We Remember What He Read to the Dead!

Władysław Szlengel

 Co czytałem umarłym – What I Read to the Dead – אשר קראתי למתים

Translated by Andrew Kobos, September 2004

What I Read to the Dead (Hebrew)

What I Read to the Dead (Polish)

The initiative to translate to English this 1943 text by Wladyslaw Szlengel came from Halina Birenbaum from Israel, a Holocaust survivor and my close friend. Upon the completion of the translation Halina wrote to me, I quote:

"You cannot imagine how many images and feelings are for me linked to this Szlengel's text. How many faces, voices, and places that no longer are – just as Szlengel described it in the midst of those events. They perished in just that way, everything that collapsed with no trace in just such atmosphere of fear, tension, and helplessness, of desperate yet futile attempts to find a rescue. Szlengel described all that so truly that one can breathe that air redolent of the merciless, irreversible hours on the edge of the abyss. This text of his makes an impression as if with his words he had photographed all that. It is almost hard to comprehend that in the situation of a total annihilation he was still able to write.

For me, it is extremely satisfying to know, that those days, those latter moments of the THEN of thousands of people, among them of my nearest loved ones (myself having survived only accidentally) will now reach the awareness of many people. That for a while they will feel all that, will be able to »see« how it looked like in every minute – into the cattle railcars and on to Treblinka. I could find no inner peace knowing that this document remained unknown to the most of the world. I strongly believe that it was necessary that people would get to know it."



I dedicate this translation to Halina Birenbaum on her 75th birtday.

Andrew Kobos
September 15, 2004.

Władysław Szlengel

What I Read to the Dead

Since a few days a scene from a Soviet patriotic theatrical play, whose name escaped me now became stuck in my mind: A submarine crew, not wanting to surrender to the Whites, decides to send the boat with themselves in it to the bottom of the sea. Sixteen heroic submariners wait in vain for help – the last scene being as follows: air is lacking… the death wanders around inside the sunken submarine… Some of them have already suffocated… Six… ten… fifteen… the sixteenth wants to somehow document the annihilation of the crew, but he does not exaggerate their sacrifice… what big happened after all that a handful from among a multimillion nation have perished… They have fallen for such a great cause that this particular number of the sacrificed lives is ridiculously small… so what? Barely sixteen! He then climbs up with his last strength and scribbles with chalk on the steel wall of his tomb 200,000,000 – 16… he subtracts from the two hundred million the sixteen unimportant human beings and it is over, it is all what will remain for the history. Digits – Statistics.

This scene and its shrewd, deep meaning (but not ignoring its message that always means much to me) recurred suddenly to me at the first hour of the second stage of the   a c t i o n…, and this image does not leave me even for a moment.

With all my nerves I, myself, feel being suffocated by the smaller and smaller rations of air in a u-boat that irreversibly sinks to the bottom. The difference is minimal: I am in this boat not having been carried away by a gesture of heroism, but I have been plunged into it without my will, guilt or any higher reason.

Yet I am in this boat and I feel being, if not her skipper, then at least the chronicler of those who are being sunk.

I do not want to leave behind me only the numbers for a statistics, I wish to enrich (it's a bad word anyway) the history to be written in the future with my contributions, documents and illustrations.

On the wall of my boat I keep writing down poems-documents; to the companions in my tomb I have read screeds of a poet, a poet of A. D. 1943, who has been seeking his inspiration in the gloomy chronicle of his days.

One day, I was supposed to read these poems to the persons who had believed in their survival; together with them I was to browse this little volume as a memoirs from the luckily survived nightmarish period, recollections from the bottom of the hell – now, the companions of my wandering are gone and within one hour these poems have become the ones that I read to the dead.

It is then the high time to sort my papers.


Four days ago I was building a naïve shelter equipped with a whole system of strings to shut the primitive hatches and screens. Four full days within a scrap of space with no exit against a flooding element, with the vision of the most beautiful kill a drunk SS-man can dream of to inflict.

