A Great Jewish Books Book Club Selection
Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) was one of the most important Yiddish novelists of the post-War period. Born in Lodz, Rosenfarb was incarcerated with her family in the Lodz ghetto. When the ghetto was liquidated, Rosenfarb was sent to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen. She was on the verge of dying from typhus when the British liberated the camp in 1945. She spent several years as a Displaced Person in Brussels, where she began writing The Tree of Life, now her best-known work. She immigrated to Montreal in 1950.
Rosenfarb began to write poetry in the ghetto. In this excerpt from the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, Rosenfarb's daughter and frequent translator Goldie Morgentaler describes the strange start of Rosenfarb's literary career, how she came to the attention of other Yiddish poets, and how she became active in the ghetto writers' circles. "I think it was what got her —helped her to survive the ghetto," Morgentaler says.
In Montreal, she resumed her nascent literary career. In a thoughtful, perceptive, and moving feature about the life and work of Rosenfarb, the former Pakn Treger editor Jeff Sharlet wrote, "For years after the war and after the camps, Chava Rosenfarb woke up every morning at 4 a.m. to write. She'd open her eyes in the darkness and slip out of bed without waking her husband, make herself a cup of coffee and sit down in her study, still wearing her nightgown. Her study was even smaller than her kitchen—barely large enough for the table she had bought for ten dollars from a doctor's office. On it she kept a stack of notebooks. Sipping her coffee, she'd pick up the top one, and by the light of the table lamp, beneath a portrait of the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz, review yesterday's stories"
Sipping her coffee, she'd pick up the top one, and by the light of the table lamp, beneath a portrait of the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, review yesterday's stories.
(Sharlet's complete feature, which appeared in Pakn Treger, is attached at the end of this page. Additional extended bios of Rosenfarb are available at the Jewish Women’s Archive and at chavarosenfarb.com)
Although her first volumes of poetry were published in the late 1940s, Rosenfarb’s work only began to be extensively translated and to receive critical attention in the year 2000. For a long time, scholarship on Yiddish literature tended to ignore Yiddish writing from after the Holocaust. A few figures seeped into the canon; Isaac Bashevis Singer and Avrom Sutzkever are the two most notable post-War Yiddish writers, and the pair have attracted an extensive amount of scholarly attention (and acclaim) in multiple languages. But a generation of powerful Yiddish writers, including Rosenfarb, was otherwise overlooked, their fame restricted to small clusters of Yiddish readers who cherished their work. An unfortunate rule took hold: the later a writer began to publish, the less attention his or her work received. Fortunately, scholars and translators have begun to turn to this neglected body of writing in recent years. (See, for example, Jan Schwartz’s (2015) Survivors and Exiles: Yiddish Culture after the Holocaust.)
Yet there were important institutions that nurtured Yiddish writing after the war. Thankfully, for Rosenfarb, one of them was the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, which sponsored lectures on Yiddish culture, readings from Yiddish literature, and concerts. These events have been digitized and comprise our Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library. (You can learn more about these recordings here.)
Rosenfarb participated in—and was the subject of—many events held at the Jewish Public Library (JPL). Several of her lectures cover Polish Yiddish culture and literature: she gave talks on Y. Y. Trunk and the Warsaw Ghetto and took part in a panel on Itzik Manger. She gave erudite lectures on Sholem Asch and I. B. Singer, and two on H. Leivick: one in 1970, another in 1989.
Perhaps the most interesting talk Rosenfarb gave at the JPL, however, was one about herself, in English, in 2004. The event found her in a good mood, willing and ready to share her story in a space that served as her second home. “But I came to you tonight from the bucolic, sunny city of Lethbridge, Alberta,” she says at the beginning. The audience laughs. “What’s the joke?” Rosenfarb asks, laughing as well. But immediately, she moves into more serious territory:
“I live there a peaceful, idyllic life—and a life full of contentment. When I consider where I live now, and where I have lived, I cannot believe that I am the same person, that I am the same Yiddish writer and Holocaust survivor who has been asked here to address you on the subject of her life and work. Because neither my life nor my work has been bucolic, idyllic, peaceful, or full of contentment.”
It is a talk loaded with indelible moments. Here, Rosenfarb describes wandering through newly liberated Germany in search of loved ones.
