Friends  |  Press Room  |  Contact Us

The International School for Holocaust Studies

Two Poets and a Dividing Wall:

The Poets Wladislaw Szlengel and Czeslaw Milosz on the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto

Jackie Metzger

Two poets on opposite sides of one great divide,
With angles of vision that must surely collide,
Who will live and who will die
Who will write and who will be denied?

This article will focus on two famous poets who, after the German occupation of Warsaw, found themselves on separate sides of the wall dividing the Jewish ghetto from the Aryan part of the city.[1] Wladislaw Szlengel, a Jewish writer, became one of the best-known Jewish poets during the difficult days of the ghetto’s existence.
Czeslaw Milosz, born in Lithuania in 1911, was a young Polish poet who published his first poems in 1933 and joined the ranks of the Polish Underground during the war.

Poets are able to capture in few words and few lines what historians present in tomes. Szlengel and Milosz, a Jew and a Christian, with enhanced poetic sensitivities, enable us to approach the pain of an era, to glance into the physical and mental battering suffered by people in extreme circumstances, each from his unique angle of vision and experience. This is at the heart of the article before you.

Szlengel expresses the humiliation and the pain of life in the Warsaw ghetto in a collection of poems written during the period. At the same time, Czeslaw Milosz on the Aryan side of Warsaw is composing one of his great poems, A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto.

This poem, together with a poem of the Jewish poet Szlengel, will serve as a bridge between the separated worlds of the two poets, both of whom are experiencing at the same time and in the same city the difficulties of the Nazi occupation, each from his own reality and perspective. The reader of this article will find himself/herself on this metaphorical bridge of poetry that spans above but emanates from the flames of a burning ghetto below. This vantage point permits some access to the pain of the period without the mediation of historical texts and the historian’s account.

Much has been written about this poem of Milosz with the name of the poem even serving as a source of inspiration for the major ground-breaking article written in 1987 by the Polish literary critic Jan Blonski, Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto.[2] This article removed the lid from a simmering cauldron of mixed Polish attitudes to the Jewish Holocaust on Polish soil and the resulting public debate engaged a wide political spectrum and reached boiling point. Blonski was the first to come out against the overwhelming silence of the Polish people and the silencing of the Communist regime which still prevailed.[3]

Milosz’s greatness is reflected in the fact that forty years after he wrote the poem, Blonski chose to adopt the name of this poem for his article, albeit changing the word “Christian” for “the Poles”. Milosz had focused on the Christian-Jewish context whilst Blonski diverted the spotlight to Polish attitudes toward the Jewish tragedy in Poland. Blonski thus forged a sharp-edged fulcrum on which the Polish-Christian discourse would now teeter.

A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto

Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair.

Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
Ants build around white bone.
Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,
Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.
The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.
Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
With one leafless tree.

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.

I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
The uncircumcised.[4]

The first two verses of the poem describe a world of nature via the world of bees and ants together with a long list of materials and objects, some of which are forged in the natural world, like copper and leaves. Others are man-made objects like iron sheets or glass. The reader who doesn’t pay attention to the title of the poem at the outset will have difficulty deciphering the general direction in which Milosz is moving. In contrast, the reader who engages with the title first, can intuit that Milosz will take him into the hard terrain of remainders after some tragedy.

The destruction becomes more tangible in the second verse with the presence of signifiers like “lungs, white bone, tearing and collapse” appearing in the text.
The third verse introduces the surrealistic presence of the guardian-mole who maneuvers around this underground reality which now includes the explicit addition of “buried bodies”. Every detail that Milosz adds to the mole contributes color, depth, weight and meaning to this highly unusual representative of the lost Jewish world. With such an ingenious literary creation as a metaphor for this world, according to Blonski, Milosz added further intrigue by refusing to answer the question, “Who is the mole?”[5]

The last lines of the poem express the weight of guilt felt by a Christian examining his conscience as regards what he did not do to counter the forces of evil which were clearly destroying the Jewish community of his city. It behooves us to note here that Czeslaw Milosz did receive the title of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the war.

