The Partisan Poet Rescued from the Woods of Lithuania

The life of Avraham Sutzkever, the foremost Yiddish poet in Israel, spanned almost the entire tumultuous revolution-and-war-filled 20th century.

Avraham Sutzkever

Avraham Sutzkever, the sensitive poet, personally experienced both the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel in all their intensity. He was an expert at summarizing emotions, feelings and thoughts and distilling them into short lines of poetry. He did all this in his own language, his mother tongue and that of his ancestors in Lithuania – Yiddish.

By the start of the Second World War, Avraham Sutzkever was already a published and well-known poet, one of the youngest, sharpest and most promising in the developing literary center of Vilna. During the war, Sutzkever walked along the path of suffering with the Jews of Vilna and witnessed the arrests and the executions, the deportations to the ghettos and the massacres at Paneriai. He continued to write throughout the daily struggle for survival, and took part in the ghetto theatre. Most of his time was spent documenting the life of Jews, Jewish culture and the crimes the Nazis committed against them. Sutzkever and his friends collected every note, every book and every scrap of testimony, hiding or smuggling them out of the ghetto. The poet joined the underground movement in the ghetto and wrote about the terrible things he experienced and witnessed: about his mother who was murdered in Paneriai; his baby who was born and murdered in the ghetto hospital.

Am I the last poet left singing in Europe?

Am I making song now for corpses and crows?

I’m drowning in fire, in gunk, in the swamps,

Imprisoned by yellow patched hours as they close.”


(From “Song of a Jewish Poet in 1943”. The Vilna Ghetto. Translated by A.Z. Foreman)

In September 1943, a few short days before the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, when Sutzkever was exhausted and despondent, his wife Freydke persuaded him to escape from the ghetto and join the partisans. Freydke, Sutzkever and his close friend Shmerke Kaczerginski walked a hundred kilometers together with the partisans, skirting non-Jewish villages and the German army, until they reached the Lake Naroch region and joined the partisan camp “Nekoma” [Revenge].

Sutzkever, the partisan poet, holding a sub-machine gun

While he fought with the partisans, the poem “Kol Nidrei” which Sutzkever had written while still in the ghetto reached Russia. The poem related the tale of the aktions of Yom Kippur 5732 [1941], in which almost 4000 Jews from the Vilna Ghetto were taken to Paneriai. The poem was translated into Russian and read out in 1944 in the Central House of Writers in Moscow. It made a huge impression. The audience was astounded by the power of Sutzkever’s words, which revealed the horrors of the Final Solution.

A public appeal to save him led to an official command from the Soviet authorities to bring the partisan poet to Moscow.

The first airplane the Soviets sent to the forests to rescue the poet crashed, and the fragments of its tin wings were made into a suitcase for Sutzkever, in which he stored all his poems and the war testimony he had in his possession. A second airplane sent in March 1944 landed successfully on the frozen lake. It was a two-seater airplane, Sutzkever boarded it and sat in the front seat with his wife Freydka strapped onto his knees while two wounded partisans crammed into the back. He did not forget the suitcase. The airplane managed to take off  and reach the Russian side safely, barely evading German anti-aircraft fire on the way.

Avraham Sutzkever’s tin suitcase

The Sutzkever family reached Moscow that month, where they were welcomed by Stalin’s men. The poet opened the suitcase in their presence and showed them the testimony it contained. An enormous gathering attended by thousands of people was held in Moscow in his honor, where he was received as a national hero.

Sutzkever’s story about the Vilna Ghetto and the Jewish partisans who fought against the Nazis was published in ‘Pravda’, and read by tens of millions of people across the Soviet Union. He received letters from throughout the Soviet Union, and traveled to collect testimonies from survivors of the occupied territories liberated by the Russians. Sutzkever’s story was so well-known and he was so renowned that he was chosen in 1946 by the Russian authorities as the only Jew to appear in the Nuremberg Trials, as a witness from the Soviet delegation. Millions of Jews in the USSR revered him for testifying about the destruction of the Jewish people before the Nazis.

The First Jewish Witness

“At the court in Nuremburg. Quarter to twelve in the afternoon. Wednesday, February 27, 1946:

“The Soviet prosecutor and my investigator spoke to me beforehand about the great responsibility of my testimony in the courtroom. ‘You are the first Jewish witness. You must speak on behalf of millions who were murdered. You must tell the world how German fascism slaughtered your brothers.’

