Władysław Szlengel was a popular Polish Jewish writer before World War II began. Born in 1914 in Warsaw, he became known for his satirical pieces in Polish newspapers. Szlengel continued his work as a humorist even after the Germans sealed the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940. He read his satires of ghetto life from the Café Sztuka on Leszno Street. Some of his poems from the period of the ghetto have been preserved in the underground Oyneg Shabes archive.1
Szlengel wrote "Bread" in the summer and fall of 1941—before German authorities deported over a quarter of a million ghetto inhabitants to their deaths at Treblinka in 1942. At the time he wrote the poem, Szlengel was still a member of the Jewish ghetto police. This made him a somewhat atypical contributor to Emanuel Ringelblum's archive. Ringelblum’s team consciously excluded the official leadership of the ghetto from their project and reserved some of its most pointed criticism for the ghetto police and the Warsaw Jewish Coucil (Judenrat). But Szlengel quit the police with the deportations of 1942.
As Szlengel gave up the relative protection that his position had afforded him, he adopted the roles of resistance fighter and chronicler of the ghetto's final days:
"With all my senses I feel myself being suffocated by the diminishing air in a boat that is irrevocably going down...Still, I am in this boat; and if I don't perceive myself as its captain, I am nonetheless the chronicler of the drowning."2
Emanuel Ringelblum referred to Szlengel as the "poet of the ghetto," and many of his works chronicle the lives of the condemned community. "Bread" and "Final Exams" are just two of the ten poems that Szlengel contributed to the Oyneg Shabes archive, although most of the poems suffered from extreme water damage. If the archive was meant to chronicle the remnants of a vanishing world, then these poems—and many other pages in Oyneg Shabes—demonstrate the problems of the preservation effort itself. Szlengel's other wartime writings survived in Polish by being passed through the hands of many Jewish inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto.3
Szlengel was killed in the Warsaw ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943.