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The return of Avraham Sutzkever

The 'greatest Yiddish poet who ever lived' was a Holocaust hero who, when he came to Israel, was largely ignored
Avraham Sutzkever, partisan poet
Avraham Sutzkever, partisan poet

Avid Israeli film and theatergoers in Israel will be familiar with the name Hadas Kalderon. For 15 years, a member of the Tel Aviv based Beit Lessin Theater company, she has appeared in such notable stage plays as Hagar, Mikveh, Love at Third Glance, Dolphins, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rainmaker, as well as a long list of successful television series and films, including Stockholm, When Heroes Fly, Amalia Brown, The Naked Truth and a host of others.

Hadas Kalderon

And yet, despite her terpsichorean life, the 43 year old actress-cum-writer-cum-playwright, has devoted many years to developing a symbiotic relationship with her grandfather, the acclaimed poet, Avraham Sutzkever. Acclaimed yes, but to some extent a prophet without honor except in his own household. The problem was that Sutzkever wrote in Yiddish.

Some noted experts, including Prof. Dan Meron and Prof. Ruth Wisse have stated unequivocally that he may have been the greatest Yiddish poet who ever lived and the New York Times dubbed him as “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.”

But Sutzkever came to Israel at a time when Yiddish was rejected by many, including Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, as an unwelcome reminder of the pogroms, of oppression and the European Holocaust of just a few years earlier, and which were very much still a part of the daily living memory of the young state. The early Zionist pioneers referred to it as shlilat hagalut – “Negation of the Exile.” The great poets of Eretz Israel – Chaim Nahman Bialik, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Avraham Shlonsky, Nathan Alterman, Leah Goldberg and others – wrote in Hebrew although all them had roots in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe. Riding in a bus, a couple talking to each other in Yiddish (or any other language for that matter) might well have had someone tapping on their shoulders and admonishing: Ivri, daber Ivrit – “Jew – speak Hebrew!”

Hadas Kalderon is co-author and producer (together with Uri Barbash and Yair Qedar) of the film “Black Honey – The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever,”  a documentary made in 2018 on the life of her grandfather (whom she called Abrasheh at his request – he didn’t like the title of “Saba”). The film won the award for best documentary on the Jewish experience at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2018 and has been shown at cinemathèques and other venues across the country. If you have a chance to see it, don’t miss it! This week, Kalderon will be showing and talking about the film (provided with Russian subtitles) at the Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) festival taking place in Minsk. It’s also showing at this month’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

* * *

Ich ter nit oysshaffen dem shvartzen honik
Di zisser meshugas fun meine beiner
Afilu van sa kenen oyven lipn/derbaram zich
Mir vilen shtilen undzer darsht mit feier

I must not drain the black honey
The sweet lunacy of my bones
Even when they kneel before my lips
Take mercy on us
With fire we will quench our thirst.

* * *

Avraham Sutzkever was born in the town of Smorgon (today, Smarhon), in the Russian Empire (later Poland and now Belarus) in 1913.  The family spent the years of the First World War in Siberia and after his father, Hertz, died there, his mother, Rayne, brought the family to Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania. After attending heder and the Jewish high school, Herzlia, he began reading Polish and Russian literature, especially poetry. He became a member of a group of young Jewish intellectuals, calling themselves “Yung Vilne,” including Shmerke Kaczerginski and Chaim Grade – who later became acclaimed Yiddish poets in their own right. The young Avrom, as his friends called him, actually wrote his earliest poems in Hebrew. He married his childhood friend Freydke on the day before war broke out on 1939.

Following Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis occupied Vilna in June, 1941 and the Jews, including the Sutzkever couple and their families were confined to the ghetto. During the incarceration, Sutzkever and some colleagues were ordered by the Nazis to collect important Jewish manuscripts and artworks and hand them over for an institute to be set up in Frankfurt for the “Study of the Jewish Question.” Instead, the self-styled “Paper Brigade” managed to rescue an extraordinary number of artifacts and over 170,000 pages of Jewish materials including manuscripts, memoirs, drawings, poems, diary pages and photographs, and concealed them in hiding places within walls, behind plaster and brick and beneath floors in the ghetto. After the war, when Sutzkever returned to Vilna, much of the written material was retrieved and preserved for 70 years in the crypt of St. George’s Catholic Church in Vilna, with the help of the local librarian and can now be seen in New York.

