soviets) but by this time he had fled to Romania. Hemar eventually reached the Middle East and volunteered as a private in the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade. His extraordinary pre-war fame produced instant recognition upon meeting his commanding officer, who gave him an order to write an anthem for the Brigade. Hemar performed for Polish troops and even organised a theatre in the besieged city of Tobruk.
In 1941/42 Hemar was stationed in Egypt and then came to England, possibly at the request of General Sikorski, the Commander in Chief of the Polish armed forces. He was put to work producing counter propaganda to Goebbels’ broadcasts and worked with the BBC during the later years of World War Two. After war ended in 1945 and Poland fell under the Communist regime, Hemar remained in England. Being a staunch supporter of the Polish government in exile and a fierce opponent of the communists, his political stance was such, that as with many of his countryfolk, he was unable to return to his homeland.
In July 1946, Hemar married Carrol Ann (Caja) Eric in London. Caja, born 1910, was a Hollywood and Broadway starlet, of Danish parentage, who appeared in various famous productions including Show Girl (1929), Simple Simon (1930), Show Boat (1932), and Murder at the Vanities (1933). She was also chosen to appear in the cast of Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway towards the end of its run in 1931. Caja was one of the interchangeable torch bearer models for Columbia Pictures in the 1930s and this role continued to earn her royalties. Shortly before the war, Caja and her mother relocated to the UK where she continued her stage career. Research on Ancestry.com reveals very little for Caja other than ship’s passenger lists between New York and the UK.
In Poland Hemar is known as ‘The bard of Lvov, the troubadour of the London emigration’ and became one of the best-known figures of the twentieth century Polish diaspora. Hemar was awarded the second highest polish decoration, the Order Polonia Restituta, not once but twice: firstly, in 1966, when he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of Polonia Restituta, and secondly in 1971, with a higher Commander’s Cross of Polonia Restituta.
Click here to read The Anniversary (pdf copy) by Marian Hemar, a poem about his wartime struggles.
Hemar’s work in Britain
References to Hemar’s production of Poor Man’s Miracle, one of his most notable plays performed in the UK, can be found in a number of online news articles. Written in 1939, it was performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in December 1943, starring Cyril Cusack. Later it was performed as part of London Theatre Week, in March 1951, and then at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, in November 1959, a report for which can be found in The Times. The report states that during his escape to Romania, Hemar, ‘a fearless anti-Nazi writer’, lost the case containing all his manuscripts. He discovered that all known copies of his work had been destroyed with the burning of the National Theatre Library in Warsaw but that one remaining copy of this play had been in the possession of an actor cast to play a part. The copy had subsequently been ‘smuggled out of Poland by a young refugee, who delivered it into the author’s hands’. The play was subsequently translated into English and published in 1943.
From 1953 to 1969, Hemar prepared and presented weekly programmes for Radio Free Europe, in which he commented on news from post-war Poland. Henceforth he was banned in Poland. Towards the end of his life Hemar translated all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets into Polish, as well as Horace’s Odes. A search of the BBC sound recordings archive found that Poor Man’s Miracle was serialised by the BBC for radio but no recording survives; broadcasts were often live and never recorded and of those that were only a small selection were retained beyond short term repeat use. The BBC’s Genome search facility (comprising the digitised Radio Times data) lists that the play was broadcast three times in the 1940s, with different directors and/or casts. There are a few entries for Hemar but unfortunately no recordings of his broadcasts. There is one credit for Hemar, as composer-lyricist of his march, The Carpathian Brigade (see ‘Wartime Struggles’ above).
Hemar said of his origins that he was born into Jewish faith but a ‘Voluntary Pole’. Further research into Hemar’s birth using the online family history website Ancestry.com, has highlighted an index card for Hemar’s birth, extracted from the Jewish birth, marriage, and death records from the historical province of Galicia (in the Austrian Empire, now Ukraine; source: ‘Galicia, Ukraine, Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1789-1905’). Hemar’s cousin, on his mother’s side, was the famous science fiction author, Stanislav Lem (1921-2006).
Hemar’s religious identity is complex. Some sources say that he converted to Catholicism on his marriage to Maria Modzelewska, other state he became a Protestant. The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe hosts a full page on Hemar and reveals that ‘…despite his Protestant baptism in 1935 and his attachment to Polish tradition and literature, he never entirely severed ties to Jewish culture. Trips to Israel in the 1960s made him reflect on the Diaspora, the Jewish state, and the fate of Polish Jews; he wrote on this topic in Świstki z podróży (Scraps from a Journey; 1964). Patriotic Polish and historical themes and nostalgic memories of Lwów dominate his post-war poetry’. It appears that after he took protestant baptism he was struck off the Jewish register of members, presumably in Lwów. His interwar poetry explored the question of his identity as a Polish writer of Jewish descent confronted with anti-semitism, and his political satire targeted anti-semitism and fascism. (See http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Hemar_Marian).
