In honour of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Wednesday, January 27th, the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies had the great privilege of hosting a special preview educational screening of Ver Vet Blaybn? (Who Will Remain?), a documentary film about the renowned and distinguished Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever which follows his granddaughter, Israeli actress Hadas Kalderon, as she explores Vilna through her grandfather’s diary. The event was held just a week after the eleventh anniversary of his death and was certainly also held in Sutzkever’s memory.
Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever was known as the poet of the Vilna Ghetto. He was born in 1913 in Smorgon, contemporary Belarus. In 1921 his family moved to Vilna where he attended various kheders, Herzliah, a Polish-Jewish high school, and audited classes in Polish literature at Stefan Batory University. He did many remarkable things in his lifetime, including smuggling rare Jewish books out of Vilna for YIVO during the Second World War, testifying while standing as though to say Kaddish on behalf of Eastern European Jewry at the Nuremberg trials, and founding the Yiddish literary journal Di Goldene Keyt in Tel-Aviv in 1949. Sutzkever passed away in 2010 in Tel-Aviv.
The screening was followed by a discussion of the film with Hadas Kalderon herself, Christa P. Whitney, director of the film, and Professor Justin Cammy, esteemed scholar of Sutzkever. Kalderon—who was an Associate Producer of the 2018 documentary film Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever which won various award including the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival Award (2019) and the Yad VaShem Chairman’s Award for Artistic Achievement in Holocaust-related film at the Jerusalem International Film Festival (2018) among other awards—first visited Vilna in 2010 while working on a show--The Twins—based on her grandfather’s prose poems entitled Griner Akvarium [Green Aquarium] which were written in Israel in 1953-4. On this visit she began filming her explorations of Vilna—footage that would later become a part of Ver Vet Blaybn?. After his passing in 2010, it was Kalderon’s feeling that it was important to spread knowledge of her grandfather’s legacy that propelled her on this journey. When her grandfather—to whom she affectionately refers to as “Abrashe”—passed, she was working on a production in Germany and she remembered that Parliament in Vilnius, Lithuania stood silent in Sutzkever’s memory for one minute and that she had seen a picture of her grandfather in a German newspaper announcing his passing, but his death went unacknowledged by the Israeli government until she hosted a memorial evening thirty days after his death (shloshim).
Ver Vet Blaybn? opens with footage from the ceremony in which Avrom Sutzkever accepted the Israel Prize for Yiddish Literature. The film tells the story of Hadas’ relationship with her grandfather and his legacy through a weaving of archival footage such as that from the Israel Prize ceremony, footage of Hadas in Vilna retracing her grandfather’s footsteps, home videos of Sutzkever in his living room, and oral history interviews Whitney had done at the Yiddish Book Center in her role as director of their Wexler Oral History Project. The film gives viewers an intimate perspective of the acclaimed poet, revealing the nuances and contradictions of his life in Israel, where he emigrated with his wife Freydke in 1947. While the Siberian landscape of his youth captivated his poetic imagination and while Vilna was Yiddishland to him, Sutzkever never returned after leaving. Hadas’ return to Vilna in 2010 with her mother, her aunt, and Sutzkever’s diary after his death was a symbolic homecoming for Sutzkever’s work.
The Yiddish language was immensely important to the poet who wanted to testify in Yiddish at Nuremberg though it wasn’t an official language of the trial, who refused to write in Hebrew in Israel though the setting felt unnatural for the Yiddish language. In the film, it is revealed that while Sutzkever’s professional life happened entirely in Yiddish, Yiddish was less central at home. In the film, Hadas notes that Yiddish culture and the trauma of the Holocaust “almost do not touch” the second generation (that of Sutzkever’s daughters), passing straight to the third generation (Hadas’ generation), though her mother, she says, “will tell you, ‘I heard it and know about it’”. Ver Vet Blaybn? highlighted Sutzkever’s dedication to the Yiddish language and how it meant that he wrote with the intention of being read in Yiddish and fostering a Yiddish literary culture and tradition in Israel and did not dedicate his time to translation as Yiddish writers who were better known in North American did, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer. This of course meant that Sutzkever was not as well known outside of Yiddish literary circles as some of his contemporaries. Sutzkever’s use of the Yiddish language in his professional life after the Holocaust can be read as a form of resistance to keep Jewish linguistic and cultural memory alive.
