'An Ambassador of the Yiddish Language'

Some see Abraham Sutzkever, who died last week at 96, as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. But many Israelis are unfamiliar with his work because it's in Yiddish.

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Maya Sela
Maya Sela

When Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever died last week at the age of 96, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner released an official death notice on behalf of the French government. The Lithuanian parliament conducted a special session and stood up for a moment of silence. The Lithuanian ambassador to Israel gave a eulogy at his funeral, and long articles were written about him in Le Monde and The New York Times.

But the Israeli government sent no representative to his funeral, even though it was held here; local Holocaust-related museums didn't send any official representatives either, even though Sutzkever wrote extensively about the Holocaust. The poet, editor and translator Dory Manor says this caused him heartache.

"There was no representative from Yad Vashem, or anyone from the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, no official representative from the academic world, and nobody from the Culture and Sports Ministry," he says. "There were 100,000 people at [Yiddish writer] Sholem Aleichem's funeral and 100 at Sutzkever's funeral. That is a sad metaphor for the state of culture in general."

Although many in Israel are unfamiliar with his name, Sutzkever was one of the great poets of the 20th century, says Manor.

"He is not familiar to the Israel public for tragic reasons," he says. "He wrote in a language whose speakers were exterminated in the Holocaust or died of old age, and its translations into Hebrew were problematic. He has no readers in his language; that's a tragic situation." Manor says readers who overcome the obstacles will be richly rewarded, because Sutzkever "is the greatest poet who ever lived here, at least in the past half-century."

Daniel Galai, a composer and the chairman of Leyvik House, the Israeli Center for Yiddish Culture, says most Israelis are unable to realize what a great poet Sutzkever was.

"When they say that he was among the outstanding poets of the 20th century, they are not wrong," says Galai. "But most of the public in Israel is incapable of enjoying his work, because there is a deaf and dumb attitude here towards the language in which Sutzkever created and towards its marvelous sounds. Only by learning this language does one enter into the depth of Jewish creativity."

First night in the grave

Abraham Sutzkever was born in 1913 in Smorgon, a town near Vilna, in 1913. He was exiled to Siberia as a child and returned to an independent Poland, where he began to write. Much of his youth was spent in libraries, he told Haaretz in 2004.

"I spent day and night in libraries," Sutzkever said. "I spent half a day in the Polish library, and the second half in the Strashon Jewish library, where I would sit and read all the literature in Yiddish. I met poets, people. Later I met a girl called Friedke, who became my wife and the mother of my two daughters, Mira and Rina. A wonderful woman. The most handsome guys used to hang around near her and she wanted to be only with me. We got married a day before World War II. The next day bombs were already falling everywhere."

In 1941 Sutzkever was living in the Vilna ghetto and became an activist, saving some of the archived treasures of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which was founded in 1925 in Vilna before moving its headquarters to New York in 1940.

"The first night in the ghetto was like the first night in the grave," he wrote at the time in his diary.

Sutzkever fled with his wife to the forests and joined the partisans. In July 1943 he gave partisan Shaike Gertman a notebook of his poems, including two he had written in the ghetto: "The Grave Child" and "Kol Nidre." He asked that it be given to writer and poet Peretz Markish and to Jewish writers in Moscow. His poems made a tremendous impression and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow began to take steps to bring Sutzkever and his wife to Russia. In March 1944, a plane was sent to the Vilna forests to bring them over.

"The plane was very small and there was barely room for the two of us," Sutzkever told Haaretz. "When it began to take off, they shot at us from all directions."

After World War II he worked to revive Jewish life in Europe. He testified at the Nuremberg trials and traveled around Europe with his wife for several years. In Paris he met Marc Chagall and became friendly with him. He immigrated to Palestine in 1947 and lived in Tel Aviv until his death. In his interview with Haaretz he said, "My biography is larger than my life."

My body is my language

Sutzkever's poems have been translated into 30 languages and he won many awards, including the Israel Prize in 1985. His granddaughter, actress Hadas Calderon, says that had he written in Hebrew, he would have been as well-known as poets Nathan Alterman, Avraham Shlonsky and Alexander Penn.

