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The Poet from Vilna


On the 6th of June, 1959, I arranged a rendezvous for the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, who was then on his maiden visit to North America. Unable to get a visa for the United States, he had come on a speaking tour of several Canadian cities, spending most of his time in Montreal, where I was living at the time. Quite a number of his friends who had known him before the war and writers who wanted to meet him for the first time made the trip across the border, swelling the audiences for his public lectures and readings. But the meeting I set up for him was to be secret and private. On the agreed morning, my husband Len and I drove Sutzkever to the Montreal airport where we picked up his visitor and then took them both to a cottage we had booked at La Chaumière, a secluded lodge in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains. Once we saw them settled, we drove back to the city, returning the following afternoon to execute the plan in reverse.

Sutzkever's clandestine visitor was Max Weinreich, linguist and historian of the Yiddish language, who had been his mentor in Vilna before 1939. The two men had not seen one another in twenty years. When the Germans invaded Poland, Weinreich happened to be attending a conference in Denmark with his elder son, Uriel. Father and son left for the United States, where Max took time off from his Yiddish scholarship to write Hitler's Professors, documenting the participation of some of Germany's most distinguished thinkers in the Final Solution. Meanwhile, Sutzkever and his new bride Freydke had been incarcerated with some 80,000 fellow Jews in the double ghetto that the Germans set up soon after they occupied Vilna in the summer of 1941. They were among the few who survived the massacres and deportations, reaching Moscow in March 1944, Paris (via Vilna and Lodz) in 1946, and Tel Aviv in 1947.

"It is true that we deal in words, each of us in his fashion," Weinreich wrote to Sutzkever when they established a correspondence after the war, "but it doesn't require words to express what we feel for one another." It was Weinreich who had asked that their meeting be private so that they could spend their short time together without fanfare or interruption.

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About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken) and a forthcoming edition of The Glatstein Chronicles (Yale University Press).

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