“I have a good memory because I’m too weak to forget”

A new English selection of Avrom Sutskever's essential prose reveals the fascinating tension between the great Yiddish writer's Israeli present and his East European past.

The 2020 publication of a new volume of Avrom Sutzkever’s Essential Prose, translated into English by Zackary Sholem Berger, is part of a renewed interest in the work of the great Yiddish poet. In the last decade, new translations of Sutzkever’s poetry into English (both Heather Valencia and Richard J. Fein recently published translated collection of his poetry), Hebrew (Benny Mer published a “poetic biography” of Sutzkever with translated poems, stories, and lectures), and other languages (French, German, Lithuanian) have been proliferating. Sutzkever’s life and poetry are also at the center of two recent documentary films: Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever, produced in Israel in 2018, and Ver Vet Blaybn? (Who Will Remain?), produced in the United States in 2020. One aspect of Sutzkever’s vast poetic oeuvre that has received less attention is his prose. Between the 1950s and 1990s, Sutzkever wrote and published many Yiddish short stories, most of which appear in the new volume. These are unique and strangely beautiful texts that belong in the hybrid category of “poetic prose,” a term that might be familiar to us from Baudelaire and the symbolists of the turn of the century, as well as from 20th century writers such as Bruno Shultz and far less known Yiddish writers such as Der Nister – “the Hidden One.”

This new volume of translated stories provides a good opportunity to examine the peculiar place that Sutzkever occupies in Israeli literature and culture. All of these stories were written during the years in which he lived and worked in Tel Aviv; they were first published in the journal that he edited in Israel, and were collected and published as books by Israeli publishers. Many of them take place in the streets of Tel Aviv, in coffeehouses in Jaffa, or in Sutzkever’s Israeli home and office. And yet, readers will immediately sense that these Yiddish stories are quite different from most Israeli fiction. This begs the questions of whether, and in what sense, we should consider Sutzkever to be an Israeli writer, and what we can learn about Israel from reading these haunting Yiddish stories. We normally think of Israeli writers as natives, born in the country and writing in Hebrew, but this was not the case for Sutzkever. He was born in the town of Smorgon near Vilna (Vilnius) in 1913 and wrote literature in Yiddish. At the same time Sutzkever lived in Israel for 53 years—most of his adult life—and produced the majority of his literary work in the country. But despite being hailed as one of the most important Jewish poets of the twentieth century, he was hardly known to most Israelis, even after winning belated recognition as a recipient of the Israel Prize in 1985.

When Sutzkever arrived in Palestine in 1947 at the age of 34 he was one of approximately half a million new Israeli immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe who survived the Holocaust (known in Yiddish as khurbn, the destruction), but he was also an exceptional figure. At that point, he was recognized throughout the world and even in the Yishuv as a great Yiddish poet, especially for the poems he wrote in unbelievably harsh conditions within the Vilna Ghetto, such as Dos keyverkind (“The Grave-Child,” inspired by the death of his infant son in the ghetto) and Kol Nidrei. Sutzkever understood writing as a matter of life and death and believed that poetry saved his life during these years. In the story “The Woman in the Panama Hat,” Sutzkever’s narrator declares “it was as if the angel of poetry were confiding in me: The choice is in your hands. If your song inspires me, I’ll protect you with a fiery sword, and if not—you’ve got nothing to complain about.” He created a myth of himself as a writer who cannot afford to make any mistakes, because even one mistake can be fatal: “Walk through words like through a minefield: one false step, one false move, and all the words which you have threaded onto your veins your whole life will be torn apart, and you with them.”

Sutzkever’s status and renown as “a poet of the Holocaust” meant that he was one of the very few East European refugees and survivors who received a warm welcome from many in the Yishuv and the young state. But even this was less because of his writing, and mostly due to his dramatic biography: his instrumental role in the “Paper Brigade” that rescued treasures from the Nazis in the Vilna Ghetto, and his escape from the ghetto to join the Jewish partisans during World War II. His renown as a Yiddish poet in the Soviet Union led to his rescue by the Red Army, which brought him and his wife to Moscow. After the war, Sutzkever was the first Jew to testify at Nuremberg. Given Sutzkever’s renown during and after World War II and the centrality of the Holocaust as a pivotal event that shaped, and continue to shape, Jewish-Israeli identity, one might think that he became a central figure in Israeli culture, but this was not the case. In order to understand why, it might be instructive to compare Sutzkever to another poet and writer, Abba Kovner.