Milosz presents in this poem the extreme complexity of Polish attitudes to the fate of Jews on Polish soil during the war. This whole tangled subject of Polish-Jewish relations going back several centuries in Poland, has been in constant flux since the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. After the Second World War, with Poland behind the Iron Curtain, Communist suppression totally blocked fair treatment of the subject. This dam of silence was breached after the publication of Blonski’s article and the reverberations are still being voiced and heard in the Polish national discourse.[6]

From the Polish-Christian side represented in this article by Milosz, in 1943, we now turn our attention to what was simultaneously happening inside the ghetto, this time through the poetry of Wladyslaw Szlengel. Szlengel was born in 1914 in Warsaw and his promising literary future was cut short with his death at age twenty-nine during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in May 1943.

In his short life, he created a corpus of work that reflected a reality that went from worse to disastrous for the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Halina Birnbaum, who translated his poems into Hebrew, relates to us in an emotional forward to the Hebrew publication of his poems how the poems were passed around the ghetto by hand and how they were read in clandestine meetings in the ghetto and thus became a voice of encouragement during the difficult days and nights of the ghetto. Birnbaum tells how she herself, as a young girl of twelve and thirteen in the ghetto, participated in these poetry readings of his works although she never personally met Szlengel. She also describes how, forty years after she first read his poems, they are able to evoke the same sense of wonderment as there and then in the days of the ghetto. The collection of poems entitled “What I Read to the Dead” received its name from the poet himself during the days of the ghetto when he himself edited them for underground publication. He wrote:

“These poems I read to warm, vibrant people who believed in survival, an end to the suffering, tomorrow, revenge, happiness and rebuilding.”

After the huge deportations of the summer of 1942 during which more than 300,000 of the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto were taken on the train transports to their deaths in Treblinka, Szlengel coined the name that reverberates, “What I Read to the Dead.”

The following poem, which is written in simple language without high literary metaphors, expresses the pain-filled longing of a Jew imprisoned behind the walls of his ghetto for his beloved city, Warsaw.

A Window Faces the Other Side[7]

I have a window facing the other side,
It’s a brazen, Jewish window
That looks out on the pretty Krasinski Park
With its wet autumn leaves...
A greyish purple evening sky
With bending branches
Of Aryan trees peering into my
Jewish window…
And I am forbidden to stand in the window,
Correctly so, for Jewish insects…moles are
designed to be blind.
The young men sit in their pits,
Their eyes sunk in their work
Far from those Jewish windows
And I, when evening falls
Run to the darkened window
To regain a world and blunt the present.
Hungrily I look and I look
And devour an extinguished Warsaw,
The distant sounds of bustle and whistle
The lines of houses and streets and the remains of palaces…
My gaze absorbs the City Hall with
Theater Square below me.
A protective moon permits me
This sentimental escape
And my hungry eye
Roams deep as a piercing knife
Into the soft night
Of a silent Warsaw evening
in the darkened City Square.
And when I’ve soaked in enough
To last tomorrow and maybe a little longer,
I separate from the silent city
And magically with raised hand and closed eye, I whisper,
"Warsaw, speak for I await thee."

And immediately the pianos in the city
With silenced lids
Awake as one to the command,
Heavy, sad, and weary
And from one hundred pianos, a Chopin polonaise
Rises into the night.
With chords calling into the oppressive silence.
Above the city, this festival of sound
Emanating from the piano keys
As white as death.
The end… my hands drop
And the notes of the Polonaise are returned to a silence.
I turn back and think how terrible
That my window faces the other side.

(Free Translation)

Szlengel succeeds in conveying his deep sense of loss and the resulting pain from being cut off from his beloved Warsaw. As opposed to a list of attractions that Warsaw once offered all its inhabitants, the reader now sinks into descriptions of an imprisoned Jew in the ghetto with phrases like: “extinguished Warsaw”, “regain a world and blunt the present” or even, “I am forbidden to stand in the window”. Szlengel leaves the reader without hope as he concludes with a desolate last line, “how terrible that my window faces the other side.”

