The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 15 no. 2


Wladyslaw Szlengel

Excerpts from What I Read to the Dead

Translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter

(published in complete in print magazine)

For the past few days I keep remembering a scene from a Soviet play whose title I don’t remember. The crew of a submarine doesn’t want to surrender to the Whites and sinks to the bottom. Sixteen heroic sailors wait in vain for help. Last image: lack of air, death hovering over the sunk submarine. Six, ten, then fifteen crewmen suffocate. The sixteenth wants to leave — somehow — a record of the annihilation of the crew. But he doesn’t magnify the sacrifice. After all what is so important in a nation of many millions if a handful of men dies? Perhaps they perished for a great cause, but the number of sacrificed lives was ridiculously small. Just sixteen! So what? In a last effort he lifts his hand and writes with a piece of chalk on the steel wall of his tomb, 200,000,000 minus sixteen. He subtracts sixteen unimportant existences from two hundred million. It’s done, it’s all that will remain in history. Numbers. Statistics.

* * *

Selection. Beating with a whip. ALL WOMEN are taken by the SS men. The mother and sister of that destructive beast Joseph K. (O bitter and too-eager nemesis) enter the line walking toward the Platz, dragged out from our hiding place. There goes Asya, there goes Fania, smaller than usual, curled up, it’s cold, terribly cold, and there is the road, the Platz, the cold, there goes Ziuta, the ulan’s girl in paintings by Kossak. Ziuta’s husband asks for the release of his wife on the grounds of his position in the Werkschutz. The SS man gives his permission. Eli pulls his wife out of the line.

Rebellion awakens in Asya. An absurd, suffocating pain. No. Why that other one? She has a greater right to live. She has a child!!! A contest of life and death. Right, common sense, logic, pain, truth, maternity — all of these on a narrow footbridge over the abyss, within a second, a single step between the line and the whip of the SS man.

She runs one step behind Ziuta. A shot by the policeman. The bullet hits her in the forehead. She falls down on the spot. Ziuta and her husband enter the line walking to the Platz.

The names — Ziuta, Asya, Eli, Fania, Shoma, do they tell you anything? Nothing. People. Not needed. There were thousands of people like that. By thousands they walked to the Platz, by thousands they were beaten with whips, torn away from their families, packed into train wagons. Gassed. Unimportant. Statistics won’t mention them, no cross will honor them. Names. Empty sounds. For me these people are living, close, palpable, lives that I know, numberless events in which I participated. These tragedies beyond the power of feeling are for me more important than the fate of Europe.

* * *

The first news stimulates the nerves.

Resistance! Shootings. Jews have hand-grenades. Jews have weapons. A house was set on fire on Niska Street. Hand-grenades were thrown at the Schultz factory.

Several SS men are killed.

A German ambulance drives around the district.

The ghetto stops being a forest of animals to be exterminated.


The legend grows. The myth becomes bigger. There is talk about battles. About the retreat of the policemen.

The SS men do not enter the cellars. At the street crossing the corpse of the first SS man lies flat.

His whip lies in a ditch.

The hospital has been moved out of the ghetto. All the sick, and the entire hospital staff, nurses, physicians, the administration.

Those in casts in the operating room were shot, one after the other.

(O torture, waiting for the great pens. The tenth or fifteenth man lying in a cast, waiting for his bullet, his legs or limbs in the cast, motionless.)

The entire central prison was evacuated. Including the Gypsies. The Gypsies did not want to enter the train wagons. They were executed on the spot.

Brandt, furious and blue from anger because of their resistance, rushes at the people from Schultz being led to the Platz. With the butt of his pistol he crushes skulls, shoots wildly at this one and that one, tears women’s hair, kicks with his boots at a German soldier.

They enter the wagons.

A new German way of torture and economy of labor, organized in modern mass-production style but devilish and dog-like.

The cars from Wertherfassung arrive. From those entering the wagons (it is minus 20 degrees centigrade) they take away shoes, coats, jackets, sweaters, to deprive them of the last hope that maybe they are going somewhere to a camp, to work somewhere.

In order not to have to strip corpses. . .

Clothes and shoes taken away, they enter the wagons.

(Fania. . . Fania. . . Fania. . .)

* * *

A new series of stories. We already know everything.

How they cram the wagons, what people say and think in the cellar of the Umschlagplatz, how the SS men lured out the ones who hid with the threat of gassing. We know how they killed, how they took shoes and coats, how Shmerling greets the procession, we know the last wishes of our dear ones.

We know.

We know how incredible fortunes are made —— how they walk through the floors looking for water, how they offer millions to the Ukrainians; how some save money, depriving themselves of white bread, and taking with them huge sums that could support hundreds of people on the Platz for months.

How they depart without coats, with the specter of being suffocated by gas, with diamonds in their heels, how dollars, pounds, “hard” and “soft” banknotes rub dryly against bodies.

The treasury of the Reich grows.

Jewry dies.

Everything dies.

History grows, the small, tight and unimportant history of our days.

The fourth day of the Aktion.


The chronicle gallops.

Shternfeld, king of the Jewish Gestapo, murdered by the Germans.

Selection among the Jewish orderlies.

The suicide of Colonel Szerynski.

The dissolution of the workshops, the Jewish community, etc.

New formations, new fake numbers and perspectives.

A break in the Aktion.

People call this Aktion “little,” in distinction to the big July Aktion.

But the Aktion continues.

The Jews sense in the air, in their blood, they read news between lines of gossip and new suggestions from their friends on Szucha Avenue. They bring cement and bricks. Nights resound with the knocking of hammers and pickaxes. Water is being pumped, underground wells built. Shelters. An obsession, a driving onward urge, neurosis at the heart of the Warsaw ghetto.

Light, underground cables, tunneling to exits. Again bricks, ropes, sand. . . Lots of sand. . . Sand.

Stretchers, bunks. Provisions for months.

Electricity, water pipes, everything is ruled out. Twenty centuries struck out by an SS man’s whip. The time of cavemen. The Cave Epoch. Oil lamps. Country wells. A long night. People go back underground.

Fleeing the animals.

Behind the window the sun is higher and higher.

February is exceptionally warm.

I check and arrange the poems written for those who are absent. I read these poems to living warm people, full of faith in survival, faith in an ending, in tomorrow, IN REVENGE, in joy and construction.

Read them.

This is our history.

This is what I read to the dead.




  • Aktion: The German word is a euphemism. It means attack, massacre, or liquidation.

  • The Umschlagplatz, or for short the Platz (the “place”): Germans constructed a special spur for the Treblinka-Warsaw railway line that entered inside the ghetto, it was the destination and gathering point for repeated “round-ups.”

  • Werkschutz: Groups exercising control inside the factories.

  • Wertherfassung: Special group of the SS.