From the Vil­na Ghet­to to Nurem­berg: Mem­oir and Testimony

Abra­ham Sutzkev­er, Justin D. Cam­my (Edi­tor, Translator)

January 18, 2021

In 1944, the Yid­dish poet Abra­ham Sutzkev­er was air­lift­ed to Moscow from the for­est where he had spent the win­ter among par­ti­san fight­ers. There he was encour­aged by Ilya Ehren­burg, the most famous Sovi­et Jew­ish writer of his day, to write a mem­oir of his two years in the Vil­na Ghet­to. Now, sev­en­ty-five years after it appeared in Yid­dish in 1946, Justin Cam­my pro­vides a full Eng­lish trans­la­tion of one of the ear­li­est pub­lished mem­oirs of the destruc­tion of the city known through­out the Jew­ish world as the Jerusalem of Lithua­nia. Based on his own expe­ri­ences, his con­ver­sa­tions with sur­vivors, and his con­sul­ta­tion with mate­ri­als hid­den in the ghet­to and recov­ered after the lib­er­a­tion of his home­town, Sutzkever’s mem­oir rests at the inter­sec­tion of post­war Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry. He grap­pled with the respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­duce a doc­u­ment that would indict the per­pe­tra­tors and pro­vide an account of both the hor­rors and the resilience of Jew­ish life under Nazi rule. Cam­my bases his trans­la­tion on the two extant ver­sions of the full text of the mem­oir and includes Sutzkever’s diary notes and full tes­ti­mo­ny at the Nurem­berg Tri­als in 1946. Fas­ci­nat­ing rem­i­nis­cences of lead­ing Sovi­et Yid­dish cul­tur­al fig­ures Sutzkev­er encoun­tered dur­ing his time in Moscow – Ehren­burg, Yid­dish mod­ernist poet Peretz Mark­ish, and direc­tor of the State Yid­dish The­atre Shloyme Mikhoels – reveal the con­straints of the polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment in which the mem­oir was com­posed. Both shock­ing and mov­ing in its inten­si­ty, From the Vil­na Ghet­to to Nurem­berg returns read­ers to a moment when the scale of the Holo­caust was first com­ing into focus, through the eyes of one sur­vivor who attempt­ed to make sense of dai­ly life, resis­tance, and death in the ghet­to. A Yid­dish Book Cen­ter Translation

Discussion Questions

Abra­ham Sutzkev­er was one of the most impor­tant Yid­dish poets of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and one of the first to write a day-by-day chron­i­cle of the Nazi destruc­tion of Jew­ish Vil­na — the city that was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania.

This book is a cul­tur­al trea­sure: it com­bines a dra­mat­ic first-hand account by a native son who writes about his beloved city in the prose of a poet, with the his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate nar­ra­tive of a first-class schol­ar. At the same time, it is also the sto­ry of a young man try­ing to cope (and try­ing to help his moth­er and his wife cope) with the dra­con­ian forces allied against them. Sutzkev­er also draws on the tes­ti­mo­ny of oth­ers, and on doc­u­ments and eye­wit­ness accounts recov­ered after the war, to craft this ele­gant­ly writ­ten com­bi­na­tion of mem­oir, war chron­i­cle, reportage, and eye­wit­ness account.

Although Sutzkever’s writ­ings first appeared in Yid­dish in both Paris and Moscow in 1946, this is the first trans­la­tion of his work in Eng­lish. Trans­la­tor and edi­tor Justin Cam­my has done a mas­ter­ful job. His fas­ci­nat­ing and invalu­able after­word (with Avra­ham Nover­shtern), pro­vides the read­er with the his­tor­i­cal con­text for Sutzkever’s wartime experiences.There are also exten­sive notes, pho­tographs, and a timeline.