The Chain of the Past

Daniel Kahn on Avrom Sutzkever

Songs are like tools. They are portable, adjustable, and forged by many problems in the world. The good ones are also surprisingly versatile and durable. But what tool do we use to treat the most troubling and paradoxical issues? Only rarely have I seen the history of the Second World War addressed in song. There were references to it in a couple of songs by Dylan, it lurks behind many of Leonard Cohen's writings, there were the anti-fascist folk anthems of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and it figures obliquely in the lyrical terrorscape of a lot of early punk songs. Then there was the kitsch of The Sound of Music and Cabaret. But none of it really seemed to plumb the depths. Until I discovered the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever. He didn't generally write songs, but the Yiddish language does not distinguish between poems and songs. A poem is a "Lid." And so is a song. A Lid iz a Lid.


If you ask most people what modern Yiddish poetry brings to mind, if anything at all, they will probably talk about the shtetl or the ghetto. This is both unfortunate and understandable, given the common reduction of pre-war Jewish life in Eastern Europe to a well-rehearsed narrative of backwards primitivity and brutal destruction. But Yiddish culture, prior to the Holocaust, was cosmopolitan, international, and highly involved in literary modernism. Yiddish speakers in Odessa, Warsaw, Chicago, New York, Berlin, and Buenos Aires had access to all the epoch-making works of literature and philosophy in translation. They read Proust, Nietzsche, and Whitman, for example. Joyce, Heine, and Hamsun. On the Russian side, you had Mayakovsky, Dostoyevsky, Gogol. These were the heroes of writers such as Peretz, Ansky, Manger, and Bashevis Singer. The years before the Holocaust were an incredibly fertile time for an incredibly fertile culture. And one of its centers—a hotbed of scholarship both religious and secular—was Vilna, now Vilnius, known then to Jews all over the world as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania."

At the heart of that city's rich cultural life in the 1930s was young Avrom Sutzkever. Born in what is now Belarus in 1913, Sutzkever was lauded as one of the 20th century's greatest Yiddish poets at the time of his death in 2010. He also made a name for himself as the editor of the legendary Yiddish literary journal Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain), which he founded following his emigration to Israel after the war. (This in itself is not unremarkable since the newly independent state of Israel did its best to drown out Yiddish language and culture.) But despite all his achievements, Sutzkever remains largely unknown outside the somewhat insular world of books relegated to the "Judaica" section. And on those shelves, he is more likely to be categorized not as the greatest of Yiddish poets, but as the greatest of Holocaust poets.

I first encountered his poetry in a book about just that theme, in David Roskies' Against the Apocalypse. It was mere months since I had moved to Berlin, a city that I, an American Jew raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, had never even visited. My first contact with the physical space of the disaster splintered the conveniently simplistic narratives of "Jewish helplessness in the face of war" and "postwar nationalist triumphalism in Israel" with which I had grown up. I was fascinated to be exposed, for the first time, to a figure such as Sutzkever. I came across the poem "Vi Azoy," which, transliterated from the original Yiddish, starts like this:

Vi Azoy?
Vi azoy un mit vos vestu filn
dayn bekher in tog fun bafrayung?Bistu greyt in dayn freyd tsu derfilndayn fargangenhayts fintstere shrayung?Vu es glivern sharbns fun tegin a tom on a grunt, on a dek?
Several translations of the poem exist, but the following is my own. It is a free, rhyming translation, intended to be sung:

How, and with what will you fillyour cup after your liberation?In your joy, are you ready to feelall of yesterday's dark lamentation?Where the days have congealed into skullsin a bottomless, endless abyss?
You will search for the keys to your doorswhose locks are all shattered and dead.You'll think: it was better beforeas you chew on the sidewalks like breadand the time gnaws you silent and numblike a cricket held inside a fist.
And your memories will all be comparedto a buried, forgotten old townand your outsider eyes they will starelike a mole crawling down, crawling down . . .
The poem devastated me. It transfixed me. The last stanza is two lines shorter than the form prescribes; the mole burrows on and on, as if lost and ashamed, into the darkness, making the poem seem both unfinished and endless. This troubling little lyric—possibly only meant to be an entry in his diary, possibly a letter to his wife—became, to me, the glass through which all of that history could be seen. It is a dispatch from hell, a meditation on the impossible, a prophesy of helplessness, a eulogy for the future, a warning against hope, a resignation to the night, a series of questions without answers, an instruction manual for the living damned. At the bottom of the poem was a postscript: "Vilna Ghetto—February 14, 1943."

The fate of Vilna's Jews was a harbinger of what Hitler would later inflict upon the rest of Europe. Outside town, in the forests of Ponar, most of the city's Jewish population had already been shot en masse by the time the ghetto was established. The remaining Jewish population was herded into a small area of town and cordoned off. After several years of recurrent humiliation, corruption, starvation, disease, and murder under the Nazis, the ghetto was eventually liquidated. Only some of those who chose to escape and to fight the Germans from the woods as partisans managed to survive.

Sutzkever was one of them. He had witnessed the darkest days in the ghetto, resolving at first to preserve some semblance of civilization in the midst of murder and chaos by organizing cultural events such as exhibitions, performances, concerts, and lectures. He was a member of the so-called "Paper Brigade," charged by the Nazi authorities with selecting for destruction or preservation (in a Nazi museum) the contents of the YIVO institute, Eastern Europe's most important Jewish cultural research institution and archive. Starving and slaving under constant threat of death, these few Jewish intellectuals managed to secret away and hide a tremendous amount of the most important Eastern European Jewish cultural materials, some of which were recovered after the war and taken to New York. Later, Sutzkever left the ghetto to join fellow poets in arms Abba Kovner, Hirsh Glik, and Shmerke Kaczerginsky in the ranks of the partisans. But despite his own survival, he had seen his world utterly destroyed. Among those who died in the ghetto were his own mother and his baby son, poisoned by the Nazis before even leaving the hospital.

This is the world in which he wrote this poem.

Yet, where others would dwell on despair, on rage, on disbelief, on religious symbolism and heroics, Sutzkever's poem focuses on questions, numbness, senselessness, confusion. He denies meaning. His crisis is one of the absurd. His images are small and tactile: a key, a cricket in a fist, a cup, a smashed lock. And that line about bread. Biting the street. That was the thing that stuck.


"Vi Azoy" is only one of hundreds of poems that Sutzkever wrote during the war. Yet it illustrates perfectly how history took a poet of the interior and violently forced him to become a chronicler of the exterior—to be political, to be a witness. Sutzkever's poetic sense is not really what one would expect in a commenter on social-historical realities. His pre-war poems were generally apolitical; this was a source of conflict between him and many of his contemporaries. Up until the war, and much later in his life, Sutzkever's true concerns were with the human soul, the natural world—with feeling, beauty, form, and lyricism:

All is worthy of the roaming of my eye,All is noble, precious for my verse;Grasses, trees, a spring, a vessel, earth,And the distant rainbow hues of sleepIn everything, I come upon a splinterOf infinity.—from "Valdiks" ("From the Forest"), here translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav.
Roskies calls Sutzkever the period's greatest Yiddish "neoclassicist." Always committed to the precision and elegance of rhyme and lyrical structure, his work stood in contrast to the urbanist and industrial aesthetics of his contemporaries. But this made his work no less modern in its concerns and vision. As a sometime member of the literary group "Young Vilna," which included such giants as Chaim Grade, Sutzkever was one of the writers who rejected the propagandistic socialist "sweatshop poets" of the older generation. Like the others in "Young Vilna" he was inspired by the American Yiddish writers known as the "Inzikhistn," or "Introspectivists," such as Yankev Glatshteyn and Anna Margolin, as well as the group known as "Di Yunge" (The Young Ones), which included such poets as Mani Leyb. Many of their writings were published out of New York in the anarchist daily Fraye Arbeter-Shtime (Free Voice of Labor). These poets were largely writing for an audience that never really came to exist. Or at least has since almost disappeared. They wrote for a vibrant radical Yiddish avant-garde, secular and modernist. They saw themselves as the aesthetic contemporaries and allies of writers such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, to whom some of them wrote (usually unanswered) letters.

