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.
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.
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.
In his Orthodox attire, his innate shyness masked behind Hasidic mannerisms, he cut a strange figure at the meetings of the young Yiddish writers of Lodz, who gathered at the Under the Cup café to read and discuss their work. Unlike many other young Yiddish writers, he started his writing career with prose not poetry. He seldom read any of his stories to his friends, considering his work too weak to be appraised. A photo from this time shows him standing in his Hasidic garb in the company of a group of worldly young Yiddish writers. A robust young man of medium stature, Shayevitch has a round face, regular features, wavy dark-brown hair and thick eyebrows, which protrude over a pair of short-sighted eyes peering out from behind thickly rimmed glasses. His mouth is full, prominently outlined, and seems to be hiding a contented, guileless smile.
After his marriage and the birth of his daughter Blimele, he found little time to attend gatherings at Under the Cup. He was too busy with factory work, family, and writing. He was a homebody. Although his apartment reflected the state of the young family’s poverty and want, there was an air of neatness and contentment about it. The late writer Isaac Goldkorn wrote in his memoirs Lodzer portretn [Lodz portraits] (Tel Aviv: Hamenora, 1963) that Shayevitch’s family life was unusually harmonious and serene. He loved his wife Miriam and adored his little daughter.
It was during this time that colleagues close to Shayevitch finally managed to talk him into submitting his stories to the Yiddish press and his writings began to appear in print. The Yiddish literary establishment of Lodz considered him a promising talent, but saw nothing extraordinary in his work. A novel called The American was published in the 1930s, and another, On the Road to Blenkitna was due for publication by the Yiddish PEN Club on the eve of the war. It never appeared.
After the German conquest of Poland, Shayevitch moved his wife and child into the Lodz ghetto, where they occupied a gloomy dilapidated hut at 14 Lotnicza Street. The hut consisted of one room and a shed, which served as a kitchen. His parents and sisters found lodgings on another street. Finding himself without work and with no means of support, Shayevitch lived from the start under the threat of starvation. His worries were divided between two households, his parents’ and his own. He began to search frantically for something to do. Proud, shy, soft-spoken by nature, and always in doubt about his worth as a writer, he acquired a leonine ferocity in his struggle for his family’s survival. He knocked on doors, begged, pleaded, and boasted of his writer’s vocation in order to prove that he merited special treatment.
Until the beginning of 1941, he and his family lived on the handouts of Rumkowski’s social support department. There was little food in the house, but plenty of time to write. He switched from writing prose to writing poetry, because he must have felt that poetry would better express the state of his mind and soul.
He was granted the job of janitor and door-keeper at the Vegetable Place, the large yard where the vegetable rations were distributed to the ghetto population. On those days when the ration of a few turnips, carrots, and some potatoes was to be distributed, his duty was to stand at the gate and let in the starved ghetto inhabitants, a few at a time, from the line forming along the street. He had to endure the unbearable commotion made by the people trying to force themselves through the gate so as not to receive only the leftovers.
No words can better describe the torment he endured at that time than the letter he wrote to Rosenstein on Sept. 30, 1941, in which he complains that up to this point he has accepted his job with equanimity, although he has suffered abuse from both the consumers and the director of the Vegetable Place. The latter, writes Shayevitch, “accustomed to bygone times when a janitor would genuflect before his master, cannot bear the sight of me. Moreover, somebody has betrayed the secret of my being a Yiddish writer—and the director needs no better reason to deride me and make me the butt of his mocking laughter. It has taken a long time for me to get him to assume a proper attitude.” He next complains of the consumers who take advantage of his reluctance to abuse anyone physically: “They humiliate me, even to the point of shedding my blood. … It is enough to go through such an experience only once, and one remains scarred to the depths of one’s soul.”
Then he goes on to confess: “I swear to you that I have never in my life experienced such bitterness. In the month of Sivan my father died, and after 30 days so did my mother. And how it grieves my conscience that I could do nothing to save them! Now I am forced to watch my 5-year old daughter and my wife waste away. The child is frequently ill, while I haven’t got the slightest means (to save her).”
