In The Tree of Life, a Yiddish-language trilogy of the Holocaust set in the Polish city of Lodz, Chava Rosenfarb explores the lives of ten richly drawn characters before the war, and the fate that befell them once it began. (The trilogy was published in English translation in 2004.) While Rosenfarb herself was a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, Dara Horn explains that the book is no memoir but an “immersive, engrossing, [and] exquisite” work of literary fiction, albeit one that confounds the expectations of American readers:
Even educated readers who appreciate tragedy still secretly expect a “redemptive” ending, an epiphany, a moment of grace. Yet notice how Christian these terms are, with their assumption that suffering—especially that of others—is ennobling or generates beauty and meaning. . . .
[This] idea of [the need for redemption] is truly obscene when applied to fiction about the Holocaust, yet it is the main type of Holocaust literature English readers encounter: stories about brave fighters, altruistic rescuers, and sweet girls who insist that people are good at heart—or worse, easy bromides about the absence of God instead of accusatory truths about the evils of man. . . . Does that mean imagination ought to have no place in writing about atrocity? Not at all. But a work about the Holocaust should necessarily be painful, not inspiring, and should honor the fullness of the loss, not only of individuals but of entire communities. [The Tree of Life] . . . accomplishes all of this. . . .
Prewar Lodz was one-third Jewish, and Rosenfarb brilliantly unfolds a panorama of the city in all its diversity by intertwining her complex characters’ lives. . . . Rosenfarb’s characters are not reducible to representatives of a type or class. They are each embedded, as real people are, in networks of families, lovers, friends, and enemies; . . . inspired by their own commitments and also plagued by private doubts. The integrity of these characters depends, as it does for all of us, on their inherent adulthood, their agency in their own choices.
In the ghetto, none of that disappears; each character remains exactly who he or she was before, just in inhuman circumstances. The Holocaust was not a morality play, except perhaps for its perpetrators. And that’s exactly what makes the ghetto’s horrors real.
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