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Israelis You Should Know: Abraham Sutzkever

Abraham Sutzkever (Photo: Yad Vashem)

Lived: July 15, 1913 - January 20, 2010

Known for: An acclaimed Yiddish poet, Sutzkever has been called "the greatest poet of the Holocaust."

Why you should know him: Born to a Jewish family in what is now Belarus, Abraham Sutzkever fled east to Siberia after Germany invaded during World War I. After that war, the family moved to Vilna, where Abraham joined the Jewish scouting movement.

Marrying his wife Freydke in 1939, only a day before World War II began, Abraham and his bride were sent to the Vilna Ghetto. The Nazis ordered Abraham to hand over Jewish documents and artwork. However, Abraham was able to hide Theodor Herzl's diary, drawings by Chagall and Bogen, and other important Jewish works behind plaster and brick. Tragedy would still strike the Sutzkever family.

Abraham's mother and infant son were murdered by the Nazis. Abraham and Freydke escaped to the forest, where Abraham fought the Germans with the partisan forces. He joined a Jewish unit and took part in missions against the Nazis before being smuggled into Russia.

In 1946, Abraham served as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials, testifying against Franz Murer, who had murdered his mother and son. The next year, he made aliyah (immigrated) to the Holy Land.

Having written poetry, at first in Hebrew, from a young age, Abraham published his first Yiddish poetry before World War II. His second book, From the Forest, written after the Nazi invasion, was followed by others that chronicled life in the Vilna Ghetto and hiding in the sewers of Vilna.

After the war, Sutzkever advocated for the use of Yiddish, working to keep the language alive. In the 1970s, he wrote what many consider his masterpiece, Poems from a Diary, that tells of the rebirth of destroyed landscapes and societies, and how the Holocaust's murdered Jews live on in the survivors' memories.

Aside from his lasting work, Abraham had two daughters, Mira and Rina, with his wife Freydke. Abraham died at the age of 96 in Tel Aviv, but his work - and his memories of the Jewish people's darkest time and enduring survival - live on in poems such as "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:
See, I glow
Inside you,
Why look for me outside?

And in my great
Forged rage,
I ripped my spirit from my body
Like a sharp horn
Of a living animal
And began to blow:
Tekiya,
Shevorim.
Come to life, the world is now free.

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