The art of translation: Two books by Valley academics shed light on the Holocaust and the writing life

  • KATHRYN LACHMAN

  • Lachman has translated an award-winning biography by French writer Ghislaine Dunant.

  • Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever wrote a memoir of surviving the Vilna Ghetto during WWII, now translated into English for the first time by Justin Cammy.

  • JUSTIN CAMMY

  • “Auschwitz and After,” Charlotte Delbo’s three-part memoir about surviving internment in Nazi concentration camps and rebuilding her life, is considered a classic first-person account of the Holocaust.

  • Jewish prisoners are rounded up in Vilna (today Vilnius) in July 1941 after German troops occupied the city. Almost the entire Jewish population there was murdered during the war. Bundesarchiv/Wikipedia

Staff Writer
Published: 12/9/2021 4:07:39 PM
Modified: 12/9/2021 4:07:12 PM

A few years ago, a survey conducted by Claims Conference, an organization that oversees restitution for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs, revealed some disturbing news. Many Americans, especially younger ones, lacked a basic understanding of the Holocaust, the survey said, with respondents significantly understating the numbers of Jews murdered and failing to recognize the names of most Nazi death camps — even what was perhaps the most notorious one, Auschwitz.

But two recent translations by Valley writers and professors offer a reminder of the horrors of that era — and more.

Kathryn Lachman of the University of Amherst Massachusetts has produced the first English translation of an award-winning biography of Charlotte Delbo, the French writer who wrote a haunting memoir about surviving internment at Auschwitz. And Justin Cammy, who teaches at Smith College, has made the first English translation of a wartime memoir by the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, one of only a few hundred people to survive the Vilna ghetto in Poland (today it’s part of Lithuania).

 

Charlotte Delbo: A Life Reclaimed by Ghislaine Dunant

Translated by Kathryn M. Lachman; University of Massachusetts Press

 

Delbo, born in 1913, grew up in a working-class family and as a young woman became involved in theater, in particular through her work as a personal secretary for Louis Jouvet, a noted French theater director and filmmaker in pre-WWII France. Arrested in 1942 for her participation in the French Resistance — her husband was executed for his role in that — Delbo spent two years in Auschwitz and another Nazi camp and later wrote three linked books, “Auschwitz and After,” about the experience.

Lachman, who has taught French literature, comparative literature and other subjects at UMass — she’s an avowed Francophile who previously lived and studied in Paris — said she first discovered Delbo’s writing during her Ph.D. program at Princeton University. She read the first part of Delbo’s memoir, “None of Us Will Return,” in the original French (“Aucun de nous ne reviendra”).

She says she was struck by the way Delbo used her background in theater to try and touch readers “visually and sensually,” eschewing a conventional narrative and chronology for a more impressionistic, even poetic approach to try and “faire voir,” or make visible, the surreal barbarity of Auschwitz, a place where the Nazis had destroyed all reference points to ordinary life and decency.

“She had this experience as a witness that she was trying to convey, and she did it in a really unique way,” Lachman said. “It was very powerful.”

Then Jim Hicks, the editor of The Massachusetts Review, the Five Colleges literary journal, approached her a few years ago about translating Ghislaine Dunant’s biography of Delbo. The 2016 book, which won a significant award in France, the Prix Femina, examines Delbo’s life chiefly through her writing.

“Jim put this enormous manuscript on my desk,” Lachman said with a laugh. “I found it immediately compelling, though I didn’t realize at the time how much work would be involved. ... I read it and did the first draft of the translation at the same time.”

Among other things, the biography looks at Delbo’s long physical and emotional recovery from her imprisonment and her growth as a writer. “She was a [literary] outsider who made her own path,” said Lachman, who learned that Delbo, who died in 1985, was also a prolific playwright, a key supporter of women’s rights, and an opponent of France’s 1952-1964 war to retain Algeria as a colony.

Delbo also taught French in Massachusetts at one point, where she mentored a high school student from New York, Cynthia Haft, who grew up to become a good friend and later translated some of Delbo’s work into English, including for The Massachusetts Review.

“It was fascinating to learn all of this, and to discover how rich French theater was at that time,” Lachman said.

Lachman met with Dunant in Berlin to discuss the early stages of the translation, where the French writer told her she was happy to have a version of the book appear “in the music of my English,” Lachman said. As a trained violinist, Lachman added, “That comment meant a lot to me.”

Given the increasing growth of authoritarian regimes around the world and the threats to people based on their religion or ethnicity, she noted, “[Delbo’s] voice is needed more than ever.”

 

From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg by Abraham Sutzkever

Translated by Justin D. Cammy; McGill-Queen’s University Press

 

Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) has been called the greatest poet of the Holocaust, a writer who could wring meaning and even beauty from history’s worst case of genocide; he’s also considered one of the leading Yiddish poets overall and a champion for Yiddish after World War II, working to keep alive a language threatened by the loss of so many of its native speakers.

Sutzkever, born in what today is Belarus, also wrote a memoir about repeatedly cheating death in Vilna (today Vilnius) in what is now Lithuania, where the Nazis (and some Lithuanian collaborators) destroyed the vast majority of the Jewish population of about 75,000.

Justin Cammy, who teaches Jewish Studies and world literatures at Smith College, first read Sutzkever’s poetry as an undergraduate and became so taken with it that he switched majors from political science to Yiddish Studies, with a specific concentration on Yiddish writers in prewar Vilna, then one of the largest centers of Jewish cultural and intellectual life in Europe.

For various reasons, Cammy says, Sutzkever’s memoir was never translated into English, though editions in Hebrew, French, German and Lithuanian were issued. “I’ve wanted to translate this into English for many years,” he said, “because it’s such a vivid document of a particular time, and because he never wrote anything else like it.”

Indeed, “From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg” is written in tight, journalistic prose with a sense of immediacy — Sutzkever began writing it in 1944, when the Germans still occupied Vilna — that reflects the chaos and terror that quickly grip the Jewish community once the city falls to the Germans during the invasion of Russia in early summer 1941.

Within days, Nazi death squads begin shooting Jews just outside the city; in one early scene, Sutzkever is rounded up for one of these mass executions but miraculously escapes. But horror was never far away: The Germans murdered both his mother and his newborn son.

When they weren’t killing Jews, the Nazis often found entertainment in humiliating them. Sutzkever, along with an elderly rabbi and a young Jewish boy, was once forced to strip naked and dance in a circle around their burning clothes, which three German soldiers had set on fire, along with parchment torn from a Torah scroll.

But, as Cammy notes, Jews kept their culture alive in the ghetto, maintaining basic schools and staging plays, concerts, art exhibits and poetry readings. Sutzkever had an important role in that effort and in hiding Jewish artworks and other valuables from the Nazis, Cammy said: “He believed in spiritual and cultural resistance along with armed resistance.”

In the fall of 1943, Sutzkever and his wife escaped the ghetto and joined partisans fighting in forests outside Vilna. Several months later, Soviet Jewish writers convinced Russian officials to airlift the couple to Moscow so that Sutzkever could document Nazi atrocities in Vilna.

Cammy has actually translated two versions of Sutzkever’s memoir, as a later version includes testimony he gave at the Nuremberg trials as well as some essays he wrote in the 1960s, after he had moved to Israel. Those accounts provide an early glimpse of the rise of antisemitism in Russia after World War II, when some Jewish writers, doctors and other professionals were imprisoned or murdered on the order of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

It’s a fate, Cammy says, that Sutzkever might have faced himself had he remained in the Soviet Union. Now he hopes his book will provide a fresh look at what he calls “an incredible story and an important record of that time.”

Steve Pfarrer can be  reached  at  spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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