Page 41 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 36

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The elegy on the death of the poet’s mother admits a similar
note of “comfort.” In her absence she says:
If you remain
I will still be alive
as the p it of the plum
contains in itself the tree,
the nest and the bird
and all else besides.
Repeatedly images of seeds and kernels affirm the law of renewal
if but some living particle survives. No doubt piercing hunger
was also responsible for the many references to eating, biting
and swallowing that endow these poems with a more harrowing
private “subtext” than literature has known. But Sutzkever’s
essential appeal to nature is based on the bond between them,
and both identify life with beauty and oppose the destruc-
tion of that which cannot be regenerated. Nature must provide
assistance in preventing the irreversible disappearance of a
species, and the Jews, for their part, must find a way of obeying
the highest natural imperative—to live.
Paradoxically, it was during the ghetto years that Sutzkever’s
poetry became more public and even “popular.” As the Germans
sought to exterminate an entire People, not just the individuals
within it, so the individual had to perceive his will to survive
as part of a collective opposition. Sutzkever’s fiercest anger at
the Jews whose destiny he shared was directed against their sin
in patiently dying. If nothing remains but a cipher, he warns,
he is prepared to extinguish their memory as well. He struggles
against his own despair, but against the faint spirit of the Jews
he lashes out in militant verse of almost prophetic resonance.
We have from inside the ghetto testimony about the effect of
these rallying calls on the population’s morale. More than his
lyrics, these summons to cultural and armed resistance made
Sutzkever a symbol of heroism throughout the Yiddish world
and later prompted the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee of the
U.S.S.R. to airlift him to Moscow from the forests outside Vilna.
The explicit thrust of these poems—the very energy that moved