Avraham Sutzkever, one of the most important contemporary Yiddish poets, was born to a poor but educated family on 15 July 1913 in Smorgon (then part of the Russian Empire, today in Belarus). His family settled in Vilna while he was still a child. From early on, Sutzkever wanted to be a poet, and he became involved with 'Yung Vilne' (Young Vilna), a group of aspiring Yiddish writers. His first collection, titled simply Lider (Poems), was published in 1937. With the establishment of the Vilna ghetto, Sutzkever, like the other members of the leftist group, continued his creative work and became one of the ghetto's most celebrated poets. Gradually, through his extensive involvement with the partisans, his writings became more political. A poem written to his murdered newborn, 'The Grave Child', won a ghetto literary prize, and his song 'Unter dayne vayse shtern' (Under your white stars), set to music by Avrom Brudno, was one of the most popular in the ghetto. A friend and fellow survivor from Vilna believes that 'it was Sutzkever whom fate had put into the Vilna ghetto, made him live in hell and come out alive'.
As life in the ghetto grew increasingly difficult and the reality of the Final Solution became harder and harder to deny, the activities of the underground partisans intensified. Sutzkever was involved in many acts of resistance: in the struggle to build weapons to use against their Nazi oppressors, for example, he and some friends stole lead type from a printing house and melted it, 'melting words into bullets of lead. We poured the molten type as our forefathers once in the temple poured oil into golden menorahs'. When the SS demanded the seizure of Jewish books in Vilna, a city famed for its remarkable Jewish library and university, Sutzkever helped to organise the burial of the most important texts, many of which ultimately survived the war. He was also a key figure in smuggling valuable documents from YIVO (Jewish Scientific Institute). After receiving word of the ghetto's impending liquidation, Sutzkever and his wife escaped to Moscow.
Shortly after the war, uneasy with the increasingly hostile climate in Stalinist Russia, the couple left, travelling to France and then on to Israel. It was while in Israel that Sutzkever learned of the Stalinist purges, which cost the lives of many of the Jewish writers and artists who, like him, had barely survived Nazism. He settled in Israel, where he became a central figure in Yiddish culture. In addition to continuing his own writing, he founded a leading Yiddish literary magazine and committed himself to supporting and gathering together surviving Yiddish artists. In the decades after the war, he was reluctant to publish many of his most anguished and despairing ghetto poems. Finally, in 1979, he released a volume of these early writings, though only after much revision. The poet then moved to Tel Aviv, where he established himself as one of the most important figures of post-war Yiddish culture.
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Arad, Y., 1980. Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem: Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority Ktav Pub. House.
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Leftwich, J., 1971. Abraham Sutzkever: partisan poet, New York: T. Yoseloff.
Sutzkever, A., 1981. Burnt pearls: ghetto poems of Abraham Sutzkever., Oakville, Ont: Mosaic Press/ Valley Editions.