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The Departure of the Yiddish Mastodons ~ Avrom Sutzkever z”h

אַבֿרהם סוצקעווער ע”ש 1913-2010

Few remain who still personally remember the peak of modern secular Yiddish culture. That period which began with the stories of the ‘grandfather’ of Yiddish literature, Mendele Moykher Sforim, in the end of the nineteenth century and ended with the Nazi and Stalinist purges of Eastern Europe. With the recent passing of Avrom Sutzkever, master of Yiddish verse, that wonderful page of Jewish existence is now perhaps over.

[singlepic id=144 w=320 h=240 float=right]Sutzkever seemed to have been through it all. Born in Smorgon in 1913, (now Smarhoń, Belarus) he escaped WWI with his family by fleeing to Siberia. After the war he returned to Vilna, a city renowned as the Yerusholayim d’Lita (Jerusalem of Lithuania) because of the outstanding religious, cultural and political achievements of its relatively small Jewish community. This was the birthplace of the Vilna Gaon, YJascha Heifetz, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Jewish Labor Bund. As a young adult he helped form the Yung Vilne (Young Vilna) group of poets with Chaim Grade, Leyzer Volf and others. This interwar period produced many masterpieces of secular Yiddishkeit, but was smashed as Nazi occupation oversaw the murder or ghettoisation of the Baltic Jews. The Nazis forced Sutzkever to work in a group of Jewish intellectuals for the ‘Paper Brigade’, gathering works from YIVO for the ominously named ‘Institute for the Research into the Jewish Question’, based in Frankfurt. Instead, they made sure to hide important items – documents, art, books, and so forth – of which much would eventually reach the New York based YIVO. Crucially for the ghetto’s Jewish partisans, the United Partisan Organization (FPO), bomb making instructions were saved by the Paper Brigade. After a failed ambush against the Nazis, the FPO gave up on sparking a Warsaw style uprising in Vilna and shifted their resistance to the forest and swamp. Avrom Sutzkever and his wife escaped the ghetto and joined the FPO in Belarus, living and fighting in the woods. 90% of Vilna’s Jewish population were to be murdered by the Nazis and their local cohorts – Sutzkever’s mother and young child included. He was airlifted to Moscow towards the end of the war and then moved to Poland. In the years following WWII danger was still near for Yiddish intellectuals in the Soviet Union: Stalin was to purge even the most fervently pro-Soviet Yiddish intellectuals for their “nationalist tendencies”. So Sutzkever escaped to Palestine. There, as if in an endless series of struggles, he stood up to fierce Hebraist anti-Yiddish parochialism and set up the Goldene Keyt (Golden Chain), which he edited for forty years, establishing Israel as a post-Holocaust literary centre of the Yiddish world. He wrote his poetry through and about all of this, telling the NY Times, “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

When Avrom Sutzkever passed away on the 20th of January 2010, at the age of 96, Jewdas contacted klezmer musician and poet Daniel Kahn, whose work has often dealt with themes of resistance, for his feelings on the passing of the Yiddish master.

Daniel Kahn:

Thanks for asking. Actually, I’ve been thinking about Sutzkever a lot in the last few days. As my friend Michael Alpert says, quoting the Jewish Belarusan musicologist Dima Slepovitch, “the mastodons are departing us”. Sutzkever was one of the first Yiddish poets I really fell in love with. I encountered his poems first in translation and then in the original. Reading about his life and struggles in David Roskies’ excellent book Against the Apocalypse was also inspiring.

In 2008 I took part in an interdisciplinary workshop under the direction of Michael Ronen, an Israeli theatre director living here in Berlin. We were a group of about 20 actors, musicians, dancers, sculptors, film makers, photographers, and writers from Israel (Jewish and Muslim), Palestine, Germany, and America (I felt like the only Jew somehow. Well, diasporic anyway.) For a few weeks we met everyday in a gallery space and simply encountered one another using various games and exercises. Most of what we did was theatrical, but I thought a project of translating poems from one language or culture to another would be interesting. I brought in several books of German, Yiddish, Israeli, and Palestinian poetry and we found poems that were especially resonant to us. Ultimately we had versions of Brecht poems in Hebrew, Palestinian poems in Yiddish, Israeli poems in German, etc. I was particularly struck by the way my friend Osama Zatar, a Palestinian sculptor now living and working with his Israeli wife in Vienna, was moved by a poem I showed him by Avrom Sutzkever. It is one of my favorites. Osama spoke of his understanding of the kind of emptiness which can come with the joy of long awaited liberation. And the alienated reckoning with the past which follows. He translated and performed the poem in Arabic.

The poem was written in 1943 in the Vilna ghetto, long from the war’s end. Sutzkever, a member of the fated “Paper Brigades” was surrounded by the collapse and destruction of his culture and civilization. In the poem, he asks us to imagine what a supposed liberation might be like in the shadow of so much loss. Last week, upon hearing of Sutzkever’s death, I sat down with the poem and decided to translate it into an english lyric I could sing with the original Yiddish. I set it to a melody by my friend Michael Winograd. We will record the song next week, hopefully to be a part of our next album. Below is the poem in its original and transliteration, and my adaptation into English. I hope it speaks to you. Lekoved zayn ondenk. Honor his memory.

all the best,

Vi Azoy?
Fun Avrom Sutzkever

vi azoy un mit vos vestu filn
dayn bekher in tog fun bafrayung?
Bistu greyt in dayn freyd tsu darfiln
dayn fargangenheits finstere shrayung?
Vu es glivern sharbns fun teg
in a tom on a grunt, on a dek?

