Page 42 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 36

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
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their ghetto listeners—make them suspect nowadays to modern
readers who object to a poetry of bold statement. Yet any care-
ful reader will find unexpected subtleties in even the boldest
calls to “Take Up Arms.” One of the finest poems of this kind,
“The Lead Plates of the Romm Press,” commemorates the night
when the Jewish underground broke into the greatest Jewish
publishing house in Eastern Europe and recast the rows of type
into bullets: the best of diaspora culture must be refashioned
into weaponry, and Jews must learn to read a new language of
steel. This poem, largely untranslatable because of its very tight
construction and perfect rhymes (ababab; cdcdcd; etc.), its com-
plex imagery and historical references, corresponds to the poet’s
own reemergence in a steely militant verse which the moment re-
quired. But it is understood that just as the bullets still “con-
tain” their original cast of Talmud folios and Yiddish tales,
so the poetry's exhortative fervor is only the most accessible,
because most urgent, of its resonant layers of meaning.
As the horror grew, it seemed to demand a poetry of ever-
expanding scope, and as the slaughter intensified it was as
though Sutzkever were called upon to write the poems of a
People. Sutzkever’s output between 1941-43 is extraordinary in
the sheer
growth
of the poems from small, skillful lyrics to
dramatic poems of several hundred lines, whose physical pre-
servation required its own kind of creative ingenuity.
In February, 1943, several months before the liquidation of
the ghetto, Sutzkever completed
Kol Nidre,
a dramatic poem
of almost 600 lines in which a final reckoning is demanded—not
of the Jews, however, but of their God. Until this point the
death-defying acts of fighters and artists still appeared to have
some intrinsic historical significance. But with the last remnant
of the Jews bound to the stake and the fires lit, only Divine
intervention could have subverted their certain fate. And if the
“Almighty” permits the slaughter, then He must be charged
with the crime.
This great poem transforms the Holocaust into the latest and
mightiest confrontation between the Jew and the God he will
not absolve. Its setting is a bunker synagogue on Yom Kippur
where a father trembles with rage before the closing Judgment
Book. Having already sacrificed four sons, the father tells of
waiting vainly for a sign of the ram, and of being finally forced