Page 36 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 36

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a confrontation with material reality, with the sensuous physical
reality that takes cognizance of social forces only when it must.
His work of the late 1930s is already shot through with fore-
boding, the certain knowledge that: “Your generation is no
peacock, brother, / but sunset over stormy horizon.” In a note-
worthy poem, “On Account of a Rose,” Sutzkever has the Angel
of Destruction confronting God in a modern parallel to the
Prologue of the Book of Job. Taking the ugliness and evil of
the world as its given condition, the Destroyer offers to lay
flat the earth and mankind. The argument here turns, not on
the existence of a righteous man, on the presence of morality,
but on the saving grace of beauty: God would willingly have
accepted the Destroyer’s offer,
but for a rose
planted the previ-
ous day that has not yet revealed its full ripe beauty. For Sutz-
kever, himself in the seedtime of creativity, the unrealized
potential of a single work of art is reason enough to redeem all
the world’s admitted ugliness and evil.
This poem can also be read as an article of faith. Sutzkever’s
trust in the redemptive capacity of art rather than morality
became the key to his artistic and physical survival. Even before
the war he had determined that the failure of humanity could
not alter the basic criterion of art. In the living hell that
followed, the incorruptible standards of the good poem became,
for Sutzkever, the touchstone of a former, higher sanity and a
psychological means of self-protection against ignominy and de-
spair. Even beyond this, he seems to have developed a belief in the
mystical power of art to save, literally
the good singer from
death. As the traditional Jew believes that Charity, Prayer, and
Repentence will avert the Evil Decree, so the poet felt that the
artist would be granted life if his art were convincing. “If your
song inspires me,” says the Angel of Poetry in one of his prose
poems, “I shall protect you with a flaming sword. If not—don’t
complain . . .” Poets have often sought their immortality in art;
for the poet in the ghetto the sign of an immortal poem was
each renewed day of his life.
This is the young man who was trapped with all his fellow
Jews in the German net. After a brief takeover by the Soviet
Army, the city of Vilna fell to the Germans in June of 1941.