Abraham Sutzkever

There’s a song that plays in my head whenever I learn that one of my heroes has died.
“They are falling all around me/the strongest leaves on my tree.
Every paper brings the news that/the teachers of my life are moving on.”–Bernice Johnson Reagon

Abraham Sutzgever died at the age of 96 on January 20. Considering that he risked his life to save Jewish culture from the Nazis, that’s pretty remarkable. Sutzgever was a member of the Paper Brigade, a group of Jewish intellectuals in Vilna, Lithuania who defied the Nazis by saving and hiding Jewish cultural artifacts from Eastern Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish archive, YIVO. At the same time, he continued to write poetry.

“If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1985 while reminiscing over a glass of French cognac. “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

Sutzkever lived from the founding of the State of Israel until his death in Tel Aviv, editing a Yiddish literary magazine there until 1995. Even though the push in Israeli culture was to forget Yiddish and to teach Hebrew only, Sutzkever kept Yiddish literature and its values alive.

I had missed the initial news of Sutzkever’s death and didn’t understand why  one of my favorite bloggers had posted one of his poems in Yiddish out of the blue. She blogs in Yiddish a lot–I do my best to keep up. We in the succeeding generations continue to take seriously Yiddish speakers’ legacy of courage and creativity. As I researched this post, I found a 21-year-old Youtube user called Ikhveysnit–it means, “I don’t know”–who has been recording the poems of Sutzkever and other Yiddish poets of his generation.

I also found this video–Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, who has also done a lot to keep Yiddish alive, singing a song based on one of Sutzkever’s poems, Unter Dayn Vayse Shtern. The video is Chagall paintings, which is appropriate as Sutzkever saved some of Chagall’s paintings from the Nazis.

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