The Last Poet of Lodz
The untold story of the great epic poem of the Holocaust—and the generous, tragic hero who wrote it
In his Orthodox attire, his innate shyness masked behind Hasidic mannerisms, he cut a strange figure at the meetings of the young Yiddish writers of Lodz, who gathered at the Under the Cup café to read and discuss their work. Unlike many other young Yiddish writers, he started his writing career with prose not poetry. He seldom read any of his stories to his friends, considering his work too weak to be appraised. A photo from this time shows him standing in his Hasidic garb in the company of a group of worldly young Yiddish writers. A robust young man of medium stature, Shayevitch has a round face, regular features, wavy dark-brown hair and thick eyebrows, which protrude over a pair of short-sighted eyes peering out from behind thickly rimmed glasses. His mouth is full, prominently outlined, and seems to be hiding a contented, guileless smile.
After his marriage and the birth of his daughter Blimele, he found little time to attend gatherings at Under the Cup. He was too busy with factory work, family, and writing. He was a homebody. Although his apartment reflected the state of the young family’s poverty and want, there was an air of neatness and contentment about it. The late writer Isaac Goldkorn wrote in his memoirs Lodzer portretn [Lodz portraits] (Tel Aviv: Hamenora, 1963) that Shayevitch’s family life was unusually harmonious and serene. He loved his wife Miriam and adored his little daughter.
It was during this time that colleagues close to Shayevitch finally managed to talk him into submitting his stories to the Yiddish press and his writings began to appear in print. The Yiddish literary establishment of Lodz considered him a promising talent, but saw nothing extraordinary in his work. A novel called The American was published in the 1930s, and another, On the Road to Blenkitna was due for publication by the Yiddish PEN Club on the eve of the war. It never appeared.
After the German conquest of Poland, Shayevitch moved his wife and child into the Lodz ghetto, where they occupied a gloomy dilapidated hut at 14 Lotnicza Street. The hut consisted of one room and a shed, which served as a kitchen. His parents and sisters found lodgings on another street. Finding himself without work and with no means of support, Shayevitch lived from the start under the threat of starvation. His worries were divided between two households, his parents’ and his own. He began to search frantically for something to do. Proud, shy, soft-spoken by nature, and always in doubt about his worth as a writer, he acquired a leonine ferocity in his struggle for his family’s survival. He knocked on doors, begged, pleaded, and boasted of his writer’s vocation in order to prove that he merited special treatment.
Until the beginning of 1941, he and his family lived on the handouts of Rumkowski’s social support department. There was little food in the house, but plenty of time to write. He switched from writing prose to writing poetry, because he must have felt that poetry would better express the state of his mind and soul.
He was granted the job of janitor and door-keeper at the Vegetable Place, the large yard where the vegetable rations were distributed to the ghetto population. On those days when the ration of a few turnips, carrots, and some potatoes was to be distributed, his duty was to stand at the gate and let in the starved ghetto inhabitants, a few at a time, from the line forming along the street. He had to endure the unbearable commotion made by the people trying to force themselves through the gate so as not to receive only the leftovers.
No words can better describe the torment he endured at that time than the letter he wrote to Rosenstein on Sept. 30, 1941, in which he complains that up to this point he has accepted his job with equanimity, although he has suffered abuse from both the consumers and the director of the Vegetable Place. The latter, writes Shayevitch, “accustomed to bygone times when a janitor would genuflect before his master, cannot bear the sight of me. Moreover, somebody has betrayed the secret of my being a Yiddish writer—and the director needs no better reason to deride me and make me the butt of his mocking laughter. It has taken a long time for me to get him to assume a proper attitude.” He next complains of the consumers who take advantage of his reluctance to abuse anyone physically: “They humiliate me, even to the point of shedding my blood. … It is enough to go through such an experience only once, and one remains scarred to the depths of one’s soul.”
Then he goes on to confess: “I swear to you that I have never in my life experienced such bitterness. In the month of Sivan my father died, and after 30 days so did my mother. And how it grieves my conscience that I could do nothing to save them! Now I am forced to watch my 5-year old daughter and my wife waste away. The child is frequently ill, while I haven’t got the slightest means (to save her).”
He also confides to Rosenstein, “I am in the process of writing a long poem about the ghetto. Our colleague, Mrs. Ulinover, pressed my hand, saying that the poem will be a monument to our experiences in the ghetto, and other such superlatives …”
He adds, “As you surely know, work in the Vegetable Place lasts from dawn until late in the evening. The people in my poem frequently flutter before my mind’s eye with their supplications; the more daring ones with bitterness and threats, while those who are the most highhanded lash my heart with bitter reproaches, ‘Why did you leave us? Why don’t you say, “let there be light” in our temporary chaos? You made little demons out of us.’ One such character, half monster, half clown, teases me, ‘Heaven forbid! You may not live to finish your work!’ ”
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