Avrom Sutzkever was the greatest Jewish poet of his time. He spent his childhood in Siberia and emerged as a writer in the youthful literary flowering of Jewish Vilna. As poet and Jew in the Vilna Ghetto, he was transformed into a living remnant of a people’s near death, writing immortal works and helping to conceal Jewish cultural treasures for later rescue. After the war, he became a prophetic symbol and a cultural-historical institution, founding Yiddish literature’s greatest journal in Israel. A committed Zionist, he earned his country’s highest literary honor even as its powerful never abandoned their suspicion of Yiddish literary creativity. He died in 2010.
Zackary Sholem Berger (translator) is a poet, short story writer and translator in Baltimore who works in Yiddish and English. His first Yiddish-English collection of poetry, Not in the Same Breath, was published in 2011, and his second, One Nation Taken Out of Another, is due to appear in 2014 from Apprentice House. He was a Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in 2013, and his translations of poetry by I.L. Peretz and C.N. Bialik were shown at the Kennedy Center to accompany recitations by the pianist Evgeny Kissin.
From Diary Poems
Of course, your ladder’s inside you. In-you is your ladder.
Not that ladder, anyhow, leaning out there on the attic.
The first climber is actually behind the second
Who is the first to the top – instead of the first.
A cloud darkens your pupils: a pointless reflection.
Words with six wings are ready for your rungs.
You wrestle with one, who touches your thigh.
You will always limp, climbing on the rungs.
Limp then. But don’t neglect completion’s line.
Your ladder won’t fall down from quaking earth.
At night there are no stars, just the burning leaves of books.
There is none other. You are second, and the third.
In you, a living breath in a valley of bones.
No one enlivens them except for your breath.
In you, the weeping storm, the air of sea
that comes after it. The fecund kernel.
The triumph of the tree that comes tomorrow.