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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)

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.

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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!

Elaine Cory says:

This was so illuminating and a testament to writers everywhere. No matter what the circumstances, this man wrote and wrote and told the truth. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

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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