There is an intense essay by the Polish poet Wladyslaw Szlengel called What I Read to the Dead. Szlengel wrote it as the Nazis were liquidating the ghetto in 1943. He captured the final months, weeks, days, and hours of Jewish life in Warsaw:
One day, I was supposed to read these poems to the persons who had believed in their survival; together with them I was to browse this little volume as a memoirs from the luckily survived nightmarish period, recollections from the bottom of the hell – now, the companions of my wandering are gone and within one hour these poems have become the ones that I read to the dead.
It is then the high time to sort my papers.
I am thinking about this essay now because I am doing a revision on my novel. (Unlike Szlengel's work, I end the story in late 1939, when the main character leaves Warsaw to escape the Nazis.) As part of this work, a wonderful woman in Poland is translating the last issues of a Polish Zionist newspaper so I can see for myself what the last days of pre-occupation Warsaw were like, and what the Jews of Warsaw were reading as the Nazis bore down on them.
But it is hard. It is hard to read these things knowing that 99% of the people who read these stories when they were fresh off the presses were dead within five years. It is hard to see their bravery, their optimism, their fears captured in stories noting that there are free clinics for the injured, in ads searching for lost family members, in recaps of the mayor's speech to boost the morale of the population. I am reading what a doomed and damned people read, and they could not even begin to fathom what was to come, but I know. I know and it is hard.
Here is what Mayor Starzynski said, quoted in the paper on Sept. 20, 1939, "The whole world has united in the fight against Germany. Warsaw will resist, survive and in the end – win."
(The city capitulated a week later.)
Here is a missing persons ad: "REJDER BEJNYCH is looking for his son DAWID (Dadek), who got separated on Thursday, 7th September about 4 a.m. at the outskirts of Warsaw. He’s staying at a dentist Szejnwald, Warsaw, Zlota Street 39"
Here is an article reporting how bad things are in Czechoslovakia: "UNBELIEVABLE TERROR IN CZECH REPUBLIC – according to the news from Belgrade over 10 000 people have been arrested in Prague over the last days, including many prominent politically active persons."
Here is an advisory: "SAFETY IN THE STREETS: during bombings several balconies were destroyed and now can easily fall down to the pavements. Same can happen with the glass from broken windows. For that reason pavements in dangerous places should be marked and barred."
Yes, this is some of what they read in the last published issue of Nasz Przegland - Our Review. It is painful to sort these papers.
Do read it.
This is our history.
This is what I read to the dead.