Abraham Sutzkever

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Abraham Sutzkever, 1950

Abraham Sutzkever (Yiddish: אַבֿרהם סוצקעווער — Avrom Sutskever; Hebrew: אברהם סוצקבר‎; July 15, 1913 – January 20, 2010) was an acclaimed Yiddish poet.[1] The New York Times wrote that Sutzkever was "the greatest poet of the Holocaust."[2]


Abraham (Avrom) Sutzkever was born on July 15, 1913, in Smorgon, Vilna Governorate, Russian Empire, now Smarhon’, Belarus. During World War I, his family moved to Omsk, Siberia, where his father, Hertz Sutzkever, died. In 1921, his mother, Rayne (née Fainberg), moved the family to Vilnius, where Sutzkever attended cheder.

Sutzkever attended the Polish Jewish high school Herzliah, audited university classes in Polish literature, and was introduced by a friend to Russian poetry. His earliest poems were written in Hebrew.[3]

In 1930 Sutzkever joined the Jewish scouting organization, Bin ("Bee"), in whose magazine he published his first piece. There he also met with wife Freydke. In 1933, he became part of the writers’ and artists’ group Yung-Vilne, along with fellow poets Shmerke Kaczerginski, Chaim Grade, and Leyzer Volf.[4]

He married Freydke in 1939, a day before the start of World War II.[5]

In 1941, following the Nazi occupation of Vilnius, Sutzkever and his wife were sent to the Vilna Ghetto. Sutzkever and his friends hid a diary by Theodor Herzl, drawings by Marc Chagall and Alexander Bogen, and other treasured works behind plaster and brick walls in the ghetto.[4] His mother and newborn son were murdered by the Nazis.[4] On September 12, 1943, he and his wife escaped to the forests, and together with fellow Yiddish poet Shmerke Kaczerginski, he fought the occupying forces as a partisan.[6] Sutzkever joined a Jewish unit and was smuggled into the Soviet Union.[4]

Sutzkever's 1943 narrative poem, Kol Nidre, reached the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow, whose members included Ilya Ehrenburg and Solomon Mikhoels, as well as the exiled future president of Soviet Lithuania, Justas Paleckis. They implored the Kremlin to rescue him. So an aircraft located Sutzkever and Freydke in March 1944, and flew them to Moscow, where their daughter, Rina, was born.[7]

Sutzkever testifies before the International Military Tribunal, 27 February 1946

In February 1946, he was called up as a witness at the Nuremberg trials, testifying against Franz Murer, the murderer of his mother and son. After a brief sojourn in Poland and Paris, he emigrated to Mandatory Palestine, arriving in Tel Aviv in 1947.[7]

In 1947, his family arrived in Tel Aviv. Within two years Sutzkever founded Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain)"[7]

Sutzkever was a keen traveller, touring South American jungles and African savannahs, where the sight of elephants and the song of a Basotho chief inspired more Yiddish verse.[7]

Belatedly, in 1985 Sutzkever became the first Yiddish writer to win the prestigious Israel Prize for his literature. An English compendium appeared in 1991.[7]

Freydke died in 2003. Rina and another daughter, Mira, survive him, along with two grandchildren.[7]

Abraham Sutzkever died on January 20, 2010, in Tel Aviv at the age of 96.[8][9]

Literary career[edit]

Sutzkever wrote poetry from an early age, initially in Hebrew. He published his first poem in Bin, the Jewish scouts magazine. Sutzkever was among the Modernist writers and artists of the Yung Vilne ("Young Vilna") group in the early 1930s. In 1937, his first volume of Yiddish poetry, Lider (Songs), was published by the Yiddish PEN International Club;[4] a second, Valdiks (Of the Forest; 1940), appeared after he moved from Warsaw, during the interval of Lithuanian autonomy.[3]

In Moscow, he wrote a chronicle of his experiences in the Vilna ghetto (Fun vilner geto,1946), a poetry collection Lider fun geto (1946; “Songs from the Ghetto”) and began Geheymshtot ("Secret City",1948), an epic poem about Jews hiding in the sewers of Vilna.[4][10]


  • Di festung (1945; “The Fortress”)
  • About a Herring (1946)[11][12]
  • Yidishe gas (1948; “Jewish Street”)
  • Sibir (1953; "Siberia")
  • In midber Sinai (1957; "In the Sinai Desert")
  • Di fidlroyz (1974; "The Fiddle Rose: Poems 1970–1972")
  • Griner akvaryum (1975; “Green Aquarium”)
  • Fun alte un yunge ksav-yadn (1982; "Laughter Beneath the Forest: Poems from Old and New Manuscripts")[10]

In 1949, Sutzkever founded the yiddish literary quarterly Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), Israel's only Yiddish literary quarterly, which he edited until its demise in 1995. Sutzkever resuscitated the careers of Yiddish writers from Europe, the Americas, the Soviet Union and Israel. Official Zionism, however, dismissed Yiddish as a defeatist diaspora argot. "They will not uproot my tongue," he retorted. "I shall wake all generations with my roar."[7]

Sutzkever's poetry was translated into Hebrew by Nathan Alterman, Avraham Shlonsky and Leah Goldberg. In the 1930s, his work was translated into Russian by Boris Pasternak.[13]

