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
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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