Kovner and Sutzkever belong to the same generation. They knew each other well, as both of them grew up in Vilna (‘The Jerusalem of Lithuania’), wrote poems in Hebrew and Yiddish in their youth, and later played a key role in resistance to the Nazis during the Holocaust. They met shortly after the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, and joined forces and rescue operations. Kovner, who was a member of Ha-shomer ha-tza’ir youth movement and the leader of the FPO (“United Partisan Organization”), immigrated to Palestine in 1945. He settled down in Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh and quickly became a well-known Hebrew poet, writer, and a central public figure in Israeli culture. Later, Kovner was appointed the IDF’s first educational officer: his activity in this capacity was intensive and had a remarkable effect on the Giva’ti Brigade, as he regularly addressed the fighters just before they left for battle. His Hebrew writing infused the Holocaust with Israel’s fighting and its new sense of itself vis-à-vis the Jewish diaspora.

Unlike Kovner, Sutzkever never contemplated switching to Hebrew after his immigration. He continued to write and publish his most innovative and mature poems and stories. In these texts, he encountered the new Israeli reality, landscape, and life in Yiddish, without abandoning his memories of childhood in Siberia and youth in Vilna, and without relinquishing the strong link to Yiddish literature and diasporic Jewish culture that existed before the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Sutzkever became a key figure in the attempts to create a new center of Yiddish culture in the young State of Israel. He founded the Yiddish literary journal Di Goldene Keyt (“The Golden Chain”) in 1948 and was the editor of the monthly journal that appeared from 1949 for 46 years, making it the most important Yiddish journal in the world. The journal especially encouraged new Israeli Yiddish writings, like those written by members of the group “Yung Yisroel” that was formed in 1951 and included Yiddish writers such as Yosl Birshteyn, Rivka Basman, Tsvi Ayzenman, and H. Binyomin (the poet, scholar, and translator Binyamin Hrushovsky, who translated Sutzkever into Hebrew and English).

In fact, Sutzkever became an embodiment of the creative possibilities of modern secular Yiddish culture in the second half of the twentieth century, a global ambassador of Yiddish. Yet, when he sat in a Tel Aviv café, he would not be recognized by most people, even readers of poetry and literature. There are many accounts in Yiddish of guests from all over the world who came to meet Sutzkever (the artist Marc Chagal, for example) and were surprised at his relative anonymity in Israel. One evident reason for his obscurity is precisely Sutzkever’s total devotion to Yiddish, something that was ideologically suspect, even subversive, as Israeli life and culture was supposed to be conducted only in Hebrew. Although Yiddish was the mother tongue of many who built the country and of most of the Holocaust survivors who came to Israel, it was seen as the language that must be forgotten, left behind the Zionist project and the new Israeli life. Yiddish was shunned as the language of Jewish diaspora, and became associated with destruction and death, with sentimental and outdated Yidishkayt, or with the Haredi community that continues to use the language. Sutzkever’s sophisticated, rich literary texts are exactly the opposite of this view of Yiddish.

Moreover, Sutzkever’s cultural and literal work stand in contradiction to the prevalent ethos that developed in Israel about the Jewish diaspora, and about the Holocaust and heroism. As the historian Idith Zertal wrote: “Through a dialectical process of appropriation and exclusion, remembering and forgetting, Israeli society has defined itself in relation to the Holocaust: it regarded itself as both the heir to the victims and their accuser, atoning for their sins and redeeming their death.” Thus, the Holocaust has been transformed into a nationalist fable of heroism, victory, and redemption. At the center of this culture of death is the remembrance of martyrs–Jews who, in Zionist ideology, had to die so that the state might be born. Israeli leaders have often invoked the Holocaust as the ultimate justification for the Jewish state, its army, wars, and even the occupation of Palestinian territories. The attitude of Israeli society towards Holocaust survivors, especially in the early years, was to demand them to forget the past, put it behind them, and be “good Israelis,” namely be modeled after the image of the native Sabra, cut off from the diasporic ways of life. As survivors such as the writer Aharon Appelfeld remembered: “When I came to Israel, the slogan was ‘Forget.’… And if you talk about the Holocaust, then, only the heroic part—partisans, not the camps.”

