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Lost Words

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

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Władysław Szlengel in 1930; Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at their first fight, June 19, 1936. (Collage: Tablet Magazine; Szlengel photo: Zwoje; Louis-Schmeling photo: Library of Congress)

When half a million souls live in one small space, there will be many of everything, including poets, and in the Warsaw Ghetto there were presumably many of them. But none was as famous as Szlengel, whose poems both chronicled the annihilation of a people and buoyed them as it took place.

“The poems of Władysław Szlengel were read in the houses of the Ghetto and out of it, in the evenings, and were passed from hand to hand and mouth to mouth,” a survivor named Halina Birenbaum wrote in 1983. “The poems were written in burning passion, while the events, which seemed to last for centuries, occurred. They were a living reflection of our feelings, thoughts, needs, pain and merciless fight for every moment of life.”

Birenbaum first heard Szlengel’s poems as a 12-year-old in the ghetto, when her sister-in-law brought copies of them home from the factory in which she worked. By then, Warsaw’s Jews pretty much knew what lay in store for them: Before long, unless they died of disease or starvation beforehand, they would be rousted out of their apartments and cellars, crammed onto train cars at the Umschlagplatz, and sent to Treblinka, where they would be killed. There was little mystery about it. Szlengel’s words, she recalled, gave her hope: “That someone could write poems like this in the Ghetto meant that not everything was death.” Never did she set eyes on the man, nor, as far as I can tell, is there anyone still around who did. But she memorized his poetry, and later, in Majdanek and Auschwitz and after liberation, she carried it with her.

Among many other things, the Germans robbed the Jews of their biographies, and information about Szlengel is scant. The son of an artist, he was 24 years old and already relatively well-known around Warsaw when he wrote about Louis and Schmeling, having composed a variety of poems and songs, many of them satirical, for local cabarets. Unlike the majority of Warsaw Jews, who spoke Yiddish, he lived and wrote in Polish, an act of love for his native land and one that, as for most of Poland’s Jews, was rarely reciprocated.

“Szlengel reflected the sensibilities of the acculturated but unassimilated Polish-Jewish intelligentsia, caught between genuine Jewish pride and love of a Poland that would never extend true acceptance,” the writer Samuel Kassow stated in 2007 in his book, Who Will Write Our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, which contains the most comprehensive examination of Szlengel to date.

Szlengel’s poetry first appeared in Nasz Przeglad in 1937. While Louis’ victory over Schmeling the following year encouraged him momentarily, his other poems from that time, when Hitler threatened Europe with war, were filled with foreboding. In “Do Not Buy New Calendars,” written in January 1938, he wrote of his reluctance to tear off any pages, for fear of what might lie underneath.

I stare at the pages like at the blind fates.
Fear and dread are weighing me down.
This calendar is hiding thousands of cables,
Alarms from near and far.

A year later, in “The Frightened Generation,” those alarms had only intensified.

Will there grow a generation of frightened people
Whom every rustle would wake at night,
A clatter on the stairs, sound of a stranger’s voice
Would throw them into swells of panic and chaos,
People who lock their doors, ready to jump
When they hear someone is touching the door handle?

In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and in November 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed. Szlengel was among the nearly 400,000 Jews inside. Later, still more Jews from other communities joined them. He continued to write, now for the ghetto’s largest nightclub—even the doomed need distractions—known as “Café Sztuka,” or “Art Café.” It was a bizarre version of New York’s café society, catering to intellectuals in search of sophisticated fun, where various actors and musicians performed songs and sketches. The hero of the film The Pianist, Władysław Szpilman, sometimes played there. Szlengel’s entertainments, called “A Living Newspaper,” were the ghetto’s equivalent of the Daily Show: Topical takeoffs on the Nazis, on Jewish machers, and other risible realities behind the walls.

The satire was, of course, short-lived. In July 1942, the ghetto was thrown into panic as the Germans began shoving Jews by the tens of thousands on trains bound for Treblinka, 60 miles to the northeast. For a time, until it became morally unacceptable to him, Szlengel had belonged to the ghetto’s Jewish police force. Then, assigned to work in a brush factory, he continued to be spared the fate of so many of the others. But it took time to liquidate the ghetto, and for thousands of others, life went on. Szlengel kept writing his poems, first by hand, then typing them on carbon paper, so that they could circulate more easily. Often, he read them aloud to groups of Jewish factory workers. Others would copy and then recopy them: The grammatically incorrect Polish on some versions, Kassow notes, indicates that for some of those circulating them, Polish was not their native tongue. As conditions became more desperate, the impact of the poems grew. Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who led the massive effort to chronicle ghetto life by stashing away documents in cans he hoped would be unearthed after the war, called Szlengel “the poet of the Ghetto.”

