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
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
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
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
“Cook with gas.”
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