In the still-unextinguished history of modern Yiddish literature, the career of Avrom Sutzkever (1913–2010) could serve as material for a latter-day Dayenu. If he had been the most talented and least tendentious member of the interwar Yung Vilne (“Young Vilnius”) group of Yiddish poets, Dayenu. If he had rescued precious artifacts of Vilna’s Jewish culture, then joined the Partisans in armed resistance against the Nazis, Dayenu. If he had devoted superhuman energy and creativity to writing countless poems recording his wartime experience as it happened, Dayenu. If he had testified at the Nuremberg trials about the destruction of Vilna Jewry, Dayenu. If he had settled in Tel Aviv to become, after the establishment of Israel, the state’s most important Yiddish writer, Dayenu. If he had created the most significant postwar journal for Yiddish culture, Di Goldene Keyt (“The Golden Chain”), Dayenu. If in all 141 issues of his journal he continued to publish his own innovative Yiddish poetry and prose, Dayenu. And again, an existential question arises — for the profundity and heroism of Sutzkever’s life and career is inextricable from the pathos of the culture that he came to represent, increasingly, alone. Can poetry, however exquisitely conceived, compensate for the lost infrastructure of a murdered civilization? Dayenu: it will have to do.
In the novella Envy, or Yiddish in America (1969), the Jewish-American author Cynthia Ozick creates a wicked and grotesque parody of the postwar Yiddish literary scene, in which she participated as a translator. The tale depicts a handful of aging and wretched Yiddish writers who obsess over the popular success of one dissolute member of their cadre — nakedly modeled on the future Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer — able to make a decent living and receive the adulation of a wide audience thanks to the translatability of his writing. “If only I had a translator” becomes the story’s refrain, into which these characters heave all of their grievance and jealousy. Sutzkever, by contrast to the petty characters in Ozick’s narrative, lived his long life with unassailable dignity, and his poetry, unlike Singer’s uneven and often repetitive fiction, maintains the highest standards in both form and content. Although his work has been well known to specialists of Jewish literature, and has been translated into English, Hebrew, Polish, and other languages, it is no secret that he longed for a greater audience than fate could provide for him.
As is the case with the recently deceased Amos Oz in Hebrew and Philip Roth in English, Sutzkever’s readers struggle to imagine a world in which his writing could receive its Nobel Prize. If it is too late for such accolades, one can at least take comfort that Sutzkever has at last found his translator. Richard J. Fein’s new anthology, The Full Pomegranate: Poems of Avrom Sutzkever, presents a rich and daring cross-section of Sutzkever’s verse. Together with an out-of-print volume prepared by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav (A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1990), and a more scholarly selection published in Germany by the British translator Heather Valencia (Still My Word Sings, 2018), Fein’s book makes a fraction of Sutzkever’s artistry available to English-language readers. Of these volumes, Fein’s is not only the most accessible, it is also the most original. Taking the subjective premise of one poet responding to another’s writing based not on what is most famous or momentous, but on what is most resonant, relatable, and translatable, Fein crafts a portrait of Sutzkever neither as a historical relic nor as a witness to catastrophe, but as an inexhaustibly accomplished creator of poetry, and a devoted imaginer of a lost world. This, one imagines, is what Sutzkever would have wanted.
The book opens with excerpts from a 36-poem autobiographical cycle titled Siberia, written in the mid-1930s but subsequently revised as part of the author’s first collection of poems, then reworked again as a separate volume, with illustrations by Sutzkever’s friend Marc Chagall — sadly omitted from this translation — in 1952. Sutzkever had lived in Siberia, on the banks of the river Irtysh, when his family fled the violence of World War I and the political uncertainty of its aftermath; his most formative childhood experiences occurred there. Although the title promises to evoke the region of tsarist exile and the Soviet Gulag, the contents of the cycle speak instead of a pantheistic embrace of nature and an ecumenical embrace of the non-Jewish natives among whom Sutzkever came of age. It at once evades the party politics of Sutzkever’s fellow-traveling poetic peers in the Yung Vilne group of the 1930s and, at the same time, subtly rebukes that politics. A unique blend of nature poetry and childhood memories, set in one of the most unlikely geographical settings for Yiddish poetry, Siberia opens the book with Sutzkever’s own process of revision and reconceptualization, which culminates with Fein’s translations.
This task of recreating a lost world from memory — the mission that makes Sutzkever’s postwar poetry so significant to the commemoration of the Holocaust — had already begun years before World War II, when Sutzkever was a neophyte poet in his mid-20s. As the Yiddish literature scholar Justin Cammy notes in his elegant and authoritative introduction to Fein’s volume, Sutzkever’s poetic project not only differs from the work of his Yiddishist peers, but it also makes him a distinctive voice in the history of Israeli literature. “We must not assimilate into Israel,” Cammy quotes Sutzkever as saying, “we must assimilate Israel into ourselves.” Rejecting the solipsist and pathetic fallacies of much Romantic verse, in which the external world is only a projection — or at best a reflection — of the poet’s psyche, Sutzkever embeds the poetic speaker in the environment. What emerges is a poetry uniquely attuned to the relationship between present and past, recovery and loss, Israel and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, it is a poetry in Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazic diaspora, and so rupture remains as vital as reparation, and the sum of Sutzkever’s achievement remains resistant to the fictions of salvation, especially the illusions institutionalized in the new nation and its revived language.
