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Avrom Sutzkever. Resisting evil with poetry

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

by: Svetlana Pakhomova



Avrom Sutzkever (1913 – 2010) was a modernist Yiddish poet from Vilna, who had a lot of suffering and no less talent to reflect what he experienced in his poems.


"Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever” (2018) (Dvash Shachor, Shirat Chayav shel Avraham Sutzkever) is a poetic cinema utterance about the unique fate of not only a particular person, but also of a particular language - Yiddish.


In 1947, Sutzkever ended up in Israel, and despite the bias of the authorities and readers towards the main instrument of his work, he continues to write in Yiddish as if nothing had happened.

Director Uri Barbash, who shot "Black Honey", shows us a poet who, wherever he found himself - be it Omsk, Vilna or Tel Aviv - appropriated this space through rhyme, and proclaims poetry the highest form of being.


It may seem that there is nothing more predictable than a biographical documentary. Outstanding personality, testimonies of relatives, colleagues, if they are still alive. If not, then you can get by with the assurances of experts in the merits and talents of the hero. The voice-over will dramatically read fragments of memoirs of contemporaries or pages from diaries. A little chronicle, beautiful modern shots of the places where the main events from N's life took place. A scheme worked out not even for years, but for decades. However, one of the variables of success can never be fully calculated: what will breathe real life, feelings, passion and, of course, pain into this ideal algorithm of actions? " Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever " is a work that overcomes the banalities of a standard documentary without abandoning all of its essential components.


Israeli director Uri Barbash does not limit himself to telling about the poet's life or his place in Jewish literature. It gives the viewer the opportunity to hear Sutzkever's poetry, to get in touch with the author's transcendent experience for a moment.

The poetic texts in the film are read out by experts in Yiddish literature – from Professor Ruth Wisse to literary critic Dan Miron, Israeli actors - Gila Almagor and Keren Dror, and, of course, Sutzkever himself (recorded) is heard. Yiddish originals and Hebrew translations, transpositions of Sutzkever's poems to music, and even a graphic representation of Yiddish, the letters of which fill the frame at times. The language in the film takes on flesh and blood, becoming an equivalent hero of the story.


The poet's granddaughter, Israeli theater and film actress Hadas Calderon, worked on the film. She, her mother (Sutzkever's eldest daughter Rina), as well as his youngest daughter Mira will appear on the screen and will talk about Sutzkever and his wife Freydka, with whom he was first in the ghetto, and then fell to the partisans.


There are a lot of chronicles in the film – pre-war shots of the "Lithuanian Jerusalem", Vilna, filled with crowds of people. However, today's Vilnius interests Barbash no less. The city in the film does not turn into a ghost, but continues to live, preserving the memory of what happened on its streets and in its houses.

An important place is occupied by the filming of the Nuremberg trial, at which Sutzkever testified from the Soviet Union about the extermination of Jews in the territories occupied by the Germans. Moreover, he had to speak in Russian, although he really wanted to testify in his native Yiddish. He wasn't allowed to, but he did it anyway. Not in Nuremberg, but in his poems.


The film is filled with many photographs in which one of the most handsome Yiddish poets of the twentieth century, Avrom Sutzkever, is captured at various moments of his turbulent biography. Here he is in the poetic group "Jung Vilne", which he joined at the very end of the 1920s. It was a socially and politically active organization, where the talent of the young poet was appreciated, but they were endlessly perplexed about his fascination with the beauty and wisdom of nature. The fact is that shortly after the birth of little Avrom, the Sutzkever family, fleeing from the First World War, ended up in Siberia.


This childhood experience contrasted sharply with the urban lifestyle of Vilna, where Sutzkever returned with his mother, sister and brother two years after his father's death.

The acute susceptibility of Sutzkever's poetry to natural phenomena and the elements, its emphasized apoliticality and the swing towards universality of utterance, on the one hand, singled out the young poet, and on the other, irritated some of his colleagues and readers. Instead of the claustrophobic space of the shtetl, the Siberian expanse was felt in Sutzkever's poems, instead of national tasks and aspirations, the author's broad and almost cosmopolitan view, in which the Jewish did not contradict, but existed on an equal footing with the world.


The successful start of Sutzkever's literary career was interrupted by the war. Being in the Vilna ghetto, he wrote poems almost

every day, turning them into a kind of

analogue of diary entries. Neither before nor

after the ghetto would Sutzkever date

his works so carefully.


In the ghetto, Sutzkever falls into the so-called "paper brigade", whose members go to the Vilnius University Library every day to sort manuscripts, books and works of art. The most valuable items will be sent to Germany, and the rest - to incinerators or recycling in paper mills. Historian David Fishman called it "Jewish culture's Auschwitz".

However, the members of the "paper brigade" decided to resist the complete disappearance of the Jewish heritage. They took out of the university everything they could hide under their clothes or smuggle into the ghetto unnoticed. Sutzkever found an opportunity to hide some of the materials without leaving the University. Over time, the brigade formed nine large caches, most of which were identified after the war.



Sutzkever helped the brigade until 1943, and in September he left with his comrades to join the partisans just a few days before the final destraction of the ghetto. Probably one of the most striking stories in "Black Honey" is connected with the passage of Sutzkever through a minefield. He trusted the "inner nigun", the poetic rhythm that helped him overcome the mortal danger. It can be said that poetry saved Sutzkever twice. His poem "Kol nidrey" came to the Soviet Union, to the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, who ensured that Sutzkever was transported to Moscow in 1944, and then provided him with the opportunity to speak at the Nuremberg trials in 1946.


But how did the Yiddish poet from Vilna deserve such attention from the Soviet authorities and the literary elite? Firstly, his poetry captured the subjective experience of the victims, which turned out to be significant not only in the artistic dimension, but also in a purely legal one - all at the same Nuremberg trial. Ehrenburg, who had so significantly participated in the poet's fate, clearly felt a certain similarity in the literary and moral goals of their work. Ehrenburg actively participated in the preparation of " The Black Book of Soviet Jewry" - a collection of documents and personal testimonies of the Holocaust in the territories occupied by the Germans. Although the compilers of "The Black Book" focused on the authenticity of the evidence, the texts included there underwent literary processing and censorship.


In a way, "The Black Book" has become a literary testimony to the Jewish tragedy. Sutzkever also carried out poetic witnessing. In his poems, he captured life in the ghetto, unmistakably selecting images and plots that could convey to readers a grain of the everyday life of the hell that the Jews went through. He sought to combine art and testimony so that the former would not allow the latter to dissolve.

However, Barbash's film ends with Ruth Wisse's recollection of how once, in a conversation with Sutzkever, she practically pissed him off by asking about the reasons that forced those who had already fled the ghetto to return there again.


This sudden emotional outburst and Sutzkever's slips demonstrate to us the impossibility of a complete reconstruction of his experience and the limitations of any evidence. All that remains for us are words born from the past, from grief, from hope, from typographic matrices and even from bullets. The main thing is that there are those who could read them.


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