The great Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) wrote poems while confined by the Nazis to the Vilna Ghetto, where he labored tirelessly to preserve Jewish books and manuscripts before escaping to take up arms with local partisans. After World War II, he settled in Israel, where he did much to foster and encourage other Yiddish writers while composing a prodigious poetic legacy of his own. Reviewing a newly published volume of his work, translated into English by Richard Fein, James Nadel writes:
[M]any of the pieces included [by Fein] have never before been rendered into English, but others have appeared in previous collections of Sutzkever’s work. The most prominent poems of the latter category are also those closest to Fein’s heart: the Siberia series from 1952–53, which was originally published in an earlier, longer, and somewhat different form in 1937. The series reflects on Sutzkever’s childhood years when he lived near the steppe city of Omsk. . . .
The poem “Recognition,” [part of this Siberia series], features a young speaker running to the top of a mountain because his father has told him that that is where the world ends. Arriving at the summit, the poet finds not an insurmountable boundary, but a platform from which he can gaze upon an expansive world and his “little dot of a father.” The realization that the world and its natural wonders continue beyond the isolated corner of his family’s cottage transforms the speaker of the poem into an unstoppable force of nature. . . .
Indeed, the scene . . . is transposed from the mountains of Siberia to the deserts of Israel in a previously untranslated poem (“Here I Am Fated to See . . . ”), written 35 years after the original image came into being and nearly twenty years after it was published in the Siberia series. Summiting the cliffs of a wadi, Sutzkever views the landscape through a “tear,” just as he had gazed upon the snow and ice of Siberia. The fire of the wadi reminds him of the “savor” of first snow. He has the same “revelation” that he did as “a child on the mountain” at the “beginning of my beginning.” Realizing the parallels between these two moments, the poet comments, “Someone wants my soul to fall to its knees/ Before it rises brand new in humid mirrors.”
These poems have never before appeared in the same volume, in English or in Yiddish. Read in tandem, they illustrate Sutzkever’s encounter with a new natural landscape to which he can apply his developed poetic sensibility. Past, present, and future mingle in this space. The poet is resurrected, phoenix-like, in fire, but the world around him is a mirror that reflects his frozen memories. The initial image of “discovery” is transmuted into continual and cyclical reinvention.