Władysław Szlengel, the son of Maurycy and Mala Szlengel - a painter and a set designer, associated with, among other venues, the Kaminski Theatre - was probably born in 1912.
Many works cite 1914 as the poet's birth year, however, many indications from his work and from the accounts of people he encountered, suggest 1912. Determining the exact date is impossible, because the birth records for the years 1911-1912 of District VI, where the Szlengel family lived, have not survived.
It was exactly in “District VI”, at 14 Waliców Street, where young Szlengel grew up. He absorbed the climate of Warsaw's Wola district, the area of Żelazna and Chłodna Streets.
In 1930 he graduated from the Merchants’ Association Trade School. In the same year he made his debut in “Nasz Przegląd” (Our Review) with a poem entitled “Cjankali”. Since then, Szlengel's poems had appeared in many newspapers – “Nasz Przegląd”, “Szpilki” (Pins), “Robotnik” (Worker). He started cooperation with theatres and cabarets, he was creating for various venues, including the Italia cinema-theatre, the 13 rows theatre, and from the mid-1930s for Cyrulik Warszawski (Warsaw’s Barber), Ali Baba, Small Qui Pro Quo. It is estimated that he wrote about 70 songs. Many of them have been immortalised on vinyl records by Syrena Record and Odeon.
After the outbreak of World War II, Szlengel took part in the defence of Warsaw. In autumn, together with his wife, he went to Białystok, to the territories occupied by the Soviet Union. He took part in the creation of the Białystok Theatre of Miniatures. Together with a band, which included Kazimierz Krukowski, Zbigniew Mitzner and Leon Boruński, he toured the cities of “Western Belarus”. After the Theatre of Minatures was disbanded, Szlengel moved to Lviv. Many accounts indicate that he returned to Warsaw at that time. However, according to the composer Alfred Schütz, Szlengel stayed in his apartment in Lviv.
Also from Schütz we know that Szlengel eventually went to Warsaw just after the beginning of the German-Soviet war. In the archives of the Yad Vashem Institute there is a report by Menachem Mendel Lipszic, who apparently accompanied Szlengl and his wife on a journey from Lviv in January 1942. Lipszic said that Szlengel was captured by Germans and placed in the Janów camp. His friends managed to get him out and helped him return to Warsaw.
Szlengel went back to his flat at 14 Waliców Street - in the area included in the ghetto. He threw himself into the whirl of literary work. At the Sztuka (Art) cafe at 2 Leszno Street he took part in the creation of a cyclical program entitled Żywy Dziennik (Living Diary). It was
a kind of chronicle of current events in the ghetto, in a form of a newspaper. It was made up of songs, reports, interviews - written in sharp language, often ironical. Szlengel also performed at the Janusz Korczak’s Orphans’ Home.
During his stay in the ghetto, he wrote poems documenting everyday life and the Holocaust. His works, reproduced using carbon paper, were read throughout the closed district. Szlengel also collaborated with the Oneg Shabbat group.
In the summer of 1942, during the “Great Action” of liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, many of his friends and associates were murdered. Szlengel then moved to 34 Świętojerska Street. He got a job in a brushmakers' workshop.
On his own he continued writing for Żywy Dziennik. He read the works during secret literary evenings. In the vicinity of the Krasiński Garden, in a flat with a “window to the other side”, the deeply moving works were created, which he planned to publish in the collection entitled “Co czytałem umarłym” (What I read to the deceased). In the preface addressed to the Polish reader, he wrote:
“The poems which you will enter, my dears, without armbands, are a jungle in which you will not find it easy to find your way. Topics and props are alien and incomprehensible to you, they require many comments. There are words and points, whose depth and horrifying sadness can be understood only after the preparation in the form of a life behind the wall and under the whip of the SS-men.”
In the shed at Świętojerska Street, Szlengel survived till the outbreak of the ghetto uprising. Together with his wife, he found a shelter in the neighbourhood, in Szymon Kac’s basement at 36 Świętojerska Street. On May 8, 1943, the Germans detected the bunker and shot all the persons who were hiding there. Among these ca. 130 people was also Władysław Szlengel. His burial place remains unknown...
Your death and our death
are two different deaths.
Your death – it’s a strong death,
tearing into shreds.
Your death in the midst of grey fields
fertile from blood and sweat.
Your death is death from bullets
for something – ...for the Homeland.
Our death – it’s a silly death,
in an attic or a cellar,
our death is a dog’s death
from around the street corner.
Your death will be marked with a cross,
it is being reported,
our death – warehouse pile,
they will bury – goodbye.