Survivors: Reader Responses

Surviviors, by Chava Rosenfarb, is the second selection in the 2017 Great Jewish Books Book Club. Here's a sampling of some thoughts about the book, from members taking part in the club's Facebook group.

General Thoughts and Observations

More than once while reading these stories I’ve found myself wondering how I will ever find the strength of spirit to process the next one. The writing is lovely but offers no shelter from Rosenfarb's brutal sense of post-traumatic life. I wondered why anybody would want to write stories like these, which do not spare the reader from discomfort and grief.
 

From Max Weinreich:

On p.72, Rosenfarb writes through her character Sarah: “All she felt was that if everything was a lie, literature was the greatest lie of all. She had been raised on literature. It had fed her dreams and provided her with an education. But now she could not forgive its shortcomings, could not forgive the fact that it had so poorly prepared her for life.” I think Rosenfarb is trying to supply us with a tool kit of ways to think about trauma. She’s preparing us for darker days when other literature will fail to supply us with meaning. This is a literature for prisoners, whether in physical or mental terms, who could stand to find a measure of solace in one’s own self (“François”) or in the simple pulse of the cosmos (“Serengeti”).

From Lee Connell:

I actually felt a weird sense of relief from the unsparing quality of these stories. I just finished “Serengeti” and there, too, there's the sense that a character is looking for neat, narratively satisfying answers (though in that case through psychiatry rather than literature) and must instead learn to live with a kind of deep messiness, with a lack of conclusion. I felt like when these stories were operating at their best, they used their own narrative forms (and arcs) to undercut the idea of life as some clean arc. 

From Ted Schlecter:

As I write this short commentary on Chava Rosenfarb’s Survivors, it is nearly time for the Passover Seder. I cannot think of any better primer for this retelling of the Exodus than this collection of complicated short stories. The ability or inability to enjoy one’s new-found freedom from being in captivity is a central theme of this collection.

Among those who could enjoy their new-found freedom is Barukh (the protagonist of “Greenhorn”), who discovers the “sweetness” of life vis-à-vis chewing gum that was given to him by a caring co-worker. (As you know, Barukh means “the blessed one.”) Amalia [GL1] (see “Last Love”) and Leah (“François”) were also “survivors.” They were double survivors—of the Holocaust and the humdrum of post-Holocaust life. Both stories, I believe, have elements of magical realism. Both blend reality with the fantastical. Whatever it takes to survive. (I have always believed that “magical realism” is rooted in Borges’ love of Yiddish tales.) Sarah Zionbend is another type of survivor who finds contentment in the mundaneness of her daily life.

Then there were those who could not make peace with their exodus. Most notably, we have the (no-named?) narrator of “Edgia’s Revenge” who (spoiler alert) takes a powder at the end of the story. The narrator was never able to live with her “survivor guilt” or more precisely what she did to survive.  The comparison of her ultimate action to those of Primo Levi and others is interesting. Did they also off themselves because of survivor guilt or because of the guilt in how they survived? (Another caveat: many, including myself, do not believe that Primo Levi committed suicide.) The collection concludes with Dr. Simon Brown’s odyssey in “Serengeti.” Doctor Brown tries to distance himself from the Shoah by being an American psychiatrist who is married to a golden goy. He finally realizes that all Jews living after World War II are survivors of the Shoah.

From Max Weinreich:

Here is a pseudo-academic attempt to explain a peculiar feature of Rosenfarb’s writing, which is the sense that postwar events stream by in a sort of unlinked, noncausal fashion. To explain what I mean, I’ll use an example from “Edgia’s Revenge.” Lolek is a critically important character, yet he disappears and is forgotten before long, and other characters take his place. There is no need to value Lolek's memory. His death causes nothing except his own absence, making room for other events to take place. Example two: in “Little Red Bird,” thoughts give way to one another in a highly nonlinear fashion, repeating illogically as if in a dream. Example three: in “Last Love,” Amalia claims that her lust is unlinked to her love of her husband.

Why is it that plot events or character traits are rarely used to justify and motivate further turns of plot in so many of these stories? I think it is because of the war. In the shadow of such a massive event, there is no room for causality between the events that follow. If after the war a character does A, B, C, and D, it is doubtful that B was because of A and C was because of B and so on. Rather, all of A, B, C, and D are expressions of postwar trauma, which could come in any order with equally weak claims to primacy.

From Lesley Yalen:

In the stories I liked best in this collection (“Edgia's Revenge,” “Little Red Bird,” and “François”), what got me was Rosenfarb’s use of one of the most basic elements of storytelling, and perhaps one not usually associated with Holocaust literature: suspense. She’s really a master of it when she wants to be. In those stories—especially “Edgia” and “François”—I felt like I was reading a psychological thriller or a horror story (which, well, yes). Tension was so high. At many moments I thought some dramatic violence or a big revelation was going to happen. And usually it didn’t—the tension would instead be displaced by something quiet and mundane and the realization that all of the fear was (probably) just in my/the character’s head. She really put me into a heightened state, which I imagine her characters, with their deep trauma, might live in. I felt physically swept up in fear and tension and also turned around and confused and never quite sure what was real or what was around the next corner. And I liked that it turned out that what was around the next corner was most often just . . . me.

