They walked quietly to the trains As if they were sick of everything, Dazed, looking into the face of the ss-- Cattle! The splendid officers were happy That the hordes marched with muffled steps, Nothing grated on the nerves And only for fun Slashed them with whips: In the face! The silenced crowd fell on the ground, Sobs reverberated in the cattle cars, Blood and tears oozing into sandy soil As "the lords" Casually tossed On the bodies Empty cigarette boxes, "Warum sind Juno rund" On that day, At dawn in early mist, when they fell like hyenas On a city still sleepy with Stimmung. The cattle awoke And Bared their teeth. The first shot was heard on Mila Street. A policeman staggered in a gateway, Stared in surprise, for a moment stood still-- Touched his shattered shoulder-- Didn't believe it. Something here isn't in order, Everything was so easy, so smooth. As a favor from friends in high places He was recalled from the Eastern front, Had a few satisfying days Of rest and relaxation in Warsaw, Driving this cattle in an Aktion And cleaning up the pigsty. But here On Mila Street, BLOOD ... The policeman stepped back from the gateway And swore: I'm really bleeding. But already Brownings barked On Niska Street, On Dzika, On Pavia. In a winding stairwell where someone's old mother Was dragged down by the hair Lies ss-man Handtke. He is strangely swollen As if he couldn't digest death, As if he was choking on this revolt-- He belched up bloody saliva Onto the little box, Juno sind rund, Rund, rund. Everything spins in circles, The sky-blue uniform lying On the spittle-covered stairs Of Jewish Pavia Street And he doesn't know That at the Schultz and Toebbens factories Bullets are dancing in a joyous burst of song: Revolt of the meat, Revolt of the meat, Revolt of the meat! Meat spits grenades out the windows, Meat coughs out streams of scarlet flame And clings to the edges of life! Here is the front, young masters! The front--young shirkers! Hier Trinkt man mehr kein Bier Hier Hat man mehr kein Mut, Blut, Blut, Blut. Peel off your gloves of shining leather, Put aside your riding whips--put a helmet on your head-- Tomorrow issue a press release: "Penetrated the lines of the Toebbens Block." Revolt of the meat, Revolt of the meat, Song of the meat! Listen, O German God, How the Jews pray in their "wild" houses Clenching a bar, a pole in their fists. We beg You, Lord, for a bloody battle, We implore You for a violent death. Before the end let our eyes Not see the rails dragging away But give the hand unerring aim, Lord, To stain the blue uniform with blood, Let us see before the last Noiseless shout rises in the throat Our ordinary human fear In their haughty hands, their paws with whips. Like crimson flowers of blood The flames of our gun-barrels bloom From Niska Street, from Mila and Muranow. This is our spring, our counterattack! The wine of battle mounts to the head! These are our partisan forests-- The alleys of Dzika Street and Ostrowska. Numbers of "blockhouses" tear at our hearts, Our medals of the Jewish war. Like a battering ram the shout Of six letters flashes in red: REVOLT. And plastered to the street A trampled package bleeds: "Juno sind rund."
Wladyslaw Szlengel was in his early twenties when he died in 1943, in the bunker of Szymon Kac during the Easter Uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. We do not know the date or place of his birth.
Szlengel wrote in Polish. Before the war he was part of Warsaw's literary scene, and had published poems in literary magazines such as Our Review and Pins. Frieda Aaron notes that "although Szlengel had more than a passing familiarity with the Yiddish folk idiom, he is first and foremost grounded in the Polish literary tradition. His early ghetto poetry shares with the Skamander movement, popular in the first decade of the interwar period, a predilection for colloquial forms, a light-hearted poetic voice, as well as satiric and ironic modes." Szlengel also had an unusual facility with rhyme.
His lighter verse was adapted for performance. By 1940 he was organizing events at the Cafe Sztuka, or Art Cafe, on Leszno Street. Art Cafe was the most lively and creative venue in the ghetto. Maria Eisenstadt, a famous singer of the 1930s, performed there, singing lyrics written by Szlengel.
Wladyslaw Szpilman was a regular pianist at the Art Cafe. In Szpilman's book The Pianist (the source of Roman Polanski's 2000 film), he wrote:
It was the largest locale or place of entertainment in the ghetto and had artistic aspirations. Musical performances were held in its concert room ... I appeared here myself playing piano duets with Andrzej Goldfeder, and had a great success with my paraphrase of the Casanova Waltz by Ludomir Rozycki, to words by Wladyslaw Szlengel. The poet Szlengel appeared daily with Leonid Fokszanski, the singer Andrzej Wlast, the popular comedian "Wacus the Art-Lover" and Pola Braunowna in the "Living Newspaper Show," a witty chronicle of ghetto life full of sharp, risque allusions to the Germans.
The Living Newspaper was started by Szlengel and his friends; they stapled it together at the Art Cafe.
During the first year in the ghetto it was still possible to mock the Germans. Szlengel called his satires, sketches, and lyrics "useful arts." They improved morale. Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who collected writings in the ghetto for his archive, noted that Szlengel's poems were very popular, and that he succeeded in communicating the spirit and atmosphere of the place. Many of Szlengel's satirical poems mentioned by Ringelblum--"Zahlen, Bitte," "The Poetic Informer," "Notes for Pedants"--have been lost.
Szlengel wrote for Polish readers outside the ghetto as well. When he collected his poems in What I Read to the Dead, he wrote a preface "To the Polish Reader" in which he expressed "a deep and hopeless nostalgia for Warsaw, if not for the capital in 1939, then for the city of my first poems and the spring of my first maturity." The poem "Telephone," written in 1940, expresses his desire and inability to communicate with those outside the ghetto.
The aim was to survive or escape. Spotted typhus broke out. People collapsed in the streets. Hunger was everywhere. The first German "Grossaktion" (a euphemism for a murderous massacre, with howitzers) took place. Many inside the ghetto learned of the death camp at Treblinka. A railway spur was built leading right into the Umschlagplatz within the ghetto walls. Szlengel wrote a poem "The Little Station at Treblinka."
In his poem "Passports," Szlengel wrote about the passports that began to appear in the ghetto, supposedly issued by countries like Honduras or Argentina and considered tickets to freedom. They were all forged by the Nazis, sold at a steep price to soak up money from the wealthy Jews who would pay any price to escape.
In 1943 Szlengel wrote with increasing speed. He modestly called his writings "poem-documents" or "a poetry of fact." He was no longer the youthful poet writing facetious sketches. His sense of irony had evolved into something new, something tragic. More artistic development, and change, were compressed into the last year of his life than most writers achieve in a lifetime.
In 1943, fearing the destruction of the ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum buried the historical archive documenting cultural activities inside the ghetto, which he had collected during the previous three years. He included his own appreciative essay about Szlengel, written in Yiddish. He sealed the archive, called Oneg Shabbat, in rubberized milk cans and metal boxes. In 1946, most of his archive, including these poems, was retrieved from the rubble.
John R. Carpenter