Avrom Sutzkever: Master of a dying language

Appreciation: One of the last of the Yiddish literary giants passed away last week – sadly, almost unnoticed.

Avrom Sutzkever 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Avrom Sutzkever 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the benefits of living in the Internet era is that, when in doubt, a quick assessment can be made of the importance of a person or an event by checking out the Web.
A lot of Israelis probably never heard of Avrom (Abraham) Sutzkever, one of the last of the Yiddish literary giants who passed away in Tel Aviv on January 20 at age 96.
But in the world at large, anyone interested in Yiddish literature, especially Yiddish poetry, felt a sense of loss.
Regardless of the extent to which Yiddish is being revived and preserved in the ivory towers of academia in universities around the globe, including most Israeli universities, the great Yiddish writings of the late 19th and early and mid 20th century are unlikely to come our way again.
Some Yiddish writers who survived the Second World War continued to write into the latter part of the 20th century, but without Yiddish as a vibrant, living language it is unlikely that we will see major Yiddish writings in the future, although we will have the benefit of creative Yiddish writing as long as the Tel Aviv-based Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel continues to exist.
Even though Yiddish remains the lingua franca in some haredi Ashkenazi communities, it has ceased to be a developing language, yet there is some joy in listening to very young haredi children chattering to each other in Yiddish.
While Sutzkever’s death did not go unreported in the Israeli media, no publication other than Ha’aretz gave him the honor that was due to him.
His passing was also noted in publications around the globe, including The New York Times.
Not only was Sutzkever a great Yiddish poet, he was also a war hero, a partisan who fought the Nazis.
Although he was born in Smorgon, then part of the Russian Empire, but now in Belarus, Sutzkever spent most of his youth in Vilna and joined the young Vilna Group of writers and artists, as a result of which Lithuania claimed him as its own. In 2008, Lithuania awarded him the Cross of the Knight of the Order of Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas and Lithuanian Ambassador Darius Degutis attended his funeral and placed a wreath on the grave.
A tribute to Sutzkever under the heading “Lithuania Loses a Prominent Litvak Poet” also appears on the Website of the Lithuanian Embassy.
SUTZKEVER KEPT writing even during the war years, producing some 80 poems, most of them during the period he spent in the Vilna Ghetto. In 1941, while hiding in a chimney in his own home, he wrote a poem called “The Pest,” which remained undiscovered on the premises until it was found 20 years ago in the place where he had hidden it.
Eventually caught and rounded up with other Jews, and forced into the ghetto, Sutzkever managed to escape together with his wife and another Yiddish poet in September 1943. They fled to the forests and joined the partisans.
During this period Sutzkever managed to smuggle arms into the ghetto, where one of the leaders of the resistance was fellow poet Abba Kovner, who also eventually came to Israel and established an international reputation. Another Vilna poet, Hirsh Glick, wrote the lyrics for the famous hymn of the Jewish partisans, “Zog nisht keyn mol az du geyst dem lestn veg” (Never say that you are on your final journey).
Despite the difficult conditions, Sutzkever was able to preserve most of his own manuscripts along with those of many other writers, and had them published after the war.
Prior to settling in Israel in 1947, after having earlier that year testified at the Nuremberg trials, Sutzkever lived for short periods in Moscow, to which he had been airlifted on the explicit orders of Josef Stalin, and then in Lodz, Poland.
In 1948, he founded the prestigious Yiddish quarterly Di Goldene Keyt, which contained the best of Yiddish essays, poems, short stories and drawings by the best Jewish artists, including illustrations by Marc Chagall, who was one of Sutzkever’s personal friends. Sutzkever edited Di Goldene Keyt for almost half a century.
During the early years of Israel, Yiddish was an outlawed language, andit was illegal for local groups to stage Yiddish theater productions,though the ban did not apply to visiting performers.
The negative attitude toward Yiddish did not prevent Sutzkever andother Yiddish writers from continuing to produce and to publish.
His works have been translated into several languages, includingHebrew, English and Polish. But although the translations contain thespirit of Sutzkever’s creativity, they all fall short of the originalYiddish.