Commentary Magazine


The Last Great Yiddish Poet?

A country or a state should endure longer than an individual. At least this seems to be in keeping with the order of things. Today, however, one is constantly running across survivors of various Atlantises. Their lands in the course of time are transformed in memory and take on outlines that are no longer verifiable.

Whomever Czeslaw Milosz may have had in mind in making this observation, it certainly holds true for his compatriot and friend, the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, a survivor of the same Lithuanian Atlantis (though of a very different sector) as Milosz himself. Sutzkever, two years the younger, grew up in the Lithuanian capital of Vilna between the world wars and survived the destruction of its Jewish ghetto in 1943. His own image for the watery grave of his lost Atlantis is that of a green aquarium, where all the people of his former life swim in perpetual fluid music. One can at any time observe this land that has been transformed into memory, and even place one’s lips against the glass, but any attempt to penetrate or repossess the past will shatter the fragile remains.

Although Sutzkever is not yet fully accessible to the English-reading public, he has long been renowned among his fellow poets and among educated Jewish readers. This year the National Library in Jerusalem will mount an exhibition devoted to his life and work, and will issue one of several commemorative publications in honor of his seventieth birthday. Sutzkever’s biography is so intricately intertwined with the major events of Jewish history that he has often been accorded semi-legendary status as a 20th-century Jewish pilgrim. He also plays a pivotal role in the development of contemporary Yiddish belles-lettres, since for thirty-five years he has been the editor of Di goldene keyt (“The Golden Chain”), the most prestigious Yiddish journal in the world.

Sutzkever himself has offered a wry comment on his own survival, when so many others have perished. He tells the story of Moyshe Itzke, the oddest of the writers and artists in Vilna during the 1930’s. This young man used to be confined to a mental hospital for several months of the year, and bursting with creative energy the rest of the time. One day he came to Sutzkever with the news that he was immortal. Sutzkever, trying to deal reasonably with a madman, pointed out that of the three men Moyshe Itzke most admired—Dostoevsky, Napoleon, and Moses—Dostoevsky managed to cheat death but once, Napoleon died in shameful exile, and Moses was not even accorded entry into the promised land. Moyshe Itzke was stumped for only a moment before he replied, “Well, someone’s got to break through!” By this order of desperate madness must the survival of an individual Vilna Jew be judged.

Sutzkever’s remarkable productivity during and since World War II may of course be seen as a sign of Jewish national regeneration: he has written several major poems on the subject. But this is only the shallowest level of his work. From his beginnings as an artist, Sutzkever was fascinated by the regenerative powers of poetry—another threatened species of our time. Indeed, one can think of few modern poets prepared to make so great a claim for their craft. In sharp contrast to those for whom silence is the appropriate human response to the barbarism we have borne in our century, Sutzkever has identified poetry as the reliable counterforce to all that destroys. Particularly during the Holocaust, when every known moral scruple was crushed beyond recognition, the reality of a good poem remained beyond anyone’s destructive perversity. In a private reckoning Sutzkever has even attributed his very life to his literary faith: “As if the Angel of Poetry had confided to me: ‘The choice lies in your hands. If your poem inspires me, I will protect you with a flaming sword. If not—don’t complain. My conscience will be clean.’”

No one but Sutzkever is empowered to judge whether his survival is due to the saving grace of poetry, but certain facts of his biography are beyond dispute. After the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943, Sutzkever, then a member of a partisan unit in the Narotsh Forest outside Vilna, was flown to Moscow by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee of the Soviet Union as a symbol of resistance to Nazism. Ilya Ehrenburg, one of wartime Russia’s most influential writers, published an article about Sutzkever in Pravda that brought the poet thousands of letters from readers throughout the country who found in it assurance that something of Jewish value, of human value, had been salvaged. On the strength of his reputation as a poet, Sutzkever was chosen to testify as witness for Russian Jewry at the Nuremberg trials after the war (Vilna having been absorbed by the Soviet Union). He received a decoration from Stalin, and while neither this nor the deposition of evidence at Nuremberg could give him much satisfaction, he was able to use his position of honor during his two years in Russia to bring tangible aid to many individuals who in turn attribute their survival to his.

