“You could take [his] life from beginning to end and it would be the most astonishing guide to the most dramatic moments in Jewish history of the 20th century,” the Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse says in a new documentary about Avraham Sutzkever, the great Yiddish poet. Sutzkever has long been known both for his poetry and for his testimony at the Nuremberg trials in Germany after the war. Less known is his and his wife Freydke’s escape from the Vilna Ghetto in 1943. Cnaan Liphshiz narrates it.
During the escape, a German sentry spotted Sutzkever after curfew, the poet recalled. Instead of running or begging for his life, he walked up to the German and told him, “I’m glad I met you. Do you know where I can go, where there are no Germans?” The sentry allowed him to escape, and a non-Jewish woman hid him in her potato cellar until he joined the partisans, Sutzkever said.
From the partisans, his poems and some rescued documents reached Moscow, providing early and chilling evidence of what was happening to the Jews of Lithuania. The texts reached key individuals in Moscow’s wartime literary scene, including the Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg, who was one of the few intellectuals that Stalin trusted.
In 1944, a Red Army plane was sent to retrieve the Sutzkevers from near the partisan camp, where Freydke acted as a nurse. But it was downed by German anti-aircraft fire. A second plane was sent two weeks later. The Sutzkevers had to traverse a minefield to reach it.
“Part of the time, I walked in anapests, some of the time I walked in amphibrachs,” Sutzkever told his friend and translator Dory Manor, referring to lines of poetic meter. With Freydke walking in his footprints, “I immersed myself within a rhythm of melody and to that rhythm we walked a kilometer through a minefield and came out on the other side,” Sutzkever later wrote.