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The Last Poet of Lodz

The untold story of the great epic poem of the Holocaust—and the generous, tragic hero who wrote it

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Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch. (Joanna Neborsky)

This essay, by the Yiddish author Chava Rosenfarb, appeared in Yiddish in 1991 in Di goldene keyt. This is the first publication of the English version—which was translated by Rosenfarb, who died last year. “[T]ime is beginning to run out,” she explains below. “With whatever means I have at my memory’s disposal, I shall tell the story of my friend.”

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch’s name is known only to a very few people. He would have joined the mass of nameless ghetto Jews who perished without a trace had it not been for the fact that during his time in the ghetto Shayevitch found himself in extremely difficult circumstances. In the Lodz ghetto—that kafkaesque kingdom of King Chaim the First, as Chaim Rumkowski, the Eldest of the Jews, was called by the ghetto population—protectionism was a way of life, and, in a sense, a way of death. To have a good “back” in the ghetto meant to have an easier job, and thus to conserve precious energy. It meant getting an additional something on top of the deplorably meager food ration. It meant being removed from the lists of those assigned for deportation, and thus prolonging one’s life, at least until the next round-up.

A certain Shmuel Rosenstein, a journalist and Lodz reporter for the Warsaw-based Yiddish Zionist daily called Haint [Today], had managed—most likely thanks to a prewar acquaintance with Chaim Rumkowski—to secure an influential position for himself in the ghetto hierarchy. He became the editor of Rumkowski’s newspaper, the Ghetto Zeitung, a paper to which no self-respecting writer ever contributed. The Ghetto Zeitung was filled with Rumkowski’s philosophical articles about his vision of the ghetto as a haven for the Jews. It resounded with his lunatic self-praise as regards the achievements of his factories, his ghetto, his Jews, and with laudatory articles and panegyrics written by hacks singing praise to the Jewish king.

Rosenstein was no fool. A modern Jewish intellectual, well versed in both the Talmud and contemporary literature, he was doubtless aware of the quality of the newspaper he was editing. However, clever pragmatic man that he was, he wanted to survive the war, and in order to do this, he readily paid the price of his integrity by obediently serving the most powerful master of life and death in the ghetto. (Rosenstein, like Rumkowski, perished in Auschwitz.) In order to live in peace with his conscience, and out of a sense of kinship with people of the pen, Rosenstein occasionally provided one or another desperate ghetto writer with a better position, or with more spacious living quarters.

It was to him that Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch turned in a moment of great distress. And out of gratitude for Rosenstein’s help, Shayevitch offered him, along with his letter of thanks, a poem called “Lekh-Lekho.” This poem and another named “Spring 1942,” as well as two letters addressed to Rosenstein were found after the war among the heaps of rubble left in the empty ghetto of Lodz. And this was how the name of Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch was saved from oblivion.

***

The author, her mother, and sister Henia, shortly after arriving in Brussels, Belgium, late 1945 or early 1946The cover of Lekh-Lekho

The author, her mother, and sister Henia, shortly after arriving in Brussels, Belgium, late 1945 or early 1946; and the cover of the “Lekh-Lekho” booklet.

In the fall of 1945, my mother, my sister, and I left Bergen-Belsen, where we had been liberated, and illegally crossed the border into Belgium. We took lodgings in Brussels. A year later, when the memory of the ghetto and concentration camp horrors were still so fresh and immediate that it could hardly be called memory, a slim booklet reached me by mail from Poland, sent by friends who had also survived the concentration camps and returned to Lodz after the war. In it I found the two poems by Shayevitch, along with his two letters to Rosenstein, published by the Jewish Historical Commission in Lodz under the editorship of the historian Nachman Blumental.

The booklet, under the general title “Lekh-Lekho,” assumed an important role in my postwar life; it became one of my most treasured possessions. All these years, I have kept it under glass. Nevertheless, despite my care, time has done its work, ravaging the pages and turning them a yellowish brown, while the booklet’s soft cover with its photo of a ghetto mother and her child on their way to the assembly yard for deportation has been crisscrossed by many white cracks. But the print on the yellow pages is still legible, and the words are still fresh and powerful and I can still hear Shayevitch’s fast slurping voice reciting his stanzas in Talmudic sing-song.

