Book Review | Making Room for Ghosts

Sutzkever: Essential Prose
By Avrom Sutzkever
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger
Yiddish Book Center/
White Goat Press
282 pp., $28.95

English readers of Yiddish literature in translation—and there are many—have long had access to the poetry of Avrom Sutzkever, whom translator and Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse called “the uncrowned Jewish poet laureate.” His other translators include such eminent figures as Cynthia Ozick, Ruth Whitman and the late Chana Bloch. Just last year, Richard Fein’s comprehensive translation of Full Pomegranate: The Poems of Avrom Sutzkever received glowing accolades. But Sutzkever’s “essential prose,” which could also be called “prose poetry” or “brief narratives,” has slipped by, little noticed. Until now.

Zackary Sholem Berger’s masterful translations in Essential Prose give us a surprising collection. Though many were first published in Di goldene keyt (the golden chain), a Jewish literary magazine Sutzkever founded and edited, this is the first time they appear under one roof.

Sutzkever lived a long and prolific writing life. Born in 1913 in the Russian empire, he died 96 years later in Tel Aviv, his reputation secure as a world poet and the greatest Yiddish writer of the century. He lived through the Holocaust, but unlike many of his fellow survivors, he navigated that catastrophe not by dwelling in the abyss of trauma but by illuminating it from within, thanks to the “Angel of Poetry.”

Sutzkever was not a religious man. His faith was in the sanctity of poetry (including his own) and devotion to the Yiddish language. He even affirmed that it was the “Angel of Poetry” who had spared him from the fate of six million Jews.

“If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live,” he told The New York Times in 1985. “As long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.” For poetry to triumph, he would have to incorporate his horrific memories into his everyday life, to make room for ghosts.

The Holocaust has sometimes been called the “emperor of memory.” And indeed, many survivors struggled to forget. Not Sutzkever. He adopted a radically different view, believing that there is no fixed boundary between the living and the dead—the dead may reside in graves, but that is not where they exist. Their presence persists, like a plum pit that holds within it the seed of future trees.

This all sounds mystical and fantastical, except for Sutzkever’s keen insight into human psychology. Somehow he was able to “digest” horrific memories and transform them into a source of nourishment. Thanks to the dead, the poet lives reinvigorated. He writes in “The Twin,” one of the pieces in this collection, that to live, one has to “breathe death.”

In “Green Aquarium,” all the dead live behind its glass barrier. They communicate with us. We carry them around. The poet searches for the “dream of his dream.” He wants to touch her, to read a line from a recent poem he wrote just for her. But she already knows it by heart—because she created it: The dead even give the poet the language of remembrance. In an inventive switch, he wants to thank the dead—for not forgetting us.

Sutzkever is often credited with keeping the Yiddish language alive after the war. But he never gained the readership he deserved.

Likewise, for Sutzkever, time is not linear, but fluid. Just as the dead and the living coexist, so do the present and the past. Sutzkever was able to live an everyday life because he made space for ghosts of the past. Indeed, he lived in a cosmic third space that straddles this world and the next, a space that conflates location and identity.

Sutzkever had an imagination on steroids, perhaps because he had lived so many
lives—from a small town in what is now Belarus, to a childhood in Siberia, to Vilna (the “Jerusalem” of Lithuania) to the Vilna ghetto. By the time the Nazis entered the city in 1941, Sutzkever, not yet 30, had written two books of poetry and was already an established poet in the Yiddish-speaking world.

The following two years in the ghetto were bloody and hellish. Sutzkever’s mother and his newborn son were brutally murdered. He joined the ghetto resistance. Fortunately, the Nazis assigned him to serve in the “paper brigade,” which was ordered to sort through Jewish cultural artifacts to be sent back to Germany. Instead, he salvaged invaluable treasures and buried them, to be unearthed after the war.