The power of art cannot ultimately be proved by its practical effects, but it is worth knowing about a poet who believes that poetry saves lives. What would the suicide web of modern American poets make of such a notion?

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Sutzkever was the son of two happily-paired descendants of the Lithuanian Jewish intellectual aristocracy who settled down after their marriage in Smorgon, near Vilna, and had three children, the youngest, Abraham, in the summer of 1913. His mother was the daughter of the Mikhalishok rabbi, with a many-branched genealogy of scholars; his father, who had inherited a leather factory, preferred to spend his time studying and teaching. The sudden outbreak of war forced the family to flee, seeking refuge in Omsk, in southwestern Siberia. When his father died there in 1922, Sutzkever’s widowed mother returned with her children to Vilna, now part of the newly formed Polish state.

Jewish Vilna between the wars was a community of some 65,000, about a third of the city’s total population. Vilna’s economic stagnation prompted Milosz to describe it as Europe’s “other side of the tracks”; Jewish advancement throughout the new Polish state was further curtailed by restrictive nationalist policies. Perhaps by way of partial compensation for their political and economic disabilities, Jews were feverishly active in their own social and cultural spheres. Sutzkever was educated and influenced by many new institutions that were created to adapt traditional Jewish patterns to the demands of the secular atmosphere: he attended a Hebrew-Polish high school; became a member of the Jewish Scouts; read independently at the public Jewish Strashun Library; later studied old Yiddish poetry at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research that was founded in Vilna in 1926 as a center of research and scholarship. To satisfy his maturing interest in literature, he also sat in on classes at the university, and learned Russian in order to read Pushkin. He began writing poetry as a teenager; his first poem was published in the Scouts’ magazine.

The 1930’s were the most intensely political years of Yiddish culture, nowhere more so than in Poland. Sutzkever’s friends tried to draw him into their political activities—on one side the Socialist Territorialists, who sought for Yiddish a key role in autonomous Jewish lands which, they proposed, should be established wherever Jews were concentrated in sufficient numbers; on another side the larger group of Soviet sympathizers. Vilna’s most beloved Yiddish poet, Moishe Kulbak, had set the tone by moving to the Soviet city of Minsk in 1928. While the Communist party was outlawed in Poland, it represented for many young Jewish intellectuals the obvious alternative to the poverty and anti-Semitism that were their lot under nationalist Polish rule.

The local artistic and literary coterie, Yung Vilna, of which Sutzkever aspired to be a member, was outspokenly political in its public voice. Most of its affiliated writers happened to be neighbors and friends of the young poet, but they did not want to accept him because of the esoteric quality of his verse. Shmerke Kaczerginski, a young firebrand who was admitted into the group about the time that Sutzkever was refused, later regretted his attitude yet recalled its logic: “I was then busy hanging red flags on telegraph wires, hurling proclamations at military installations, calling fathers, mothers, and children to the barricades,” he wrote, echoing phrases from his poetry of the period, poetry that was set to music and widely sung. He had tried to persuade Sutzkever that the times were of pure steel not crystal (loyter shtol un nisht krishtol), demanding of the artist a commensurately hard grasp of reality.

In this atmosphere of cultural activism Sutzkever came on the scene as the sunniest word-smith, delighting in the formation of new Yiddish words and in the redemption of old ones, surprising the language with untried rhymes and verbal effects. Between man and nature he always aligned himself with nature, his model of fecundity and goad to his own inventiveness. His lack of concern with politics was not the product of any personal ideological position but rather the result of a romantic temperament and of a concentration on art that left no room for temporal distraction. It does seem, however, that he conceived of poetry from the very outset as an antidote to history, not the midwife his fellow artists would have made of it. Poetry alone, for Sutzkever, possessed the imaginative capacity to resist the forces of death and the pressures of daily care that would blacken human joy.

