winner of the 2012 Tiferet Fiction Award
2nd Prize Press 52 Open Awards, 2012
published in Press 52 Open Awards Anthology, 2012
“Arrayed at night, like fingers stretched through bars
To clutch the lit air of freedom,
We made for the press plates, to seize
The lead plates at the Romm printing works.
We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,
And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.”
Yes, I wrote those words in 1943. Now, if I’m to understand you correctly, more than sixty years later, you want to know if I, Abraham Sutzkever, was actually telling the truth? Did the Jewish underground in Vilna really melt lead type from the Romm Press into bullets, or did I simply make the whole thing up just to write a poem? It tickles me that you’re still interested. I’ve heard scholars are still giving lectures and seminars on the subject; they hold debates about Sutzkever and his Romm Press poem in chat rooms and blogs, discussions that have lasted for years. If I printed out all the arguments and laid them end to end, they’d be longer than the Vilna sewers. Of course, Holocaust scholars make a living out of questions like this. “There’s no way Sutzkever and those partisans melted the Romm Press letters into bullets. Ghetto furnaces couldn’t generate enough heat to keep people warm, let alone melt lead printing plates.” I know it’s always been an academic’s job to (pardon the cliché) miss the forest for the trees. What I love are the rebuttals. One imaginative blogger insists: “The partisans didn’t need any more heat to melt lead than they had to cook cholent every Sabbath.” I wait to see a chat room claim that you can melt lead plates with the farts you get after eating cholent. But I’m digressing. You say you want the truth? Let me tell you a story.
When I was a boy, I watched my older sister skip the fourth year of school, then the fifth and sixth. Her brown eyes were glazed from sitting up nights memorizing—in their original Russian—Pushkin, Lermontov, even Blok—not just our own Yiddish poets. I’d pass her room on the way to bed and would see her black braids curtaining whatever book she was ingesting. I wanted to pull one of those night colored ropes just to get her attention.
At eleven—just three years older than me—she wrote her first verse in Russian. “Genius” is what the teachers and my mother called my sister of the long black braids, ends likes pen nibs, skin as pale as the pages she read. She wrote in a fever in our little hut in Vilna, by candlelight, her braids lying dangerously close to the dripping wax.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“It must be a very bad dance.”
She giggled and threw a balled-up piece of paper at me. Her laugh was a melody in B Minor.
Our father was already dead. One night, while fiddling the old song “Thou, Thou Thou,” his violin began to shake. Then he collapsed on top of me. I was seven, the family baby with arms too weak to catch him. Within seconds, his white skin turned blue. I could no longer hear his breath.
My sister and I inherited Father’s white skin.
Sometime after her thirteenth birthday, my sister began to turn purple: first her toes and fingertips then her arms and legs, as if ink had seeped underneath her skin. She lay in bed shivering, sweating, stiff, but did not complain; only said the candle flame was too bright.
One night I woke up to loud thuds against the wall that separated my sister from me. It was the sound of her bed frame banging into the wall while invisible hands gripped her in a convulsive partner dance. “Brain fever,” is what my mother whispered to our aunt. The doctor said “Meningitis.” My older sister swelled. She could no longer answer when I asked how she was doing; she had lost her ability to hear our world. But she did sound out mysterious words as if she were conversing with someone I couldn’t see and followed this phantom’s spasmodic lead with the jerk of an arm or leg.
On a warm summer morning, while sitting alone with my sister, she looked at me and opened her mouth as if to speak. Then she turned into a ribbon of ink that flew out the window on a traveling breeze. I know this because I saw the word eternal purpled on the window above her bed.
As soon as this happened, I ran out to the bank of the Viliya River and wrote the word eternal in the sand.
You look at me incredulously; but it’s true. In the sand I wrote my first poem. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. Not even when I was hiding from the Germans in the chimney of the house I shared with my wife Freydke, could I put down my pen.
Up until then we were 60,000, we Jews of Vilna. Anti-communist intellectuals didn’t have it so good, but, in general, the Lithuanians and Russians left us alone to live our lives. Writing was easy. My poetry sang rhymed melodies to a moment’s purple shimmer—which drove my socialist, communist, Bundist writer-comrades crazy.
“Avram,” they used to nag. “How is it you stick your head in the sand when all of Eastern Europe is in a tumult. Your lack of political engagement is obscene.”
But I didn’t care. Let the Russians and Germans argue over who got what in Eastern Europe; I was preoccupied with the snow white breath of the shooting star I saw the night before.
That is, until 1941.
Under the summer solstice sun, the Nazis marched into Vilna to grab up every able-bodied Jewish man they could find. Just like that, a pack of thugs could drag you to a work camp to cut peat bricks for the Germans; or you could end up in Lukiszki prison then the forest, never to be heard from again. Sometimes you weren’t grabbed; you were simply the target of a rifle butt or a bullet while you were waiting in line to buy bread.
