A few years ago, an investigation by Claims Conference, an organization that oversees the restitution of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs, revealed disturbing news. Many Americans, especially younger ones, lacked a basic understanding of the Holocaust, survey finds, with respondents significantly underestimating the number of Jews murdered and not recognizing the names of most camps of Nazi deaths – even perhaps the most notorious one, Auschwitz. .

But two recent translations from Valley writers and professors recall the horrors of those days – and more.

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

Charlotte Delbo: ​​a life found by Ghislaine Dunant

Translated by Kathryn M. Lachman; University of Massachusetts Press

Delbo, born in 1913, grew up in a working-class family and got involved in the theater from his young wife, in particular through his work as personal secretary to Louis Jouvet, famous French director and filmmaker in France before. the Second World War. Arrested in 1942 for her participation in the French Resistance – her husband was executed for his role in it – Delbo spent two years in Auschwitz and another Nazi camp and then wrote three related books, “Auschwitz and Beyond”, on experience.

Lachman, who has taught French literature, comparative literature and other subjects at UMass – she is an avowed Francophile who once lived and studied in Paris – said she discovered Delbo’s writing for the first time during his doctorate. program at Princeton University. She read the first part of Delbo’s memoir, “None of Us Will Return”, in original French (“None of us will return”).

She says she was struck by the way Delbo used her theater experience to try to reach readers “visually and sensually”, eschewing a conventional narrative and timeline for a more impressionistic, if not poetic, approach to trying to “do to see ”, or to make visible, the surreal barbarism of Auschwitz, a place where the Nazis had destroyed all the benchmarks of 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 literary review of the Five Colleges, approached her a few years ago to translate the biography of Delbo by Ghislaine Dunant. The 2016 book, which won a major award in France, the Prix Femina, examines Delbo’s life primarily through his writing.

“Jim put this huge manuscript on my desk,” Lachman said with a laugh. “I found it immediately compelling, even though I hadn’t realized 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 examines Delbo’s long physical and emotional recovery after his imprisonment and his growth as a writer. “She was a [literary] stranger who forged his 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 adversary of the 1952-1964 war to retain the Algeria as a colony.

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

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

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

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

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 draw meaning and even beauty from the worst case of genocide in history; he is also considered one of the greatest Yiddish poets overall and a champion of Yiddish after WWII, striving to keep alive a language threatened by the loss of so many of its speakers. native.

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

Justin Cammy, who teaches Jewish Studies and World Literatures at Smith College, first read Sutzkever’s poetry as an undergraduate student and became so fascinated with it that he moved from political science to academic studies. Yiddish, with a specific focus on Yiddish writers in pre-war Vilna, then one of the greatest centers of Jewish cultural and intellectual life in Europe.

For various reasons, says Cammy, Sutzkever’s memoir has never been translated into English, although Hebrew, French, German and Lithuanian editions have been published. “I’ve wanted to translate this into English for many years,” he said, “because it’s such a living document from a particular era, and because he never wrote anything 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 – which reflects chaos and terror. which quickly took hold of the Jewish community once. the city fell to the Germans during the invasion of Russia in the early summer of 1941.

Within days, the Nazi death squads began shooting at Jews just outside the city; in one of the first scenes, Sutzkever is arrested for one of these mass executions but miraculously escapes. But the horror was never far away: the Germans murdered both her mother and her newborn son.

When they did not kill Jews, the Nazis often found pleasure in humiliating them. Sutzkever, along with an elderly rabbi and a young Jewish boy, were forced to undress and dance in a circle around their burning clothes, which three German soldiers had set ablaze, along with parchment torn from a roll of the Torah.

But, as Cammy notes, Jews kept their culture alive in the ghetto, maintaining basic schools and organizing plays, concerts, art exhibitions, and poetry readings. Sutzkever played an important role in this effort and in concealing Jewish artwork and other valuables from the Nazis, Cammy said, “He believed in spiritual and cultural resistance as well as armed resistance. .

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

Cammy actually translated two versions of Sutzkever’s memoir, as a later version includes the testimony he gave at the Nuremberg Trials as well as some essays he wrote in the 1960s, after moving to Israel. These accounts provide a first glimpse of the rise of anti-Semitism in Russia after World War II, when some Jewish writers, doctors and other professionals were imprisoned or murdered on the orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

It’s a fate, says Cammy, that Sutzkever might have faced had he stayed in the Soviet Union. Now he hopes his book will offer a new look at what he calls “an incredible story and an important record from this era.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]