Sutzkever found the source of poetry in his childhood, or rather in his myth of childhood, which he developed in a cycle of poems about his early years in Siberia that he began writing in 1935. By any objective standard those years had been grim. For the refined young couple with their three small children the several-thousand-kilometer trek from their home in Smorgon to unknown Omsk in Siberia must have been the start of a frightening exile. In fact, exile had been the founding condition of the Jewish community of Omsk, whose first settlers were the Jewish children seized for military service in the reign of Czar Nicholas I and transported to a region far enough from home to discourage all thought of return. Some of these cantonists, as they were called, had been joined by other Jewish refugees later in the century and established in Omsk a few synagogues and schools. It was perhaps in one of them that Abraham Sutzkever had begun to study when he was five.

The family had lived in hardship. The father, in failing health, gave lessons in Talmud to sons of local merchants while his own children helped the traders in the market. The whole family had fallen ill of typhus apparently as the result of Abraham’s investigation of a dead soldier in the snow. The local economy had deteriorated during the anarchy that followed the October Revolution, when Omsk was for a time part of the territory that resisted Bolshevik rule. When the father died (in 1922), and the family returned home, their Siberian legacy lingered on: the intense frost that had afflicted Sutzkever’s sister with inflammation of the brain was responsible for her death at the age of fourteen, three years later.

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Of this unhappy stuff, and at a long remove from the bare facts, Sutzkever spun a splendid story of his birth as a poet. Siberia he considered to be the origin of all the beauty of the world, a treasure dome like Kubla Khan’s, of sharply engraved sound and sensation, a frozen Eden:

Sunset over icy blue roads
Colors suffuse my mood. A little hut
Shines across the way in the valley,
Covered with a flurry of sunset.
Amazing forests sway against the panes;
Magic sleighs go ringing by.
Doves coo in the attic, coo my face
Out of its shell. Beneath the ice,
Striped with flashes of lightning crystals,
The Irtish ripples as if it were not real.
And there, under hushed cupolas,
A seven year old child—a world—grows tall.

(Translated by Chana Bloch)

The rest of the long poem “Siberia,” of which this is the opening stanza, shows the poet hatched in his landscape of wonder, as fully formed in his seventh year, and as untried, as God’s own world on the seventh day of creation. He revels in the discovery of bears, wolves, doves, and Kirghizian camel drivers with whom he shares the timeless, endless steppe; and he in turn, in his suit of skin, is the plaything of nature, the little snowman of the bright North Star.

Of all his earthly relatives, Sutzkever included in this little epic only his father, who is described slicing black bread with a merciful knife, taking his young child out to the forest to chop firewood, and playing the fiddle so vibrantly by moonlight that a wolf is drawn to the window “to sniff at the flesh of the music.” The illustrations by Marc Chagall that accompany the text in the English, Hebrew, and Yiddish editions of this work remind the reader, somewhat shockingly, how much of a Jew the father was, in his black caftan and beard; in the poem there is nothing to suggest Jewish custom, least of all the father’s death—an exchange of one small hut above the earth for a smaller one beneath it. The boy considers following his parent to his new home, and is only lured back to life by the competing brilliance of the evening sun.

As Sutzkever presents it in this poem, and in many another, Siberia is the uncharted region where the poet, like the child before him, begins life as a pagan, moved to awe by each successive manifestation of nature (rather than by nature’s God). Siberia allows for the confessional joy of the spirit while it is still free to burst with sensation, before it is claimed by civilization. The poems of Siberia, representing the experience of a seven-year-old, do not have to take into account community or causality; they are pre-Jewish, pre-societal, the work of Abram before he becomes the patriarch Abraham. The myth of what Sutzkever calls his “blond beginning” permits the poet to enjoy the raw excitement of the created world without having either to acknowledge or, more significantly, to repudiate any of the historical or cultural constraints that ought to have bound him as a Jew.

