Meet the Artists of the Warsaw Ghetto...
Famous and cherished before the war, they sang, wrote, composed and painted. They spoke Yiddish and Polish. When they found themselves imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, they never stopped being artists. Władysław Szpilman, the pianist at Cafe Sztuka, accompanied Wiera Gran (with whom he became estranged following accusations of Gran’s collaboration with the German forces), Władysław Szlengel, author of touching poetry, Gela Seksztajn the painter of watercolour portraits. Most of them left the ghetto for a journey of no return
Władysław Szlengel, photo courtesy of the Jewish Historic Institute
Born in 1914 in Warsaw, Szlengel was a poet, journalist, stage actor and a prolific artist. Before the war, he was one of the best-known authors of song lyrics. He conjured warm, sincere poetic images in short versified forms for pieces of music by various composers. He penned the words for such hits as Jadziem Panie Zielonka / Let’s Go Mr. Coachman and Panna Andzia ma wychodne / Ms. Andzia’s Leave. The most popular poet of the ghetto, called the "chronicler of the sinking", Szlengel died on the 8th of May 1943, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. More about Władysław Szlengel...
Wiera Gran, photo from the collection of Agata Tuszyńska / East News
By the time the war broke out, she had recorded 60 songs on 28 albums. In occupied Warsaw, she continued to sing in the cafés and cabarets of the ghetto. She was the only one in her family to survive the war, and for the rest of her life she fight accusations that she collaborated with the Gestapo in exchange for making it out of the ghetto. She proved her innocence time and time again -but many continued to believe she was guilty and she was ostracised. She published an autobiography in 1980 to address the accusations, and her fervent denials eventually mushroomed into an obsession. More about Wiera Gran ...
Fragment of the manuscript of "Di kronik fun Hersheles Toyt", written by Itzhak Katzenelson after Danielewicz’s death, source: Ghetto Fighters' House Museum
A poet and collector of Jewish folklore, also known as Herszele. He wrote solely in Yiddish. Two of his folk-stylised poems became hugely popular as songs - Gey oyf boydems, krikh in kelers / Go to the Attics, Get Into the Basements and Rashke iz a moyd a voyle / Raszke Is a Good Girl. Following his death due to starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto, his closest friend and poet, Icchak Katzeneslon, wrote a poem in his memory.
Gela Seksztajn, "Little Girl", photo: Jewish Historic Institute
The painter is one of the best known figures of the isolated district. The so-called Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto preserved more than 300 of her drawings, guaches and watercolours from the 1930-1942 period, along with her and her husband’s wills. Today her paintings are part of the collection of the Jewish Historic Institute in Warsaw. Seksztajn's will includes the following sentence: "I ask not of praises, all I want is to preserve the memory of me and my talented daughter Margelit…"
More about Gela Seksztajn...
Yisroel Shtern, "Lider un Eseyen"
A Yiddish poet from the town of Ostrołęka. He has been called one of the most important Yiddish poets between the two world wars. He was 23 when he came to Warsaw in 1917, and in 1924 won critical acclaim with his poem Shpitol Lider (Hospital Poems). Two years later his long essay Crowns to Adorn the Head of Yiddish Criticism established him as a significant essayist as well. Together with such writers as I. I. Singer and Bashevis Singer, he was published in the weekly Literarishe Bleter between the wars, his article sometimes opening the magazine's issue. He portrayed his home town, and its poorest district called Piaski, in the poem Ostrolenke.
He lived in extreme poverty throughout his entire life – Sztern used to pray for half a day and study the holy books in beth midrash during the other half. He frequently went hungry and was known to be able to survive a day on a crust of bread. He walked around in the ghetto wearing a jacket with torn-off pockets. The writer Rachela Auerbach noted that he carried his most precious objects the flap – the book he was currently reading, a collection of Rilke or Kasprowicz verse and his own kosher dish for washing his hands according to religious custom. More information about the poet and English translations of his poetry are available on the website http://www.yisroelshtern.org
Children smuggling food into the ghetto by the gate on the corner of Leszno and Żelazna streets. The Little Smuggler is the most famous poem written by Łazowertówna, photo taken by German occupants courtesy of the Jewish Historic Museum
A Polish-language poet whose work was incredibly popular inside of the ghetto, especially the poem Mały Szmugler (The Little Smuggler), which was performed by Diana Blumenfeld. Its fragments are inscribed on the monument of the Children Victims of the Holocaust on the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw.
A fragment of the manuscript of Song of the Murdered Jewish Nation, courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters House Archives
Itzhak was considered a child prodigy – at 12, he wrote the play Dreyfuss and Esterhazy in Hebrew, and since 1899 he published his work in Hebrew periodicals. His poems were like a shot of vitality, optimism and humour. In 1912 he founded the theatre Habima Haivrit (The Hebrew Scene), with which he performed and traveled. He also started a Yiddish drama group, which staged his own plays as well as works by Yiddish authors and took up translating literature into Hebrew – above all the works by Heinrich Heine.
