His whole life he had been called Moyshe-Itzke, a familiar name, like you’d call a boy. The only people in whose memory he’s still barely alive remember him by that name.
Moyshe-Itzke was born because he wanted to be born. That’s what he told me. He then added confidentially that an entire collection of dark forces didn’t want to let him shine, but his will was stronger. The anointed writer Moyshe-Itzke was born in order to live eternally.
“I’m going to stay the way I am,” he said, assessing me superciliously, with the sort of face that would well up out of a shattered mirror. “Death isn’t relevant to me; we belong to two different worlds. It’s a pity that you won’t be walking these streets in a thousand years. You’d recognize me in throngs of people. I won’t change. Like a rock doesn’t change.”
He burst into hysterics, laughter like a dispersed mold, and kept going on like one possessed. “You say a rock can be overgrown with moss? Yes, my great soul will be overgrown with a beard. And you say that sparks sleep in the rock? They sing in my veins! The storm that can extinguish my sparks has not yet been born.”
I had already had the luck to hear the song of his sparks. Most lines of his song were consumed by sparks. But poem-sparks and poem-fires erupted from it—the storm wasn’t born that could put them out.
During our walks and talks on Castle Hill, I found out that he was a complete heretic when it came to recognizing authority. He only recognized the greatness of three human beings in all of world history and literature: Moses, Napoleon, and Dostoyevsky. Everyone else were just books, not great people.
“There are billions of books! Show me someone alive!” I tried to bargain with him, have him add just one poet to his three chosen ones. “What about Byron? Would you reject him?”
Moyshe-Itzke waved a hairy hand. “He too was lame at poetry.”
In a summer evening of transparent amber, coming down off Castle Hill and making our way to the Viliya, I had the guts to knock off a little of Moyshe-Itzke’s eternity. “The three of them, the greatest—Moses, Napoleon, and Dostoyevsky—they all died. So how can it be that you, Moyshe-Itzke, will live forever?”
His rusted brow furrowed—a bolt of lightning in a cloud at night. Under the skin of his face, a glowing spider web. With the voice of a lost echo he thundered out: “Someone can break through!”
He lived on Gitke Toybe’s Alley in Meyerke’s Courtyard, where Motke Chabad had lived.
His father had two trades: butcher and bootmaker. He butchered in winter and made boots in the summer. I don’t know what he did the rest of the time. His father believed that one profession was enough for his refined son: bootmaking, and this he would teach him.
But Moyshe-Itzke’s hot blood was attracted to the slaughterhouse. Where the condemned calves and oxen shriek and bellow; where the shochet plays the cello on their warm necks; where his father cuts out their double crowns, pulls off their purple boots.
As his bar mitzvah approached, the boy got restless, even more than before. He decided to pay the price of manhood by saving at least a few oxen from the cleaver.
It was during a murderous frost. Dawn. A single star hung over the slaughterhouse. Moyshe-Itzke stole in through a narrow window.
A single ox, like the single star, stood tied to a pole, kicking with its hoof.
In the steam of the ox Moyshe-Itzke warmed his pierced ears.
A couple of sturdy young men appeared in the slaughterhouse with ropes and skinning knives. The shochet also appeared, bulkily attired in a fur coat and carrying a small case under his arm. His father happened to be observing the anniversary of his father’s death and was delayed. As the shochet was unwrapping his fur coat, Moyshe-Itzke revealed himself from within the deadly shadow, with incredible swiftness leapt to the butcher’s block where the shochet had put the case, grabbed the cleaver, and stuck it into a mound of sawdust.
The shochet was sure he had forgotten to put the cleaver in the case. The young butchers made themselves scarce, cursing. The single star, which had emerged in blood from an icicle, also vanished, taking within its inner eye the secrets of the earth.
Two were left inside: Moyshe-Itzke and the rescued ox. In the meantime the sun had appeared in the slaughterhouse: the cleaver was wandering out of its hideaway and slashing into empty space.
Moyshe-Itzke drew close to the ox, stepped into the fenced-off portion between the poles to make his acquaintance. The boy’s entire body was suffused by the sweetness of a good deed.
But who can understand an ox’s sense of fairness? Instead of paying back his savior with a smile, with a heartfelt thank you, the ox first bent down low in front of him, then hoisted him up on one of his horns.
