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Winter Wonderland

Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever’s 1936 work ‘Siberia’ magically upends a litany of misery for him and his people

Dara Horn
October 25, 2017
Library of Congress
Two girls in costume, Siberia, 1920.Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Two girls in costume, Siberia, 1920.Library of Congress

Yiddish literature is often caricatured as being either tragic or comic, or both at once; according to the stereotype, Yiddish is not the native language of unironic joy. But Avrom Sutzkever, the premier 20th-century Yiddish poet, is the quintessential joyous Jewish artist, and one of his many masterpieces is a poetic cycle about the joy of a childhood spent dashing through the snow. This luminous work is set in the cheeriest, jolliest place you can possibly imagine: Siberia! Welcome to the Yiddish winter wonderland.

Much of Sutzkever’s life was the polar opposite of wonderful, so it’s especially miraculous that he saw his lifelong artistic mission as “turning paper back into trees.” Born in 1913 in Smorgon, a small city in Lithuania, he was 2 years old when the Russian government ordered 1.5 million Jews to abandon their homes on the First World War’s Eastern Front. Sutzkever’s family found refuge in the Siberian town of Omsk, where he lived until age 7 and where his father died of a heart attack at 30. After the family resettled in Vilna, Sutzkever embarked on a stunning poetic career. He published his work in elite Yiddish journals, married his wife, Freydke (a Yiddish archivist, who met Sutzkever when they were 12), and built an international reputation. In 1941, the Nazis murdered 100,000 Vilna-area Jews in the suburb of Ponar and crammed the remaining 20,000 into a ghetto of seven blocks. Sutzkever repeatedly evaded murder—writing poetry in crawlspaces, enduring Gestapo torture, and at one point digging his own grave before his would-be executioners shot over his head. His son was born after the Nazis forbade Jewish births; the baby was murdered in the ghetto hospital. Sutzkever became a cultural leader in the ghetto, winning the Ghetto Prize for poetry and orchestrating the famous “paper brigade.” Assigned by the Nazis to loot the renowned YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research) archives for a Nazi institute of “Judaism without Jews,” Sutzkever and others risked their lives to rescue rare Yiddish books.

The 1951 first edition of Avrom Sutzkever’s Siber was illustrated by Marc Chagall. (Columbia University Library)
The 1951 first edition of Avrom Sutzkever’s Siber was illustrated by Marc Chagall. (Columbia University Library)

In 1943 the Sutzkevers escaped through sewers to the forests, fighting with Jewish partisans until they were literally saved by poetry. Sutzkever’s poem Kol Nidre had reached readers in Moscow who knew his reputation, and who recognized the work as eyewitness testimony of Jewish Vilna’s destruction. Realizing Sutzkever’s importance, the Soviets sent guards to escort the Sutzkevers through 90 kilometers of land-mined German territory to a tiny plane, which Avrom rode with his legs dangling out the door and with Freydke tied to him, the two half-hanging out of the plane for the flight through enemy fire to Moscow. After the war, Sutzkever testified at the Nuremberg trials before he and Freydke began their next great escape, as illegal immigrants to Palestine, where he became almost single-handedly responsible for the survival of literary Yiddish.

But when he made the claim that poetry saved his life, Sutzkever was not referring to his ride in the Soviet plane. Poetry, for him, was food, shelter, an abiding source of private integrity. Consider just a few lines from On My Thirtieth Birthday, written in the ghetto after his newborn son’s murder. In this mind-blowing poem, the poet recalls his father’s death in Siberia:

At 30, my father’s heart burst
While playing
Rebbe Levi Yitzhok’s melody on a violin at night.
The fiddle trembled on his shoulder like a child […]
Where I, a 7-year-old dreamer,
Wound around
My father’s knees.

His father’s imagined last words become a moving refrain:

—That’s how, my child,
Try out on your hands the weight of life,
So you get used to
Bearing it later.

In radiant imagery, he winds his father’s death around himself:

I have run myself up to my father’s age […]
And like my father,
I have a red violin:
See, I tear my veins
And play on them my melody!

Sutzkever’s postwar work reaches deep into the Yiddish language to bend the rules of reality, struggling to revive the dead; astounding prose poems like his “Green Aquarium” series imagine the dead as fully alive but agonizingly inaccessible, trapped behind glass.

One can fairly wonder what Sutzkever’s work might have become without the Holocaust, but it seems cruel to claim that it shaped his art. Must we credit his poetic heights to the Nazis? Or is there some live wire of life, some indestructible continuity of imagination that was, is, and will always be?

