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Władysław Szlengel, "Bread"

Szlengel, Władysław poem 1941
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

Władysław Szlengel was a popular Polish Jewish writer before World War II. 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, reading his satires on 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 Oneg Shabbat archive. This work, however, is far from humorous.1 

Szlengel wrote "Bread" in the summer and fall of 1941, before the Germans 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 Judenrat. Szlengel quit the police, however, with the deportations of 1942. 

As Szengel 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 Oneg Shabbat 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 Oneg Shabbat—demonstrate the problems of the preservation effort itself. Szlengel's other wartime writings survived in Polish by being passed through the hands of many Jews in the ghetto.3

Szlengel was killed in the Warsaw ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943.

For more on the history of the Oneg Shabbat project, see Samuel Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

Frieda Aaron, Bearing the Unbearable: Yiddish and Polish Poetry in the Ghettos and Concentration Camps (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 41.

 

A collection of Szlengel's 1943 poems is anthologized in Polish with an introduction by literary critic Irene Maciejewska: Władysław Szlengel, Co Czytałem Umarłym (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1977). This anthology has also been translated into Hebrew by Halina Birenbaum, Asher ḳarati la-metim: shire geṭo Ṿarshah (Tel Aviv: Teraklin, 1987) and German by Ulrike Herbst-Rosocha, Was ich den Toten las: Gedichte aus dem Warschauer Getto (Leipzig: Kiepenheuer, 1990). It was finally translated into English by Marcel Weyland and published in Australia as What I Read to the Dead (Blackheath: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2012). 

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Bread

Three quarters of a loaf of bread lie on the table,
it is coupon bread, given out for ration cards.
As I devour the white-rye bread with my eyes, 
these thoughts run through my head:
 
A street...in the midst of the traffic and noise,
in the gutter, on the pavement, or on the sidewalk, 
Bread sellers stand.
Excuse me, sir? – No need.
They praise their white bread, they praise their rye bread,
the deluxe or black, "two-tone" bread.
A young vendor presses a loaf 
against his dirty black shirt. 
He holds it tight, like a valuable treasure,
A large, white, fragrant loaf of wheat bread.
Basket by basket, like troops in formation,
How much bread is at the market today!
Haggling and shouting, curses, oaths, 
Around the sellers, circles of buyers,
extended arms, feverish faces,
the street sells bread, the street buys bread...
The street...a man lies stretched out
across the sidewalk like a crumpled rag.
 
[...;part here severely water damaged]
 
[...] nimbly avoids streetcars,
a man runs, pursued by a policeman’s truncheon.
To this he pays no mind and voraciously devours 
chunks of bread, eager for once to eat his fill.
The indifferent street, dumbfounded, has stopped,
blows rain down upon the man’s bones,
never mind that he is hungry, beat him mercilessly,
never mind that the policeman abuses him so,
this is how it should be, the street says so:...
 
The street...beneath the separation wall,
beneath a barrier to protect against typhus,
a quiet whisper, an agreed-upon sign, and over the barrier
a sack full of bread is tossed.
Quickly the bread is seized, wrapped in old rags,
the faster to escape the nearby watch.
Yet smuggled bread without ration cards is expensive
and a poor man can only dream about it.
Only for some, those chosen by fate,
does the Community or the ŻYTOS offices distribute bread.
So for a change, another picture – an office,
behind a small table, a clerk armed with a pen;
shouting, hubbub, tumult, raised voices,
it’s stuffy, crowded, hot, there’s smoke, cigarettes,
and at the door, there’s a line that stretches far.
They jostle, hunger won’t wait, it has no patience.
A policeman or janitor, deaf to entreaties,
lets the next ones through, slowly, and drives away the screaming ones,
So one, another one, a tenth one stands and waits
for bread, the bread they have dreamt of, tallied in decagrams.
For the bread tallied in decagrams, almost in grams,
bread which, alas, so often we do not have,
bread which has become a dream, has become a poem,
its prices are the main subject of conversations today.
I...do not listen to these conversations, they cannot fill one’s stomach,
what’s the use of talking...it’s better for hunger to be hidden.
Why upset both others and oneself?
It’s best to say nothing today, and that’s what I do.
Never mind that there’s constant pressure in your stomach,
pain for oneself, but a smiling face for strangers,
and though sometimes with difficulty because it’s almost through tears,
laugh, brother, laugh, because people like you 
must endure, and mustn’t cry.
A time will come when there will be
plenty of bread for everybody, for everybody! You hear?
A time when life will start anew.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw
RG Number RG 15.079M
Date Created
July 1941
Author / Creator
Szlengel, Władysław
Language(s)
Polish
Location
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Poem
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