There is nothing in modern Jewish literature quite as free as Sutzkever’s exploration of Siberia. True, Yiddish and Hebrew fiction from the mid-I9th century on is filled with images of boys who find in nature—in a summer storm, a neighbor’s garden, the rush of a river, a frolicking calf—escape from the confinement of parental expectations, but their love of beauty and play soon comes into conflict with the controlling impulses of the culture. In this body of writing, adults typically insist on moral self-perfection to the exclusion of everything else, especially the life of art. In a story by Sholem Aleichem, for example, a father tries to prevent his son from playing the violin because he should be devoting himself to study. When the father learns that his son has disobeyed, he suffers a stroke; the boy capitulates to the ban. In the legend Sutzkever spins, by contrast, the scholarly father is himself revealed as an inspired Jewish fiddler, who bequeathes to his son a legacy of divine service through music. In this way the transition from generation to generation, instead of being fraught with conflict, is made to appear seamless, innocent of rebellion, so natural that one does not even notice that the father’s religion has disappeared, and art has taken its place.

Obviously, then, the attempts of Sutzkever’s colleagues in Yung Vilna to sharpen his social awareness were doomed to fail; for him, the very function of a poem was not to present or to protest meanness, but to subvert it. He seems, moreover, never to have doubted his own abilities along these lines, and his faith was vindicated when the group called the Introspectivists accepted several of his poems and invited him to become a regular contributor to their magazine in New York. On the strength of this endorsement from overseas, the Warsaw Yiddish PEN Club put out Sutzkever’s maiden volume, Lider (in 1937, two years after it published the first novel of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Satan in Goray).

Still, recognition of Sutzkever’s talent did not imply recognition of the direction it took, and until the outbreak of the war he was considered an anomaly in the general atmosphere of literary engagement. When the Red Army took Vilna in 1939, Sutzkever was in the process of preparing a modern verse rendition of the 16th-century Yiddish classic, the Bovo Bukh, an adventure poem of courtly love and prowess. He regretted that the crashing thunder was drowning out the sounds of his harp.

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Then, in 1941, came the German invasion and with it the incarceration of Vilna’s Jews in the ghetto. Everyone who had known and read the young Sutzkever marveled at the unexpected stamina he showed during the following years. The “Ariel” of Yiddish literature, as he was known, became an important cultural presence in the ghetto and an active member of the underground. Sutzkever’s colleague Chaim Grade, the poet and (later) short-story writer and novelist, escaped with the retreating Red Army when the Germans invaded, and spent the war in Russia; he spoke later of the cunning of providence that had placed Sutzkever in hell just to see whether he, chief celebrant of nature’s festive harmony, could not be crushed. Grade wrote this in salute to the double miracle of Sutzkever’s physical survival and his ability to maintain his artistic balance,

From our present vantage point we may see things a little differently. If it were possible at all to maintain artistic balance under ghetto conditions, Sutzkever would have had the advantage over his colleagues, since his art had never been subject to “temporal” definition. For those writers who believed solely, or even largely, in the material basis of life and literature, the humiliating changes imposed on the Jews under German occupation required a total reconsideration of the human state, a reconsideration made more difficult by the occupiers’ policy of confounding in order more easily to destroy their victims. Sutzkever’s vision of a metaphysical harmony that subsumes human life within a much wider embracing arc helped to shield him from the degradation, even if it could not fully protect him from the danger of German whim. Because poetry, for him, had always been an inspired partnership with the creative impulses of nature, it continued even under the Nazis to remain immune to political dictation, to become in fact a demonstrative repudiation of such dictation.

Sutzkever resisted in both word and deed. For over a year he worked at the headquarters of Alfred Rosenberg, promulgator of the Nuremberg Laws, who had come to Vilna to destroy, along with vestiges of the Jews, the last traces of their culture. Under orders to pack Jewish books and cultural treasures for shipment to Germany, Sutzkever organized his colleagues to smuggle out the most valuable manuscripts and even pieces of sculpture for buried safekeeping and eventual retrieval. This work was extended to the smuggling of arms from the Aryan side into the ghetto soon after the Jewish resistance was formed in January 1942.

