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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)

Often, as if in order to prepare me, he spoke about the major work he was in the process of creating. One day he hesitantly asked whether I would be willing to hear him read the 20 chapters of his epic that he had by then composed. I soon regretted that I had acquiesced to his proposal. Unlike the reading of his other poems, the reading of this one was transformed into a sort of morbid ritual. It would take place on the day when he had picked up his food and firewood or peat ration. He always wore one of his washed shirts for the occasion. His hair was combed. He would light not one but two candles, seat himself on the floor and begin to recite the chapter of his work in a hasty slurping voice, as if he were a pious Jew rushing through a prayer. He often broke into sobs, and his hoarse voice began to crack. As he raced through the lines, his torso bent lower over the sheets of paper on his knees and his entire body, like Laocoon’s, seemed to writhe with pain. It was torture to watch and listen to him.

Once he finished reading, he would smile a faint crooked smile, rise to his feet, and serve the babka of ersatz-coffee leavings that he had prepared and two cups of water sweetened with saccharine. We talked about everything in the world except his reading. He wanted to hear no criticism. He was fully aware of the power of what he was writing. The text was too sacred to him. He would not allow it to be taken as mere “literature.” For my part, I was so troubled and frightened by what I heard that I wanted to escape that gloomy room as soon as I could. I wanted to blot out the lines and rhythms that haunted me. I wanted to erase them from my memory.

Like some of his other lengthy poems, this long work took the form of a chronicle of ghetto life. It was filled with the portraits of individuals against the backdrop of daily life in the ghetto. With utmost simplicity he described everyday ghetto events and ghetto scenes. He described peoples’ clothes and the objects that were part of their daily lives in such a way that they acquired enormous symbolic significance, thus recreating the unearthly, phantasmagoric atmosphere of the ghetto. Image after image of the commonplace, seemingly trivial ghetto reality was soaked in the anguish, the hunger, the fear, the pain of separation and loss of dear ones, so that it swelled into unfathomable dimensions of suffering. A biblical atmosphere permeated the entire text, heightening the sense of cataclysm that lurked in the heart of each ghetto inhabitant. In some of the chapters the wretched ghettonik took on the appearance of Job in the throes of Fate. Abandoned by his fellow Man, abandoned by his God, he nevertheless clung with hope to both Man and God, alternately cursing and praising them. In other chapters an unspeakable silence hovered over the lean lines—a mute scream against ineffable evil, the scream of a worm lost in a maze of debasement, but a worm who despite its inability to speak was still human, still had dignity, even though it was doomed—under empty skies, surrounded by an indifferent earth—to be squashed by the boot of destruction. I can recall very vaguely that Shayevitch continued with the motif he had begun in “Lekh-Lekho,” reproducing the life cycle of a conjugal bed as it listened to the intimate whispers of two lovers, witnessed the birth of a child, comforted a body ravished by hunger and disease, and finally was consecrated to the altar of the stove fire so that a meal of turnips and water could be cooked in its flames.

The author visiting Lodz, c. 1946, indicating the house in the ghetto where she lived

The author visiting Lodz, c. 1946, indicating the house in the ghetto where she lived.

Shayevitch took me along to meet the other Yiddish ghetto writers at Leizerovitch’s apartment studio, the walls of which were hung with the latter’s paintings of the ghetto. There we would gather, sometimes once a week, sometimes every other week. Occasionally there was a long lapse in our gatherings because of some extraordinary events taking place in the ghetto, such as a prolonged period of deportations, which, on a smaller scale, went on continuously. But hunger alone was never a good enough reason to prevent us from getting together. The presence of a roomful of people made the cold bearable, and then there was always a fire going in the iron oven. Leizerovitch had it better than the rest of us. In exchange for a loaf of bread, he painted portraits for Rumkowski and the other dignitaries and even for the Germans who worked in the Red House of the Criminal Police. Bread had the value of gold. Leizerovitch could sell parts of his bread on the black market and buy other necessities. There was always a piece of babka cake made, not from the remains of ersatz coffee but from potatoes and genuine flour, which we each consumed with a hot cup of ersatz coffee.

There the writers read their work, which was later discussed and critiqued. Leizerovitch was the most analytical and severe. He believed that Jewish creativity in the ghetto must live up to the demands of those apocalyptic times. Nothing short of excellence was good enough for him. He abhorred self-pity or melodrama. He knew that with his crippled body, he did not stand a chance of surviving a selection, and that it was only thanks to his work for Rumkowski and the Germans that he had been temporarily spared. No doubt this was the reason that he put such demands on himself and his colleagues.

Shayevitch would read chapters of his major work to Leizerovitch in private. He seemed to enjoy provoking his criticism. But he was reluctant to read any fragment of it to the entire writers’ group. He read other poems instead, those that were the by-product of that work, or fragments that he could not fit into it. But everyone knew that something great and wonderful was in the process of being created, and his colleagues insisted that he read his work in progress. I recall him complying with this demand only once, on condition that there be no discussion after his reading. I remember the silence that followed the reading and the air of total despair that filled the room afterwards. We quickly turned to the babka cake and the coffee, as if seeking resuscitation from the blows of his stanzas.

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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