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Yitzhak Katzenelson    

Jewish Poet, Playwright and Educator



Yitzhak Katzenelson

Yitzhak Katzenelson was born on 21 July 1886, in Karelitz, now Korelichi, near the Belorussian capital of Minsk, as the son of Hinda Katzenelson and Jakob Benjamin Katzenelson, who was a writer and a teacher. 

Soon after his birth, the Katzenelson family moved to Lodz, where Yitzhak was considered a literary prodigy. By the age of twelve, he already had written his first play, Dreyfus un Esterhazy, which he performed with other young people in his own backyard.


As an adult, he first became known for his Hebrew textbooks and books for children, which were the first of their kind. He also wrote Yiddish comedies, which he translated into Hebrew. His first volume of poetry, Dimdumim (Hebrew for twilight). Appeared in 1910, and two years later Katzenelson founded the theatre Habima Halvrit (The Hebrew Stage) and a Hebrew school in Lodz. He also contributed to the development of modern Hebrew through his work as a translator. He translated works by Shakespeare and Heine, among others, into Hebrew.


Several of his Yiddish plays were performed in Lodz even before the First World War, and he took it on tours of cities in Poland and Lithuania. Before the First World War Katzenelson undertook the creation of a network of Hebrew schools in Lodz, from kindergarten to high school, which functioned until 1939. He was the author of textbooks, biblical plays, and children’s books.


Beginning in 1930 he belonged to the Dror movement in Lodz and to the He- Haluts movement, the latter operating a training kibbutz- Kibbutz Hakhsharah in Lodz. Katzenelson’s work in the interwar period was based on his sense that Jewish life in the Diaspora was incomplete; this belief also motivated his participation in cultural and other public affairs in those years. Such feelings appear in his works in the form of sombre symbols of death, boredom, and silence.In his Yiddish play Tarshish, Katzenelson deals with the roots of anti-Semitism in Poland and with the utter hopelessness of Jewish life on Polish soil. 


The German blitzkrieg against Poland began on 1September 1939, and eight days later Lodz, then home to some 250,000 Jews, was occupied by the Germans. Like many other Jewish institutions, Katzenelson’s school was closed; it later served as Gestapo headquarters.


At the urging of his family, Katzenelson fled in late November 1939 to Warsaw, his wife Hanna and their three children followed him there. In the Warsaw Ghetto Katzenelson worked in the underground as a teacher of religion and Hebrew and published under various pseudonyms , poems, short plays and articles in the underground newspaper of the socialist Zionist organisation Dror (freedom in Hebrew). Many of his works dealt with current events, while others had Biblical or historical settings and served as a transparent reflection of what was occurring at the time.


Katzenelson wrote poems about hunger and cold, which were intended not as works of art, but as a vivid expression of suffering, his images were a realistic expression in reaction to the desolate circumstances. The time in the Warsaw Ghetto was Katzenelson’s most creative period. In the ghetto he wrote approximately fifty plays, epics in verse and poems.


Yitzhak Katzenelson with the artist Shmuel Grodzenski and his wife Miriam

In the nineteen months of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, Katzenelson attempted to strengthen the ghetto inhabitants will to live, by interpreting everyday events in relation to Jewish history. His plays were performed in the orphanages of Korczak and Dombrowski, and weekly readings were held in the Dror commune at 34 Dzielna Street. With the help of a mimeograph machine, Dror published Katzeelson’s Yiddish play Iyov (Job) in the Warsaw Ghetto on 22 June 1941 – it was the only Jewish book published by Jews during the German occupation.


On 22 July 1942, the Germans commenced the long dreaded mass deportation of the Jews of Warsaw to the death camp at Treblinka, within the space of a few weeks a large percentage of the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto had been murdered there. Katzenelson’s wife Hanna, and his two younger sons Benjamin and Ben Zion were deported to Treblinka death camp on 14 August 1942, where all three perished. At the time of the mass deportation “aktion, “ Katzenelson worked in the Hallmann workshops.


Two days before the beginning of the mass deportations, Mordechai Tennenbaum, one of the leading members of Dror He-Halutz and one of the influential figures in founding the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ZOB) concealed some of Katzenelson’s writings, along with the Dror archives, in an underground hiding place, some of which survived, and is now in Israel. Katzenelson and his oldest son, Zvi, were smuggled into the Fritz Schulz workshop and thus protected from deportation.


On 18 January 1943 the Nazis attempted the “Second Aktion” to deport the so-called illegal Jews who were not employed in German owned factories, which led to the Jewish underground resistance and the Germans broke off the deportation after only four days.


Heinrich Himmler the Reichsfuhrer-SS ordered the SSPF (SS Police Leader) of Warsaw District von Sammern to liquidate the ghetto by 14 February 1943. On 19 April 1943 the Germans started the “Grosaktion” to finally liquidate the Warsaw ghetto, the Jews revolted and turned back the German forces, and thus began a revolt that lasted twenty –seven days. One day after the start of the revolt Katzenelson and his oldest son Zvi were smuggled out of a ghetto bunker at 50 Leszno Street into the “Aryan” part of the city.   


Itzhak Katzenelson and his son Zvi went to the Polski Hotel along with many other Jews who held foreign passports/ documentation, Katzenelson and his son procured documents from Katzenelson’s friend Daniel Guzik, certifying their citizenship of Honduras, and they left the Hotel Polski to the French internment camp at Vittel


On 3 October 1943, two days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Katzenelson started writing his most famous work Dos Lid funem Oysgehargen Yidishn Folk (The Song of the Murdered Jewish People). On 18 January 1944 he completed his epic work and he then concentrated on making corrections and copies.


Two months after its completion all the Jews interned in the Vittel Camp were declared stateless, and on 18 April 1944, all the one hundred and seventy three Polish Jews were transported in three railroad cars to the Drancy Transit Camp near Paris.


Miriam Novitch

Itzhak Katzenelson and his son Zvi were deported on the seventy-second RSHA transport from France which arrived at the Birkenau ramp on 1 May 199. This transport contained 1,004 Jewish men, women and children. 865 Jews were murdered in the gas chambers, probably including Yitzhak and Zvi Katzenelson.


In the spring of 1944 shortly after Katzenelson had completed his epic, Ruth Adler, a German Jew from Dresden who had a British Palestinian passport, received permission to leave the country in an exchange for German Prisoners of War. In the leather handle of her suitcase, she smuggled out one of the two copies out of the Vittel Camp and went to Israel.


The other copy was buried by Katzenelson with the help of fellow internee, Miriam Novitch – in three sealed glass bottles under a tree in the Vittel Camp. After the camps liberation Miriam Novitch retrieved the manuscript as well as other writings by Katzenelson.


His epic poem was first published in May 1945, barely a year after his death and the Ghetto Fighters House in Israel is named after Itzhak Katzenelson and the museum has made extensive efforts to collect his manuscripts and to translate his works into English and other languages. Katzenelson’s Vittel Diary was published in English in 1964.


Excerpts from the Song of the murdered Jewish People
by Itzhak Katzenelson; translated by Noah H. Rosenbloom


The First Ones...

And it continued. Ten a day, ten thousand Jews a day. That did not last very long. Soon they took fifteen thousand. Warsaw' The City of Jews - the fenced-in, walled-in city, Dwindled, expired, melted like snow before my eyes.

Warsaw, packed with Jews like a synagogue on Yom Kippur*, like a busy market place Jews trading and worshiping, both happy and sad Seeking their bread, praying to their God.