Under circumstances that remain unimaginable even when they have been documented, Sutzkever also continued to write verse and to organize cultural evenings that did much to sustain communal morale. In the diary of one ghetto inmate we find the following entry:

In the presence of fifteen of the most respected writers and artists Sutzkever read his new poem, Dos keyver-kind [“The Grave-child”]. . . . This dramatic chronicle contains a good deal of visionary lyricism. After the author had read his poem there was a very long period of silence before anyone spoke. The immediacy of these dramatized events, the form of the composition and its greatness, had the effect of closing everyone’s lips. Only after the first speaker managed to break the silence did a discussion begin that continued for three hours. I think that this was the first ghetto evening of exalted creative inspiration.

The poem that had its premiere that evening won the ghetto’s literary prize for 1942.

A recurring subject of Sutzkever’s ghetto poetry is the expression of individual dignity in small but meaningful acts:

Because he wanted to smuggle a flower through
    the ghetto’s gate
my neighbor paid the price of seven lashes.
How precious it is to him now—this blue
vernal flower and its golden pupill
My neighbor bears the mementos with no
    regrets:
spring breathes through and colors his tortured
    flesh—
that’s how much he wanted it to flourish.

(Translated by Seymour Mayne)

Since death has taken the place of life as the normal condition of the ghetto, every link established with nature becomes proof of one’s right to exist as a part of it. The neighbor’s martyrdom elevates both flower and spring to a sanctified status they would not otherwise achieve. A flower simply flourishes; only man can determine its value and thereby affirm his own.

All the splendor of creation that Sutzkever celebrated before the war contracted during the ghetto years into tiny reminders of nature’s resourcefulness and resilience. In unlikely signs, such as a warming mound of horse manure or the reflection of moonlight on a sliver of glass, nature sends the poet the conspiratorial message that it will not finally be dominated by these human conquerors, no matter how thorough their destructive sweep.

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One puzzling feature of Sutzkever’s writing during the war is its formal regularity. Some readers, expecting a breakdown of structure due to the pressure of the subject, have expressed surprise at the recurring inclination to classical meter and perfect rhyme. The poems clench themselves tightly, insistent on closures, pitted by their elegance against all that would grind them into formless oblivion. The same play with language is also irrepressible here. Sutzkever is a master of rhyme, linking apparently disparate features of language in a show of wit, forging unity where none has been evident. It often seems as if he were marshaling the formal grace of poetry against the surrounding rot, using rhyme above all, the tiny man-made miracles of pairing, as a barrier against chaos.

Not survival but resistance is the theme of Sutzkever’s ghetto poems. Hiding in a coffin during a roundup of ablebodied Jews, he writes a poem to his dead sister, long since resident in a coffin, and by so doing momentarily proves his victory over the “wooden clothes” in which he has been made to lie. Left bleeding by sadistic storm troopers in a ditch of lime, he reinvents the spectacle of red flowing into white as a sunset, and one of his own making.

One begins to understand how Sutzkever transmitted such a sense of strength during the war, and how he maintained it himself. Encasing the man within the poet, he became virtually indestructible, the way a poem, vulnerable during the capricious process of its creation, becomes obdurate and intractable once finished. Sutzkever’s “I” gradually assumed an impersonal quality; the struggle his poetry records was not the flailing motion of a man trying to keep himself alive but the struggle of the artist to surmount earthly constraints and remain intent on the moral order of beauty. Indeed, in this attempt at hard self-control something personal was inevitably forfeited. Sutzkever suppressed the worst aspects of his experience, and with this, remarkably, some of the strongest poems he wrote while in the ghetto. Until very recently he kept hidden (he says he forgot) certain poems that deal with incidents of great shame, reluctant to admit into his finished work the defeat that his poetry hoped to deny.

It is paradoxical that a prose history, Of the Vilna Ghetto, written by Sutzkever immediately after the war in order to record as many details as he could recall and corroborate, should contain more spontaneous expressions of his mood and thought than the lyrics dealing with some of the very same experiences. Like so many of his fellow survivors, he was obsessed by his duty to keep the record, in order to help prosecute the criminals and—perhaps even more important—to pay tribute to the brave. But while a witness may swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth—swear, that is, to limit himself to empirical data—as a poet Sutzkever was dissatisfied with the sort of evidence that would do no more than confirm the annihilation of his world.