He also confides to Rosenstein, “I am in the process of writing a long poem about the ghetto. Our colleague, Mrs. Ulinover, pressed my hand, saying that the poem will be a monument to our experiences in the ghetto, and other such superlatives …”
He adds, “As you surely know, work in the Vegetable Place lasts from dawn until late in the evening. The people in my poem frequently flutter before my mind’s eye with their supplications; the more daring ones with bitterness and threats, while those who are the most highhanded lash my heart with bitter reproaches, ‘Why did you leave us? Why don’t you say, “let there be light” in our temporary chaos? You made little demons out of us.’ One such character, half monster, half clown, teases me, ‘Heaven forbid! You may not live to finish your work!’ ”
Shayevitch notes, “I am aware that the opinion expressed by some people is not altogether groundless, that here in the ghetto, everything is nitchevo [a Polish word meaning “nothing.”] But about this I beg to differ. One can with a clear head argue that precisely at this difficult hour, the greatest care should be given to culture.” He goes on to flatter Rosenstein: “I am convinced—no matter what opinion you yourself may have on the subject—that only you are capable of understanding my mood of depression and how empty I feel these days. You are the only person here, in the ghetto, who has an ear for even the thinnest sound of despair.” After many other compliments, he finally makes his plea that Rosenstein save him from both the material oppression and from the moral emptiness into which he has sunk. “Please,” he begs, “grant me the conditions to fulfill myself in accord with my potential. … Please trust in the possibilities dormant within me. Be you now in the role of the High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies to kindle the flame of the menorah. Oh, what a re-awakening you could bring about in my life! I believe in you, and once again, I believe in you.”
By the end of 1941, the situation in the ghetto had worsened. Helplessly, Shayevitch watched as one by one the members of his large family succumbed to disease and starvation. In addition, the mass deportations from the ghetto had started. The winter was merciless. There was no wood or peat briquettes to heat the houses. Some people grew so desperate that they joined the deportations voluntarily. It never crossed anyone’s mind that the road these voluntary deportees embarked on led directly to their annihilation.
Shayevtich found himself among those who were at the very bottom of the ghetto hierarchy, the poorest of the poor; those who were the first to be sent away. He knew that any day he too might receive “a wedding invitation”—as the ghettoniks called a summons for deportation—and together with his wife and child be ordered to join the procession of those headed to the place of assembly.
It was then that he put aside the long poem he had been working on and wrote “Lekh-Lekho.” In this poem he shows himself a prophet, intuitively feeling that these marches to the assembly place were marches toward separation and death. He opens the poem with the following words to his 5-year old daughter:
And now, Blimele, my child,
extinguish your childish joy,
the quicksilver river of your laughter,
and let us make ready for the unknown road.
Don’t raise your big brown eyes
to me so curiously;
and don’t ask why and what for
we must leave our home.
He asks Blimele to:
Put on the warm panties
that your mother mended
for you last night
as she sang and laughed,
Not knowing that this was
her last cheerful laughter,
like the cow that moos, unaware
of the knife in the slaughterer’s hand.
And now, Blimele, my child,
don’t smile at me with your little white teeth.
To take leave of our home
is all the time that we have left.
And although you are a little girl,
and whoever teaches the Torah to a daughter
is an unworthy man,
teaching her a sin,
The bitter day has come
when I must teach you,
my little girl,
the horrific section “Lekh-Lekho.”
But how can one compare that injunction
to the bloody lekh-lekho of today?
“And God said to Abraham,
‘Get thee out of thy land.’ ”
In the poem Shayevitch and his daughter take leave of their home and of every object in it that has become a witness to their former joys and present sorrows. The objects, having become registers of the family’s daily existence, expand the symbols. The lines of the father’s poetic monologue are spoken with the utmost simplicity, as one would speak to a child, yet he does not spare the child by hiding the terrible truth from her. The starkness of the language suggests the restraint of a scream stifled in silence. In the original Yiddish text the lines are rhymed with the most simple rhymes, falling into step with the lament hidden in the lilt of the rhythm.
