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Władysław Szlengel

Władysław Szlengel, photo courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute
Władysław Szlengel, photo courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute

Władysław Szlengel – poet, journalist, stage actor. Born in 1914 in Warsaw. Polish-writing author, creator of lyrics for popular prewar songs (for instance "Jadziem Panie Zielonka"), most popular poet of the ghetto, called the "chronicler of the sinking", died on the 8th of May 1943, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The capitol completely dominated Władysław Szlengel’s work and the district primarily associated with him is Wola. Szlengel lived most of his life in a tenement house in 14 Waliców street. His father was a Warsaw painter, who made advertising posters for cinemas. In 1930 the prospective poet completed the Merchants’ Assembly Trade School of the City of Warsaw. It was during his school days that he first discovered his talent for rhyming and soon he established relations with a number of dailies and weeklies. He also contacted revue theatres.

From the beginning of the thirties to the end of the war he collaborated with "Nasz Przegląd", where he published such works as "Kol Nidre", "Nihil Novi", "Wiosna na ulicy Pawiej" ("Spring on Pawia Street"), "Sukoth", "Sklepiki" ("Little Stores"), "Płyną okręty" ("Sailing Ships") and others.In his writings for this paper he addressed the issue of the Jewish fate, which involved vagrancy andfeeling lonely and endangered. Other topics important to Szlengel included the tradition of Jewish holidays, his homeland, and especially his love for Warsaw. His poems were written in simple language and were often quite humorous. They were stylistically close to the works of the Skamander group.

Szlengel also wrote for the satirical weekly "Szpilki" ("Precz z Kolumbem / "To Heck with Columbus", "Małżeństwo dyktatora" / "Dictator’s Marriage"). His political texts were printed by "Robotnik" ("A Ballad about a Dictator and a Mob beneath a Balcony") and by the Lviv based "Sygnały" ("Ballada o dyktatorze i tłumie pod balkonem" / "Story of a Musical General"). The poet wrote solely in Polish. He also created for the cabaret, which he loved for his entire life. Before the war he made sketches for the "13 Rzędów" theatre and in 1939 he became a collaborator of the "Ali Baba" and "Tip Top" theatres.

Władysław Szlengel was a prolific creator, before the war he was one of the best-know authors of song lyrics. In the short versified forms he wrote for pieces of music by various composers he conjured warm and sincere poetical images. He penned down the words for such hits as "Jadziem Panie Zielonka" ("Let’s Go Mr. Coachman") or "Panna Andzia ma wychodne" ("Ms. Andzia’s Leave"). In 1938 the movie "Tango Notturno" inspired him, and together with Józef Lipski he wrote a song under the same title. The poet also became one of the cabaret artists that worked for the film industry. For the movie "Vivere", which was directed by Guido Brignone, he created the song "Wróć do mnie moja mała" ("Come Back to Me Baby").


After the II World War broke out Władysław Szlengel and his wife managed to move to Białystok, where under Soviet occupation the writer took up a job at the local Miniature Theatre. The venue was just beginning to operate as it was created in December 1939. Szlengel performed withthis theatre at the turn of 1939 and 1940 in Grodno, Pińsk and Nowogródek. He returned to Warsawprobably in the beginning of 1940 - by then the city was already occupied by the Germans. On the 16th of November Waliców street was made part of the Warsaw ghetto.

The newly introduced racist laws negatively influenced the living conditions of artists, who were forced to move to the closed Jewish district. The economic situation of the writers’ community was dramatic. Authors tried to make some money on such initiatives as readings, lectures or artistic-literary evenings with singing and recitation Szlengel was lucky enough to be more than just a writer. He was active in the most popular and prestigious literary coffee house in the ghetto, which also was a cabaret. The poet made a living in Café Sztuka in Leszno street 2, a place known for its high artistic standards. He performed in great company which included the magnificent poet Leonid Fokszański, the comedian and singer Józef Lipski and also the celebrated author and director from prewar revue theatres Andrzej Włast. Café Sztuka was also a venue for vocalists as it hosted appearances by Diana Blumenfeld, Pola Braun or Wiera Gran, who was already popular before the war. The coffee house also featured performances by the young singer Marysia Ajzensztadt, who was called the "nightingale of the ghetto". The artists were accompanied by a piano duo consisting of Władysław Szpilman and Artur Goldfeder.