They crowded the walled-in, locked-in city. You are deserted now, Warsaw, like a gloomy wasteland. You are a cemetery now, more desolate than a graveyard.
Your streets are empty-not even a corpse can be found there. Your houses are open, yet no one enters, no one leaves. The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans, The world's best, the bleak earth's brightest. These children from the orphanages might have been our comfort. From these sad, mute, bleak faces our new dawn might have risen. At the end of the winter of forty-two I was in such a place.

I saw children just brought in from the street. I hid in a corner And saw a two-year-old girl in the lap of a teacher Thin, deathly pale and with such grave eyes.
I watched the two-year-old grandmother, The tiny Jewish girl, a hundred years old in her seriousness and grief.

What her grandmother could not dream she had seen in reality. I wept and said to myself: Don't cry, grief disappears, seriousness remains. Seriousness remains, seeps into the world, into life and affects it deeply. Jewish seriousness sobers, awakens and opens blind eyes.

It is like a Torah*, a prophecy, a holy writ for the world. Don't cry, don't ... Eighty million criminals for one Jewish child's seriousness. Don't cry I saw a five-year-old girl in that "home". She fed her younger, crying brother... She dipped hard bread crumbs in watery marmalade And got them cleverly into his mouth ... I was lucky To see it, to see the five-year-old mother feeding him, And to hear her words. My mother, exceptional though she was, was not that imaginative.

She wiped his tear with her laughter and talked him into joy. 0 little Jewish girl, Sholem Aleichem could not have done any better. I saw it. I saw the misery in that children's home.  I entered another room-there, too, it was fearfully cold. From afar a tin stove cast a glow on a group of children.

Half-naked children gathered around the glowing coal. The coal glowed. One stretched out a little foot, another a frozen hand, A naked back. A pale young boy with dark eyes Told a story. No, not a story! He was stirred and excited Isaiah! you were not as fervent, not as eloquent a Jew. He spoke a mixture of Yiddish and the holy tongue. No, it was all the holy tongue.

Listen! Listen! See his Jewish eyes, his forehead. How he raises his head ... Isaiah! you were not as small, not as great, Not as good, not as true, not as faithful as he. And not only the little boy who spoke in that children's home, But his little sisters and brothers who listened to him with open mouths 0 no, you countries, you old and rebuilt European cities, The world never saw such children before; they never existed on earth.

They, the Jewish children, were the first to perish, all of them, Almost all without father or mother, eaten by cold , hunger and vermin, Saintly messiahs, sanctified by pain ... 0 why such punishment? Why were they first to pay so high a price to evil in the days of slaughter? They were the first taken to die, the first in the wagon. They were flung into the big wagons like heaps of dung, and were carried off, killed, exterminated, Not a trace remained of my precious ones! Woe unto me, woe.

It's all over!

The end. At night, the sky is aflame. By day the smoke coils and at night it blazes out again. Awe! Like our beginning in the desert: A pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. Then my people marched with joy and faith to new life, and now-the end, all finished All of us on earth have been killed, young and old. We have all been exterminated.

Why? O don't ask why! Everybody knows, all gentiles, good and bad, The worst helped the Germans, the best closed one eye, pretending to be asleep- No, no, nobody will demand a reckoning, probe, ask why. Our blood is free, it may be shed. We may be killed and murdered with impunity. Among the Poles they looked for freedom fighters, only for those suspected Of patriotism ... They murdered many Russians in villages and towns- "Partisans". Among us, they killed babies in their cribs, even the unborn.

They led us all to Treblinka and before killing turned to us and said:

"Get undressed here. Put your clothes in order, shoes in pairs, leave your belongings. You'll need your clothes, shoes and other personal effects. You'll soon be back! You just arrived? From Warsaw? Paris? Prague? Saloniki? Take a bath!" A thousand enter the hall ... A thousand wait naked until the first thousand are gassed.
Thus they destroyed us, from Greece to Norway to the outskirts of Moscow about seven million, Discounting Jewish children in wombs. Only the pregnant mothers are counted. And if Jews remain in far-away America and in nearby Eretz Israel-demand these children too from the world. Demand. Demand the murdered unborn children. Demand those gassed in their mothers' wombs.