A poem written just before his aliyah, when Sutzkever was residing briefly in Paris, illustrates the subtlety and complexity of his verse:
Fun mirml afn per-lashez
Hot mikh gefangn.
Es iz geven azoy:
Ikh bin gegangn
Mit frishn bintl bez,
Im tsu derlangn
Farvandltn in klangn
of marble in Père Lachaise
It was like this:
I went to Père Lachaise
With a fresh sprig of lilac
for the remains of Chopin
turned into sounds
In transliteration, even a reader otherwise unable to understand Yiddish can appreciate the musicality of Sutzkever’s irregular rhymes, how the French “Père Lachaise” rhymes with the Yiddish bez (lilac), juxtaposing the stasis of the cemetery with the regeneration of nature in bloom. The speaker of the poem presents (derlangn) the flowers to Chopin’s bones, which, like the coral in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or Eliot’s The Waste Land, have transformed into something rich and strange, not Jobian dust but transcendent sounds (klangn). An exchange between life and death becomes, in turn, the source for Chopin’s music and Sutzkever’s poetry. As in every encounter between Sutzkever and the past, whether the memories of Siberia or the imaginings of his murdered friends and family from the Vilna Ghetto, the poet here uses his imagination to establish a connection with the lost world, but also to dispel the fantasy. In his communion with Chopin, a hundred years after the composer’s death and just weeks before Sutzkever’s resettlement in the Land of Israel, the connection between one great Polish artist and another vanishes at the thought of where Sutzkever’s bones might be carried, in contrast with the famous transplantation of Chopin’s preserved heart to Poland in 1850. Sutzkever and Chopin share common spaces — Poland and France — yet what they can’t share is a common home.
Rather than trying to replicate Sutzkever’s superlative talent for Yiddish rhythm and rhyme, Fein opts for fidelity to mood and meaning. This decision triggers, one can suggest, a particular and apt pathos: Fein’s versions not only communicate a generous measure of Sutzkever’s gifts, but also reveal them to be partly ineffable outside of their original language. Perhaps inevitably, one can quibble with individual word choices. In the Père-Lachaise poem, for example, Fein renders the term kalkhovn as “ovens” when a more precise translation would be “furnaces”; in so doing, he gains the contemporary association of “ovens” with gas chambers and crematoria, but sacrifices the Biblical resonances of the original. The title of another poem, “Shvartse yagdes,” refers not to “blackberries” (ozhenes or ozhenitses) but to “blueberries,” particularly for speakers of Sutzkever’s Lithuanian Yiddish dialect. But these are minor complaints. And, of course, one might suggest alternate ways of rendering Sutzkever’s verse, but it’s hard to imagine that the results would be better than what Fein achieves on every page.
As one marvels throughout this volume at Sutzkever’s linguistic resourcefulness, one must contrast his Yiddish with the fate of English in its era of global ubiquity. Yiddish, deprived of many social functions or rationales over the last seven or eight decades, has retained and perhaps intensified its aesthetic potential. English, the most “useful” language in the contemporary world, seems more and more confined by its utility, losing some of its capacity for wonder and revelation. If it is too much to say that poetry can only be written in a technically “useless,” and hence aesthetically liberated, language such as Yiddish, one can at least hope that poetry in English take its inspiration from sources as uncompromising and astonishing as Sutzkever’s verse.
Indeed, the question of what role Yiddish may play in an era when fewer and fewer people speak it is identical to the question of what role poetry may play in a world where people not only don’t read it, but don’t even understand the value of making the effort to do so. It is a question that touches on the fundamental challenge of metaphysics, to understand what value may be assigned to objects, experiences, or sensations that lack material use. This is indistinguishable from the question of what remains beyond physical existence, an imponderable thought made more significant when the individual pondering it is himself a survivor from an otherwise vanished civilization. Sutzkever contemplates these questions in one of his more famous verses, ably translated by Fein:
Mer fun ale shtern azh fun tsofn biz aher,
Blaybn vet der shtern vos er falt in same trer.
Shtendik vet a tropn vayn oykh blaybn in zayn krug.
Ver vet blaybn, Got vet blaybn, iz dir nit genug?
Longer than all the northern stars will last,
the star that falls in a tear will last.
In the jug, a drop of wine will last.
Who will last, what will last? God will last.
Isn’t that enough for you?
The God to be encountered in Sutzkever’s verse is undifferentiated from the stars, the droplets of wine, the tears that remain — not a transcendent deity but an immanent one, omnipresent yet fragile. Is Sutzkever’s God, or Sutzkever’s art, sufficient to the tasks of commemoration, of reconstruction, and of reconciliation between the past and the present? Nu, Dayenu: it will have to do.
Marc Caplan is a native of Louisiana and a graduate of Yale University. In 2003, he earned his PhD in comparative literature from New York University. He is the author of How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms (Stanford University Press, 2011), a comparison of Yiddish and African literatures.