Shayevitch was my mentor and friend. Through all the postwar years, his spirit has seemed to hover over me, a powerful presence in my own life as a writer. His poetic voice permeates my own poems and prose writings on the subject of the war. He himself, under a host of disguises, appears as a character in many of my stories. Even when I write on themes other than the Holocaust, he is somehow there with me, guiding me, forcing me to see present-day life through the prism of those earlier shattering experiences.

Sometimes at commemoration gatherings, I hear Shayevitch’s poem “Lekh-Lekho” recited. Because it is the poet’s deeply moving farewell to his 5-year-old daughter Blimele, this poem is usually given preference over the other recovered poem “Spring 1942,” which is just as powerful. However, at no time during these commemoration ceremonies have I ever heard much said about the author himself, probably because so little is known about him.

For a long time I have been planning to write an account of what I knew about Shayevitch. I considered it my duty to do so and felt pangs of guilt for procrastinating. But the mere thought of such a task aroused in me a feeling of discomfort and frustration. Having written about him in so many of my fictions, I dreaded repeating myself. Was that much not enough? I knew very well that it was not. Fiction distorts and disfigures. My obligation was to write about Shayevitch’s life and the extraordinary outpouring of poetic works that he wrote in the ghetto, of which the two recovered poems were only a small sample. My problem was that I knew relatively little about his prewar life.

As for the poems that he produced in the ghetto, how could I prove their mastery if I had no texts to substantiate my opinion? To my shame I hardly remembered the plot or any particular scenes from the major epic that he was working on in the ghetto and that had perished with him. Yet throughout all the years of my silence about Shayevitch, I knew that more than anything else the fear of pain was at the root of my reluctance to write about him. Having lived through the Holocaust twice—once as a victim, and the second time through my writings—I dreaded having to plunge once more into the abyss of those dark days that still haunt me. But now, as time is beginning to run out, my waverings have begun to dissipate. With whatever means I have at my memory’s disposal, I shall tell the story of my friend Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, the poet of the Lodz ghetto.

***

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch was born in 1907 in Lenczyce, a small town not far from Lodz. His father was a magid [preacher]. Shayevitch was the cosseted only son in a family of nine children. He attended cheder and yeshiva, from which he graduated with a rabbinical ordination. However, he never assumed a rabbinical post. His impoverished family had moved to Lodz in the hope that his sisters would find work in a factory. Despite the objections of his parents, Simkha-Bunim joined his sisters. He learned the trade of a textile worker and found work in a factory. Deeply attached to his Orthodox family but equally attracted by secular modernity, he felt obliged to leave home. This caused a painful rift with his religious family, but it never led to a complete break, as often happened in Jewish families of that time. In order not to further upset his parents, Shayevitch wore his Hasidic gabardine and traditional cap up until the outbreak of the war.

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Pam Green says:

Where can one find these poems?

yidishkind says:

http://archive.org/details/lekhlekha00szaj You can read the poems in the original Yiddish here. I’m not sure if there has ever been a translation into English.

yidishkind says:

Thanks to Tablet for running this. Chava Rosenfarb’s scholarly articles and talks are extraordinary and deserve a wider audience just like her novels and poetry.

Ian Osborne says:

there should be an english translation – great art such as these poems and the writings of Primo Levi and others can take the individual to the heart of what individuals experienced and felt in these terrible times. The documentary approach can become mind-numbing in terms of the piling-up of dreadful statistics and does not always deliver the empathy which one person feels for one other person. Despite the awful scale of these crimes, their impact is best understood on an I to I basis and also felt most emphatically and deeply in this way through such works. The terrible helplessness of a father counselling his infant daughter to prepare for the end of a life that only just begun is both appalling as reality and breathtaking as art. These things must never be forgotten.