During these four days the one but last wave of my readers have been deported. Gone are all those who only a week ago had listened to my poems and to the strange adventures of Meier Mlinczyk on the island of the Schultz block, gone are the audience of my literary evenings at the "broom-makers" – and so are my nearest flat-mates, neighbours, friends, comrades in discussions, often the unintentional co-creators of what this volume includes.

Deported in a sealed railcar was the poor and always freezing Fania R. who before my every departure for a performance used to throw "merde" at me, and who knew so numerous stories about Marie Curie-Sklodowska and Professor Roux.

No more are around my room-mates: the comical Joe who used to sleep in woman’s pyjamas and woman's stockings – not for a suggestive effect, but simply because he had nothing else to sleep in; deported is his full-of-energy wife who once had already escaped from the Umschlagplatz with a gunshot wound in her back – only to be returned there after five months of starving and her stubborn struggle to find means to escape to the "others". She did not manage.

No more is the beautiful Ida L., who was a personification of health and will of life…

Still the last week… oh, dammit!, my fists are clenching…

I saw the dead body of Asia S., who had once provoked me to write another, optimistic version of my poem Leave me alone… She's no more… oh, as matter of fact, tomorrow, my God, tomorrow or after tomorrow, as reported by our secret sources, the German orgy is to be repeated – how many more will be gone – it is too early to make the count. I am but ceaselessly tortured by the close and living ghosts of those who sat here yesterday or earlier, while being so confident yet so humanly scared of what has finally happened to them.

What tortured them most was that they knew what was awaiting them, and that they have departed with that horrible baggage of the true or untrue stories about the way people are killed.

We sat together in this very room where now the clatter of the typewriter evokes an association with the last journey – almost all those who most frequently were surrounding me, sitting in small chairs, on the bed and on their suitcases, and we all talked rumors, the possibilities, the chances.

Moods, denunciations and probability calculations were clashing in passionate discussions. And then Asia made the big, black point by proposing to open the cooking gas valves at night.

And they parted away...

Later that same evening I received an invitation to perform in a private apartment for a group of guests from the "other" side of the ghetto wall. I was able to guess whom I should encounter in that circle, but my inner struggle lasted short, as I always drew pleasure from reading suggestive poems and unambiguous mockeries of popular Gestapo-men just in their presence. In the times of Kohn, Heller, and Gancwajch , who felt literally hurt, if in Zywy Dziennik ("The Living Daily") no jokes were found about them – nothing surprises me as I know that in this business the snobbery is a dominating feeling.

So, I took my briefcase, sorted my papers, and left.

It was 9 o'clock at night, January 17, 1943.

A bright night, further brightened by the fresh snowfall, warm one. Behind the small wall, five meters and one human life away, measured steps of a gendarme sounded… It was several minutes after 9 pm. I entered Mietek R.'s flat located in a neighbouring apartment building of metal workers.

The guests had already left. R.'s wife was reduced to sobs. He came out with me to the entrance hall.

He explained it to me in short terms, that the literary evening has been postponed… his guests received an alarming phone call from an "arek", took their wives and drove hastily away. At 5 am next morning an   a c t i o n   can be expected.

– Although – he added calmingly – allegedly he had called a big shot at Szucha Avenue who told him, that it was out of the question, etc., simple pattern of a calming gossip.

– We can only hope it will all be well – he added while looking away and then he left me going back to his wife.

I went out into the street. The difference of ten minutes and what a horrendous rock on my chest, this wall is a coffin's lid, I feel squeezed, stifled, surrounded, locked up.

I shall not return home. My wife should not know that the evening event was cancelled.

I had to do something to kill the time. I went to the Werkschutz guardroom. The freezing blow of the bad news had already reached that place too.

In an unknown way, the visit and the sudden flight of the so-called "buddies" had become known to two or three groups of whisperers. They already know it… In a few minutes the whisper, as if a strangling ghoul, will fall onto the block… will drag people out of their beds… will knock cards out of people’s hands, glasses… vodka glasses.

The mood in the guardroom was dazed and fishy. They did not believe all that – we have to pull Szymek Kac away from his warm room, from his bridge table – perhaps he knows something, perhaps he will ring somewhere.

