Sunday, January 17, 2010


Have you ever had two seemingly unrelated events connect in unexpected ways?

This week I attended a closing event for a friend's art exhibit. Robyn Awend is a printmaker who did a series of artworks based on the poet Abraham Sutzkever of Vilna. One of the stories about Sutzkever is that he and some friends took lead type from a printing house and melted it for use in bullets against the Nazis. He wrote of this in a poem as 'melting words into bullets of lead. We poured the molten type as our forefathers once in the temple poured oil into golden menorahs'. To underscore this imagery Robyn created “bullets” of lead embossed with Hebrew letters. The exhibit also contained her wonderful prints and photographs of the traces of the former Jewish community in Vilna.

In Vilna, Sutzkever was a member of the "Paper Brigade". When the Germans sought to plunder Jewish cultural artifacts, he was among those charged with selecting what was considered valuable for the Nazis to retain. The "Paper Brigade" sought to smuggle some of these artifacts to safety. Sutzkever ultimately escaped with his wife to the forest where they fought the Nazis as partisans. As I listened to the readings about Sutzkever’s story, I was moved by the efforts to preserve the cultural history even at the cost of their lives.

A few hours later I headed off for my second event of the evening, a gathering at a games center. Here I met up with two individuals who had family from Dunilovichi. I had met them in the course of creating my ShtetLink website. Surprisingly one of them lived in the same area as me. That day was his son’s bar mitzvah and his cousin who also had roots in Dunilovichi came in for the event. While the noisy post bar mitzvah party took place with occasional interruptions from 13 year-olds, three people with family from Dunilovichi gathered to discuss family history. As I shared the closing event from which I had just come, Simon told me about his mother who was a partisan from Vilna. Not only did she know the poet Sutzkever well, but she too was part of the Paper Brigade. He told me of how the Nazis would have two people translating the same document to assure that they got accurate information. If the translations didn’t match the translators risked losing their lives. The Germans were not always there, however, and that was when they were able to smuggle out documents.

Two separate events, yet all the threads seem to knit together as if they were carefully coordinated.