Władysław Szlengel, a forgotten Polish Jewish poet who wrote a verse celebrating Joe Louis’ 1938 victory over Max Schmeling, was once a celebrated and searing voice of the Warsaw Ghetto
How is it that books, especially books on historic topics, take forever to finish? One reason is that long after authors have gathered more than enough material, we still research compulsively—ostensibly for that precious but maddeningly elusive last detail, in reality to postpone that moment when we must let go. So, we turn over ever smaller stones. And sometimes, miraculously, beneath them we find gold.
By 2003, I had spent more than five years researching an event lasting only 124 seconds: the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling heavyweight championship fight of June 22, 1938. Because the key actors in that drama—an African-American hero on the one hand and Adolf Hitler’s favorite boxer on the other—were dead, along with all of the ancillary characters and nearly all of the 70,000 fans on hand at Yankee Stadium that night, newspaper reports were key. And I read them copiously: white papers and black papers, American papers and German papers and French papers and South African papers, papers on the left (the Daily Worker had a sports section, thanks largely to interest in Louis) and on the right.
One paper I’d neglected, quite understandably, was Nasz Przeglad. It was the Polish-language paper in Warsaw favored by many of that city’s more assimilated Jews, but I wasn’t sure it was available in the United States, and besides, it was long-since defunct; this is what happens to a publication when most of its readers are murdered. But shortly before the book went to bed, I decided to take a look, via an English-speaking friend in Poland. One of my theses was that no one was more interested in the fight than the Jews: By taking on Schmeling, who had defended Hitler’s regime from the outset, Louis was just about the only man around who was standing up to Hitler. Certainly no European leaders were. Surely, I surmised, the fight would have been followed closely in Poland, which had the largest—and, outside of Germany itself, the most menaced—Jewish community in Europe. Throughout Central Europe that night, one needed only to have stayed up late (the fight’s opening bell rang at 4:00 a.m. Warsaw time), tuned in to the Deutscher Rundfunk, and understood German to follow what was going on at Yankee Stadium. The Nazis had their own announcer—Arno Hellmis, who doubled as a reporter for the party’s leading newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter—at ringside, doing the play-by-play.
Given the late hour, Louis’ electrifying first-round knockout of Schmeling came too late for the European papers of June 23. But sure enough, on June 24, Nasz Przeglad (it’s Polish for “Our Review”) devoted much of its front page to the fight, including a witty description of the inconsolable Hellmis’ fractured, indecipherable account, one that had left much of Germany bewildered about what had actually occurred. (Contrary to the mythology, the broadcast was not interrupted in mid-fight.) But most striking of all to me was a poem, set off in a large box on an inside page. It was titled “K.O.” and was dedicated to “the black man Louis who had defeated the German theory of racial superiority.” The author was named Władysław Szlengel, and its concluding, and by far most dramatic, stanza went as follows:
Hey, Louis! You probably don’t know
What your punches mean to us
You, in your anger, punched the Brown Shirts
Straight in their hearts—K.O.
It isn’t only novelists who fall in love with their characters. The same is true for writers of nonfiction, particularly if those characters have been misunderstood or forgotten—perhaps, subliminally, we hope that someday someone may do the same for us. One feels these things even more acutely with anyone who died prematurely or brutally or anonymously, robbed even of a fair chance at immortality. Who was Władysław Szlengel? When I first encountered him, I assumed he was just one more of the 6 million. Had anyone remembered him or his work, his name would certainly pop up in the card catalog of the New York Public Library, but it never had. Nor had he been mentioned in the pages of the New York Times. So, I resolved to bring him back to life. Even putting someone’s name in print can be a rescue operation; mentioning Szlengel in my book, and including a small portion of his poem, was the best and only homage I could pay. Mine turned out to be an imperfect tribute: I misspelled his name. Not surprisingly, no one corrected me. Virtually everyone who could have, died at the same time he did.
But much to my surprise, a friend who read my book—a student of Jewish Warsaw in the 1920s and 1930s—had heard of Szlengel. Belatedly, I did a Google search on him, and two things instantly became clear. First, he was not just another of Hitler’s faceless victims: His image, in a photograph he’d inscribed in September 1939, just a few days after Germany invaded Poland, suddenly appeared before me, a bookish and stern young man in a suit and tie, peering warily at the photographer from behind dark, round eyeglasses. And second, his poem on the fight was not some aberration but part of a much larger body of work, one that grew in sophistication and significance as his circumstances changed. Within three years, it turned out, Szlengel was to become one of the principal poetic voices of the Warsaw Ghetto.
“I don’t want to leave behind only statistics,” he explained in 1943, as the Nazis cleaned out the last remnants of Warsaw’s Jewish quarter. And he didn’t. His poems are among the most remarkable written testaments of the Holocaust, and yet, for a whole host of reasons, rooted in his chosen language and the sheer enormity of what happened and the nature of historic memory, almost no one knows them, or him. Szlengel would be famous if only he were not so completely forgotten.
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