We are lucky, in some ways, to have the monumental and heartbreaking oeuvre that the war brought out of Avrom Sutzkever. But it is unfortunate—indeed, tragic—that the Holocaust should be the most important thing that happened to this great writer. Sutzkever's pre-war work alone was deep and moving enough to constitute a major gift to modern poetry. But the trajectory of Sutzkever's rich, inspiring love affair with nature was brutally cut short by history; his poetry was turned to a register of pain and a struggle for meaning and memory. Yet it was precisely his "introspectivist" approach nourished in the pre-war years that constituted his strength as a witness to the horrors of the war. His concern was with the predicament of all existence. And it was his sensitivity to the mysteries of life that helped him address the unfathomable catastrophe that befell him and all mid-century European Jewry. It was precisely that which allowed him to illuminate the abyss from within.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that, written in 1943 in the middle of the maelstrom, with his personal fate—let alone that of the whole world—still entirely uncertain, the poem is concerned exclusively with the predicament of liberation. The very thing that must have seemed to be the essence of hope appears here to be a hollow shell of trauma, numbness—a kind of silent walking nightmare. In imagining freedom, the poem negates its very meaning. In the midst of the terror itself, Sutzkever had the philosophical wherewithal to describe with chilling accuracy the alienation and confusion of a generation of survivors (and their descendants). In its insight into this very alienation the poem is perhaps most resonant today.


A couple of years after reading the poem for the first time I found myself involved in an arts experiment in Berlin. An Israeli director had assembled a multi-disciplinary group of German, Israeli (Jewish as well as Muslim) and Palestinian artists, dancers, actors, musicians, photographers, and writers to take part in what was called "Conflict Zone Arts Asylum." The only American, I somehow also felt like the only "Yid," or diaspora Jew. For weeks we met, played, talked, worked, created together. One exercise I decided to try was to bring in many books of poetry in our various languages and to translate the ones that spoke to us. In the end, we had German rendered into Hebrew, Hebrew into English, Arabic into German, etc. Of all the Yiddish poetry I brought in, the poem selected as most moving to a Palestinian sculptor among us was "Vi Azoy." He said it was exactly how he felt as a child growing up in a refugee camp, hearing for the first time how Arafat was "going to free us." He remembered the emptiness he sensed in the prospect of liberation. He asked himself with what he would fill his cup. He performed the poem in Arabic.

I don't know how Avrom Sutzkever would have felt about this. He was an Israeli for the better part of his life. He was the rare exception there—the Israeli cultural establishment cherished his work as a Yiddishist. He was even given the Israel Prize for Yiddish Literature. But this instance of solidarity in despair is a source of tremendous hope for me. I decided then that this is a "Lid" that should be sung, so I endeavored to make my own, singable "tradaptation" out of it in English, with a melody penned by my composer and clarinetist friend Michael Winograd.

The song-poem functions well not only as a way of addressing the need to commemorate and honor those who lived through or died in the Holocaust, but as a way of addressing the universal problem of trauma, displacement, alienation, and memory. To sing this poem today is a small but radical re-contextualization of its meaning. It forces us to confront the paradox of a hopeful future growing out of the screaming pit of the past.

Recently, when discussing the poem with Janina Wurbs, a young Yiddish scholar friend of mine, I was reminded of a discrepancy between the original Yiddish edition and the edition I worked from for my translation. I must have missed it when I first read the poem in Roskies' book. She sent me a scan of the original. In the third line, where I had read "fargangenhayt," literally "the past," Sutzkever had written "fargangenKeyt." This small difference, just a millimeter of a penstroke between a hay ה and a koof ק, gave us a brilliant play on words; for "keyt" means "chain," as in the golden chain of Sutzkever's own literary journal. But here it is the chain of the past. Your pastchain. And he has condemned us all to carry it forward.

The song "Vi Azoy" is used here by permission of Oriente Music.