The New York Times headlined its obituary, “Abraham Sutzkever, 96, Jewish Poet and
Partisan, Dies.” In a sense the phrase “Jewish Poet and Partisan” says it all, and certainly the obituary was respectful and moving—what better tribute to a poet than to present his own words?
But in another sense enough can never be said about this hero of the Jewish people, one of that brave band of Vilna fighters in the forest who resisted the greatest and most powerful evil in history. And there can never be enough quotations, translations, or editions of the work of this greatest of all Yiddish poets. As Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in the Yiddish-language Forverts of Sutzkever’s magnificent “Siberia,” his was a classical and universal poetry, not just a Jewish take on literature and life.
I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting him in Tel Aviv in 1985, in his space among the offices of the Histadrut labor organization, from which he launched and edited Di Goldene Keit—The Golden Chain, the leading Yiddish-language journal of literature and social thought.
We talked in my few words of Yiddish, his few of English, and then in our more-or-less mutually intelligible half-way decent French, mostly about American poets. We shared an admiration for Robert Lowell, not an easy poet, but one of the century’s greatest. A few months later I had the opportunity, in a letter published in The New York Times Book Review, to inform that august publication that, contrary to the claim in one of their articles, Sutzkever was not yet dead but alive and well and writing beautiful poems.
I got his permission to translate (or at least imitate) his poems about Africa, which had moved me immensely, not only because it was so counterintuitive to read poems in Yiddish about Africa, but because they were transcendentally beautiful and evocative. I had lived in a remote area of Botswana for two years, and I resonated strongly to these poems. Finally, I had the good fortune to have some of my versions of his poems published in a special edition, gorgeously designed and illustrated by Ed Colker. It is the publication of which I am most proud.
Ed, a fluent Yiddish speaker who had been Sutzkever’s friend for decades, first contacted me after reading these pages about the poet in my book Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews:
For better and for worse, Avraham Sutzkever contains within his superb life the whole of twentieth century Ashkenazic history.1 And as one of the era’s great poets in any language, he gave life to it in words. If he had not been trapped in Yiddish, he would be universally recognized as a leading modern poet, but he would not leave his mother-tongue. He was born just before World War I in Smorgon, near Vilna. When German troops burned the town, his family moved to Siberia–not the Siberia of Stalin’s Gulags, but a strange and wondrous landscape of sun, snow, and ice. Exile, yes, but that was nothing new for Jews. To a small, dreamy boy who had known nothing else, it was magical. Years later, with his poetic gift in full strength, he would write a long poem called “Siberia,” later published with drawings by Marc Chagall. “Sunset over blue and icy roads,”it opens,
My soul filled with sweet and sleepy colours.
Down in the valley a little hut,
Covered with the snow of the sunset, is ablaze with light.
Shadows of trees swing strangely across window-frames,
magic sledges jingle round in circles.
In the tiny loft the cooing doves
spell out my name. Beneath the ice,
sparkling with lightning crystals,
the River Irtish, half-awake, struggles along its course.
In the dome of space, dreamed up from silence,
a child of seven years moves in a world of his own making.2
As Chagall said in his preface, this is “Jewish poetry of a new kind.”3 The gifted translator, Jacob Sonntag, said of the long work, “The poem does not once refer to Jews or specifically Jewish ideas of any kind. Nor, for that matter, is the child’s experience burdened with the memory of the war and the flight of his parents.”4
Yet the poem was written in 1935, in the heart of Jewish Vilna, in the eye of the gathering storm. But Sutzkever took himself out and away from all that to a childhood memory ablaze with light and beauty. The only sad part of the poem is an elegy for his father, who died in Siberia when Sutzkever was nine. The stanza, “In a Siberian Wood,” calls up a time two years before his father’s death:
…I hear my father say: “Come, my child,
let us go to the forest to cut wood!”
Our white colt is harnessed to a sledge.
The day shines bright in the flashing ax
and the flaming snow is cut with sharpened sun-knives.
Sparkling dust—our breath! We leave
through a sunny web, speeding across steppes,
past sleeping bears, to the sound of clicking hoofs.
All the stars which yesterday were shaken from the sky,
rest frozen now on the ground.
His father’s death shaped his life, and he continued to write about him:
A shade takes down the violin from the wall.
And thin, thin, thin snow-sounds fall upon my head.
Hush. That’s my father playing,
And the sounds—graved on the air—
Like bits of silver breath in a frost
Ranging blue over the snow moonlike glassed.5
He said of his father’s death, “That moment the poet in me was born.”6 Sutzkever came from a long line of rabbis; his father had been ordained but did not practice. In his memory his father collapsed while playing the violin, the haunting Hasidic melody composed by Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak of Berdichev, addressing God with one repeated syllable, du, du, du—“You, you, you.”
