Di Festung

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Poems by Abraham Sutzkever, 1945

Di Festung ("The Fortress") a collection of 39 lyric and epic poems published after the war but composed during Abraham Sutzkever's entrapment in the Vilna (Vilnius) ghetto and his time as a partisan fighter in the forests of Lithuania—was among the earliest volumes of Yiddish poetry to explore the experience of the destruction of Jewish eastern Europe. Inspired by actual events and personalities, the volume's contents range from poetic confessionals to elegiac verses written for murdered family and friends, from poems of frustration, anger, and resistance to one of the earliest attempts to interpret the extent of human destruction symbolically through disembodied, everyday objects. During the war Sutzkever, whose mastery of the introspective nature lyric had first put him on the Yiddish literary map in the 1930s, continued to rely upon precisely constructed lyrics and the imaginative use of the Yiddish language as a means to assert control over the external chaos. While some critics have suggested that Sutzkever's life in the ghetto transformed him from a socially disengaged aesthete into a self-consciously national poet, the contents of Di Festung show a writer who managed to maintain his poetic poise by privileging the authority of the internalized experiences of the poet-witness. By combining this perspective with motifs from the library of Jewish catastrophe through the ages, he transformed the Vilna of his personal memory into a new prooftext for Jewish suffering, heroism, and survival.

Among the most famous poems from this volume are those in which Sutzkever attempted to construct new archetypes of physical and spiritual resistance. In "Teacher Mira" he took the example of real-life ghetto teacher Mira Bernshteyn and transformed her into a model of cultural endurance. In "The Lead Plates of the Rom Press" Sutzkever offered up a legend about local partisans melting the plates that had once been used to print a famous edition of the Babylonian Talmud to manufacture bullets; the ghetto fighters are shown to exist in a continuum of national heroes stretching back to the Maccabees. Despite the fact that the events described by the poem never occurred, its myth contributed to a literary revolution in Jewish self-respect.

Sutzkever was also among the first writers to rely upon a collection of objects to communicate both the magnitude of national destruction and his private grief. When the speaker of "A Wagon of Shoes" notices a cartload of shoes still twitching with the memory of their owners, the reader recognizes that they are now the only tangible symbols of lost children, brides, friends, and ultimately even the speaker's mother (whose Sabbath shoes he recognizes in the pile). Elsewhere, as in "On My Thirtieth Birthday," Sutzkever ruminated on the function of the artist in the ghetto. For the poet, the act of retelling that which he has witnessed serves as a regenerative gesture that will defy the abyss of history.

In Di Festung Sutzkever also experimented for the first time with longer works of epic ambition. In "The Grave-Child" he staged a scene of national rebirth set amid the graves of Vilna's Jewish cemetery. The haunting but moving sound of a violin in the distance punctuates the end of the work, suggesting that the creative process itself (whether physical or artistic) is a mark of Jewish endurance. Such a motif was powerful to Sutzkever not only for its dramatic effect but also because his own baby had been killed under German orders only hours after its birth in the ghetto hospital. In recognition of its achievement, the poem was awarded first prize in the initial literary contest of the Union of Writers and Artists in the Vilna Ghetto in 1942.

The epic monologue "Kol Nidre" starkly conveys both the terror of the German extermination squads and the struggle of the faithful to hold God accountable for his inaction. Unlike the majority of Sutzkever's writing in Di Festung, which is composed from the perspective of the secular Yiddish writer, the speaker of "Kol Nidre" is an observant survivor in a roundup of Jews on Yom Kippur eve 1941. The work's climax occurs when he discovers that his only remaining family, a son who had left home 20 years earlier, has also been captured and faces imminent torture. When the speaker enacts the biblical Akeidah (the sacrifice of Isaac) to keep his son beyond the grasp of the Nazi guards, he both undermines and redefines categories of holy and profane. The poem's intertextual reliance on such familiar themes as Job's suffering, Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, and portions of the High Holiday liturgy inserted the material of contemporary history into the continuum of Jewish responses to catastrophe. In a concluding gesture that reflected Sutzkever's own sense of poetic mission, the speaker relates this story to the ghetto poet in the hope that the Jewish writer will now assume the burden of collective memory. Such a self-image was realized when the poem was smuggled out of the ghetto and published, in Russian translation, by critic Ilya Ehrenberg in Moscow. It became the earliest work to reach the U.S.S.R. to testify to the brutality and extent of Jewish destruction, leading to Sutzkever's eventual rescue from the partisan forests and his testimony on behalf of Soviet Jewry at the Nuremburg trials.

—Justin D. Cammy