A New Film Tells the Story of the Heroic Poet-Turned-Guerrilla Avraham Sutzkever

Born in a Russian shtetl in 1913, the great Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever was among the thousands of Jews confined to the Vilna ghetto by the Nazis in 1941. There he was involved in a massive effort to preserve Jewish books and documents, as well as in the underground resistance; in 1943 he escaped to the forests to join the partisans. After the war he emigrated to Israel, via the Soviet Union, and continued to write poetry until his death in 2010 while devoting enormous energy to preserving Yiddish literary culture. The recent documentary film Black Honey tells his life story. In her review, Dara Horn describes two of its most poignant moments:

In 1948, Sutzkever sought funding for [his Yiddish literary journal, Di goldene keyt] from the Histadrut, the central labor union that at the time held Israel’s greatest political clout. [In the film, the Israeli Yiddish scholar Avraham] Novershtern recounts how, in the midst of Israel’s war for independence, Sutzkever came to petition Yosef Sprinzak, the head of the Histadrut, about supporting his Yiddish journal—without realizing that Sprinzak’s son had fallen in battle only days before. It is at this point that Novershtern cries onscreen.

I don’t pretend to know exactly why this story was so resonant for Novershtern, though in a country where nearly everyone’s children serve in the military, one can guess. But there is a deeper emotional significance to this incident in Sutzkever’s life, and in the life of the people of Israel, that is in perfect keeping with Novershtern’s emotions. At that moment Sutzkever and Sprinzak had something profound in common: they were both fathers of martyrs, both struggling to build something that could somehow redeem, however slightly, those horrific losses. Sprinzak’s boy died fighting to save Sutzkever’s daughters, and he succeeded; in that sense he was not merely a martyr but a superhero. Sutzkever’s [son, murdered by the Nazis as an infant] could only become a poem. His father was fighting for that poem. Sprinzak said yes.

[Another] moment of tears in the film comes from the Harvard professor emerita Ruth R. Wisse, though hers are suppressed enough to be plausibly deniable. She describes an encounter with Sutzkever at a conference when she was a young woman, honored to have the opportunity for casual conversation with the literary giant. All went well, she recalls, until she asked him an innocent question about a detail in a story he was recounting from the war. Sutzkever roared at her, “Vos veystu fun di tsapeldike rukzek?” “What do you know of the quivering knapsacks?” Wisse then explains what he meant: Jewish mothers in the ghetto, left with no options, smuggled their living infants out of their homes in order to abandon them to die. . . .

What do we know, indeed, of the tsapeldike rukzek? Thankfully, nothing—and one of the foundational purposes of the state of Israel is the assurance that this knowledge can be safely forgotten.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Avraham Sutzkever, Holocaust, Poetry, Vilna, Yiddish literature

By Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan, the U.S. Has Freed Israel from “Land for Peace”

March 25 2019

In the 52 years since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, there have been multiple efforts to negotiate their return in exchange for Damascus ending its continuous war against the Jewish state. Shmuel Rosner argues that, with his announcement on Thursday acknowledging the legitimacy of Jerusalem’s claim to the Golan, Donald Trump has finally decoupled territorial concessions from peacemaking:

[With] the takeover of much of Syria by Iran and its proxies, . . . Israel had no choice but to give up on the idea of withdrawing from the Golan Heights. But this reality involves a complete overhaul of the way the international community thinks not just about the Golan Heights but also about all of the lands Israel occupied in 1967. . . .

Withdrawal worked for Israel once, in 1979, when it signed a peace agreement with Egypt and left the Sinai Peninsula, which had also been occupied in 1967. But that also set a problematic precedent. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt insisted that Israel hand back the entire peninsula to the last inch. Israel decided that the reward was worth the price, as a major Arab country agreed to break with other Arab states and accept Israel’s legitimacy.

But there was a hidden, unanticipated cost: Israel’s adversaries, in future negotiations, would demand the same kind of compensation. The 1967 line—what Israel controlled before the war—became the starting point for all Arab countries, including Syria. It became a sacred formula, worshiped by the international community.

What President Trump is doing extends far beyond the ability of Israel to control the Golan Heights, to settle it, and to invest in it. The American president is setting the clock back to before the peace deal with Egypt, to a time when Israel could argue that the reward for peace is peace—not land. Syria, of course, is unlikely to accept this. At least not in the short term. But maybe someday, a Syrian leader will come along who doesn’t entertain the thought that Israel might agree to return to the pre-1967 line and who will accept a different formula for achieving peace.

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More about: Donald Trump, Golan Heights, Israel & Zionis, Peace Process, Sinai Peninsula, Syria