Sutzkever realized, while still in the ghetto, that unless he were exceedingly cautious, the angle of vision granted him as a Jew would make him an intolerable witness. He was faced with perpetual evidence of Jewish degradation, and almost never with its source in German abominations. The strategists of evil made only occasional forays into their dominion: it was the changing face of the victims that one saw, and whoever became the recorder of this damage was in danger of providing exhibits for the postwar museum of Jewish degeneracy that Hitler intended to build.

Apart from his book on the Vilna ghetto and his testimony at Nuremberg, Sutzkever has refrained from speaking in public about the events that oppress him most; to this day he grants no interviews. Whatever can be transmuted into poetry is gradually exposed. For the rest he points to an impossible imbalance in the effort to communicate the reduction of human value to those who did not know it on their flesh.

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It was Sutzkever’s fate to survive a second Jewish catastrophe after he was brought to Moscow in 1944. Between the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 and the end of the war, the Jews of the Soviet Union (as opposed to those under Nazi rule) enjoyed a relative normalcy; that is, they suffered only the terrible hardship of their Russian countrymen without accumulated Jewish disabilities. During this interval the Soviet Yiddish writers and artists gathered in the officially-sanctioned Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee brought Sutzkever to Moscow as a part of their rescue effort. The knowledge that Jews and Russians were now facing a common enemy made it permissible for Jewish writers to express a national purpose—something they had been forbidden to do for a decade—and Yiddish culture, which had been stifled in the Soviet Union, experienced a brief revival.

In Moscow Sutzkever befriended many Russian writers, including Boris Pasternak who translated several of his poems. He was deeply affected by his encounters with the major figures of Soviet Yiddish culture—the actor-director Shloime Mikhoels, the poets Peretz Markish and Dovid Hofstein, the novelist Dovid Bergelson—all of whom were trying under precarious conditions to resume an active creative life. In 1948, the worst fears of these men were realized when Mikhoels was murdered, at the order of Stalin, in a staged accident. Shortly afterward all the leading Jewish intellectuals and artists were arrested and imprisoned until their execution in August 1952. As a Polish refugee, Sutzkever had the good fortune to be repatriated in 1946, going first to Lodz and from there, in early 1947, to Paris. He thus became the poignant witness to the loss of a second “Atlantis,” whose inhabitants continue to people his work.

Before leaving Poland, Sutzkever managed to complete, under Communist threat, the rescue of Jewish cultural treasures he had undertaken under the Nazis. He unearthed the materials buried during the war and had them smuggled out of Russia, at great risk, to New York City, where they constitute the Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. As the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz has pointed out, this collection includes material that had not existed when the YIVO flourished in Vilna: Sutzkever and Kaczerginski gathered an extraordinary archive of documents in the ghetto itself that was transferred clandestinely to New York along with the older salvaged books and manuscripts.

Sutzkever spent half a year in Paris, a postwar meeting point of survivors. But then unlike the majority of Yiddish writers who preferred to stay on in Europe or move to America, he went to Palestine. He arrived as part of the illegal immigration of 1947 and in the same year that the state of Israel was created he founded the Yiddish journal named appropriately The Golden Chain, emblem of Jewish continuity. His establishment in Israel of the most carefully edited of all Yiddish literary publications helped to initiate a change in the country’s linguistic politics, gaining recognition for Yiddish where it had been, at best, grudgingly tolerated, and in turn winning recognition for Israel as a center of Yiddish high culture.

There is a certain parallel between Sutzkever’s invention of himself as child of the Siberian steppe and his avid exploration of the Israeli desert soon after his arrival in the country. In the vastness of the Negev and the Sinai he found something akin to the stretches of Siberia, space where a solitary observer could once again take his bearings in the scheme of things. The landscape might no longer elicit the joys of virgin discovery, but the lasting imprints of the past that one found everywhere in the desert gave solace to a survivor of lost civilizations:

The sunset grew bold: it insisted on staying
In the Red Sea at night, when the innocent pink
Young fauns delicately make their way
Downhill to the palace of water to drink.

