4.25. Avrom Sutskever, poem ‘Resurrection’ (1945)

The poem Tkhies-Hameysim (literally, “The Resurrection of the Dead,” translated as “Resurrection”) by Avrom Sutskever (1913-2010) shows some similarities with Yehuda Haim Perahia’s poem A Little Light. *Chapter 4.24. Both poems are signs of life from poets in their Jewish mother tongues, Ladino in Greece and Yiddish in Lithuania, languages which were threatened in their existence after the Shoah. In both poems, the Past is altered by the Present by the point of departure of the poets: psychic desperation after liberation. This desperation is at the same time an alienation from God, which becomes fully apparent when the shofar is heard (in Perahia’s poem) or blown (in Sutskever’s poem.)

During the German occupation of Lithuania (1941-1944), Sutskever fled the capital Vilna (Vilnius) to join the partisans and their Russian allies in the forests and swamps; when the situation became critical, the Russians evacuated him to Moscow, where he was already known as the author of one of the first poems on the Shoah. After the liberation of Vilna in July 1944, he returned to the city; with a friend, he searched through the ruins in order to save as many texts as possible: lines written by prisoners on the walls of Gestapo cells; Nazi documents and letters from their victims; ghetto archives; and materials of YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, among which were diaries of Theodor Herzl.

After his return to Vilna, Sutskever wrote Resurrection. The chronotope of the ruined city is not unlike that in The Wolf *Chapter 4.13 by H. Leyvik and in both poems, the events take an unexpected turn: in The Wolf, the lone surviving rabbi turns into a werewolf which ultimately dies as a rabbi, whereas the protagonist in Resurrection tries, as a Messiah, to bring his friends back to life. In the former, the shofar is blown by a baʿal tekiʿah, in the latter, by the persona; in both poems, the shofar sounds at a decisive moment.

Resurrection

I searched for the Shofar of Messiah
In specks of grass, in scorched cities,
To awaken my friends. And thus spake
My soul of bones:
[5] See, I glow
Inside you,
Why look for me outside?

And in my great
Forged rage,
[10] I ripped my spirit from my body
Like a sharp horn
Of a living animal
And began to blow:
Tekiya,

[15] Shevorim.
Come to life, the world is now free.
Leave your not-being in the graves
And leap out with blessing.
See how pure
[20] The stars are rocking for your sake!

But the earth—like a river—
Flowed away with grass and stone,
And human words I heard:
—We don’t want, go away, your earth is foul!
[25] From the punishment of living we were once freed!
—
We don’t need your time,
Your blind limping time,
And not the stars—
Our non-light glimmers brighter!
[30] —Reality, that’s us,

Vanish, cursed dream!
Gambled away, played out is your war.

Only one, with a voice unheard
Like the blooming of a forest, called to me,
[35] Yearning: Redeem me, destined one— —

—Who are you, that your command should be heard?

And grass language answered me: God.
I once lived in your word.

*Reproduced by permission of University of California Press Books. The blank line between vv. 36 and 37 of the Yiddish original is restored. The theme of the poem, the impossibility of resurrection and God’s inability to raise the dead and even to redeem Himself, is a reversal of the traditional concept of resurrection, in which God, according to Blessing 2 of the Amidah: “with great compassion revives the death.” *The Koren Siddur 110; The Koren Rosh Hashana Maḥzor 382; The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 588. Notwithstanding similar images, the dust or ashes and the shining stars, it also contrasts strongly with a biblical passage on resurrection, such as Dan. 12:2-3:

2 Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence. 3 And the knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.

At the same time, the impossible resurrection by means of the shofar is not found in any other discussed works of art. Though the Messiah—“Didn’t his trumpet sound?”—does not come in Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s And It Shall Be When the Days Grow Long…, *Chapter 4.6 his coming is not considered impossible by the characters in the poem; and though the Jews in Alexander Goehr’s music theater piece Sonata about Jerusalem *Chapter 4.43 are terribly deceived, they continue to wait for the shofar of the real Messiah. And even in Yiẓḥak Oren’s short story The Monument of the Resurrection, *Chapter 4.37 in which the protagonist has to raise the monument on hearing “At oh four hundred . . . a sound—something between a trumpet and a siren . . . not an air-raid siren but the blast of the Messiah’s shofar,” the resurrection of the dead is represented as something real.