In July 1942 the poet's wife Chana and his two younger sons were taken to Treblinka, where they were all murdered. Katzenelson was shattered by this turn of events but he still had one son left, who gave him the strength to remain active. He participated in the early stages of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising until he and his son were relocated to a bunker outside the ghetto. In a detainee camp in Vittel in France, the author created Pinkas Vittel / The Vittel Book and his best known poem, Dos lid fun oysgehargeten yiddishen folk / Song of the Murdered Jewish People. More about Itzak Katzenelson...
Artur Gold (second from left) and Jerzy Petersburski (third from left) , source: NAC
A violinist and a composer, Gold created mostly dance pieces. He wrote hit foxtrott and tango songs, such as Tango Milonga and Jesienne róże (Autumn Gold). In 1942 he was taken to Treblinka extermination camp, where he founded a camp orchestra. With time, it expanded into an ensemble that included dancers and singers, and also a few actors who arrived from the Warsaw theatres. He was shot in 1943 together with his fellow instrumentalists from the orchestra, in the last weeks of the existence of the camp.
Emanuel Ringelblum, photo courtesy of the Jewish Historic Institute
Within a week of closing off the Warsaw ghetto, on the 22nd of November 1940, Ringelblum hosted the initial meeting of the Oneg Szabat research group. The members of the Oneg Szabat documented life in the ghetto and the fate of Jewish people across Poland. Materials survived in the archives collected by Ringelblum and his collaborators, which were buried and then found, in large part, in the ruins of the ghetto after the war. The archives contained reports, letters, diaries, literary texts, works by schoolchildren, daily press as well as underground leaflets, posters and flyers, as well as official documents of the Judenrat and the German occupants.
Władysław Szpilman, photo courtesy of the family archive www.szpilmanpianistawarszawy.pl
Before the war, Szpilman cooperated with the Polish Radio where he worked as a pianist and composer. He played at the Café Sztuka in the Warsaw Ghetto prior to his escape to the so-called Aryan side, where he survived in hiding until late July 1944. After the fall of the Warsaw Uprising he remained in hiding, cut off from his Polish friends and any possible help. He found refuge in a burnt-down villa on Niepodległość Avenue, where he was found and helped by Wehrmacht Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who regularly brought him food. The fate of Szpilman formed the basis of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, starring Adrien Brody. More about Władysław Szpilman...
Diana Blumenfeld (seated, second from righ) and Jonas Turkow (seated, second from left) in Munich during their artistic performances at the dipis camps in Germany, after WWII. The photograph is from the Jonas Turkow collection, currently part of Ghetto Fighters' House Museum w Izraelu
An actress, singer and pianist, who performed mostly in Yiddish. Apart from the performances in theatres of the Warsaw Ghetto, Diana Blumenfeld also appeared in small café clubs, sang and gave individual concerts. Her deep, original alto is known to have inspired composers, especially Pola Braun. Braun was a prominent composer and poet and she coauthored the famous Living Journal of the ghetto, together with Władysław Szlengel.
Miriam (Marysia) Eisenstadt
Maria Ajzensztadt, photo courtesy of the Jewish Historic Institute
When the Second World War broke out, Miriam Eisenstadt had just graduated from school. In 1940 her family was considering going abroad, but in the end they stayed in Poland. Soon, like most all Jews, they were confined to the ghetto.
She had a broad-ranged lyrical soprano that enabled her to deliver the hardest passages and cadences, and thus she was commonly referred to as the “nightingale of the ghetto”. Her voice had an unusual timbre. She was admired not only for her technique but also for her sensibility and subtleness. She expressed the tragedy of the ghetto very accurately and her singing resonated with the atmosphere of pathos and hope that accompanied the suffering Jews. The listeners thought of her as of someone who was on a mission of making the last moments of the inhabitants of the ghetto more bearable. More about Maria Ajzensztadt...
Gerszon Sirota, photo: Jewish Historic Institute
Sirota was commonly referred to as the "king of cantors" or the Jewish Caruso. A worldwide phenomenon, he was famed among Jewish communities also outside of Poland. Sirota first toured the U.S. with Leo Loev in 1912, starting the series of succesful concerts at the Canergie hall. He returned to the U.S. in 1913 and 1921, with appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House and the Kessler Theatre. He popularized a number of prayers with his singing, and in his repertoire he also had secular compositions, which he often performed on European scenes.
Although he was offered a chance to escape the ghetto, he refused to abandon his children and stayed with the isolated Jewish community, where he kept giving many concerts of religious music, the Grand Synagogue being his main venue. More about Gerszon Sirota…
Edited by Mikołaj Gliński, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 7.05.2013