Why? No human being in the world asks why, yet all things do: Why? Each vacant apartment in thousands of towns and cities asks: Why? Listen, listen: Apartments will not stay vacant and empty homes will not remain empty. Another people is moving in, another language and a different way of life.

Rising over Lithuanian or Polish towns, the sun will never find A radiant old Jew at the window reciting Psalms, or going to the synagogue. On every road peasants will welcome the sun in wagons, going to market. So many gentiles-more than ever, yet the market is dead. It is crowded, yet seems empty. Never will a Jew grace the markets, and give them life. Never will a Jewish kapota flutter in markets on sacks of potatoes, flour, porridge. Never will a Jewish hand lift to a hen, pet a calf. The drunken peasant Will whip his horse sadly, return with his full wagon to the village. There are no more Jews in the land.

And Jewish children will never wake in the morning from bright dreams, Never go to heder, never watch birds, never tease, never play in the sand. 0 little Jewish boys! 0 bright Jewish eyes! Little angels! From where? From here, yet not from here. 0 beautiful little girls. 0 you bright pure faces, smudged and dishevelled. They are no more! Don't ask overseas about Kasrilevke, Yehupetz. Don't. Don't look for Menachem Mendels, Tevye the dairymen, Nogids, Motke thieves.

Don't look They will, like the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Amos from the Bible, Cry to you from Bialik, speak to you from Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch's books. Never will the voice of Torah be heard from yeshivoth, synagogues, and pale students, Purified by study and engrossed in the Talmud* ... No, no, it was not pallor but a glow, Already extinguished ... Rabbis, heads of yeshivoth, scholars, thin, weak prodigies, Masters of Talmud and Codes, small Jews with great heads, high foreheads, bright eyes-all gone.

Never will a Jewish mother cradle a baby. Jews will not die or be born. Never will plaintive songs of Jewish poets be sung. All's gone, gone. No Jewish theatre where men will laugh or silently shed a tear. No Jewish musicians and painters, Barcinskis, to create and innovate in joy and sorrow. Jews will fight or sacrifice no longer for others. They will no longer heal, soothe someone's pain, forgetting their own. 0 you foolish gentile, the bullet you fired at the Jew hit you too. 0 who will help you build your lands? Who will give you so much of heart and soul?

And my hot-headed Communists will no longer bicker and argue with my Bundists, Neither will they wrangle with my liberty-loving, devoted and conscientious Halutzim who offered themselves to the world, not forgetting their own woe. I watched the disputes and grieved ... If only you could continue to argue and stay alive!

Woe is unto me, nobody is left There was a people and it is no more. There was a people and it is ... Gone ... What a tale. it began in the Bible and lasted till now ... A very sad tale. A tale that began with Amalek* and concluded with the far crueller Germans... 0 distant sky, wide earth, vast seas, Do not crush and don't destroy the wicked. Let them destroy themselves!



Note: Although Yitzhak Katzenelson perished during the Holocaust the sprit of his poems has survived. We have decided to add his story to the Holocaust survivors section out of respect for his surviving works.   - H.E.A.R.T





Encyclopedia of the Holocaust

Holocaust Historical Society

Yitzhak Katzenelson – The Poet of Destruction by Julian Voloj – AJDC Paris 2005 

The Jews of Warsaw by Yisrael Gutman published by the Harvester Press Brighton 1982  

The Warsaw Ghetto – A Guide to the Perished City by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak published by Yale University Press 2009 

Auschwitz Chronicle by Danuta Czech published by Henry Holt and Company New York 1989  

The Song of the Murdered Jewish People by Itzhak Katzenelson; translated by Noah H. Rosenbloom

Ghetto Fighters House – Israel

Warsaw Ghetto Database



 Copyright. Irene Seymour with assistance from Chris Webb  H.E.A.R.T 2012


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