All the details, images, and nuances relevant to the ox were confided in me years later by Moyshe-Itzke, when his poems were bellowing on the giant pages of the Vilna Day newspaper and the poet himself was inducted into the fellowship of Young Vilna.
From Moyshe-Itzke’s hoarse, demonic voice, I realized then that the ox had hooked its horn into his mind too.
The horn overcame somebody.
Since Moyshe-Itzke bragged that he would live forever, that someone would break through, I was capable of believing for a while that the one who the horn stabbed in the slaughterhouse was Moyshe-Itzke’s Angel of Death, which had already taken up a battle station in his mind.
As though he were a soldier in muddy trenches in an endless war, Moyshe-Itzke wandered among insane asylums and was given leave only during the ceasefires in his soul.
During one of those ceasefires, it was the day before Passover, on returning home to Gitke Toybe’s Alley, to the crumbling wall where he lived on the ground floor in a single room with an antechamber, Moyshe-Itzke saw a dogcatcher in leather pants chase a dog across the street, lasso him with the noose attached to his pole, and drag him struggling in a semicircle through the mild blue spring evening to the wailing wagon close by.
Moyshe-Itzke’s blood grew roused, crouched inside him at the ready, then shouted out like freed streams of spring flowing under the thin layer of cracked ice. It escaped from the reins of the arteries. Moyshe-Itzke’s hands began to gallop after the dogcatcher in the leather pants.
“You have to give me back my dear dog right now, or I’ll make a measuring tape out of your guts.”
The dogcatcher in the leather pants had already managed to load the lassoed dog into the wailing wagon. “Try your story on someone else. That’s not your dog.”
Moyshe-Itzke bellowed hoarsely, “Hamlet, bear witness that I am your master.” (That’s what Moyshe-Itzke called him, because the dog’s fate was suspended between to-be and not-to-be.)
The little, just-incarcerated dog stuck out between the iron bars of the wagon his face, which was covered by an adorable red glove, while behind him an orchestra of stray dogs was barking, yelping, and howling. He cried like a child, “Oy, oy, oy.”
“Now do you believe me?” Moyshe-Itzke spat fire at the dogcatcher. The dog hangman gave a brilliant smile like a splinter of glass in a garbage can. “You’re both lying. But I’ll give you a chance. You can redeem the piece of shit for no more than ten zlotys.”
Ten zlotys. Where could he get his hands on that? With the few rubles that his father had tossed with a jingle into the pocket of his blue robe during a visit, Moyshe-Itzke had already acquired tobacco, a yellow copying pencil, and some paper to match wits with Byron and Dostoyevsky. He essentially had nothing left but a few pennies. It’s an insult to the lips to haggle with a dogcatcher. It’s the time and the place for action. Hamlet’s fate hangs in the balance. As soon as the wagon starts off there won’t be time for any appeal. There’s only one way left: force! Beat up the nooseman and free the dog.
A double miracle occurred. From within the crowd surrounding the two men, a girl like the newly hatched spring approached, wearing a man’s double-breasted jacket and a flowered blouse. She redeemed the dog from behind bars with her ten zlotys.
Her name was Yetl Gonkrey. The double miracle was that along with the dog she also redeemed Moyshe-Itzke’s loneliness.
After leaving for the institution alone and coming back as a group of three, they made the musty room in Gitke Toybe’s Alley full of life.
The father with the two professions saw right away that he was superfluous and departed to make his lodgings with a relative, learning a third trade: playing and losing at cards with his friends the butchers.
Yetl was short, with yellow hair. If you like, blonde—a thread of freckles on her throat. Both of those smiles, on her face and her throat, teased each other and a third, Moyshe-Itzke. He liked to tell the story over and over again how Yetl first got into his head and then his heart. How her skin is misted over. And if her men’s jacket had been buttoned over her flowered blouse at that first meeting, nothing would have happened.
Yetl was a kindergarten teacher. She worked with ease but lightly, since now she had someone to work for. Besides her own mouth, she had a second mouth to feed: Hamlet was sitting at the table now like a real person.
The teacher was in love with Moyshe-Itzke, not just head over heels but also over her abilities. She believed him that he would live forever, that someone could break through. But she was miffed that it couldn’t be both of them, only him. Moyshe-Itzke taught Yetl all about it and explained why he was the chosen one.