Not long after this, Rosenstein did Shayevitch an extraordinary favor, thanks to which Shayevitch was able to continue writing his epic work about the Lodz ghetto. He found him a job at a “gas kitchen.” There was always a lack of firewood or peat briquettes in the ghetto, and coal was hardly ever available. So, it often happened that if a ghetto inhabitant did have something to cook in his pot, he had nothing to cook it on. The gas kitchens were communal rooms equipped with gas burners where for a few pfennigs some pieces of potato could be cooked or the soup ration warmed up. The function of the supervisor in such a gas kitchen was to keep order in the queue of people waiting with their pots, to watch the clock, and collect the money. Since he ran the kitchen, Shayevitch could write in the intervals between these activities. Amid the noise of the buzzing burners and sizzling pots and in the general commotion created by exhausted and impatient people, he composed his verses on a sheet of bookkeeping paper covered with print on one side but clean on the other.
Delighted with his new position, Shayevitch wrote a letter of thanks to Rosenstein, dated Feb. 10, 1942:
Very Distinguished and Dear Mr Rosenstein:
As an expression of deep gratitude, my trembling hands offer bikurim [first fruits] as a gift to you—the lengthy poem “Lekh-Lekho.”
As I once told you, we have no choice but to do as the troubadours, the minnesingers and our own Broder singers did: to disseminate our song by ourselves; to turn ourselves into preachers who go among the people with their sermons. It is a matter of great grief that the people, ourselves included, have more important worries on their minds.
It would give me great pleasure to hear your opinion of my writing. I consider you a partner in everything that my feverish heart produces. Let all our merits stand by us, so that one day I may dedicate my joyful Yiddish poem to you. May we and the rest of the people of Israel live to see the hour of complete salvation. Amen.
PS. On this occasion I take the liberty of reminding you about Hoffman. Perhaps it is possible to find some work for him.
I would never have believed Shayevitch capable of such flattering letters. He was a humble man, soft-spoken and magnanimous. He endured much suffering, but there was in his nature an undercurrent of passionate pleasure in life and a hunger for joy. Little was required to bring him to a state of Hasidic exultation. There was always a quiet dignity about him, a sense of pride and self-respect. In the ghetto, his sense of pride as an individual seemed to expand into a collective pride as well. He would grow heated when he spoke of the injustices committed in the ghetto by Jews against Jews. As long as I knew him, he never wanted to have anything to do with members of the ghetto’s privileged elite. I never saw him plead with anyone for anything.
So, it is obvious to me that it was not for his own sake that he humiliated himself by flattering Rosenstein, but for the sake of his wife and child, and for the sake of the writer within him. Nevertheless, his praise of his benefactor sounds genuine. He must have hit the deepest level of despair after the death of his parents, when his wife and child were ill and he himself could not find a single moment to release the pent-up anguish of his heart by writing. Perhaps Rosenstein was a father substitute, a more powerful figure than his own late father—a patron who could work miracles and elevate the poet to a spiritual re-awakening. Rosenstein was an older colleague, a fellow writer, a kindred soul. I suspect that, feeling lost and forlorn, Shayevitch badly needed a powerful protector-friend who was understanding and generous, to whom he could lay bare his soul. In such a case it would be easier to stifle pride and resort to begging, since Rosenstein valued and respected him as a writer.
Shayevitch’s kind-heartedness can also be seen in the fact that no sooner was his own problem solved than in the same letter of thanks, he pleads with Rosenstein on behalf of his colleague Hoffman, a young Yiddish writer, who soon after died of tuberculosis.
In the meantime the ghetto inhabitants survived on more than just starvation rations. A multitude of idiomatic expressions, sayings, jokes, wisecracks, and songs circulated from mouth to mouth, vividly reflecting the people’s spirit of resistance and defiance. As the cultural life of the ghetto began to flourish, political parties organized underground networks. All kinds of discussion and self-education groups sprang to life. The Lodz ghetto began to swarm with writers and poets. The group of established Yiddish writers met in the home of Miriam Ulinover, the poetess mentioned in Shayevitch’s letter. Before the war, Miriam Ulinover had published collections of nostalgic poems full of picturesque charm, describing traditional life in Jewish homes. A dainty gray-haired matron with a heart full of warmth and tenderness, she was adored by her colleagues. Solemnly they gathered in her room in the ghetto to read and discuss their works in her presence.
