Sutzkever, Abraham

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SUTZKEVER, Abraham

Nationality: Israeli (originally Russian: immigrated to Palestine, 1947). Born: Smorgon, Belorussia, 1913. Family: Married; one daughter. Career: Lived in Vilna, 1920-43. Member, literary and artistic group Young Vilna, 1930s; member, United Partisans Organization in the Vilna ghetto, early 1940s. Editor, Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain), 1949-96. Awards: First prize, Vilna Ghetto Writers Union literary contest, 1942; B'nai B'rith literary award, 1979; Israel prize in literature.

Publications

Collections

Burnt Pearls: Ghetto Poems of Abraham Sutzkever. 1981.

A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose. 1991.

Laughter beneath the Forest: Poems from Old and Recent Manuscripts. 1996.

Poetry

Lider [Poems]. 1937.

Valdiks [Woodlore]. 1940.

Di Festung [The Fortress]. 1945.

Lider fun geto [Poems of the Ghetto]. 1946.

Geheymshtot [Secret City]. 1948.

Yidishe gas. 1948.

In fayer-vogn. 1952.

Sibir. 1953; as Siberia: A Poem, 1961.

Fun drai weltn (De tres mundos). 1953.

Ode tsu der toyb. 1955.

In midber Sinai. 1957; as In the Sinai Desert, 1987.

Oazis. 1960.

Gaystike erd [Spiritual Soil]. 1961.

Five Yiddish Poets, with Naftoli Gross, Eliezer Greenberg, Riesel Zhichlinsky, and Jacob Glantz. 1962.

Poetishe verk [Poetic Works]. 1963.

Lider fun yam-hamaves [Poems from the Sea of Death]. 1968.

Firkantike oysyes un mofsim. 1968.

Tsaytike penemer. 1970.

Griner akvarium. 1972; translated by Ruth Wisse as Green Aquarium, in Prooftexts, 2(1), January 1982.

Di fidlroyz. 1974; as The Fiddle Rose, 1990.

Lider fun togbukh. 1977.

Dortn vu es nekhtikn di shtern. 1979.

Di ershte Nakht in Geto [The First Night in the Ghetto]. 1979.

Fun alte un yunge ksav-yadn. 1982.

Tsviling-bruder. 1986.

Der yoyresh fun regn. 1992.

Tsevaklte (and stories). 1996.

Short Stories

Di nevue fun shvartsaplen [Prophesy of the Inner Eye]. 1989.

Baym leyenen penimer [Face Reading]. 1993.

Memoir

Vilner geto: 1941-44 [Vilna Ghetto]. 1945.

Other

Fun Vilner geto. 1946.

Editor, with Chone Shmeruk, Benjamin Harshav, and Mendel Piekarz, A shpigl oyf a shteyn: Antologye: Poezye un proze fun tsvelf farshnitene yidishe shraybers in Ratn-Farband. 1964.

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Bibliography:

Avrom Sutskever-bibliografye by Avrom Nowersztern, 1976.

Critical Studies:

Abraham Sutzkever: Partisan Poet by Joseph Leftwich, 1971; "The Last Great Yiddish Poet?" by Ruth R. Wisse, in Commentary, 76, November 1983, pp. 41-48; Avrom Sutzkever: Tsum vern a ben-shivim by Avrom Nowersztern, 1983; Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture by David G. Roskies, 1984; "Abraham Sutzkever's Vilna Poems" by David H. Hirsch, in Modern Language Studies, 16(1), Winter 1986, pp. 37-50; "Mirrors of Memory: The Poetry of Abraham Sutzkever," in Tikkun, 6(3), May 1991, p. 67, and "Sutzkever: Life and Poetry," in A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, 1991, both by Benjamin Harshav.

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It has been said of the poet Abraham Sutzkever that "he is not a man, he is a legend." More than the work of any other Yiddish writer of his generation, Sutzkever's poetic biography was seen to reflect the anxieties, tragedy, and drama of the eastern European Jewish experience. As a member of the prewar literary and artistic group Young Vilna, he resisted the dominant literary trend of social realism in favor of an aesthetic standard that mined the nuances of Yiddish language and poetic form while exploring an intimate sense of his relationship with nature. Even before the Holocaust, Sutzkever aligned himself metaphysically with the natural universe of recurring cycles rather than the human domain of finite history. By "living poetically"—that is, by focusing his energies on the creation of refined poetic objects that were beyond the corrosive forces of worldly evil—Sutzkever felt that he could preserve not only his own moral compass but also the vivid memory of all his personal dead in an uncorrupted, dignified textual universe.

