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’s wife Miriam had just given birth to a baby boy. His daughter, Blimele, had spent the previous day of the Sperre hidden in the wardrobe whose mirror her father had described in his farewell song to her. Her little brother, not yet named, was hidden in a drawer. Miriam was in bed, unable to get up. The Jewish police failed to search the room that day. So, the next morning Shayevitch hid his children in the same places. There was no food in the house. The Germans and their helpers had not yet arrived in the yard. Shayevitch heard from a neighbor that there would be a distribution of bread and potatoes at the nearest distribution outlet. So, he locked his family in the hut and ran out to join the queue for food. When he returned to the yard, he realized that the selection had already taken place. The door of his hut stood open. The room was empty. Miriam and the children were gone.
I met Shayevitch for the first time in the winter of the same year, less than two years before the liquidation of the ghetto, two years and eight months before he perished. I was 19 years old, a fledgling writer. He was a grizzled old man of 35, an established poet, a member of the writers’ circle, which at that time gathered at the home of the poet and painter Leizerovitch, since Miriam Ulinover and her husband had been taken away during the Sperre.
We met in a strange place called Die Wissenschaftliche Abteilung [the Scientific Department], whose director was the Rabiner Hirshberg, a reformed rabbi from Danzig. At the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung the work consisted of preparing exhibits in glass showcases that represented scenes from Jewish shtetl life in Poland. A team of artists and artisans fashioned various dolls out of papier-maché, clay, and metal scraps. The Germans required these showcases for “scientific” purposes.
The Rabiner was an extremely handsome and amiable man, who treated his staff with great respect. The general atmosphere of this quaint workplace was one of ease and friendliness. When I think back on it today, the entire enterprise seems enigmatic and a little odd. The nature of the Rabiner Hirshberg’s services to the Germans has remained a puzzle to me. But at the time, the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung held a particular attraction for creative people of all sorts, who were welcomed and shown around whenever they dropped in.
The Rabiner Hirshberg worked in his spare time on a Yiddish translation of the psalms. He had recruited me to check his Yiddish text, which he feared might be tarnished by his familiarity with German. Once in a while I would drop in to the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung on the pretext of needing some explanation with regard to the translation. In truth, I was burning with impatience to read a just-written poem to him. He was the only person to whom I could read my poems. He was knowledgeable, well-versed in European literature, a writer himself. I had great respect for his opinion and was grateful for what he taught me about the psalms and for the attention he paid to me as a budding poet. On this particular day I had dropped into his Abteilung to read a poem I had just written.
Shayevitch had come in to see the painter Leizerovitch, who worked as an artistic adviser to the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung. I recall Shayevitch wearing a woman’s coat with a long-haired fur collar. The coat did not impress me. People’s clothes had begun to disintegrate, and the fashion of the ghetto was geared to wearing whatever one could to keep warm. But the puffy face of the man I saw before me expressed such misery, such grief, that it pierced my heart and I could not take my eyes off him. His manner was abrupt, Hasidic, and awkward. He hardly glanced at me when the Rabiner introduced him to me as an important Yiddish poet. The Rabiner insisted that I read my latest poem to this guest, who, he said with assumed modesty, was more competent to appreciate my talent than he himself was. He also called Leizerovitch into his office. Leizerovitch, a humpbacked, dark-haired man, clad in a black cape that made him resemble a bird of prey, was the most severe literary critic in the ghetto. There, with bated breath, I read my poem for the first time to a literary public.
Shayevitch and I walked out of the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung together that day. He told me that this was the first time he had been out to meet people since the Sperre, when he had lost his wife and children. I asked him up to our room, and he met my parents and my sister. He soon became a friend of the family, and being someone’s friend meant to Shayevitch giving of himself all that he could, and more.
One day he asked me whether I would like to hear a poem he had just written. The shutters of his hut were closed when I arrived. I entered by way of the shed, which served as a kitchen. The entrance to the next room had no door. It was dark inside. He told me that he permitted no one to enter the next room and made me sit down in the kitchen beside a box that seemed to serve as a kitchen table. There I sat, huddled in my coat and shawl. The kitchen was dark and painfully cold. An icy draft seemed to rise from the clay floor. The walls were covered with ice that glistened and sparkled in the light of the candle on the box. His lady’s coat unbuttoned, Shayevitch busied himself about the kitchen and brought in another two chairs from the next room. One he broke up and fed to the fire in the stove. He put a blackened kettle filled with water on the burner. Then he placed his manuscript on top of the box. The manuscript was, as usual, written on bookkeeping paper, covered with ciphers on one side and with his rushed but beautiful handwriting on the other. He brought over two tin cups containing hot water sweetened with saccharine, moved the other chair close to the box and sat down to read his poem—the only poem that I can vaguely remember.
The name of the poem was “Israel Noble.” In it Shayevitch immersed himself in the state of mind of a young man who had tried to escape from the inescapable ghetto. It was a composite portrait of the few people who had tried this impossible feat. They had all failed and been hanged in the ghetto square, while the workers from the factories were forced to watch. Shayevitch named his hero Israel and gave him the family name Noble. The poem was a paean to inner nobility in the face of debasement, helplessness, and villainy. It celebrated the nature of the ghetto Jew, whose only means of resistance was through the spirit. The simple lines of the poem’s refrain have remained with me forever:
Ch’geher nisht keynem, keynem, keynem.
Bloyz ayer der goof, nor nisht di neshome.
[I belong to no one, no one, no one.
Yours is only my body, but not my soul.]
Soon, instead of running to the Rabiner Hirshberg with my newly written poems, I took to rushing before curfew to Shayevitch. Occasionally I would find him in the kitchen, washing his laundry in ice cold water, then hanging it on a cord above the stove. But most often he would be sitting bent over sheets of paper, working. If he happened to be eating his ration of soup as he worked, he would force a spoon into my hand and insist that I eat from his pot. This was the price I had to pay for making him listen to my poem.
In a haunting memoir, an Upper West Sider puts family secrets—including AIDS—under the microscope