The Last Poet of Lodz
The untold story of the great epic poem of the Holocaust—and the generous, tragic hero who wrote it
The 23rd and 24th chapters of Shayevitch’s epic were devoted to the deportation of his wife and children. They were written in the summer of 1943, a year after the event. He read them to me in the room he had previously forbidden me to enter. The furniture of the room was missing, having gone for firewood. There was nothing left but the two beds. Shayevitch made me sit on Blimele’s small bed and he sat down beside me on the floor. He read and wept, sobbing loudly as he read. Yet I could have understood his words if I had wanted to. Only an image here and there—like Blimele’s doll, lying on the floor after she had been taken away—cut into my consciousness, despite my unwillingness to listen. I wept with him and was terribly frightened.
Fear was our daily companion. By then the broadcasts of the clandestine Polish radio station, Swit, which were listened to in hiding by the members of the ghetto underground, had begun transmitting news of what was happening to the deportees. If Shayevitch, like the rest of us, nurtured any hope of his own survival, he allowed no trace of that hope to enter his epic, although his belief in the continuation of Jewish existence was never in question. Whenever, at a future time, I tried to be brave and force myself to listen to his newly composed chapters, they would disturb and depress me so completely that I blotted them out of my mind as soon as I heard them. I was young. I wanted to live. It was enough for me to write my own ghetto poems. Absorbing his, which were so much more disturbing than my own, was more than I could take.
Shayevitch had all kinds of strange acquaintances for whom his door always stood open. He befriended the neighbors in his yard, performed all kinds of services for them, and fed them words of encouragement. He fetched the food rations for the sick lonely men or women who had lost their families to disease or deportation, and more than once I saw him share parts of his food with a child miraculously saved from the Sperre. He seemed to do these things spontaneously, without great effort, with pleasure. Steeped in the Talmud and the Kabbalah as he was, he belonged to that type of modern Jew and freethinker whose mannerisms and idiosyncrasies spring from his former deep religiosity while his conduct, like a conditioned reflex, responds to the ethical precepts of the Jewish faith. His generosity to friend and stranger alike often meant that he himself had to go without.
One by one he lost his teeth until he had only two front teeth left. He still worked at the gas kitchen, which was noisy and packed with people, who now came more frequently to cook water rather than soup. They would chatter away about their daily cares and about past and pending deportations. He could no longer write in peace there. In any case, he preferred to listen to people talk in order to better recapture the authenticity of their dialogues in his work. Since he lived alone, there was no one to prevent him from working at night. His eyes, behind the heavily rimmed glasses grew red and swollen. Soon his limbs began to swell. His heart became affected. He was running out of breath, running out of strength.
I was teaching Polish to an influential tailor who supervised a tailor workshop in a camp for Polish youths outside the ghetto. My payment was a sandwich with a piece of sausage. An illiterate but kindly man, my student urgently needed to be able to communicate with the imprisoned young Poles. Thanks to his position he lived in the ghetto in virtual luxury. There was no lack of food in his house. This master tailor had a great respect for learning and for people who could write. He became a patron of the arts in the ghetto. There was always a line of all kinds of intellectuals, artists, and writers in front of his kitchen door. I interceded with my tailor student on Shayevitch’s behalf. But it took a great deal of urging and pleading to talk Shayevitch into placing himself in line for a slice of bread.
During the winter of 1943-44, I frequently found Shayevitch in bed when I came to visit him after work. He could barely drag himself to his feet. His entire body began to swell.
When the summer came, rumors began to circulate of the total liquidation of the ghetto. The ghettoniks refused to believe the rumors. How could the German Reich survive without our factories? But the rumors persisted. There was no longer any doubt that, if not total liquidation, the ghetto was facing a deportation on a massive scale. With a sudden surge of strength Shayevitch came to life. He started to compile a list of all the Yiddish writers in the ghetto and was ready to submit it to one or another influential dignitary so that none of his colleagues would receive a “wedding invitation.” But the moment the list was finished, he tore it up. No one person’s life was worth more than that of another.
As the summer neared its end, it became clear that the total liquidation of the ghetto was imminent. Shayevitch masterminded a plan of concealment. We could hide in our apartment by camouflaging the door dividing our kitchen from the small bedroom. But we packed our rucksacks anyway. Shayevitch rammed all his manuscripts into his bread sack.
When the fateful day came and the Germans entered the ghetto, cordoning off one block of houses after another, my family, Shayevitch, and a group of our closest friends managed to hide in the bedroom of our flat, its existence hidden by a large bureau in front of the door. We were 11 people crammed into that one small room. We managed to avoid discovery for three days. On the 28th of August 1944 we were found and loaded onto cattle cars headed for Auschwitz.
Shayevitch’s bread sack was the first thing torn from his hand as soon as we were deposited on the ramp of the train station at Auschwitz. The sheets of paper containing the poems I had written in the ghetto were likewise thrown onto a heap of discarded photographs and papers. The men were separated from the women and the selection began. I never saw my father or Shayevitch again.
After the liberation, when I was still at Bergen-Belsen, I met people who had been with both my father and Shayevitch at Camp Kaufering—one of the death camps associated with Dachau—where they had been sent from Auschwitz. From them I heard that Shayevitch had composed poems even in the camp and had recited them to the inmates in the barracks. I was also told that he had been sent “to the ovens” during the last selection at the camp, while my father perished two days before the liberation. An American bomb fell on the train in which he and other camp inmates were riding during the forced evacuation of the camp.
I feel a bittersweet sense of gratification at the thought that at least some of Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch’s work has survived; that there exists at least something tangible and verifiable to support my praise of him, something never to be altered or deleted from history. The two poems found on the heap of garbage in the ghetto made their way into print and are thus imperishable. I am grateful to fate, which in the guise of accident, has allowed these poems with their Jeremiah-like cri du coeur to reach us “from the other side,” so that those who were not there might have some idea of what it meant to live in the horrific reality of the Lodz ghetto.
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