A few of us go to Szymek. The tentacles of flashlights pass each other in the yard. While passing the whispers fall silent.

The people know, they know… The human traffic has strangely increased in the palpably dark backyard.

At Szymek's obviously a bridge game in full swing. On the side we exchange several words. He apologizes to his wife and comes out with us.

The block sleeps no longer. The Ghetto does not sleep. The phones rattle with black threats. The Jewish islands alarm each other. The blocks exchange the news. The news has already spread everywhere. Memento! Memento! Death is watching! Death is lurking at the Befelsstelle – tomorrow, tomorrow it will jump out with its lurked leap.

300 SS-men. 1,000 SS-men… The numbers have a bragging contest. At 11:30 pm the small groups in the yard turn into caravans of scared to death animals that smell a forest fire.

The terror-lashed people with their coat collars turned up keep bumping against the walls of their cramped den. The first parties of the more bold jump over the [ghetto] wall and disappear into the city of the Aryans. Our Dag Muse Mountain is in fire. At 1 am I fall asleep, above me and behind the walls feet stamping and tumult continuing for the whole night.

My sleep is full of mirages, struggles and phantoms. Sultriness hangs on under the ceiling and it lies down on my chest. At 5 am Fania sticks her head into the room. You dress up! It is better to be dressed. Lazily and with nervous trembling I crawl out from the warm bed.

Still there is no certainty. Still the optimists have their theories and explanations. At 7 in the morning it becomes certain. Indifferently, like something necessary, well known and inevitable, from mouth to mouth the news is being repeated: The Action in the ghetto.

It was January 19, 1943.

Will these dates be marked on the margins of history?

Will it interest anybody that the day, on which one more time and not the last, the German superhuman tribe jibed at the humanity and … once more they tested their methods of killing with a devilish and refined fantasy.

The next day brings no sensation. Inspired by the expert "Stimmungsmachers" a mood is being spread of the rumor, promoted by the well-known source, that the "action" does not concern the "shops" , and the purge known as the "selection" will include only the "wild houses" in the ghetto. Peace sets slowly down onto the hearts that are thirsty of having become deceived.

An egoistic peace, it is them… not us…

The panic first falls on small shops and cheap bars, no bread, hard rolls that had waited for an occasional use, now go in their masses, old cakes, leftovers – everything, the cleaned out buffet counters look out with their cold, white and greased sheets of lining paper. Greasy plates, bare tables in but yesterday noisy bars, now stripped of table clothes, display their lame, thin legs.

Next evening small groups of people gather in the common apartments, but everybody goes to bed very early.

A night in an apartment building means pounding and foot stamping. The animals make their primitive molehills, naïve hide-outs behind the wardrobes with manholes through wooden crates, cellars are inspected feverishly, the first plans of systematic hiding in the burrows dawn on people – the plans that in the next 3-4 weeks will become the passion and the nervous rush of the ghetto.

Morning of January 19.

A quiet morning – with injections of phone calls from the befriended or neutral Gestapo-men.

Whispers climb the buildings' first floors:

Skosowski told me…

Paul insists…

Adam has called…

A strict order issued by the board is hastily followed and obeyed by the workshop managers: meetings at the workplaces.

The workshops get filled up well above their usual work-attendance.

Intensive rush for personal tags with numbers takes place. The board was late in issuing the tags to the workers. The terrified queues line up on the staircase in front of the doors to the thunder-wielders. A former goalkeeper, a half-intelligent but Aryan, Joseph Z., lazily and in a stately manner rummages through the papers and the deeds.

The frightened Jews are bowing low, down to their halves or quarters, and leave proudly with their tag plates. Hours are passing. From the ghetto more news arrive about the action. People are being killed, of course, the Umschlagplatz, railcars, nothing has changed; the limping Szmerling was brought to the square to work. This is his Napoleon's one hundred days. The old general returns for new victories Old PEBID team under the baton of the bearded Mephisto.

The "shops" are excluded, never before did the Germans enter any "shop".

