Co Czytalem Umarlym

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Poems by Wladyslaw Szlengel, 1977

The poet Wladyslaw Szlengel was killed in April 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Not all of his works were saved from the wartime conflagration. Although he had plans to publish several volumes, his entire heritage is contained in the collection Co czytalem umarlym ("What I Read to the Dead"), published in 1977. In the prose piece that gives the volume its title Szlengel explains the most important principle of his writing. The poems are addressed to his murdered friends as well as to the nameless masses of the Nazi victims of crime. The poet thus speaks on behalf of the absent. The poet creates a ghetto chronicle that covers the period of time in 1943 between the liquidation and the uprising. The poetic evidence of the experience of this extreme evil, as the author himself suggests however, may not be fully understood by someone who had not been through the hell of the ghetto. In sequences of short, dynamic sentences, the "chronicler of the dying" wrote down his psychical reactions to enclosure and encirclement. He reconstructed the aura of fear and uncertainty and described the methods of killing and of depriving people of the remainer of their humanity. Szlengel uses statistics to reveal the scale of the tragedy, and he shows how soon the anonymous martyrs are forgotten. The exceptionally dramatic scenes focus on the motifs of bailing oneself out from death and of survival bought for money. In this inhuman world there is no room for heroic gestures. The low value of contemporary history on human lives is judged severely.

The poetic recording of the "dying/of the largest Jewish Community in Europe" in "Wołanie w nocy" ("Calling at Night") is carried out from an individual perspective. The poems "Okno na tamta strone" ("A Window with the View of the Other Side") and "Telefon" ("The Phone") constitute shrill studies of solitude, the bonds with the inhabitants of Warsaw on the other side of the wall having been irrevocably broken. For the poet Warsaw from before the war becomes a kind of the paradise lost. Authenticity plays a special role in the poems; it intensifies the credibility of the poet's reports and strengthens the ties of the speaking lyrical "I" with the sufferings of the common people. In the epitaph for Jewish mothers the small scale of life is provocatively contrasted with threnodies commemorating heroes, as in "Pomnik" ("A Monument"). In "Rzeczy" ("The Things") a story of objects becomes a suggestive epitome of the collective historic disaster. "Dzwonki" ("The Bells") traces life from before the catastrophe to reveal the dominating emptiness the murdered nation leaves behind. Heroic sacrifices belong to the everyday order of things. In "Kartka z dziennika 'akcji"' ("A Page from the 'Action' Diary") Szlengel compares the act of Janusz Korczak , who chooses death, to the defense of the Westerplatte outpost.

By unmasking the frail bases of hatred, as in "Dwaj panowie na sniegu" ("Two Men on the Snow"), the poet proves how ludicrous the divisions are to the races of the victims and the victors. In "Dwie śmierći" ("The Two Deaths") the extermination of the Jews is contrasted with death on the battlefield, where significance comes from patriotic values. In his accusation against the Holocaust crimes the poet resorts to sarcasm, irony, and a grotesque and macabre sense of humor, as, for example, in "Mala stacja Treblinki" ("The Little Station of Treblinka"), "Cylinder," ("A Top Hat"), and "Resume" ("A Resume"). The overwhelming degradation imposed on the victims affects both the spheres of feelings and of behavior, as is shown in "Romans współczesny" ("A Contemporary Romance") and in "Piękna niedziela" ("A Beautiful Sunday"). In Szlengel's accusing poetry the images borrowed from Jewish culture undergo a change from their original sense in the ghetto reality. Thus, in its new version as revised by history, the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkoth) becomes a festival of shelters, while the story of the golem of Prague shows the loss of human features among the inhabitants of the ghetto condemned to death.

—Wojciech Ligęza