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