“What instruments we have agree/The day of his death was a dark cold day”: W.H. Auden wrote that about W.B. Yeats, but we tend to think it true of most poets, and Avrom Sutzkever, the 20th Century’s greatest Yiddish poet, seems no exception. Born in
modern-day Belarus Smorgon, a shtetl located in what is now Belarus, not too far from the Lithuanian metropolis of Vilnius, he smuggled arms into the Vilnius ghetto after the Nazis invaded, managing to escape to Moscow before being shipped away. He soon made his way to Mandatory Palestine, and spent most of the rest of his life in Israel; he died in Tel Aviv last month at 96. You can read three of his best-known works here.
In Tablet Magazine, Zackary Sholem Berger celebrated Sutzkever’s ability to continue evolving:
While other writers perseverated on the world that was lost—which for many led to artistic stasis—Sutzkever built new worlds in lyric self-expression. Yes, he wrote about ghetto existence, and about life in hiding while the Nazis raged, but those were his Holocaust-era works, not signposts to an unchanging style. Historical moments were for him the raw material for his own poetic vision, not excuses for occasional verse.
At Jewish Ideas Daily, Ruth R. Wisse—author of Nextbook Press’s Jews and Power—testifies that Sutzkever inspired her to become a professor of Yiddish literature: “Sutzkever is a master of precisely the kind of wordplay that defies translation, and of a wit that exploits the singularity of a language whose elements are ingeniously fused.”
Sutzkever’s simple descriptions of enormous horrors—perhaps most famously the couplet “Did you ever see in fields of snow/Frozen Jews, in row upon row?”—split the difference, reducing the traces of mass human homicide to a childlike, wondering response at what seems to have become the new natural landscape.
Golden Link [Tablet Magazine]
Abraham Sutzkever: In Memoriam [Jewish Ideas Daily]
The Elegist [The Book]
Abraham Sutzkever, 96, Jewish Poet and Partisan, Dies [NYT]
Related: Jews and Power [Nextbook Press]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.