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Władysław Szlengel, "Final Exams"

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

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 German authorities 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

"Final Exams" is one of two Szlengel poems featured in this collection, and it was written at about the same time as "Bread" in the fall of 1941. In "Final Exams," the speaker is a Jewish student living in the ghetto who can hardly believe that a former classmate is preparing for her final exams, or "matura." Szengel's narrator compares prewar memories of school tests with the daily realities of ghetto life. Adversity and hunger dominate life in the ghetto so much that "l i f e" (with letters spread out graphically for emphasis) has itself become a teacher and a test. 

Both "Bread" and "Final Exams" reflect upon the harsh conditions of life in the Warsaw ghetto. Like "Bread," "Final Exams" also suffers from preservation issues. Water damage to the paper has made the last several lines of text unreadable.

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

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Matura [Final Exams]

At the intersection, where a crowd has assembled,
A familiar face stands out.
"Irka, how are you, long time no see! How’s your health?
Are you working? What’s going on? Tell me!"
"I’m not working, I’m busy otherwise, high school
final exams are coming, so I’m grinding away like mad." 
Final exams! Despite the lack of freedom,
final exams.
Final exams of old – silence in the hallways,
fear and seriousness in the faces,
white blouses, finally the green table,
hours of waiting, the paper one dreamed about.
Today I am not being taught at school, 
I am being taught by worries, by adversity.
My lessons are being given to me by a teacher
named l i f e.
The exam I am taking in his presence
seems like nothing compared to your final exams.
The professor gives me difficult tasks:
how long can I go without breakfast,
it rains and I walk around in old torn shoes, 
with unceasing hunger pains in my stomach.
final exams, everyday final exams,
wartime final exams.
[Note: Due to severe water damage, the poem’s final three lines are unreadable].

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
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Poem
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