RIP great Yiddish poet A.Sutzkever + some remarks from his funeral

The world lost a great poet whose lifespan embraced almost an entire century. Lithuanian-born (we’d like to consider so – he was born in Czarist Russia and lived in Poland, but nonetheless was sort of a part of the culture that thrived in Lithuania at the time) Avrom (Abraham) Sutzkever died on 20 January in Tel Aviv.
Thanks to the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel, I was able to participate in his funeral in Kiryat Shaul.A quick backgrounder on the poet (see a good obituary here and a selection of his translated works here). Avrom Sutzkever was born in Smorgon/Smurgiškiai in 1913. During the WWI his family was thrown into Siberia, the landscapes of which, along with Lithuanian ones, did not fail to inspire the growing artistic genius. Later the family, already without its father, settled in Vilnius, which was a Polish territory at the time. Already in the 1930s Sutzkever, a member of the “Yung Vilne” (Young Vilnius) literary movement, was received as a rising star, and the famous Russian poet Boris Pasternak (I really like his work, so I was impressed to hear this) engaged in translating his works into Russian.

The most famous of Sutzkever’s poems were those written in the Vilna Ghetto, where the poet was imprisoned since 1941. In the ghetto, he took part in active resistance, helped to save some important art works from the Nazis, and wrote over 80 poems. After WWII he migrated to several countries before settling in the pre-independence territory of Israel in 1947, where he saw the establishment of an independent state and lived in the country until his death. He kept writing until very old age, and remained a renowned ‘patriot’ of the Yiddish language despite its marginalised status in Israel.

Today as I attended his funeral, the prevalent bilingualism was quite inspiring. At first the daughter and the son-in-law of the poet made speeches in Hebrew, to be followed by a speech of one academic, who chose to spoke Yiddish. Even the rabbi thanked him in Yiddish after he finished. Two known poets followed suit. At some point the Lithuanian ambassador was asked to speak. It was the first time I actually saw the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel, even though he and his wife, who both happen to be very tall, stood out of the crowd, and I noticed them immediately, because they held a huge funeral wreath. The ambassador repeated that Sutzkever was “a great man”, and that although Lithuania was the land where he suffered, he is remembered as a “great man for Lita” [Hbr. for Lithuania]. In addition, he informed the attendants that the poet was honoured by one-minute silence in the Lithuanian Parliament. Honestly, I don’t think that the ambassador has read anything by him, which is no surprise, as the work of Sutzkever was only published in the almanac “Jewish Museum” in 1994 – 16 years ago. Certainly and unfortunately, Sutzkever’s poetry is not a part of high-school literature curriculum. I bet it was difficult for the ambassador to make a speech about the poet, but nonetheless it was an important gesture and it really impressed the Israelis attending the funeral. Before the couple left, one attendant told them through a translator that it’s a shame Israel didn’t honour the memory of the poet the way Lithuania did. Another attendant argued that a representative of the Tel Aviv municipality did participate, but then a local journalist [apparently] said he was certainly going to write about the fact that nobody came on behalf of the national government of Israel.

The attention given to A.Sutzkever by Lithuanian officials represents Lithuania’s [certainly not unhindered] struggle with the ghosts of its past towards recognition of non-majority-ethnic Lithuanian culture. Importantly, the poet was not only Jewish [and, mind you, a pro-Soviet partisan – the group is subject to tons of prejudice nowadays], but, arguably even more importantly, culturally affiliated with ‘the Polish times’, which are considered a kind of disgrace in Lithuanian history (following a war with Poland after the first independence of Lithuania, and due to international pressure, Vilnius, historically a very mixed and multi-cultural city, became a part of Poland until the Soviets returned it to the fragile state right before WWII. As in every conflict, the narratives of ‘liberation’ and ‘occupation’ are abundant). By the way, apparently, the Polish translations of Sutzkever’s work were made by Czeslaw Milosz, a contested writer and Nobel prize winner, who wrote about the landscapes of Lithuania, but only in Polish.

Although the “Vilnius – European Capital of Culture 2009” project was a major failure, one of its important ideas was reconciling the national narrative with the fact that a large part of the culture of Lithuania was created by its non-majority-ethnic inhabitants, and, surprise surprise, they happen to be more world-famous. Let’s just hope that school textbooks will one day be rewritten accordingly.

Yet apart from the Lithuanian identity project, what I found interesting is the way the poet’s genius allowed the insertion of the rather ‘no-no’ language right here North of Tel Aviv. Yiddish in Israel is spoken in closed religious communities and by elderly immigrants who speak it as their first language. Through quoting the well-known poet, speaking Yiddish suddenly became acceptable for native Israelis, too. This was a shift from Yiddish as a private language, which it is often considered to be, to a public language. According to one professor of Yiddish (not sure if he wants to be quoted), Israelis know more Yiddish than they would admit, but even to such internationally established words as ‘dreydl’ (a spintop used for Hanukkah) they react with a ‘What??’ 🙂

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