All deaths leave a void, but mourners for Avrom Sutzkever, arguably the greatest Yiddish poet of the twentieth century, are feeling an accordingly outsize loss. Remembering the life and reading the work, one is struck once more by how genius and circumstance combine to create a means of expressing the inexpressible--and in a way that seems, considering the circumstances, almost natural.
Born 96 years ago in a small industrial town about fifty miles out of Vilna, Sutzkever was expelled at the age of two from that town along with all his fellow Jews by the Russians, who saw them as potential spies for the Germans. The next five years were spent in Omsk, in Siberia, conventionally exile but for Sutzkever an inspirational natural wonderland. Returning to Vilna in 1920, he encountered the two loves of his life--his wife Freydke and Yiddish poetry-- in the welter of Jewish secular cultural organizations then flourishing there, and found artistic companionship, of a sort, in the group of intellectuals known as “Young Vilna,” which most famously included Chaim Grade (Sutzkever’s apolitical poetry tended to raise objections). Remarkable works like Siberia and From the Forest followed, which would have sufficed to cement Sutzkever’s reputation in the canon as the genius who put the lie to the old claim--noised around by modern Yiddish literature’s founder, S. Y. Abramovitch--that Eastern European Jews didn’t know how to appreciate the natural world around them.
And then, in June of 1941, the Germans turned on their Soviet allies and invaded Lithuania.
All survivors’ biographies are filled with extraordinary events; so much so that the listener occasionally fears suffering from becoming jaded. Sutzkever’s story itself was no less extraordinary--and just as tragic--as the others. He was forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint; his newborn son was poisoned by the Germans in the ghetto hospital. Less than a year later, Sutzkever would write a poem from a child’s viewpoint begging its mother to:
strangle me with your Mama fingers
On my willow cradle.
It will mean:
Your love is stronger than death.
It will mean:
You trusted me with your love.
Is there anything more shattering, and utterly poetic, and utterly representative of the raging impossibility of the concentrationary universe, than the throwing of the obligation of the murder upon the loving self?
Sutzkever survived, though, a survival dependent, in two distinct ways, on his poetry. Writing kept him sane and focused as he hid in a crawl space for six weeks during the first waves of the invasion when men were being dragged off to Ponar. It also maintained him as he weathered the rigors of daily life in the ghetto (where he saved books and manuscripts destined for destruction or for future Nazi museums) and as he led the impossible life of a partisan in the Vilna forests, menaced by Nazis, Polish right-wing underground forces, and even anti-Semitic elements in the Soviet partisan movement he joined. More directly--if not more importantly-- Sutzkever’s poetry had reached Moscow, and its impact there led to his salvation by the president-in-exile of the Lithuanian government. From Moscow, Sutzkever would end up immigrating to Palestine in 1947, where he would remain for the next six decades, a prolific poet and a versatile editor of The Golden Chain, a Yiddish cultural journal.
Sutzkever’s particular power as a Holocaust poet comes from his uncanny ability to harness both ends of the poetic spectrum to achieve his effects. His epic poem Clandestine City, written from 1945 to 1947, features little Jews with enormous emotions skittering around the “abyss of sewers” beneath the Vilna streets. Sutzkever had found his own Inferno in the cauldron of Europe, with a tragic minyan standing in for Dante’s pilgrim. But he could also write, during his time in the ghetto, that
Over a pile of steaming horse dung,
I warm my icy hands.
I warm my hands and regret:
Not enough have I known, have I listened
To the greatness of smallness.
The warm breath of a pile of dung
May become a poem, a thing of beauty.
Sutzkever’s simple descriptions of enormous horrors--perhaps most famously the couplet “Did you ever see in fields of snow/Frozen Jews, in row upon row?” split the difference, reducing the traces of mass human homicide to a childlike, wondering response at what seems to have become the new natural landscape.
Wonder is, of course, a rhetorical pose, and it juxtaposes powerfully with his other great theme as a Holocaust poet: guilt, both of the survivor and the artist who uses these raw materials for survival, personal and poetic. A 1951 poem describes an episode where the protagonist, in a cellar “with a corpse like a sheet of paper…/Wrote with a piece of coal a poem on the paper corpse of my neighbor.” Were the episode to have no factual basis--and tragically, the circumstances of the time suggest that such occurrences were all too plausible--the transformation of corpses to paper haunts, as does, at the end of “Frozen Jews,” the marching row of “blue bones” towards the protagonist. Are they simply asking to be remembered? Or are they angry at what the poet has done with them? The impossibility of answering is what truly remains.
Writing in 1943-1944 in a poem to his beloved city entitled “Farewell”, Sutzkever wrote
You are my first love and my first love you will remain…
And anywhere I wander–
All the cities will
Transform into your image.
I will not strike roots
In any other soil.
But this was not precisely true. If his love of the natural landscape of his Siberian childhood was, for a time, overtaken by his enchantment with--and the staggering trauma of the loss of--the heady Jewish cultural and intellectual treasures of Vilna, the land of Israel provided some fusion of both. The Negev, with its vast dunes, became an inspiration akin to the Russian snowy reaches, and the Jerusalem of Lithuania was, if not replaced by, at least augmented by Jerusalem.
To be the Yiddish poet of the State of Israel, winner of the Israel Prize and institutionally supported by no less than the Histadrut and Zalman Shazar, is no mean accomplishment, at a time when a commitment to “the negation of the Diaspora” and the negation of its mother tongue were standard procedure. And Sutzkever was an impassioned, outspoken, belligerent lover and defender of Yiddish and its essential place in the golden chain of Jewish culture: in 1948’s “Yiddish,” he takes on the Hebraists:
What kind of joke
My poetry brother with whiskers
That soon, my mother tongue will set forever?...
Could he please show me
Where the language will go down?
Maybe at the wailing wall?
If so, I shall come there, come,
Open my mouth,
And like a lion garbed in fiery scarlet,
I shall swallow the language as it sets.
And wake all the generations with my roar!
But his ethos resonated nonetheless. One of his most famous poems, 1943’s “The Lead Plates of the Rom Printers,” describes resistance forces’ plans to melt down the eponymous plates to make bullets.
We sneak in the dark to grab up, as in spite,
The Rom printing plates, with old wisdom inbred.
We dreamers now have to be soldiers and fight
And melt into bullets the soul of the lead…
This was a Yiddishist that the generation of 1948 could get behind.
The fact that the events of “The Lead Plates” almost certainly didn’t occur is, of course, doubly irrelevant: irrelevant because the sentiments expressed in the poem matter, and because the sentiment of making the poem, of responding to events through poetry, is what matters. For Sutzkever, resistance--to life, to fate, to history, even to the uncomfortable pains brought on by survival--was essential; but resistance was only possible to him in the garb of wholehearted surrender to art. Such was the paradox of being a Yiddish poet in the twentieth century.
Zol er hobn a likhtikn gan eydn--may he have a bright and shining Paradise. One can only imagine the poems he would write describing it.
Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Associate Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University and the director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.
*All translations are taken from A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, trans. Barbara and Benjamin Harshav.