Sutzkever Essential Prose
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger, with an introduction by Heather Valencia (White Goat Press, 2020)
Sutzkever Essential Prose brings to light for English readers the largely unknown prose of a seminal Yiddish poet. Avrom Sutzkever wrote the works in this volume over a span of more than 30 years, blurring the lines between fiction, memoir, and poetry; between real and imagined; between memory and metaphor. Now, through Zackary Sholem Berger’s translations, English readers can enter into an array of compelling, haunting scenes drawn from Sutzkever’s vast imagination and from the unique life he lived.
“Di dertseylungen zenen ikh (These stories are myself).” Avrom Sutzkever wrote these words on the flyleaf of a copy of his second prose collection, Dortn vu es nekhtikn di shtern (Where the Stars Spend the Night, 1979). The writer regarded his prose works as an absolutely central part of his output, but it is striking that his first collection of literary prose texts, Griner akvarium (Green Aquarium), did not appear until 1955, by which time he had been publishing poetry for almost twenty years and was regarded as one of the most original and important poets in the modern Yiddish literary canon.
Sutzkever the storyteller is inseparable from Sutzkever the poet. Both with regard to his themes and the powerful poetic language through which these themes are brought to life, his lyrics and his prose form one great poetic whole. His status as a major twentieth century Yiddish poet is gradually being established internationally through translations into many languages. The publication of this volume, containing almost all of his prose fiction in English translation, is a vital contribution to a wider knowledge of this genre of his work, so essential to our understanding of Avrom Sutzkever’s monumental literary achievements.
What the Critics Say
"Sutzkever Essential Prose, magnificently translated by Zackary Sholem Berger, is that rare thing — a truly necessary book."
—Aviya Kushner, Forward
"It’s easy to see these stories, which use the surreal to understand the unreality of world events, on a continuum of fabulist Jewish writing that includes Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz, as well as contemporary storytellers, such as Etgar Keret and Nathan Englander...A wondrous book of tales of lost worlds."
“Every page of this book—marvelously translated by Zackary Sholem Berger—trembles with smoldering vitality, and every page persuades us that the angel of prose confided in Sutzkever as faithfully as the angel of poetry. Readers of this book will not fail to appreciate how Sutzkever’s unconquered past—in Siberia, in Vilna during what he calls ‘the time of slaughter,’ and in Tel Aviv—bears on our present.”
—Benjamin Balint, author of Kafka’s Last Trial
“This book is a revelation, even for those who know Sutzkever as one of the great poets of the twentieth century, because it shows Sutzkever, for the first time in English, as a true master of prose. These riveting short stories, in Berger’s beautiful translation, cover vast territories, from Siberia to Vilna to Israel and beyond, into the worlds of memory, imagination, myth, and legend.”
—Shachar Pinsker, author of A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture
About the Author
Avrom Sutzkever (1913–2010) spent his childhood in Siberia and emerged as a writer in the burgeoning literary circles of Jewish Vilna. In the Vilna Ghetto, he wrote poetry as a means of survival. As a member of what became known as the Paper Brigade, he helped to save Jewish cultural treasures from Nazi destruction. After the war, he became an influential advocate and activist for Yiddish culture, as well as a symbol of resistance through acts such as his testimony at the Nuremberg trials. He founded the Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain) and in 1985 received the Israel Prize for Yiddish literature.
About the Translator
Zackary Sholem Berger writes and translates in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. He was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2013 and has published four collections of original poetry—Not in the Same Breath (Yiddish House, 2011), One Nation Taken Out of Another (Apprentice House, 2014), All the Holes Line Up (Ben Yehuda Press, 2019), and Vi Lebt Zikh Dortn (self-published, 2019). His translation of Avrom Sutzkever's prose poetry, Sutzkever Essential Prose, was published in 2020 by White Goat Press, and his illustrated bilingual edition of Sutzkever's Ode to the Dove was published in 2023 by Ben Yehuda Press. His best known Yiddish literary work is likely his translation of Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat (Di Kats der Payats, 2003). A mild-mannered physician by day, he lives with his Yiddish-speaking family in Baltimore, Maryland.