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.