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Two Poets and a Dividing Wall

The Poets Wladislaw Szlengel and Czeslaw Milosz on the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto

Jackie Metzger
  1. This article will in no way deal with the relative suffering of different population groups subjugated during the German occupation. No purpose at all is served by comparing the pain and tribulations inflicted on the peoples of Europe. The article will also not pose historical questions and no hierarchy of the “Untermensch” so central to the Nazi ideology is intended. 
  2. Jan Blonski, “Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto,” Yad Vashem Studies, 19 (1988), pp. 357-367.
  3. The years after the war in Poland behind the Iron Curtain present a complexity reflected in the following facts: Many Polish people collaborated with Nazi designs and were involved in pillage and murder. At the same time, Yad Vashem has recognized about six thousand Polish Righteous Among the Nations who saved Jews, the largest number from any one country. And finally, between two to three million Catholic Poles were murdered by the Germans in addition to the three million Jewish Poles. This complex reality remained simmering under Soviet oppression in Poland in the decades after the war. Blonski’s article removed the lid from this cauldron.
  4. Czeslaw Milosz: New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. - Ecco, 2003) pp.63, 64.
  5. Milosz stated that he had written the poem spontaneously and had no specific figure in mind. When the reader confronts this extraordinary image and recreates it in his /her own imagination, the following, written by Paul Celan in an unpublished letter to a friend, can help to grasp the greatness of Milosz’s literary creation. He wrote, in effect, “To the parts in your writings that I have not understood, I react with respect and expectation. Man is prohibited, totally, from pretending that he understands it all.. this would be a mark of disrespect to the unconscious level that is part and parcel of the poet. This would be forgetting that poetry is something to be breathed in, and in its turn, all-enveloping." See a similar translation in Pierre Joris, ed., Paul Celan: Selections (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), p. 184. Paul Celan (1920-1970) was one of the greatest poets writing in German after the war. He survived the Holocaust in Rumania and moved to France until his death in 1970.
  6. As recently as the beginning of this year, 2013 Jan-Feb, The New York Times Review of Books published an article by Norman Davies entitled; “Poland: Malice, Death, Survival”, on three new books just published dealing with this ongoing discourse.
  7. In the Warsaw ghetto, Jews whose windows faced the "Aryan" part of the city were actually forbidden to look through them; often the windows were walled up to physically prevent the Jews from having any contact with the rest of Warsaw.