Chava Rosenfarb's Memory of the Holocaust Was Formed in the Abyss and Redeemed by Writing

From her new life in Montreal, the Yiddish writer created out of the degradation she had experienced a forceful body of work that calls out to be rediscovered.

Women cooking flatbread at the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. George Rodger/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

Women cooking flatbread at the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. George Rodger/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

Observation
Oct. 27 2020
About the author

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalNPR online, and elsewhere, and she serves as the books columnist for Psychotherapy Networker.


The more engrossed I’ve become in the work of the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011), the more dismayed I am by her relative obscurity. At once grounded in realism and laced with lyricism, her novels, poems, plays, and short stories materialize out of the shadows of her own experience as a Polish Jew whose world dissolved when the Nazis invaded her country in September 1939. She endured four years in the Lodz ghetto, and close to another year in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. But in the years that followed, on the other side of horror and ensconced in a new life in the Jewish community of Montreal, she created out of the degradation she had experienced and annihilation she had witnessed a forceful body of work that calls out to be rediscovered. First and foremost among them is her epic trilogy of the Lodz ghetto, The Tree of Life, originally published in Yiddish in 1972.

Not nearly as well remembered or as widely read as she should be, Rosenfarb could not forget—or stop writing about—the Holocaust. Given the immense proliferation of memoirs, novels, histories, and other works about the Shoah, it perplexes me that those of her works that have appeared in English have not yet found a wider readership. The recent publication of Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essaysedited by Rosenfarb’s daughter and frequent translator Goldie Morgentaler, will, perhaps, help to remedy the situation. Collected by Morgentaler, a professor of English at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, the essays—most of which originally appeared in Yiddish-language publications, although a few translations have appeared in Jewish periodicals—also serve as a welcome, and welcoming, introduction to Rosenfarb’s work.

Morgentaler groups the essays into three broad sections: literary criticism, travelogues, and personal history. We see Rosenfarb bringing her multiple perspectives as author, Holocaust survivor, and Yiddishist to her literary investigations—especially those grappling with the fragile future of Yiddish literature and her evaluations of other writers of the Holocaust, in particular Paul Celan and Primo Levi. Rosenfarb also proves herself an engaging travel guide in her accounts of her journeys to Australia (where she eventually spent several months each year with her second husband) and to Prague (where she conjures a panoply of Jewish ghosts, including Franz Kafka, and considers the messianic longings of her otherworldly great-great-grandfather).

 

But the autobiographical essays are the most powerful, introducing us to a literary sensibility formed in the abyss and redeemed by the very act of writing. They further illuminate the process by which she melded raw memory and historical fact into works of fiction. And they provide glimpses of the works themselves, which capture, with an authenticity both painful and poignant, the vibrancy of Jewish life in prewar Poland; the horror of life in the Lodz ghetto; and the post-Holocaust struggle to reconstruct a life while haunted by ghosts too persistent to ignore.

Rosenfarb begins her title essay by describing writing as a “form of confession in disguise,” adding that, “No matter what the subject, all literary roads lead back to the self.” For Rosenfarb, they also lead to the Polish industrial city of Lodz. At the time of her birth in 1923, Jews made up about a third of the city’s population, with many—her parents among them—having left the shtetls of their childhoods in search of higher-paying jobs in the city’s factories. Growing up, Rosenfarb regularly visited the impoverished shtetl of Kinsk, where both her parents were raised and where their extended families still lived. She recounts these visits in her essay, “Ramblings Through Inner Continents: Notes from a Life,” where she also confronts the straightforward fact that, as she puts it “No one and nothing is left of the Kinsk that I remember.”

In September 1939, Hitler’s conquest of Poland ended any possibility of ever returning to Kinsk, except in memory—and in writing. Her two-volume novel Bociany, published in 1983 and subsequently translated into English, painstakingly recreates that vanished community in all its religious rigor, emotional closeness, and abject poverty.