Hemar in Surrey
Little is known about Hemar’s time in Surrey. Initially Marian and Caja lived at first in Caja’s flat in Knightsbridge, London, until they bought a house in Bayswater. The London electoral registers on Ancestry.com show the Hemars living at 12 Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington, in 1949, accompanied by Caja ‘s mother, Amela. This address corresponds with Hemar’s entry in the London telephone directories as Bayswater/Kensington W8, in which he appears from 1946 to 1963, listed as ‘J. Marjan Hemar’. Hemar also appears on a BOAC flight passenger list as a tourist travelling to New York in 1956, a journey he had undertaken after his first wife Modzelewska had visited London and met him to discuss their divorce.
Sometime around 1959 the Hemars purchased Fig Tree Cottage, Leith Hill, Dorking. They divided their Bayswater house into flats after they’d bought the cottage, which took some time to complete, and Hemar apparently told his nephew in Poland that he was so disorganised having to live in two places at once. The Hemars are listed in the Dorking telephone directory at Fig Tree Cottage from 1959; in November 1966, he wrote to The Times and gave it as his address. Hemar was writing in support of The Polish Library in London, which had been threatened with closure following a debate in the House of Lords spearheaded by Lord Shackleton. Hemar enthused that the library, situated at 9 Princes Gardens, SW7, was ‘the most important, biggest and best Polish library in the whole free world’, containing close to 100,000 volumes of ‘books banned, authors forbidden, truth unobtainable in their communist occupied land’. Perhaps conscious of his position as an alien national, Hemar goes on to say that the library had become living proof of ‘Great Britain’s generosity and hospitality, friendship and faith kept with former allies’.
Poem by Marian Hemar – Zyczenie (Wish)
Co by mi przysłać z Kraju? Czy mam jakie życzenie?
Zapytałaś mnie w liście. Od razu ci wymienię
Jedno z mych wielu życzeń, Pierwsze mam je na myśli.
Jeśli chcesz mi co przysłać w prezencie, to mi przyślij
Pudełko od zapałek, albo lniany woreczek,
A w nim troszeczkę ziemi Tamtejszej – cokolwieczek.
Tyle, co weźmiesz w garstkę na polu – w przydrożnym rowie
Albo na skwerku miejskim w Warszawie albo w Krakowie –
W lesie, albo z czyjego podmiejskiego ogródka –
Gdziekolwiek tam się schylisz. Jedna grudka, malutka
Wystarczy – tyle ile jedną obejmiesz dłonią.
Przyślij mi ją do Anglii. Chyba ci nie zabronią?
Chyba takiej przesyłki nie skonfiskują Tobie?
Będę ci bardzo wdzięczny. Wiem, co z tą ziemią zrobię,
A raczej, prawdę mówiąc – Ach, przyjaciółko miła –
Wiem, o co poproszę żony, ażeby z nią zrobiła.
English translation by T. Bolonski
What could you send me from Poland? In a letter you ask,
I have it right here – such a little task,
If you could send me a matchbox, a sachet – tiny one.
with some polish soil – a handful would be fine
From a field, a ditch, or a Warsaw square
or from local woods – from just anywhere
Wherever you could stoop and gather it, my dear
and send it here to England, in spite of what I hear
They would not forbid it, seize it, confiscate?
I would be very grateful and hope it’s not too late
I know what I’d do with it, dear friend, or rather
ask my wife to use it, when my mourners gather…
As an alien, Hemar was not entitled to vote and so does not appear in the local electoral registers. He would have had to register at his local Police station on a weekly basis. Surrey History Centre holds Surrey Constabulary Alien Registration index cards for Polish foreign nationals residing in the county, 1948-1978 (SHC ref CC654) but as these cards were only issued when a person moved out of Surrey, one for Hemar, unfortunately, does not exist.
A search of The National Archives British Citizenship certificates and Naturalisation papers did not reveal any reference to either Caja or Hemar.
Hemar died on 11 February 1972 and is buried at Christ Church, Coldharbour, with his wife Caja, who died on 14 July 1982; the probate of her will is cited on Ancestry.com (proved in January 1983). Tom Bolonski, who appeared in one of Hemar’s performances in 1967, recalls that they were a devoted couple and adored each other, “Caja didn’t speak a word of Polish, but knew she was married to an extraordinarily talented and important artist”.
On 16 October 2016, at Christ Church, Coldharbour, the Polish Ave Verum choir, guests and celebrity artists gathered to celebrate Hemar’s life, and the placing of a casket of soil from Lyczakowska Cemetery, Lvov, on the Hemar’s grave. Find out more about this commemorative concert.
Memories of Marian and Caja Hemar
Benedict Kolczynski was a young boy living in Coldharbour in the 1960s. He met the Hemars (and their pets!) frequently and has kindly sent us the following lovely memories:
“I lived in Coldharbour, near Dorking, as a boy between the ages of 9 and 15 ( from 1960 to 1965). As you can see from my surname, I had a Polish father (Adam Kolczynski,ex-WW II air force pilot of 317 fighter squadron). My mother Christine was British-born but grew up in South Africa.
