Immunity Against Oblivion: On Avrom Sutzkever’s “From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony”

June 4, 2022   •   By Jan Schwarz

From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony

Avrom Sutzkever

SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AFTER Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever’s memoir of the Vilna Ghetto and its immediate aftermath was published, the book is finally available in a fluent English translation and scholarly edition. From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony provides one of the earliest accounts of Jewish Vilna, a major historical and cultural center of Eastern European Jewry, during the German occupation (1941–’44) and the immediate postwar period under the Soviets. The book’s final section includes Sutzkever’s testimony at the Nuremberg Tribunal in February 1946, along with retrospective essays about three of the leading Soviet Yiddish writers and cultural figures that Sutzkever befriended during his sojourn in Moscow between 1944 and 1946. Sutzkever was the only Jewish writer who testified at Nuremberg, his eyewitness account — in Russian, replying to questions by the Russian prosecutor Smirnoff — lasting 38 minutes. Sutzkever offered his testimony as a kaddish for the annihilated Jewish community of Vilna.

In their well-researched afterword, translator Justin Cammy and Yiddish scholar Avraham Novershtern address the fact that “Sutzkever rarely referred to his chronicle of the Vilna ghetto after its initial publication.” When one scholar suggested that he have the memoir republished or translated, Sutzkever responded that “[i]t’s not worth the effort.” His main reason for dismissing the memoir was that Soviet censorship had severely constrained the composition of the book, a constraint clearly visible in the exclusion of several important topics, such as the collaboration of the Lithuanians in the Holocaust. This inconvenient fact did not fit the prevailing ideology that numerous ethnic and national peoples in the Soviet Union had been united in their fight against German fascism.

Sutzkever stated that “I wrote more in the Vilna Ghetto than I did the rest of my life.” A year prior to the publication of this memoir in 1946, in two different editions in Moscow and Paris, he published some of his ghetto poems in an English-language collection, The Fortress: Poems Written in the Vilna Ghetto and the Forest, 1941–1944. In a review, Yankev Glatshteyn, the premier Yiddish poet in New York, highlighted the uniqueness of Sutzkever in postwar Yiddish literature: “He is the only Yiddish poet who returned with poems from the vale of tears. Some wrote screaming exclamations, some wrote dirges, but Sutzkever had a mission, a cursed mission, to play the poems of the greatest destruction of our time on his magical flute.”

Considering the ghetto poems’ artistic quality, and their sheer number, it is remarkable that Sutzkever largely refrained from commenting on them in the memoir. Most of these poems were based on brutal experiences and personal tragedies in the ghetto.

Before the Vilna Ghetto was established in October 1941, the Jewish population was targeted by the khapunes (catchers), a Yiddish word invented to designate the Lithuanian fascist youths that captured Jews in the streets and turned them over to the Nazis for a small ransom. The captured Jews were taken to the main Vilna prison and from there to Ponar, a wooded, residential area on the outskirts of the city, where they were shot and dumped in mass graves. The speed with which the Germans implemented the “final solution” in Vilna was exceptional at this early phase of the Holocaust: by the end of December 1941, after six months of German occupation, only 20,000 out of the 70,000 Jews of Vilna remained alive in the ghetto.

In August 1941, before the establishment of the ghetto, Sutzkever hid in a coffin in the courtyard of the Jewish council. He describes the experience straightforwardly in his memoir: “The Burial Society was located in the same courtyard. Some coffins had been left in the corner. I crawled into one of the coffins, closed the lid over my head, lay down, and inhaled the stuffy air. That’s how I composed my poem ‘I Lie in a Coffin.’”

Dated August 30, 1941, and included in The Fortress, the poem’s beginning and end are quoted here in Yiddish and in Heather Valencia’s translation:

I lie in a coffin
as in clothes made of wood,
here I lie.
Let it be a small boat
on wild stormy waves,
let it be a cradle. […]
This, it seems, is the order of things:
here today,
there tomorrow,
and now, in a coffin,
as in clothes made of wood,
still my word sings.

Ikh lig in an orn
vi in hiltserne kleyder,
ikh lig.
Zol zayn, s’iz a shifl
oyf shturmishe khvalyes,
zol zayn, s’iz a vig. […]
Azoy iz a ponem der seyder:
haynt do,
morgn dortn,
un itst an orn,
vi in hiltserne kleyder,
zingt alts nokh mayn vort.

Throughout the genocidal assault and amid the desperate measures the ghetto Jews took to survive, Sutzkever still manages to affirm that “my word sings.” The ghetto poems were not written in “the heat of the moment” — in this case, inside a coffin. They were written in the YIVO building located outside the ghetto more than half a year later, and retroactively dated. Sutzkever belonged to the “Paper Brigade” of Jewish writers and intellectuals ordered by the German state to compile material from the archive of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the premier Yiddish scholarly and educational institution, founded and headquartered in Vilna. The group spent the day selecting material that would be shipped to Frankfurt am Main for display in a future German museum of the extinct Jewish race. (The story of the Paper Brigade is told by David Fishman in his 2017 book, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis.)