Goldie Morgentaler–Chava Rosenfarb’s daughter, curator of http://chavarosenfarb.com , and a professor of English at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada–writes:

Shayevitch’s poems in English translation can be found in “Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust.” Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1994; and in “The Golden Peacock: A Worldwide Treasury of Yiddish Poetry.” Ed. Joseph Leftwich. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1961. I know of no other translations.

Pam Green says:

Thank you!

The crimes committed on the Jews were horrendous and should never be forgotten however sometimes it appears that only the Jews were the victims of the Nazi’s insanity. This is simply not true. The first victims were Poles and three million were brutally killed. Among them were Polish intellectuals, aristocrats, artists, professors etc. Why there are no articles on that subject at all ?

This essay does not deny that Poles or others were also killed. It simply is not the subject of the essay. If there are not, as you say, any articles about the crimes committed against innocent Poles, you should write one. Those crimes are also horrendous. But will you mention in your essay the murder of three million Polish Jews, who were killed irrespective of age, political affiliation, or class? Some of them murdered not only by Nazis but by other Poles.

Gabriel Goodliffe says:

Indeed, as Tony Judt put it, during World War II in occupied Poland, a Pole, though it was difficult, could in principle survive. A Jew, though it was possible for him to survive, in principle could not.

David Mazower says:

A marvellous essay – thanks to Tablet for publishing it.

The full translation of Shayevitsh’s poem ‘Lekh-Lekho’, running to 448 lines, is available in David Roskies’ ‘The Literature of Destruction / Jewish Responses to Catastrophe’ (1989), a comprehensive study and anthology of this subject across centuries of Jewish history. The translation is by Elinor Robinson.

(There are no poems by Shayevitsh in Leftwich’s anthology ‘The Golden Peacock’, although it does include a couple of short poems by Miriam Ulinover, another writer mentioned in this essay).

Reb Moshe Waldoks says:

mamesh a gevald! We are still not able to comprehend even a bit of the great losses of the Shoah. The art and artistry of Polish Jews demonstrated the unique Jewish tension of particularism and the universalism.
The loss of our Yiddishe velt- our Yiddishe land -is tragic. But I am hopeful that stories like these will inspire our generation and the next to strive to an artistic expression that glorifies the possibilities of humanity towards the good and away from the savage.
in this time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we celebrate the creation of the universe and humanity as well as our capacities to re-create ourselves.
Let the memory of those who who sang in Yiddish continue to permeate our consciousness. mir zenen nokh do.

Thanks for the article. I have been aware of Szajevicz for several years thanks to Goldie Morgentaler. I have been studying literature and arts in the Lodz ghetto for a long time – and am working on an exhibition about the painter/poet Izrael Lejzerowicz. As it happened, I was blessed to read this piece while I was in Lodz a few days ago – which made it all the more meaningful.
One comment: One thing the editors could usefully have included – a general note at the end that includes the commonly used spellings and major variations of the Yiddish names in Roman characgters – this would help readers find out more about Szajevicz (Shayevitch) and Lejzerowicz (Leizerovitch) as well as Ulianover/Ulinover when they try to search in Google or at the Library of Congress, USHMM, the Bibliothèque Medem or other prominent repositories. I know from personal experience that it took me a very long time to figure out where to find their works in libraries. It would be a kindness to readers who are intrigued and curious. Perhaps the libraries should do this, but they often don’t.
William Gilcher, Israel Lejzerowicz Project, http://www.lejzerowicz.org

Pam Green says:

Thank you for setting this record straight. I purchased Truth and Lamentation on the recommendation of Matthew Fishbane (above) and there were only 96 lines of Lekh-Lekho included in that anthology.

Spring 1942 is published in the book: Lodz Ghetto, Inside a Community under Siege (the source book for the Documentary Film), compiled and edited by Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides. I read part 10 of that poem (which talks about Erev Pesach) at every Seder.

lumiss says:

Thank you Tablet for publishing this!

Elaine Cory says:

This was so illuminating and a testament to writers everywhere. No matter what the circumstances, this man wrote and wrote and told the truth. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

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The Last Poet of Lodz

The untold story of the great epic poem of the Holocaust—and the generous, tragic hero who wrote it