Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch was the great poet of the Lodz ghetto and Chava Rosenfarb’s mentor, who introduced her to the writers’ group that met first at the home of the poet Miriam Ulinover and then at that of the painter, Israel Lejzerowicz. Shayevitch’s name and literary accomplishment might be totally forgotten were it not for the fact that two of his poems, “Lekh-lekho” and “Spring 1942” were found on a rubbish heap after the Lodz ghetto was liquidated. He perished at Dachau and all his other poetry perished with him.
Shayevitch was born in 1907 in Lenczyce, a small town near Lodz. The only son of an impoverished family of nine children, he was ordained a rabbi, but never practiced. When Shayevitch’s family moved to Lodz, he found work in a textile factory. Although deeply attached to his pious family, Shayevitch felt the pull of secular culture, which caused a painful rift with his orthodox parents.
Shayevitch began his writing career with a novel called The American, published in the mid-1930s. Another novel, On the Road to Blenkitna, was due to be published by the Yiddish PEN club on the eve of the war. It never appeared.
After the German invasion of Poland, Shayevitch moved with his wife and daughter into a one-room dwelling in the Lodz ghetto. His parents and sisters lodged nearby. With no means of support, he lived under the constant threat of starvation, his time divided between caring for his own family and for his parents and sisters. Until the beginning of 1941, he and his dependents lived on handouts from the Jewish ghetto administration, to whom he wrote constant letters begging for help. At length, he was given the job of janitor at the Vegetable Place, where vegetable rations were distributed to the ghetto population. This job permitted him to write in the intervals between work.
Patronage was a way of life in the ghetto. Two of Shayevitch’s letters from late 1941 survived the war. They are addressed to a Mr. Shmuel Rosenstein, a functionary of the Jewish ghetto government. Shayevitsh writes: “In the month of Sivan my father died, and after thirty days so did my mother. Now I am forced to watch my five-year old daughter and my wife waste away.” In another letter, he pleads: “Please trust the possibilities that lie dormant within me. Play for me the role of the High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies to kindle the flame of the menorah.”
By the end of 1941, the situation in the ghetto had worsened. One by one Shayevitch lost the members of his family to hunger and disease. That winter, too, mass deportations started from the ghetto. It was then that Shayevitch put aside the long verse epic he was working on and wrote the poem “Lekh-lekho,” taking the title from God’s biblical injunction to Abraham.
“Lekh-lekho” is addressed to the poet’s five-year old daughter, Blimele. It evokes biblical episodes as a way of comparing the traditional Jewish past with the tragic historical present, for instance in this description of the deportations:
But for this present catastrophe
There is no Jeremiah to cry his lamentation.
He does not accompany his people into exile
To console them, as once he did by the rivers of Babylon.
In “Lekh-Lekho” the father tells his daughter what to pack for the journey, including soap for washing her shirt and a special comb for delousing. He lists all the things that they will have to leave behind, including the poems which he has not yet finished writing. Occasionally, bitterness overwhelms the father, as when he speaks of his beloved Yiddish authors, then suggests the fate that awaits them, when the pages of their books will be used as toilet paper by those who remain behind.
By the end of the poem, Shayevitch makes explicit the comparison to the biblical “lekh-lekho” where God enjoined Abraham to go forth and enter the land that He would show him and there he would make of him a great nation. “And now,” says the poet, “must this great nation indeed go forth on its unknown, far off way/ Sick and tired—broken vessels/ That cannot find a shore.” Despite this, the poem ends on a note of hope:
Although under our steps is death,
Above our heads hovers the emanation of God.
So, child, let us go out with a new readiness for sacrifice
And with the old name of the one God.
“Lekh-lekho” was written in February 1942. Shayevitch returned to the theme of expulsion a few months later in the poem “Spring 1942,” which is in many ways a darker continuation of “Lekh-lekho.” Both poems were written at a time when it was not yet clear where the mass deportations were leading. But Shayevitch sensed that they were deaths sentences. In “Spring 1942,” he contrasts the hopeful onset of spring with the horrors of ghetto life and especially with the deportations of April 1942. Written on Passover Eve, the poem is divided into ten sections, each of which begins like an incantation with the phrase, “And in an hour of good fortune/ Spring is here again —”
The poem is written in blank verse and takes the form of a psalmodic chant. Shayevitch is constantly plagued by the question: Why did God sentence the Jews to death? But where “Lekh-lekho” ended with hope, “Spring 1942” ends with a call for revenge against those who slaughter an innocent people. Both “Spring 1942” and “Lekh-lekho” describe the poet’s ambivalent and complex reaction to God, a reaction that swings from humility to open revolt, from faith and hope to utter resignation.
