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On the delights of discovering a truly ‘essential’ Jewish book

The great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever’s life resembled an epic novel — and along the way, he wrote soul-piercing prose and saw himself in it. “These stories are myself,” he wrote on the flyleaf of his second book of prose, though readers will feel this instinctively, without being told; this prose could not have been written by someone who had not lived through a tale of survival in multiple acts.

Sutkzkever was born in Smorgon, Lithuania, in 1913, but his family was forced to flee to frigid Siberia in 1915; he considered Siberia his real birthplace — a “magical wonderland, the cradle of his poetic inspiration” — as Heather Valencia, who previously edited and translated an anthology of Sutzkever’s poems, writes in her illuminating introduction to “Sutzkever: Essential Prose.” After Sutzkever’s father died young in 1920, his mother took her three children back to Vilna, Lithuania, a city known for its rich Jewish culture, and by the time the Nazis arrived there in 1941, Sutzkever was the author of two poetry collections and was already famous in the Yiddish worlds of Europe and America.

Assigned by the Nazis to curate valuable Jewish books and cultural objects for a planned museum to the dead Jewish culture, and destroy the rest as garbage, instead Sutzkever and a group of Vilna intellectuals doing forced labor in the so-called Paper Brigade, in an act of tremendous literary and communal resistance, managed to smuggle and save Jewish texts and cultural treasures. In the harrowing years of 1941-3, Sutzkever’s mother and newborn son were murdered by the Nazis, yet Sutzkever valiantly and relentlessly fought the attempt to kill Jews and Jewish culture; he ran poetry readings and theater performances in the ghetto until he escaped in September 1943. He and his wife, Freydke, spent nearly six months as partisans in the forests of Lithuania, until they were airlifted to Moscow. After the war, he testified at the Nuremberg Trials in the name of the Jews of Lithuania. He wrote a memoir of his experiences in the Vilna Ghetto and published it in 1946. That completed Act I of Sutzkever’s life.

In the next act, Sutzkever, Freydke, and their small daughter reached Palestine in 1947, just before the State of Israel was established. They eventually settled in Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, where Sutzkever, of course, continued to write in Yiddish. Despite the scornful attitude toward Yiddish then prevalent in Israel, where there was an all-out effort to make Hebrew the sole language of the Jewish people, Sutzkever founded “Di goldene keyt,” or “The Golden Chain,” a Yiddish literary journal and kept writing Yiddish poetry. In 1955, Sutzkever published Griner akvarium, or “The Green Aquarium,” his first prose collection, and after that he spent more time on prose, publishing additional collection in 1989 and 1993. Sutzkever died in 2010 in Tel Aviv, a Yiddish writer until the end.

But despite his devotion to Yiddish, Sutkzever did not cut himself off from Israeli literary culture; the interaction of older European intellectual refugee with younger Israel is evident in the “Essential Prose,” all of which was written in Israel. I found myself remembering a Tel Aviv café conversation in which the Israeli poet, translator, and editor Dory Manor told me that Sutkzever shocked him when he called him, at home, after reading Manor’s Hebrew translation of Baudelaire in Haaretz. Sutzkever himself had a supernatural quality, in Manor’s telling, just like the characters described.

Magnificently translated by Zackary Sholom Berger, ‘Essential Prose’ is that rare thing — a truly necessary book.

Fortunately for posterity, and for those who couldn’t hear it from Manor in person, the connection between older and younger poet was beautifully captured in the documentary film, Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever. It traces how Manor, then just 19, had found a collection of Sutzkever’s poetry in Hebrew translation, and “was immediately hooked despite the middling quality of the Hebrew translations,” scholar Shachar Pinsker writes in his Tel Aviv Review of Books essay “Reading Lolita in Tel Aviv,” which explores Yiddish literature in Israel.

“Manor was flabbergasted when, a few months later, he received a telephone call in his parents’ house; the caller a man who spoke Hebrew with a heavy diasporic inflection: ‘May I talk with Mr. Dory Manor….Here speaks Avrom Sutzkever,’” Pinsker wrote.

That’s what I remember: Manor’s rendition of Sutzkever’s voice.

“To Manor, it was as though he had heard a voice from the dead; he was certain that the poet had perished in the Holocaust,” wrote Pinsker. “In fact, Sutzkever was alive and had lived in Tel Aviv for decades, not far from Manor… the phone conversation was the starting point for a friendship between Manor and Sutzkever, which lasted until the older poet’s passing, in January 2010, at the age of 96.”

I sometimes think about how necessary that phone call was, to connecting generations of Jewish writers, across time, language, and historical era. It was, perhaps, Sutkzever’s third act. And I believe Sutzkever’s reaching out to the future—his telephone call to all of us—has been felt by a new generation of translators, who are far removed from the disdain that Yiddish experienced in the immediate post-war decades, and who see Yiddish in all its beauty and power. This new generation can see Sutzkever as the multi-faceted literary giant he was, and as a symbol of life, survival, and eternal renewal—in multiple genres and locales, from Siberia to Tel Aviv.

“Sutzkever: Essential Prose,” magnificently translated by Zackary Sholom Berger, is that rare thing — a truly necessary book. Berger is a physician at Johns Hopkins, a multilingual poet and a translator for both Hasidic and secular audiences, and his range of experience can be felt in his translation of Sutkzever’s characters from all walks of life navigating desperate situations and making life-or-death decisions. Berger’s care and reverence for these prose pieces and for their writer is evident on every page here; Berger even writes that “Sutzkever as an object of translation has caused my soul to resound in awe like a bell.”

