Although he is best known today for his writings in English and French, Elie Wiesel also wrote extensively in Yiddish, and was, in Allan Nadler’s words, one of the language’s “great stylists” of the postwar era. Nadler was thus delighted to discover a forgotten 1969 essay by Wiesel on the poetry of Avrom Sutzkever—who, to the Yiddish-reading world of the time, was the undisputed master of Holocaust-survivor literature, and arguably remains the greatest Yiddish poet of all time. Nadler presents a translation of Wiesel’s essay, a review of Sutzkever’s anthology Lider fun yam ha-moves (“Poems from the Sea of Death”):
So long as the Jewish poet remains alive, he will to his dying breath, indeed with this very last breath, spin ancient and new dreams, chanting their songs, that they might pass to future generations. This, one might say, is the moral lesson of Sutzkever’s Poems from the Sea of Death, recently published by the World Union of Survivors of Bergen-Belsen (1968).
Jewish poets sang not only before the Khurbn, [the traditional Yiddish term for the Shoah], but also from the very heart of the inferno. The malekh-hamoves (Angel of Death) had no dominion over their verse. Sutzkever created transformative works within the Ghetto walls, from deep inside the boneyard; they will certainly endure as an eternal testament about that epoch when Jewish life and Jewish blood had been robbed of all value, when humanity betrayed the Jew and, by doing so, renounced their own humanity.
I have often wondered whether or not poetry is the sole form capable of eternalizing the memory of the Khurbn. Neither dry prose nor pure philosophical speculation have the capacity to capture its mystery. Only poetry is capable of this. And more: Sutzkever’s work is also essential as a documentary. It portrays that Sea of Death as it was in fact experienced. One who reads Sutzkever’s verse assumes anew the burden of the Khurbn, “seeking the shofar of the messiah in its bloodied blades of grass and incinerated cities.”