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Unwanted Beauty: Avraham Sutzkever's Yiddish poetry and his Nuremberg Testimony

Sun, December 16, 10:00 to 11:30am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Waterfront 3 Ballroom


Between Poetry and Testimony

Confined in the Vilna Ghetto, a member of the brigade hiding and burying valuable documentation of Jewish life in Lithuania for safety, and while in hiding in the forests of Ponar, Avraham Sutzkever transmuted the horror around him into moving Yiddish poetry.

In immediate danger, he composed, ‘Ikh lig in an arun’ (I lie in a coffin), as Nazi soldiers hunted for their prey. The poem ‘Di blayene platn fun roms drukeray’ (The leaden plates of the Rom Press) commemorates the night when members of the Jewish underground broke into the publishing house and recast rows of metal letters, transforming poetry into bullets.

Sutzkever believed that writing kept his spirits up and so saved him during the extreme conditions, and this paper will reference Brett Ashley Kaplan’s theory that beauty may also help us remember, grounding us in the human dimensions of the Holocaust. Moving away from the postwar taboos shaped by Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, the presentation recognizes how attempts to represent horror, even if flawed, can encourage complex forms of memory work.

The poems also saved Sutzkever’s life more literally. Entrusted to an escaping partisan to take to Moscow, they were brought to the attention of the Jewish Anti- Fascist committee and other influential Russian writers. Their content, highlighting the savage decimation of the Lithuanian Jewish community, prompted the airlifting of Sutzkever and his wife from Ponar, by then a mass graveyard.

The poems will also be discussed in contrast to Sutzkever’s 1946 Nuremberg testimony, grounded in dates of events and names of victims and perpetrators, his eye-witness account of the murder of his mother, his baby and members of his community. Focusing on the connections between aesthetics and testimony, my paper offers an appreciation of how both Sutzkever’s written verbal representations serve communal Holocaust memory.


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