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Stalin rescued Jew from Nazi ghetto and installed him as Nuremberg trial witness after reading his poem on Kol Nidrei

Death in rhyme


Stalin personally ordered this Jew to be rescued from the clutches of the Nazis. And then he used it at the Nuremberg trials. But Avrom Sutzkever is not just a living witness to the Holocaust. He is the author of poems recognized as a world masterpiece.

“I don’t want to brag, but it was no longer such that during the war years a special plane was sent for someone, as for me and Freudka. We were in the Naroch forests, far from the front, surrounded by German armies, and in front of both of us, this plane caught fire. The plane was shot down by the Germans. 12 people burned down. I thought the world was over for me along with all my dreams. But a second plane was sent for us, a small U-2. It was so small that Freudka had to be tied to my legs to keep it from falling out. There was a small window in the plane, and through it I could see how they were shooting at us all the time. “Don't look,” Freudka asked me. But I still looked, I wanted to see my death ... "

Such memories were shared after the war by the surviving partisan and poet Avrom Sutskever. By the way, it was poetry that helped him get to the plane, which eventually safely took him and his wife out of the German environment. The path ran through a minefield - and Sutzkever, closing his eyes, decided to go through it, counting the poetic dimensions. “Part of the time I walked on the anapaests, and the other on the amphibrachs. Freud followed me in the footsteps. I heard a melody inside me, and to the rhythms of this melody we walked a whole kilometer with mines, ”the poet later wrote.



A few months before this daring rescue operation, Sutzkever wrote the poem "Kol Nidrei" - the name of the prayer read in synagogues on Yom Kippur. The poem was dedicated to the atrocities of the Nazis, which the poet witnessed in the Vilnius ghetto. Just before the destruction of the ghetto in September 1943, Avrom managed to escape from there - together with his wife, they joined the Soviet partisans in the Naroch forests. Well, Stalin personally ordered to save them from there: he read the poem and decided to bring to Moscow a living witness to the destruction of the Jewish people.

Soon, millions of Soviet citizens learned about Sutskever: Ilya Ehrenburg outlined the horrific details of the poet's life in the Vilnius ghetto in the pages of the Pravda newspaper. In the same place, in the article “The Triumph of Man”, the publicist spoke about the feat of Sutzkever: being a member of the “Paper Brigade”, he, on pain of death, saved dozens of priceless Jewish texts from destruction, as well as manuscripts of the 15th and 16th centuries, letters from Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, a diary servants of Peter the Great and many other valuable relics.



Two years later, on March 4, 1946, the name of Avrom Sutzkever appeared again in the Pravda newspaper in the report “On behalf of mankind”. In that material, the writer Boris Polevoy described the Nuremberg trials and Avrom’s appearance as a witness: “The Jewish poet Abram Sutskever, a resident of Vilna, a man with a European name, is probably one of the few people on earth who managed to escape alive from the Jewish ghetto organized by the Nazis ... What he said can really make the most hardened person shudder. He did not name figures, he spoke only about the fate of his family. About his wife, in front of whom her newly born child was killed. About how in the streets of the ghetto the pavements were sometimes completely red with blood, and this blood, like rainwater, flowed through the gutters along the sidewalks into the sewers.



Sharing these terrible memories in a trembling voice, Sutzkever nervously clutched at the edges of the witness stand and periodically turned pale almost to the point of fainting. His testimony was eventually one of the key moments of the process. Subsequently, the poet recalled: “Preparing for a trip to Nuremberg, I prayed that the souls of the dead would speak from my throat. I wanted to speak Yiddish. Without any doubt, it was in Yiddish, in the language of the people whom the accused tried with all their might to destroy. But the Soviet authorities ordered me to speak Russian. And then I spoke standing up, as if reading Kaddish for the dead people.

Avrom Sutzkever was born on July 15, 1913 in a small industrial town southwest of Vilna. He was only two years old when the whole family had to flee to Siberia - away from the fronts of the First World War. For several weeks they traveled to the distant but safe Omsk, a city with a large Jewish diaspora. Their lives were saved, but there were other difficulties: the harsh Siberian climate and the total lack of jobs. While the family was adapting to the new realities of life, the First World War turned into a civil war, which was accompanied, among other things, by numerous Jewish pogroms. As a result, in 1920, when Avrom's father died of a heart attack, his mother decided to return to her small homeland - to Vilna. By that time, the city had already acquired the status of the Eastern European capital of Jewish culture and was called “Lithuanian Jerusalem”.