“When a person dies, Yetele, it’s because the number of words God has set for him has run out. But the number of words set for me is without end.”
Another time, he added: “You must know, Yetele, when a person dies all of a sudden, there’s no one to talk to.”
She also heard these words of comfort from him: “You shouldn’t be embarrassed that you were born a girl. They’ll still write about you in the papers.”
When Moyshe-Itzke would read aloud a poem he had written to Yetl, or roar out a short story that consisted of one sentence a mile long, her cheeks would light up with colors of desire. So she also gladly accepted his philosophy of life. There was only one thing Yetl couldn’t get used to—the way he would suddenly explode in laughter. When Moyshe-Itzke would roar out such laughter in the middle of everything, unasked for, unhinged, she would accompany him on the keys of her tears.
One fine day, the room in Gitke Toybe’s Alley was enriched with a sewing machine from the Singer Corporation: a gift from Yetl for her chosen one. If he kneads the air with his legs for a couple of hours, she thought, his breathing will be made easier up above.
On another fine day, Yetl came home from kindergarten and walked into a cherry garden. What happened, did she get lost? No. Moyshe-Itzke had stripped the walls of dozens of layers of old wallpaper, and instead of writing on the walls with a pencil he was stitching out a new work in black thread with the Singer machine, line after line.
From behind the old, faded wallpaper appeared the earlier wallpaper, young, fresh, and fiery.
Since then, the walls in their room and the anteroom have assumed the colors of the four seasons.
“You’re my living treatment.” Moyshe-Itzke caressed Yetl in a calm moment. “Since you’re already me, I’ll break through together with you. And that’ll count as me breaking through by myself, since that’s the only way it can be.”
Yetl believed him.
“We’re not going to break into eternity through some back door, oh no.” He described to Yetl their personal end of days. “I met him on Butcher’s Street yesterday; I stopped him and told him clearly and absolutely, ‘We’re not going to break into eternity through some back door.’”
“Who did you meet?” Yetl swept his thorny hair away from his rusty forehead, and it stabbed her finger.
“Stupid people call him Death. But he’s really just a black angel with a pin in his hand!” Moyshe-Itzke burst out in his interrupting laughter.
Yetl told me about this episode when I was visiting her on a loud, end-of-summer day.
My memory was also enriched on that visit with three things that happened.
Yetl had gotten thinner in the three months since I had last seen her, since Moyshe-Itzke wished for her waist to be as slender as the waist of the Singer machine.
Moyshe-Itzke dreamed that a dentist extracted his molar. When he arose at dawn (Yetl was a witness) the tooth was missing. Now he’s waiting for the doctor to show up and demand payment from his patient.
Hamlet became a sleepwalker. On moonlit nights one can clearly see a silver hand with a silver leash taking him for a walk over the city’s crooked roofs and cornices. Then Hamlet crawls back into his doghouse, and the next day he doesn’t remember anything.
The walls of the room turned blue during that visit. A blue sky, washed out with rain, with the golden tail of a rainbow.
Yetl put a bowl of hot beans on the table. Moyshe-Itzke unrolled a sewn scroll for me and read out a prediction: a prophecy that hunger will soon cease. People will eat each other.
While Moyshe-Itzke read his sewn lines, I felt the needle of the Singer machine dancing on my backbone.
Our last meeting was on the first ghetto night.
Barefoot, in only the fragments of a shirt, and with a scroll under his arm, he fluttered like an eagle dying in midflight over the paralyzed waves of human beings barely breathing on their transit through the alleyways.
A black angel with a pin in his hand, alone and protean, appeared in a blink out of the paneless heavens and gaping attics.
The night rolled out of time, which disappeared.
Moyshe-Itzke dropped down facing me, illuminated by his own blood. “Do you still think that someone can break through?”
He unrolled the scroll and pointed to a verse. “Child of man, I already broke through. I’m eternal now.”
He broke out into his interrupting laughter.
The only laughter on the first ghetto night.
This is an excerpt from Sutzkever: Essential Prose, translated by Zackary Sholem Berger and published by White Goat Press (2020)
Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) was an acclaimed Yiddish-language poet. He has been described as “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.”