The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 15 no. 2


John and Bogdana Carpenter

Introduction to the Work of Wladyslaw Szlengel


Wladyslaw Szlengel died in April 1943 in the Uprising of the Warsaw ghetto. He was probably in his late twenties. He was born in Warsaw around 1914, but all records of his birth were lost or destroyed. We know the exact place of his death: at 36 Swietojerska Street, in the bunker of Simon Katz. The Uprising was put down with howitzers by the SS General Stroop, the entire ghetto turned into rubble.

Szlengel wrote in Polish. Before the war he was part of Warsaw’s literary scene, publishing poems in literary magazines such as Pins and Our Review. He was influenced by Polish writers of the literary movement Skamander. When Poland was attacked in September 1939 Szlengel took part in the country’s defense. When the ghetto was about to be sealed off, in 1941, he decided to go there. He described this decision in his poem “Around Warsaw” (Okolice Warszawy). 

Emanuel Ringelblum wrote an appreciative essay about Szlengel he included in his archive, Oneg Shabbat, that he later buried in the ground. Ringelblum wrote that Szlengel’s poems succeeded in moving the inhabitants of the ghetto “to tears. . .he spoke about what they lived, what they were most passionate about.” Ringelblum noted that Szlengel’s poems were popular, succeeding in communicating the spirit and atmosphere of the place. The poems were recited at many evening gatherings, and passed from hand to hand in versions copied by hand or typewriter. Several observers wrote that Szlengel’s poem “Counterattack” was one of the most popular poems among the ghetto’s inhabitants; it is an exhortation to take up arms, the point of view not only that of participant but leader. 

Szlengel was called by several observers “the poet of the ghetto,” but he was also conscious of the Polish reader “on the other side,” outside the walls. In his last collection of poems, “What I Read to the Dead,” he included a preface “To the Polish Reader,” addressed to former friends and colleagues “who went on a different road.” He expressed “a deep and hopeless nostalgia for Warsaw, if not for the capital in 1939, then for the city of my first poems and the spring of my first maturity.” Several poems express his desire, and inability, to communicate with those outside the ghetto.

After the ghetto was sealed off Szlengel became organizer, master of ceremonies and performer at the Cafe Sztuka, “The Art Café.” This place of entertainment had artistic ambitions. Wladyslaw Szpilman the pianist later wrote a book about his experiences in the ghetto, turned into a film in 2000 by Roman Polanski called The Pianist. Szpilman collaborated with Szlengel on many projects, and wrote: “The Sztuka was the largest ‘local’ or place of entertainment in the ghetto, and had universal ambitions. It had a concert room where some of the most famous singers and players performed. . . The poet Szlengel appeared daily. . . in the ‘Living Newspaper’ show, a witty chronicle.” Szlengel called his efforts “useful arts” — they were intended to cut through propaganda and false rumors. He and his friends wrote the daily newspaper at the Art Café, stapling the newspaper together on the café’s premises.

Jews from the many cities and towns in the Polish countryside were rounded up by the Wehrmacht in sweeps, and herded into the Warsaw ghetto. At one point the numbers inside approached the half-million mark. It was in effect the largest concentration camp in Europe, what one historian called “a city-camp” (obóz-dzielnica). 

In 1942 and 1943 Szlengel wrote with increasing speed. He called his writings “poem-documents ” and “a poetry of fact, ” but these words should be taken with many grains of salt. His sense of irony had evolved into something new, very powerful and tragic. More artistic development, and change, were compressed into the last years of his life than most writers achieve in a lifetime.