Archive for July 16th, 2011

David Margolick, Henryk Grynberg, Władysław Szlengel: “There are hearts that do not die.”

Saturday, July 16th, 2011
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Władysław Szlengel: "Goodnight. Goodbye."

Heavyweight fighting is not normally my thing, but I became interested in it, briefly, a few years back with the publication of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink. The book tells of the 1938 fight between the German Max Schmeling and the African-American Joe Louis.  (FYI, Louis won, handily.)

The reason for my interest was its author.  David Margolick and I go back  – several decades, at least.  We both worked at the Michigan Daily – but in that incarnation, he was a photographer, and a very good one. He went on to study law at Stanford, before he launched a career as a legal columnist at the New York Times and then a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. I had a chance to write about him a few years back.

Given my interests, naturally I zeroed on to his brief reference, on pp. 324-25, to Władysław Szlengel, the poet who had written about the fight in a Jewish daily:

He Louis! You probably don’t know
What your punches mean to us
You, in your anger, punched the Brown Shirts
Straight in their hearts – K.O.

David and I discussed the poet, who died in the Holocaust, during our phone conversation.  Apparently, Szlengel continued to intrigue Dave after the phone call was over.  He wrote about him in in the recent issue of Tablet, “Lost Words” (read it here).

Who was Władysław Szlengel?  When I first encountered him, I assumed he was just one more of the 6 million. Had anyone remembered him or his work, his name would certainly pop up in the card catalog of the New York Public Library, but it never had.  Nor had he been mentioned in the pages of the New York Times.  So, I resolved to bring him back to life.  Even putting someone’s name in print can be a rescue operation; mentioning Szlengel in my book, and including a small portion of his poem, was the best and only homage I could pay.  Mine turned out to be an imperfect tribute: I misspelled his name.  Not surprisingly, no one corrected me. Virtually everyone who could have, died at the same time he did.

The Felstiners (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I passed on David’s Tablet article to two friends, John and Mary Felstiner, who have written about the Jews “creative resistance” to the Holocaust, which they expressed in graffiti, cabaret shows, poems, paintings and concerti  – I wrote about it here.  Had they heard of Szlengel?  John’s reaction was enthusiastic: “Thanks so much, Cynthia! This is terrific, right down our alley, as you know. Now that you send it, I recall his name very well. But no, we didn’t come across him this time or I’d surely have found a place in our lecture and courses! It almost makes me want to do the course again!”  Let’s hope he does.

The Tablet article evoked a few other associations.  David mentions the work of Henryk Grynberg, who was also one of my contributors in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.  Henryk commented, “If he [Szlengel] had written in Hebrew or Yiddish or German, he would be known … The feeling is, ‘A Jew who writes in Polish is not a real Jew, so why should we support him?”

Henryk wrote about Szlengel his 1979 article, “The Holocaust in Polish Literature,” published in the Notre Dame English Journal:

Szlengel left several poetic accounts of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.  In his poem “A Note from the Daybook of the Action,” he describes the famous procession of the Janusz Korczak orphanage to the Umschlagplatz, referring to the situation as a “Jewish war … fought for life” and “a combat where death does not bring any glory.” He calls Korczak “the proud soldier, defender of orphans” who fought to the very end.

Both articles are well worth a read, though David can be a little heavy-handed and uneven in his knowledge of Poland and the Holocaust, its complexities and the range of human responses it evoked.  But the article can’t fail to impress.

The most haunting poem he cites is “The Telephone”:

Henry Grynberg: a "Jewish war ... fought for life"

He longs to call someone outside the ghetto … 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.