Abraham Sutzkever

Smorgon, Russian Empire
Abraham Sutzkever
Smorgon, Russian Empire


Abraham Sutzkever (July 15, 1913 – January 20, 2010) was an acclaimed Yiddish poet. The New York Times wrote that Sutzkever was "the greatest poet of the Holocaust."


Abraham (Avrom) Sutzkever was born on July 15, 1913 in Smorgon, Russian Empire, now Smarhoń, Belarus. During World War I, his family fled eastwards from the German invasion and settled in Omsk, Siberia, where his father, Hertz Sutzkever, died. Three years after the war, his mother, Rayne (née Fainberg), moved the family to Vilna, where Sutzkever attended cheder. In 1930, he joined the Bee Jewish scouting movement. He married Freydke in 1939, a day before World War II. In 1941, he and his wife were sent to the Vilna Ghetto. Ordered by the Nazis to hand over important Jewish manuscripts and artworks for display in an Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, to be based in Frankfurt, Sutzkever and his friends hid a diary by Theodor Herzl, drawings by Marc Chagall and other treasured works behind plaster and brick walls in the ghetto. His mother and newborn son were murdered by the Nazis. On September 12, 1943, he and his wife escaped to the forests, and together with fellow Yiddish poet Shmerke Kaczerginsky he fought the occupying forces as a partisan. Sutzkever joined a Jewish unit under the command of Moshe Judka Rudnitski, and took part in several missions before being smuggled into the Soviet Union. In July 1943, he gave a fellow partisan a notebook of his poems, which reached the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow. In March 1944, a small plane was sent to the Vilna forests to bring Sutzkever and his wife to Russia.

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 immigrated to Mandate Palestine, arriving in Tel Aviv in 1947.

Sutzkever has two daughters, Mira and Rina. He died on January 20, 2010 in Tel Aviv at the age of 96.

Literary career

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, he published his first volume of Yiddish poetry, Lider (Songs).

Sutzkever's second book of poetry, Valdiks ("From the Forest"), was published in 1940. In Moscow, he wrote a chronicle of his experiences in the Vilna ghetto (Fun vilner geto) and began Geheymshtot ("Secret City"), an epic poem about Jews hiding in the sewers of Vilna.

Sutzkever founded the literary quarterly Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain). Paul Glasser of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York called him the most important Jewish poet in the postwar world. He became a public advocate of Yiddish, encouraging Jewish communities around the world not to let the language die.

In the 1970s Sutzkever wrote the series Lider fun togbukh ("Poems from a Diary, 1974–1981"), considered his masterpiece. The theme that runs through much of his work is that destroyed landscapes and societies can be reborn, and the murdered Jews of the ghetto live on in the memories of the survivors.

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.
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