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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)

Shayevitch notes, “I am aware that the opinion expressed by some people is not altogether groundless, that here in the ghetto, everything is nitchevo [a Polish word meaning “nothing.”] But about this I beg to differ. One can with a clear head argue that precisely at this difficult hour, the greatest care should be given to culture.” He goes on to flatter Rosenstein: “I am convinced—no matter what opinion you yourself may have on the subject—that only you are capable of understanding my mood of depression and how empty I feel these days. You are the only person here, in the ghetto, who has an ear for even the thinnest sound of despair.” After many other compliments, he finally makes his plea that Rosenstein save him from both the material oppression and from the moral emptiness into which he has sunk. “Please,” he begs, “grant me the conditions to fulfill myself in accord with my potential. … Please trust in the possibilities dormant within me. Be you now in the role of the High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies to kindle the flame of the menorah. Oh, what a re-awakening you could bring about in my life! I believe in you, and once again, I believe in you.”

By the end of 1941, the situation in the ghetto had worsened. Helplessly, Shayevitch watched as one by one the members of his large family succumbed to disease and starvation. In addition, the mass deportations from the ghetto had started. The winter was merciless. There was no wood or peat briquettes to heat the houses. Some people grew so desperate that they joined the deportations voluntarily. It never crossed anyone’s mind that the road these voluntary deportees embarked on led directly to their annihilation.

Shayevtich found himself among those who were at the very bottom of the ghetto hierarchy, the poorest of the poor; those who were the first to be sent away. He knew that any day he too might receive “a wedding invitation”—as the ghettoniks called a summons for deportation—and together with his wife and child be ordered to join the procession of those headed to the place of assembly.

It was then that he put aside the long poem he had been working on and wrote “Lekh-Lekho.” In this poem he shows himself a prophet, intuitively feeling that these marches to the assembly place were marches toward separation and death. He opens the poem with the following words to his 5-year old daughter:

And now, Blimele, my child,
extinguish your childish joy,
the quicksilver river of your laughter,
and let us make ready for the unknown road.

Don’t raise your big brown eyes
to me so curiously;
and don’t ask why and what for
we must leave our home.

He asks Blimele to:

Put on the warm panties
that your mother mended
for you last night
as she sang and laughed,

Not knowing that this was
her last cheerful laughter,
like the cow that moos, unaware
of the knife in the slaughterer’s hand.

[…]

And now, Blimele, my child,
don’t smile at me with your little white teeth.
To take leave of our home
is all the time that we have left.

[…]

And although you are a little girl,
and whoever teaches the Torah to a daughter
is an unworthy man,
teaching her a sin,

The bitter day has come
when I must teach you,
my little girl,
the horrific section “Lekh-Lekho.”

But how can one compare that injunction
to the bloody lekh-lekho of today?
“And God said to Abraham,
‘Get thee out of thy land.’ ”

In the poem Shayevitch and his daughter take leave of their home and of every object in it that has become a witness to their former joys and present sorrows. The objects, having become registers of the family’s daily existence, expand the symbols. The lines of the father’s poetic monologue are spoken with the utmost simplicity, as one would speak to a child, yet he does not spare the child by hiding the terrible truth from her. The starkness of the language suggests the restraint of a scream stifled in silence. In the original Yiddish text the lines are rhymed with the most simple rhymes, falling into step with the lament hidden in the lilt of the rhythm.

Not long after this, Rosenstein did Shayevitch an extraordinary favor, thanks to which Shayevitch was able to continue writing his epic work about the Lodz ghetto. He found him a job at a “gas kitchen.” There was always a lack of firewood or peat briquettes in the ghetto, and coal was hardly ever available. So, it often happened that if a ghetto inhabitant did have something to cook in his pot, he had nothing to cook it on. The gas kitchens were communal rooms equipped with gas burners where for a few pfennigs some pieces of potato could be cooked or the soup ration warmed up. The function of the supervisor in such a gas kitchen was to keep order in the queue of people waiting with their pots, to watch the clock, and collect the money. Since he ran the kitchen, Shayevitch could write in the intervals between these activities. Amid the noise of the buzzing burners and sizzling pots and in the general commotion created by exhausted and impatient people, he composed his verses on a sheet of bookkeeping paper covered with print on one side but clean on the other.

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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!

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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