When liquidation of the ghetto was imminent, Sutzkever and his wife fled through sewers to the nearby woods, fought as partisans, were airlifted to Moscow, testified at the Nuremberg trials on behalf of the Jews of Lithuania and eventually landed in Palestine a year before the creation of the State of Israel. Not long after, he founded Di goldene keyt, which became the preeminent Yiddish publication in the world.

Sutzkever is often credited with keeping the Yiddish language alive after the war. But he never gained the recognition or the readership he deserved, perhaps because he continued writing in Yiddish, a “dying” language, a language the Holocaust had nearly wiped out. Most Israelis had a particular antipathy towards the Yiddish language. They viewed ghetto Jews as hapless and helpless, marching like lambs to the slaughter. The new Israeli was strong, aggressive and fearless, and Hebrew, a muscular, guttural language, was the official language. It wasn’t until 1985 that Sutzkever’s own country recognized him by awarding him the prestigious Israel Prize.

Sutzkever was a lifelong poet. But he began publishing these strange, fantastical prose pieces only in 1953, continuing until 1985. What to call these not quite poetry, not quite prose narratives?

Like poetry, the language is highly compressed and rich in metaphor: “Greenness of a cloud with a burst gallbladder” (“Green Aquarium”) or “The sunset stepped out from the earthen hideout in red boots” (“Janina and the Animal”).

As in prose, there are characters—Kishke, Yankel, Hodesl, Tzerne—portrayed not realistically but rather as fairytale or mythic figures. They speak a colloquial, idiosyncratic language. In “The Gravedigger’s Strike,” the gravedigger confesses to speaking “in gravedigger’s slang, my darling. It’s an underworld language, a mix of loshn-koydesh [the ‘holy tongue,’ Hebrew], Yiddish, Arabic and Aramaic. The gravediggers weren’t born in this graveyard. Only the dead…”

Descriptions, lush and earthy, display an extraordinary eye for detail, as with Glikele, the slender redhead “with cute freckles on her pert nose like poppyseed topping” in “The Cleaver’s Daughter.” In “The Woman in the Panama Hat,” “two ravens with open,
blood-red beaks” perch on the tips of two patent leather shoes.

The most frequent images are of snow and fire. Sutzkever regarded Siberia as his true home—those remote winter landscapes, needles of ice, crystalline stars—images both menacing and beautiful. In “To the Memory of a Fur Coat,” a wolf,
a “dazzling four-legged knife slashing through the landscape,” appears to be etched on the snow’s blank slate. That blank slate also serves as a source for Sutzkever’s art, “white scraps of paper the color of the moon, with dead end, fragmented lines, like a drunk dancing in the snow.”

Fire, also a recurring image, burns through many of these narratives, bringing back macabre details of Holocaust destruction. In “Janina and the Animal,” a Hans Oberman comes to visit with his wolfhound, foreshadowing the coming Holocaust: “His sharp purple tongue hung out its whole length—a wet, vibrating sickle with teeth underneath.”

Wolves and the pure silence of snow—horror and beauty. They coexist. To Sutzkever, there is only a clear glass barrier between life and death. One may see but not touch. Every person he has ever seen in his entire life is “anointed by death with green existence.” They all swim in the green aquarium in a “kind of silky, airy music.” The Angel of Poetry oversees the creation of the realer than real.

Barbara Goldberg is a poet and translator of eight books of poetry. Her new and selected poems, Breaking & Entering, is forthcoming. She is series editor of the International Editions of the Word Works.

 

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One thought on “Book Review | Making Room for Ghosts

  1. Gerald Lebowitz says:

    When I think of Avrom Sutzkever, I think of Marc Chagall’s paintings, for Sutzkever created a magical world with his words, a world of fantasy more real than one that any literal writer could dream up. Barbara Goldberg perfectly captures the essence of the man who was able to transmute his own tragedies into light for himself and his readers, the same way a flower is able to draw on its soil to become beautiful. Thank you for this review.

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