At the age of two, Avraham Sutzkever, the great Yiddish poet-to-be, was expelled by the Tsar’s army from his native shtetl along with its other Jewish residents. He then spent the next five years in the Siberian city of Omsk until, after his father’s premature death, he left with his mother for Vilna and as a young man joined the city’s Jewish literary scene. Today he is best known for the poems he wrote during the Holocaust and thereafter. But Dara Horn draws attention to his 1936 masterpiece Siberia, narrated by a child who stands in for the author:
Yiddish literature is often caricatured as being either tragic or comic, or both at once; according to the stereotype, Yiddish is not the native language of unironic joy. But Sutzkever, the premier 20th-century Yiddish poet, is the quintessential joyous Jewish artist, and one of his many masterpieces is a poetic cycle about the joy of a childhood spent dashing through the snow. This luminous work is set in the cheeriest, jolliest place you can possibly imagine: Siberia! Welcome to the Yiddish winter wonderland. . . .
Sutzkever doesn’t merely use breathtaking imagery and sound orchestration. Unlike many of his English-language peers, he does all this in metered rhyme, which in Yiddish is utterly hypnotic. . . . To achieve this, Sutzkever stretches the language as far as it will go, verbing nouns as needed and making every word work overtime. The Yiddish word for “sun,” itself a major character in the poem, is identical to the Yiddish word for “son”—a pun Sutzkever employs like a musical variation. Yet this isn’t mere wordplay. Language emphasizes distinctions: people versus nature, for instance. But for Sutzkever, people are nature. . . .
When [his] father dies, . . . [the narrator] runs behind the sled-borne coffin “to catch up with your memory.” The scene is painful, but the many chases that surround it—after the sun, after music, after a melting river—suggest an awe that includes yearning as part of its power. Two stanzas later, when the speaker praises a snowman (“monument to childhood, guardian/ Of a cold treasure!”), the happiness he derives from it includes his father’s memory. But that doesn’t diminish its joy: the poem builds around that memory, art trapping time in imagination’s ice. . . .
Sutzkever’s Siberia is pure joy, deepened by sorrow but untouched by irony. And the Holocaust neither created nor destroyed this joyous artist’s work. Here already are the themes of time stopping, the eternally present past, and the ongoing possibility of wonder, painful and joyful and triumphant [that one finds in his later work]. The live wire of imagination races through the poet’s awful, wonderful life, as tortured and inspired and indestructible as the Jews—neither innocent nor ironic, but abidingly true: a joy to the world.