Page 111 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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Ghetto Poems ofSutzkever
as the pit o f 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 many references to eating, biting and swallow­
ing that endow these poems with a more harrowing private “sub­
text” 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 destruction of that which cannot be re­
generated. Nature must provide assistance in preventing the irre­
versible 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 de­
spair, but against the faint spirit of the Jews he lashes out in mili­
tant 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 lyr­
ics, these summonses to cultural and armed resistance made Sutz­
kever 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 forest outside Vilna. The explicit
thrust of these poems—the very energy that moved their ghetto