What I Read to the Dead: Wladislaw Szlengel
Writer Eva Hoffman explores the extraordinary verse and little known life of Wladislaw Szlengel, poet of the Warsaw Ghetto. Before the war and the Nazi invasion of Poland, he had written poetry in his native tongue and witty lyrics for popular tunes sung in the nightclubs of Warsaw. But confinement in the Warsaw Ghetto and its increasingly tragic circumstances changed Szlengel's work into urgent bulletins for both fellow Jews, trapped inside the walls of their prison city, and his former Polish neighbours.
Szlengel wrote until his last days which came with the discovery of their hiding place in April 1943. Poems like The Little Station of Treblinka, What I Read to the Dead and Counterattack captured with ruthless immediacy the confused, terrifying, days and nights of Ghetto life until the beginnings of the doomed uprising in 1943 that finally brought total destruction.
The station is tiny,
Three firs grow in a line,
This is Treblinka station,
Says the ordinary sign.
There's not even a cashier's window,
A porter's room? Do not seek it.
For a million you won't get
A simple return ticket.
People read aloud Szlengel's verses in their hiding places. In them they recognized not just their plight but their own humanity as family and friends continued to be deported. His poetry survived in versions committed to memory by a handful of survivors, in a small cache of poems kept safe and buried in a unique, secret archive and, decades later, in the form of a sheaf of pages found hidden inside a table marked for firewood.
'I am looking through and sorting the poems that were written to those who are no more. Read it. This is our history.
This is what I read to the dead.
Reader Elliot Levey
Producer Mark Burman.
For Further Information
The first website devoted to Szlengel’s work and established by ghetto survivor Halina Birenbaum
The most recent edition of one of America’s leading poetry magazines devoted a substantial part of their issue to new translations of Szlengel’s work http://www.themanhattanreview.com/archive/15_2_intro_szlengel.html
For those wishing to learn more about the world and words of the Warsaw ghetto this recent World Service feature is available to listen to.
English translation of Szlengel's work was written by Marcel Weyland