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Conversation with… Justin Cammy

Smith professor on Yung-Vilne translates a wartime memoir from Yiddish to English

By Stacey Dresner

NORTHAMPTON – From the time Justin Cammy first read the work of Abraham Sutzkever, he became fascinated with the Yiddish poet and the community of Yiddish writers in the interwar literary group, Yung-Vilne (Young Vilna).  

Now a leading authority on Yung-Vilne, Cammy, professor of Jewish Studies and of World Literatures, and chair of the Program in Jewish Studies at Smith College, has translated Abraham Sustzkever’s wartime memoir, From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg from Yiddish to English.

Sustzkever spent two years fighting to stay alive in the Vilna ghetto, along with many of Vilna’s other young writers and artists, all the while observing “daily life, resistance and death in the ghetto.” 

After he and his wife escaped to the forest to fight with the partisans, Sutzkever was airlifted in 1944 to Moscow where he met with Jewish Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg and other antifascists who encouraged him to write a memoir of his time in the ghetto.

He later gave testimony about his experiences in the Vilna Ghetto during the Nuremberg trials.

Cammy’s book, published this month by McGill-Queen’s University Press, includes not only the translation of Sutzkever’s memoir, but also his diary notes, his Nuremberg testimony, and photos of Sutzkever that have never been seen before.

Justin Cammy is a literary and cultural historian with research and teaching interests in Yiddish literature, Eastern European Jewish history, Zionism, and contemporary Israel. He holds appointments in Jewish studies, World Literatures, Middle Eastern studies, and Russian and East European studies at Smith and is adjunct professor graduate faculty in German studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. 

His publications range from essays on Yiddish literary history to scholarly translations of Yiddish literature to introductions to new editions of works by Yiddish writers and memoirists. He serves on the faculty of the Steiner Yiddish summer program at the Yiddish Book Center, the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish summer program at Tel Aviv University, and Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. In 2006, Cammy was awarded Smith College’s Sherrerd Prize for Distinguished Teaching. 

Professor Cammy spoke to the Jewish Ledger about his new translation and the life of Abraham Sutzkever earlier this month just after the 75th anniversary of the closing of the Nuremberg Trials on Oct. 1.

JEWISH LEDGER: You say in the acknowledgments in your book that you first read Abraham Sutzkever in a Ruth Wisse class in college. Had you ever heard of him before that?

Justin Cammy: No. I hadn’t heard of any Yiddish literature before college. I mean, maybe I had heard of Sholem Aleichem. But I did not come from that background. So, it was sort of an eye opener to take classes on modern Jewish literature and Yiddish writers. Then I took a seminar where Sutzkever was introduced by the teacher and I have sort of been working on him, or on the literary group surrounding him ever since, and certainly on Vilna, his hometown.

JL: What was it about Abraham Sutzkever that interested you
so much?

JC: Three things, I would say. He starts out as a poet in the 1930s. So to me, he challenges this myth of Yiddish being old. He represents a moment that in my next book after this I call, “When Yiddish was Young” – sort of a moment when it was the language of everyday society, including radicals, revolutionaries, progressives – and all of their politics was done in that world. So, he was part of that world of Yiddish modernist poetry that both spoke to Jewish readers but also spoke to the world. Then when you move to a different period, he’s arguably the most important, if not one of the top three most important Yiddish writers of the ghettos and of the Holocaust. He wrote almost entirely during the war, without stop, and his poems and epic works of that period are sort of classic pieces. What really amazed me was that those two periods were only through his mid- 30s. Then he has to pick up this life and decides that the future of a Jewish writer is in a Jewish country. And unlike many other Yiddish writers who find themselves in New York but with, with a declining readership, or in other places, he decides that he wants to be surrounded by the alef beis – in Israel –  and if that is now a Hebrew speaking country, he’s going to go and establish the most important Yiddish journal Di Goldene Keyt (the Golden Chain) there and create connections between this new state and the rest of the Yiddish reading world. Most of his career takes place as an Israeli Jewish writer. So that’s the background – someone who’s engaged in the world with all the major moments in Jewish history, engaged with the building of a state and not willing to buy the common idea that there’s no place within Zionism and within Hebrew for a Yiddish writer. 

