“What I Read to the Dead”: John and Bogdana Carpenter translate Warsaw Ghetto poet Władysław Szlengel


SzlengelWładysław Szlengel was part of Warsaw’s literary scene in prewar Poland.  As a doomed Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, he read his poems to friends, but longed to communicate with those outside the ghetto.

Now he has.  Journalist and author David Margolick has written about him – and the eminent translating team of John and Bogdana Carpenter have translated his works in the Fall/Winter 2012-13 issue of Philip FriedThe Manhattan Review (its website is here).  “In 1942 and 1943 Szlengel wrote with increasing speed. He called his writings ‘poem-documents’ and ‘a poetry of fact,’ but these words should be taken with many grains of salt,” they write. “His sense of irony had evolved into something new, very powerful and tragic. More artistic development, and change, were compressed into the last years of his life than most writers achieve in a lifetime.”

The cover notes the “Poems from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” but it’s the 13-page story that caught my eye.  “What I Read to the Dead” is a terrifying account of the German Aktion (a German euphemism for the massacres) of January 1943.  Szlengel would die in the early days of the Uprising a few months later.

Szlengel describes himself as “the chronicler of the drowning men”:  “For the past few days I keep remembering a scene from a Soviet play whose title I don’t remember. The crew of a submarine doesn’t want to surrender to the Whites and sinks to the bottom. Sixteen heroic sailors wait in vain for help.  Last image: lack of air, death hovering over the sunk submarine.  Six, ten, then fifteen crewmen suffocate. The sixteenth wants to leave – somehow – a record of the annihilation of the crew. But he doesn’t magnify the sacrifice.  After all what is so important in a nation of many millions if a handful of men dies?  Perhaps they perished for a great cause, but the number of sacrificed lies was ridiculously small. Just sixteen!  So what?  In a last effort he lifts his hand and writes with a piece of chalk on the steel wall of his tomb: 200,000,000 minus sixteen.  He subtracts sixteen unimportant existences from two hundred million. It’s done, it’s all that will remain in history.  Numbers.  Statistics.”

Szlengel describes, at first in euphemism (“passed away”), later to the brutal reality of the Aktion.  An excerpt:

During these four days the next-to-last wave of my readers passed away. All those who barely a week ago listened to my poems and the strange adventures of Meier Mlynczyk on the island-barrack of Schultz passed away. The listeners at my liteary evenings of the “broom-makers” passed away, also the closet roommates, neighbors, friends, companions in discussions, often involuntary co-authors of the contents of this volume.

Fania R., who would say “Merde” for good luck before each of my appearances at a performance, who knew many stories about Curie-Sklodowska and Professor Rous, has left, miserable and cold in a sealed freight car.

Gone are my roommates, funny Juzio who slept in a woman’s pajamas and a woman’s stockings, not to produce ambivalent effects but simply because he had nothing else. Gone is his energetic wife who fled the Umschlagplatz [point of departure to the death camps – ED.] with a bullet wound in her back, only to return to the Platz for a second time after five months of hunger and a stubbon struggle for some means to escape to “the others.” She didn’t make it.

Gone is the beautiful Ida L., image of health and the will to live, just last week – damn it!!  You feel like clenching your fists.

I saw the corpse of Asya S. who provoked me to write a second optimistic version of the poem “Let Me Alone.” Gone. And tomorrow, my God tomorrow or the day after, as our secret sources report, the German orgy is supposed to be repeated – how many more will die.  It is to early to make the final account. But I am constantly tortured by the living specters, close to me, of those who were here just the other day, who were confident and at the same time so terribly afraid – in such a moving, human way – of what would happen to them. …

Postscript:  Just got a note from Philip Fried.  He tells me he’s just heard that BBC producer Mark Burman is working with Eva Hoffman on a show about Szlengel – the 27-minute BBC Radio 4 program and will air in late April, and may include the translations of the Carpenters.

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2 Responses to ““What I Read to the Dead”: John and Bogdana Carpenter translate Warsaw Ghetto poet Władysław Szlengel”

  1. Jane Kelly Says:

    I would like to buy some of his poems but can’t find them published

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’ll have to settle for the Manhattan Review‘s selection right now, Jane. I understand a book may be in the offing, but that’s probably at least a year out, at best.