Władysław 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 Władysław Szpilman. Szpilman composed music to accompany Szlengel’s dark and ironic poetry about the loss of Warsaw and the hopelessness of the Polish Jews.
Szlengel was an avowed secularist. With strong ties to the Polish literary world, as well as the Yiddish one, Szlengel felt the betrayal of his non-Jewish friends and the loss of the dream of assimilation. As the months of suffering in the ghetto dragged on, his writings became increasingly filled with harsh and biting imagery, ironic Yiddishisms and outrage at God. The power and darkness of his poems, as well as their simple and engaging language, made them popular and compelling in the ghetto, where they were recited by him and others. They also became known to Jews beyond Warsaw’s boundaries.
A realist, Szlengel held out little hope for his own survival, or for the salvation of the Polish Jews. One of his last poems, composed shortly before his death in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, expresses the desperation and fear that marked life in the ghetto. It also reflects the importance of writing for the people trapped in the ghetto:
With all my senses I feel myself being suffocated by the diminishing air in a boat that is irrevocably going down ... I write document-poems on the wall of my boat. To the companions of my tomb, I read elaborations of a poet, a poet Anno Domini 1943, who sought inspiration in the dismal chronicle of his day.
Szlengel was shot along with his wife at the age of 28. At the time of his death, he had produced a large body of songs and poems, only a few of which were saved.
Aaron, F., 1990. Bearing the unbearable: Yiddish and Polish poetry in the ghettos and concentration camps, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Katsherginski, S. & Leivick, H. eds., Lider fun di Getos un Lagern, New York: Alveltlekher Yidisher Kultur-Kongres.
Szpilman, W., 1999. The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, London: Victor Gollancz.