Sutskever’s Resurrection shows an obvious break with tradition; instead of waiting for the Messiah or calling for God, the protagonist blows the shofar himself to revive his friends. Though it is generally problematic to identify the persona of a poem with the person of the poet, an autobiographical statement by Sutskever reveals the origin of this idea:

I entered a spectacle someone staged, I thought I played a role in it. Who staged the spectacle, I don’t know. Who needed it? What for? In those years of destruction, I always felt I was a witness to an immense earthly and cosmic play. I felt a divine sense of messianic mission, those were the most elevated moments of my life. *Harshav, “A. Sutzkever: Life and Poetry” 268.

The literary historian Benjamin Harshav adds, with regard to this poem:

As we see, the mythical conception of his poetry permeated the poet’s perception of his own life; poetic imagery and poetic discourse entered his daily discourse, too. And now that his messianic perception was realized, Sutzkever was chosen to appear at the Nuremberg trial as a witness to the destruction of the Jewish people. *Ibid. 268.

Vv. 8-12, in which the persona rips his spirit from his body like a horn of a living animal, bring to mind associations with the ruined city, from which not only have all Jews disappeared but also all synagogues with their ritual shofarot, as a result of which the wandering protagonist has nothing left but his own body. It can also be read as a parody of Gen. 2:21, in which God creates the woman from a rib of man, whereas the persona in the poem takes over some tasks of the Creator.

In vv. 13-20 the protagonist blows the shofar to revive the dead from their graves; he promises them a free world and a beautiful heaven. Already after two of the three shofar blasts, he is interrupted by a landslide; he hears human voices rejecting his promised heaven and earth as a nightmare heaven, preferring eternity, which does not change or give terrible surprises. *The “ingratitude” of the persona’s friends can be compared to the “liberation complex” of displaced persons. Cf. Lowe, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II 105: “The gratitude that many Allied soldiers expected was also absent: . . . Indeed, many DPs had become so cynical that ‘nothing that is done even by helpful people is regarded as genuine or sincere.’ Such attitudes were what some Allied officers began to call the ‘Liberation Complex.’” The world of the dead as the “real world” against the “unreal world” of the living is found already in S. Anski’s play Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) *Chapter 4.10 and Shulamit Ran’s opera *Chapter 4.57 after this play, in which the lovers ascend from the illusionary world of the living to the “realm of the dead” in order to reach a mystic union. In Perets’ short story Bontshe Shvayg, *Chapter 4.1 Bontshe’s suffering in the earthly “World of Deceit” is followed by his reward in heaven, the “World of Truth.”

After the protagonist of Resurrection has not succeeded in resurrecting his friends with his shofar and is left alone in the ruins, he is called by a weak voice, pleading him, the “destined one,” to redeem Him. This anything but authoritative discourse appears to come from God Himself. Though the scarce literature about the poem does not discuss the procedure of redemption, this might well consist of the blowing of the shofar; in that case, shofar blowing would no longer be internally persuasive discourse, but instead become authoritative discourse.

The Past of traditional shofar prayers would be altered completely by the Present of the situation in the desolate, ruined city. The piyyut of the Meḥayyeh in the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book would be reversed; God would still be the addressee of the shofar blasts, but a mighty one instead of a weak one: “O Lofty One . . . turn to the sound of the shofar as it rises from inhabited land . . . Turn to the sound of their shofar blasts from on high, / and exchange the seat of stern judgment for the throne of compassion.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 556. In Resurrection, however, the shofar sound rises from abandoned land; the “grass language” in v. 37 suggests that God’s voice comes from below instead of “from on high;” and most importantly, God pleads with man to listen and show compassion. *Cf. Bialik, Megillat Ha-Esh (“The Scroll of Fire”), written after the shelling of Odessa following the mutiny on the Potemkin (1905) and describing the mourning God among the ruins of the Temple: “His head, buried in his arms, was covered / by mountains of grief. Silent and desolate / he sat and stared at the ruin.” In Aberbach, Bialik 76. The great shofar from the U-Netanneh Tokef *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 566 is in Resurrection the small shofar of a man, and the “still small voice” with which God reveals Himself to Elijah is turned into the hardly perceivable language of the specks of grass in a ruined city.

 

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