Remembering the Artists of the Warsaw Ghetto
Władysław Szpilman, Wiera Gran, Władysław Szlengel, Gela Seksztajn... Famous and cherished before the war, they sang, wrote, composed and painted. They spoke Yiddish and Polish. During World War II, imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, they never stopped being artists.
Born in 1914 in Warsaw, Władysław 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).
In poetry, he was a bitter observer of life in Poland in the 1930s, including the changes in Polish-Jewish relations and the rise of anti-semitism. In the Warsaw ghetto, Szlengel wrote pieces for the cabaret. His last poetic project, What I Read to the Dead, was envisaged as an ironic chronicle of life in the ghetto. It was published after his death. The most popular poet of the ghetto, known as the 'chronicler of the sinking', Szlengel perished on the 8th May 1943, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
By the time the war broke out, Wiera Gran had recorded over 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 fought 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.
Herszl Danielewicz was 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 Ooyf Bboydems, Kkrikh 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.
The painter Gela Seksztajn is one of the best-known figures of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ringelblum Archive preserved more than 300 of her drawings, gouaches 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 Historical 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…
A Yiddish poet from the town of Ostrołęka, Yisroel Shtern has been called one of the most important Yiddish poets of the inter-war period. He was 23 when he came to Warsaw in 1917, and in 1924 he won critical acclaim with his poem Shpitol Lider (Hospital Poems). Two years later his essay Crowns to Adorn the Head of Yiddish Criticism established him as a significant essayist as well. He portrayed his hometown, and its poorest district called Piaski, in the poem Ostrolenke.
Together with such writers as Israel Joszua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer, he was published in the weekly Literarishe Bleter between the wars, his articles sometimes being the cover stories.
He lived in extreme poverty throughout his entire life – Shtern used to pray for half a day and study in the 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 lining of his coat: the book he was currently reading, a collection of Rilke or Kasprowicz's verse and his own cup for washing his hands according to religious custom.
Henryka Łazowertówna was a Polish-language poet whose work was incredibly popular inside of the ghetto. Her most famous poem was Mały Szmugler (The Little Smuggler), which was later performed by the actress and singer Diana Blumenfeld. Fragments of the poem are now inscribed on the monument of the Children Victims of the Holocaust at the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw.
Itzhak Katzenelson was considered a child prodigy – at 12, he wrote the play Dreyfuss and Esterhazy in Hebrew and in 1899, he began publishing 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 travelled. He also started a Yiddish drama group, which staged his 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 murdered. Katzenelson was shattered, but lived on for his oldest son – he gave him the strength to go on. 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) as well as his best-known poem, Dos Lid Fun Oysgehargeten Yiddishen Folk (Song of the Murdered Jewish People).
A violinist and a composer, Artur Gold wrote mostly dance pieces. He wrote hit foxtrots and tangos, such as Jesienne Róże (Autumn Roses). In 1942, he was taken to the 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 from the Warsaw theatres who were sent to the camp. He was shot in 1943, together with the members of his orchestra, in the last weeks of the existence of the camp.
Before the war, Władysław Szpilman cooperated with the Polish Radio where he worked as a pianist and composer.
During the war, before his escape to the so-called Aryan side, where he survived in hiding until late July 1944, he played regularly at the Café Sztuka in the Warsaw Ghetto. 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. Szpilman's story was adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski in the film The Pianist, starring Adrien Brody.
Diana Blumenfeld was an actress, singer and pianist, who performed mostly in Yiddish. Apart from the performances in theatres of the Warsaw Ghetto, Blumenfeld also performed in small cafés and clubs, and 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
When World War II broke out, Miriam Eisenstadt had just graduated from school. In 1940, her family was considering going abroad, but in the end, they stayed in Warsaw. Soon, like most 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. 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.
Little, not even his first name, is known about this talented artist. Rozenfeld left a series of drawings which are illustrations of scenes which he witnessed in the ghetto. His style is evocative of cartoon technique, while his haunch for representing people as animals can remind one of a later classic of Holocaust representation, Maus by Art Spiegelman.
Born in Łódź in 1895 as Gustaw Baumrittter, Andrzej Włast was perhaps the most influential figure of interwar popular culture. As the author of cabaret shows in Warsaw and song lyrics popular in the whole nation, he shaped the aesthetic tastes of an entire generation. In the ghetto, Włast continued to write for cabaret but the people, as was reported, wouldn't laugh. He was killed in 1941 or 1942 by a Nazi German soldier.
Gerszon 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 a series of successful concerts at the Carnegie Hall. He returned to the U.S. in 1913 and 1921, where he performed at the Metropolitan Opera House and the Kessler Theatre. He popularised a number of Jewish prayers with his singing. He also had a number of secular compositions in his repertoire, which he often performed on European stages.
Although he was offered a chance to leave the ghetto, he refused to abandon his children and stayed with the Jewish community in the ghetto, where he continued to give concerts of religious music, the Great Synagogue being his main venue.
Originally written in Polish by Mikołaj Gliński, translated by PS, May 2013; updated by NR, Apr 2018