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