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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)

It was during this time that Shayevitch wrote his other poem, “Spring 1942.” There is nothing in this poem to indicate that he had allowed himself to be fooled by the lull in the deportations, or by the promises of the Germans or Rumkowski. On the contrary, his tone becomes even more somber and desperate than in “Lekh-Lekho.” Here is a fragment from “Spring 1942”:

And in a propitious hour—
Praised be the Lord—spring is here again.
The night blows into the silver horn
Of the young moon,
Teaching it a new song
In honour of spring, which this year
Was such a belated visitor.
And behold, like a camel, a mother carries
The hump of her load on her back,
While behind her straggle five little children—
Each one smaller than the next,
Bundled up in rags,
In tatters of shoes
Tied with string,
Heavy bread bags—
Beggers’ sacks—
Hang on their chests.
Exhausted they cannot walk any further,
So the mother hen,
Spreads her arms.
The oldest she leaves to his own devices,
The second she curses,
The third she pushes on from behind,
The fourth she implores,
The fifth she takes into her arms—
And soon she herself must stop, out of breath
Like a dying fish
With wide-open eyes,
Her mouth open,
While the load on her back,
And the child on her bosom
Swing on the scales of Fate,
Loaded down by maternal weights,
Up and down,
Back and forth.
Up and down,
Back and forth.

And in a propitious hour,
The miracle of revival occurs yet again,
And spring once more is here.
But in our ghetto
Nobody minds the hunger for bread,
That weeps from every human limb
And no one is frightened of Death
Who taps familiarly on every door,
Not skipping even one home.
But like abandoned trembling sheep
We teeter and flutter
In fear of the evil decree:
Exile into the unknown.
We tremble and flutter.
In fear of the secret Belshazzar writ:
To life or to death.

An old woman sees the hearse passing by
And sparks of envy light up her eyes:
“Fortunate creature, to have lived to such a moment.”
A young man says without bowing his head,
“One way or the other it makes no difference.”
A young bride spits three times,
“May the Angel of Death finally
become my groom.”
And even the child dragging itself on the road to exile
Turns up its tear-smeared face and stammers,
“Oh, Mameshie dear, I have no strength,
Oh, please, put me on the little black wagon.”

Written in blank verse, “Spring 1942” consists of various vignettes of particular people, or groups of people, juxtaposed against the background of the ghetto and the gray mass of ghetto inhabitants. Here no rhyme or measured rhythm stands in the way of the sweep of Shayevitch’s rage and despair. It is a haunting psalmodic chant. Shayevitch used this same style in the long epic poem that he was continually working on. In all the poetry that he wrote in the ghetto, Shayevitch seemed to be invoking the cadence of Jewish religious writing. The tone and imagery, as well as the simplicity of his words echo the tone and reflect the imagery and expression of scriptural texts, or the piyutim of the prayer books.

***

A summer of relative calm was followed by the early autumn of 1942. The month of September brought with it the Sperre, or house arrest. The Sperre lasted eight fateful days, during which Moloch swallowed almost all the children of the ghetto. Day after day the German guards, aided by the Jewish police, made mass selections in every courtyard. It was supposed to be a deportation limited to children under the age of 10 and old people over 60. But the Germans took whomever they pleased from the line-ups. While the selection was taking place in the yards, the Jewish police rushed from door to door to check that no one was hiding in the rooms. They chased whomever they found down into the yard to pass the inspection.

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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