"He was an ambassador of the Yiddish language," says Calderon. "He has a poem called 'Yiddish,' in which he says, 'They will not uproot my tongue, they will not burn my clothes, my body is my language.' He refused to give up his language. It was something spiritual that was very strong."

But Calderon says her grandfather did not seem upset by his limited recognition in Israel.

"I never heard him frustrated about anything," she says. "In light of the war, in light of the memory of his mother, it was impossible to be a petty person, as we are now. After the tragedy they experienced, life and their children were the most important thing for them."

Sutzkever felt he had defeated Hitler through his writing, says Calderon. "The poems will live forever and they couldn't defeat his spirit," she says. "That's why he wrote even during the war, in the forests."

She says her grandfather used to say it was the writing that kept him alive, and that when he didn't have a pen he wrote with a chicken feather dipped in cherry juice.

When asked in the Haaretz interview whether he felt a need to fight his image as a Holocaust poet, Sutzkever replied: "I've written a lot about the Holocaust. To this day I don't believe how I could write during the Holocaust. I dismantled the Holocaust by writing. With my talent I broke the Holocaust. My writing was my existence for me, the clearest and most illuminating poems I wrote were in the midst of the destruction."

That makes sense to Benny Mer, the assistant editor of Haaretz's culture and literature section and an editor of Davka, a Hebrew-language journal of Yiddish culture. "I have a feeling that adhering to meter and rhyme was actually the only order he could impose on the chaos of his world - a world that underwent the most extreme upheaval," says Mer.

Don't call me Grandpa

"He didn't want us to call him Grandpa, we always said that we were going to eat lunch on Shabbat at Grandma and Avrasha's house," says Calderon. "I grew up in a family in which the whole relationship with Germany was very problematic. My grandfather refused to accept the reparations money, and refused to purchase German goods or to travel to Germany, even when they invited him, even when his books were published there."

But Calderon was actually in Germany when Sutzkever died.

She went there to participate in a German theater project about the third generation after the Holocaust, and tried to examine how the generation was shaped and what relationship there could be between the children of the murderers and the children of the victims. "Before going, I asked Avrasha whether he would travel to Germany to talk about a book of his and he said no," says Calderon. "And then I asked if he was willing to let me to go to tell his story and he said yes. That's why I went."

"The evening before the premiere he closed his eyes and died," she says. "I didn't know what to do. In the play they read 'Frozen Jews,' one of his poems, and German ears were listening, but of course I couldn't miss the funeral. In the end, after a major scene, we did two performances, both dedicated to him." The funeral was postponed by a day and Calderon made it in time.

Although she was very close to her grandfather, even Calderon doesn't know Yiddish and cannot read his poetry in the original. She says Sutzkever used to tell her that she didn't really know him, because she hadn't read his poems.

"Only when 'Kinus Dumiot' ('A Gathering of Silences') was published a few years ago and all his poems were translated could I really understand who the man was," says Calderon. "Through his poems I got to know him and the power of his writing."

But even these translations, which were published in 2005, did not turn Sutzkever into a popular poet in Israel.

Anti-Yiddish prejudice

Manor believes that the translations of Sutzkever's poetry into English and French are better than the translations into Hebrew, even though the greatest writers and translators worked on them, including Shlonsky, Alterman, Amir Gilboa, Lea Goldberg and Benjamin Harshav.

"Even when they did good work, it was a failure," says Manor. "He wrote in a language that may have been too intimate, too close, and at the same time too antagonistic for his translators. He lived here among us and wrote in a Jewish language in Tel Aviv."

"It's very hard to separate his poetry from what people think of Yiddish and Yiddishkeit," says Manor. "There's some kind of prejudice, and it's a mission impossible to uproot it from people. They think that Yiddish is connected to some kind of shtetl schmaltz, to defeatism and an exile mentality. Sutzkever's poetry is not that at all. There' no connection between it and saccharine folklore."

That prejudice against Yiddish dates back to the early days of the state, says Mer.

"In 1945 Ben Gurion called Yiddish a strange and cacophonous language," he says. "Although in Palestine they treated it like a different family of languages, in fact there is no language closer to Hebrew. That's both paradoxical and tragic."