Café Sztuka’s biggest attraction was however the satirical cabaret "Live Journal", which was created by the venue’s regular performers in Polish. This spoken chronicle of the ghetto was staged weekly and was extremely popular, chiefly thanks to Szlengel’s vivid poems and thanks to his intelligent monologues, which he delivered with great humour. The audience enjoyed the references to everyday life and the harsh, satirical comments on current issues. Szlengel mocked everything from the Jewish police through civil services to the social relations in the Jewish community. He was the brightest star of the coffe house in Leszno street. People were simply drawn to him. He wrote a lot – for himself and for his colleagues. Together with Józef Lipski he staged dialogues. In March 1942 he created a character named Majer Milińczyk. This 42-year old Jewish merchant, who used a mix of Yiddish and Polish, was a popular hero in a series of 15 feuilletons that ended in January 1943. Szlengel also wrote lyrics for Władysław Szpilman’s musical compositions. The songs they made together entered Wiera Gran’s core repertoire. The duo wrote Gran’s biggest hit "Jej pierwszy bal" ("Her First Ball").

In the ghetto Szlengel also had the opportunity to befriend people that weren’t involved with cabaret life. One of the persons he became acquainted with was dr Janusz Korczak. Szlengel wrote a poem about the protector of children. The work entitled "Kartka z dziennika akcji" ("A Page from anAction’s Journal") is the first written account of the march the old doctor and the children from hisorphanage were forced to make towards Umschlagplatz.

The coffe-house episode of Szlengel’s life was ended by the Grossaktion, which was organized between July and September 1942. This military operation’s objective was to relocate and exterminate all Warsaw Jews. Most of the creators of the "Live Journal" were affected by the mass resettlements. Szlengel however was fortunate enough to be assigned to work in the brush-makers’ shed -a German company that used forced, Jewish labour. The poet and his wife were relocated to an apartment in 34 Świętojerska street, where the author wrote as much as he could. On his own he reactivated the satirical "Live Journal", subsequent issues of which he read out aloud at Saturday literary evenings. He began to hold readings at other workshops and he decided to publish his poetry. His best-known versified works include "Okno na tamtą stronę" ("A Window to the Other Side"), "Pomnik" ("Statue"), "Rzeczy" ("Things"), "Kontratak" ("Counterattack"), "Obrachunek z Bogiem" ("Getting Even with God"). The poems were written in pencil and Szlengel made copies of them using a typing machine and tracing paper. He fastened together the loose pages making booklets, which he later handed out to his audiences. Szlengel also had literary plans that were more ambitious. He collected various documents and notes hoping to describe life in the ghetto one day. Unfortunately a selection action at the brush-makers’ shed was organized on the 8th of January 1943. It took many lives and greatly limited the poet’s plans. The artist gave a shocking account of this event in the prose text "What I Read to the Deceased". Eventually he decided to write a short "Encyclopedia of the Warsaw Ghetto". Unfortunately this work was lost together with many others writings by the author. Unfortunately Szlengel himself was also doomed. He tried to find help on the Aryan side, but sadly his attempts turned out to be futile.

Władysław Szlengel died during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on the 8th of May 1943. Together with his wife and a group of Jews he was hiding in Szymon Kac’s bunker in 36 Świętojerska street. The fortification was located in the front section of a cellar in a house that was already destroyed in 1939. After the Germans discovered the hideaway they shot all of its inhabitants dead the same day. The artist expired plainly. His last moment was neither heroic nor spectacular. He died similarly to the nameless millions exterminated by the Nazis. He shared the same fate as the innocent simple people, whose lives and deaths he portrayed in his poems.

Author: Magdalena Stańczuk, maj 2013.'s picture
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Władysław Szlengel


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