In February 1940, the high-school-aged Rosenfarb, her sister, her parents, and Lodz’s 160,000 other Jews were herded into the Nazi-imposed ghetto. It was there, behind the barbed wire and electrified fences of the already decrepit, overcrowded slum known as Baluty, that Rosenfarb began writing in earnest. She was not alone in this endeavor: “In the ghetto, along with tuberculosis, typhus, and dysentery, there raged the epidemic of writing. . . . It was the drive to raise oneself above fear through the magical power of the written word, and so to demonstrate one’s enduring capacity for love, for singing praise to life. Even in the concentration camps, even by the glare of the crematorium flames.”

One of the best known of these ghetto writers was her friend and mentor, the poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch (1907-1944), to whom she pays tribute in one of the book’s most moving essays. Only two of his poems survived him, discovered in a pile of garbage left behind in the destroyed ghetto. But those works are stunning in their restraint, carrying the power of “a scream stifled in silence,” as Rosenfarb puts it. Her description of his unflinching, almost stark approach to recording the grim life of the ghetto echoes her own aesthetic. Like him, she would also meticulously build one grim detail upon another to create the cumulative effect of the “unearthly, phantasmagoric atmosphere” of the daily hell they lived through. When the ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, Rosenfarb, her family, and Shayevitch shared the same cattle car bound for Auschwitz. She lived to tell the tale; he did not.

Each night in her concentration-camp bunk, Rosenfarb writes, she would lie awake using a concealed pencil to transcribe in tiny letters onto the ceiling above her the ghetto poems she had written and memorized. After the war, these lines became the foundation of her first book of poems, several of which were translated into English and included in her collection Exile at Last: Selected Poems.

The earliest of these poems, “Freedom,” written in the winter of 1940, when she was seventeen, strikes me as an adolescent’s trenchant recognition of the most bitter coming-of-age possible, behind barbed wire:

Far, on the other side,
there is your freedom,
crossed out a million times
by barbed wire.
There, on the other side,
Time untamed pulsates in lively rhythms.
People live there.

Brother, take my hand.
Stop complaining.
Brother, squelch the scream
of vain desire.
You’ve got your crust of bread?
Then chew it
and do not look across to where green-lipped farmland
kisses the rising sun on the horizon.

For here on our side—
here in the ghetto,
time and space exist
only in chatter.
Here all that counts against oblivion is pain.
So if you’ve got a pillow,
bury your head in it at nightfall.
Here luck means that a dream
becomes a shortcut
to your freedom.

And then came the liberation. Her essay, included in this volume as “Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945,” captures feelings of awe tinged with disbelief as she steps into a world now free from Nazi rule. Its entries alternate between trauma and hope as she, along with her mother and sister, begin to take in the enormity of the Holocaust from the perspective of their new “home,” a displaced-persons camp located in a former German army barracks near the original camp. She is haunted by dreams of Shayevitch, savors the unbridled joy at being alive, struggles with unending currents of guilt and grief, and is nearly overcome by a life-threatening bout with typhus. “I suspect that it was not my body but my soul that was so ill,” she writes after nearly six weeks in the hospital. “I feel like someone who has spent a long time in a dark cellar and has suddenly come up for the light . . . without the strength to absorb it.” Then she learns the cruel irony of her father’s death, “a day before the liberation, killed when an American bomb landed on the train that the Germans were using to transport Dachau prisoners deeper into Germany.”

At that point, Rosenfarb writes, “The German soil began to burn beneath our feet,” and the three remaining family members smuggled themselves into Belgium. There, in 1949, Rosenfarb reconnected with and married her childhood friend and classmate Heniek (Henry) Morgentaler, and the two of them emigrated to Canada, where they were later joined by her mother and sister. Rosenfarb and Morgentaler settled in Montreal, where she gave birth to her daughter Goldie and son Abraham, and set to work writing in earnest again, mostly in verse.

But she soon found that the broad scope of the Lodz ghetto epic she wished to present required a form more flexible and roomier than her poetry. She turned to prose, beginning the work that would consume her for the next twenty years: The Tree of Life, a novel in which every event described actually happened. Yet choosing the novel was a shrewd artistic strategy, allowing her greater freedom than autobiography or memoir to delve into the particular travails of each of her varied cast of characters.

