Abraham Sutzkever
Abraham Sutzkever

‘Who Will Remain?’ Filmmaker’s ode to legendary Yiddish poet to screen in Palo Alto

Christa Whitney is one of a growing number of non-Jewish Yiddishists.

She first got interested in Jewish history as a student at El Cerrito High School, where she took an elective class on World War II. As an undergraduate at Smith College, she studied Yiddish poetry while working toward a degree in comparative literature. And upon graduating in 2009, she took a job at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

She has worked there ever since and heads up its Wexler Oral History Project.

“It’s a whole world that’s opened up to me,” Whitney, 36, said in an interview. “The practice of oral history is so satisfying and interdisciplinary, and continually stimulating. Whether I’m thinking of it as archival or storytelling practice or filmmaking practice, there are all of these facets of it that keep my interest.”

Later this month, Whitney, who grew up in Kensington, is coming home to the Bay Area for the premier of a film she co-produced and co-directed, “Ver Vet Blaybn?” (Who Will Remain?), about the late Yiddish poet Abraham “Avrom” Sutzkever.

The documentary will be shown in a public screening at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on April 18 in commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Whitney and co-director Emily Felder of Los Angeles will answer questions after the screening.

The Wexler Oral History Project, which is sponsored by Deborah and Peter Wexler of Palo Alto, features online videos of mostly American Jews talking about their connection to Yiddish and Yiddish culture. Whitney estimated that they’ve recorded more than 1,200 interviews so far, and she’s conducted around half of them herself.

“Ver Vet Blaybn?” is the first full-length film to come out of an oral history that was part of the Wexler Oral History Project. The title comes from one of Sutzkever’s poems.

Sutzkever (1913-2010) is considered one of the most renowned Yiddish poets. He was part of a group of writers and poets in Vilna in the 1930s known as Yung-Vilne (Young Vilna). He also was part of the Paper Brigade, a group of literary Jews in the Vilna Ghetto chosen by the Nazis to sort through literature and cultural objects for a supposed museum. (This writer’s grandmother, Rachela Pupko-Krinsky, was also a member of this group, and she and Sutzkever were dear friends.)

Sutzkever and his wife, Freydke, were able to escape to the forests and become partisans. When a poem he wrote reached Russia in 1943, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee begged the Kremlin to help rescue him from a remote Soviet location. A special plane came for him and Freydke. He served as a witness in the Nuremberg trials, held in 1945 and 1946, and settled in Israel in 1947.

Whitney first encountered Sutzkever’s work in historian Justin Cammy’s class at Smith. (Cammy was the editor and translator of a 2021 edition of Sutzkever’s memoir, “From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony.”)

“Sutzkever talked about these horrific historical events, but connected them to the natural world so masterfully,” Whitney said. And given that her own non-Jewish great-grandparents came from Lithuania, “that pulled me toward that geography, toward the Litvak landscape.”

Although Sutzkever’s poetry has been translated into 30 languages, and he was awarded a prestigious Israel Prize in 1985, many have said he was not properly recognized in Israel because, after the Holocaust, the new Jewish state was busy building its own self-image and Hebrew was valued while Yiddish wasn’t.

Perhaps no one felt that more than Sutzkever’s granddaughter, Israeli actor Hadas Kalderon, who set out to change it. She produced her own film, “Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever,” a 76-minute documentary released in 2018.

“Ver Vet Blaybn?” includes footage that Kalderon shared of herself visiting all the places in Vilna (now called Vilnius) where her grandfather’s life unfolded. It also has clips of Sutzkever giving his testimony at the Nuremberg trials and narration of him reading his own poetry.

The 2021 documentary has been shown at international festivals and won several awards, including best documentary at both the Melech Tel Aviv International Film Festival and the Switzerland International Film Festival.

“Ver Vet Blaybn?” screening followed by director Q&A and snacks, 1-3:30 p.m. April 18 at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $10 in advance or $20 at the door.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."