Du vest zukhn a shlisl tsu pasn
far dayne farhakte shleser
vi broyt vestu baysn di gasn
un trakhtn: der frier iz beser
un di tsayt vet dikh ekbern shtil
vi in foyst a gefangene gril

un s’vet zayn dayn zikorn geglikhn
tsu an alter farshotener shtot
un dayn droysiker blik vet dort krikhn
vi a krot, vi a krot – –

in Vilner geto, 14.2.1943

?װי אַזױ
פֿון אברהם סוצקעװער

װי אזױ און מיט װאָס װעסטו פֿילן
?דײַן בעכער אין טאָג פֿון באַפֿרײַונג
ביסטו גרײט אין דײַן פֿרײד צו דאַרפֿילן
?דײַן פֿאַרגאַנגענהײַטס פֿינסטערע שרײַונג
װו עס גליװערן שאַרבנס פֿון טעג
?אין אַ תהום אָן אַ גרונט, אָן אַ דעק?

דו װעסט זוכן אַ שליסל צו פּאַסן
.פֿאַר דײַנע פֿאַרהאַקטע שלעסער
װי ברױט װעסטו בײַסן די גאַסן
.און טראַכטן׃ דער פֿריער איז בעסער
און די צײַט װעט דיך עקבערן שטיל
.װי אין פֿױסט אַ געפֿאַנגענע גריל

און ס׳װעט זײַן דײַן זכּרון געגליכן
.צו אַן אַלטער פֿאַרשאָטענער שטאָט
און דײַן דרױסיקער בליק װעט דאָרט קריכן
– – װי אַ קראָט, װי אַ קראָט

אין װילנער געטאָ, 14.2.1943

-by Avrom Sutzkever
(eng. By Daniel Kahn)

How, and with what will you fill
your cup after your liberation?
In your joy, are you ready to feel
all of yesterday’s dark lamentation?
Where the days have congealed into skulls
in a bottomless, endless abyss?

You will look for the keys to your doors
whose locks are all shattered and dead.
You’ll think: it was better before
as you chew on the sidewalks like bread
and the time gnaws you silent and numb
like a cricket held inside a fist.

And your memories will all be compared
to a buried, forgotten old town
and your outsider eyes they will stare
like a mole crawling down, crawling down. . .

-in the Vilna ghetto, February 14, 1943

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6 thoughts on “The Departure of the Yiddish Mastodons ~ Avrom Sutzkever z”h”

  1. Avatar photo

    Sutzkever’s poems online in Yiddish:
    National Yiddish Book Center

    Sutzkever’s poems online with English translation:
    Barbara and Benjamin Harshav’s translation

    Avrom Sutzkever Facebook group

    Obituaries by:
    Ruth R. Wisse, Jewish Ideas Daily
    Joseph Berger, NY Times
    Benny Mer, Haaretz

    אַ שיינעם דאַנק צו פֿאַניע בראַנצאָווסקי, אינדרע יאָפֿיטע‫,‬ רחל קאָסטאַניאַן‫, ‬מיכאל אַלפערט און אויף זיכער דניאל קאַן פאַר אײַער צײַט און אַרײַנצי אין שרײַבנדיק דאָס אַרטיקל

  2. Im just a poor little jewish boy/toy/goy/delete as appropriate

    Thanks for this article, really interesting stuff. Not someone I had any knowledge of. What other yiddish poets do you recommend (or do we have to look forward to another article?)

  3. Avatar photo

    Hey thanks a lot for the comments.

    Im just a…
    I’ve got to say that i’m actually just a spring green when it comes to Yiddish poetry, I don’t really know my way around too well. Your comment gives me impetus to keep looking. I’ll definitely keep writing about what I discover! Maybe someone else has suggestions?

    I find it really interesting just how many of the FPO were also creatives and intellectuals. Aba Kovner, commander of the Vilna branch of the FPO, who Daniel Kahn sings about in his song ‘Nakam’, went to be a well regarded Hebrew poet whilst earlier he translated poems into Yiddish, particularly gruesome poems, from what I have found; Hirsh Glick, author of the Jewish Partisan anthem ‘zog nit keyn mol’ (Never say this is the final road for you); indeed the ghetto partisans HQ was in the basement of the ghetto library itself.

    Unfortunately, no, I’m not in Vilnius right now, I was just in contact with Fania and Rokhl over email. Apparently Fania was at the Auschwitz Liberation Day memorial so it sounds like she’s fighting fit as ever. To those who this means nothing to, Fania Brantovsky is the librarian of the Yiddish Institute of Vilnius University and was an FPO partisan herself. An incredible woman. Jordan, would you mind if I use your excellent videos for future jewdas articles?

  4. Of course, please use them, that’s why there there! There will be a whole bunch more coming in the next few weeks. Rokhl has been waiting patiently for me to get up the films from the museum which I’ve fallen behind in subtitling (my old system was with captions that you need to click on in Youtube, now I’ll be putting the subtitles in the footage itself). You have my email, can you send me Fania’s address? She didn’t have one the last time I talked to her in person in Vilnius. I want to give her the links for the films, see if she has anything she’d like added to the descriptions.

  5. Hey Guys, let me recommend the great Yiddish poets Jacob Glashteyn and Malka Heifetz-Tussman.

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