Few Israelis know the name of Abraham Sutzkever, who lived amongst them from his immigration in 1947 until his death this year. Sutzkever, who was extracted from the forests of occupied Vilna in a Soviet airplane after his son and mother were murdered, brought the remnants of the cultural treasures of Lithuanian Jewry with him to Israel, settled in Tel Aviv and continued to create and write in Yiddish for the rest of his life. The language that made him one of Israel’s greatest poets, writes Miriam Trin, is also what served as a barrier between him and his countrymen.
Abraham Sutzkever was born in Smargon, White Russia, on July 15, 1913, and died on January 20, 2010, in Tel Aviv. Sutzkever was almost 97 at the time of his death, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, yet nearly unknown amongst the residents of the country that he chose as his second home and in which he lived for most of his life. His greatness was appreciated by those who could read his works in the original – in Yiddish. Ironically, the language in which he became an important poet is also what separated Sutzkever from the people of his time and of his land.
He came to Israel on a Ma’apilim ship in September of 1947. Leaving Lithuania, and especially his beloved city of Vilna, signified a great personal crisis for him. Sutzkever grew up in Vilna from the age of eight, was educated there and absorbed knowledge that shaped his artistic path for his entire life. Although Yiddish was his mother tongue, his studies at the Jewish Gymnasium in Vilna were conducted in Polish. Through the Polish language he discovered the world of literature, and only later was he exposed to the treasures of the secular Yiddish culture.
When he was nearly twenty, he joined a Yiddishist Scout movement named Di Bin (the Bee) and there he met Max Weinreich, one of the founders of the “Academy of the Yiddish Language” that was established in the 1920s. The movement, headquartered in the "Lithuanian Jerusalem" of Vilna, sought to bring the younger generation of Diaspora Jews closer to nature and to work in nature. The experience left a marked impression on the young Sutzkever, who was making his initial strides as a Yiddish poet. In the ensuing 1930s he became closer to the Jung-Vilna coterie of Yiddish artists and authors, and earned a modest level of fame as a part of this group. But Sutzkever never fully integrated into Jung-Vilna, always maintaining his individuality; his nature-centered poetry did not seek to serve any ideological goal other than the beauty of poetry.
Sutzkever was an aesthete with all his soul. He created a personal language based on symbols and images, of which most were drawn from the natural world, and primarily from the world of his early childhood in Siberia (where he lived from 1915 to 1921). In his early poetry, which preceded World War II, Sutzkever began developing a theory with regard to the meaning of poetry for himself as a poet.
Within a few years the Holocaust put his beliefs to the test. Unable to flee eastward, Sutzkever was imprisoned together with the Jews of Vilna in a ghetto. In Ponar his mother was murdered; in the ghetto – his baby son. Sutzkever continued writing in face of destruction, and his belief grew stronger that his writing would save him. He persisted with poetry, but felt that he had to give his writing a different meaning. The poetry came to represent a mission of moral responsibility: Sutzkever wrote to keep the memories of the victims alive. As a poet, he felt a responsibility to survive and continue to write for the sake of the collective.
In his poetry from the period of the ghetto and the partisans, a strong sense of brotherhood with his people emerges. In these writings there is also evidence he had come to view Israel as the only place where a secure future for him and his people was possible. This, too, signified a dramatic turnabout for the poet, who did not grow up, was not educated, and did see himself as a Zionist, during the period between the two world wars.
As a result of Sutzkever’s connections with well known writers in the Soviet Union, and due to his renown as one of the greatest Yiddish poets of his time, a special operation to save him was arranged at the beginning of 1944, when he was serving as a partisan in the woods outside Vilna. A special airplane was sent for him and his wife, with the goal of removing them to Moscow. The first attempt failed, but on March 12, 1944, Avraham Sutzkever was able to leave the woods and head for the Soviet capital.
With the liberation of Vilna in the summer of 1944, Sutzkever returned to his city, but could no longer find peace in it. In the ruins of the ghetto he was able to locate the Jewish cultural treasures of Vilna, mostly valuable books and manuscripts that he himself had hidden when he was enlisted by the Germans for the task of organizing and sorting the items prior to their removal to Germany. After the liberation, Sutzkever collected the historic treasures and placed them in the Sutzkever-Kaczerginski archive that still exists today in New York, and in the National Library in Jerusalem.
In his wanderings in liberated Europe, which began in Vilna, continued through Warsaw and ended in Paris, Sutzkever understood that his future was not there. He became convinced that he should go to Israel, but resolved to take with him those aspects of the culture which had been destroyed, but which continued to permeate his spiritual world. Sutzkever believed in a personal and national future in Israel – but only if Yiddish was with him.
In September 1947 he came to Israel, together with his wife and his daughter, who had been born in Moscow. In 1949, the first issue of the journal “Di Goldene Keyt” was published, and would become the central Yiddish-language journal for Yiddish literature and culture. Sutzkever served as its chief editor until the final issue, in 1995.
In spite of Sutzkever’s personal transformations, which left a clear imprint on his poetry, he remained loyal to his first and primary source of inspiration – nature, its powers and its magic. Just as he himself passed through different stages in his life that were associated with unique natural scenery and landscapes, so too is his poetry saturated with this scenery. Intertwined with the varied symbols and landscapes is a clear continuity in Sutzkever’s poetic language and in his perspective, as a poet, regarding the beauty and strength of creative work.
The key to this continuity, which illuminates the inextricable connection between past and present, as well as the idea that any future may spring from the past alone, can be seen in one of Sutzkever’s signature symbols: snow. This is the Siberian snow of his childhood and his original inspiration, this is the snow of Ponar in the winter of 1941, but it is also the snow on the summit of Mount Hermon. Moreover, this snow also displays the glamour of a pearl – and for Sutzkever, the pearl is a recurring symbol of the perfection of the word.
Sutzkever, who dealt his entire life with the perfection of the word, succeeded in doing so specifically in Yiddish. He smuggled the snowiness from Yiddish poetry overseas and preserved, even in the Hebrew desert, the shining pearl at its heart.
Miriam Trin is a doctoral student in the Yiddish department at Hebrew University. She teaches Yiddish language and literature at Tel Aviv University and at Beth Shalom-Aleichem (the Shalom Aleichem house).