Aniela and Jerzy Gregorek   •  October 25, 2003

The Biography of Maurycy Szymel

Maurycy (Mosze) Szymel was born in Lvov in 1903 in a Jewish environment. He graduated from the Jewish Humanistic Gymnasium and was first published in 1925 in Moments, Lvov’s Jewish newspaper in the Polish language. He published lyrics, children’s poems, short stories, and plays and became one of the most devoted co-workers of Moments in which many Jewish poets published in the Polish language. Such writers included Juliusz Wit, Karol Dresdner, Anda Eker, Stefan Pomer, Artur Lauterbach, Daniel Ihr. For the first time in Poland, these writers created a new trend in poetry known as Polish-Jewish Poetry. This work expressed Jewish longings and praised the Jewish national soul “through a poet’s words — through Polish words” as Roman Brandstaetter, one of the most well known members of the movement, stated.

Szymel’s poetry revolves around the relationship between Jews and Poles as well as other aspects of his life as a Jew living in Poland. He reveals a strong feeling of connection to Poland and often relies on the color and scent of its landscape and countryside. In “Poland” (1934) he writes:

…gray, peasant horse
how does my love appear to you
when I caress your warm, sweaty head
with a shivering hand, the shy hand of a Jew?

One of the main themes of Jewish poets of his generation was their relationship to being of Polish origin. As a Jew, the motif of having “two homelands” has a particular place in Szymel’s poetry.

In the autumn of 1930, Szymel came to Warsaw from Lvov in a shabby and worn-out coat and beret which well-situated people ridiculed as a fool’s cap. He was a man of middle height, a little overweight, with light-skinned complexion, and wide blue eyes opened on the world. Arnold Slucki said that he looked like a typical member of the intelligentsia. Probably, during these years, he began studying the philosophy of the Polish language at Warsaw University.

Szymel lived the life of a poet-gypsy and, with difficulty, supported himself by writing poetry, literary articles and criticism, weekly columns, and translations from the Jewish language. His name was well known in Polish as well as in Polish-Jewish newspapers: Cracow’s New Journal, Warsaw’s Our Review, Opinion, Lector, Helm, Literature Voice, and Warsaw Newspaper.

Between 1930–1939, Szymel’s creativity reached a peak. He published three books of poems, Return Home (1931), Suburban Fiddle (1932), and Lyrical Evening (1935). These poems were mainly about history, the Bible, memories of his family (especially his mother), pictures of life in the Jewish ghetto, erotica, and his personal feelings toward Poland and the Polish-Jewish problem. Also, these poems show the influence of Polish writers Kasprowicz and Staff on his poetry — in his use of metaphor, rhyme, assonance, and in his spontaneity of making verses. Szymel’s poetry has the taste of “yesterday,” but the highest of all his talents is, as Karol Wictor Zawodzinski, the well-known critic, said, “real virtuosity of rhythm.”

Many critics liked Szymel and his books of poetry were well received by Polish-Jewish as well as by national literary critics writing for Literature News.

Between 1936–39, Szymel translated from the Jewish language and published six books. In addition, in 1938 he published the story Where are you Eve? in New Voice. Slowly, as he began to express himself more in the Jewish language, he became a bilingual poet.

The spread of anti-Semitism in Europe, and Hitler’s coming to power, increased the already spreading anti-Semitism in Poland. He wrote, in “Anti-Semites:”

On their way they broke windows with rocks,
threatening the sky above the roof.
A little, dark Jew escaped from the Yeshiva
green from the Moon and drunk with fear.

He stood behind the beaten and frightened people and decided to speak straightforwardly to them in their own language. He became one of them. His poem “Don’t Cry Little Boy” (“Wajn nisz jingele”), written after the pogrom in Przytyk, gained wide popularity.

Though his reputation was established as a Jew writing in Polish, he decided to write his poems to Jews in Jewish, which he signed by his native name, Mosze (Moses). He published these poems in Hajnt, and in two monthly magazines, Globus and Szriftin. He later collected them as a book of poems entitled Sadness in Me (Mir iz umetil), and published them in 1936. They were reprinted in 1937, showing Szymel’s increasing popularity.

In 1939, after World War II broke out, he succeeded in escaping from Warsaw to his birth town, Lvov, where, under Soviet occupation, he published his new poems written in the Jewish language in Soviet Literature in 1940. When the Germans took over Lvov he became an office worker in Judernat and shared the fate of all Jews living in the city — he was murdered in the concentration camp in Janowski. This version of his death is generally accepted rather than the other, which reports that he was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. Since his death no book of his poetry has been published, either in Polish or Jewish. His work only appeared in anthologies, and the personal as well as bibliographical information about him was often mistaken.

Szymel’s most prestigious poem, acknowledged by critics, is “Genealogia,” which was published in the two most prestigious and widely circulated anthologies published in Warsaw: Stanislaw Grochowiak and Jaroslaw Maciejewski’s Polish Poetry (1973) — Polish poetry written since the Middle Ages; and in Ryszard Matuszewski and Severyn Pollak’s Polish Poetry 1914–1939 (1962). Szymel’s inclusion in these anthologies should be read as a tribute to the memory of the murdered poet.

Zew Szops translated and included two of Szymel’s poems in his anthology, Anthology of Jewish Poetry, in 1980. Witold Dabrowski translated five poems, including the famous poem “To a Boy from a Jewish Town,” for Salamon Lastik and Arnold Slucki’s Anthology of Jewish Poetry (1983).

Szymel’s poems were translated and published in articles written about him in Poland by Arnold Slucki (1966) and in Israel by Ryszard Low (1958 and 1960) and by Natan Gross (1986). Also, in Israel, personal memoirs were written by Slucki (1969), who was his friend in Warsaw and by Filip Istner (1974), who was his friend in gymnasium.

His individual poems were translated into Hebrew and published in literary reviews and in anthologies in Tel Aviv. These poems were translated by Dov Sadan (1936), A.A. Fajans (1937), and Gabriel Talpir (1938). Since it was before the war, Szymel likely knew about these translations because he was a close friend of Sudan (Sztok), who often wrote about Szymel’s creativity in his Hebrew and Jewish magazines.

Szimszon Melcer translated and included Szymel’s four poems in his anthology, Al naharot, published in 1956 and reprinted in 1977. Also, Mosze Basok translated and included three of Szymel’s poems in his Hebrew anthology Selected Jewish Poetry (Miwchar szirat jidisz) in 1963. Szoszana Raczynska translated Szymel’s 38 poems and published them in bilingual edition, Polish-Hebrew, in 1995 in Israel.