This death sent the family back to Vilna, where he lost his much-loved older sister to a fever. He went to a Yiddish school and began to write poetry, first in Hebrew, then Yiddish. But at sixteen he burned his poems and started again with a new commitment. A group of poets, “Young Vilna,” were crafting a new Yiddish and would enter its literary canon. But Sutzkever was rejected; Siberian snowscapes and peasant romances did not fit the pretensions of urban poets trying to join the mainstream of European literature. Ultimately he would be viewed as one of the greatest Yiddish poets; for now writing sustained him as the terror closed in.
Another Yiddish poet, Itzik Manger, described him: “A thin slim youngster, tripping along the narrow twisted little Vilna streets. His steps are light. He does not walk. He floats. He floats all over the humps and bumps of the town. In his imagination everything is symmetrically rearranged. Created anew. Not for nothing he tells himself to learn from the Creator of all how to create poems.”7 For the great Yiddish novelist Chaim Grade, part of Young Vilna himself, Sutzkever “put to himself poetic problems like mathematical problems, and he was delighted when he solved them…It was Sutzkever whom Fate put into the Vilna Ghetto, made him live in Hell and come out alive…[He] saw everything he had believed in and had loved trampled under the German jackboot—and he stood the test, came out unbroken, whole.”8
He married as World War II broke out and the Russians occupied Vilna. He published a book of poems, “the most exquisite crystal of the Yiddish language and, perhaps, the last Yiddish book printed in Europe before the Holocaust.”9 But the German assault crushed Vilna, and about 100,000 of the city’s Jews were murdered by systematic shooting and buried in mass graves in the dull suburb of Ponar. Lithuanians, staunch aides of the Nazis, took Sutzkever and the Vilna Rav into the hills—they happened to be arrested on the same day–and made them dig their own graves. The Lithuanians cocked their rifles behind the two men—the fierce young secular poet and the old bearded rabbi. Sutzkever recalled, “When they ordered us to put our hands over our eyes, I understood that they were going to shoot us. And I remember as if it were now: when I put my fingers on my eyes, I saw birds fluttering…I never saw birds flying so slowly, I had a great aesthetic joy in seeing the slow-slow motion of their wings between my fingers.”10 But the Lithuanians fired over their heads and, having tired of the game, took them back to the ghetto.
Sutzkever wrote and wrote, and he and some literary friends risked their lives to save archived Yiddish manuscripts—they claimed they were burning them to heat their freezing rooms. Once he hid in a coffin to elude passing Germans:
Or let it be a boat
On stormy waves.
Let it be a cradle…
I still sing my word.11
As the Vilna Jews were relentlessly murdered, Sutzkever lost almost everyone he loved. “I went to see my mother. She told me the glad news that my wife had given birth in the Ghetto Hospital. My mother had forgotten Murer’s decree that children born in the ghetto must be killed. The next day the child was gone…Unable to compose myself after this calamity with my child another tragedy followed. I went to my mother’s home and my mother was gone.” She had been taken to Ponar during the night.
Still, his was an indomitable spirit. The poem to his dead baby gives the boy mystical power:
You—the seed of my every dream…
who came from the earth’s ends
wondrous as an unseen storm,
to draw, flood two together
to shape you in delight:–
Why have you darkened creation,
why have you shut your eyes
and left me outside begging
bound to a world swept with snow…
In this cold world he imagines swallowing the tiny boy to warm him, but demurs:
I don’t deserve to be your grave.
I will let you slip
into the beckoning snow,
the snow—my first holiday,
and you will sink
a sunset sliver
into its still and deep
and bear my greeting up
into the frosty shoots of grass12
Even then the Siberian landscape comforted him. In “My Mother,” he depicted her praying on Friday night, “quivering in the moonlight on the prayer book.” His faith kindled, he wrote, “Your devotion is like the warm challah/you prayerfully feed the doves.” Her bullet wounds are roses, she blesses him with her last breath. Then, “The shots clatter./She falls like a dove on the throne of the sun.”13 In another poem, “The Shoe Wagon,” he recognizes her best shoes, the ones she only wore on Shabbes, among the thousands of pairs being carted from Ponar to Germany.14
Still writing sustained him. He referred to the poems as “burnt pearls,” still reflecting light, the only thing visible in the ashes. “To a Friend” reads in part,
on the barbed wire,–
you pressed a bit of bread
to your heart.
