Page 34 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 36

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R U TH R .W ISSE
The Ghetto Poems of Abraham Sutzkever
T
h e
H
o l o c a u s t
w a s
a
p e r i o d
of unspeakable humiliation and
ugliness. Despite a natural growing tendency today, in its after-
math, to want to wrest from those years some sparks of dignity
and affirmation, the men and women who were caught in the
ghettos and camps knew its irredeemable misery and brutalizing
force. Destruction is the antonym of creation. Not much of value
could be salvaged and even less could be fashioned as European
Jewish civilization was laid waste and the human image re-
duced to skeletal worthlessness.
Abraham Sutzkever was one of a tiny percentage of creative
artists who lived through and survived the Holocaust. He was
one of fewer still who lived through it
as
a writer, producing
between 1941 and 1945 some of his finest poems. The works
of those years, written not in retrospect, and not at a distance,
but during the daily wretchedness of ghetto life and under
constant threat of death, constitute an exceptional instance in
the history of art. Sutzkever knew that the writing of Yiddish
verse in defiance of the Germans could satisfy the demands of
heroism, but only the achievement of excellence in the writing
of Yiddish verse could satisfy the demands of art. His ghetto
poems are the more significant because they are not only ex-
pressions of the
will
to resist, but in their subtlety and power,
obdurate proofs of survival in a body of work that stands beyond
circumstance and time.
The source of Sutzkever's creative resilience during the War
years derives undeniably from his childhood and from his first
earliest understanding of himself as an artist. Born in Smorgon,
a small town near Vilna in 1913, Sutzkever had already experi-
enced as an infant the upheaval of the first World War when
his parents were forced to flee their ravaged town to seek
shelter in Siberia. Although the family lived in Omsk in great
poverty, and though illness claimed the lives of both his father
(at the age of 30) and of an only sister, Sutzkever remembered
his childhood as a time of unfolding marvels: “The boy had
Note: All the poems quoted in this article have been translated by Seymour
Mayne.
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