Archives for posts with tag: Avrom Sutzkever

I have been translating the prose poetry/symbolic fiction pieces of Avrom Sutzkever, and a new translation of mine, “The Cleaver’s Daughter,” appears today on the Yiddish Book Center’s website. Here’s a taste. Enjoy!

She was my first love, the pockmarked redhead with cute freckles on her pert nose, like a poppy seed topping. I even allowed myself to imagine that she had as many freckles as she was years old, a freckle every year for good luck.

When I made her acquaintance, I counted nine of those presents on her nose. The street where we both grew up panted its way uphill, starting from the Green Bridge over the clay banks of the Vilia, ascending as far as the Sheskin Mountains, where the street became a trail going all the way to Vilkomir. Most kids from my street and even a number of adults called the girl the Cleaver’s Daughter.

Why did she get that name? Why was an orphan labeled that way?

Thanks Charles Rammelkamp for including three poems of mine in the latest issue of The Potomac — one original work, and two translations from Avrom Sutzkever’s Diary Poems. (And don’t forget to check out Carol Berkower‘s lovely verse in the same issue!)

Here’s one of those translations of Sutzkever’s Yiddish:


Explain it? Explain it how?
The sun didn’t turn colder,
but she won’t melt tears
and only childhood gets no older.

Youth, her brother, was trampled
like red grapes in the cellar.
The shadow’s hair turns silver
and only childhood gets no older.

Her snows and her violets
are not to be had for gold.
Her king grows old, as does his kingdom
and only childhood gets no older.

From Diary Poems by Avrom Sutzkever,
translated from the Yiddish

At thirty
Avrom Sutzkever

At thirty my father’s heart gave out
While playing Reb Levi Yitskhok’s melody
On a small fiddle at nightfall –
The fiddle trembled childlike on his shoulder.
And its language, a bright magnet,
Drew the distant world
Into the shadowy hut
Where I, a seven-year-old dreamer,
Wrapped myself around
Fatherly knees.

It was – was – in bright Siberia.
A spot of sun, or the hot tongue
Of the freezing wolf,
Licked the snows on the pane
And couldn’t melt through.
The only light came
From the fragmented sounds
Of the fiddle, sparking in stripes
Against my humid eye.
Suddenly my pale father
Grabbed his heart, jerked, wobbled
With his arm stretched out,
And into my arms his body fell
Together with the fiddle,
As a heavy branch falls
Onto a green wave
And is carried away. . . .

Overhead floated a melody.
Down below, on the floor,
My father’s last breath was failing.
And whether I’m convincing myself it’s true
Or what I say is true:
Lying now eternally joined to a cold silence,
His lips confided in me:
“Thus, my child,
Test the weight of life in your arms
So you become accustomed
To carry it completely, to the end . . .”

Then the poet was born in me.
A kernel slumbered within me
Carrying in its core a certain mission.
I imagined I became the lord
Of forests, people, things.
Whatever I saw
Was my embodied desire.
My father’s last will
Followed me from then on:
“Thus, my child,
Test the weight of life on your arms
So you become accustomed
To carry it completely, to the end . . .”
Now, when I have run up against my father’s age,
Hurried up upon it,
And there’s no way back or forward,
When I notice my face in a mirror,
My distant father
Wells out to me from its waves.
Perhaps I’m him, and my years
Are only a link to his departed life?
The same face as his,
Recollecting snow on windowpanes . . .
The same heart
Which is getting ready to give out,
And just like my father
I also own a little red fiddle:
See, I tear open my veins
And play on them my melody!

But there’s no one here
Whose knees to wrap around,
Weighing out my life,
Dragging on, as with a wind,
My cloud of yearning to a clear destination,
Where all words come to rest,
Where days come together
But never meet.

I clasp in my fist, like a stone,
These thirty years
And hurl them into the cold
Mirror’s chasm.

From Yiddish: Zackary Sholem Berger
[originally published in the journal Passport at the University of Arkansas, which seems to be defunct]

Maybe a law of gravitation was in force here too:

Suddenly I found myself attracted to a strange unknown city. This city wasn’t included in the itinerary of my voyage round the world by air. I didn’t even know its name, or whether such a clime was to be found on Earth at all.

It happened this way:Avrom-Sutzkever-2-420x250

When the airplane slid out of the slanted air onto the silky smooth runway, on its way to kick out some passengers to their connecting flight, glugging itself full of gas, or some other drinkable, en route to another nonstop across the sea — I nonchalantly grabbed my bag and in a daze followed the few passengers off the plane.

Read “A Smile at the End of the World,” this story by Avrom Sutzkever in my translation, thanks to the editors at B O D Y. The original is from his volume Green Aquarium. If you are a publisher who is interested in a fantastic volume of prose poems like this one, be in touch!

“A half moon in black, rimmed in gold.”

An exciting day – In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies is live! Among the first batch of content is my translation of Avrom Sutzkever’s “A Funeral in the Rain,” one of his prose poems (it’s the length of a short story) from the volume “Green Aquarium.” If you don’t know Sutzkever, or know him only as a lyricist, please take a look and let me know what you think.

The seventh window

“The seventh window. Six. Seven. You need to knock seven times to get to Sister Ursula.” Photo credit: Madeleine Cohen.

Best of success to these hardworking academics who are so generous, helpful, and welcoming to literary layfolk. And may Yiddish writing of today find a place in their orrery.

