Poetry saved his life — the story of Abraham Sutzkever

(photo courtesy of the film producers)
(photo courtesy of the film producers)

There have been many fine film festivals this summer, but none as powerful in my mind, as the Docu-Text4 at the National Library on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, A new Jerusalem experience. The somewhat threatening, fortress-like edifice opened its doors onto the plaza in front of the library building, offering films about writers and thinkers under the Jerusalem sky. Here, the texts and manuscripts, and memorabilia of the library were harnessed to narratives of people who created Jewish culture and advanced human values.

Among the inspiring figures portrayed was the Yiddish poet, Abraham Sutzkever. The film was part  of a series, “Ha’Ivrim,” on Israeli and Yiddish writers. The very act of writing poetry in Vilna during the  Holocaust, in a language that was disappearing, among a people that was being annihilated, was a great act of courage itself. But it also generated a life force. As Ruth Wisse, Professor  Emeritus of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University, said in the film, “Poetry saved his life.”  In a 1985 New York Times interview, the tall, bespectacled Abraham Sutzkever explained, “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

And Sutzkever’s belief in poetry was tested. He was born in 1913 in  a town called Smargon, near Vilna, then considered ”the Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its vibrant Jewish culture. His family went to exile in Siberia during World War I.but after his father, Hertz Sutzkever died in Siberia, his mother Reyna brought the family back to Vilna when Sutzkever was seven. He grew up there, went to the Polish Jewish high school and audited university classes in literature. He began writing poetry, originally in Hebrew and then in Yiddish. In contrast to Vilna’s other Yiddish poets of the Yung Yiddish group, whose poetry was more political, Sutzkever, who marched to his own tune, wrote of Nature and the cosmos. He returned to the icy landscapes of his youth in Siberia, and the howling of the wolf, rather than evoking the alleyways of Vilna. Vestiges of a Romantic expansiveness and oneness with Nature is felt in his poetry.

Abraham Sutzkever met his wife Freydke in the Jewish scouting organization and they were married in 1939, a day before the outbreak of World War II.

After the Nazis marched into Vilna in 1941, 60,000 Jews were herded into the Vilna ghetto. Sutzkever wrote constantly throughout these difficult times, documenting the life of the Jews and Jewish culture, as well as the obscene Aktziot of the Nazis. His mother and newborn son were murdered by the Nazis in the ghetto.

In the “Song of a Jewish Poet in 1943” (translated by A.L.Foreman) he prophetically cries out, “Am I the last poet left,/,singing in Europe?/Am I making poems now,/For corpses and crows?”

On the other hand, the poem,“The Wagon of Shoes,” evokes metaphors of the everyday to express loss.

“The wheels, they drag and drag on ,

What do they bring, and whose?

They bring along a wagon

Filled with throbbing shoes.

………………………………….

I must not ask you whose,

My heart it skips a beat:

Tell me the truth, oh shoes

Where disappeared the feet?”

Vilna ghetto, July 30, 1943 (translated to English in PoemHunter.com)

Abraham Sutzkever wrote with a pathos that could only emerge from a Yiddish sensibility. He was also one of the Vilna intellectuals chosen to execute the perverse Nazi policy to save  important objects of Jewish culture as a sign of the Nazi triumph over the Jewish people. The rest of the objects were to be destroyed. But the group, named the ” Paper Brigade,”  instead,  smuggled the manuscripts and art works out of the ghetto at great risk to their lives, hiding them around Vilna until after the war.

In his profound exploration of the creative process, Sutzkever indicates that he didn’t immediately put every Holocaust event to paper. He describes the experience of being forced to dance naked with his 81 year old rabbi as Torah scrolls went up in flames. This later surfaced in his poem, “On the eve of my burning.”

“The biography of a poem has a longer history than a poet,” he said. “It can have its beginnings in an inheritance from a father or grandfather, or in a memory of childhood. And then one day, it is fertilized by a tear, a smile, the movement of a branch, that quivers the poem into being. Sutzkever tells how a  cloud of smoke over the Carmel mountains years later, awoke him to the memory of the Torahs burning and brought forth the poem, “On the eve of my burning.”

On September 12,1943 he and his wife Freydke, and close friend Shmerke  Kaczerginski escaped the ghetto, attempting to join the partisans in the forest, but they  had to cross a kilometer of minefields to do so. Sutzkever later claimed that here too poetry saved his life. He created a poem, internalized its rhythm, and stepped down according to the beat of the poem. This poetic strategy helped him and his companions  survive the minefield  .

They fought with the partisans.  In the film, “Black Honey,” directed by Uri Barbash, Sutzkever’s granddaughter Hadas Calderon describes his iron will.  Once, trying to escape the forest, he came face to face with a Nazi soldier. Sutzkever looked him straight in the eyes, and asked, “how do I get out of here away from the soldiers?” The soldier, obviously in shock at this directness, pointed the way out.

Ultimately, the Russian  poets, Ilya Ehrenberg and Boris Pasternak, who had influence  with Stalin, convinced him to send a plane into Lithuania and save the Sutzkever couple. Amazing as that might seem, after the first plane crashed, he sent another plane which carried them to the Soviet Union. Stalin apparently wanted  Sutzkever to testify to Nazi  atrocities  at the Nurenberg Trials..

At the trial, Sutzkever insisted on standing throughout his testimony. “This was my Kaddish for my mother,” he said.

In 1947 Abraham Sutzkever left the Soviet Union with Freydke and their infant daughter Rina to go to Eretz Yisrael and settle in Tel Aviv. Another daughter, Mira was born in Israel. Upon arriving in Tel Aviv, he immediately approached the leaders of the Yishuv to establish a Yiddish literary quarterly,” Di Goldene Keyt,” (The Golden Chain) which became an important forum of Yiddish culture throughout the world.   And although Yiddish was disparaged in Israel, Abraham Sutzkever continued writing some of the greatest Jewish poetry of the twentieth century. He paid his debt to the poetic imagination that had sustained him.

About the Author
Rochelle Furstenberg is a journalist and literary critic who has written extensively on literary and cultural topics.
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