Sutzkever’s Yiddish poems and stories, like much of Israeli Yiddish literature, reject this attitude and adopt a distinctive view of memory of the Holocaust, which is strongly related to a radically different attitude towards Jewish diasporic life. “I have a good memory,” the narrator in the story “Lupus” declares, “because I’m too weak to forget.” What does it mean to have “a good memory” in Sutzkever’s poetic world? Here, the refusal to forget is not is at all about what was associated in Israel with heroism and military might, but quite the opposite. Memory and testimony in Sutzkever’s writing has to do with recognizing the power in vulnerability, with the resilience that comes with honoring the victims and living with the trauma of the survivors, while creating a continuity between the immensely rich culture of “Yiddishland” with the new and constantly changing culture of Israel. Thus, in Sutzkever’s stories he constantly eradicates the distinctions of time and space, thus fusing Vilna and Tel Aviv, the Jewish diaspora and the Israeli reality. The stories also remove the fixed boundaries between the living and the dead. As the narrator in the story “The Twin” writes: “To live one had to breathe death. Indeed, Sutzkever lived for seven decades as an Israeli Yiddish poet and writer in a world full of dead; he learned how to be in their company without becoming one of them.

In many of Sutzkever’s stories the Israeli narrator encounters acquaintances from his East European past. These are not well-known partisans or writers, but common people who present a wide and vibrant panorama of Vilna’s Jewish (and non-Jewish) life. Some of these are people murdered by the Nazis during World War II, and others are survivors like Zundl, the blind man who appears as if out of nowhere on the streets of Tel Aviv on a hamsin day in the story “White Cane.” Although the narrator does not recognize Zundl at first, he quickly remembers that both of them “grew up in the same courtyard” and “played hide-and seek with the same girl” in Vilna. The narrator is thrilled to see his long-lost friend and takes him to Aladdin, a café on the beach in Jaffa where he often hides and where “my pen favors me.” There Zundl (whose names in Yiddish means “Sunny”) reminds him that the last time they saw each other was when “the cloud over the ghetto issued its last thunder and we descended into the underground sewers of the city.” This is where Zundl lost his eyesight. The reaction of the narrator is not one of pity or awe, but of true solidarity and empathy. He fills their wine glasses with the blessing: “Lechayim [to life], Zundl, to our meeting.” Indeed, the two men truly rejoice in the fact that they are alive, have rebuilt their life in Israel (Zundl lives in Kerem Ha-teimanin, the neighborhood of Yemenite Jews), and are able to “turn to those young days of our youth.” More than anything else, they are intoxicated with the memories of Jewish Vilna.

Another story that takes place in Cafeteria Aladdin in Jaffa is “The Twin.” Aladdin is where the narrator goes from time to time “to disappear down there away from my table, from my work, from ghosts and people.” But in Sutzkever’s Jaffa, people and ghosts do not disappear so quickly. And indeed, soon the narrator sees a cloud floating by and its reflection is a woman with a black veil who sits at his table with “six digits carved into her left arm, ending with a one and a three…Thirteen. The number is relevant to me. My birthdate ends in a one and a three. The house where I was born was also stamped with a 13.” The narrator immediately feels close to the mysterious woman, and it turns out she is Grunye, a twin sister of Hodesl, who was once the love of the young narrator, and later became a famous violin player: “My sister played on the strings and me on the chains. In the death camp the strings became chains as well.” When Hodesl played the violin so beautifully, the Nazi commandant “was also clearly moved. He piled up a big stack of orange peels and tossed it at the musicians.” The ravenous prisoners all “swooped down” to grab the peels, but Hodesl refused to grovel and paid for this with her life. Many years later, her veiled sister remembers and reenacts this terrible story of defiance in the sunset of Jaffa: “He’s peeling oranges again, the merciful one, and he’s throwing the peels into the snow, at the musicians. Hodesl will not bow, Hodesl will not bow!”

In the story “Lupus,” the narrator tells us that he lives in Tel Aviv, but in the “highest floor of the highest wall in the city,” and his guests are “retinues of drunken clouds seen through the open window.” He takes extreme security precautions so that “nothing and no one can disturb me in my chemical and alchemical experiments to transform an orphaned shadow into its formerly living owner.” These experiments, we discover, are in the realm of writing. In order to write at night, he uses not electricity but “the dented, polished lamp that I acquired for a trifle in the bustling flea market of Old Jaffa, its fuel old-time kerosene,” because “its odor a greeting from the bowels of the earth, is more fitting for my character than electricity…Who knows where the lamp was hanging before and whose wisdom it inherited? I would give up my right if I could see the face of its previous masters.”

