Mar 15, 2020
January 19th, 2020. A small gallery in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district is crowded and abuzz. There are several people smoking in the bar (yes, smoking is still permitted in many Berlin venues), and it gives the whole setting a bit of an outdated look. The gallery’s name is ZeitZone — “time zone” — so this imaginary time travel fits the space. Tonight, this usually empty location is full of people here to honor the tenth anniversary of the death of Avrom Sutzkever.
Nobody is a stranger here; everybody who comes is immediately engaged in small talk with friends and acquaintances. Among those present are some members of Shtetl Neukoelln Klezmer sessions: tonight the accordionist Patrick Farrell performs instrumental pieces and accompanies the singer Sveta Kundish. She sings a couple of nigunim and songs using Sutzkever’s lyrics. The audience becomes hypnotized by the repetitive alliteration of Kundish’s rendition of “Vos vet blaybn,” one of Sutzkever’s most famous poems. In the middle of the first part of the evening, the singer and composer Daniel Kahn joins the gathering with his wife Yeva Lapsker and their newborn son Lev. The baby, barely one month old, seems to be at peace with the sounds of Yiddish poetry. He sleeps on his father’s chest and does not notice all the attention and admiration paid to his first public appearance.
The gathering also consists of Berlin representatives of academic Yiddish studies as well as artists, actresses, translators, and writers who in one way or another engage Yiddish in their lives and work, or who are just slightly interested in Yiddish literature and culture. But it is impossible to spot any representatives of “official” Jewish organizations, foundations, or communities. Yiddish events are not on their agenda, especially the ones organized in such an informal atmosphere, without funding or institutionalized support. A fun fact: not long before, in December, there was a so-called “Festival of Jewish Literatures” in Berlin. Its intense three-day program did not include a single event on Yiddish literature. Apparently that was not considered Jewish enough.
But back to Sutzkever’s commemoration evening. It is not a single event but a part of Yiddish Berlin’s exhibition “Di farbloyte feder: Lekoved Avrom Sutzkever,” which includes a series of poetry readings, screenings, and open talks. The exhibition is on view until the end of February. It includes only five works by Arndt Beck, Ella Ponizovsky-Bergelson, Helmut Psotta, and Bernd Kramer, but each of the pieces is absolutely striking.
Tonight, my favorite painting of the exhibition is concealed by the white screen on which photos of Sutzkever are shown. This painting is Helmut J. Psotta’s “Angel of Poetry,” on which a bright colorful figure with huge eyes holds a dove in its hands, reminding viewers that poetry brings peace and joy to hearts. Although unseen, the angel of poetry is definitely present at the event, and a discussion of Sutzkever’s ghetto period reminds the audience of the healing power of poetry.
In front of the white screen there is an antique wooden table with a single lit candle on it. At the table sits Arndt Beck: Berlin-based artist, translator from Yiddish, and the founder of the Yiddish.Berlin project. It is due to his particular fascination with Sutzkever that this event is happening. Tonight Arndt guides the audience through the life of the poet. He reads a creatively written narrative in German that is intertwined with poems and musical sections. We start in the Siberian forest and end the first part in the Vilna ghetto. The second part takes us on a tour from Africa to Israel.
In addition to Arndt, eight other people read poems onstage, myself included. Each of us has chosen from the enormous corpus of Sutzkever’s work the texts that resonate with us personally. I read three poems from the cycle “Helfandn bay nakht” (“Elephants at Night”). Sutzkever wrote them in the 1950s, inspired by his journey to African savannahs and local legends about animals. I love the magical non-Jewish and non-European imagery of the poems that makes them unique in Yiddish poetry.
Coming back to where I started — time-travel — it is striking to see how alive Yiddish culture in Berlin is tonight. Despite the fact that we have gathered in the gallery to commemorate a dead poet who wrote in what many still believe is a “dead” language, the event strikes me as extremely topical and contemporary.
Tonight, I am diving into the atmosphere of Yiddish poetry evenings that used to happen a lot a hundred years ago, and it makes me see how vivid Yiddish culture also is today. I am not alone; during the break I hear someone who has come to a Yiddish Berlin event for the first time saying how great and unbelievable it is to see so many people speaking Yiddish. Tonight is not a commemoration of a culture that belongs to the past, nor some honoring of “roots” or other nostalgic connotations. It is an event organized and attended by people for whom Yiddish is not their grandmother’s language, but rather a regular part of life for its own sake.
The exhibit’s strong connection with the present was further emphasized the following week when Sutzkever’s granddaughter Hadas Calderon came to the gallery. Calderon spoke about her grandfather and answered audience questions about him and about the movie “Black Honey,” a new documentary about Sutzkever screened the day before. Unfortunately, I could not be there, so I cannot say more about Calderon’s visit. But I found it symbolic that Sutzkever has a poem “Berliner zeyde” (“Berlin grandfather”) about his ancestors, and he himself has now turned into a “Tel-Aviver zeyde” here in Berlin.
After the exhibition closes at the end of this month, Arndt Beck will continue to organize similar events dedicated to Sutzkever. He has decided to make the whole year a commemoration of his favorite poet and to hold monthly readings, lectures, and discussions. The yortsayt-candle will continue to burn.