What I Read to the Dead

Recent translation of poems by Wladyslaw Szlengel.

Wladyslaw Szlengel was born in 1914 in Warsaw, and began to write at an early age. His prose and poems were published in school papers while he was still a boy, and later in literary journals.   During the turbulent inter-war years, he moved to Bialystok, where he worked as a literary consultant and theatre director.  In 1939, he participated in the unsuccessful September defense of Poland, and returned to Warsaw in 1940 before the ghetto was sealed.  Shortly after returning, he, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews, was forced to settle within the ghetto walls.  Amidst the filth and despair, his poetry deepened and matured, marking him as an important Jewish poet of his generation.  He was a regular at the café Sztuka, where he got to know the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman composed music to accompany Szlengel’s dark and ironic poetry about the loss of Warsaw and the hopelessness of the Polish Jews.

“You cannot imagine how many images and feelings are for me linked to this Szlengel’s text. How many faces, voices, and places that no longer are – just as Szlengel described it in the midst of those events. They perished in just that way, everything that collapsed with no trace in just such atmosphere of fear, tension, and helplessness, of desperate yet futile attempts to find a rescue. Szlengel described all that so truly that one can breathe that air redolent of the merciless, irreversible hours on the edge of the abyss. This text of his makes an impression as if with his words he had photographed all that. It is almost hard to comprehend that in the situation of a total annihilation he was still able to write.

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