The Song “Miasteczko Bełz” (“Bełz Town”)

English: The town of Bełz, source: Express Poranny 1939/166, June 18, 1939, p. 13

In the course of research on the legacy of Jan Brzechwa as a lawyer, we came across the judgment of the District Court in Lviv, not found in other sources. The judgment sheds light on the important, still performed Jewish song “Miasteczko Bełz” (Mein Sztetełe Bełz, Yiddish מײַן שטעטעלע בעלז). Therefore, the discovery is worth sharing on the internet, making it available, for example, to researchers of Jewish culture.

Jan Brzechwa, the lawyer

Jan Brzechwa, known before the war as Jan Lesman, was a Polish lawyer of Jewish origin, born and raised in a Polonized family of intellectuals. Before the Second World War, he used the pseudonym Jan Brzechwa in his poetry – a pseudonym proposed to him by his cousin, the well-known poet Bolesław Leśmian. In 1946, having survived the Second World War in Warsaw and Łódź, Jan Lesman changed his name to Brzechwa in official registers, incl. in his personal file at the Bar Council in Warsaw. The fact that Jan Lesman did not end up in the ghetto and survived the war is associated in available sources, among others, with an anecdote that he was too much in love to be afraid of the Nazi occupiers (which made him seem insane to anyone involved). However, he almost died at the hands of Polish insurgents in 1944, due to some misunderstanding (interesting descriptions of these events can be found in the biography titled “Brzechwa not for children” by Mariusz Urbanek (Warsaw, 2013), in a book based on memories of these events).

In the period 1926-1939, between the adoption of the Polish Act of March 29, 1926 on copyright (Journal of Laws 1926 No. 48 item 286) and the outbreak of World War II, Jan Brzechwa became a world-renowned copyright expert. He represented parties before Polish courts as an attorney, most often on the authors’ side in criminal courts against privately accused infringers, and also on behalf of ZAiKS (today known as the largest copyright collective management organization in Poland). Because Brzechwa conducted many copyright infringement cases, he was able to send their descriptions to magazines, including “Le Droit d’Auteur” and “Inter Auteurs” printed in French and the Italian “Il diritto di autore”. He published with such titles in 1931-1938.

After compiling and examining the reporting of the Warsaw lawyer, it may be noticed that some of the described court trials were widely discussed in the press, allowing for the Brzechwa’s reports to be verified, on the one hand, and for parallel description of these trials (without knowing Brzechwa’s writings), on the other hand. However, one of these cases is unique because Brzechwa gave, perhaps, the most accurate description available to date.

Description of the case in “Il diritto di autore” (IDA) of 1937

As provided by “Il diritto di autore” of 1937 (the source is available in Italian digital archives http://digitale.bnc.roma.sbn.it), on March 9, 1937, the District Court in Lviv discontinued the criminal case (VI I K 21/36) for infringement of copyright by publishing the song “Miasteczko Bełz” (1). Alexander Olschanetzky, who had released the song in New York, accused, according to a report by Jan Brzechwa, Mr. Licht and Mr. Kuryłowicz. Licht acted as writer of music. The infringing publication was to take place in the publishing house “Pro arte” in Lviv, in 1935. Comparing the description of Jan Brzechwa with the preserved press excerpt (2), one can doubt whether Mr. A. Kuryłowicz was the author of the words (as in Brzechwa’s report) or the publisher. There are additional accused listed in the press clip: Mr. Stanisław Krebs as the publisher and Mr. Perec as the author of the music. The surname Licht in the press excerpt has been spelled “Lis”, which may be due to the making of the account “by ear”. The first names of the accused musicians are unknown.

Lviv authors acquitted

The criminal court called in experts to decide whether Licht’s song was a copy of Olschanetzky’s song. It was recognized that the two songs are a combination of long-known Jewish folk songs and that there are differences between them. According to expert witnesses, the version of the American composer was supposed to be more skillful. The accused Licht’s version was supposed to have a worse structure and differ from it in terms of tonality and rhythm. The court found that both songs were not original enough and too strongly based on known motifs to substantiate granting copyright protection to any one of them. In this respect, there are no differences between the press release from “Nowy Dziennik” in Kraków and the account of Jan Brzechwa. The trial was supposed to be long and several expert witnesses were questioned, sharing knowledgeable opinions on the composition of both works. The court acquitted the accused, noting, first, the differences between the works and, second, the fact that both authors were inspired by Jewish folklore (we would say today – being musical works belonging to the public domain).

Jan Brzechwa did not agree with this judgment. It is difficult to say what arguments he relied on in court if he actually represented Alexander Olschanetzky (which should be considered probable). In his publication for “Il diritto di autore”, he criticized the verdict, comparing the Polish regulation to the Italian law.

Other sources

In Brzechwa’s commentary to the Copyright Act, submitted for publication in 1939, but not published due to the outbreak of the war, there is a mention of a similar – and, at the same time, a very different – case: “Melody of “Horst-Wessel-Lied”, composed of various popular motifs, impressing the crowds and evoking particularly vivid feelings in them, should benefit from legal protection as an elaboration, especially since it was not known in this form so far. (German Court of Cassation, dated 2.XIII.1936, D. A. 1937, p. 129)” (3) (translation from Polish – EF). Jan Brzechwa did not explain why this ruling was included in his book. It must be admitted, however, that the number of foreign judgments, mainly French, in this unprinted collection exceeded the number of Polish judgments. It may be assumed that Jan Brzechwa simply included in the book all the fragments of the copyright judgments that he owned.

It is probable that the description of the international trial for the protection of rights to the song “Miasteczko Bełz”, prepared by Jan Brzechwa, published in the Italian press, is a more accurate source of information than a short and unconfirmed press excerpt from “Nowy Dziennik”. Also, it remains unclear who transformed the song in question in the Warsaw ghetto into the song “Warszawo ma” (“Oh, My Warsaw”). There is a controversy on this topic on the internet which makes it worth investigating and popularizing more closely by qualified specialists.

Footnotes:

(1) Lesman, J., Il diritto d’autore in Polonia, IDA 1937, pp. 209-221.

(2) Nowy Dziennik (Kraków), 1937/71, March 12, 1937, p. 13.

(3) Lesman, J., (Brzechwa J.), Copyright. Commentary, work submitted for publication in 1939, unpublished, preserved in the form of a proofreading copy in the house of prof. Jan Namitkiewicz in Milanówek and returned to the author after the war, p. 49.

If you have any additional findings, please feel free to contact me (Ewa Fabian) through Twitter or LinkedIn.