The two poets, Szlengel and Milosz, are separated by the dividing ghetto wall. Each uniquely presents the given situation but from a very different point of view. It is strange that the one expression used by both, “the mole”, depicts an animal who lives in the blackness of subterranean passages and underground darkness.

In Milosz’s poem we meet the “patriarch” with a headlamp on his forehead and despite Milosz’s reluctance to discuss the identity of the mole, we are presented with an unforgettable literary creation that doubles in the poem as an esteemed elder, the authority who is guarding the burnt embers, or the memory and heritage of the destroyed Jewish community of Warsaw. Milosz even employs the word “guardian” although besides the mole’s business with dead bodies, he does not actually specify what the mole is guarding.

Beyond the powerful description of the “guardian-mole”, Milosz deals with his own fear when he refers to himself as “a Jew from the New Testament”. This fear derives from the expected accusation issuing from the “patriarch-mole” of Christian-Polish collaboration with the German occupiers and their murder of the Jews.

There have been various attempts at unraveling the tension created in the poem of a possible meeting between the patriarch-mole and its creator in the chaos beneath the ruins of the ghetto. One approach has employed a psychological tone of explaining the Polish complex which derives from the given facts: the majority of the six million Jews were murdered on Polish soil by the Germans, an awful tragedy that perforce the Polish people witnessed as it was being perpetrated. Milosz’s subterranean descriptions now merge into the conscious and unconscious attempts of the Polish people to deal with this difficult past.

In contrast to Milosz’s mole/guardian/patriarch, Szlengel’s moles are young Jews sunk in their forced labor, unable to extricate themselves from an intolerable situation and forbidden even “to look through the window” to the other side. With the inexorable churning of the wheels of history, Szlengel’s moles will turn into the bodies of Milosz and the fate of all still screams from a distance of seventy years together with the turmoil of events that informed their lives… and death.

[1] This article will in no way deal with the relative suffering of different population groups subjugated during the German occupation. No purpose at all is served by comparing the pain and tribulations inflicted on the peoples of Europe. The article will also not pose historical questions and no hierarchy of the “Untermensch” so central to the Nazi ideology is intended.
[2] Jan Blonski, “Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto,” Yad Vashem Studies, 19 (1988), pp. 357-367.
[3] The years after the war in Poland behind the Iron Curtain present a complexity reflected in the following facts: Many Polish people collaborated with Nazi designs and were involved in pillage and murder. At the same time, Yad Vashem has recognized about six thousand Polish Righteous Among the Nations who saved Jews, the largest number from any one country. And finally, between two to three million Catholic Poles were murdered by the Germans in addition to the three million Jewish Poles. This complex reality remained simmering under Soviet oppression in Poland in the decades after the war. Blonski’s article removed the lid from this cauldron.
[4] Czeslaw Milosz: New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. - Ecco, 2003) pp.63, 64.
[5] Milosz stated that he had written the poem spontaneously and had no specific figure in mind. When the reader confronts this extraordinary image and recreates it in his /her own imagination, the following, written by Paul Celan in an unpublished letter to a friend, can help to grasp the greatness of Milosz’s literary creation. He wrote, in effect, “To the parts in your writings that I have not understood, I react with respect and expectation. Man is prohibited, totally, from pretending that he understands it all.. this would be a mark of disrespect to the unconscious level that is part and parcel of the poet. This would be forgetting that poetry is something to be breathed in, and in its turn, all-enveloping." See a similar translation in Pierre Joris, ed., Paul Celan: Selections (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), p. 184. Paul Celan (1920-1970) was one of the greatest poets writing in German after the war. He survived the Holocaust in Rumania and moved to France until his death in 1970.
[6] As recently as the beginning of this year, 2013 Jan-Feb, The New York Times Review of Books published an article by Norman Davies entitled; “Poland: Malice, Death, Survival”, on three new books just published dealing with this ongoing discourse.
[7] In the Warsaw ghetto, Jews whose windows faced the "Aryan" part of the city were actually forbidden to look through them; often the windows were walled up to physically prevent the Jews from having any contact with the rest of Warsaw.
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Blog