Translator's Notes: From Epitaphs
I’ve attempted to translate a section of Abraham Sutzkever’s “Epitaphs,” written in 1943–44, when a European Jewish poet did not have the luxury of “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Sutzkever’s experience of the Holocaust (six weeks in a crawl space beneath a tin roof in the Vilna ghetto; digging his own grave in the hills, where shots were amazingly fired over his head, fighting with partisans in German-occupied swamps and forests) was such that he served as a witness at the Nuremberg trials. Before the war, Sutzkever was dismissed as an aesthete by the politically engaged Yiddish poets of Vilna. As it turned out, it was his great aesthetic sensibility that ultimately enabled him to produce poems of such extraordinary power about the horror that befell his universe. He understood that it was the telling detail—not rhetoric and vast numbers—that would resonate, that the fate of one distinct individual would enable us to understand that we will never grasp the magnitude of what we’ve lost. He is something rarer than one of the world’s great living poets: he is a great living Yiddish poet.
And to be a Yiddish poet in the twenty-first century—when Yiddish is barely spoken, much less read—is an act of extraordinary persistence, preservation, and faith. Living in Israel, Sutzkever might have become a major Hebrew poet, like his fellow Vilna partisan, Abba Kovner; indeed, some of his earliest poems were written in Hebrew. But Sutzkever has chosen to express himself in the language that is the unique repository of a lost way of living, a particular, soon to be extinct, intimacy.
And surely it was only in Yiddish that he might describe his mother mourning, for twenty years, the early death of her favorite, brilliant, precocious daughter (who wore a “purple coat/with... red lining” worthy of Joseph) in his great poem, “My Sister Ethel”: until “Berlin took pity on her... and quickly shot my mother’s tears.” And only Yiddish could have conveyed his own post-war fate. He slips it in at the end of his poem, “Shabbazi,” about a seventeenth-century Yemenite Jewish poet said to have arrived in the Holy Land with “three hundred donkeys loaded with poems”: “And my donkeys,/ Not so stubborn./Did not get here with my songs.”