Prof. Cammy reminded during the discussion that while Israel took in Yiddish-speaking refugees, those refugees were told to give up their Yiddish for Modern Hebrew. Further, Prof. Cammy noted that Sutzkever should not only be remembered singularly as the poet of the Vilna Ghetto, but also as a poet of Siberia, the Holocaust, and also Israel as Sutzkever’s later poems focussed on the poet’s immediate surroundings. Prof. Cammy brought attention to the fact that Kalderon engages in “quest tourism” in the film, a form of tourism which Erica Lehrer defines as that which is “undertaken out of a sense of lack, in pursuit of what can only be fulfilled through an expedition into the unknown.” Kalderon expressed the overwhelming sense of lack she felt after her grandfather passed which propelled her on her journey to explore his memory through film which lead to her first visit to Vilna.
In his post-Holocaust poem “Tsu Poyln” [To Poland] (published 1948) Sutzkever asks:
דעם עמק הבכא, די שטיבער, די גריבער?
ווי שטעלט מען דער פּוסטקײט אַ דענקמאָל, אַ צײכן,
עס זאָל צו מייַן אײניקלס אײניקל גרײכן? 
How do we leave behind
these Weeping Valleys, these homes, these graves?
How to place in emptiness a memorial, a sign,
should it be done by my grandchild’s grandchild?
Perhaps Ver Vet Blaybn? answers Sutzkever’s question of how we can remember what was left behind in the emptiness of the post-Holocaust world as viewers of the film watch Hadas, her mother, and her aunt visit the memorial at Ponary and walk through the woods where her grandmother carried her grandfather on her back because he was no longer able to walk as his feet were frozen. The film’s title--Ver Vet Blaybn?—comes from a poem from his collection Lider fun Togbukh [Poems from My Diary] which Sutzkever published in Israel in 1977. The poem itself was written in 1974 and contemplates memory, memorialization, what will remain when we are gone. In the first line of the poem (as translated by Maia Evrona), Sutzkever asks, “Who will remain, what will remain?”, Sutzkever answers, “A wind”, “a puff of cloud hooked upon a tree”, “A drop of wine […] in a pitcher”, closing the poem with the questions: “Who will remain? G-d will remain, isn’t that enough for you?”
Ver Vet Blaybn? is a Finalist for the Madrid Film Awards, has won Best Feature Documentary from the Luleå International Film Festival Award, the Award of Recognition for Documentary Feature film and Award of Merit in Jewish film from IndieFEST Film Awards, as well as the Award of Recognition for Documentary Feature film category from ImpactDOCS Film Awards.
To learn more about Ver Vet Blaybn? and to view a schedule of upcoming screenings, please visit
Look out for Prof. Cammy’s translation of Sutzkever’s Vilna Ghetto (1946) which will appear later this year with McGill-Queens University Press.
Many thanks to the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Centre as well as the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics for supporting this wonderful event!
 Information from Ruth Wisse’s biography in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
 See also: The Book Smugglers by David E. Fishman.
 Sutzkever, Abraham, and Ruth R. Wisse. “Green Aquarium.” Prooftexts 2, no. 1 (1982): 95-121. Accessed February 17, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20689024.
 Lehrer, Erica T. “The Quest: Scratching the Heart.” In Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places, 91-122. Indiana University Press, 2013. Accessed February 11, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16gzjw2.8.
 Yiddish from Marek Tuszewicki’s publication in Cwiszn.
 My translation.
 Lider fun Togbukh can be found in the original Yiddish through the Yiddish Book Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library. The poem is on page 18 of the PDF, untitled as the rest of the poems in the collection.
 Evrona, Maia. “Who Will Remain? What Will Remain?” In Translation. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://intranslation.brooklynrail.org/yiddish/ten-poems-from-poems-from-my-diary-by-abraham-sutzkever/
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The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies
is an interdisciplinary program based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Founded in 2009 and located within the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, HGMS provides a platform for cutting-edge, comparative research, teaching, and public engagement related to genocide, trauma, and collective memory.