By the fall of 1943, when the story of this poem is supposed to take place, the remaining Jews in Vilna had been imprisoned in the ghetto for two years already, where they witnessed the brutal death of most of their family and community members. They had been informed that the ghetto would soon be liquidated and all its surviving inhabitants deported. A small group of younger Jews in the ghetto, who had previously formed a group called the FPO (United Partisan’s Organization), called for an armed revolt at this time. In this poem, Avrom Sutzkever, who was a member of the FPO, creates a courageous portrait of these resistance members and their will to change Jewish history through self-defense.
In the poem, resistance fighters sneak into the Rom Printing Press, the oldest and most famous Jewish printing house in Eastern Europe. They turn the lead plates with Hebrew letters on them into bullets for their anti-Nazi resistance. In truth, this event did not take place. It seems that Sutzkever invented the story in order to explore the notion of Jewish resistance at this moment in history. The melting down of bullets could symbolize a shift from traditional Jewish culture, based on books and learning, to a Jewish culture that includes armed self-defense when circumstances demand. The transformation of letters into bullets could also be autobiographical. Before the war, Sutzkever was not especially politically involved and wrote mostly about nature. He was criticized by his peers for creating art that was detached from history or politics. During the Holocaust, Sutzkever decided to take an active role in fighting for his community, both in writing and in deed. He changed his writing style to include pieces like this. His own transformation could be seen as melting down one set of letters and creating a new one.
Suggested Activities: As a class, listen to Avrom Sutzkever read the poem in Yiddish. Then read the poem, as translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav, aloud. Discuss the motif of lead. What are all the things that lead becomes in the poem? Lead can signify letters as well as bullets, strength as well as stagnation, the erection of a new building as well as the sealing of a casket. Then discuss motifs of strength. Do the letters give the bullets strength or vice versa? When is it justifiable to trade in letters for bullets? When is it not?
Ask the students to note biblical references in the poem, especially to the Maccabees. What does it mean to compare Jews in the ghetto to biblical figures?
As far as we know, Sutzkever wrote the poem in February 1944, after he had already left the ghetto. But, he decided to publish the poem with the much earlier date September 13, 1943—a date just before the ghetto was destroyed, when Jews were debating resistance. Why would the poet do that? Is it okay to embellish history for the sake of communal inspiration?