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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)

For all his love of Poland, Szlengel did not spare the Poles. In a poem called “The Key at the Concierge,” he attacked those who served the Germans and plundered Jewish property. (He deliberately omitted this poem from his collection, at least, he wrote, until the passions the war had inflamed had subsided.) Nor did he exempt the Jews, particularly those pampered, indifferent Jews living blithely abroad, drinking orange juice every day as their European brethren were exterminated. In one poem, he writes of a mythical Jewish company in New York making a killing on the Yahrzeit candles that commemorate them.

But the real target of his ire is God. In one poem, he portrays him as a benevolent, clueless elderly man, exempted from wearing the ubiquitous Jewish armband and carrying a precious Uruguayan passport. In another, he castigates him for relegating his faithful flock to nooses and ditches and gas chambers, insisting that he won’t get away with it. God is in the dock, his “Chosen People” are the prosecutors, and his sentence is to share their fate.

And when the killers will have pushed you and forced you
And dragged, stuffed you into the steam chamber
And sealed the hatch behind you
The hot steam will begin to suffocate you, to suffocate you
And you will scream, you will try to run—
And after the torture of dying will have stopped
Then they will drag you out and throw you in a horrible pit
They will put your stars out—the gold teeth in your jaw—
And will turn you into ashes.

In an essay he called “What I Read to the Dead,” written as the ghetto’s numbers continued to dwindle in early 1943, Szlengel compared himself to the last man alive on a doomed submarine he’d seen once in a Soviet film, who scratched a final message to posterity as he gasped for breath. As all those with whom he’d performed, and those who listened to his poems, and all his neighbors and friends—each of them, as he put it, a co-author—were carted away, he, too, was suffocating.

“They will not be mentioned in any statistics, no memory of them will remain,” he predicted. “But for me these were living people, close to me, touchable. Their fate touches me more than the fate of Europe.” On an unseasonably warm February day in 1943, Szlengel looked through his poems. “I have read those verses to warm, living people,” he wrote. “People who believed in survival, in liberation, in tomorrow, in revenge, in joy, in reconstruction. Please read them. This is our history. This is what I read to those who died.”

His despair lifted briefly when the first Jewish resistance began. Suddenly, those Jews who’d shuffled off under the watchful eyes of dapper, vain, and sadistic Nazi soldiers were fighting back. Finally, the cattle had arisen; finally, the Germans knew fear. That prompted Szlengel’s most famous poem, “The Counterattack,” a work that exists in several versions, probably because it was often recited from memory.

We beg you, God, for a bloody battle,
We beg you for a violent death.
Let not our eyes, before they close,
See how the train drags, drags …
But Lord, make our hands hit the mark,
So that the steel-blue uniform reddens with blood.

His wishes were fulfilled that April, when the ghetto uprising began in earnest. Szlengel fought with the only weapon at his disposal, setting down what he saw. What then happened to him isn’t precisely clear.

“Yesterday evening, the poet continued to write his poems in which he sang of the heroism of the Jewish fighters and lamented the fate of the Jews,” another ghetto resident, Leon Naiberg, wrote in his diary on May 8, 1943. “This would be the last time, since the bunker belonging to Shimen Katz [where Szlengel was hiding] on Shvientoyreske 36, collapsed onto itself.” But another account has Szlengel apprehended, then marched off along with everyone else to the Umschlagplatz. He, too, then, may have wound up at Treblinka, his ashes mixed with his readers’.

Szlengel himself was gone, as was whatever he wrote in those final few weeks, but some of his other poems survived: those he’d handed off to his friend, those Ringelblum had preserved and would unearth after the war, still others he’d apparently stuffed into an old desk, to be retrieved 15 years later when the man who’d inherited it chopped it up for firewood. Some were published in Poland immediately after the war, but for many years they remained in a ghetto of their own, the victim of the language in which they’d been born.

“If he had written in Hebrew or Yiddish or German, he would be known,” said Henryk Grynberg, a Polish-born writer and scholar who first wrote about Szlengel in 1979. “The feeling is, ‘A Jew who writes in Polish is not a real Jew, so why should we support him?’ ” Grynberg has translated some of Szlengel’s work, as have Pawel Mayewski, Michael Steinlauf, Maria Lewitt, and Kassow himself, but few of those poems have migrated beyond the Internet. (The bulk of the translations in this essay come courtesy of Yala Korwin, a New York poet and visual artist who is originally from Lvov.) No volume of Szlengel’s poems in English exists.

In Hebrew, it’s different, thanks to Birenbaum. She settled in Israel after the war and for four decades believed that she was the only person alive who even remembered Szlengel’s words. Entirely by chance, someone on a kibbutz gave her the Polish edition of his poems. She pored over the slim volume; one after another, the words she’d memorized re-materialized before her—like dear friends she hadn’t seen for years, she wrote, or homes in which she’d once lived. She translated them and, in 1986, published them at her own expense. One was adapted by her son, Yaacov Gilad, for a song sung by the popular Israeli rock star Yehuda Poliker. Szlengel’s poetry has also become better-known in Poland, and there is now even a short entry on him in the Polish Wikipedia.

Szlengel’s paean to Joe Louis was neither his best nor his most prophetic work: The Brown Shirts emerged from that fight at Yankee Stadium in June 1938 as unscathed as the Brown Bomber. In light of what was to come, in fact, the poem seems poignantly naïve. Still, through it Szlengel had demonstrated far more graphically than I could have ever hoped something I’d been eager to prove, and I was in his debt. And when I set out to discharge that debt, I stumbled upon all these other, far more powerful and important poems. Forgotten they may be, but with them he gave me, and all of us, an even greater gift.

David Margolick, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, is the author of the upcoming Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of  Little Rock, scheduled for publication in October by Yale University Press, as well as Show of Shows, coming soon from Nextbook Press.

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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

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