When the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever was alive, he rebuffed all efforts to make a film about his life. Even those of Claude Lanzmann, the director of “Shoah.”
“I think he refused because he was a perfectionist,” Uri Barbash said. “He didn’t want to let go of himself or his poetry to somebody else.”
Mr. Sutzkever died in 2010. Mr. Barbash’s film, “Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Abraham Sutzkever” premiered this year in Israel. Next month, Mr. Barbash will introduce his film at the IAC Cinematec at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
Mr. Sutzkever was born in 1913, in what was then Russia. He died at 97 in Tel Aviv. It was an interesting century to be a Yiddish poet, and Mr. Sutzkever lived a life worthy of a filmmaker’s attention. “It really defied all imagination,” Mr. Barbash said.
Abraham Sutzkever published his first poem at 17. Before the Holocaust, he was in the influential Young Vilna Yiddish writers circle. During the war, in the Vilna Ghetto, he was part of the “Paper Brigade” that preserved Jewish books and manuscripts the Nazis sought to destroy. When the ghetto was exterminated he escaped to the woods and joined Soviet partisans. He kept writing his poetry all along.
One of his poems, “Kol Nidrei,” about the ongoing Holocaust, made its way to Moscow and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
“It was read to huge audiences” Mr. Barbash said. “They were astonished. Not only by the quality of it. The poem exposed the annihilation of the Jewish people in Europe for the first time.
“Somehow, the knowledge of this wonderful poem came to Stalin. Stalin ordered his people: You must save this poet.
“In 1944, Stalin sent a small aircraft to the forest” where Mr. Sutzkever was hiding. The Germans shot down the plane. So the Soviets sent a second plane, which landed successfully and collected Mr. Sutzkever and his wife, Fredka.
“Poetry saved his life,” Mr. Barbash said.
But his life as a poet had its own tragedy.
“He wrote in Yiddish. Most of the language’s readers were murdered in the Shoah. Then he made aliyah to Israel,” arriving in Palestine in 1947. “In the late 40s, 50s, and 60s, Yiddish was rejected.” In fact, in the 50s, public Yiddish performance were illegal. “He was far from the hearts and minds of the people he loved so much,” Mr. Barbash said.
The filmmaker sees his film as “a resurrection of a great culture that disappeared and a great poet that died. But it’s not a nostalgic journey, because I believe that Sutzkever can offer us an alternative for a richer life, a just life, a meaningful life, through his life and poetry.
“He believed in poetry as a religious man believes in his god. His god was poetry in the deepest sense.”
Mr. Barbash, who was born in 1946, began his career with films about Israeli soldiers, and in “Beyond the Walls,” prisoners. In recent years he has directed television series. For the past two decades, he has found himself fascinated with the period of the Holocaust.
“I was born in Israel,” he said. “My parents came to Israel before the Second World War. I am not second generation, not third generation. But metaphorically, I feel very much of the generation of people like Sutzkever and Marek Edelman,” a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. “I write and create my films for them.”
It’s not only the Holocaust that drew Mr. Barbash to chronicle Mr. Sutzkever.
Mr. Barbash, too, is a believer in poetry and literature.
“Filmmaking for me is the weekday side of life. Literature, especially poetry, is my holiness. It’s my Shabbat. Literature is where I find my deepest and most intimate emotional experiences.”
The trigger for making the film was an accident of fate. Mr. Barbash made a thriller for television. Working with one of the actresses, Hadas Kalderon, he learned that she was Abraham Sutzkever’s granddaughter.
“We decided together that we must find a way to do a film about him,” Mr. Barbash said.
Ms. Kalderon appears in the film, and is credited as the script’s writer.
Mr. Barbash reads Mr. Sutzkever in Hebrew. “He was translated by many of our great translators and poets, like Shlonsky and Alterman and Gilboa.
“I don’t read Yiddish,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in Yiddish. Even if you speak some Yiddish, you can’t read Sutzkever’s Yiddish. His Yiddish is very sophisticated.” To help navigate the Yiddish world, the director hired a Yiddish doctoral student.
Mr. Barbash believes Israel needs Sutzkever, even if it doesn’t (by and large) share his language.
“In Israel, our culture is to some extant very narrow minded. We have to enrich ourselves in the wisdom, in the culture, in the heritage of the life in Europe before the war. Not just Sutzkever. When I read the stories of his friend Chaim Grade — he lived over 40 years in New York and never wrote one sentence about New York, all his books are about the shtetl — they’re wonderful, full of emotions. I feel that once I get to know them I enrich myself. I believe this period before the war has a rich cultural and spiritual life that can enrich our life now here in Israel.
“The life of the Golah” — the diaspora — “should be part of our life.”
Mr. Barbash summarized Mr. Sutzkever’s life as “fighting against all odds.” In making a film about a Yiddish poet, Mr. Barbash found at first that the odds were against him too.
“No television channel in Israel wanted to take part in this journey,” he said. “We started making the film completely alone.” As work progressed, funding came in, including from Vilna. At the Jerusalem International Film Festival, “Black Honey” won the prize for best film on the Jewish experience. “Since then we have full houses sold out in theaters in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, all over the country,” he said. It will play three times at the New York Jewish Film Festival next month.
So how did Abraham Sutzkever do it? What explains a life of 97 years lived in poetry?
There may be more poetry than factual truth in the filmmaker’s explanation.
“He had a deal with the Angel of Death,” Mr. Barbash said. “‘If you write every day a good poem, a harmonic poem, I will let you live. And if you don’t, I won’t take care of you.’ Every day he wrote a poem.”