Page 106 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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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 ba­
sic criterion of art. In the living hell that followed, the incorrupt­
ible 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 despair. 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 ofVilna fell to the Germans in June of 1941. By September the
Germans had set up two ghettos (eventually combined as the pop­
ulation dwindled) into which they forced Vilna’s 65,000 Jews to­
gether with 10,000 Jews from the surrounding towns and villages.
When the ghetto was liquidated two years later, there were barely
1,000 survivors. The Jews had been systematically starved, deport­
ed, 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
printing press and later joined a partisan group that broke through
to the Narotsh forests outside Vilna. To keep alive and to avoid the