Possibly because of his ties to the ghetto police, Szlengel never participated in, nor presumably even knew about, Oyneg Shabes, Ringelblum’s highly clandestine operation. Ringelblum evinced a certain disdain toward Szlengel’s poems, describing them as “artistically mediocre.” But Szlengel was among the luminaries Ringelblum profiled, and his poems were among the documents he and his 60 associates took pains to preserve. Ringelblum explained why: They “moved those who heard them to tears because they were topical, on problems that the Jews lived with and felt,” he wrote. Though theirs were very different tools, Szlengel and Ringelblum were in fact engaged in precisely the same work: creating a contemporaneous account of Warsaw Jewry’s final days, one that would stand up against the revisionists who would inevitably arise one day to say that their catastrophe was simply too fantastic to be believed. Their works are wonderfully complementary, for it is at their respective ends of the written spectrum—the one broad and detailed and hyper-literal, the other personalized and idiosyncratic and distilled—that the most irrefutable evidence may be found.

Continue reading: 1942, other fantasies, and “A Window to the Other Side.” Or view as a single page.

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Bennett Muraskin says:

Schmeling had a Jewish manager when he fought in the US–Joe Jacobs. Jacobs was kosher. Schmeling’s trained for the fight in the Catskills and ate kosher food.

Maybe that is why he lost. Louis stayed away from the stuffed derma in Lakewood, NJ.

Ruth Gutmann says:

I remember the Joe Louis vs. Schmeling fight (and Max Baer beating Schmeling) very well. Thank you, David Margolick.

I knew a Henryk Grynberg in 1950. He had come from So. Africa to Teachers College of Columbia University, and had been injured in WW II. I met him at a college summer meeting in the Poconos of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

David Margolick says:

Thank you for your reply, Mr. Muraskin. As I note in my book, Schmeling had a Jewish manager — whom he treat quite contemptuously — because in New York, it was simply good business for anyone from Nazi Germany to have one. Joe Jacobs was Schmeling’s hecksher. It was strictly pragmatic — in no ways a sign of courage.

It is very impressive.

What a powerful article…it brings suffering of the Jews in the Warshaw ghetto to life and reinforces the necessity of never forgetting….

Lori Beth Hirsberg says:

What an interesting article. I could not put it down!

Dolores says:

I was a student at P.S. 94, The Bronx, when Louis beat Schmeling, living in a neighborhood with first generation American or immigrant Jews (among others), and we celebrated for days at the defeat, via sports, of a symbol of the Nazis by someone representing the unacceptable peoples renounced by Nazism. It brings to mind Jesse Owen’s remarkable Olympic victory and,to move to popular culture, to Bess Myerson’s victory as a Miss America who was Jewish–both of which I remember well from elementary school days. Thanks for bringing us in touch with others, unknown to us then, who also celebrated Joe Louis’ victory. Alas, most of them are not here today to join me in remembering.

Dear Mr. Margolick,
I finished this article with tears in my eyes. Thank you, thank you, for resurrecting the tragic, beautiful words of Wladyslaw Szlengel, like Bruno Schulz, largely unknown by the Jewish world because he wrote in Polish. The words of “The Counterattack” are burned on my heart. You’ll have to excuse me now, I have to go look up more of his work.

James Rugen says:

David,

I have no words other than to thank you for opening this door for me. What is more powerful than words? Szlengel’s . . . and yours.

J/

Thank you for resurrecting Szlengel. One factual error: “those (poems)Ringelblum had preserved and would unearth after the war.” That would have been impossible since Ringelblum, along with his wife and their twelve-year old son, Uri, were executed by the Germans on March 7, 1944.

yehudah says:

david – wonderful piece.

When the fight took place I was still living in Germany and was puzzled by the headline on the frontpage of the VOLKISCHER BEOBACHTER

When the fight took place I was still living in Germany and was puzzled by the headline on the frontpage of the VOLKISCHER BEOBACHTER which proclaimed : SCHMELING MIT FLIEGENDEN FAHNEN UNTERGEGANGEN! Translated loosely it told us that he “went down with flags flying” I went home and asked my father what the meaning of that phrase was—and that was my introduction to idioms ! He also said some other things which I will not repeat !!

Ellen Petschaft Berrios says:

Szlengel is my dad’s cousin. Thank you for keeping his memory alive! As his family, we feared that most of his legacy had perished, but through the internet, we are learning just how many people he impacted with is powerful words and for this, we are eternally grateful.

Ellen Petschaft Berrios says:

I am here to tell you that my father’s cousin, the Ghetto Poet, is not forgotten! He is remembered dearly by his family and one of his friends memorized his poetry so she could share it with the world. In fact, I was at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem this morning and broke down when I saw that they had a segment on him as a part of a film and also a bio with some photos and a handwritten poem by him. He is forever linked to Jewish history. If you would like some photos of him, I have many and would be happy to share. Thank you for writing about him. My father and aunt appreciate it as much as I do.

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Lost Words

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