They leave their silken shadows on the shore,
Bending to lick the rings of coolness
In the Red Sea, with long fiddle-faces. And there
They are betrothed at last to the silence.

And then—they run away. Rosy flecks
Animate the sand. But the sunset deer
Stay behind in the water, mournful, and lick
The silence of those that are no longer there.

(Translated by Chana Bloch)

This lyric, “Deer at the Red Sea,” consecrates a moment of rare natural beauty, rendered in words of innocence, delicacy, refinement. Like enchanted fairy-tale princesses who unite only fleetingly with their lovers, the deer, a gentle tribe, suddenly vanish, leaving only their haunting reflection. The romance of this poem begins in material substance, fauns coming to quench their thirst in the lingering evening, and ends in metaphysics, the attachment of sound to echo, of all that is temporarily manifest in life to all that is thereafter absent. Yet mourners who have absorbed a vanished presence may continue to draw sustenance from it long after its physical disappearance. Much in the same way, this poem keeps alive its subject, no longer there in the flesh. Sutzkever’s absolute faith in poetry as a timeless proving of earthly existence generates strong hints of a God who is no longer present within His created world. But mournful creatures, graced by His image—poets especially—lap at the silence His absence has left.

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Beginning in the mid 1950’s Sutzkever traveled to all parts of the globe. As the guest of major Jewish communities in Australia, Africa, South and North America, and Europe, he knew how to inspire in his audience faith in their ability to bear the burden of their past. On the podium he developed the public style we associate with Russian and Polish poets who generate in their listeners a mighty sense of common destiny. His readings turned into dramatic community manifestations.

His private travels also rekindled a native curiosity about the rich variety of animal and vegetable life. On an extended trip to Africa a decade after the war, Sutzkever responded to the exoticism of the strange new continent, exploring desert and jungle, tracking elephants, visiting with the king of the Zulus. In the poetry that followed, his own past was refracted in new images—lepers, caged tigers, a plague of termites, a sweep of locust, a pygmy-dance, the monkey-merchant. Sutzkever took in all the strangeness and beauty and some of the brutality of Africa with a sense of familiarity, recognizing in creatures he had never before seen the instinctual faculties he had come to appreciate through his own experience. He showed affection especially for the majesty of the jungle which is all the more vulnerable for being so awesome.

Twice, in 1948 and in 1961, Sutzkever deviated from the lyrical forms in which he remains most comfortable to create national epics of ambitious narrative scope. Geheymshtot (“Secret City”) records the effort of ten Jews, a symbolic minyan of men and women and a newborn infant, to escape the destruction of Vilna by hiding in the sewers beneath it. Gaystike erd (“Spiritual Soil”) dramatizes the journey of refugees from Europe to Palestine aboard the ship Patria in September 1947, and the efforts of this saving remnant to resettle the country under Arab attack. In each work Sutzkever was drawing from his own experience: the sewer had been his escape route when the ghetto was liquidated; he came to Palestine, much as he describes the journey’s details, aboard the Patria. Yet despite the authenticity of the information, the epics are obviously the projections of a single narrator who is determined to make history respond to his affirmative will. The suppleness of the Yiddish original, which owes much to the colloquial play of language, stiffens in English, and no effective translations of these works in their entirety have yet proved possible.

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Sutzkever’s true magnum opus appears to be a sustained work of quite another kind, the series of Poems from a Diary that he has been writing since 1974. As one might expect of a diary, the entries are filled with casual disclosures about quotidian affairs, “a funeral by day and a concert at night,” and fragments of dream and memory. Given the interests of the diarist there is also a good deal of personal reflection about speech, poetry, life and death. Through the apparent randomness of these poems, Sutzkever’s personality emerges more forcefully than in any previous work, and he seems to have found here the perfect vehicle for his characteristic mixture of passion and intelligence, a tension between mood and mind that has reminded one critic of the English metaphysical poets, though a closer parallel might be John Berryman’s Dream Songs, which also depend for their full appreciation on some familiarity with their author’s life.

