In the Vilna Ghetto, Jews Fought to Preserve Their Culture

October 14, 2021 | Avraham Sutzkever and Justin Cammy
About the author:

The Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno, the German-born son of a Jewish father, famously declared that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But while Adorno was in the Pacific Palisades with other German exiles from the Third Reich, the great Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever was in the Vilna Ghetto, where he wrote, in his own words, “more than I did the rest of my life.” And not only that, writes Justin Cammy:

Sutzkever . . . mentored [the ghetto’s] youth group, helped organize the ghetto theater, and, of course, read his poetry at literary gatherings. He also worked heroically alongside others as a member of the so-called Paper Brigade, those slave laborers whom the Germans appointed to sort materials from various Jewish libraries who smuggled and hid as many of the most valuable literary treasures as they could.

In his memoirs of this period, which Cammy has recently edited and translated, Sutzkever writes:

The day after my mother was murdered, the young director Viskind came to pay me his condolences. He invited me to a meeting of Yiddish actors. They wanted to establish a theater. I looked at him, astonished: “A theater in the ghetto?”

“Yes,” Viskind confirmed. “We must be true to ourselves and resist the enemy even with this weapon. We must not surrender under any circumstance. Theater was also performed in the ghettos during the Middle Ages. The origins of Yiddish theater are there. Let us, too, create a theater to delight and embolden the ghetto. It might even be the vanguard of a new Yiddish theater in a free world.”

I left. Viskind’s faith soothed my sadness. At Strashun Street 7, in the frigid little attic belonging to the actor Blyakher, I met with the remaining actors in the ghetto. All of them were in favor of establishing a theater. I agreed with them and accepted the position of literary director of the planned theater.

We got to work on the first performance. It was a challenge to choose appropriate material. With what words could we appear before audiences and avoid dishonoring their anguish? How could we temporarily cloud the vision of mass graves before their eyes? And how could we awaken ghetto residents to the heroism of Jewish history, to appreciate beauty, and to continue to believe in the future?

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