May 07

The Languages of Vilnius
by Jordan Benjamin
p. 2 of 2

The complexity of Sutzkever’s language cannot be captured in translation. The first and third lines of his stanzas are written in a drumming trochaic tetrameter – four feet of stressed and unstressed syllables. Heightened by a missing end syllable in the stanzas’ second and forth lines, the meter forces its sentences to terminate in a stressed accent. Sutzkever implements a classic a-b-a-b rhyme scheme which, governed by the meter, conspires to place its reader in a beating, mechanical soundscape.

Despite its marching acoustics, the poem’s content is chaotic, torn at times by linguistic ambiguity. In the fifth line of the poem, for example, Sutskever confuses his readers by obscuring the subject of his pronoun. He writes, “See, their shine grows ever dark/in my basement eyes.” And yet he gives no clue as to the nature of what is shining. Is he referring here to words or stars? Does it make difference? Are they the same thing to him?

Another logistically difficult question arises in the poem’s third stanza. Here, Sutzkever is writing about offering to God “what remains to him.” The poem does not provide us with an immediate description of what this lasting possession might consist. For an answer, we must proceed to the forth stanza where, despondently, the poet describes a “murderous silence” which “weeps” not words but the “tears” into which his words have transformed.

Of the hundreds of poems Sutzkever wrote, only a slight handful make reference to a monotheistic Deity. More typically, Sutzkever’s poems depict words that can be passed between people – between sisters and brothers, for example.

The context out of which Sutzkever wrote “Under Your White Stars,” however, implicated a diminishing world of people with whom to communicate – a community which by 1943 had been almost completely annihilated. Its absence both left behind and induced within him a sense of infinite silence. Trapped within the boundlessness of this silence, Sutzkever began to address God, begging that God take his inability to speak, border up his “tears of silence,” and lift these “tears,” now linguistically transfigured by God’s “white hand,” up into the heavens like stars.


Unlike elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the majority of Vilnius’ Jews were not taken to concentration camps. They were marched to a forest outlying Ponar, a town seven kilometers from Vilnius. Five sand traps had been dug there, beside which both Jews and Poles were lined up, shot, and buried. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people had been murdered at Ponar before the end of the war.

I did not know what this place was when the Institute first brought us to it. It was another gray day. The greens were especially vivid. We were met by Rokhl Margolis, a Vilnius ghetto survivor and a former partisan. In Yiddish, she recounted the history of the forest. She kept repeating the word: “farbrent… ” After news of a Soviet advance had reached the Nazis, Jews were brought from the Stutthof concentration camp to dig through the pits, pull the bodies out, stack them into piles, and incinerate them.

Rokhl stood facing us from in front of one of the pits. The rain was falling hard, and the pines, tall and slender, gently bent themselves over the graves.

From behind, my friend Avi approached to offer me his umbrella. He asked, “How are you feeling?”

I looked at my feet. “I don’t know.”

He smiled sympathetically. “It’s hard not to use clichés.”

“Yes,” I said. But, in truth, I didn’t even have a cliché to help.

Raphael’s eyes looked over. He passed me by.

“All these holes,” he muttered


I spent my final night in Vilnius at a bar called Absinthe. According to the guidebook, it’s the town’s most popular “hotspot.” Bartenders throw glasses up in the air and catch them behind their backs. People in tight, glittery clothes dance to techno.

I had temporarily taken up smoking again and was sitting in an outdoor section of the bar with my cigarette. It was drizzling. I pulled my hood up over my head.

Raphael and I were speaking in Yiddish when a tall, slender man approached us. His hair was slicked back into a neat ponytail. His suit looked expensive. He wore a light sweater beneath a tan jacket. He sat down, stared at us, then asked in English, “What are you?”

I looked at Raphael worriedly. Raphael looked back, an excited smile spread across his face.

The man clarified, “Are you Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox?”

Raphael answered, “We’re Jewish. Obviously, you knew this, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked.”

He paused. “My name is Martinus. What language you are speaking?”


“Your silhouettes,” Martinus said. “Your silhouettes…”

Raphael was dubious. “What do you mean? Our faces look the same?”

“No.” Martinus said. “But I know your faces. I have missed th…I had friends wh…” Martinus started to cry. “I am so drunk…please forgive me right…please…tell me your names?”



“Raphael and…?”


“Ah…Yordanus…” He continued, “And how old you are?”

“23,” Raphael said.

“25,” I said.

“One moment. I will go and come back. I will bring my friend.”

Raphael continued to smile at me. I couldn’t figure out an appropriate expression.

Martinus returned with a tough, smart-looking woman with dyed blond hair. From what I understood, she was employed as Lithuania’s culture minister to Sweden. She and Raphael began talking about music. I remained with Martinus.

“My Vilnius,” he began, “was a city of many languages…but I do not give a shit about languages…I care only for faces…what I miss are the faces…”

The music was drowning him out. Snatches of what he said drifted over to me. I was trying my hardest to hear them. A part of me felt like it didn’t matter, though. A part of me felt like I understood him without the words.

“My grandparents knew some Yiddish…” I heard him say. “I could not live here for many years. I had to leave my Vilnius because of what she had done to you. Yordanus,” he said. “I had to leave for many years but could not stay away.This ismy history. This is my country But you…” he said, “tell me of your family.”

His eyes did not deviate from mine. My entire family moved to America before the war. But we are not without our own tragedies or attempts at escaping history. I told this to him quietly.

“Yordanus…” he said. “You can help me…”

His friend touched him on the arm. “I must go, Martinus. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

He kissed her on the check. It was getting late. Soon Raphael and I would have to leave as well. Something happened before we did, though. It is probably the hardest part to describe.

Martinus embraced me. “Yordanus,” he said after pulling back, “I must tell you the way for you to help me. I am 39, you are 25,” he said. “Yordanus,” he said, “promise you will to always remember me. Promise me always to remember...”

One of my classmate’s commented after our lecture on Sutzkever that she found his “aestheticization” of the Holocaust distasteful. To a certain extent, I agree. Sometimes things need to stand outside the abstraction of poetry. Occasionally, however, when a poet’s world has been subsumed in the metaphysical, creating abstract, poetic fictions becomes his only way back to life.

I didn’t know what exactly Martinus wanted. I only knew his sense of desperation and loss. I looked at him. I tried the best I could to make my promise. I said the word. And then, strangely, for a brief moment, before my critical mind could begin reevaluating the night, I felt my silence bound and lifted, surrounded by the language of some gray-green world. It was imploring me to receive it and, in my compliance, stretched out its hand to offer me the same.



Jordan Benjamin is currently a graduate student in New York, and hopes to finish in May.

« Previous 1  |  2