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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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Figures of Resistance: Bei Dao (born Zhao Zhenkai, 1949)

Bei Dao’s poetry may not appear subversive, however his writings and his involvement in the publication of a literary journal brought dangerous attention to him during China’s Cultural Revolution. Without conceding to governmental pressure, Bei Dao was exiled in 1989.

Bei Dao, whose pseudonym means “Northern Island”, once wrote: “Poets must not exaggerate their own function, but even less should they underrate themselves.” Similarly, Bei’s resistance did not come inherently from his words, but rather from the fact that he unapologetically created and disseminated them despite the threat of persecution. He came of age during the Cultural Revolution and like nearly all youth at that time joined the Red Guard, Mao’s indoctrinated movement - which was oftentimes violent. In 1969, however, Bei Dao’s mindset changed when he saw the so-called idyllic countryside of contemporary propaganda — which, in reality, he found to be backwards and poverty-stricken. His enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution waned; he instead became interested in reading and writing.

While living as a construction worker, Bei met with friends who exchanged their writings. They founded the journal Jintian and took turns posting it around Beijing in broad daylight; they could not do so at night, as they were likely to “disappear”. Bei recalled, “I and two others volunteered to put up the pages, knowing that we were taking great risks in doing this. But the thing that was even more anxiety-inducing was that we didn't know what kind of reception the writing might get!”

According to Bei, the “Misty Poets”, as he and his friends were called, troubled the government with their writing because of the language it used, “which differed greatly from the official language to which people were accustomed.” In addition, the poetry was attacked as being too subjective and promoting individualism. Bei Dao’s writing became popular, especially among Jintian’s core fans: university students.

Bei’s writing was tacked on to the Democracy Movement, which he once apparently supported in the 1976 protests at Tiananmen Square. Over a decade later when the 1989 events of Tiananmen Square occurred, the government exiled Bei who happened to be at a literary conference in Berlin. Months earlier, Dao began a letter project which included thirty-three other signers, asking for the release of political prisoners in China.

As a poet, Bei Dao’s separation from home—and six years separation from his wife and daughter—would not stop him from writing. In Stockholm, he revived Jiantian in reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square events. The journal’s revival gave a voice to other Chinese writers who had been exiled or were unable to publish their work to a Chinese audience. Bei Dao’s writing, even in translation, is brilliant, widely published, and has been repeatedly nominated for a Nobel Prize. Its existence alone is a symbol of resistance against government censorship.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Jewish People Has Lost a Warrior - Joseph Fox (A''H)

By Steve Fox

On January 14, 2012, there is one less Holocaust survivor to tell his story. That was the day that my father, Joseph Fox (A''H) a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, a proud Partisan, loving husband, father and grandfather, passed away at the young age of 89. I say young because he was rarely sick and had his full faculties until the very end. He worked until 3 years ago and he could still talk politics and sports with opinionated authority. Fortunately, his illness was short and he did not suffer very much when he died. This was in stark contrast to his youth when, as a 16 year old, he was forced to participate in forced labor groups building the walls of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto and, after escaping the Ghetto, witnessing death and destruction as he and his family hid from the Nazis.

In September of 1942, while he hid in the forest with his brother and father, the Nazis exterminated all of the Jews of Zdzhilovice, Poland, a small farming village near Lublin – including his mother, sister, and 5 cousins, whose bodies were then buried in a mass grave. I asked him how he felt when they returned to the town shortly thereafter and made the grisly discovery. He told me that they didn’t have time to mourn but had to focus on ways to survive. It seems that G-d wanted my father to survive the war and raise a family, despite many close calls and 2 bullet wounds. He emerged from the war a victor and not a victim, having joined the Stalin Brigade of Russian partisans.

He spent the last 2 years of the war blowing up supply lines and attacking Germans in the difficult terrain of the Carpathian Mountains. He once told me that the first time he had a gun and was chasing a Nazi soldier, it was a revelation to him that the soldier was scared of a Jew and could run and bleed just like anybody else. It was this realization that gave him the strength to continue and fight. Having lost both of his parents and a sister, he and his brothers made their way to the United States after the war, where his uncles were already established in the sewing machine business. After working for them for a number of years, he opened his own sewing machine business in the Garment Center and would help some of the biggest designers in the industry such as Halston, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein and many more set up their first shops in New York. He later private-labeled a line of dress forms, which found their ways into factories, colleges and productions for TV and theater.

Despite being a Holocaust survivor, he was determined to give his family a normal life, devoid of the suffering that he endured as a youth. He did not transfer his scars onto us, but he believed very strongly in educating the next generation about the horrors of the Holocaust so that the world would never forget. To that end, he was a board member of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization (WAGRO) and helped organize New York’s largest Holocaust commemorations for over 40 years. It was at that gathering in April of 2011 that the first of three significant events took place in the final year of his life.

At the commemoration, now organized by the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, our family was chosen to light the first of 6 candles to commemorate the Shoah. In the past, they had only allowed one family member to accompany the survivor, but now our entire family joined him on stage. Three generations stood together to show the fruits of his life in America, despite overwhelming odds. Shortly thereafter, he was called by a fellow survivor in Israel, who informed him of the discovery of the mass grave where members of both their families had been killed. Not feeling up to making a long trip, he sent his children and grandchildren in his stead. My brother and I, along with my son, participated in the ceremony along with the Israeli family, 150 Israeli students in Poland for March of the Living, and government officials and students from the village.

From left to right: a representative of the President of Poland, Steve Fox, The Lasting Memory Foundation founder Zbigniew Nizinski, and Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland.

In essence, we attended the belated funeral for my father’s family – complete with speeches, Kaddish, and Kail Maale Rachamim, read by the chief Rabbi of Poland. At the end, 200 of us sang Hatikvah in this killing field, showing the Nazis that we have indeed been victorious. After 69 years, my father finally got closure from that terrible part of his life.

In November, just 2 months before he died, he was one of 55 partisans honored at a dinner by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. He was very excited to go and felt happy that partisans like him were being recognized for their courage and strength. At the dinner, he commented to actor Ed Asner, who read out the names of the partisans in attendance during the ceremony in their honor, that it wasn’t easy being a partisan – but it was the only way he could survive. At the end of the evening, when they sang the Partisan Hymn, he appeared to stand taller than his 5’7” frame would allow.

Joseph Fox with actor Ed Asner at JPEF's Partisan Tribute Dinner on November 7, 2011 in New York City.

To the outside world, my father was a proud survivor and a successful businessman. To us, he was a loving husband, father, and grandfather whose Chesed quietly extended to family and friends. He was successful, had a great sense of humor, and was a smart, well-rounded person. He was my mentor, my friend, my inspiration, and a role model for me and my children. May his memory be a blessing to all of us and may his heroism and compassion be an inspiration to all of Klal Yisrael.

Steve Fox is the president of Fox Marketing and Video Productions in Teaneck, NJ and Co-chair of the Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration Committee. He can be reached at