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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)

Delighted with his new position, Shayevitch wrote a letter of thanks to Rosenstein, dated Feb. 10, 1942:

Very Distinguished and Dear Mr Rosenstein:

As an expression of deep gratitude, my trembling hands offer bikurim [first fruits] as a gift to you—the lengthy poem “Lekh-Lekho.”

As I once told you, we have no choice but to do as the troubadours, the minnesingers and our own Broder singers did: to disseminate our song by ourselves; to turn ourselves into preachers who go among the people with their sermons. It is a matter of great grief that the people, ourselves included, have more important worries on their minds.

It would give me great pleasure to hear your opinion of my writing. I consider you a partner in everything that my feverish heart produces. Let all our merits stand by us, so that one day I may dedicate my joyful Yiddish poem to you. May we and the rest of the people of Israel live to see the hour of complete salvation. Amen.

PS. On this occasion I take the liberty of reminding you about Hoffman. Perhaps it is possible to find some work for him.

I would never have believed Shayevitch capable of such flattering letters. He was a humble man, soft-spoken and magnanimous. He endured much suffering, but there was in his nature an undercurrent of passionate pleasure in life and a hunger for joy. Little was required to bring him to a state of Hasidic exultation. There was always a quiet dignity about him, a sense of pride and self-respect. In the ghetto, his sense of pride as an individual seemed to expand into a collective pride as well. He would grow heated when he spoke of the injustices committed in the ghetto by Jews against Jews. As long as I knew him, he never wanted to have anything to do with members of the ghetto’s privileged elite. I never saw him plead with anyone for anything.

So, it is obvious to me that it was not for his own sake that he humiliated himself by flattering Rosenstein, but for the sake of his wife and child, and for the sake of the writer within him. Nevertheless, his praise of his benefactor sounds genuine. He must have hit the deepest level of despair after the death of his parents, when his wife and child were ill and he himself could not find a single moment to release the pent-up anguish of his heart by writing. Perhaps Rosenstein was a father substitute, a more powerful figure than his own late father—a patron who could work miracles and elevate the poet to a spiritual re-awakening. Rosenstein was an older colleague, a fellow writer, a kindred soul. I suspect that, feeling lost and forlorn, Shayevitch badly needed a powerful protector-friend who was understanding and generous, to whom he could lay bare his soul. In such a case it would be easier to stifle pride and resort to begging, since Rosenstein valued and respected him as a writer.

Shayevitch’s kind-heartedness can also be seen in the fact that no sooner was his own problem solved than in the same letter of thanks, he pleads with Rosenstein on behalf of his colleague Hoffman, a young Yiddish writer, who soon after died of tuberculosis.

In the meantime the ghetto inhabitants survived on more than just starvation rations. A multitude of idiomatic expressions, sayings, jokes, wisecracks, and songs circulated from mouth to mouth, vividly reflecting the people’s spirit of resistance and defiance. As the cultural life of the ghetto began to flourish, political parties organized underground networks. All kinds of discussion and self-education groups sprang to life. The Lodz ghetto began to swarm with writers and poets. The group of established Yiddish writers met in the home of Miriam Ulinover, the poetess mentioned in Shayevitch’s letter. Before the war, Miriam Ulinover had published collections of nostalgic poems full of picturesque charm, describing traditional life in Jewish homes. A dainty gray-haired matron with a heart full of warmth and tenderness, she was adored by her colleagues. Solemnly they gathered in her room in the ghetto to read and discuss their works in her presence.

Fate had been kind to Shayevitch and his family during the pitiless winter and spring evacuations of 1941-42, when 60,000 Jews were sent out of the ghetto straight to Chelmno, where the Nazis employed the still primitive technique of letting Zyclon B gas into buses crammed with people. A short period of respite followed in the ghetto. Now that those “unproductive elements” were gone, Rumkowski promised “his” Jews that there would be no further evacuations, that the ghetto would be transformed into a factory town that would “tick like a clock,” producing goods for the Germans. The ghetto would be so indispensable to the German Kriegswirtschaft that the Jews would survive the war in peace and quiet. Factories were in fact built. The Jews labored there for 12 hours a day. At the same time the clique of the “King’s favorites,” the so-called ghettocracy, established itself and grew into a powerful caste, while the rest of the population died of such “natural” causes as starvation, dysentery, and tuberculosis.

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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