‘They are less about the camps than about the ghettos, partisans, refuge, escape, and the life after.’

Sutzkever’s characters are often creatures who have lost everything. They show up, destitute and desperate, and live for a few pages in what many readers will call stories; the pieces might be called prose poetry or poetic prose. The Sutzkever scholar Ruth Wisse insists that Sutzkever is always a poet; his prose, she writes, “invites definition within some new category of poetic prose,” and Valencia’s introduction notes “the abundance of powerful, often grotesque and disturbing similes and metaphors” that makes this prose poetic.

Most readers will probably be more concerned with understanding the contours of Sutzkever’s world and world view than with classifying the exact genre. I was moved by two observations that Berger makes in his translator’s note that are helpful for anyone approaching this book. “They are less about the camps than about the ghettos, partisans, refuge, escape, and the life after,” Berger writes, alerting us that this is prose about life, not death. Secondly, Berger points out that while of course there are Jews in these stories, and of course these stories are written in Yiddish, there is something more universal here.

“These are also people plucked out of their particular circumstance by the universal phenomenon of genocide,” Berger writes. “A narrator dashes through land mines. Children seek food for a dying grandmother. Memoirs are saved from a capsizing ship. Thus there is the common Jewish vocabulary but also the particular lexicon of wartime hideouts; glowing searchlights; schools festooned with barbed wire.”

An example of “the universal phenomenon of genocide” is “The Woman in the Panama Hat.” It opens with a general statement: “Before the time of slaughter, I sat writing one day in a dark little room.” That “slaughter” could be any slaughter, and in this piece as in others, Sutkzever’s prose has a touch of fable to it. There are no proper names and no place names; slaughter and genocide are repeating human stories in Sutzkever’s hands, so regular that they are not a surprise:

“A woman appeared. She seemed like a beggar. No surprise there. In the pause between death and death, when hunger ruled in full skeletal glory, masses of beggars migrated from place to place like swollen locusts.”

This combination of imagery from the natural world, a touch of fable, and a sense that disaster is something universal — and not just Jewish — repeats, and somehow it makes the unspeakable disaster of losing home forever seem both more real and more approachable for the reader.

Other pieces directly deal with the specific tragedy of the Holocaust, and the long shadow of those years. Those pieces name names and feature human characters, often behaving like beasts; many use flashbacks, with the speaker, now safe from disaster, going back in time. One of the most unforgettable pieces here, which openly names the Holocaust and its victims, is “The Twin,” published in 1973 — by then, Sutzkever had been living in Israel for 26 years.

“The Twin” opens in the Aladdin Cafeteria in Jaffa, and I immediately thought of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s classic story “The Cafeteria,” which has also been made into a film. In Sutzkever’s cafeteria, there is a woman “with a black veil over her face; and me, the witness to all this.” But while the writer is a witness, the woman in the veil is also a witness. For a while in the story, she is a mystery, until a struggle ensues, a bit reminiscent of the Biblical wrestling of Jacob and the angel:

“Who are you? I grab her wrist where the six digits are carved in with the one and the three at the end, and both palms wrestle, each trying to bend back the other. Our breaths struggle as our hands wrestle.”

The woman describes her twin sister Hodesl, a famous violin player. “My sister played on the strings and me on the chains. In the death camp the strings became chains as well,” Sutzkever writes. When Hodesl played first violin especially beautifully, “the commandant was also clearly moved. He piled up a big stack of orange peels and tossed it at the musicians.” The ravenous prisoners all “swooped down” to grab the peels , though many were world-renowned before the war. But not Hodesl, who refused to grovel. Later, she paid for this insistence on self-respect with her life. Decades later her veiled sister remembers, as Sutzkever melds past and present, memory and flashback: “He’s peeling oranges again, the merciful one, and he’s throwing the peels into the snow, at the musicians. Hodesl will not bow, Hodesl will not bow!”

The intricate description of musicians at a death camp will remind many readers of Paul Celan’s iconic poem “Deathfugue,” translated here by John Felstiner, but it is also an example of how this haunting material is handled by poets moving to prose. The introduction devotes a lot of space to the question of why Sutzkever turned to prose, and certainly, it is intriguing to consider the fact that the person who, to many, was the 20th century’s greatest Yiddish poet was also a prose writer.

I see “Sutzkever: Essential Prose” as part of a larger, centuries-long tradition of major Jewish poets who also wrote prose — and who seemed to focus on prose later in life. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) wrote primarily poetry as a young man, but after the age of 50 he wrote his magnificent Torah commentary, as well as essays like Iggeret HaShabbat that also include fiction in the form of a fable. Celan wrote prose in German, and his posthumous prose is just out in English translation. The poet Leah Goldberg also wrote fiction and criticism, as well as children’s books that have shaped the childhoods of Hebrew readers; Goldberg also translated. Like Sutzkever, she has received admiring attention from younger Israeli writers who have powered a rediscovery. Some of that attention will likely make its way to more English translation.

Sutzkever: Essential Prose is part of a beautiful series of new translations of Yiddish literature published by White Goat Press at The National Yiddish Book Center. Every page in this well-designed book contains lines readers will be grateful to have in their lives, many containing a narrow escape from disaster — just as Sutkzever’s life replayed that reel, and then became poetry, and again prose. Open to any random page to experience the escape, a tale in multiple acts, like perhaps page 234, where you will find: “I didn’t break any bones, but my soul limped.”

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau) and Wolf Lamb Bomb, forthcoming in June 2021 from Orison Books. Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner

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