Fate had been kind to Shayevitch and his family during the pitiless winter and spring evacuations of 1941-42, when 60,000 Jews were sent out of the ghetto straight to Chelmno, where the Nazis employed the still primitive technique of letting Zyclon B gas into buses crammed with people. A short period of respite followed in the ghetto. Now that those “unproductive elements” were gone, Rumkowski promised “his” Jews that there would be no further evacuations, that the ghetto would be transformed into a factory town that would “tick like a clock,” producing goods for the Germans. The ghetto would be so indispensable to the German Kriegswirtschaft that the Jews would survive the war in peace and quiet. Factories were in fact built. The Jews labored there for 12 hours a day. At the same time the clique of the “King’s favorites,” the so-called ghettocracy, established itself and grew into a powerful caste, while the rest of the population died of such “natural” causes as starvation, dysentery, and tuberculosis.
It was during this time that Shayevitch wrote his other poem, “Spring 1942.” There is nothing in this poem to indicate that he had allowed himself to be fooled by the lull in the deportations, or by the promises of the Germans or Rumkowski. On the contrary, his tone becomes even more somber and desperate than in “Lekh-Lekho.” Here is a fragment from “Spring 1942”:
And in a propitious hour—
Praised be the Lord—spring is here again.
The night blows into the silver horn
Of the young moon,
Teaching it a new song
In honour of spring, which this year
Was such a belated visitor.
And behold, like a camel, a mother carries
The hump of her load on her back,
While behind her straggle five little children—
Each one smaller than the next,
Bundled up in rags,
In tatters of shoes
Tied with string,
Heavy bread bags—
Hang on their chests.
Exhausted they cannot walk any further,
So the mother hen,
Spreads her arms.
The oldest she leaves to his own devices,
The second she curses,
The third she pushes on from behind,
The fourth she implores,
The fifth she takes into her arms—
And soon she herself must stop, out of breath
Like a dying fish
With wide-open eyes,
Her mouth open,
While the load on her back,
And the child on her bosom
Swing on the scales of Fate,
Loaded down by maternal weights,
Up and down,
Back and forth.
Up and down,
Back and forth.
And in a propitious hour,
The miracle of revival occurs yet again,
And spring once more is here.
But in our ghetto
Nobody minds the hunger for bread,
That weeps from every human limb
And no one is frightened of Death
Who taps familiarly on every door,
Not skipping even one home.
But like abandoned trembling sheep
We teeter and flutter
In fear of the evil decree:
Exile into the unknown.
We tremble and flutter.
In fear of the secret Belshazzar writ:
To life or to death.
An old woman sees the hearse passing by
And sparks of envy light up her eyes:
“Fortunate creature, to have lived to such a moment.”
A young man says without bowing his head,
“One way or the other it makes no difference.”
A young bride spits three times,
“May the Angel of Death finally
become my groom.”
And even the child dragging itself on the road to exile
Turns up its tear-smeared face and stammers,
“Oh, Mameshie dear, I have no strength,
Oh, please, put me on the little black wagon.”
Written in blank verse, “Spring 1942” consists of various vignettes of particular people, or groups of people, juxtaposed against the background of the ghetto and the gray mass of ghetto inhabitants. Here no rhyme or measured rhythm stands in the way of the sweep of Shayevitch’s rage and despair. It is a haunting psalmodic chant. Shayevitch used this same style in the long epic poem that he was continually working on. In all the poetry that he wrote in the ghetto, Shayevitch seemed to be invoking the cadence of Jewish religious writing. The tone and imagery, as well as the simplicity of his words echo the tone and reflect the imagery and expression of scriptural texts, or the piyutim of the prayer books.
A summer of relative calm was followed by the early autumn of 1942. The month of September brought with it the Sperre, or house arrest. The Sperre lasted eight fateful days, during which Moloch swallowed almost all the children of the ghetto. Day after day the German guards, aided by the Jewish police, made mass selections in every courtyard. It was supposed to be a deportation limited to children under the age of 10 and old people over 60. But the Germans took whomever they pleased from the line-ups. While the selection was taking place in the yards, the Jewish police rushed from door to door to check that no one was hiding in the rooms. They chased whomever they found down into the yard to pass the inspection.