The narrator is aware of the fact that the “flea market in Old Jaffa” is not some romantic place, but one that is built of memories of other times, places, and people. Before 1948, the Palestinian Arabs who lived there were displaced by what is known as “The War of Independence” by Israeli-Jews and “the Nakba” by Palestinians. The Jews who lived in their homes after 1948 (“abandoned property”) were precisely the new immigrants, refugees, and survivors who came from both from Eastern Europe and from the Arab world. In Jaffa’s Arab neighborhoods like Jabalia (which was renamed Givat Alyia), Jews used the kerosene lamps that the narrator now uses to write. No wonder that the traumas of both the Holocaust and the Nakba are present in the room of the narrator: “you could hear the dead breathe.” Indeed, the shadow of one dead person appears in the room and begs: “Instead of turning a shadow into a human being, there’s a human being right here in front of you: turn him into a shadow!” The man is revealed to be Lupus in Latin, Velvl in Yiddish, which means Wolf in these languages. The narrator immediately recalls: “Not just a Lupus, but a Lupus dealing in potassium cyanide.” This is what Lupus did in the Vilna Ghetto, and while the narrator is certain that Lupus was selling cyanide to people who wanted to end their life in order to make profit, Lupus himself reveals that “I didn’t want the holy rings, those jewels, to end up in the hangman’s pocket. Later I hurled them over the fence of the shovels into the abyss.” This brings the narrator to the realization: “I saw a lot but didn’t really perceive everything.”

Unsettling stories such as “The Twin” and “Lupus,” which were written in the 1970s, do not appear as related to specific events in Israeli history. There is an air of timelessness about them. However, they are also Sutzkever’s response to the way Israelis understood, used, and abused the Holocaust and its meaning in the service of nation-building as the ultimate proof that Israel is the only place for Jews, the ultimate justification for the “negation of exile/diaspora.” The Eichmann Trial in 1961 was a turning point in which the Israeli public began to come to terms with what happened during World War II, and was also used as a political tool in order to strengthen the legitimacy of Israeli statehood and the country’s recognition within worldwide Jewish communities. From the point of view of people like Sutzkever, the trial was a major disappointment, not just because of the fact that he was not invited to give a testimony, but more significantly because Yiddish was altogether missing from the court. Sutzkever wrote in the journal Di Goldene Keyt that “the trial in Jerusalem brought up vividly…our experiences and deaths in the years of the khurbn,”At the same time, he declared that “we must say that one witness was sorely missing: Yiddish language, which is hallowed for us.” For Sutzkever and for many other Yiddish writers and speakers, there should have been only one goal for the act of capturing Eichmann and bringing him to trail in Jerusalem: to show how Eastern European Jewish diasporic culture was destroyed along with the millions who were murdered, and how Yiddish is the durable link between this culture and that of Israel. This position is at the heart of many stories. Sutzkever show us, as Heather Valencia writes in her introduction, that “each story centers on an act of resistance, rescuing something or someone precious from death or desecration.”

In the story “The Gravedigger’s Strike,” the gravediggers can be seen as a good representation of Israeli society: they speak in a mix of Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and other languages. When the narrator wants to know against whom the gravediggers are striking, their leader dismisses him: “Obviously a new oleh, come from a country where one can’t go on strike. A pity,” but the narrator corrects him: “actually, an old one” The first line of the story mentions the many years that the narrator has spent in Israel. Because the narrator reads the daily newspaper, he learned that man has just landed on the moon, so the narrator, very much like Sutzkever himself, has been living in Israel for 22 years. He is confident in himself and his poetic and cultural project of Yiddish in Israel. Going around the Israeli cemetery, he remembers his poor Vilna neighbor, Ayzikl the Snowman, who was constantly dreaming about the Garden of Eden, and his wife who reminds him that “sure, it’s fantastic there, but the gate into the Garden is…a black grave.” Contemplating the Israeli black grave in front of his eyes as a portal to another world, the narrator comes to realize that as long as literature “is only for the living reader, it has no actuality.” He sees himself as heir to both the prophet Ezekiel and to Baudelaire, who once wrote “I would love to write only for the dead.” The audience of Sutzkever’s stories are not the dead but the living. However, Sutzkever understood his immensely difficult task of commemorating what was lost and creating a link to the present and future in a way that breaks the boundaries between the living and the dead, the East European diasporic Jewish world and Israel.

Essential Prose, Avrom Sutskever (trans. Zackary Sholem Berger), White Goat Press/Yiddish Book Center, 2020, pp. 280

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