It is official from the Dienststelle: The shops are excluded from the action.

SS-MEN ARE APPROACHING THE SHOP!!!

A sudden alarm, people run in panic. The crowd scatters from the yard into the attics, cellars, and workshops… The block trembles with the shivering of 3,000 human beings.

Hide! Oh no!! … Go to the workshops!! Who does not have a number???

Two thousand people have no numbers!! Run from the blocks to the ghetto through the hole!

TOO LATE!!! The gendarmes have surrounded the block! My boat is sinking – the water enters the cabins…

The staircase is tapping the clacks of danger.

Thousands of directions, ten thousand of useless moves, steps and grasps, dry and horrified eyes, hands are pulling bags, door handles, and hats.

THE PANIC!!!

BRANDT has arrived at the first floor. He enters the Dienststelle.

It is 11:45 am.

In our apartment there are all those who sat here with me yesterday and a day before when we were having theoretical conversations and discussions.

All the theories and plans are now collapsing and vanishing.

We crawl into a room through a small bathroom window. The other entrance is blocked with a wardrobe and crammed with a piled up junk. Everybody is here… my neighbours, flat-mates, and friends. The silent Asia is here too, and Sioma, full of energy, and the others. Also a magnificent archetype of the Aryan or Slavic, hell knows which one, beauty – Ziuta S. who could well pose for a folkloristic Polish painting.

Eighteen persons in a dark room, ridiculously and naïvely camouflaged.

A half of them have no control tags.

The apartment gets quiet, frozen in suspence.

Yet over the trampled china, glasses, broken furniture there quietly and attentively walks the Terror silent treading of which grows up to the terrifying, dangerous sounds.

We keep sitting for five minutes… seven…

This time stamping is not imaginary…

The first case of dehumanizing of man occurs.

Joe K., whose mother and sister sit among us, rushes into the bathroom and yells through the barriers. Get out!!! Open!!! They are only checking the number tags. Nothing will happen to those with the numbers! Indecision in the shelter, a clink of the smashed windowpane and a clatter of the plywood being broken interrupt the pondering inside. Man, stop destroying the shelter! There are people here without numbers! Do not destroy the hideout! But the rabid human beast rushes blindly around, and moves away the wardrobe on the other side, smashes the ingenious decorations of the faked disorder.

Our hideout is destroyed, exposed, and useless. The numbered cattle run downstairs. A few specimens with no numbers stand helplessly on the rubbles, on their trampled meadow.

The water is reaching my chest… Less and less of air is left in my imaginary submarine.

And so it has begun…

I saw these people for the last time…

One floor below I hid my wife in a cupboard in the main office, and, mixed among the office clerks, I waited for a miracle to happen that they would skip the Dienststelle.

And then a blockade lasted for an hour.

Brandt guarantees with his word of honour that he will take away only the "wilds" with no numbers (based on this, the same is guaranteed by the management).

Portioned earlier like a medicine and handed in as if medals for valour, the number tags are now shoved by their handfuls by the goalkeeper Z. into the hands of those who pass by, in order they give them to whomever they want, to whoever comes near. Only to save people! It is too late. The German word of honour this time too does not meet the expectations of the clear-headed.

The selection. People are whipped. ALL WOMEN are led away by the SS. To the column to be sent to the Umschlagplatz, are pushed – dragged out from our hideout – the mother and the sister of that devastating swine (Oh, the bitter and too fast a Nemezis…). Asia goes, Fania goes, huddled up, smaller than ever (it's cold… cold, terribly cold… and still ahead the all way up there, the square… cold), Ziuta, the lanciers’ girl of Kossak’s paintings goes too. Her husband begs for the release of his wife because of his position in the Werkschutz. An SS-man lets ger go. Eli pulls his wife out from the row.

This sparks off Asia’s revolt. A senseless, choking pain overcomes her. No! Why that one? She has more right to live! She has a child!!! A bidding of life and death… The right, reason, logic, pain, truth, motherhood – all that on a single footbridge over the abyss, in one second, within one step between the people's row and the SS-man's whip…

She runs following Ziuta… A gendarme's shot. The bullet hits Ziuta's forehead. She drops dead. Ziuta and her husband re-enter the column going to the Umschlagplatz.

