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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)

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.

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, standing, second from left, in a pre-World War II photo.

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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Pam Green says:

Where can one find these poems?

yidishkind says: 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 , 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,

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!


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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