Posts Tagged ‘Władysław Szlengel’

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

Monday, March 11th, 2013

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.

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

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

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.