Page 37 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 36

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WISSE / THE GHETTO POEMS OF ABRAHAM SUTZKEVER
By September the Germans had set up two ghettos (eventually
combined as the population dwindled) into which they forced
Vilna’s 65,000 Jews together with 10,000 Jews from the surround-
ing towns and villages. When the ghetto was liquidated two
years later, there were barely 1,000 survivors. The Jews had
been systematically starved, deported, murdered. During all
this time Sutzkever maintained an active adversary role in all
phases of his life. He worked, along with Shmerke Kaczerginski,
at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, ostensibly sorting
materials for shipment to Germany, but actually hiding and
burying the most precious books and manuscripts for eventual
recovery “after the war.” He worked on an underground print-
ing press and later joined a partisan group that broke through
to the Narotsh forests outside Vilna. To keep alive and to
avoid the periodic “aktions” required exceptional cunning and
energy. Yet Sutzkever’s essential means of resistance was poetry,
more important than ever before now that the transformation
of the environment was actually a matter of life or death.
Sutzkever’s ghetto and forest poems play extraordinary varia-
tions on the theme of art as resistance. At the most basic level,
when nothing in the universe responds to man, the need for
expression is still evidence of determined existence:
I feel like saying a prayer—but to whom?
He Who once used to comfort me, won’t hear it now.
So to whom shall I pray?
The prayer holds me like a vise.
Should I ask that star in the sky: “My far-away friend,
I have lost my speech. Come, take its place.”
But that good star
also won’t hear.
Yet I must say a prayer. Someone very near,
within me, tortured, demands the prayer.
Senseless, I begin to babble
until dawn.
Vilna Ghetto
January 17, 1942