The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 17 no. 2


Wladislaw Szlengel


Translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter


They lie on the table: three small chunks of bread,
rationed bread given for coupons.
As I devoured the white bread with my eyes
these images crossed my mind:

The street... amid traffic and noise
on the sidewalk or in the gutter
merchants are selling bread,
— “Can I help you, ma’m?” — “No thank you.”
They praise white bread, they praise dark bread
expensive bread and a “zweikolor” black rye.
A child-merchant hugs the bread
against his black dirty shirt.
He holds it tightly — priceless treasure —
a large white fragrant wheat bread.
One basket next to another like a military review.
Today a lot of bread in the market.
Around the merchants buyers in rings
are bargaining, cursing, swearing
hands stretched out, cheeks flushed,
bread is sold and bought in the street. 
On the sidewalk stretched out like a rumpled rag
[part of line destroyed] in a torn coat
[              “           ] with an open [    “    ]
[             “          ] streams running down his cheeks
[            “         ] a piece of bread
[           “        ] wealthy passers-by
[          “       ] indifferent.
[         “      ] on the city’s streets
[        “     ] such a time has come
[       “    ] a poor man with mouth salivating
[      “   ]... from hunger people die.
[     “  ] a man runs in the street like a baited rabbit,
nimbly avoids rickshaws and trams
behind him the blows of a policeman’s truncheon. 
He pays no attention, greedily devouring
big chunks of bread, wanting to eat his fill for once.
The indifferent street stops short, mesmerized.
Blows fall on joints, on bones,
beating without pity.
Who cares, he’s hungry, 
it’s nothing if he’s harassed by the policeman,
this is right, it’s the verdict of the street.

The street... near the dividing wall,
a barrier protecting against typhoid
a low whisper, agreed-upon sign, a large sack
of bread thrown over the wall.
They catch the bread quickly, wrap it in rags,
run away fast from the guard.
But smuggled bread without coupons is expensive,
a poor man can only dream of it.
The Local Council and Zytos administration
distribute bread to a few, fortune’ s darlings.
And so a change to another image — of an office
behind the desk an employee armed with pens,
shouts, tumult, raised voices,
hot, stuffy and crowded. A huge line, 
they push, hunger doesn’t wait, has no patience.
A policeman or caretaker deaf to pleading
lets people in slowly, by turns, shoos away noisy ones.
So they stand one, two, ten waiting for bread,
bread we dream of, bread portioned in ounces,
counted sometimes in grams,
bread that unfortunately we often don’t have.
Bread that became an object of dreams, a poem,
its price the most common subject of conversations.
I don’t listen to this talk, it won’t fill me up, 
why talk, better to conceal one’s hunger.
Who cares if the stomach hurts, 
the pain inside you, for others a smiling face. 
Even though it’s hard and makes you cry, laugh, brother,
laugh for those who must survive like you, not cry.
The time will come with plenty of bread
for everyone, for everyone, do you hear?
Time when a new life will begin.

                                        Warsaw July 1941