Shayevitch’s wife Miriam had just given birth to a baby boy. His daughter, Blimele, had spent the previous day of the Sperre hidden in the wardrobe whose mirror her father had described in his farewell song to her. Her little brother, not yet named, was hidden in a drawer. Miriam was in bed, unable to get up. The Jewish police failed to search the room that day. So, the next morning Shayevitch hid his children in the same places. There was no food in the house. The Germans and their helpers had not yet arrived in the yard. Shayevitch heard from a neighbor that there would be a distribution of bread and potatoes at the nearest distribution outlet. So, he locked his family in the hut and ran out to join the queue for food. When he returned to the yard, he realized that the selection had already taken place. The door of his hut stood open. The room was empty. Miriam and the children were gone.
I met Shayevitch for the first time in the winter of the same year, less than two years before the liquidation of the ghetto, two years and eight months before he perished. I was 19 years old, a fledgling writer. He was a grizzled old man of 35, an established poet, a member of the writers’ circle, which at that time gathered at the home of the poet and painter Leizerovitch, since Miriam Ulinover and her husband had been taken away during the Sperre.
We met in a strange place called Die Wissenschaftliche Abteilung [the Scientific Department], whose director was the Rabiner Hirshberg, a reformed rabbi from Danzig. At the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung the work consisted of preparing exhibits in glass showcases that represented scenes from Jewish shtetl life in Poland. A team of artists and artisans fashioned various dolls out of papier-maché, clay, and metal scraps. The Germans required these showcases for “scientific” purposes.
The Rabiner was an extremely handsome and amiable man, who treated his staff with great respect. The general atmosphere of this quaint workplace was one of ease and friendliness. When I think back on it today, the entire enterprise seems enigmatic and a little odd. The nature of the Rabiner Hirshberg’s services to the Germans has remained a puzzle to me. But at the time, the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung held a particular attraction for creative people of all sorts, who were welcomed and shown around whenever they dropped in.
The Rabiner Hirshberg worked in his spare time on a Yiddish translation of the psalms. He had recruited me to check his Yiddish text, which he feared might be tarnished by his familiarity with German. Once in a while I would drop in to the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung on the pretext of needing some explanation with regard to the translation. In truth, I was burning with impatience to read a just-written poem to him. He was the only person to whom I could read my poems. He was knowledgeable, well-versed in European literature, a writer himself. I had great respect for his opinion and was grateful for what he taught me about the psalms and for the attention he paid to me as a budding poet. On this particular day I had dropped into his Abteilung to read a poem I had just written.
Shayevitch had come in to see the painter Leizerovitch, who worked as an artistic adviser to the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung. I recall Shayevitch wearing a woman’s coat with a long-haired fur collar. The coat did not impress me. People’s clothes had begun to disintegrate, and the fashion of the ghetto was geared to wearing whatever one could to keep warm. But the puffy face of the man I saw before me expressed such misery, such grief, that it pierced my heart and I could not take my eyes off him. His manner was abrupt, Hasidic, and awkward. He hardly glanced at me when the Rabiner introduced him to me as an important Yiddish poet. The Rabiner insisted that I read my latest poem to this guest, who, he said with assumed modesty, was more competent to appreciate my talent than he himself was. He also called Leizerovitch into his office. Leizerovitch, a humpbacked, dark-haired man, clad in a black cape that made him resemble a bird of prey, was the most severe literary critic in the ghetto. There, with bated breath, I read my poem for the first time to a literary public.
Shayevitch and I walked out of the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung together that day. He told me that this was the first time he had been out to meet people since the Sperre, when he had lost his wife and children. I asked him up to our room, and he met my parents and my sister. He soon became a friend of the family, and being someone’s friend meant to Shayevitch giving of himself all that he could, and more.
