The theme of neighborliness appears frequently in the work of the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, particularly in Poems from My Diary, the 1985 collection from which the following poem is taken.
Sutzkever survived the Holocaust in Vilna and its surrounding forests. Now known as Vilnius, and the current capital of Lithuania, Vilna had been part of Poland during Sutzkever’s youth. In Vilna, approximately 40,000 Jews were forced into two ghettos, often referred to together as the Vilna Ghetto, though often only the larger ghetto is referenced as such. While Sutzkever lived in the larger one, it was still a small space of seven streets where people lived in quarters that were often unfamiliar. Despite these conditions, the ghetto’s inhabitants maintained a vibrant cultural life, even as they watched their neighbors disappear. Most of the Ghetto’s population was murdered in a forest just outside the city called Ponar. Only a few hundred survived.
While the Ghetto’s walls cut Jews off from Vilna’s Lithuanian and Polish residents, Jews who lived on its borders could hear their Lithuanian neighbors singing the Horst Wessel Lied — the anthem of the Nazi party. The murders in Ponar were carried out largely by Lithuanian volunteers. Sutzkever, meanwhile, had been hidden at the beginning of the occupation by a Polish woman, and prior to the war, had been passionate about Jewish-Polish co-existence.
By war’s end, his feelings about the future of Jewish life in Lithuania and Poland were pessimistic. After a stint in Warsaw, he opted to immigrate, illegally, to Mandatory Palestine, just before the founding of the State of Israel, where he had a brother. There, though he would be one of Israel’s greatest poets, his work was largely ignored, the Yiddish language looked upon with disdain. The Holocaust has had an overwhelming influence on the Israeli psyche, and Israel has the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors in the world, but survivors had a difficult time settling in to the new state, blamed for their fates by many of those who, in hindsight, had had the good sense and means to leave for Palestine prior to 1939.
Israelis who witnessed the influx of Holocaust survivors after 1945, along with Americans who witnessed a similar inflow into New York, have admitted to a repressed disgust for survivors and their experiences. At the same time, survivors have turned out to have notable longevity, likely due to genetic advantages, but perhaps also attributable to post-traumatic growth. Sutzkever himself lived to the age of ninety-six.
For many Holocaust survivors, the most difficult period came after liberation, when they attempted to return to mundane life, after years of clawing desperately at survival. While Sutzkever wrote this poem in the 1980s, years after his own liberation, and despite experiencing ongoing war and terror as an Israeli, it seems this post-traumatic struggle was still on his mind, rapping at his temples in the shape of his former neighbor, whose ultimate fate he opts not to disclose.
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