When the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutskever died on 20th January 2010 at the age of 96 the obituaries called him the ‘last great Yiddish poet’ or the ‘last of the Mohicans’. In this article I will first give a brief sketch of his life, secondly I look at his verse and thirdly, consider the Yiddish world at the start of the twenty first century which Sutskever leaves behind him. I hope to show that although the loss of a figure of Sutskever’s stature is inevitably a considerable blow to the world of Yiddish, the sense of finality conveyed in these phrases from the obituaries is not justified.
Avrom Sutskever was born in Smorgon, then still in the Russian empire. His father was an amateur violinist. Sutskever grew up in Omsk in Siberia but after his father’s death moved with his mother to Vilna, then in newly independent Poland. He joined the young Yiddishist scouting movement ‘Di Bin’ (The Bee), which was organized by Max Weinreich, one of the founders of YIVO. He was part of the ‘Yung Vilne’ group of Yiddish poets, along with Shmerke Katcherginsky in the 1930s and wrote his first poem, ‘Sibir’ (Siberia) influenced by the snowy landscapes of his childhood, although this was not published until 1953. His first published collections are ‘Lider’ (Poems) and ‘Valdiks’ (‘Woodlike’). When the Nazis invaded Vilna in 1941 Sustskever found himself in the ghetto and was a key figure in the remarkable cultural resistance that developed there. One of his poems, Unter dayne vayse shtern (‘Underneath your white stars’) set to music in the ghetto by Abraham Brudno was first presented in a theatrical revue in the ghetto ‘Di yogenish in fas’. It is still one of the most widely sung ‘Geto-lider’; songs written in the Ghetto sung at commemoration events. He was also part of the so-called ‘Papir Brigade’ (Paper brigade) which was ordered by the Nazis to collect books in the ghetto for them to be sent to Germany as part of the ‘museum of the extinct race’. Sutskever managed to hide items of precious literature, including some Chagall sketches. He was also part of the underground resistance (one of his Ghetto poems, which I have set, is about melting the plates at the Rom Jewish press to form bullets).
Sutskever managed to escape, with his wife Freydke, from the Vilna ghetto through the sewers before its final liquidation by the Nazis, although his mother was not so lucky and did not survive. He then fought with the partisans in the woods round Vilna until he was rescued and brought to Moscow at the initiative of leading figures in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee such as Peretz Markish and Ilya Ehrenburg (some reports say the plane was sent on Stalin’s personal orders). After the war he was a witness at the Nuremburg Trials (he was refused permission to give his testimony in Yiddish and had to give it in Russian).
After briefly living in other European cities including Paris Sutskever moved to Tel Aviv in 1947, where he was to live for the rest of life. His major achievement was the Yiddish journal ‘Di Goldene Keyt’ (The Golden Chain), which he persuaded the Histadrut to subsidise. This appeared until 1995. His literary output continued to be substantial including both collections of poems and prose, such as ‘Grine Akvarium’ (Green Aquarium). In particular, a major collection of late poems, ‘Lider fun togbukh’ (Poems from a diary) appeared in the late 1970s.
Certain themes recur in Sutskever’s literary work throughout his career, for example the image of the frozen fields and forests of the Siberia of this childhood, the image of the violin and the rose called by him a ‘Fidlroyz’ (Fiddle rose) in a collection of poems illustrated by Marc Chagall. Most of his work is in metre and in rhyme. Sometimes he will coin Yiddish neologisms for, it seems, the sheer sound of the onomatopoeic phrases that result. As such he reminds me of Joyce, particular of Finnegan’s Wake. He has also been compared to twentieth century modernists like Eliot and Paul Valery.
The phrase he adopted for the title of his journal ‘Di Goldene Keyt’ (‘the golden chain’), taken from the title of a play by Peretz, is very important for Sutskever. It contains within it the idea that there is an unbroken chain that links the form and content of secular Yiddish culture to the Jewish religious tradition, albeit in a changed form and without reducing one to the other.
In one of his ‘togbukh’ poems, written in 1975, Sutskever provides an illustration of this. He speaks of going to both a funeral and a concert on the same day. ‘Bay tog a levaye, bay nakht a kontsert’. He goes on to compare himself to a water carrier, carrying two pails suspended from a stick. One pail is full of woes, the other one of joys. One is never completely full or completely empty; they balance each other out. Later in the poem he affirms how different forces come together, earth and music, the plough and the earth, the fiddler and the tune, and finally a wife and a husband. So it is a poem which ends on a forward looking note, but one that does not forget. “Tsuzamen, tsuzamen, der dortn iz do, un s’beygt zikh a shtral tsu dershvimen tsum dno” – (together, together, the ‘there’ is ‘here’ and a ray bends to swim to the bottom’). Here, surely, Sutskever is saying that the ‘there’ – the Jewish experience in wartime Europe, is ever present, but in indirect ways, and in a form that it can give rise to new and unexpected possibilities.
Sutskever was a writer of his times. Those times include both a link to the greats of Yiddish literature such as Peretz as well as twentieth century European modernists. A few generations earlier and the ‘Golden Chain’ would not have developed in a way that allowed Sutskever the relative autonomy to write in the way that he did.
The late Yitschok Luden, the editor of the Israeli Bundist monthly Lebnsfragn, in an article written after Sutskever’s death put it as follows.
“There is a new generation of lovers of Yiddish…..and they are forging and will forge the ‘golden chain’ of Avrom Sutskever, of Glatshteyn, of Manger… and of the Yiddish classics…The new generation will follow in their footsteps and develop Yiddish both as a cultural language and as the language of Jewish memory.” (in Lebnsfragn; January – February 2010)”.
Sutskever’s life covered war and peace. He inspired and continues to inspire many generations of Yiddish writers, scholars and enthusiasts. Many of these are now inspiring others to learn to read his words in the original Yiddish and to continue his cultural creativity. That should be legacy enough.