Poetry was the revitalizing force that propelled Sutzkever’s creativity in the ghetto, a life raft to uphold his humanity and contribute to collective spiritual resistance. Some of his poems were set to music and performed in the ghetto theater and at the cultural events that proliferated after the first round of mass murders had ceased in early 1942. In the ghetto, Sutzkever became an active member of the FPO, the united partisan organization whose armed resistance is powerfully expressed in his poem “The Lead Plates of the Romm Press.”

The Romm printing house, founded in Vilna in 1799, was legendary for its printing of both religious and secular Hebrew and Yiddish books until it was closed in 1940. The poem, written while Sutzkever fought in the Soviet partisan group, was retroactively dated September 12, 1943. On that date, Sutzkever and his wife Freydke, along with a group of Jewish resistance fighters, escaped through the sewers and left the ghetto forever, joining the Soviet partisans in the swamps and woods surrounding Vilna. The poem’s vision of the Hebrew letters in the lead printing plates being melted down and used as bullets has become a classic of Yiddish poetry:

The lead shone as from it we poured the bullets,
Thoughts melted together — letter by letter.
One line from Babylon, one line from Poland,
Seethed, flooded into identical moulds.
And now Jewish valour, concealed in these words
Must with a gunshot tear open the word! (trans. Heather Valencia)

Sutzkever and Freydke were rescued from the swamps by a Soviet plane in March 1944. They were brought to Moscow, where he joined the group of Soviet Yiddish writers in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC). Set up by Stalin at the start of the war against Germany, the JAFC rallied Jewish writers and cultural figures to support the Soviet war effort. A few days after the liberation of Vilna by the Red Army on July 13, 1944, Sutzkever returned home and saw for the first time its almost complete destruction.

A few months later, Ilya Ehrenburg, another prominent member of the JAFC, initiated the Black Book project, which set out to document Nazi crimes against the Jewish people. Sutzkever’s contribution to the Black Book was the first version of what would become his book about the Vilna Ghetto. The Black Book was originally intended to be published in three large volumes in 10 languages, edited by Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman (a Soviet Jewish war journalist and novelist), but because of political censorship, the books were never published in the Soviet Union and did not appear in Russia until 1980 (a Yiddish edition was published in Jerusalem in 1984).

Despite the considerable political censorship, Sutzkever created an innovative hybrid genre, his polyvocal work including “war chronicle, memoir, reportage, and eyewitness accounts.” From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony entered the crowded Yiddish book market of eyewitness accounts of German atrocities and Jewish spiritual and armed resistance that appeared in the immediate postwar period. Some of these titles were written by Jewish survivors, and some were edited ghetto diaries recovered by the survivors who returned to their hometowns. The transnational Yiddish cultural network provided the primary readership for the numerous books that appeared in Moscow, Paris, Warsaw, New York, and other postwar centers with considerable Yiddish-speaking populations.

An important historical document, the book’s appearance in English translation was long overdue (it was previously translated into Russian in 2008, German in 2009, French in 2013, and Hebrew in 2016). As Cammy and Novershtern point out in their afterword:

His lyrics and epic poetry written in the ghettos and partisan forests and immediately after the war were real-time Yiddish responses to catastrophe and critical to any serious student of Holocaust literature. It is all the more crucial then to note the difference in register between the memoir’s description of particular events and personalities and their creative reimagination in the author’s poetry.

Sutzkever’s memoir and testimony about the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto and its aftermath is written in a dispassionate tone, with graphic descriptions of German inhumanity in their systematic murder of the Vilna Jews. Absent from the memoirs, however, is Sutzkever’s poetic efforts in the ghetto that, for him, always eclipsed and even transcended his encounter with absolute human evil.

This book is best read in conjunction with recently published translations of Sutzkever’s poetry and fiction, such as Still My Word Sings (2017; trans. Heather Valencia), The Full Pomegranate (2018; trans. Richard Fine), and Essential Prose (2020; trans. Zachary Sholem Berger). Only then does the memoir’s documentation of events and ideologies become infused with what Sutzkever called “eternity pox” — a term he used in a lecture at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal in 1959: “For the poet to achieve his goal, this pox must become active and must infect the reader. In this way his art and the poet himself acquire immunity against oblivion.”

This book is a must-read for any student and scholar of the Holocaust. It is a captivating documentation of life in the Vilna Ghetto, with valuable additional material about the poet’s Nuremberg testimony and encounters with Soviet Yiddish writers. Cammy and Novershtern’s stellar editing and translation make the book an indispensable tool for delineating the complex historical and political contexts of Sutzkever’s poetry during and after the war.


Jan Schwarz is associate professor of Yiddish Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He is the author of Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers (Wisconsin University Press, 2005) and Survivors and Exiles: Yiddish Culture after the Holocaust (Wayne State University Press, 2015; paperback, 2021), and articles and edited volumes about Yiddish, Jewish American, and Scandinavian literatures, Jewish responses to the Holocaust, world literature, and translation studies. He has translated the work of Abraham Sutzkever and Scholem-Aleichem into Danish, and his edited volume of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s early writings is forthcoming in 2023.