Abraham Sutzkever is considered one of the greatest poets in Yiddish, and one of the greatest poets of the 20th century in every language. Unfortunately he was known to relatively few in world literature outside the circle of Yiddish readers. He was a resident of Vilnius and during the Holocaust found himself in the Vilnius Ghetto, where he wrote a famous journal about life there. He was fortunate to have survived, and amazingly was saved by no other than the Soviet dictator Stalin. Stalin read poems Sutzkever had been able to send to Moscow in a Russian translation, and decided to save him. He sent a special unit on a plane that extracted him from the forests where Sutzkever had fled from the ghetto and so was saved.
In 1946 at the Nuremberg trials he was the only Jewish witness on behalf of the Soviet Union. Today he is considered one of the greatest poets, but in his native Lithuania he was not known at all, since he wrote in Yiddish. This situation has recently changed, thanks to the publication of the first book of translation of his poetry to Lituanian.
Kapo vaikas, Vilniaus žydų viešoji biblioteka,2020
Following is my interview with the Lituanian translator Laurinas Katkus.
Eli: Can you describe the books you have published, written, and translated untill now? What subjects are you interested in?
Katkus: I am a writer working in several genres. I have published three books of poetry in Lithuanian, and three books of my poems appeared in English and German translations. I have published a novel called “Moving Shadows“ and a book of essays.
As someone who has lived in two systems, the Soviet and the Capitalist, I guess I am mostly interested in recent history: how the changes from one system to another affect an individual and a society.
As a translator I translate mostly from English and German. I have translated authors such as Susan Sontag, Galway Kinnell, Georg Büchner, Walter Benjamin. I have also translated a book by the Israeli author Etgar Keret “Autobuso vairuotojas, kuris norėjo būti Dievas” (The bus driver who wanted to be God), albeit from an English translation. At the time there were no translators from Hebrew to Lithuanian, so the author gave his permission to translate his texts from English.
Eli: What had caused you to become interested in the poetry of Abraham Sutzkever?
Katkus: Vilnius is my hometown, so Sutzkever was long a legendary name for me. For me he epitomizes the vibrant culture of Jewish Vilnius, which was erased by the Shoah and of which we, the present inhabitants of Vilnius, alas, know too little.
Then some years ago I was approached by Žilvinas Bieliauskas, a director of Vilnius Jewish Public library, with the suggestion of translating Sutzkever’s poetry. There are only a few scattered publications of his translated poems in the press, and the two books of his which appeared in Lithuanian are prose books: “The Green Aquarium“ and his testimony about the Ghetto “From the Vilnius Ghetto“.
So I felt there is an acute need to fill the gap, and to acquaint the Lithuanian readers with the main genre of Sutzkever, that is, poems. I was thrilled by the opportunity to do a translation of poetry, which is for me as a translator the biggest challenge – especially with a poet like Sutzkever who preferred exact meters and rhymes over vers-libre – but also the greatest bliss.
Eli: Which poetry of his have you actually translated?
Katkus: I have translated a selection of his poems from early ones to the ones written in Israel. For example: “Der shney oyfn Hermen“, “Oyfn veg tsum koysl maarovi“. Of course, the main body of poems relate to his experiences during Shoah, such as “Tsum Khaver“, “Unter dayne vayse shtern”, or “Gezegenish“. I have also translated two long poems “Dos keyver-kind“ and “Kol Nidre“.
Eli: How you are translating them?
Katkus: An excellent scholar of the Yiddish language, Akvilė Grigoravičiūtė, has prepared a transliteration of the poems, and interlinear translations, into Lithuanian. Reading transliterated texts I can sometimes make use of my knowledge of German.
Ei: Is there any interest today in lituanian culture in Jewish literature ?
Katkus: I believe the interest is there. Firstly, there is an understanding in the circles of intelligentsia that we must know better, and embrace, the culture of people we lived with for centuries – and still do now, although not on the same terms as before. There is the understanding among the intelligentsia, to which I adhere too, that now it is time we must face and explore the terrible catastrophe of the Shoah of Lithuanian Jewry, and, also, the ways some Lithuanians were involved in it.
But it is not only the past which fosters the interest in Jewish culture. The present Jewish community in Lithuania is tiny, nevertheless it can boast bright and creative persons. Friendly ties connect many Lithuanian artists and intellectuals with Litvaks who emigrated to Israel and live there (or in the U.S).
In the last few years we noticed a surge of interest in contemporary Israeli literature, the result of which was the published books not only of Keret, but also of Amos Oz, David Grossman, and others.
Eli: What are your literary plans for the future?
Katkus: I am working on a book of novellas, which is a forgotten but very interesting genre. I am also looking forward to the Sutzkever book, which is going to appear early in 2020, and will be presented at the Vilnius Bookfair.
Eli: What is the Corona virus situation right now in Lituania?
Katkus: The situation with the Corona virus in Lithuania is quite good. The number of infected and dead is comparatively low. For the past month we have had a quarantine, which is kind of middle-down-the-way: it is stricter than in Sweden, but milder than in Italy or, as I heard, in Israel. That is, the borders are closed, as well as schools, theaters, pubs etc., but for the non-infected no strict regulations about going out are imposed.
I think apart from other reasons the situation in Lithuania is good, it is that the country outside big cities is relatively sparsely populated. And even the cities aren’t so crowded – for example, I live in the dowtown of the capital Vilnius, but in a quarter of an hour with my bicycle can reach a forest, where I’d meet very few people. It goes without saying that’s what I do ever more often. For our family quarantine is a kind of reenactment of the couple of writing residencies abroad, in Germany and in Switzerland, where I took my kids with me. So we are used to sticking together most of the time, doing a lot of cooking at home, and being on our own. There was some fuss in the beginning, with the kids’ internet schooling program, but since then they got more or less used to that. As for me, I work very intensively, perhaps more fruitfully then before the Red Line of Quarantine.
Eli: How is it influencing the cultural scene here?
Katkus: Of course I miss my friends and my pub, my library and the Euroleague. Most cultural life now takes place in the internet, and there are quite a few voices saying that the pandemia is a good time to take a break from the frantic race of life, that it is a good time to turn to what has less show and competition, but is really essential. I share that sentiment.
Eli: Did your book get some comments or reviews by now?
Katkus: I do not follow the press very closely, but as far as I know, there have been no reviews of Sutzkevers book yet. I believe the main reason is the quarantine: as the book distribution is mostly stalled, the book has simply not got out yet to the bookshops and editorial houses.
Eli: We thank Mr. Katkus, and hope that Sutzkever and his Yiddish literature will receive, thanks to Mr. Katkus, the appreciation he deserves in his hometown
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Abraham Sutzkever poetry book in the Lithuanian language