A Titanic Yiddish Poet Is Brought Out Anew — And Just in Time

‘Vilna Ghetto’ is an ember snatched from not one but two conflagrations — the blazes lit by Hitler and Stalin that charred cities and bodies in ways that would be unimaginable if they had not been witnessed and survived. 

Abraham Sutzkever, 1930s. Via Wikimedia Commons

‘From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony’
By Abraham Sutzkever, translation by Justin Cammy
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 424 pages

The appearance of the literary master Abraham Sutzkever’s “Vilna Ghetto” in English is like a bomb detonating in the language of William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Saul Bellow. 

This translation by a Smith College Jewish Studies professor, Justin Cammy, joins the original Yiddish as well as previous editions in Hebrew, French, Russian, German, and Lithuanian as a clear eyed chronicle of murderous madness. It is a major literary event that reminds a forgetful culture of the things that demand remembrance.   

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“Vilna Ghetto” is an ember snatched from not one but two conflagrations — the blazes lit by Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin that charred cities and bodies in ways that would be unimaginable if they had not been witnessed and survived.   

For this harrowing and hi-def journey into the abyss we have to thank not only Professor  Cammy, who delivers the translation, but also Avraham Noveshtern, who assisted with Mr. Cammy in the writing of a voluminous afterword. 

They have delivered a rich volume, titled “From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg,” that in addition to “Vilna Ghetto” and its accompanying explanation includes Sutzkever’s testimony and diary entries at the Nuremberg Trials after the war as well as a series of reflections on Jewish literary life in Moscow in the years during the war and its aftermath, before the writers were silenced by Soviet censors and executioners. 

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As a Yiddish scholar, Ruth Wisse, observes, “You could take Sutzkever’s life from beginning to end and it would be the most astonishing guide to the most dramatic moments in Jewish history of the 20th century.”

Sutzkever grew up in Vilnius, coming of age in what was called “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” one of the great cultural centers of the Jewish world. He died at 97 years-old, at Tel Aviv.  His formative years were the 1930s, a time thick and heady with writers pushing boundaries, coalescing into a group called Yunge-Vilne that in coffee klatches and writing groups brought to the fore such vivid voices as Sutzkever and Chaim Grade.

It was during this time of foment that Suztkever found his art. Professor Cammy explains that the poet’s verse “fused neo-classical and Romantic influences with modernist experimentation.” Sutzkever eschewed direct reference to politics and Jewish circumstance in favor of something like Oscar Wilde’s call for “art for art’s sake.”     

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Vilna stayed in the same place, but the world moved around it. October 1939 found the city called Vilno and under Polish control. It was then taken over by the Red Army, and transferred back to Lithuania before being claimed by the Soviets once again. This was a time that saw Sutzkever, under the boot of censorship, join the Union of Soviet Writers and host a Yiddish radio program on Soviet radio. 

Professor Cammy notes that “on the one hand, the Soviets established the first ever chair in Yiddish studies at the city’s university.” On the other, all of cultural life was smothered by censorship and “a number of major local Jewish cultural figures were arrested and disappeared.”

What happened next was much worse. The alliance between Fascist Germany and the Communist Soviet Union evaporated and in June 1941 Vilnius was a casualty of Operation Barbarossa. Professor Cammy explains that the results for Jews were “unprecedented terror, torture, persecution, robbery, and murder.” The Germans controlled Vilna from the summer of 1941 until September 1943, when it was retaken by the Soviets. 

“Vilna Ghetto” is Sutzkever’s account of these years, when a city brimming with life became a charnel house. It was composed in the immediate aftermath of the war, when in a turn of events so improbable it would be impossible to fabricate the poet and his wife were airlifted from the forest outside Vilna by a bespoke helicopter sent from Moscow on account of Sutzkever’s literary celebrity. 

Once in Stalin’s capital, Sutzkever was commissioned to write his account of life in Nazi Vilna for “The Black Book,” an anthology that was meant to highlight Nazi brutality at a time when Germany and the USSR were manufacturing corpses in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

That book was never published, but Sutzkever’s submission took flight as “Vilna Ghetto.” In restrained prose that only accentuates the horror the way that a blank canvas vivifies a slash of red paint, Sutzkever describes the shooting of Jews, the erection of the ghetto, and an empire of cruelty. 

Sutzkever takes the reader to the killing fields of Ponar, just outside Vilna, where 70,000 Jews were murdered in limestone pits. He describes the roundups and liquidations, the insane regulations meant to confound, and the malines, or hiding places, where “matches would no longer light because the air was so low on oxygen.” He sees someone else wearing his mother’s shoes, and knows she is dead. 

“Vilna Ghetto” is an especially powerful record of the resilience of culture in the midst of hell. Sutzkever writes that “cultural life in the Vilna Ghetto began the moment the ghetto was established,” and then describes an astonishing array of newspapers, lectures, performances, and academies that all took root in the ruined streets of the ghetto. 

The juxtapositions of ghetto life are tangent to the surreal. A paper on Maimonides is published by the ghetto press, and Jewish thespians would stagger “under the whip of the stormtroopers” by day and “at night they would rehearse.” Even as the population in the ghetto decreased by 40 percent, the number of books borrowed from the lending library increased by nearly a third.  

Sutzkever relates how the residents of the ghetto were “preparing to stage Shalom Aleichem’s ‘Tevye the Dairyman,’ but we were not able to perform it. While the play was in rehearsal, several actors were murdered.” Their replacements “did not survive long enough to make it to the premiere.” The Jewish director of the well-known Strashun Library hanged himself with the straps of his phylacteries. 

The poet’s own experience is striated with this same combination of tragedy and triumph. He survives a hunt for Jews by hiding in a coffin, and is made to dance naked around a Torah scroll defaced with tire tracks in the courtyard of a synagogue. His own child is murdered, and he knows that the sticky ash of cremated bodies contains his friends.  

Sutzkever saves from the German maw handwritten letters by Leo Tolstoy, writings by Maxim Gorky and Chaim Bialik, Theodor Herzl’s diary, and the “only existing manuscript by the Gaon of Vilna.” Musicians compose symphonies in sewers, and mathematical theorems are sketched out in the shadow of Ponar. 

Sutzkever eventually joined the partisan resistance and survived to write “Vilna Ghetto.” At a time when Eastern Europe is once again host to tanks and refugees, the reader of this book is likely to agree with Prime Minister Bennett — “it is forbidden to compare anything to the Holocaust.”

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