One day he asked me whether I would like to hear a poem he had just written. The shutters of his hut were closed when I arrived. I entered by way of the shed, which served as a kitchen. The entrance to the next room had no door. It was dark inside. He told me that he permitted no one to enter the next room and made me sit down in the kitchen beside a box that seemed to serve as a kitchen table. There I sat, huddled in my coat and shawl. The kitchen was dark and painfully cold. An icy draft seemed to rise from the clay floor. The walls were covered with ice that glistened and sparkled in the light of the candle on the box. His lady’s coat unbuttoned, Shayevitch busied himself about the kitchen and brought in another two chairs from the next room. One he broke up and fed to the fire in the stove. He put a blackened kettle filled with water on the burner. Then he placed his manuscript on top of the box. The manuscript was, as usual, written on bookkeeping paper, covered with ciphers on one side and with his rushed but beautiful handwriting on the other. He brought over two tin cups containing hot water sweetened with saccharine, moved the other chair close to the box and sat down to read his poem—the only poem that I can vaguely remember.
The name of the poem was “Israel Noble.” In it Shayevitch immersed himself in the state of mind of a young man who had tried to escape from the inescapable ghetto. It was a composite portrait of the few people who had tried this impossible feat. They had all failed and been hanged in the ghetto square, while the workers from the factories were forced to watch. Shayevitch named his hero Israel and gave him the family name Noble. The poem was a paean to inner nobility in the face of debasement, helplessness, and villainy. It celebrated the nature of the ghetto Jew, whose only means of resistance was through the spirit. The simple lines of the poem’s refrain have remained with me forever:
Ch’geher nisht keynem, keynem, keynem.
Bloyz ayer der goof, nor nisht di neshome.
[I belong to no one, no one, no one.
Yours is only my body, but not my soul.]
Soon, instead of running to the Rabiner Hirshberg with my newly written poems, I took to rushing before curfew to Shayevitch. Occasionally I would find him in the kitchen, washing his laundry in ice cold water, then hanging it on a cord above the stove. But most often he would be sitting bent over sheets of paper, working. If he happened to be eating his ration of soup as he worked, he would force a spoon into my hand and insist that I eat from his pot. This was the price I had to pay for making him listen to my poem.
Often, as if in order to prepare me, he spoke about the major work he was in the process of creating. One day he hesitantly asked whether I would be willing to hear him read the 20 chapters of his epic that he had by then composed. I soon regretted that I had acquiesced to his proposal. Unlike the reading of his other poems, the reading of this one was transformed into a sort of morbid ritual. It would take place on the day when he had picked up his food and firewood or peat ration. He always wore one of his washed shirts for the occasion. His hair was combed. He would light not one but two candles, seat himself on the floor and begin to recite the chapter of his work in a hasty slurping voice, as if he were a pious Jew rushing through a prayer. He often broke into sobs, and his hoarse voice began to crack. As he raced through the lines, his torso bent lower over the sheets of paper on his knees and his entire body, like Laocoon’s, seemed to writhe with pain. It was torture to watch and listen to him.
Once he finished reading, he would smile a faint crooked smile, rise to his feet, and serve the babka of ersatz-coffee leavings that he had prepared and two cups of water sweetened with saccharine. We talked about everything in the world except his reading. He wanted to hear no criticism. He was fully aware of the power of what he was writing. The text was too sacred to him. He would not allow it to be taken as mere “literature.” For my part, I was so troubled and frightened by what I heard that I wanted to escape that gloomy room as soon as I could. I wanted to blot out the lines and rhythms that haunted me. I wanted to erase them from my memory.
Like some of his other lengthy poems, this long work took the form of a chronicle of ghetto life. It was filled with the portraits of individuals against the backdrop of daily life in the ghetto. With utmost simplicity he described everyday ghetto events and ghetto scenes. He described peoples’ clothes and the objects that were part of their daily lives in such a way that they acquired enormous symbolic significance, thus recreating the unearthly, phantasmagoric atmosphere of the ghetto. Image after image of the commonplace, seemingly trivial ghetto reality was soaked in the anguish, the hunger, the fear, the pain of separation and loss of dear ones, so that it swelled into unfathomable dimensions of suffering. A biblical atmosphere permeated the entire text, heightening the sense of cataclysm that lurked in the heart of each ghetto inhabitant. In some of the chapters the wretched ghettonik took on the appearance of Job in the throes of Fate. Abandoned by his fellow Man, abandoned by his God, he nevertheless clung with hope to both Man and God, alternately cursing and praising them. In other chapters an unspeakable silence hovered over the lean lines—a mute scream against ineffable evil, the scream of a worm lost in a maze of debasement, but a worm who despite its inability to speak was still human, still had dignity, even though it was doomed—under empty skies, surrounded by an indifferent earth—to be squashed by the boot of destruction. I can recall very vaguely that Shayevitch continued with the motif he had begun in “Lekh-Lekho,” reproducing the life cycle of a conjugal bed as it listened to the intimate whispers of two lovers, witnessed the birth of a child, comforted a body ravished by hunger and disease, and finally was consecrated to the altar of the stove fire so that a meal of turnips and water could be cooked in its flames.
