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