The current issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review, a literary journal from Arizona State University, features poetry by Avrom Sutzkever (1913-2010), introduced and translated by Miri Koral. And luckily for us, this material is available online.
As Koral writes:
“The Yiddish poet and writer Avrom Sutzkever is considered to be the greatest Yiddish poet of modern times, and the greatest post-War Jewish poet. He was born in the town of Smorgon, Lithuania in 1913, near the city of Vilnius (Vilna). Vilna, the venerable center of a great flowering of Jewish cultural and intellectual life, became his enduring spiritual and creative home. Already prior to WW II, he enjoyed a well-established reputation as a member of the literary group Yung Vilna (Young Vilna).
The body of work that he then produced under hellish circumstances in the Vilna Ghetto is both rigorous lyrical poetry as well as a magnificent artistic witnessing of the systematic destruction of Jewish Vilna. During this period, at risk of death, he was instrumental in rescuing many rare Jewish books and manuscripts that were otherwise destined for nefarious ends by the Nazis. In 1943 he escaped to the partisans and then to Moscow, subsequently serving as a witness at the Nuremberg trials.
In 1947, he emigrated to Israel, where he continued his efforts to safeguard what remained of Yiddish language and culture. He founded the literary group of Yiddish writers, Yung Yisroel (Young Israel), as well as Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain), the leading Yiddish literary journal, which he edited from 1949 to 1995. Sutzkever was awarded the Israel Prize in 1985, the only Yiddish poet to have received this honor. His good friend Marc Chagall was also an illustrator of Sutzkever’s poetry.
In addition to undertaking to memorialize through his oeuvre both the glories and devastations of Jewish Vilna, his many published works address a wide array of themes, including life in Israel, metaphysical and artistic inquiries, and lyrical celebrations of the natural world.
Sutzkever’s poetry in general is a challenge to translate well because of its often extraordinary musicality (sounds and cadences) and multifaceted concepts dealing with spirituality, creativity, and the ephemerality of human experience. He also is known for enriching the language of his poems with words that he coined and with those no longer in use from Old Yiddish. In other words, much of this uniqueness inherent in the original cannot help but be lost in translation. In spite of these translating challenges, English translations of Sutzkever’s poetry can be found in numerous anthologies, collected works, and in The New Yorker.
The two Sutzkever poems translated here were written in the Vilna Ghetto and have the challenge less of complex language than of keeping some of the rhythm and rhyme of the original while adhering as much as possible to the poems’ exact wording and compact power in depicting acts of spiritual resistance in inhumane situations.”
To read the two poems, “A Little Flower” and “Scorched Pearls,” please click here.