While I was in Warsaw, I heard fragments of a poem written in the Warsaw Ghetto. I could not forget the image of a person stealing glances of the city outside the ghetto walls under the moon. Like my usual unorganized self, though, I did not think to ask who wrote the poem or what it was called when I first heard it. Only hours later, when I could not stop the images from haunting my brain, did it occur to me that I was not sure. I embarked on an internet hunt to figure out what it might be. My friend and travel buddy agreed with me that it was likely Władysław Szlengel. I had a hard time finding a lot of his work in English, and when I ran "Window to the Other Side" through google translate, I realized that this was what I sought.

But google translate is not so great at the nuances of poetry, and even though it was still stirring with a terrible translation, I hope to find something better. Weeks later, I discovered that the Polish-Australian-Jewish poet translator Marcel Weyland (whose own story of escaping the Holocaust is incredible) had included the poem in his new book, The Word: Two Hundred Years of Polish Poetry. I'm not too into poetry in general (although I like a good reading or slam) and Polish poetry in particular is not something I think about, but I wanted this particular poem badly. I contacted the publisher, who referred me to Mr. Weyland, who arranged to sell it to me. He researched the shipping costs and told me to wire him the funds.

This lead me to WesternUnion in Times Square. There is not much more depressing than standing in a long line of almost exclusively people of color and watching them get nailed with surcharges and fees for cashing checks and sending money to their families. I myself gritted my teeth over the $15 fee. However, I discovered later that the cashier gave me back too much change so it would up being $10. (And probably her job, which I feel guilty about.)

I received the book on Monday. The poem is worth every cent of the $70 (seriously, I know) I wound up paying for it (and the others in the book are fantastic, too):

Window to the Other Side by Władysław Szlengel translated by Marcel Weyland

My window faces the other side, shameless and brash Jewish window, below, Krasinski Park's beauty, where autumn's dead leaves still linger... Through all of this grey-lilac evening the branches bow their grave greeting, and Aryan trees from the garden are in my Jewish window peeking... For me it's forbidden to look through (this by-law has obvious rightness), these Israelite moles... this vermin... quite properly should be sightless, should sit in their holes and squalor, for work keep their eyes and fingers, their eyes never, never straying outside their Jewish windows... But I rush, when night has fallen, so all can be smoothed, forgotten, in darkness I rush to this window, and stare... and stare like a glutton. and greedily steal quenched Warsaw, the hum and the distant whistle, the outline of streets and buildings, the crippled towers' stumps bristling... I steal the City Hall's outline, lies at my feet the Grand Theater, (the lunar camp guard permitting some sentimental night barter...) My eyes are greedily piercing these shadows (like knives well-sharpened), this silent evening in Warsaw, this city of mine all darkened... And when I have hoarded much for tomorrow, and longer even, farewell I the silent city, and raise magic hands to heaven... I close my eyes and whisper to Warsaw: Speak now... I am hoping...

All the pianos in town at that moment, all the pianos their silent lids open... their lids at my bidding fly open, raised up with sadness and weakness, and floats from a hundred pianos Chopin's Polonaise in the blackness... The keyboards call me, with pity and anguish of silence swollen, from death-white piano keys calling... The end now... and I drop my hands, the polonaise shrinks back inside its boxes. It's not good to have a window to this other side.

Incidentally, Weyland notes that the pianist Władysław Szpilman (who was featured in the movie The Pianist played Chopin's Polonaise when Szlengel first read this poem in public in 1941. Szlengel and his wife were killed during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Very few of his poems survive. It seems that a new book of his work will be published in English next year. I plan to buy it.

1 Comment