Translator’s Note: “The Blade of Grass from Ponar” by Abraham Sutzkever
Between 1941 and 1944, the SS, along with local Lithuanian collaborators, shot roughly seventy thousand to one hundred thousand people, the vast majority of whom were Jews, in large pits at Ponar, the Yiddish name for a suburb roughly six miles outside of Vilna (known today as Vilnius). Most of Vilna’s Jewish population was murdered at Ponar, including Abraham Sutzkever’s own mother.
This quiet suburb, full of forests, had once been a cherished vacation spot, easily accessible to Vilna’s residents, where many of Vilna’s Jews had played as children. Abraham Sutzkever, a lover of nature, who had lived in Vilna from the age of nine and considered the city his hometown, would have felt no differently about Ponar prior to WWII.
Incidentally, another place name proved to be the most difficult part of “The Blade of Grass from Ponar” to translate. The Yiddish word for Lithuania, Lite, corresponds not to the modern state of Lithuania, but roughly to the territory that comprised the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Vilna Sutzkever grew up in was both legally part of Poland and culturally a Polish and Jewish city. It was still known as Di Yerushalayim d’Lite — the Jerusalem of Lithuania — a title it had earned due to the richness of its Jewish religious and cultural life.
In early drafts of this translation, I considered other ways to translate Lite that might better represent its Yiddish meaning, but everything I tried seemed to slow the poem down, whereas the alliteration created by letter and Lithuania gave the first line an essential momentum. In truth, the word Lite has long been an imperfect term — its precise borders can be debated — and Sutzkever very well knew, when he wrote this poem in Israel in 1981, that Vilna was now the capital of the Lithuanian SSR.
Sutzkever once related that, during his time as a partisan, he had managed to cross a minefield by thinking of a melody and treading according to its rhythm. Had I been able to ask his opinion on translating Lite, I’m certain he would have told me to trust my ear.
Maia Evrona’s poems, translations, and excerpts from her memoir on growing up with a chronic illness have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Harpur Palate, Pakn Treger, Ploughshares, and other places.