Shayevitch took me along to meet the other Yiddish ghetto writers at Leizerovitch’s apartment studio, the walls of which were hung with the latter’s paintings of the ghetto. There we would gather, sometimes once a week, sometimes every other week. Occasionally there was a long lapse in our gatherings because of some extraordinary events taking place in the ghetto, such as a prolonged period of deportations, which, on a smaller scale, went on continuously. But hunger alone was never a good enough reason to prevent us from getting together. The presence of a roomful of people made the cold bearable, and then there was always a fire going in the iron oven. Leizerovitch had it better than the rest of us. In exchange for a loaf of bread, he painted portraits for Rumkowski and the other dignitaries and even for the Germans who worked in the Red House of the Criminal Police. Bread had the value of gold. Leizerovitch could sell parts of his bread on the black market and buy other necessities. There was always a piece of babka cake made, not from the remains of ersatz coffee but from potatoes and genuine flour, which we each consumed with a hot cup of ersatz coffee.
There the writers read their work, which was later discussed and critiqued. Leizerovitch was the most analytical and severe. He believed that Jewish creativity in the ghetto must live up to the demands of those apocalyptic times. Nothing short of excellence was good enough for him. He abhorred self-pity or melodrama. He knew that with his crippled body, he did not stand a chance of surviving a selection, and that it was only thanks to his work for Rumkowski and the Germans that he had been temporarily spared. No doubt this was the reason that he put such demands on himself and his colleagues.
Shayevitch would read chapters of his major work to Leizerovitch in private. He seemed to enjoy provoking his criticism. But he was reluctant to read any fragment of it to the entire writers’ group. He read other poems instead, those that were the by-product of that work, or fragments that he could not fit into it. But everyone knew that something great and wonderful was in the process of being created, and his colleagues insisted that he read his work in progress. I recall him complying with this demand only once, on condition that there be no discussion after his reading. I remember the silence that followed the reading and the air of total despair that filled the room afterwards. We quickly turned to the babka cake and the coffee, as if seeking resuscitation from the blows of his stanzas.
The 23rd and 24th chapters of Shayevitch’s epic were devoted to the deportation of his wife and children. They were written in the summer of 1943, a year after the event. He read them to me in the room he had previously forbidden me to enter. The furniture of the room was missing, having gone for firewood. There was nothing left but the two beds. Shayevitch made me sit on Blimele’s small bed and he sat down beside me on the floor. He read and wept, sobbing loudly as he read. Yet I could have understood his words if I had wanted to. Only an image here and there—like Blimele’s doll, lying on the floor after she had been taken away—cut into my consciousness, despite my unwillingness to listen. I wept with him and was terribly frightened.
Fear was our daily companion. By then the broadcasts of the clandestine Polish radio station, Swit, which were listened to in hiding by the members of the ghetto underground, had begun transmitting news of what was happening to the deportees. If Shayevitch, like the rest of us, nurtured any hope of his own survival, he allowed no trace of that hope to enter his epic, although his belief in the continuation of Jewish existence was never in question. Whenever, at a future time, I tried to be brave and force myself to listen to his newly composed chapters, they would disturb and depress me so completely that I blotted them out of my mind as soon as I heard them. I was young. I wanted to live. It was enough for me to write my own ghetto poems. Absorbing his, which were so much more disturbing than my own, was more than I could take.
Shayevitch had all kinds of strange acquaintances for whom his door always stood open. He befriended the neighbors in his yard, performed all kinds of services for them, and fed them words of encouragement. He fetched the food rations for the sick lonely men or women who had lost their families to disease or deportation, and more than once I saw him share parts of his food with a child miraculously saved from the Sperre. He seemed to do these things spontaneously, without great effort, with pleasure. Steeped in the Talmud and the Kabbalah as he was, he belonged to that type of modern Jew and freethinker whose mannerisms and idiosyncrasies spring from his former deep religiosity while his conduct, like a conditioned reflex, responds to the ethical precepts of the Jewish faith. His generosity to friend and stranger alike often meant that he himself had to go without.
