The Last Poet of Lodz

The untold story of the great epic poem of the Holocaust—and the generous, tragic hero who wrote it

This essay, by the Yiddish author Chava Rosenfarb, appeared in Yiddish in 1991 in Di goldene keyt. This is the first publication of the English version—which was translated by Rosenfarb, who died last year. “[T]ime is beginning to run out,” she explains below. “With whatever means I have at my memory’s disposal, I shall tell the story of my friend.”

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch’s name is known only to a very few people. He would have joined the mass of nameless ghetto Jews who perished without a trace had it not been for the fact that during his time in the ghetto Shayevitch found himself in extremely difficult circumstances. In the Lodz ghetto—that kafkaesque kingdom of King Chaim the First, as Chaim Rumkowski, the Eldest of the Jews, was called by the ghetto population—protectionism was a way of life, and, in a sense, a way of death. To have a good “back” in the ghetto meant to have an easier job, and thus to conserve precious energy. It meant getting an additional something on top of the deplorably meager food ration. It meant being removed from the lists of those assigned for deportation, and thus prolonging one’s life, at least until the next round-up.

A certain Shmuel Rosenstein, a journalist and Lodz reporter for the Warsaw-based Yiddish Zionist daily called Haint [Today], had managed—most likely thanks to a prewar acquaintance with Chaim Rumkowski—to secure an influential position for himself in the ghetto hierarchy. He became the editor of Rumkowski’s newspaper, the Ghetto Zeitung, a paper to which no self-respecting writer ever contributed. The Ghetto Zeitung was filled with Rumkowski’s philosophical articles about his vision of the ghetto as a haven for the Jews. It resounded with his lunatic self-praise as regards the achievements of his factories, his ghetto, his Jews, and with laudatory articles and panegyrics written by hacks singing praise to the Jewish king.

Rosenstein was no fool. A modern Jewish intellectual, well versed in both the Talmud and contemporary literature, he was doubtless aware of the quality of the newspaper he was editing. However, clever pragmatic man that he was, he wanted to survive the war, and in order to do this, he readily paid the price of his integrity by obediently serving the most powerful master of life and death in the ghetto. (Rosenstein, like Rumkowski, perished in Auschwitz.) In order to live in peace with his conscience, and out of a sense of kinship with people of the pen, Rosenstein occasionally provided one or another desperate ghetto writer with a better position, or with more spacious living quarters.

It was to him that Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch turned in a moment of great distress. And out of gratitude for Rosenstein’s help, Shayevitch offered him, along with his letter of thanks, a poem called “Lekh-Lekho.” This poem and another named “Spring 1942,” as well as two letters addressed to Rosenstein were found after the war among the heaps of rubble left in the empty ghetto of Lodz. And this was how the name of Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch was saved from oblivion.

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The author, her mother, and sister Henia, shortly after arriving in Brussels, Belgium, late 1945 or early 1946The cover of Lekh-Lekho

The author, her mother, and sister Henia, shortly after arriving in Brussels, Belgium, late 1945 or early 1946; and the cover of the “Lekh-Lekho” booklet.

In the fall of 1945, my mother, my sister, and I left Bergen-Belsen, where we had been liberated, and illegally crossed the border into Belgium. We took lodgings in Brussels. A year later, when the memory of the ghetto and concentration camp horrors were still so fresh and immediate that it could hardly be called memory, a slim booklet reached me by mail from Poland, sent by friends who had also survived the concentration camps and returned to Lodz after the war. In it I found the two poems by Shayevitch, along with his two letters to Rosenstein, published by the Jewish Historical Commission in Lodz under the editorship of the historian Nachman Blumental.

The booklet, under the general title “Lekh-Lekho,” assumed an important role in my postwar life; it became one of my most treasured possessions. All these years, I have kept it under glass. Nevertheless, despite my care, time has done its work, ravaging the pages and turning them a yellowish brown, while the booklet’s soft cover with its photo of a ghetto mother and her child on their way to the assembly yard for deportation has been crisscrossed by many white cracks. But the print on the yellow pages is still legible, and the words are still fresh and powerful and I can still hear Shayevitch’s fast slurping voice reciting his stanzas in Talmudic sing-song.

Shayevitch was my mentor and friend. Through all the postwar years, his spirit has seemed to hover over me, a powerful presence in my own life as a writer. His poetic voice permeates my own poems and prose writings on the subject of the war. He himself, under a host of disguises, appears as a character in many of my stories. Even when I write on themes other than the Holocaust, he is somehow there with me, guiding me, forcing me to see present-day life through the prism of those earlier shattering experiences.

Sometimes at commemoration gatherings, I hear Shayevitch’s poem “Lekh-Lekho” recited. Because it is the poet’s deeply moving farewell to his 5-year-old daughter Blimele, this poem is usually given preference over the other recovered poem “Spring 1942,” which is just as powerful. However, at no time during these commemoration ceremonies have I ever heard much said about the author himself, probably because so little is known about him.

For a long time I have been planning to write an account of what I knew about Shayevitch. I considered it my duty to do so and felt pangs of guilt for procrastinating. But the mere thought of such a task aroused in me a feeling of discomfort and frustration. Having written about him in so many of my fictions, I dreaded repeating myself. Was that much not enough? I knew very well that it was not. Fiction distorts and disfigures. My obligation was to write about Shayevitch’s life and the extraordinary outpouring of poetic works that he wrote in the ghetto, of which the two recovered poems were only a small sample. My problem was that I knew relatively little about his prewar life.

As for the poems that he produced in the ghetto, how could I prove their mastery if I had no texts to substantiate my opinion? To my shame I hardly remembered the plot or any particular scenes from the major epic that he was working on in the ghetto and that had perished with him. Yet throughout all the years of my silence about Shayevitch, I knew that more than anything else the fear of pain was at the root of my reluctance to write about him. Having lived through the Holocaust twice—once as a victim, and the second time through my writings—I dreaded having to plunge once more into the abyss of those dark days that still haunt me. But now, as time is beginning to run out, my waverings have begun to dissipate. With whatever means I have at my memory’s disposal, I shall tell the story of my friend Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, the poet of the Lodz ghetto.

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Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch was born in 1907 in Lenczyce, a small town not far from Lodz. His father was a magid [preacher]. Shayevitch was the cosseted only son in a family of nine children. He attended cheder and yeshiva, from which he graduated with a rabbinical ordination. However, he never assumed a rabbinical post. His impoverished family had moved to Lodz in the hope that his sisters would find work in a factory. Despite the objections of his parents, Simkha-Bunim joined his sisters. He learned the trade of a textile worker and found work in a factory. Deeply attached to his Orthodox family but equally attracted by secular modernity, he felt obliged to leave home. This caused a painful rift with his religious family, but it never led to a complete break, as often happened in Jewish families of that time. In order not to further upset his parents, Shayevitch wore his Hasidic gabardine and traditional cap up until the outbreak of the war.