Di Ershte Nakht in Geto

views updated


Poems by Abraham Sutzkever, 1979

Written between 1941 and 1943, the poems in Di ershte Nakht in Geto ("The First Night in the Ghetto") represent Abraham Sutzkever's response to the setting up of the Vilna (Vilnius) ghetto and the rapid destruction of the Jewish population. A feature of the poems, and indeed a feature of the poet's life, is that they are defiant and muscular, full of hope even when all hope seems to be futile. Sutzkever was fairly noncommital about Judaism as a faith and the passivity of the Jews as a community, and yet he gave evidence of his feelings of guilt that he survived while his family had been murdered. In some ways his ability to resist is seen as bought at the expense of his family, and thus many of the poems convey a good deal of despair and raging against the futility of the position in which he was put. They represent the uneasiness Sutzkever felt about being concerned about his own fate while the fate of so many of his own people had already been sealed.

There is evidence that the absence of a positive note led the poet to edit the poems severely before publication, removing those that were negative and critical of the contemporary Jewish community. Some of the poems are very lyrical, particularly the title poem, as if to demonstrate the phenomenon Sutzkever described in which the unbearable becomes part of everyday life and prepares the victims for yet greater horrors in the future. His descriptions of aspects of Jewish life and practice in an environment in which only death seems to rule are effective in linking him with Judaism while eschewing any reliance on an individual God. Survival becomes the supreme value, and yet in a universe in which such cruelty reigns survival appears to be both impossible and irrelevant.

What Sutzkever often referred to as crucial is the role of the witness. The witness sees and experiences, and it is his duty to transmit that information to the future. But Sutzkever also expressed the idea that the audience for the reports of the witness is being destroyed at the same time as the community is being destroyed. The destruction is so total that the witnessing eye ultimately survives by blending with nature, and although the report survives there is a suggestion that it is irrelevant, since what is meant by survival is ironic. At the end of the poem that gives this collection its title, Sutzkever referred to "the familiar, the living stars of my town [Vilna]… the after-Sabbath stars … a happy new week." Then he explained that he is resuscitated and must live, "for my mother's good star is alive," the mother who wished him a good week at the end of the Sabbath. Yet it is clear that both his life and his mother's afterlife were far from what would normally be called life, and that Sutzkever's theme is one which is familiar in Holocaust literature, the blurring of the distinction between the living and the dead.

—Oliver Leaman