Our home in Coldharbour was The Old Forge, opposite the then village shop. We soon got introduced to the Hemars and quite often visited them – their house was on the way to the school I attended until 1964 (Belmont School, Holmbury St Mary) – and they also visited us.
I remember M.H. [Marian Hemar] as a lively and amusing man and his wife Caja as tall and elegant, also her elderly mother in the background. Being the age I was, his literary achievements then meant little to me – my clearest memories are of the Hemars’ cats, a white called Bianco Purrkins and a ginger named Marmaduke, and the two Pekinese dogs Mr Su and Mr Sen! Their living room included a spiral staircase linking it with the upper floor. I remember one dramatic incident when the two cats were playing upstairs. Bianco Purrkins took a flying leap from above but landed safely on the sofa.
M.H. grumbling about the need to “de-mud’ the tails of the two Pekinese in winter, and C.H. in the back garden/courtyard exclaiming “Shame on you!”……..not to Marian but to Marmaduke the ginger cat, whose latest victim, a shrew, she was holding aloft by its tail!
I last saw M. H. in 1965 shortly before we moved elsewhere, and Caja in 1972, after his (and also my father’s) death. I have visited their grave a couple of times in the last 10 years.
I myself moved to live in Poland in 2004 – my wife Marta is a Polish national. We live not far from Olsztyn, in the north-eastern province of Warmia-Mazury, where Marta is a university lecturer. I am a semi-retired teacher of English, both in educational institutions and in business and industry. We revisit the UK quite frequently.
I hope the above “young boy’s memories” will be of interest.
Later this month [March 2017] there is to be a performance of Hemar’s songs in the main theatre in Olsztyn.”
Can you help?
Do you know more about Marian Hemar’s life in Surrey? If so, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please email us on [email protected]
We are grateful to the additional information and images provided by Mr Tom Bolonski.
Unfortunately no local newspaper obituary for Marian Hemar could be found and Surrey History Centre only holds parish magazines for Christ Church from 1982 onwards.
- Mieszkowska, Anna, Mistrzowie Kabaretu, Zwierciadto, 2016. This vibrant and beautifully produced book, by eminent Polish historian Anna Mieszkowska, features new biographies of Marian Hemar and his fellow cabaret star, Fredyryck Jarosy. It includes new sources for Hemar and Caja, seen here in this gorgeous photograph from Cinderella in which she starred with ‘Bond Girl’, Shirley Eaton, in 1957.
- There are two biographies on Marian Hemar, both in Polish and out of print:
– POLSKA FUNDACJA KULTURALNA. Marian Hemar – Od Lwowa do Londynu. 2001
– MUZA, S A. Marian Hemar – Ja Kabareciarz Od Lwowa do Londynu. 2006
- Hemar’s letter to The Times, written from his home in Dorking, is dated Weds 9 Nov 1966, p.13
- Sale particulars for Fig Tree Cottage, 1983 (SHC ref SP/1967)
- The burial register for Christ Church, Coldharbour, remains with the incumbent.
- Polish Wikipedia hosts a detailed page about Hemar and his career http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marian_Hemar. An English version, containing slightly different information, can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marian_Hemar
- For The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, see http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Hemar_Marian
- Some of Hemar’s performances can be viewed on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3to5aAYqF4
- References to the performances of Poor Man’s Miracle can be found in The Times, Tues 27 Mar, 1951, p.6, Fri, 30 Oct, 1959, p.4, and Weds 11 Nov, 1959, p.16.
- For the BBC’s Genome website listings for Marian Hemar, see http://ext.genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/search/0/20?adv=0&q=hemar&media=all&yf=1923&yt=2009&mf=1&mt=12&tf=00%3A00&tt=00%3A00#search
- A programme for Poor Man’s Miracle can be found at http://www.digitaltheatrearchive.com/archives/19 and at the Abbey Theatre online archive http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/archives/production_detail/1818
- For further information about Stanislav Lem, see http://english.lem.pl/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanis%C5%82aw_Lem
- For further information on Caja Eric, see http://www.playbillvault.com/Person/Detail/35926/Caja-Eric and http://www.reelclassics.com/Studios/Columbia/columbia-logo-gallery.htm.
- There are also references to her Broadway career on The Broadway League (IBDB) https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/caja-eric-113377.
- A search of the UCLA Film & Television Archive (who hold Columbia Pictures archives, now owned by Sony Corporation) revealed nothing for Caja Eric. Neither did the New York Public Libraries catalogue http://www.nypl.org/locations/lpa but it does hold material relating to Hemar.
- For an article ‘The Rise and Fall of Polish Song’, by Mikołaj Gliński featuring Marian Hemar, see the Culture.PL website http://culture.pl/en/article/the-rise-and-fall-of-polish-song
- For details of Christ Church, Coldharbour, see http://www.coldharbourchurch.org.uk/