The names – Ziuta… Asia… Eli... Fania… Sioma… do they tell you anything? Nothing. People. Not needed. There were thousands like them. In the thousands they went to the Umschlagplatz, in the thousands they were whipped, torn out from their families, loaded into sealed railcars. They were gassed. Unimportant ones. The statistics will not mention them, the crosses will not decorate them. First names only. Empty sounds. But for me they were living people, close to me, touchable. Theirs were the lives I knew, these ones meant a lot of events in which I had participated. These tragedies are beyond the power of perception, for me are more important than the fate of Europe.

They are gone.

Making the count.

The block swells with hollow crying. The corpses are being picked up.

For the farewell, SS-man named Orph shoots in the backs of the group of people who were released.

A siege of telephones follows. Help! Help! Help us! An attempt to mobilize the bigwigs in the Gestapo! Phone calls to the Umschlagplatz – Are the railcars there? Is Mr. Szmerling there? Sir, Chief! Mr. Skosowski! Help me! Any sum! 100,000! As much as it takes! I'll give you half-a-million for twenty persons! For ten persons! For one person!

Jews have money! Jews have connections! Jews are powerless!

Who will go there? We've got to do something!

Latest news arrives from the Umschagplatz – Mr. Holodenko was killed at the entrance to the shelter, he was late and knocked in vain to get in (on the previous day he himself had issued a regulation that no one be let in after the hideout has been locked).

Chaotic running about the apartment block.

Wailing. Tumult.

Asia's corpse lies in the guardroom.

Eli, the haughty and cocky chap (those stories of his about Belgium, Ghent, English ladies and the broad breath of Europe), is gone…

Everybody of my apartment building is gone.

I walk along the empty, long corridor. Hissing of boiling water from somewhere. An abandoned briefcase...

Bedding scattered around. A half-empty glass.

No more are they. No more. Nobody is around.

I run away from my flat.

The rescue team has already left for the Umschlagplatz.

Szymek Kac puts his marshal’s cap on. He gets money and broad powers.

The night is quickly falling onto this Valley of Mourning.

Again a nervous, short sleep. Next morning one has to be up and watching, all this may be repeated. The tension of waiting for news from the Umschlagplatz, whom have they managed to save. For now, it's known that about one hundred persons managed to hide themselves in the cellars. People are hiding in the cellars all over the place. The railcars did not arrive. Perhaps some will be saved.

Action across the city…

    Action at Schultz's…

        Action at Tobbens…

The first news that revives the nerves arrives.

Resistance! Shots are fired. The Jews have grenades. The Jews have weapons. At Niska Street a house is set ablaze. At Schultz's grenades were hurled.

Several SS-men have been killed.

A German ambulance cruises the quarter.

No longer is the ghetto a deep forest with the game being exterminated.

It becomes a front line.

The legend is growing. The myth is swelling. People are talking about fighting and about the retreat of the gendarmes.

The SS dare not enter the cellars. On a street intersection lies a spread body of the first dead SS-man.

His whip lies in the street's drain gutter.

The ghetto hospital has been deported. All the patients and the entire hospital staff, the sisters, the doctors, the administration workers.

At the surgical room all those in cast were slowly (one after another) shot dead.

(Oh, the torture that awaits a big writer to be described. The tenth or the fifteenth patient lying in cast, waiting for his slug, with his legs or limbs in cast, motionless…)

The whole central jail was deported, Gypsies included. The Gypsies refused to enter the railcars. They were all shot dead on the spot.

The furious and black of rage Brandt grasps those from Schultz's brought to the Umschlagplatz. With his pistol's but he smashes their skulls, shots dead every tenth person, tears women's hair out, kicks them with his boots of a German thug-soldier.

People are pushed into the cattle railcars.

A new, American-like organizational concept, but the devilish and rabid dog-like German way of tormenting and effort saving.