In 1965, while already at work on this monumental, three-volume novel, she composed a poem (also included in Exile at Last) whose remarkable compression highlights the contrast between what Rosenfarb could achieve in verse and what she could achieve in prose. The poem’s title clearly echoes the novel’s, and the former’s content relates to the truncated hopes and lives of the characters who people the latter:

“The Tree of Love”
They did not know
that love is like a tree
of fragile, precarious luck;
that a branch chopped from its lifebearing trunk
would never grow back.

They wondered why every smile on their lips resembled an open sore;
and did not grasp that
a trunk with no branches
is a tree no more.

In The Tree of Life published in 1972, Rosenfarb would present the details of life—and death—in the ghetto. The snippets of description she includes in her essays are incisive but don’t do justice to what she accomplishes in this novel. It is so viscerally immersive that reading it one tastes the watery turnip soup and winces at the stench of sewage. Her characters span every social, financial, artistic, religious, and political niche of Jewish Lodz, each one forced to undergo so many humiliations and macabre machinations for survival that the discovery of even the smallest remnant of humanity or mercy is cause for celebration. For the most part, these characters are fictional composites with made-up names.

For the rest of her life, Rosenfarb admits, shadows of the ghetto and the Holocaust would remain. She dramatizes that interplay between past and present in The Tree of Life’s brief epilogue—set in Brussels shortly after the war—as the semi-autobiographical protagonist Rachel feels the tension between lovingly caring for her newborn and wishing away memories from the ghetto occasioned by the sight of the cherry tree outside her window.

For most of the year, Rachel did not notice the tree. But in the spring, when it burst into bloom, it would remind her of the cherry tree she had known in the ghetto. Its large boughs, clad in their leafy sleeves, caught her eyes, preventing her from seeing anything but a white cherry-blossom holiday against the background of ghetto darkness . . .

Today was no different, and today too, like many times before, she decided to put an end to her trips into the past. Across the street, on the other side of the fence, the cherry tree was quietly shedding its blossoms. “Let the ghetto mood fall from me like the blossoms from the tree,” she prayed.

But a few paragraphs later, Rachel is reaching for a pencil to begin writing the book we are about to finish.

And so the ghosts remain. Rosenfarb’s short-story collection Survivors focuses on the myriad ways survivors confront—or deny—the echoes and reverberations of trauma. In, “Shloymele,” an essay included in the volume under review, she reveals one such instance from her own life: the mere sight of carefree children playing in a Montreal park triggers memories of the ragged, pale, scrawny eleven- and twelve-year-old boys who sat in the illegal, makeshift attic classroom that she, still in her teens, presided over. Of the 60 students with whom she had begun her class in Yiddish literature, by August 1944 only ten remained. “I never encountered a single one of my students after the liberation,” she writes. But when she passes the playground, their faces meld into the memory of her favorite, Shloymele, who doggedly and eagerly attended her class until the end, and mourns for them anew.

For Rosenfarb, not forgetting the past meant never ceasing to recreate it on paper. That mission encompassed the Yiddish-speaking Poland of her youth, the terror of the Lodz ghetto and the concentration camps, and the ongoing aftermath of survival. 

She wrote because she had to remember, and because she had to remember, she wrote. As such, she did not accept Theodor Adorno’s assertion that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” contending instead that it is “a meaningful, powerful declaration, but it has nothing to do with me.” She continues:

The rhythms surging inside me deny his statement. I think of my father, who prodded me to write, even in the ghetto. I think of the poet Shayevitch, who wrote poems even in the camp, just days before he was sent to the gas chamber. They too deny Adorno’s statement. As long as there is life, the human heart will never cease singing of its joys and sorrows. Up to the brink of the grave, man clings to his song, just as he clings to life. Moreover, those who feel the urge to sing, even when their throats emit only a whimper, or a screech, do not ask whether or not they ought to sing. . . . Life without song, without spiritual expression, is absurd.

Rosenfarb strove to preserve not only her personal experience but the collective life history and collected spiritual expression of a people. Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays shows us how, and why, both she and the Jewish people can and must continue to create and sing and thrive after suffering, in spite of it, and because of it. “Mine is a brutal, nightmarish story,” she writes in her title essay, quoted above, “but also one of extraordinary endurance and nobility of heart, a story of moral strength and defiance,” and not least a story “of the last six years in the life of a once-flourishing Jewish community.” Read her work, and you will remember, too, and maybe even sing.