The myth of Sutzkever as partisan poet developed out of his commitment to the highest standards for his art and his activism in both the cultural and physical resistance in the ghetto. At the same time that he crafted emotionally controlled, stylistically innovative, and classically measured verse in the most extreme of conditions, he also organized public literary and theatrical events, joined the underground United Partisans Organization, and participated in a secret project to rescue irreplaceable cultural treasures from the Yiddish Scientific Institute (Yivo). As a member of the Paper Brigade, Sutzkever risked his life to smuggle documents relating to the history and culture of eastern European Jewry into the ghetto, where they were buried for posterity. In "Grains of Wheat" (1943) Sutzkever's first-person speaker gives voice to the sense of national mission that motivated members of the Paper Brigade.

Sutzkever's writing during the ghetto years ranged from the elegiac to the metapoetic, from self-accusatory lyrics to moving national epics. He invented new archetypes of Jewish spiritual and physical resistance that were based on actual personalities and events in the ghetto ("Teacher Mira," "Itsik Vitenberg," "To the Yiddish Theater," "The Grave-Child," "Kol Nidre," "The Prophet"). Elsewhere, he confessed his private grief about lost family and friends ("My Mother," "To the Child," "Under Your White Stars," "I Lie in a Coffin," "A Wagon of Shoes") or raged at the humiliation and degradation of a people that could not defend itself ("The Circus," "This Is How to Answer an Orphan," "Poem to the Last," "How?"). In Poems from the Sea of Death (1968)—Sutzkever's official canon of his wartime poetry—he edited out the angriest of works so as not to add further shame to the memory of the murdered.

Sutzkever quickly came to appreciate the special role of the poet-witness in the context of national catastrophe. In "The Prophet" he included the image of a bird pecking the eye out of a morally refined ghetto Jew and placing it in the eye socket of the poet. Elsewhere, he signaled more directly that he was prepared to assume the burden of collective memory.

In 1943 Sutzkever escaped to the Lithuanian forests to join Jewish partisan units. When one of his ghetto poems was smuggled into the U.S.S.R. and published, a rescue plane was sent into the war zone to bring him to the Soviet Union as a symbol of Jewish resistance to fascism. Once he was out of immediate danger Sutzkever thought it crucial to write a detailed history of the ghetto years (Vilna Ghetto 1941-1944). Not only does this chronicle testify to Sutzkever's recognition that it was essential to preserve a reliable record of what was perpetrated against the Jews and their varied reactions to it but it also accentuates just how much his artistic oeuvre both borrowed from and stylized these experiences.

In 1948 Sutzkever completed the first of several epic poems through which he would craft a new myth of national survival and rebirth. Geheymshtot ("Secret City") communicates Sutzkever's notion that memorialization would not be complete until all the dead were brought to participate in the redemption of the people in their new homeland. (This might explain why Sutzkever later felt it important that his Yiddish master the Israeli landscape as sensitively as it had the Polish one in the 1930s.) Sutzkever arrived in Israel in time to experience the moment of its rebirth as an independent nation. His decision to establish Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain)—a publication that emerged as the most prestigious Yiddish journal in the world—was designed to express the moral imperative of bringing Yiddish and the highest level of Yiddish scholarship to the new Hebrew-speaking homeland. In Gaystike erd (1961; "Spiritual Soil") Sutzkever recounted the story of his illegal sea journey to Palestine. At a time in Israeli cultural history when the Holocaust was often treated as a subject of national shame, Sutzkever's poem staked a claim for his generation of survivor-immigrants as heroes of the spirit who chose to rebuild themselves by helping to build a new nation. Sutzkever's poetic account of the Sinai campaign, "In the Sinai Desert" (1956), similarly reverberates with a mood of restored dignity as he forges a link between the new generation of brave, fighting Israelis and his comrades who took up arms in the ghettos of Europe.

Perhaps the most developed statement of Sutzkever's poetic philosophy occurs in his series of prose poems Green Aquarium, in which words (and the act of writing itself) are imagined to have ultimate power over life and death. This idea conveys a larger truth about Sutzkever's sense of the relationship between the Holocaust and culture. If, to other writers, the Holocaust came to rest at the center of Jewish culture, to Sutzkever culture—that is, the most elevated examples of national creativity—must occupy this privileged position.

—Justin D. Cammy

See the essays on Di ershte Nakht in Geto, Di Festung, and Green Aquarium.

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Sutzkever, Abraham

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