One by one he lost his teeth until he had only two front teeth left. He still worked at the gas kitchen, which was noisy and packed with people, who now came more frequently to cook water rather than soup. They would chatter away about their daily cares and about past and pending deportations. He could no longer write in peace there. In any case, he preferred to listen to people talk in order to better recapture the authenticity of their dialogues in his work. Since he lived alone, there was no one to prevent him from working at night. His eyes, behind the heavily rimmed glasses grew red and swollen. Soon his limbs began to swell. His heart became affected. He was running out of breath, running out of strength.
I was teaching Polish to an influential tailor who supervised a tailor workshop in a camp for Polish youths outside the ghetto. My payment was a sandwich with a piece of sausage. An illiterate but kindly man, my student urgently needed to be able to communicate with the imprisoned young Poles. Thanks to his position he lived in the ghetto in virtual luxury. There was no lack of food in his house. This master tailor had a great respect for learning and for people who could write. He became a patron of the arts in the ghetto. There was always a line of all kinds of intellectuals, artists, and writers in front of his kitchen door. I interceded with my tailor student on Shayevitch’s behalf. But it took a great deal of urging and pleading to talk Shayevitch into placing himself in line for a slice of bread.
During the winter of 1943-44, I frequently found Shayevitch in bed when I came to visit him after work. He could barely drag himself to his feet. His entire body began to swell.
When the summer came, rumors began to circulate of the total liquidation of the ghetto. The ghettoniks refused to believe the rumors. How could the German Reich survive without our factories? But the rumors persisted. There was no longer any doubt that, if not total liquidation, the ghetto was facing a deportation on a massive scale. With a sudden surge of strength Shayevitch came to life. He started to compile a list of all the Yiddish writers in the ghetto and was ready to submit it to one or another influential dignitary so that none of his colleagues would receive a “wedding invitation.” But the moment the list was finished, he tore it up. No one person’s life was worth more than that of another.
As the summer neared its end, it became clear that the total liquidation of the ghetto was imminent. Shayevitch masterminded a plan of concealment. We could hide in our apartment by camouflaging the door dividing our kitchen from the small bedroom. But we packed our rucksacks anyway. Shayevitch rammed all his manuscripts into his bread sack.
When the fateful day came and the Germans entered the ghetto, cordoning off one block of houses after another, my family, Shayevitch, and a group of our closest friends managed to hide in the bedroom of our flat, its existence hidden by a large bureau in front of the door. We were 11 people crammed into that one small room. We managed to avoid discovery for three days. On the 28th of August 1944 we were found and loaded onto cattle cars headed for Auschwitz.
Shayevitch’s bread sack was the first thing torn from his hand as soon as we were deposited on the ramp of the train station at Auschwitz. The sheets of paper containing the poems I had written in the ghetto were likewise thrown onto a heap of discarded photographs and papers. The men were separated from the women and the selection began. I never saw my father or Shayevitch again.
After the liberation, when I was still at Bergen-Belsen, I met people who had been with both my father and Shayevitch at Camp Kaufering—one of the death camps associated with Dachau—where they had been sent from Auschwitz. From them I heard that Shayevitch had composed poems even in the camp and had recited them to the inmates in the barracks. I was also told that he had been sent “to the ovens” during the last selection at the camp, while my father perished two days before the liberation. An American bomb fell on the train in which he and other camp inmates were riding during the forced evacuation of the camp.
I feel a bittersweet sense of gratification at the thought that at least some of Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch’s work has survived; that there exists at least something tangible and verifiable to support my praise of him, something never to be altered or deleted from history. The two poems found on the heap of garbage in the ghetto made their way into print and are thus imperishable. I am grateful to fate, which in the guise of accident, has allowed these poems with their Jeremiah-like cri du coeur to reach us “from the other side,” so that those who were not there might have some idea of what it meant to live in the horrific reality of the Lodz ghetto.
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