What brought me to the text is the fact that you have such a famous writer, such an important Yiddish writer, who only writes one memoir his whole life, and it’s never been translated into English, in part because he was such a great poet. Early on there was a fear that everything he really had to say was in his poetry and that reading this and then translating this in some way perhaps would be a diminishment in what was accomplished artistically in the poetry.

JL: His poetry has been translated into other languages besides Yiddish?

JC: Oh yes, his poetry has been translated into Hebrew, English, many other languages. The memoir itself was translated into Hebrew early on, soon after publication, but then sort of went dormant. He never talked about it. I think that probably the Soviet context of its composition he wanted to distance himself from. It was only just before his death in 2010 that there started to be many more translations. Not only this poetry, but also of this memoir. English is really the last one to come out – there’s Hebrew, there’s Lituanian, German, French, but not English. So, now I’m able to bring out not only the memoir, which exists in all the other editions, but also all these other materials like the testimonial at Nuremberg, like the diary notes. And I think most importantly for me, these essays about what it was like to be a Yiddish writer in late Stalinism and the fear of that environment, and the self-censorship. So, he writes the memoir under certain conditions that I think also are interesting.

JL: How did he get from the Vilna Ghetto to the Soviet Union when the war was still going on?

JC: He was in the Vilna Ghetto for the entire period of the existence of the ghetto – two years. Then as the ghettos are being liquidated, he escaped with his wife and several colleagues and goes and fights and lives among the partisans for about six months.

Literature is smuggled out to the Soviet Union to major Yiddish writers there, and to the major Russian writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, who was Jewish but not a Yiddish writer. He was the most well-known Russian Soviet writer at the time. A plane is sent to rescue Sutzkever. Whether it was sent to rescue him or whether he was rescued because the plane was going to the partisans anyway twice a week, he was brought along with his wife to Moscow. And immediately within the week, spoke about the destruction of Vilna for the Jewish and the antifascists. Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman, two of the most important Soviet Jewish writers at the time, were creating this thing called the Black Book of Soviet Jewry, which was meant to be a very specific genre of reportage that would indict the perpetrators and name and specify their crimes. This was before there are Holocaust museums. This is very early on – 1944.  

So Sutzkever is enlisted to write a chapter on Vilna. And he does that. But at a certain point the politics of the regime interfere, and they don’t want the book released, so then he publishes it on his own; simultaneously, one edition in Moscow, one edition in Paris. There are slight differences between the editions, which suggests there was some self-censorship by Sutzkever and of the editor in saying what could be published in the Soviet Union as opposed to what could be published in France. And Sutzkever himself tailored the manuscript towards what they wanted. 

So in a way it’s a schematic text that fits into sort of this role of the Jew as fighter, the Jew as not being silent, but he adds in a lot of things that are new there, like the role of culture and self-organization of the ghetto.

JL: Many of the people he writes about members of the amazing community of young Jewish writers and artists in the Vilna ghetto.

JC: Yes, he was part of the most important young Yiddish literary movement of the 1930s. He was part of “Young Vilna” and not only did that mean he was sort of au courant with all the young writers and artists and journalists in Vilna, but also the editors and the teachers. So, this all part of one, we might call it “linguistic cultural system” that he was part of there. 

And then the same thing can be said when he gets to Moscow, because he’s this Yiddish poet, and he falls in immediately
with all of the most famous poets of the revolution. 

JL: What was it like for these Yiddish and Jewish writers under Stalin?

JC: They started hearing that they would meet the same fate as those who were purged in the late 1930s. Many of them are very important in the 1940s in Jewish Anti-Fascist activity, but most of the people that I quote from are killed by Stalin, whether it be [Peretz] Markish, my favorite poet of the revolution, and [Solomon] Mikhoels, the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater.

They were killed in 1952 along with all the other most important Soviet Yiddish writers, so in a way, the volume is Sutzkever’s decision to reflect not only on the destruction of one Jewish community that is Vilna, but also, he’s there in Moscow writing this at a time that is on the precipice of another destruction. He understands what totalitarianism is all about. 

Earlier this week was the 75th anniversary of the close of the Nuremberg trials, so the fact that the volume also includes the testimony, and his diary notes is also interesting because the Soviets only were allowed a certain number of witnesses and they chose Sutzkever to be one of those witnesses. He’s the only Yiddish poet, the only Jewish writer who testifies, and the only one who really has first-hand experience of what life was like in a ghetto like Vilna.

