The poet who outlived his own nation by one year

75. anniversary of Itzhak Katzenelson's death

On 1 May 1944, Itzhak Katzenelson, a poet, playwright, translator and teacher, was murdered in the Auschwitz II Birkenau concentration camp. Several of his poems written in the ghetto were included in the second part of the Ringelblum Archive.

He was born in July 1886 in Karelichy near Navahrudak and was taught by his father Jakob Beniamin Katzenelson, a writer, director of cheders in Zgierz and Łódź. He received a traditional religious education, while in the field of secular knowledge, he was self-taught. As a young man, together with his family he moved to Warsaw, where he began to collaborate with magazines such as  ‘Ha-Cefira’, ‘Ha-Dor’, and with the Yidishe Bibliotek. After a few years, he returned to Łódź, where he managed a Hebrew primary school, and in the interwar period, he also opened the 1st Hebrew Gymnasium, a secular school.

As a writer, he debuted in 1904 and gained fame thanks to poetic prose in Hebrew, ‘Bi-g(e)wulot Lita’ (‘In the borders of Lithuania’), from 1909. He wrote many popular songs, fairytales and dramas for children and young adults. He was interested in Hebrew theatre, for which he wrote many works, such as the stage poem ‘Ha-Navi’ (‘The Prophet’, 1922). Since 1928, together with Itzhak Levi, he managed the ‘Habima’ Hebrew Drama Studio in Łódź.

Kassow writes that after his escape from the Łódź Ghetto to Warsaw in November 1939, Katzenelson had undergone a ‘profound change’. Before the war, he was writing his poetry mainly in Hebrew, in the ghetto he shifted towards Yiddish. He also became a mentor and intellectual leader of the Dror youth movement. [1] He became good friends with Yitzhak ‘Antek’ Zuckerman, who considered him as a spiritual leader. He was also writing for underground press and publications. Oneg Shabbat managed to gather several important works by Katzenelson, probably thanks to Eliasz Gutkowski. [2] Among his poems, there was also a stage poem in three acts, ‘Job’ – one of few literary works published as books in the Warsaw Ghetto. Other works from that period were preserved in the Dror archive and recovered after the war.

Agnieszka Żółkiewska and Marek Tuszewicki, editors of the 26th volume of the complete edition of the Ringelblum Archive – ‘Works of literature from the Warsaw Ghetto’, notice at the beginnign that Itzhak Katzenelson, initially seen as an optimistic poet, under the influence of his wartime experiences adapted an approach similar to lamenting Jeremiah. He disappeared as an author or works for children and youth, as a Hebrew poet, becoming a monumental speaker for the despair of a murdered nation. [3]

The poem ‘Ball’ written in May 1941 is an open accusation of the wealthier part of the community of lack of solidarity with the poor. Many works by Katzenelson were written during the Great Deportation in the Summer of 1942; they are a harrowing expression of the experiences of people closed in the ghetto, the tragedy of separation, missing the killed or deported family members. In his poems ‘Shlomo Jelikhovsky’ and ‘Song of the Radzyner’ appears a theme important to the poet – story of an individual with exceptional spirit, ready for sacrifice in the face of the Holocaust. [4]

Song of the Radzyner
I want to sing you a hero song
Oh, don’t laugh at me brothers
and don’t wonder how a Jew
comes to sing songs of heroes?
[translated by Sarah Traister Moskovitz]
Photo: Poem ‘Song of the Radzyner’ / source: The Ringelblum Archive

During the Great Deportation in the Summer of 1942, his wife Chana and two sons – 14-year old Benzion and 11-year old Beniamin were taken away to the Treblinka extermination camp. Kassow writes that the poet, struck by this loss, was on the edge of madness. He kept imagining them in agony before entering the gas chamber. [5] He wrote ‘The Day Of My Great Disaster’, a poem saved by Oneg Shabbat.

photo on the left: Icchak Kacenelson, ‘The Day Of My Great Disaster / source: The Ringelblum Archive
photo: Itzhak Katzenelson’s sons / source: Ghetto Fighters House Archive
The Day Of My Great Disaster
I rush to the four walls of misery,
covered in darkness, and suddenly, my hands wring –
Oh, Chana! My sons… nobody’s here!
[translated by Olga Drenda]

According to Kassow, Dror „took care of” Katzenelson and Zvi, organizing hiding places and providing security. After 18 January 1943, father and son managed to escape to the „aryan side” and found themselves for a short period of time in the same bunker in which Ringelblum and his family stayed later. [6]

After the Hotel Polski liquidation, Katzenelson and his son were transported to the Vittel camp in France, where between 2 October 1943 and 18 January 1944 Katzenelson wrote ‘The Song of the Murdered Jewish People, and from where he was transported to the Dracy camp and to Auschwitz II Birkenau, where he died in the gas chamber on 1 May 1944.

photo: Itzhak Katzenelson with his son / source: Ghetto Fighters House Archive

His last work consists of fifteen songs tellin g the story of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the poet’s testament. Katzenelson hid it, together with his diary, in a bottle and buried it in the ground, near a pine in the camp. Miriam Novitch, a prisoner who became friends with the poet, unearthed it on 12 September 1944, when the Allies liberated the camp. The poem was translated to Polish in 1973 by Jerzy Ficowski, who wrote: It takes great power of spirit and a sense of mission from the sole witness, whose word-monument must survive, to write such a Song in the shadow of a gas chamber. [7]

 

Sing! Take your harp in hand, hollow, stripped, and despised,
With heavy fingers strike each chord upon the heavens,
Each finger Iike a mournful heart … raise another last song
Of the last European Jews.
[translated by Robert Kirchner]
Footnotes:
Title quote: Jerzy Ficowski, Słowo o Icchaku Kacenelsonie [in:] Icchak Kacenelson, Pieśń o zamordowanym żydowskim narodzie, translated by Jerzy Ficowski, Czytelnik, Warsaw 1986, p. 7.
[1] Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history? translated by Grażyna Waluga, Olga Zienkiewicz, JHI Publishing House, Warsaw 2017, p. 536.
[2] Ibidem, p. 274.
[3] Introduction to: The Ringelblum Archive, Utwory literackie z getta warszawskiego, Vol. 26, ed. Agnieszka Żółkiewska, Marek Tuszewicki, Warsaw 2017, p. XXIV.
[4] Ibidem.
[5] Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?, op. cit., s. 537.
[6] Ibidem, s. 539.
[7] Jerzy Ficowski, Słowo o Icchaku Kacenelsonie [in:] Icchak Kacenelson, Pieśń o zamordowanym żydowskim narodzie, translated by Jerzy Ficowski, Czytelnik, Warsaw 1986, p. 9.
Bibliography:
The Ringelblum Archive, Utwory literackie z getta warszawskiego, Vol. 26, ed. Agnieszka Żółkiewska, Marek Tuszewicki, Warsaw 2017.
Icchak Kacenelson, Pieśń o zamordowanym żydowskim narodzie, translated by Jerzy Ficowski, Czytelnik, Warsaw 1986.
Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our history?, translated by Grażyna Waluga, Olga Zienkiewicz, JHI Publishing House, Warsaw 2017.