Not long after Shayevitsh finished his poems, Rosenstein managed to find him a position in the Gas Kitchen, where the ghetto inhabitants went to cook their rations. By way of thanks, Shayevitch gave Rosenstein the two poems, “Lekh-lekho” and “Spring 1942,” thereby ensuring their survival after the war.
Shayevitch lost his wife and children during the Sperre (house arrest) that took place in the ghetto in September 1942. The Sperre was supposed to result in the deportation to the Chelmno death camp of children under ten and of the elderly, although in fact the Germans took whomever they pleased. Shayevitsh’s wife had just given birth to a son. Desperate for food, Shayevitch left his family one morning to get rations. He returned to find the door open, his wife and children gone.
Chava Rosenfarb, then 19 years old, met Shayevitch in the ghetto shortly after he lost his wife and children. It was to her that he read aloud sections of his long verse poem about the Lodz ghetto, which he never finished. Chapters 23 and 24 of this poem described the deportation of Shayevitch’s wife and children and were written in 1943, a year after the event. Shayevitch wrote other poems during his incarceration in the ghetto, all of which have been lost. One of these, “Israel Noble,” told of a young man who is caught trying to escape from the ghetto. The poem was intended as a composite portrait of the brave souls who had attempted the escape. Those who failed were hanged in the public square, while the rest of the ghetto inhabitants were forced to look on.
When in summer 1944, rumors circulated that the Lodz ghetto was to be liquidated, Shayevitch helped organize a hiding place in the apartment of Chava Rosenfarb’s parents. There a group of nine people hid for three days. On August 28, 1944, they were discovered and transported to Auschwitz. At Auschwitz the bag containing Shayevitch’s manuscripts was torn from his hands. From Auschwitz, Shayevitch was transported to the concentration camp at Kaufering, near Dachau. He continued to compose poems even in the camps. He was among the last group of inmates sent to the gas chamber.
The two poems and two letters that Shayevitch sent to Rosenstein were published in Yiddish after the war by the Jewish Historical Commission. This small paperback also reproduces Shayevitch’s handwritten manuscript. The two poems were written in columns on both sides of a book-keeping ledger. Shayevitch’s influence on Yiddish writers after the war was considerable, despite the meagerness of his output, and there are several Yiddish commentators on his work. Unfortunately, he is less well known to an English-speaking readership, although sections of his poems have appeared in English translation. In After the Apocalypse, David Roskies describes “Lekh-lekho” as “an unmistakably modern response to catastrophe, in which the oldest and newest strata of Jewish culture come together.”
This biographical essay and translations of Shayevitch’s verse are by Goldie Morgentaler.
Chava Rosenfarb's own essay on Shayevitch, "The Last Poet of Lodz" can be found at: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/111880/the-last-poet-of-lodz
Lekh-lekho [Go forth]. Ed. Nachman Blumenthal. Lodz: Central Jewish Historical Commission, 1946. Electronic version: http://archive.org/details/lekhlekha00szaj
Shayevitch’s poems can be found in Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1994; The Golden Peacock: A Worldwide Treasury of Yiddish Poetry. Ed. Joseph Leftwich. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1961.
Blumenthal, Nachman. “Introduction and Notes.” Lekh-lekho. Lodz: Central Jewish Historical Commission, 1946.
Fuchs, Chaim Leib. Lodsh shel maleh: dos yidishe geistige un derhoybene lodsh [Lodz of the Heavens: the spiritual and sublime Jewish Lodz]. Tel Aviv: Y. L. Peretz, 1972.
Goldkorn, Itzkhak. “Simkha-Bumin Shayevitsh.” Lodsher portretn: umgekumene yidishe shreyber un tipn. [Lodz Portraits: Murdered Jewish writers and types]. Tel Aviv: Hamenorah, 1963.
Mark, Ber. Di umgekumene shreyber fun di getos un lagern un zayere verk. [The murdered writers of the ghettos and concentrations camps and their works] Warsaw: yidish bukh farlag, 1954.
Rosenfarb. Chava. “A videh fun a mekhaber” [An author’s confession]. Di goldene keyt 81 (1973), 127-141.
Roskies, David G. Against the Apocalypse. Cambridge: Harvard UP. 1984.
Singer, S. D. “Simkha-Bumin Shayevitch.” Undzer veg [Our Way] 39, 4 (April 1966); 12-14.