SLS’s 2015 Sutzkever Prize: Yiddish Poetry Serving Right-Wing East European Politics?


The bizarre saga of the Montreal-based Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) “Jewish Lithuania Sutzkever Prize” continues apace with ever-increasing disrespect toward Abraham Sutzkever and his fellow Jewish partisans who helped liberate Lithuania from the Nazis, and ever more political entanglement with current geopolitical instrumentalization of Yiddish and Jewish causes in Eastern Europe in the context of East-West tensions.

The digital paper trail goes back to announcement of the first prize, in 2012, by which time the Summer Literary Seminars program and its director had radically shifted positions, from one of profound principled support for the Litvak cause and the true narrative of the Holocaust, and fearless criticism of some Lithuanian government policies, to the opposite extreme: trashing of Jewish critics as alleged Putin lackeys. What happened in between was a generous American Embassy / State Department grant to SLS with strings attached concerning the Holocaust and the related Jewish aspects of the program. This is part of a much larger set of politics whereby the Neocons at State have made the revision of the Holocaust in line with far-right East European nationalists a (hopefully temporary!) pillar of America’s foreign policy, with various effects in Lithuania.

Those who have spoken out to date on the Sutzkever Prize include the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel (the last group anywhere of active Lithuanian Holocaust survivors), Stanley H. BarkanArthur DobrinCharles Adès Fishman, Dovid Katz, and Peter Thabit Jones. Readers can follow the prize’s history chronologically by scrolling down to the oldest post in the Sutzkever Prize section and working upward to the present.

“Another devalued, politically manipulated Sutzkever Prize? Unfair to the judges, unfair to the winners and above all unfair to the memory of the great Yiddish poet and Jewish partisan veteran Abraham Sutzkever.”

The 2015 award, judged by the distinguished author and professor André Aciman, takes this North American literary episode to a new level in two distinct ways.

First, this year’s SLS program coincides with release of the documentary film Liza ruft, which contains the statement by the executive director of the Lithuanian government’s “red-brown commission” explaining why, in the state commission’s view, Jewish partisans should be investigated and prosecuted, though none has ever been charged with the smallest specific alleged offense. The state-sponsored campaign against (only Jewish!) veterans of the anti-Nazi Soviet-sponsored partisans (the only force effectively fighting the Nazis in Lithuania during the Holocaust) has entailed a massive campaign of defamation by state authorities. Far from it being an old issue, the 2015 statement by a high state official makes clear that the campaign against Jewish partisans — close colleagues of the late Abraham Sutzkever, a major Jewish partisan — continues apace.

Second, the winner of this year’s contest, James Kirchick, far from Yiddish poetry, Yiddish culture or the Litvak Jewish heritage, is himself a distinguished top political journalist who is part of the West’s campaign to (wrongly) fudge Holocaust issues in the (right-minded) cause of countering Putinist propaganda. While part of his trashing in the Daily Beast of an iffy anti-fascist organization sponsored by a Russian-Jewish oligarch is on the mark, it was overall so ridiculously hyperbolic (described as a plot to restore the Russian Empire), and so damaging to honest Jewish dissidents in Latvia particularly, as to have become yet another tool in the arsenal of the fascist-adoring political classes of nationalist Eastern Europe. Incidentally, Defending History published a reply to Mr. Kirchick’s piece, along with an editor’s note setting out our own position. Did that perchance contribute to propelling him toward SLS Sutzkever Prize victory in ’15? Sutzkever would in any case be bemused to learn that the “2015 SLS-Disquet Sutzkever Prize” laureate is a trasher of those few Jews in Latvia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe who stand up for the honor of the Jewish partisan resistance.

There is however still time for this year’s winner, the judge, and the leaders of SLS to fix things by issuing a firm statement condemning the ongoing state-sponsored campaign of defamation against Lithuanian Jewish partisans, the comrades in arms of Abraham Sutzkever, who will again be turning over in his grave at the abuse of his legacy by wannabees who would betray any and all to cash in on some quick summer glory back in the Old Country.

And there is always still time for SLS participants to wake up to the fact that in the years since the American Embassy started supporting the program, the Holocaust-related aspects have been shrewdly manipulated to include stalwarts of one and only one side of the debate. That policy is not in concord with the grand American tradition of free and fair debate.

As of today, all five defamed Lithuanian Jewish partisans, in their late eighties (in one case) or nineties (the other four), are alive. There is time to fix things with each. An SLS gold medal for each would go a long way.


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