I felt this great responsibility with every cell of my cconsciousness. I did not sleep a wink during the two nights before my appearance. I saw my mother in front of my eyes, running naked through a snowy field – and the hot blood dripping from where the bullet pierced her heart began to flow into my room and encircle me like a ring. (…) I twice refused the marshal’s request to sit down as was customary, and I spoke while standing, as if reciting Kaddish for the dead. I only spoke about Vilna. About what I myself saw and experienced.”

(From “Charuzim Shachorim” [Black Poetry], published in Hebrew in 2015 by Hakibbutz Hameuchad. Translated into English from the Hebrew translation of Benny Mor)

Here is a recorded excerpt from the testimony:

The Last of the Yiddish Poets in Moscow

In Moscow, Sutzkever made the acquaintance of the Yiddish poets and authors he admired, those he had been dreaming of meeting since his days as a young poet in Vilna. The post Second World War period marked the height of their glory, and they were treated affably by the Soviet authorities.

Yiddish authors in Moscow after the Second World War. From right to left: Unknown, Chaim Grade, Aron Kushnirov, David Bergelson, Ben Zion Goldberg, Itzik Feffer, Shmuel Halkin, Peretz Markish. Standing, first on the left: Avraham Sutzkever. (Kushnirov, Bergelson, Fefffer and Markish were murdered on Stalin’s orders)

Sutzkever, unlike the other Jewish poets, felt the ground burning under his feet and understood that the USSR was also no safe place for the Jews.

We can assume that had Sutzkever stayed in Russia, he would have been arrested, interrogated and executed together with Peretz Markish, Itzik Feffer, David Bergelson and many other Jewish authors who were murdered in 1952 on Stalin’s orders.

When he left the Soviet Union, the poet took all his notes and papers with him, including all the testimony he had gathered.

The archive of the Vilna Ghetto, the testimonies he recorded from survivors after the war, the poems and diaries he wrote and the suitcase. He brought them all with him when he immigrated to Israel in 1947. Years later, he deposited them in the National Library for safekeeping.

Avraham Sutzkever continued to write in Israel for many years. The man who feared he would be the last poet in Europe received the Israel Prize and became the foremost Yiddish poet in Israel. He died in 2010.


Sutzkever in his study in Israel. Photograph: Henrik Broder – 1992

Thanks to Dr. Gil Weissblei from the Archives Department of the National Library for helping with the research for this post. The materials and photographs are from the Avraham Sutzkever Archive in the National Library.

If you liked this article, try these:

“Burn them, as my world and everything I loved burned in Auschwitz’s crematorium”

The Bullet Retrieved from a Famous Jewish Playwright in the Krakow Ghetto

A Shattered Childhood: Memories of Kristallnacht

What Can You Find in the World’s Oldest Yiddish Letter? Exactly What You Would Expect

Looking for proof that nothing ever changes? In this ancient letter a mother complains to her son that he doesn't write to her often enough… Sound familiar?

The letter in the photograph is stored in the Cambridge University Library, TSMISC36. Line 5: I was, lo aleinu {may it not happen to us}, very sick, lo aleinu, from the first day of the month of Tamuz until the first day of the month of Av…

Among the treasures discovered in the Cairo Genizah are also documents written in Yiddish.

In fact the Cairo Genizah is the source of the oldest Yiddish texts in the world – an anthology of midrashim and parables, and even a German folk legend about a valiant duke who performs acts of gallantry to win the heart of a Greek princess.

But daily life interests us more than legends of knights and princesses, so we decided to present excerpts from a series of letters from Rachel Zussman, an elderly widow who lived in Jerusalem, to her son Moshe, who settled with his family in Cairo for business reasons. The letters were written in Yiddish in the mid 1560’s, and eventually made their way to the Cairo Genizah. They teach us much about the composition of the community in Jerusalem, its economic state, and communication and travel between Jerusalem and Egypt, as well as a mother-son relationship dating back 500 years.

From what we can tell, Rachel Zussman seems to have been a comparatively educated woman who was relatively financially stable. Nonetheless, she appears not to have written the letters herself, but instead dictated them to a professional scribe, who may have incorporated verses and proverbs. Her husband died in Jerusalem, and it was there that her financial situation deteriorated, as we will see.

As typified by the stereotype of the “Jewish Mother”, Rachel complains about the lack of letters from her son (and a letter from her son explaining why he didn’t write back was even found in the Genizah). Less stereotypically, her son Moshe married a woman named Masuda, in other words a Jewish woman who originated from the Arab countries, and Rachel was very satisfied by the match, even suggesting that his daughter Beila (her granddaughter), who had reached marriageable age, be married to a young man from Masuda’s family.

Here are excerpts from Rachel Zussman’s letters, translated into English from the Hebrew translation of Chava Turniansky, who translated and published the letters:

“My dear son, may you live and be well…I, lo aleinu, am very sick, lo aleinu, God Almighty knows what will be my end due to our sins…my dear son, do not be distressed. I also ask the faithful doctor (in other words, God) for you not to be sick – for me to suffer instead of you. And I also ask that He not let me die until I see you once again and you place your hand over my eyes and recite Kaddish after me. And so, my dear son, do not be distressed, live and be well…

I do not know where to obtain money from. Poor people have no money. My dear son, bring me a linen garment with you. I do not have, due to our many sins, a sheet on my bed, or a cover for my pillow. If I was, God forbid, to die I would not have a sheet to be covered in when they remove me from the bed. I am ashamed before other people. I do not have a turban for my shrouds to put on my head. If you are able to buy me one there cheaply, do so. And bring barley with you. I could not find any here at all. Bring two.”

A reply from Moshe to his mother was also discovered in the Genizah:

“Know, my dear mother, that we are all healthy and invigorated… therefore, my dear mother, I was unable to even send you a letter throughout the above period, and I was also unable to buy the things you wrote to me…”.

Further on in the letter he also reports about the boys’ studies with their teacher, and about the idiotic son, about whom he says that talking to him is like “talking to a plank”.

Moshe’s letter was sent to his mother Rachel in Jerusalem, so how did it end up back in the Cairo Genizah? Because his mother wrote her reply on the blank spaces on the page, and sent it back to Cairo. She had much room to write, as her son Moshe’s letter was relatively short… Here is a quotation:

“To my beloved son, my dear Moshe, and to your dear and modest wife my daughter-in-law Madam Masuda. I understand that you did not receive all my letters… My dear son, I am very very hurt and distressed that you distress me so much due to our sins with your deliveries… my dear son, God will forgive you for distressing me so much. Had you at least sent me the [the page is torn here] and the barley for an entire year…” However, the letter is also full of motherly good advice, from the way every loan should be meticulously recorded, to the following:

“Go and bathe in the river as little as possible. In this way it will not be able to harm you.”

Which is true.

(The seven letters discussed in this article were published and translated into Hebrew by Chava Turniansky in an article in volume 4 of the ‘Shalem’ journal. They are all in Cambridge, except for one which is in the National Library in Jerusalem. A decade ago, more excerpts from letters in Yiddish to and from Rachel Zussman were discovered in Cambridge.)

American Pride and Prejudice at the 1936 Olympics

​The story of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics is well known. What is not well known is that Jesse Owens nearly didn't compete in one of his gold medal wins, just so his Jewish teammates could...

Photographer unknown – Reproduction of photograph in “Die Olympischen Spiele, 1936” p.27, 1936.

​The story of Jesse Owens, the African-American athlete whose mere presence was an affront to Hitler in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is perhaps the most well-known story to come out of those games. The fact that he won four gold medals was a stark counter to the Nazi propaganda machine and a slap in the face to the Nazi organizers.

What is perhaps not well known is how Jesse Owens almost didn’t compete in one of his gold medal wins, the 400 meter relay race.

While it is obvious that Nazi Germany would be prejudiced and biased towards black and Jewish athletes, it must be said that within the United States there was also prejudice towards Jewish athletes at the time.

A short report from Berlin in The Sentinel shows the overt prejudice. Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman were the only athletes on the U.S. team not to participate in the games. They were also the only Jewish athletes on the team. To add insult to injury, they were only told on the day of the event that they would not be able to compete.

“Prejudice Hinted in Dropping of Jewish Athletes from U.S. Olympic Track Team”, published in The Sentinel, 13 August 1936. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Jesse Owens’ sense of justice came to the forefront and he offered to give up his spot in the relay race in order to let his teammates run in the competition. The solidarity between Owens, Stoller and Glickman is an example of how the time period created an alliance between minorities within a society that was biased against them on the basis of their race.

At the time both Stoller and Glickman denied there was anti-Semitism involved, though later in life, Glickman would say that it had in fact been fueled by anti-Semitism. This fact becomes starker when you consider that Avrey Brundage, then-chairman of the American Olympic Committee, was unapologetically pro-Nazi and admired Hitler himself.

Avery Brundage Lauds Hitler at German Rally: ‘U.S. Can Learn Much,’ He Says“, published in The Sentinel, 8 October 1936. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The 1936 Berlin Olympics, possibly the most contentious modern Olympic event in history, was a symptom of the conciliatory policies towards Nazi Germany.

At the time there had been demands to boycott the Olympic games by various amateur athletic groups, such as the Committee on Fair Play in Sports in America. The Committee even released a booklet detailing the ways in which Nazi Germany went against the ideals of the Olympic games. The boycotts were not successful, thanks to the work of Brundage and others to get the American team to the Olympics in Berlin.

It is no secret that Hitler’s intention was for the Berlin Olympics to prove the racial hierarchy he tried to implement.

Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman’s story during the 1936 Olympics remains a footnote to the history of those turbulent times, and to the inspirational story of Jesse Owens, who became a symbol of audacity and courage, embarrassing Hitler and the Reich at their very own games.

The Viral Nature of Anti-Semitic Imagery

The Dreyfus Affair that divided France and risked the Republic is not just the story of the sham trials, it is the story of the first viral hate campaign of images in mass media brining to the surface the most ancient of hatreds in a brand new way.

While anti-Semitic imagery and iconography has existed and was promulgated for centuries, it was the eruption of the daily newspaper and the popularity of the postcard in the mid-19th century that enabled the dissemination of the images faster than ever before.

The Dreyfus Affair that brought to the surface the division of France is not just the story of the sham trials and Emil Zola’s “J’Accuse”; it is also an example of one of the first image campaigns in the press, instigated by Zola’s famous publication.

“J’Accuse” hit the papers on January 13th, 1898, in L’Aurure, the famously Dreyfusard publication, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair. It is arguably Zola’s most famous piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction. However, it initiated what might be termed in contemporary language the first viral campaign. A war of images regarding Alfred Dreyfus as either  innocent or traitor, human or monster, was battled between newspapers that had a wider distribution than ever before.

While Zola and his Dreyfusard allies were caricatured by the anti-Dreyfusards, the truly vicious images were of Alfred Dreyfus himself. The anti-Semitic depictions published by La Libre Parole in a series named the Museum of Horrors showcased Dreyfus as a snake, to give but one example. The series was published during Alfred Dreyfus’ new court-martial in 1898, and the caricatures were clearly aimed at all French Jews whoever they were.

“History of a Traitor”, 1899 Central Archive for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem, F/261
“History of an Innocent”, 1898 National Library of Israel

The so-called viral nature of the image exchange indicates how close to the surface the hatred towards Jews had bubbled during that period of time. The blunt racism and anti-Semitism depicted in the caricatures published at the time threatened to destabilize the state, using the Jews as a tool of division by the right as a perfect scapegoat.

“Dreyfus is a Traitor” November 1898 Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris

It was a golden age of caricatures. This art converged along with the daily newspaper and the Dreyfus Affair. It enabled the slew of images of hate aimed towards a minority to be engaging, entertaining, and viral. The idea spread to other European countries, all the way to the United States.

The stereotypes and canards perpetuated in the caricatures drew from both the antiquated ideas of Jewish usury and greed, but also modern ideas of conspiracy, as well as industry domination and control, which had been made popular by the publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Those ideas rose in prominence through the publication of caricatures showcasing Jews attempting to disguise themselves as non-Jews, Jews being portrayed as world dominators, and manipulators of finance and politics.

Caricatures of Jews committing election fraud from “Hatemail: Anti-Semitism on Picture Postcards”

This article was written with the help of Dr. Betty Halpern-Guedj from the Library Collections.

Information for the articles was gathered from Dreyfus and Zola: A Moment in the Conscience of the World, Dryfus: The History of a Jewish-French Family, and Hatemail: Anti-Semitism on Picture Postcards.