Page 112 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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listeners—makes them suspect nowadays to modern readers who
object to a poetry of bold statement. Yet any careful 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 un­
derground broke into the greatest Jewish publishing house in East­
ern 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 un­
translatable because of its very tight construction and perfect
rhymes (ababab; cdcdcd; etc.), its complex imagery and historical
references, corresponds to the poet’s reemergence in a steely mili­
tant verse which the moment required. But it is understood that
just as the bullets still “contain” their original cast ofTalmud folios
and Yiddish tales, so the poetry’s exhortative fervor is only the
most accessible, because most urgent, of its resonant layers of
As the horror grew, it seemed to demand a poetry of ever-ex­
panding scope, and as the slaughter intensified it was as though
Sutzkever were called upon to write the poems of a People. Sutz­
kever’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 preservation 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 histori­
cal significance. But with the last remnant of the Jews bound to the
stake and the fires lit, only Divine intervention could have subvert­
ed 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