Works in English translation[edit]

  • Siberia: A Poem, translated by Jacob Sonntag in 1961, part of the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works.[14]
  • Burnt Pearls : Ghetto Poems of Abraham Sutzkever, translated from the Yiddish by Seymour Mayne; introduction by Ruth R. Wisse. Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic Press, 1981. ISBN 0-88962-142-X
  • The Fiddle Rose: Poems, 1970-1972, Abraham Sutzkever; selected and translated by Ruth Whitman; drawings by Marc Chagall; introduction by Ruth R. Wisse. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-8143-2001-5
  • A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, translated from the Yiddish by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav; with an introduction by Benjamin Harshav. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. ISBN 0-520-06539-5
  • Laughter Beneath the Forest : Poems from Old and Recent Manuscripts by Abraham Sutzkever; translated from the Yiddish by Barnett Zumoff; with an introductory essay by Emanuel S. Goldsmith. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing, 1996. ISBN 0-88125-555-6

Awards and recognition[edit]

  • In 1969, Surzkever was awarded the Itzik Manger Prize for Yiddish literature.[15]
  • In 1985, Sutzkever was awarded the Israel Prize for Yiddish literature.[16] Sutkever's poems have been translated into 30 languages.[17]



  • "The Twin-Sisters" - "Der Tsvilingl", music by Daniel Galay, text by Avrum Sutzkever. Narrator (Yiddish) Michael Ben-Avraham, The Israeli String Quartet for Contemporary Music (Violin, Viola, Cello), percussion, piano. First performance: Tel-Aviv 2/10/2003 on the 90th birthday of Avrum Sutzkever.
  • "The Seed of Dream",[18] music by Lori Laitman,[19] based on poems by Abraham Sutzkever as translated by C.K. Williams and Leonard Wolf. Commissioned by The Music of Remembrance[20] organization in Seattle. First performed in May 2005 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle by baritone Erich Parce, pianist Mina Miller, and cellist Amos Yang. Recent performance on January 28, 2008, by the Chamber Music Society of Southwest Florida[21] by mezzo-soprano Janelle McCoy,[22] cellist Adam Satinsky[23] and pianist Bella Gutshtein of the Russian Music Salon.
  • Sutzkever's poem "Poezye" was set to music by composer Alex Weiser as a part of his song cycle "and all the days were purple."[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Poetry of Abraham Sutzkever: The Vilno poet, reading in Yiddish" (product blurb for CD, Folkways Records). The Yiddish Voice store. yiddishstore.com. Archived from the original on March 23, 2006.
  2. ^ Cohen, Arthur A. (17 June 1984). "God the Implausible Kinsman". The New York Times (review of David G. Roskies, Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture). Retrieved 2010-04-02.
  3. ^ a b "YIVO | Sutzkever, Avrom". www.yivoencyclopedia.org. Retrieved 2018-02-08.
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Avrom Sutzkever". Daily Telegraph (obituary). telegraph.co.uk. February 16, 2010. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  5. ^ "Abraham Sutzkever". Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  6. ^ "UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004". Escholarship.org. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Abraham Sutzkever Last great Yiddish poet and a defender of his language". The Guardian.
  8. ^ Berger, Joseph (January 23, 2010). "Abraham Sutzkever, 96, Jewish Poet and Partisan, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-10.
  9. ^ "Poet and Partisan Avrom Sutzkever Dies". The Forward. January 20, 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-10.
  10. ^ a b Zucker, Sheva. "Avrom Sutzkever Israeli Writer". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  11. ^ thecjnadmin (2009-11-05). "Remembering the untold stories". The Canadian Jewish News. Retrieved 2019-04-12.
  12. ^ Muller, Adam (2010-12-24). "Writing the Holocaust for Children: On the Representation of Unimaginable Atrocity". Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures. 2 (2): 147–164. doi:10.1353/jeu.2010.0033. ISSN 1920-261X. S2CID 190694146.
  13. ^ Mer, Benny (January 22, 2010). "Abraham Sutzkever, 1913-2017". Haaretz. haaretz.com. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  14. ^ "Siberia: A Poem". Unesco.org. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  15. ^ Kerbel, Sorrel, ed. (2004), "Abraham Sutzkever", The Routledge Encyclopedia of Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century, Routledge, ISBN 9781135456061
  16. ^ "Israel Prize Official Site - Recipients in 1985 (in Hebrew)".
  17. ^ Sela, Maya (January 28, 2010). "An ambassador of the Yiddish language". Haaretz. haaretz.com. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  18. ^ "Chamber Music Society of Southwest Florida Presents Works by Lori Laitman". Chamber Music Society of Southwest Florida. Archived from the original on 2008-10-11.
  19. ^ artsongs.com
  20. ^ "musicofremembrance.org". musicofremembrance.org. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  21. ^ "chambersociety.org". chambersociety.org. Archived from the original on 2013-05-29. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  22. ^ Vertex Media. "janellemccoy.com". janellemccoy.com. Archived from the original on 2013-06-09. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  23. ^ [1] Archived December 12, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Weiser, Alex. "Work Description". Official Website. Retrieved 6 May 2018.

Further reading[edit]

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