I was young and able-bodied, fearful of being taken. For six weeks I hid in the chimney of our house battling something unspeakable that was trying to strangle the musical rhymes of my poetry. Where was the beauty in lines that rhymed smoke with choke, game with lame, fresh with flesh, fall with all? Very quickly, my rhymes began to break down. Soon I was writing stanzas with no rhymes at all; lines that ended with spectacle, curse, death, Roman, pain, pox, grave, mercy. I wanted to erase those dark moments inside the bricks, not sing them. I wanted to erase myself for leaving Freydke all alone.
At the first sign of a lull in the Nazi’s pursuit of young men, I left the chimney, only to watch—utterly helpless—the grabbing of everything we owned: our warm coats, our boots, our furniture, our air.
The Nazis shoved us, we 15,000 surviving Jews, into seven walled-in city blocks and forced us to guard each other day and night; Jewish rifles pointed at Jewish heads. The other 45,000? We were taken to pits in the forest and told to sit on the edge. Then shot.
And the Germans grabbed our words. Illuminated Torahs, Talmuds, Haggadahs and books by our best Yiddish authors: Peretz, Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, Perl; Yiddish dictionaries; whole libraries from other cities were treated like wood chips to be burned or pulped.
The pages that held my chimney verses waved like little white flags. The poems on them bleated surrender, surrender to each new Nazi order: to become a working slave, to starve on potato peels, to walk numbly down the street past the dead bodies of neighbors, to give up friends to the police in the hope that I would be spared.
Inside the ghetto hospital Freydke gave birth to a boy, an illegal act—Jews were forbidden to have offspring. A soldier grabbed him as soon as he cried and fed him poison. I was not allowed to be by her side, but Freydke held a poem of mine in her fist the entire time. I hated that poem. It couldn’t save my family. I needed to transform my passive lines on paper into life-saving, life avenging bullets.
I joined the United Partisan Organization. A tiny group of us smuggled guns in and out of the ghetto, learned to make bombs out of light bulbs filled with gas, hid in a cellar and practiced aiming a pistol at the imaginary necks of Nazi soldiers.
And I joined the Paper Brigade: Jews who worked for the Rosenberg Bureau gathering material for a new collection: “the science of Jewry without Jews.” On my job I could grab back our books and manuscripts, our language. Our German supervisors couldn’t read Hebrew or Yiddish; we had to tell them what was important enough to ship to Germany and what could be sent to the paper mill. At the end of a workday I carried a book in my coat back to the ghetto, a collection of Sholem Aleichem short stories, or maybe one of Theodor Herzl’s diaries, and swore I was going to burn it to heat my home. So did Freydke. The trick worked over and over until we had suitcases full of Talmuds, Torahs, Yiddish history texts, journals, poetry, novels, letters that we hid in a secret place beneath the basement. They had taken our boy; we would not let them take our language.
The Romm Press plates were another matter. Neither of us could carry the heavy lead printing plates in our coats. What were we to do with the weight of all those years the press spent gathering commentary, ancient and modern, and proofreading every letter, space and line for their Vilna Talmud? How could we preserve the gleaming columns of the Talmud’s frontispiece illustration or the press’s dancing-seriffed Vilna font? When you melt something into something else, does it lose its essence?
When orders came from Hitler to liquidate the Vilna ghetto, most of my neighbors surrendered to the boxcars that transported them to the next work camp and their deaths.
Freydke and I took a different path. Into the sewer pipes underneath Vilna we crept, following our Jewish partisan comrades through the city’s wastewater, where swollen bodies of dead Jews floated, blocking our passage. We had to move them to get to where we were going: into the Narocz forest to join the Russian Communist partisan resistance forces. We were fighters, not martyrs, immersed in a mikvah of human waste.
But as soon as we reached the forest camp, Russian commanders ordered us to give up our weapons. Our job, as Jews, was to carry the wounded and sick past German soldiers through swamps, snow, fields of frozen bodies. We were starving and covered with shit. How could we refuse?
The purple evening I dragged my first soldier onto a stretcher, his leg split open by shrapnel, I remembered the night my father’s heart seized. He toppled into my seven-year old arms that were too thin to keep us both from landing on the floor. Into my ear he whispered: “That’s right. Try bearing life’s weight now, so your hands can get used to holding it later.” Then he died.
Ladies and gentlemen, I only write what I believe is true. I made words into bullets to save my wife and me and the memory of our son. In the ghetto, I’d given handwritten copies of my poems to partisans who brought them to Moscow. The anti-Nazi Lithuanian president, exiled in Moscow, was a poet too. He ordered a rescue plane to bring us out of the forest, away from German territory. But to get to the plane, Freydke and I had to walk along a railroad track in an open field, mines to the left and right of us, mines along the tracks. I led the way, chanting each line out loud, walking to the rhythm of my poems. Freydke followed my footsteps exactly. Our dark bodies wrote living Yiddish words in the snow.
And if you really want to know, the last poem that I recited, the one that finally got us from the field to the frozen lake where the rescue plane awaited, I am sure was this:
“We were dreamers,” step,
“we had to be soldiers,” step,
“And melt down,” step,
“for our bullets,” step,
“the spirit of the lead,” step.
An earlier version of this story was written as part of visual artist Robyn Awend’s Survival Project.