July 15, 1913, was the birthdate of the Yiddish-language poet Abraham Sutzkever, who survived the Holocaust and came to pre-state Israel, where he lived and wrote poetry until his death three years ago. He has been called the greatest poet of the Holocaust, the 20th century’s greatest Yiddish poet, and even Israel’s greatest poet.
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Abraham Sutzkever was born in Smorgon (today Smarhon, Belarus), a small industry city in what was then White Russia. During World War I, when their town was on the front line between German and Russian forces, the family took refuge in Omsk, Siberia. When his father died, his widow took the family back to Vilna, some 100 kms to the northwest, in 1921. It’s there that Abraham attended the Herzliya Jewish high school and audited classes at the local university: In both places he studied Polish poetry and literature.
Sutzkever wrote his earliest poetry in Hebrew, publishing his first poem in a Jewish Scouts magazine in 1933. He soon moved to writing in Yiddish, and became part of an artistic circle called “Young Vilna,” but unlike his peers, he steered clear of politics and focused on nature. His first book of poetry, “Lider” (Songs), was published by the Yiddish PEN Club in 1936, after Austrian writer Joseph Roth “discovered” Sutzkever’s work. That was followed in 1940 by “Valdiks” (From the Forest).
In June 1941, the Germans invaded Vilna, and Sutzkever and his wife, Freydke (whom he married in 1939), were herded into the newly created ghetto. He was assigned by the occupying force to catalog Jewish books and other works that were intended for shipment to Frankfurt for a planned Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question. He used the opportunity to hide away and thereby save drawings by Marc Chagall and a diary of Theodor Herzl’s, as well as other literary treasures from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (which after the war reconstituted itself in New York). Sutzkever was also active in the Jewish underground, and smuggled guns into the ghetto.
The Nazis murdered both his mother and his and Freydke’s newborn son, and he was forced at one point to dig his own grave by hand: Sutzkever described these and other experiences in the poetry that he continued writing throughout the war. Some of his work was smuggled out of the Vilna Ghetto and made its way to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow, where it made its mark.
In a poem he wrote from a child’s point of view, he has the child imploring his mother to “strangle me with your Mama fingers / That played / On my willow cradle./ It will mean: / Your love is stronger than death. / It will mean: / You trusted me with your love” (translation by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav).
In September 1943, the Germans liquidated the Vilna Ghetto, deporting the remaining Jews to concentration camps and death camps. Abraham and Freydke escaped that fate by way of the sewers to the forests outside Vilna. There they joined up with a Jewish partisan group under Soviet command.
In exile in Moscow, the future president of Lithuania, Justas Paleckis, together with Ilya Ehrenburg and Boris Pasternak, all of whom had read Sutzkever’s ghetto poetry, appealed for the rescue of the great poet, so the Kremlin had him and his wife airlifted to Moscow after they were tracked down in the forest. He remained there through the end of the war, and was involved in a number of political projects intended to document the crimes of the Nazis. He also began writing an epic poem, “Secret City,” about 10 Jews who attempt to survive the occupation in the sewers under the streets of Vilna.
In 1946 Sutzkever testified at the Nuremberg Trials, and after moving around, from Moscow to Warsaw to Paris, he and Freydke came to Palestine. He was to remain there until he died, in Tel Aviv, on January 20, 2010.
It was there, in 1949, that he founded a Yiddish literary quarterly, Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain), which he edited until its demise, in 1995. He also published what many consider his greatest work, “Lider fun Togbukh” (Poems from a Diary, 1974-1981).
Yiddish was not a language afforded great respect in Israel during the state’s early decades. Only in 1985 was Sutzkever awarded the Israel Prize, the first Yiddish poet to be so recognized. And in 2005, a selection of his poems appeared in Hebrew translation.
In 1948, responding to the claims he heard in his new home that his native tongue was a dead language, Sutzkever wrote, in the poem “Yiddish”:
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!
(translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav)