Type of resistance: Spiritual resistance Country: Lithuania
This is the story of the Jewish poet Avraham Sutzkever who continued to create and write while living in the Vilna Ghetto and in the Naroch forests.
Childhood and youth
Avraham Sutzkever (Avrum) was born on July 15, 1913 in the city of Smorgon, near Vilna, Lithuania. In 1915, as a result of the German occupation of Vilna in WWI, the Sutzkever family fled to Siberia, where the father of the family died. After his father’s death in 1920, the family returned to Vilna, and there, after a few weeks, his sister Esther died. He studied in Vilna in a Hebrew-Polish school, and taught himself Yiddish from books. He participated in the activities of the Scout movement. Later he studied Polish literature at the University of Vilna, and Yiddish literature in the “Institute for Jewish Research” (Yiddisher Wissenshaftlecher Institute – YIVO) in Vilna, an institute which was concerned with the dissemination and preservation of Yiddish culture by, among other activities, maintaining a large archive. He began writing poetry when he was 14 years old, at first in Hebrew and later in Yiddish. In 1930 he joined the group of Jewish modernist poets “Young Vilna” (Yung Vilne), and began to publish in the group’s literary journals. His poems, which protested against the politicization of Yiddish poetry at that time, received much attention, and his first book was published in 1937 when he was 24. He met his wife, Freydke, before the war and they were married in 1939.
When it became known to the Jews of Vilna that the Nazis were nearing the city, some of them began to flee, Sutzkever among them. This is how he described it:
“People with bundles in their hands, streamed out of the city. We also ran – a group of writers, friends and relatives. I abandon my home. We are marching towards Sowotz in the direction of Minsk…fleeing from the plague, the plague is chasing us and overtaking us…German airplanes descend upon us like locusts…in our haste the group disperses. Night, we sleep in the forest…the Germans overtake us near Omiana… we wait for half a day and in the end we return the way we came. We are in the city again”.
When Vilna was occupied by the Nazis on June 26, 1941 Sutzkever was imprisoned in the ghetto, together with the rest of the Jews of the cityand the Nazis ordered the shredding of all the documents found in the YIVO archive. Sutzkever, who worked in the YIVO, took part in the setting up of the organization which was later known as the “Paper Brigade”, which hid and transferred valuable documents out of the ghetto for safekeeping with non-Jewish accomplices. Almost from the start of the Nazi occupation of the city, the Nazis began the systematic deportation of the Jews of Vilna to their deaths in the Ponar Forest and the forced labor camps. Therefore, at the end of 1941, those who supported violent resistance to the Nazi occupation set up the “United Partisan Organization”, the F.P.O. The preparations included the collection of weapons and attempts to contact non-Jewish groups outside Vilna, and resistance groups in other ghettos in Eastern Europe. Sutzkever, unlike most of the ghetto inhabitants, supported this activity, and actively participated by collecting weapons from non-Jewish residents of Vilna. He managed to do this relatively easily, since the YIVO building was outside the ghetto. This fact made Sutzkever’s and his friends opportunities for action somewhat easier outside the ghetto walls. Sutzkever and his friends also brought Soviet handbooks of instruction in the use of weapons into the ghetto. In addition, he ran a literature class which took place in the Young Club in the ghetto, a club for children. Sutzkever continued to write during the Nazi occupation, and was engaged in the selection of plays which were performed in the ghetto. In July 1942 a writing competition was held in the ghetto, and Sutzkever won first prize, for his poem “Das Kever-Kind”, The Child of the Grave. The subject of the poem was Sutzkever’s son , who was born at the beginning of the year and was poisoned by the Nazis, who forbade bringing children into the ghetto One of his well-known poems “Unter dayne vayse shtern” (Under your white stars) was set to music by Avrom Brudno and was sung by the ghetto inhabitants:
אברהם סוצקבר ושמרקה קצ'רגינסקי במרפסת דירתם בגטו - ארכיון יד ושם
|Under Your white and gleaming stars, |
Stretch Your white hand to me.
All my words have turned to tears,
Longing to rest in Your hand.
See, their shine grows ever dark
In my basement eyes,
And how I have no borders left
To turn my words to sky.
But still I will, O trusted G-d,
Offer what remains of me to You,
For fire burns my every place
And all my days, in fire too.
In basements only, in boundless holes,
Does the murderous silence weep.
Yet I try to rise higher, above the fire,
And search: Where are you? Speak.
Names pursue me strangely, resolutely:
Stairs and courtyards, names of escape
And yet I hang – a broken string –
And brokenly strum myself so faint.
Under Your white and gleaming stars
Stretch Your white hand to me.
All my words have turned to tears,
Longing to rest in Your hand.
|(Translation from the Yiddish) |
Since most of the ghetto inhabitants opposed the activities of the F.P.O., the members of the group decided to move to the forests and to fight the Nazis from there as partisans. On September 12, 1943 Sutzkever and his wife escaped from the ghetto to the Naroch Forests, in a group led by Moshe Yudke Rudnitizki, and there he joined the Jewish Nekama (Vengeance) brigade. He described his escape from the ghetto thus:
“The ghetto was surrounded. I escaped and entered a school building used by the Germans. I stood on the roof and the only option I had was to jump, but then I saw a German aiming his rifle at me. I asked him how I could escape and he helped me. He told me to go in a particular direction and I continued. Suddenly I saw the sign Heleni Street. At number 7 Heleni an old woman opened the door, a farm woman, and she said ‘I see that you have run away from the evil’ and she hid me. I gave her the axe that I had hidden in my sleeve. Every evening she brought me food”.
Shortly after the Jewish Nekama brigade was established, the non-Jewish partisans broke it up, and it was decided, much to the displeasure of the Nekama members, that the armed members of the group would be accepted into the Komsomolki battalion. It was also decided that the unarmed members of Nekama, Sutzkever among them, would form a creative battalion, “proizbodsvaynnia”, to be headed by Boris Groniman. The professional unit, which numbered 60 men of various professions, had only two rifles and five pistols, and therefore it was very difficult for the members of the group to defend themselves and to obtain weapons. Sutzkever, at this time, was engaged in writing a history of the partisan units in the area and obtaining testimonies of Nazi crimes. His poems reached Moscow by way of the partisan Shaike Gratman, and there they were translated into Russian by Boris Pasternak. They aroused great interest among members of the “Jewish anti-Fascist Committee”, a Jewish body established by the Soviet Union in order to organize the Jews to help in the war against the Nazis. Members of the organization began to lobby the leaders of the Soviet regime to bring him to Moscow. Their efforts were successful and, on March 12, 1944, a special Soviet plane was sent to fly him from the Naroch Forests to Moscow, a wholly unprecedented and dangerous operation. The recognition which Sutzkever received throughout the Soviet Union is exemplified in a postcard which he received from an orphanage in Dibs, Iraq: “This postcard is sent to you by Jewish children who were evacuated from Lithuania. We read your work on the Vilna Ghetto in the Jewish newspaper “Einekeit” and it stirred strong feelings of revenge within us. There are children from Vilna among us. Forty percent of the children in the orphanage are Jewish children. We are extremely interested in the fate of the Jews of Lithuania. Therefore we very much want to keep up a correspondence with you”.
Sutzkever met with the leading Soviet intellectuals and politicians, and engaged in the dissemination of information, publishing information about Nazi crimes during the Holocaust and the stories of the partisans.
After the war
After the liberation of Vilna in July 1944, Sutzkever returned to the city, to retrieve the manuscripts which he had hidden during his time working for YIVO, and sent them to the new offices of YIVO in New York. Then he and his wife moved around Europe for a few years. In Paris he met Marc Chagall, the famous painter, who became a friend and also illustrated some of his poems. At the end of February 1946 Sutzkever was invited by the Soviets to testify at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi criminals. Although he asked to be allowed to testify in Yiddish, “I want to speak in the language of the people whom the accused wished to destroy together with their language”, he was asked to testify in Russian. This is what he related:
“Not one word of Russian was missing in my testimony. I made a strong speech the likes of which I never thought I could deliver in Russian, and I don’t understand how I did it. The newspapers wrote that I spoke non-stop for 27 minutes. All the newspapers wrote about that speech; it was translated into many languages”.
Sutzkever represented Yiddish literature at the international congress of the International Writers’ Union (PEN) in 1947. In September he made aliya to Eretz Yisrael.with his wife and young daughter, Mira, and they settled in Tel Aviv. In 1949 Sutzkever founded, with the patronage of the Histadrut, the Yiddish journal “Di Goldend Keit” (The Golden Chain”, which was considered the finest journal of its kind. Sutzkever edited the journal until it ceased publication in 1995. On his writing during the Nazi occupation he said:
“To this day I don’t understand how I could write during the Holocaust. I broke down the Holocaust through my writing. With my talent – I broke the Holocaust. Writing became my existence, the most shining and brightest poems I wrote in the midst of the destruction” Another daughter, Rina, was born to Sutzkever in Israel. He continued to publish poems, and was considered the greatest Yiddish writer alive. An exhibition about him was held in the National Library in Jerusalem in 1983 and he received the Israel Prize in 1985. He died on January 10, 2010 in Tel Aviv at the age of 96.
Picture caption: Avraham Sutzkever, member of the Jewish underground in the Vilna Ghetto, writer and poet. From the Ghetto Fighters’ House