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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)

Between July and September 1942, more than a quarter million Jews in Warsaw were deported to Treblinka. Sometime late that year, Szlengel assembled his poems, alternately poignant, outraged, anguished, and defiant, into a collection he titled A Cry in the Night, and smuggled it to a friend on Warsaw’s “Aryan” side. In an introduction he wrote

These poems, written between two upheavals,
Between the end of July and September
Nineteen forty-two,
Shortly before the destruction
Of the largest Jewish community in Europe,
Are dedicated to those who gave me heart
In times of all-consuming chaos,
Who, within the whirlpool of events,
The random, dance-like ritual of death,
Cared not for money or even themselves,
But for the last of the Mohicans,
Whose entire wealth and only weapon
Were words.

Some of his verses, presumably written in the ghetto’s early days, are almost unbearably sad. In “The Telephone,” Szlengel is at work, sitting by a phone—which, remarkably enough, remains connected. He longs to call someone outside the ghetto, only to realize that there is no one left to call: He and his gentile friends had taken separate paths once the walls went up. So, he dials the number Warsaw residents always called to get the time, wondering if its recorded voice, at least, remembers him. And she does, or appears to: 10:53 p.m., she tells him cheerily. Then, as she ticks off the minutes in the background, more than an hour’s worth of them, Szlengel summons up his former life in free, urbane, prewar Warsaw—watching Gary Cooper at a local movie theater, passing newsstands and neon lights and tramcars and sausage vendors, looking on as young lovers walk arm-in-arm along Nowy Swiat. And as his mind wanders through that world, tantalizingly near yet utterly inaccessible, he continues to listen gratefully to the pleasant-sounding woman at the other end of the line.

How nice to talk like this
With someone–no fuss, no pain …
You’re so much nicer than
The lovely women I’ve known.

I feel much better now–
There’s someone over there,
Someone who listens even though
He belongs to the other side.

Keep well, my faithful friend,
There are hearts that do not die.
Five to twelve–you say.
Yes, it’s late. Goodnight. Goodbye.

Similarly, in “A Window to the Other Side,” he stares out of his factory—itself an offense punishable by death—onto the Krasinski Gardens, where until only recently old Jews had gone to argue and Jewish children could play without fear that the Polish children would bully them, and then beyond it to the magical, nocturnal city, bathed in moonlight.

Having thus seen enough
For days, and for tomorrow,
I raise my magic arms:
Speak up, Warsaw. I’m here.

And lo … a thousand pianos
Open their stagnant lids,
And as if ordered, rise,
Heavy, resigned, and sad …

A Chopin polonaise
Flows from a thousand keys,
Into the tortured night
Notes fly like hungry birds …

Enough … I drop my arms.
The polonaise is done.
I turn again within.
There is no outside.

He has other fantasies. In one, Nazi guards look on aghast as Szlengel wanders up to the ghetto wall in a top hat and tails. In another, he dreams of liberation, when women will again wear lipstick and mascara. And of an assignation with someone else’s wife—though Szlengel was married, he rarely writes about his own—in which, at the moment their lips touch, all the bullets and grenades in the world suddenly hang motionless, the ghetto factories stop production, the informers cease to inform. In yet another, he ponders the new Jewish holiday that one day will commemorate what they all were enduring, during which survivors will gather in cellars like the ones in which they hid, and pray and celebrate and weep while their children scoff at recollections which to them sound as preposterous as those tales of Moses parting the Red Sea. And when the holiday ends,

All of them, old and young, will come out
Into daylight, a better and new world
It will be safe and light.
Holy supper will be served—

With swastika and plentiful honey.

As the deportations began and accelerated, such flights of fancy largely cease, and the mood turns sepulchral, infuriated, fatalistic. “The Monument” is a tribute to a very ordinary woman (“Was she good? Not very/ She was often quarrelsome and moody”) deported to her death, whose husband and son come home one evening to find only her parting gift: a cold pot on the stove. “Things” traces how the Jews’ inventory of possessions diminishes as they move to ever-smaller quarters, until, embarked upon on the “Jewish road”—aboard the trains to Treblinka—they own only water and cyanide. In “Janusz Korczak: A Report,” he watches the famous leader of Warsaw’s Jewish orphanage escort his children—“Washed and neatly dressed/ As for a Sunday stroll in the park”—to the Umschlagplatz. And he wrote about where they, and everyone else, were destined.

The journey lasts, sometimes
Five hours and 45 minutes,
But sometimes it lasts
A lifetime until death.

The station is tiny.
Three fir trees grow there.
The sign is ordinary:
It’s the Treblinka station.
No cashier’s window,
No porter in view,
No return tickets,
Not even for a million.

There, no one is waiting
And no one waves a kerchief,
And only silence hovers,
Deaf emptiness greets you.

Only an old poster
With fading letters
Advises:
“Cook with gas.”

Continue reading: “This is our history,” Jewish resistance, and the real target of his ire. 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