It is with great sadness that I learned, a few days ago, of the death of the great modernist Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever ז”ל. Sutzkever’s immense talent as writer was matched only by his heroism as a freedom fighter. During WWII, Sutzkever fought as a partisan and famously saved Yiddish documents in Vilna from destruction at the hands of the Nazis, who killed both his mother and his son. After the war, Sutzkever immigrated to Israel, where he became editor of the Israeli Yiddish literary quarterly Di Goldene Keyt.
Sutzkever has never received his proper due among literary audiences, especially Jewish American readers, and if you have never read anything by him, I commend his understated but intensely powerful writing to your attention (yes, go ahead; buy two copies: one for you and one for the Yiddish lover in your life). Here is a poem he penned in 1948, entitled Yiddish:
Shall I start from the beginning?
Shall I, a brother,
Smash all the idols?
Shall I let myself be translated alive?
Shall I plant my tongue
Till it transforms
Into our forefathers’
Raisins and almonds?
What kind of joke
My poetry brother with whiskers,
That soon, my mother tongue will set forever?
A hundred years from now, we still may sit here
On the Jordan, and carry on this argument.
For a question
Gnaws and paws at me:
If he knows exactly in what regions
Levi Yitzhok’s prayer,
To their sunset —
Could he please show me
Where the language will go down?
May be at the Wailing Wall?
If so, I shall come there, come,
Open my mouth,
And like a lion
Garbed in fiery scarlet,
I shall swallow the language as it sets.
And wake all the generations with my roar!