The vivaciously illustrated journal Paper Darts favored me with two great opportunities: first, a blogpost to wax thoughtful about translation, which starts like this:

For years I have been waiting for a happy throng to corner me in the street demanding my translation secrets. That hasn’t happened yet, so I’ll share them here uncoerced. 

If you want to hear those secrets, go read.

The other opportunity: a corner for the continuation of Avrom Sutzkever’s Ode to the Dove in my English translation, with Part IV (here are parts I, II, and III).

Dancer of mine, who are you? Were you given birth by a fiddle?
Under your dance my gardenish body’s dug up with a shovel.
She’s sick, the little one, lunatic in silvery nightshirt. Not rarely
Swimming away in cold plashing worlds while she’s waving.

This is alongside a translation of one of Sutzkever’s Diary Poems from 1974. 

Far is getting closer. After voyages, adventures,
freestyle on a sheet of paper underneath hawk’s shadow,
leave a twin—like day and night—of rhyming lines together
and let them be divided among all your young inheritors.


I started studying Yiddish during high school in Louisville, Ky., at the suggestion of my grumpy, thick-spectacled English teacher, Ms. Donsky. Her pedagogical influence was the palpable though unspoken assumption that I was smart but lazy. The first book I tried to read in the language was an overheated novel by Sholem Asch based on the life of Jesus. Later, in college, while others were having sex, starting million-dollar companies, or freezing atoms in the lab, I kept studying Yiddish literature on my own and began writing poetry.

In 1995, I got a ride from my college campus in Pasadena, Calif., to the UCLA library. I don’t remember what I first came there for, but I do remember the book I eventually picked up off the shelves with its respectable heft and canary yellow color—a literary journal in Yiddish that almost looked current. The words on the cover, I eventually figured out, were “Di Goldene Keyt,” or “The Golden Chain.” I eagerly flipped the pages, but enthusiasm could not redeem my limited fluency, and I put the journal back on the shelf.

I am writing this in a house where the dining room table is flanked by an incomplete, tattered, but multicolored set of that same journal, which has become my Yiddish kotel. Its tale, I found out, is anchored by a few names: Avrom Sutzkever. Mordkhe Schaechter. Baltimore, Md.

Read more in Tablet.

From disintegrated clay nests, from barred windows and contorted doors, burning leaves of holy books gravitate to the sunset—children with their arms stretched out—as if the sun had given birth to them in the synagogue square and they’re fluttering back to their mother. […]

I’m thrilled to be a part of the newest issue of the translation journal Asymptote! Or rather – a vessel to channel Sutzkever. Check out all the other amazing content, especially the Chinese poetry.

Often it’s not clear to me what people mean when they talk about remembering the Holocaust. Any commemoration or attempt at understanding has to take many approaches. Here’s what my reading list (or, for the tradition-minded, seder limud) was for today. (Needless to say, I didn’t get to even a small fraction of it this year.)

Telling the story: Geheymshtot, an epic poem by Abraham Sutzkever. Ruth Wisse says of this poem, and another epic in Sutzkever’s oeuvre:

The enormity of the history to which he bore witness inspired Sutzkever to write epic poems as well as lyrics. The narrative poem Geheymshtot (Secret Town, 1945-47), in several hundred stanzas of amphibrach tetrameter, depicts a symbolic ten survivors who hide in the sewers beneath Vilna. The epic poem Gaystike Erd (Spiritual Soil) commemorates the arrival of Sutzkever with his wife and infant daughter in Eretz Yisrael aboard the ship Patria. In each work, a constellation of dramatic personages represents the human and ideological variety of Jews who share a common fate — the crucible of destruction in the one case, and the reclamation of national sovereignty in the other.

Understanding the events: Among the hundreds of works witnessing the Holocaust that one could spend a lifetime studying, there are two I would like to read sooner rather than later: Togbukh fun Vilner Geto (The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto), by Herman Kruk, a new translation of which is available; and Emanuel Ringelblum‘s Togbukh fun Varshever Geto (Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto).

Prayer: The siddur of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, “Ve’Ani Tefilati,” has an insert for Yom Ha’Shoah. I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree with the theology, but I included it in my davening this year. (The insertion used to be available on the Web, but no longer, it seems. Instead there’s a dvar Torah on the connection between parshes Shemini and Yom Ha’Shoah.) Here’s the text, to be inserted in the berachah “Al ha’tsadikim”:

נחם, ד´ אלוקינו, את עמך ישראל, שארית הפליטה, אוד מוצל מאאש, כי בשבת אבותינו בטח בגלותם קם עליהם שונא אכזר מכל, גוי עז פנים אשר לא ישא פנים לזקן ונער לא יחון. ואמר: “לכו ונכחידם מגוי ולא יזכר שם ישראל עוד.” לבי לבי עם חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם – ומאנה ופשי להנחם. עלי היו כולנה. ועף-על-פי-כן ולמרות הכל, נצח ישראל לא ישקר.

Just as one tells and retells the Exodus from Egypt in many different ways, so must one tell and retell the anti-redemption, the abandonment.

Postscript: It appears that David Roskies’ Nightwords: A Liturgy on the Holocaust is available on-line. I’m not sure why, copyright-wise.

Post-postscript: The Warsaw Ghetto Web site, in Hebrew, is a mass of sobering detail.