JL: How long did it take to do this translation?

JC: I wanted to do it since 2013. So, it’s been sort of a slow thing. It would have come out much earlier if I would have just stopped with the memoir itself — really that is less than half of what’s in there. But then I was like ‘No, there’s more. There’s opportunity to have this book not only be the memoir but to be about the entire moment around the memoir, including Nuremberg, including these encounters with writers in Moscow. So, then it grew and grew as these things do. 

That’s what makes me proud, that not only is it in English, but I think it’s the most comprehensive version. It’s the only version that includes both of his editions – the Moscow and the French. It’s the only one that includes a lot of footnotes and photographs, many of which haven’t been published before, and it is the only one that includes the Nuremberg materials. So, it’s a look at a moment – we could say that it’s like 1944 to 1946 – a little sliver in Jewish life right during and after destruction.

JL: Who do you think will be interested in reading Sutzkever’s memoir?

JC: I think that actually it is going to go beyond scholars because I think people are interested in World War II biographies and memoir. There’s a lot of people in the general readership who have discovered Sutzkever. There are two films that were shown at the Yiddish Book Center. There have been new translations into English of Sutzkever’s poetry…there was a new edition, earlier this year published of Sutzkever stories, fiction. 

It will be useful to students of Holocaust history and Holocaust memory. And then I’m always amazed at the amount of general readers who are just interested in reading Jewish history. There are a lot of people who find this fascinating even someone like me who teaches both Holocaust history and Holocaust literature. There are stories in this text that are so shocking and surprising that you don’t get in your normal stuff in the general canon of Eli Weisel and Primo Levy and Anne Frank. Those are all different. Anne Frank is hiding. That’s one Holocaust experience. Primo Levy is at a work camp in Auschwitz – that’s a  different experience. Eli Weisel, also at a death camp. This is a ghetto memoir  which was entirely different. I think that we need more of those in order to really understand what it was to live at a moment where you were between life and death, as you were cut off from the rest of the world. There were rumors all around you that eventually you would be liquidated, but there was also hope that you would be able to outlast the Nazis if the Red Army or the Americans or the British would come.

And that if only you were useful, and if only you were productive, the Nazis wouldn’t kill you. Because after all, you’re making their food, you’re making their coats. They need those to fight, so as long as we’re productive and slave laborers we can outlast this. 

It’s also an exercise in how people live in extremis. I think that’s amazing, and I think it’s a credit to Jewish self-organization in the ghetto. How quickly ghetto leaders tried to replicate some of the systems that existed before the ghetto in normal society. So, if you have Yiddish and Hebrew schools before the war, you’re going to create them in the ghetto. If you have a Yiddish theater before the war, you’re now going to have a Yiddish theater during the war. But we have to think about sort of the conditions that these people are living in. On the one hand it’s totally understandable. On the other hand, I’m like, these people could have just sat around doing nothing, right? But they threw themselves into this work. 

JL: Was his memoir one of the first, and how did it compare to other accounts of life for Jews during the war?

JC: In the back of the book, I provide a bibliography of sorts of films or writing and about the Holocaust. There are diaries that come out that were written during the Holocaust. His work is not a diary. It’s a very close reflection while the smoke was still burning… It’s among the earliest because he starts writing it in 1944 before the end of the war.

In a way his is the most far reaching in wanting to talk a little bit about the beginning of the war and the arrival of the Nazis. Then a whole section on Jewish self-organization, whether it be self-help, or health, or hospitals or culture, theater, music, schools. 

And then only in the third section, looking at the resistance. For him, the resistance was twofold. It wasn’t only physical resistance but cultural. The theme that being a teacher is also a form of resistance because teachers could have just stayed home and hidden. But they decided to go and teach kids, and every day those kids would be fewer in number. That’s a form of resistance for him. 

And then the last chapter is of going backwards — visiting the town after its destruction, going to visit the killing fields and talking to some of the witnesses. 

Another thing about the text is that it’s poly-vocal in nature, with diverse voices and a lot of quotation of other people – “So and so told me this.” He’s not only a memoirist and chronicler, but he’s also the avenue through which others testify. He’s the address for others’ testimony.

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