Black Honey: the life and poetry of Avraham Sutskever

If you want to make a great documentary, find someone who few people have heard of, but who has led an astounding life. I think that Sutskever passes on both counts – like many others I was mainly there because Daniel Kahn was performing some of his poems that he’d set to music, and the film was if anything a bonus.

Here’s a brief summary of the life. Sutskever was born in Siberia and left when he was seven after his father’s death. He arrived in Vilnius just in time to be admitted to the ghetto set up by Nazi occupying forces.

Two thirds of the occupants of the ghetto are killed within the first week or so, and as the genocide increases, occupants are ordered to wear a yellow star at all times. Lacking a yellow star (for reasons I missed – there is a LOT of information in this relatively short film), Sutskever wanders out of town before coming across an armed German soldier. With nowhere to hide he approaches the soldier and says “hi there – do you know anywhere i could go where there aren’t any Germans?” and the bewildered soldier waves him on.

Then there’s the story of how he and his wife escaped through a minefield to the Russian partisans by moving to the rhythms of his poetry. There is an occasional attempt to explain all this by mysticism, by saying that the power of his poetry protected him like a guardian angel, but the film is wise enough to open itself up to multiple interpretations.

This ambiguity shows up a little in the discussion of Sutskever’s poems as part of the anti-Nazi resistance. When the mystics are speaking, I get an awful reminder of Life is Beautiful where Robert Begnini defeated the Holocaust by telliing fairy tales (plot spoiler: no he didn’t). But more grounded commentators prefer to concentrate on his role of smuggling “degenerate” literature out to future generations.

If listening to a fascinating life story isn’t enough for you, there are ideas here too. Translators explain the difficulties caused by Sutskever insisting on writing in Yiddish, a language which very few people actually speak. Of all forms of writing, poetry is probably the least open to simple translations, as even if you get the words right, you easily lose feelings or imagery. This point was hit home by the fact that we were listening to people speaking in Hebrew about translating from Yiddish while German subtitles sped past quicker than you could properly read them.

That Yiddish thing didn’t do Sutskever much good in israel either – which is where he landed after a brief sojourn in the Soviet union (where Stalin personally organised his rescue) and the Nuremburg war trials. Israel was in the process of trying to make Hebrew a Thing again, in which circumstances Yiddish was unwanted, and even seen as being slightly subversive. As one of the commentators points out, if he’d wanted to go to the centre of Yiddish he shouldn’t have gone to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv but to New York.

Nonetheless, Sutskever insists on setting up a journal devoted to Yiddish literature, setting up an uneasy relationship with the Israeli state. There is a legitimate quibble that for all the discussion about his struggle with identity as a Yiddish poet in a Jewish state, no consideration is given to the Palestinians who weren’t allowed such moral dilemmas. The quibble is legitimate, but for better or worse this isn’t really their story.

There are dozens of similar anecdotes – too many to take them all in at the first viewing. There are also a load of poems, which I felt unable to judge properly, Listening to Yiddish while seeing German subtitles fly by isn’t really Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility.

Still very much worth a seeing. I think tonight may have been the first showing in Europe. And Daniel Kahn was great too, even if he wasn’t really on for long enough.

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