Lviv Was Always the Home of Polish Star Bogdanska
Renata Bogdanska-Anders may be a Polish diva and national icon, but did you know that this remarkable woman was actually Ukrainian? Her marriage to Poland’s legendary military and political leader General Wladyslaw Anders turned her into the First Lady of the postwar Polish anti-communist diaspora, but her birth 100 years ago (12-May-1917), formative years, and rise to stardom were all spent right here in Lviv.
Getting her start in the Galician capital
In the late 1930s, she was the love of Bohdan Vesolovsky – Lviv’s pioneering composer and musician that, along with his Yabtso jazz band, revolutionised Western Ukraine’s music scene with their trend-setting tangos and other popular dance music. It was Bogdanska, known then as Irena or Rena Yarosevych, that was the singer of this iconic Ukrainian band.
By day, she was a student at Lviv’s Lysenko Higher Institute of Music, training to be an opera singer or classical pianist. By night, alongside Vesolovsky and Anatoly Kos-Anatolsky and Leonid Yablonsky, she provided a Ukrainian public constrained by Polish political rule with the new sound and entertainment that helped serve as an antidote to Polonisation.
Rena came from a prominent patriotic Western Ukrainian family that settled in Lviv in the 1920s. Her father served as a Ukrainian Catholic priest and chaplain at a mental hospital and uncle was celebrated priest and composer Ostap Nyzhankivsky – executed by Polish forces in 1919 after subduing the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR).
Like her older brother Anatol, Rena was an active member of Plast, the Ukrainian scouting organisation. Her brother was in Plast with Roman Shukhevych, the future leader of UPA, the Ukrainian underground resistance. She studied music with his brother Yuriy.
War changes her fate
The upheaval in the late 1930s separated Rena from Bohdan, who ended up in Canada after the war. She worked at the Lviv Opera House in the dangerous days of Soviet rule following the Nazi-Soviet partitioning of Poland in September 1939. This is where she took the stage name Renata Bogdanska – in memory of her beloved Vesolovsky.
In late 1939, Lviv’s life was transformed not just by the imposition of Soviet rule, but also by the arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing Nazi rule, including many leading figures of Poland’s vibrant cultural life. Stars of film and stage – many of them Jewish – made their way to the Galician capital, including film score, popular song, and classical music composer Henryk Wars, who was allowed to create the Lwow Tea (Theatrical) Jazz band.
Rena’s life changed forever after striking a friendship with Polish Jewish singer Gwidon Borucki, who persuaded Wars to audition her. She was hired and joined this amazing orchestra. During the next year, she toured the Soviet Union three times with it, recording a song in Russian in Moscow and marrying Gwidon in Kyiv.
The rest is the stuff of legends. Stranded in Soviet Central Asia by the German invasion, she, along with Borucki and Wars, ended up in the Polish army with other deportees freed as a result of Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s interventions with Stalin. The unit was named “Anders Corps” after its leader, General Anders. They crossed Iran, Iraq, and Egypt before finding glory at the Battle for Monte Cassino in central Italy in 1944.
The Polish star returns to her roots
Anders fell in love with Rena and they married in London in 1948. Before this, she starred in two Italian films alongside Italian cinematic legends like Vittorio De Sica and Anna Magnani. She later become a star of exile Polish stage broadcasts by the BBC and Radio Free Europe and recorded scores of songs in Polish.
Although a Polish celebrity, she never disavowed her Ukrainian origins. After her husband’s death in the early 1970s, Rena recorded several Ukrainian songs in London. A few years before her death in 2010, she defied age and fragility by returning to the city she loved and where her parents are buried. Rena, the decorated Polish star, returned to Ukrainian Lviv to remember, reflect, and say goodbye.
Bohdan Nahaylo, Ukrainian historian