Forgive me my hunger
and forgive me my brazen nerve,–
I’ve bitten through your bread
your bread flecked with blood…
I take you in and live…
If like you I fall
on the barbed wire—
may someone gulp my word
as I your bread.15
Throughout his life words would be like bread to him, and he would go on recording every meaningful experience. He and his wife Freydke joined the underground led by the Jewish hero Abba Kovner–also a great poet, but in Hebrew. They planned a ghetto rebellion, but well-organized opposition from Jewish “leaders” who worked with the Nazis, prevented the uprising. Sutzkever and others escaped through the sewers to the forest, and attempted to join the partisans. But the Polish underground was slaughtering Jews in the forests; even in Byelorussia the partisan units disarmed Jews and forced them into menial service roles. Sutzkever’s poetry was already known in the Soviet Union, however, and the Soviet-Jewish critic Ilya Ehrenburg had praised it highly.
By coincidence, the president of the Moscow-based Lithuanian government-in-exile had once translated Sutzkever into Lithuanian. He arranged for Sutzkever and Freydke to be allowed to travel to Moscow. Repeatedly shot at by Germans and anti-Semitic partisans, walking through a live mine field strewn with human bodies and animal carcasses, they somehow managed to cross the German lines. After the war they returned to Vilna, where they salvaged Jewish cultural treasures and established a museum. It was later closed by the Soviets, but the Sutzkevers managed to get to Israel in 1947. He fought for Israel’s independence and defended it in several wars. He wrote poems about picking blackberries at night with the forest fighters, about his first inspiring encounter with Jerusalem, and about the Negev and Sinai Deserts, as eerily beautiful as the snowscapes of Siberia.
Some of his most beautiful poems are about Africa, which he toured for several months in 1950. The collection, called Elephants at Night, opens,
All rushing, all sounds sleep.
Terror sleeps under seven streams.
And the elephant sleeps so soundly,
You could cut off his tail…
Many years later, he was still strangely moved by African echoes:
Remembering three flamingos at Lake Victoria
That stay for me unaltered in their splendor:
Three strings taut on a wave, as an arc
Curves over them, the great arc of a rainbow.
Fiddle or lyre will not bring forth such music:
Such a three-stringed instrument is not known to be.
Its master had an impulse to test his creation,
To play the living strings with his own hand…
Yet it is the image in his own mind that fascinates him most:
…They glisten in their unchanging revelatory pose,
On their unchanging wave, like a pink dawn…
Once in a lifetime such a gift is given,
Intended to be seen, and to be heard.16
This was written in the 1960s, and almost forty years later his poetic career has not yet ended. Although Hebrew had by then eclipsed Yiddish as the main Jewish language, the reigning Labor party had a sense of noblesse oblige and supported Sutzkever’s periodical, Di Goldene Keyt—The Golden Chain—for half a century. He continued to edit it until 1996. He once said that Yiddish and Hebrew are the two eyes of the Jewish people. It is an apt metaphor; you can see out of one eye, but without depth.
1. Leftwich, Joseph. Abraham Sutzkever: Partisan Poet. New York/London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1971.
2. Sutzkever, Abraham. Siberia: A Poem by Abraham Sutzkever, with a Letter on the Poem and Drawings by Marc Chagall. Translated by Jacob Sonntag. London/New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1961., p. 17.
3. Ibid., p. 5.
4. Ibid., p. 13
5. Leftwich. Abraham Sutzkever: Partisan Poet., p. 29.
6. Sutzkever, A. Selected Poetry and Prose. Translated by Barbara Harshav and Benjamin Harshav. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991., p. 166.
7. Leftwich. Abraham Sutzkever: Partisan Poet., p. 43.
8. Ibid., p. 42.
9. Harshav, Benjamin. “Sutzkever: Life and Poetry.” In A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Barbara Harshav and Benjamin Harshav. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1991., p. 16.
10. Ibid., p. 17.
11. Leftwich. Abraham Sutzkever: Partisan Poet., p. 48
12. Sutzkever, Abraham. Poetishe Verk, Band Eyns: Lider Un Poemes Fun Di Yorn 1934-47. Tel Aviv, Israel: Yovel, 1963., pp. 278-9.
13. Ibid., pp. 265-8.
14. Ibid., p. 275-6.
15. Sutzkever, Abraham. Di Feshtung: Lider Un Poemes Geshribn in Vilner Geto Un in Vald 1941-1944. New York: Yiddisher Kultur Farband, 1945., p. 50.
16. Sutzkever, Abraham. Tzviling-Brider: Lider Fun Togebikh 1974-85. Tel Aviv, Israel: Farlag Di Goldene Keyt, 1986., p. 129.