Miraculously, there is an answer: Siberia.

Siberia, published in 1936, is not merely beautiful: It is transporting. One enters its pages—especially as I first encountered this work, in its stunning oversized edition with pen-and-ink illustrations made in 1950 by Marc Chagall—as if leaving one’s ordinary life and entering another, a fairyland of ice and snow and light and color where thought and reason are forbidden, where nothing exists but pure perception, pure presence. Here is just one moment, in my limited translation:

In the bright-dark, snowed-in
Village of my childhood in Siberia,
Blossoms bloom from the shadow-eyes,
Quicksilver blossoms, without end.
In extinguished dull corners
The moon blows in her dazzle.
White as the moon is Father
Silence of the snow on his hands.
He cuts up black bread with a gleaming
Merciful knife. His face blues.
And with newly sliced thoughts,
I dunk in salt my father’s bread.

One could attribute the immediacy of everything in this work to its child-narrator—for supposedly this is how children experience the world, perceiving beauty that adults overlook. But that’s absurd. I live with four children; I even used to be one. This isn’t childhood talking. It is wonder.

The landscape swirls through these stanzas as they accumulate like snow, seducing you into taking on the speaker’s senses as he “write[s] with the wind as if with a pen.” Animal footprints bloom like roses on snow; the forest’s roots are teeth sunk in deep ground; a river roars through ice. But Siberia is not a landscape gallery. Ultimately, Siberia is identically about Siberia and about a father-son bond—both eternally frozen in memory and therefore both eternally alive.

A fairyland of ice and snow and light and color where thought and reason are forbidden.

All poetry is impossible to translate, and the better the poet, the harder the task. Sutzkever doesn’t merely use breathtaking imagery and sound orchestration. Unlike many of his English-language peers, he does all this in metered rhyme, which in Yiddish is utterly hypnotic. (The primary access point to Sutzkever’s work in English is the anthology A. Sutzkever, translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, who valiantly try to replicate his use of rhyme and meter. On My Thirtieth Birthday above uses their translation. I translate Siberia more literally here, to avoid the distraction rhyme imposes on uninitiated English readers.) To achieve this, Sutzkever stretches the language as far as it will go, verbing nouns as needed and making every word work overtime. The Yiddish word for “sun,” itself a major character in the poem, is identical to the Yiddish word for “son”—a pun Sutzkever employs like a musical variation. Yet this isn’t mere wordplay. Language emphasizes distinctions: people versus nature, for instance. But for Sutzkever, people are nature. Here is the speaker’s father, playing that violin:

… A shadow takes down
Its violin from the wall. And thin-thin-thin
Snowsounds fall on my head
Quiet. Father is playing. And the sounds
Engraved in the air as in frost,
Silvershards of breath hanging blue
Over moon-glassed snow.
Through an ice-pelted windowpane
A wolf smells the flesh of the music.

The collapsing of distinctions continues as father and son merge with the landscape, whose infinite beauty suggests that people, too, are fully part of the world’s comforting endlessness.

“Tell me, Daddy, where does the world end?”
Philosophical, I demand a solution.
The answer comes: “Behind that cottage
On the mountain peak, where the sun sets.”
Truly, really? If so—don’t think,
Chase the sunset! And I run
Up above, through a silver net of tears,
To where the world ends, atop the mountain.
My eyes demand of the Siberian God
That my longing shouldn’t be in vain.
All the years up-until-me, millions of years,
Tremble from the snow, saying: Welcome.

When the father dies several pages later, his son runs behind the sled-borne coffin “to catch up with your memory.” The scene is painful, but the many chases that surround it—after the sun, the music, the melting river—suggest an awe that includes yearning as part of its power. Two stanzas later, when the speaker praises a snowman (“monument to childhood, guardian/ Of a cold treasure!”), the happiness he derives from it includes his father’s memory. But that doesn’t diminish its joy: The poem builds around that memory, art trapping time in imagination’s ice.

Sutzkever’s winter wonderland was beautiful in 1936. In 2016, it’s worth reading for how powerfully it upends common assumptions about Yiddish literature—supposedly a litany of misery. Sutzkever’s Siberia is pure joy, deepened by sorrow but untouched by irony. And the Holocaust neither created nor destroyed this joyous artist’s work. Here already are the themes of time stopping, the eternally present past, and the ongoing possibility of wonder, painful and joyful and triumphant. The live wire of imagination races through the poet’s awful, wonderful life, as tortured and inspired and indestructible as the Jews—neither innocent nor ironic, but abidingly true: a joy to the world.

Dara Horn is the award-winning author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews.