Historical focus Avrom Sutzkever 
  Shmerke Kaczerginski


Sutzkever and his wife Frida 03/1944 (Markowa, Lithuania – The Partisans). ID: 4245 Catalogue: 2074/9. From the photographic archives of Yad Vashem, Israel.

Avrom Sutzkever, also spelled Abraham Sutzkever or Avraham Sutskever was born on July 15, 1913 in Smorgon, Russian Empire, now Smorgon Belarus. A significant Yiddish poet who after the Holocaust became a major figure in Yiddish letters in Israel and throughout the world. He died on January 20, 2010 in Tel Aviv, Israel at the age of 96. (Wikipedia)

Avrom Sutzkever spent his early childhood in Omsk, Siberia, where his parents took refuge from the invading German armies during World War I. Following the death of his father, Sutzkever’s mother, Rayne, resettled the family in Vilna in 1921. Sutzkever attended local heders and the Polish Jewish high school Herzliah, audited university classes in Polish literature, and was introduced by a friend to Russian poetry. His earliest poems were written in Hebrew.

Sutzkever published his first piece in the magazine of the Jewish scouting organization, Bin. In 1933, he became part of the writers’ and artists’ group Yung-Vilne, along with fellow poets Shmerke Kaczerginski, Chaim Grade, and Leyzer Volf. He also moved to Warsaw that year. His maiden volume, Lider (Poems), was published by the Yiddish PEN Club (1937); a second, Valdiks (Of the Forest; 1940), during the interval of Lithuanian autonomy.

After the German invasion in June 1941, Sutzkever and his wife, Freydke, whom he had married in 1939, were herded into the ghetto with other Vilna Jews. Under cover of forced labor, Sutzkever smuggled arms into the ghetto and concealed rare Jewish books and manuscripts from the YIVO collection, which he unearthed after the war.

Writing poetry under aggravated conditions, he described several brushes with death, the murders of his mother and his newborn son, the cultural and underground resistance, and ghetto events and personalities. His long poem Dos keyver-kind (The Grave Child) was awarded a literary prize by the ghetto Writers Union in 1942, and his poem Unter dayne vayse shtern (Beneath the Whiteness of Your Stars) was set to music by Avreml Brudno. The Sutzkevers escaped in September 1943 with a unit of the Federated Partisan Organization (FPO) and joined a Jewish partisan group under Soviet command in the Naroch forest.

Admiration for his poems smuggled from the ghetto by a Lithuanian courier prompted the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR to airlift Sutzkever to Moscow, where he served as a witness-survivor of the destruction of Polish Jewry. Ilya Ehrenburg’s profile of the poet in Pravda (29 April 1944) was one of the first official Soviet notices of the Holocaust.

In Moscow, Sutzkever participated in the work of Ehrenburg’s literary commission for the preparation of the Black Book. He also wrote a prose account titled Fun vilner geto (Of the Vilna Ghetto), parts of an ode of parting called Tsu Poyln (To Poland), and much of Geheymshtot (Secret City), an epic poem chronicling the attempt of 10 Jews to survive destruction in the sewers of Vilna.

Sutzkever befriended members of the Soviet Yiddish intelligentsia and testified on behalf of Russian Jewry at the Nuremberg Trials. With a newborn daughter, Rina, the Sutzkevers returned to Poland in 1946, then on to Paris and Palestine in 1947. In Tel Aviv, he founded the literary quarterly Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), remaining its editor until its closing in 1995.

Sutzkever emerged as a “national poet,” addressing large historical subjects in works of epic scale while creating deeply personal, sometimes idiosyncratic, contemplative verse. The series Lider fun togbukh (Poems from a Diary; 1974–1981), which is considered his masterpiece, fuses philosophical reflection, autobiography, and observation into a modern Psalter. Through formal elegance and masterful rhyming, it conveys his image of an organic universe that reintegrates what history has torn apart, including those murdered in Europe from those who carry their memory.

Sutzkever’s works have been translated into English, Swedish, French, Hebrew, Polish, and other languages. Benjamin Harshav ranks him as “one of the great poets of the twentieth century” (Harshav, 1991, p. 3).



YIVO Institute of Jewish Research, New York

Wisse, Ruth R. Sutzkever, Avrom YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe 21 October 2010.

(Wisse, Ruth R. - Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature, Harvard University)

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Suggested Reading:

Benjamin Harshav, A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose (Berkeley, 1991);

Abraham Nowersztern, Avrom Sutskever-bibliografye (Tel Aviv, 1976);

Abraham Nowersztern, Avraham Sutskever bi-melot lo shiv‘im / Avrom Sutskever tsum vern a ben-shivim (Jerusalem, 1983), in Yiddish and Hebrew;

Ruth Wisse, “The Ghetto Poems of Abraham Sutzkever,” Jewish Book Annual 36 (1978–1979): 26–36, reprinted in Jewish Book Annual 54 (1996–1997): 95–106.


For further information:

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Washington

Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority


Overview of Liddish Literature, Wikipedia