How the Holocaust Brought a Great Yiddish Writer to Forsake Poetry for Epic Prose

November 8, 2019 | Marc Caplan
About the author:

Little known to the English-speaking world, Chava Rosenfarb (1923–2011) is generally considered in Yiddish literary circles to be one of the greatest post-World War II writers in that language. Born in Poland, Rosenfarb endured the war in the Łódź Ghetto, Auschwitz, and other concentration camps. Thereafter she settled in Canada, where she wrote most of her major works. Reviewing a collection of her nonfiction that recently appeared in English, Marc Caplan writes:

Rosenfarb . . . earned her stellar reputation for her epic novels, in the style of Tolstoy, and her novellas, mostly psychological tales, in the style of Chekhov. [But] she began her career as a poet, with the volume The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest (1949).

In the first essay of the collection, Rosenfarb writes: “The brutal reality of the ghetto demanded the dry precision of unadorned words. Not that I wanted to ban the poet within me; on the contrary, I wanted her to stand by me, but I wanted her to creep with me through the maze of ghetto streets, through the muck of human baseness, as low to the ground as possible.”

“Liberation,” Rosenfarb wrote in a diary that she kept in a displaced-persons camp, “wears a prosaic face.” . . . Her vision in those days, nearly identical to her developed fictional works, was to weave together the raw terror of the Holocaust with an artistic perspective to create a panoramic picture of what occurred and to whom, including both the fate of the victims and the vitality of Yiddish culture that had flowered until the war.

For this reason, one should consider these essays as an extension or “appendix” to Rosenfarb’s masterworks in fiction. But as an extension, the essays also offer insight into her grand novels and penetrating novellas. Her immense literary legacy grew out of the first poems of her youth, which were literally carved into the walls of the ghetto. Those poems are the seeds from which her mature work flowered. As a result, one could consider her prose as “poetry by other means.”

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