“Accompanied by my sister who had also survived the war, I wandered through all the zones of Occupied Germany. There was as yet no organized transportation system for civilians, so we hitched rides on the top of lorries loaded with coal, or on military trucks, but mostly we wandered on foot along with bands of other survivors. We made our way from the wreckage of one German town to the next. We hurried from one UNRRA office to the other, reading lists of survivors, searching for the name of our father and other dear ones. . .”
At the end of the lecture, Rosenfarb explicates the origins of the novel, The Tree of Life, and what she hoped to uncover and discover in imagining the Lodz ghetto: the human condition.
“On my voyage back into the Ghetto, I wanted to take with me all the questions that had tormented me after the liberation. Why had the world learned nothing from our suffering? Were the Nazis only the most extreme example of the urge to do evil, or was the drive to destroy inherent in human nature? The Nazis were, for me, the most obvious channel through which the poison of hatred could flow freely—but the poison itself, where did it come from? What was its source? In writing about the Ghetto, I wanted to find that source. I wanted to discover the essence of our humanity, to touch upon the source, upon the core of the human soul and see it reflected in the soul of the Ghetto Jew, who had stood stripped of every shred of artifice and pretense necessary to leading a normal life. There, in the Ghetto, humans had faced humans without any embellishments or illusions. They had faced the brutality of their fellow human beings, as well as the knowledge of what that brutality meant to their own destinies. It was as if the dams of a river had opened within me and I became pregnant with the idea for my book. And so it was, that by the time I arrived in Montreal, I was doubly pregnant: pregnant with my daughter, who was born in Canada, and pregnant with my novel, which was born here as well, but many years later, when my daughter was already grown and my son was an adolescent. I called this novel about the death of the Jewish community of Lodz The Tree of Life.”
In addition to lectures from our Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library, the Yiddish Book Center website also features two audiobooks of Rosenfarb’s work: Botshani (Polish for “storks”), read by Aaron Irlicht, and Di letste libe (The Last Love), read by the author. The latter novel is a harrowing story about the sexuality of Holocaust survivors, and her reading is spectacular.
Our Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library contains many of her books in Yiddish, though not Survivors, which went unpublished in book form.
As noted above, Rosenfarb has begun to receive deserved critical and scholarly attention in recent years. Her daughter, the scholar Goldie Morgentaler (also the author of a beloved Pakn Treger article on teaching Yiddish literature in rural Canada) has proven her champion, writing extensive articles on Rosenfarb for scholarly and non-scholarly publications. This essay, published in Tablet in 2013, brilliantly tells the story surrounding The Tree of Life. In 2016, Morgentaler gave a lecture on The Tree of Life and the Lodz ghetto at the UC San Diego Humanities Center. The lecture is available via the UC San Diego Library YouTube channel.
Though frequently challenging, Rosenfarb’s work has begun to find the audience it deserves. In 2011, Rosenfarb was featured on an episode of the CBC radio program The Late Show. It’s a wonderful treatment of her life and poetics, the kind of feature that every author longs for. The episode, further, makes the case for her not as a Yiddish writer, but as an author, without a modifier. In its own way, the episode is a testament to Rosenfarb’s aesthetic achievements. At the JPL, she explained that she sought to study the ghetto Jew in order to understand something more about the human soul. By studying the Jew, and by documenting the particular horrors of those years, she uncovered universal truths.
- Goldie Morgentaler recently recorded an oral history with our Wexler Oral History Project. The full interview can be viewed here.
- In 2000, Morgentaler published an essay about her mother's work, "Land of the Postscript: Canada and the Post-Holocaust Fiction of Chava Rosenfarb," in the journal Judaism. A pdf of the essay can be downloaded below.
- In 2010, the scholarly journal Canadian Jewish Studies published a double issue on Yiddish in Canada. Included in the issue was a special section on Rosenfarb. Two articles are of particular relevance to readers of Survivors: an article by Rebecca Margolis on Chava Rosenfarb and Montreal, and Jordan Paul's article on Rosenfarb, gender, and Holocaust scholarship.
- Many of Rosenfarb's other volumes, including The Tree of Life, are available for purchase in our bookstore.