Poems from a Diary opens with the observation, “Distance nears.” A man advanced in years feels the past crowding in on him, but the provocative oxymoron also points forward, to the approach of endlessness, perhaps eternal life. Our vision, like our eyesight, alters as we age; it is typical of Sutzkever to collapse the languages of space and time, giving substantiality to the ephemeral by treating time as a function of space. Death, the ugliest breach of time, only poetry has the human power to heal.

By now death is an old familiar for Sutzkever, and he treats it here with a playfulness that seems to have passed beyond tragedy to its farther comic side. The speaker of these poems is no longer a scarred survivor, but nature’s intimate, a somewhat bemused authority:

Who will last? And what? The wind will stay,
and the blind man’s blindness when he’s gone
   away,
and a thread of foam—a sign of the sea—
and a bit of cloud snarled in a tree.

Who will last? And what? A word as green
as Genesis, making grasses grow.
And what the prideful rose might mean,
seven of those grasses know.

Of all that northflung starry stuff,
the star descended in the tear will last.
In its jar, a drop of wine stands fast.
Who lasts? God abides, isn’t it enough?

(Translated by Cynthia Ozick)

No single poem can suggest the range of wit and grace of the entire cycle, but this lyric does touch the center of its search. Man, riddled with unanswered questions, is in danger of becoming a cynic or a nihilist: one who accepts and perhaps even enjoys the impermanence of things, the absence of any essential reality. Against this fatal undertow Sutzkever’s ripe poetry ranges its every resource. The affirmation here is far from thunderous, to be sure. It seems rather mischievous to locate permanence in wind and foam; and the second stanza, reducing poetry to a language of grass and flowers, takes us all the way back to a prehistoric landscape and forces us to confront the possibility of having to begin there again. The proofs of eternity that are found in a drop of pain and a droplet of wine are a far cry from the glory that inspired the biblical psalmist, with his knowledge of God. Alongside all this, the rhetorical question that ends the poem leaves itself open to a skeptical rejoinder.

And yet, the poem does point us in the direction of an essence underlying mere existence. For all its minimalism and informality, it combines with others in this series to form a kind of modern psalter, recognizing God in the remnants of His creation. While the context is not particularly “Jewish,” Sutzkever attributes to poetry much of the flavor of Judaism, with its struggle to discipline lawlessness, its dogged or exuberant attachment to life. Life, not to be mistaken for the road to happiness, he defines as the inevitable coupling of pain and joy, with the possibility of one utterly dependent on the presence of the other. The decomposition of Sutzkever’s family and community, the rapid decline of his native language, have “fragmented” his culture quite literally; all the more reason to make each fragment yield the sensation of the whole to which it once organically adhered.

_____________

 

As perhaps the last great Yiddish poet, Sutzkever faces one additional problem of his own creation. He alludes to it in a diary-poem dated 1981 in which a woman at an adjoining table in a cafe points out the scribbling poet to her young son with the words: “That’s not a man, but a legend.” He turns this phrase over in his mind, but then, impatient with its dull abstraction, feels the impulse to bite his own writing hand, to get a taste of the legend. If life-threatening deflation is one of this poet’s oldest concerns, in his recent work he is no less aware of the danger of inflation. Words that soar too high are suspect and deadly, even when filled with noble intention; they take you beyond life. In the lyrics of his sixties Sutzkever hence inevitably lacks some of the heroic conviction that inspired the struggle of his middle years. But there is still great excitement of observation, and deepening love for the life that feels itself simultaneously lengthening and shortening.

The phoenix quality of Abraham Sutzkever’s witness to his lost Atlantis cannot fail to provide a source of inspiration to anyone who ever doubted the mysterious creative continuity of vanished East European Jewry. If in Sutzkever’s judgment it would be a shame to reduce him to legend, his poetry generates a faith in itself, in its own true vivifying power, that lends an aura of indestructibility to the destroyed world it stubbornly mourns and celebrates.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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