The great Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever wrote “To Poland” (“Tsu Poyln”) as a farewell to his adoptive homeland: to its treasured landscapes, its culture, poetry, and language. Though born in Lithuania in 1913, Sutzkever was educated in Polish-speaking Vilnius, where he embarked on his literary career, among other things as part of the group of writers known as Yung Vilne (Young Vilnius). He was later confined in the Vilnius Ghetto yet carried on writing poetry and became a member of the resistance. Sutzkever eventually managed to join the partisans in the nearby forests. From there he was evacuated and flown to Moscow. In 1944 Sutzkever returned to Vilnius and, together with his friends, attempted to rebuild the Jewish community. However, the cold welcome that awaited the Jews in Poland, in particular the Kielce pogrom of July 1946, made him lose hope in a Jewish future in that country.
Written between July and September 1946, “To Poland” is a searing poetic examination that summarizes a thousand years of local Jewish life. It is a love-hate poem to the homeland, whose speaker by turns plays the role of advocate, prosecutor, and judge. In the end he says goodbye to Poland and goes on his way, as did Sutzkever himself. After months of wandering, he arrived in the land of Israel in 1947 and made his home in Tel Aviv. There he founded the important literary review Di goldene keyt. In 1985 he won the Israel Prize. Among his friends were many Hebrew poets and other luminaries, such as Marc Chagall and Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet and Nobel Prize laureate. Sutzkever died in Tel Aviv in January 2010.
The exhibition “To Poland” was born out of a renewed encounter of the poem with a surprising audience: students of illustration from Israel and Poland. In 2016, seventy years after it was composed, third-year students at the Department of Visual Communication of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design were asked to illustrate each of the poem’s five sections. The results of this challenge, on display in this room, show their success in dealing with a complex poetic text, which evokes an ostensibly distant historical reality. Their works bridge the gap between the here and the there, between the Jewish past and the Israeli present. The subjects raised in the poem feed into new questions that people at the crossroads pose about their personal and national identities. These questions, in turn, have been answered by each student in his or her own style of illustration.
While this exhibition is being shown in Israel, a group of Polish students at the Academy of Fine Arts (ASP) in Krakow is working on the same project. Its results will be presented in the summer of 2017 at the Jewish Culture Festival. In this way, art too will again foster the kind of Jewish–Polish dialogue that, by facing the shadows of the past, can look to a brighter future.