Trucks from the Werterfassung arrive and those entering the railcars are being stripped (20 oC below) of their shoes, coats, jackets, sweaters, in order to deprive them of their last hope that they are going perhaps somewhere to a camp… somewhere to work…

In order not to have later to strip the corpses…

People stripped of their cloth and shoes enter the railcars.

(Fania… Fania… Fania…)

In batches of 150 people, then 200… (regular capacity of a railcar being 40 persons – during the previous action they had loaded 60 people in each one).

It turns out to be a much needed way.

The third night.

Tomorrow it is supposed to end.

Short, too short nights in my room, in the dead stillness, disarray, in this tomb of the suddenly extinguished lives.

On these days of panic people are herding. 7-8 persons sleep in one room. Ceaseless conversations continue about the hours that have just passed.

The uninterrupted inflaming of the wound so that pain may clench the fists.

Szymek still stays at the Umschlagplatz.

Over the nights he unsuccessfully attempts to pull people out, to bribe or to cheat the Ukrainians and the gendarmes.

The first swallows are returning.

New stories and sensational adventures appear to be like those from paperback romances.

Eli came back from the Umschlagplatz. His fellow marshals helped him.

Ziuta came back too from the square disguised as a Polish policeman, in a sheepskin, boots and with a revolver.

Szymek pulls out a couple (two or three persons) of rascals.

O. was pulled out just before entering a railcar and he returns too.

A new series of stories come to us. Now we know everything.

We know how they squeeze people into the cattle railcars, what is spoken and thought in the cellars of the Umschlagplatz, how SS-men lured the people hidden there out with the threats of using gasses, we know how they killed them, how they took away their shoes and coats, how Mr. Szmerling takes the salute of a parade, we know the last wishes of our loved ones.

We know all that.

We know how the nightmarish fortunes are being made – how people roam the building floors seeking water, how they offer millions to the Ukrainians, how those who were saving on not buying white bread were deported, carrying along with them sums for which they could have sustained for months those hundreds on the square.

We know how they left with no coats, with a spectre of being suffocated by gas, with diamonds in their shoe heels, how dollars, pounds, "the hard", "the soft" rub all dryly against the body.

The treasury of the Reich is growing.

The Jewry is dying.

Everything is dying.

History is expanding, the small, narrow and unimportant history of our days.

Day Four of the action.

The resistance is growing.

The chronicle gallops.

Szternfeld, the king of the Jewish Gestapo-men murdered by the Germans.

A selection takes place from among the Jewish Marshal Service.

Colonel Szerynski commits suicide.

Jewish firms, Jewish Commune, etc. disbanded.

New forms, new deceptive number tags and prospects.

A pause in the action.

The folks call this action "small" as opposed to the "big" one, last July.

But the action proceeds.

The Jews can feel in the air, in their blood, between the lines can they the rumors, news and latest suggestions from the buddies at Szucha Avenue. Cement and bricks are being brought, the nights resound with the pounding of hammers and pickaxes. Water is pumped, wells are dug in the basements. The shelters. A mania, a rush, a cardiac neurosis of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Lighting, underground cables, drilling the passages, bricks again, ropes, sand… lots of sand. Sand…

Bunks, cots. Supplies sufficient for months.

Electricity, waterworks are written off, everything. Twenty centuries are written off by the SS-man’s whip. The cave epoch returns, oil lamps, village-type wells. The long night has begun. People are going back under the ground.

To escape from animals.

And behind the windows the sun gets higher and higher.

This February is exceptionally warm.

I am looking through and sorting the poems that were written to those who are no more. These poems I used to read to the warm, living people when I was full of faith in our survival, in an end to all that, in a to-morrow, in vengeance, in joy, in rebuilding.

Do read it.

This is our history.

This is what I read to the dead.

Selected Poems I (Polish & English)

Selected Poems II (Polish & Hebrew)

Selected Poems III (Polish & Hebrew)

Clarifications

What I Read to the Dead (Polish)  

What I Read to the Dead (Hebrew)

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Last Updated October 15th, 2004

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