Sutzkever was not religious in any orthodox sense of the word. Prof. Ruth Wisse maintains that, “one of the things that Sutzkever did was to experience poetry as sanctity. He experienced religion through the possibility of creating poetry, so that when he came into the ghetto, he continued to hold to that higher standard and what gave him the independence was that the Germans could destroy almost everything but nobody could destroy good poetry.” The fact is that Sutzkever wrote a poem every single day in the ghetto. He always attributed his survival to that.

Sutzkever’s mother Rayne was taken from the synagogue and perished in the infamous massacre in the Ponary forest, where it is estimated that some 70,000 Jews, mostly from the ghetto, as well as 20,000 Poles and 8,000 Russian prisoners of war, were murdered by German and Lithuanian killing teams between 1941 and 1944. His newborn son was poisoned at birth.

In September 1943, Avraham and Freydke managed to escape to the forests and join a Jewish unit of the partisans fighting the Germans. A copy of his narrative poem Kol Nidrei was smuggled out to Moscow by the partisans and reached the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which included the noted Russian poet, Ilya Ehrenburg. The poem revealed the first chilling evidence concerning the destruction of the Jews. The Committee turned to the authorities in the Kremlin with the plea that the Sutzkevers be rescued. A light plane was sent to Vilna but crashed on landing. Two weeks later, a second plane was sent, landing in a minefield. Sutzkever related to his granddaughter Hadas that, as if in a dream, he with Freydke clinging to his arm, were able to negotiate the minefield as if a divine melody was playing in his head and telling him where to place his feet. The couple were flown to safety in Moscow, their precious documents carried in a suitcase fashioned by the partisans from metal collected from the crashed first plane. In Moscow, their daughter Rina – Hadas’s mother – was born, followed later by a second daughter, Mira. Rina, a painter, has illustrated some of Hadas’s children’s books.

At the Nuremberg war trials in 1946, Sutzkever was asked by the Russian prosecutors to present evidence concerning the destruction of the Jews. He wanted to speak in Yiddish but this was not one of the three recognized languages, so he had to speak in Russian. (In irony, he commented later that “they had done an Auschwitz on the Yiddish language.”) In court, Sutzkever rejected the chair offered and insisted on standing while he gave an impassioned, 40 minute account of his experiences – “as if reciting the kaddish memorial prayer” says Hadas.

Screen capture from filmed testimony by Avraham Sutzkever at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials War Crimes Trials, February 27, 1946

The family immigrated to pre-state Israel, arriving in Tel Aviv in 1947. Two years later, Sutzkever founded the magazine Di Goldene Keyt (“The Golden Chain,”) funded by the Histadrut federation of labor unions, and which became the most prominent journal of Yiddish literature and culture in the world and was published until 1995. Subsequently, his poems have been translated into many languages. He said, “They will not uproot my tongue: I shall wake up the generations with my roaring.”

Belatedly, he was awarded the Israel Prize in 1985, when there was a greater appreciation of the Yiddish language and its culture, and the anti-Yiddish atmosphere had started to dissipate to the extent that today it is even again taught in universities. Nevertheless, Sutzkever never really entered the pantheon of Israeli writers. His vehicle of choice, Yiddish, together with its cultural, literary and secular milieu, had, to a large extent, been obliterated. The language survives, of course, predominantly among Ashkenazi Haredi circles where it has a totally different context and connotation.

Freydke died in 2003, and Avraham Sutzkever at the age of 97, in 2010, and they are buried in Tel Aviv. Hadas Kalderon sees an important part of her life’s mission in commemorating her grandfather and the loss of his Yiddish culture. “Whenever I return to Europe, I try and find remnants of that Jewish life in local antique shops. On one such trip in Prague, I was offered a yellow star for 200 dollars. When I got home I told Abrasheh the story.”  

“Really,” he replied. “Interesting; I got mine for free.”

About the Author
Asher Weill was the editor of Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters, in addition to Newsview and Israel Scene
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