Avrom studied at a cheder, and after that - at the Jewish-Polish gymnasium and Vilna University. After receiving an education, in 1929 he got a job at the Jewish Scientific Institute,which dealt with the history and culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe. At the same time, Sutzkever became a member of the Young Vilna literary group - everyone there was a socialist who wrote about politics in Yiddish. Sutzkever, however, did not adapt to them - and continued to write about nature, playing with words and experimenting with rhythm. The peak of his work of those years was the poem "Siberia", which was based on the poet's childhood memories of Omsk and its environs. In 1961, UNESCO recognizes "Siberia" as a masterpiece of world literature, written in one of the "small" languages.



However, the role of the "apolitical lyric poet from Vilna" did not last long - exactly until the start of the Great Patriotic War. On June 24, 1941, the Germans occupied Vilna and drove 40,000 Jews into the territory of six streets, which turned into the Vilna ghetto. Two-thirds of the prisoners in the ghetto died in the very first months - among them was Sutzkever's mother and his newborn son.

The poet began to describe all this in verse: how his son was poisoned in the ghetto hospital, how his mother was shot. In one of his poems - "Teacher of the World" - Avrom described the story of a school teacher, Mira Bernstein, who took care of orphaned children in the ghetto. Avrom would later name one of his daughters after Bernstein. In another work, the poet told how the SS man Bruno Kittel shot the victims with one hand, while he played the piano with the other.



“If I hadn’t been writing then, I wouldn’t have survived,” Sutzkever told The New York Times in 1985. “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as a believing Jew believes in the Messiah, that while I write, I can be a poet, I will have a weapon against death.” This post-traumatic illusion gave him strength and courage - and explained his willingness to risk his own life. So, Sutzkever smuggled weapons into the ghetto, helping the resistance movement. And when the Nazis instructed him to collect valuable books, manuscripts, letters and engravings for shipment to the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, he - along with other members of the so-called "Paper Brigade" - hid the most precious copies in the crevices and voids of the buildings surrounding him.



Details of how the book rescue operations took place are described in David Fishman's book "Book Smugglers". Sutzkever proved to be an unusually resourceful book smuggler. One day, he received from Shporket, a German who was in charge of sending valuables from Vilna to Germany, permission to bring several packs of waste paper into the ghetto as fuel for a home stove. He showed the document to the guards at the gate, and held the bundles in his hands. The “waste paper” contained letters and manuscripts from Tolstoy, Gorky, Sholom Aleichem and Bialik; paintings by the artist Chagall and a unique manuscript of the Vilna Gaon. On another occasion, Sutzkever managed to bring sculptures by Mark Antokolsky and Ilya Gintsburg, paintings by Ilya Repin and Isaac Levitan into the ghetto: with the help of friends who had the necessary connections, he tied them to the bottom of the truck.



For two years, Avrom saved objects of world culture. Later, it was he who helped unearth many of the hidden relics. He did not leave, “while crawling through the sewers and even hiding in a coffin,” and writing poetry. When the Germans began step by step to implement the plan to destroy the ghetto - along with all its prisoners, Avrom, along with other members of the Resistance, began to prepare an escape. He and his wife Freudka managed to escape on September 12, 1943. They took with them important documents for historians - a selection of brutal Nazi crimes against the Jewish people, as well as evidence of the cultural life of Jews in the ghetto.



Later, the poet recalled how, during the escape, they encountered a German sentry. The situation was critical, but instead of running or begging for mercy, he squared his shoulders, approached him and confidently said: “I'm glad I met you. Can you tell me where I need to run so that there are no Germans there? The sentry was shocked by what was happening, dumbfounded and simply showed the direction, allowing them to leave. Hiding from the sight of a German soldier, the poet knocked on almost the first door that came across, where a local resident silently hid them in her cellar.



A few days after the escape, the ghetto was completely destroyed. The couple were lucky to get alive to a detachment of Soviet partisans in the Naroch forests, from where, on Stalin's orders, they were taken by plane to Moscow. The Sutzkevers lived in the capital for two years. They had a daughter. But a writer in Yiddish in the USSR had very vague prospects. Avrom understood that it was not safe to linger in Moscow, and therefore, after the Nuremberg trials, the Sutzkevers left for Poland, then to France and the Netherlands. In September 1947, they were helped to illegally reach Palestine. There, Avrom immediately joined the ranks of those who fought for the independence of Israel .



However, after the creation of the State of Israel, it turned out that Yiddish was not honored there: the language was considered “an ugly vestige of the life of Jews in the Diaspora” and even a ban on public speaking in it was introduced. Nevertheless, Sutzkever himself continued to read and write in Yiddish, and founded for those like him, the quarterly magazine Di Goldene Keyt - "Golden Chain", which was successfully published for almost 50 years: it was closed only in 1995. Ten years earlier, Sutzkever had been deservedly presented with the country's most prestigious award, the Israel Prize for Yiddish Literature. However, the importance of his poetry was not limited to Yiddish, it was honored and continues to be honored all over the world: Avrom Sutskever's poems have been translated into 30 languages.

Anastasia Krivosheeva