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.