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Showing posts with label A Wagon Full of Shoes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label A Wagon Full of Shoes. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Partisans in the Arts: Abraham Sutzkever, Poet (1913-2010)

In 1984, the New York Times declared Abraham Sutzkever, “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.” His poems (which are written in Yiddish and have been translated into 30 languages) possess a subtlety met with powerful imagery, his language stripped down by the directness that comes from witnessing far more horrors of reality in a few years than most do in the span of their lives. Before he was a universally acclaimed figure in poetry, Sutzkever was a renowned poet in Vilna, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania because of its intellectual and cultural development.

Sutzkever, who lost his mother, his newborn son, and his city of Vilna in the occupation, did not give up his fight or his art. He smuggled weapons into the ghetto and composed poems whatever the conditions. Sutzkever even hid in a coffin to write, during which he witnessed the liquidation of a smaller ghetto. These lines were composed here:

I lie in this coffin
The way I would lie
In a suit made of wood,
A bark
Tossed on treacherous waves,
A cradle, an ark.

Sutzkever and a group of intellectual friends, who were known as the “Paper Brigade”, rescued cultural works from destruction by the Nazis. Originally tasked with collecting Jewish cultural documents for the Nazi-created Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, which intended to study the Jewish race after they were annihilated, Sutzkever instead carefully hid the works, including drawings by Chagall and the diaries of Theodore Herzl.

Before the ghetto was liquidated, Sutzkever, his wife, and a few of his friends escaped through sewers. They joined with partisans and fought against the Germans and collaborators until the end of the war. Sutzkever recalls, "conditions for the Jewish partisans in the forest were very difficult. A typical Jewish partisan had to prove himself to the partisan headquarters. They gave these Jews missions that were almost impossible to fulfill in order to test them."

After the war was over, Sutzkever returned to Vilna, resurfaced the precious cultural treasures he had hidden during the occupation, and with these works launched the Museum of Jewish Art and Culture. Sutzkever also testified at the Nuremburg trials (click here to watch a video of the testimony). In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Abraham Sutzkever said: “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

"A Wagon of Shoes”:

The wheels they drag and drag on,

What do they bring, and whose?

They bring along a wagon

Filled with throbbing shoes.

The wagon like a khupa
In evening glow, enchants:

The shoes piled up and heaped up,

Like people in a dance.

A holiday, a wedding?

As dazzling as a ball.

The shoes — familiar, spreading,

I recognize them all.

The heels tap with no malice:

Where do they pull us in?

From ancient Vilna alleys,

They drive us to Berlin.

I must not ask you whose,
My heart, it skips a beat:

Tell me the truth, oh, shoes,

Where disappeared the feet?

The feet of pumps so shoddy,

With buttondrops like dew —
Where is the little body?

Where is the woman too?

All children's shoes — but where

Are all the children's feet?

Why does the bride not wear

Her shoes so bright and neat?

'Mid clogs and children's sandals,

My Mama's shoes I see

On Sabbath, like the candles,

She'd put them on in glee.

The heels tap with no malice:

Where do they pull us in?

From ancient Vilna alleys,

They drive us to Berlin.