Gender Portrayals and Roles

From Jessica Parker:

I’m finding myself less moved by “François” than I have by other stories thus far in this collection. I think I may be tiring of the broken marriages and the cruel and indifferent men. I’m finding much of it painful to read, like Leon telling Leah to lose weight and dress up and color her hair.

From Heather Silverman:

For me a major source of horror and sadness is to be found in the inequality of power and the petty cruelties visited upon a number of women by their husbands in various stories. One would hope that, having survived the worst, the couples could treat each other with love and kindness. But so many of the marriages continue the tyranny, the lack of humanity that was experienced in the camps. Rosenfarb, perhaps using her own experience, faces the all-too-human frailties head on and without sentimentality. Her insight into ongoing meanness in the domestic realm struck me deeply.

From Lesley Yalen:

Something that turned me off from some of these stories at first, and maybe especially “A Friday in the Life of Sarah Zonabend,” was the tone around romantic relationships and gender roles, which feels outdated. While the psychology of the survivors makes these stories very unique, there was something overly familiar about “the problem that has no name” aspect in these housewives who are underappreciated, unfulfilled, and poorly loved. The nagging feeling that they should be taking care of “their figures,” etc. While this of course was (and still is) a real, lived experience worth telling about, I found it simultaneously expected and hard to relate to.

 “Greenhorn”

From Josh Lambert:

I’ll write here about similarities [between Rosenfarb’s “Greenhorn” and] Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Pawnbroker. What Rosenfarb’s story shares with the novel is the way it represents traumatic memories. On p. 7, Barukh thinks of “children,” and that spurs him to think of his “own two children, who perished during the war.” This happens also on p. 5 when, in the shop, “his legs buckle beneath him—just as they did on that hot, dark day that has not yet come to an end.” In other words, at the slightest, most innocent stimulus, Barukh can be thrust back, almost physically, to the traumas he has survived. This is the same thing that Sol Nazerman, in The Pawnbroker, experiences. But over the course of this story, Barukh seems to be able to overcome this tendency; the story ends with him back in the shop, responding to the same stimuli that earlier made his “legs buckle—just as they did,” etc.: “The heat beats against his face. Once again, the sweat runs in streams down his back . . .” But the last note is of Barukh’s chewing gum: “A drop of sweetness melts in his mouth and soothes his temper.” Whereas The Pawnbroker ends with a couple of symbolic, distressing acts of violence, Rosenfarb ends the story suggesting (in my reading) that a survivor like Barukh really can move on.

From Robert Sternberg:

I was personally very moved by “The Greenhorn.” It captured, in a very real and very visceral way, three important aspects of the Holocaust survivor trauma. The first is the ongoing trauma of surviving when so many others died, along with the memories of life before the Holocaust and during the Holocaust, which haunt every Holocaust survivor throughout their lives, even long after they have rebuilt a new life in a new country. These appear in a beautiful sequence in Barukh’s own thoughts and flashbacks. The second is the trauma of displacement into a new culture that is completely unfamiliar with what happened to Holocaust survivors and is completely incapable of processing or understanding why Holocaust survivors struggle so hard and find it so difficult to fit in to their new world and new surroundings. The trauma of displacement is further exacerbated by the mindsets of those who immigrated and acculturated to the new country long before the Holocaust and who look down on and make fun of the new arrivals, calling them “greenhorns.” American-born and Canadian-born Jews had no idea what Holocaust survivors had had to face during the Nazi occupation, especially during those early years of Holocaust survivors arriving from displaced persons' camps. Sadly, many of the American- and Canadian-born Jews did nothing other than carry on the put-downs that immigrants faced who had fled Czarist Russia and were laughed at and put down by the American- and Canadian-born as “grine” immigrants. These traumas were poignantly captured by Chava Rosenfarb in the characters of the French Canadian woman and the boss of the garment shop. The French Canadian woman, as sweet and as kind as she was, knew little to nothing about what Holocaust survivor refugees had been through under Nazi occupation and brought her own personal understanding of Paris as a romantic destination in her attempts to converse with Barukh. Barukh’s boss acted exactly like the American- and Canadian-born Jewish bosses of sweat shops toward the Jewish immigrants who arrived from Czarist Russia, putting Barukh down as a “greenhorn” and asserting his “superiority” over Barukh since Barukh was nothing but a “greenhorn.” I grew up around Holocaust survivors and am intimately familiar with all these experiences of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. One of many stories one of my Holocaust-survivor friends told me was when he first arrived from a DP camp to America he tried to connect with American-born Jews, thinking they would understand what he had been through because they were also Jewish, only to have one say to him, “Yes, I know. We suffered here during the Depression and during the war, too. We had to eat chicken and we could never afford to eat meat.” This survivor was so shocked to hear that that he stopped trying to talk to American-born Jews about his Holocaust experiences. One of the questions posed in the excellent interview of Goldfie Morgenthaler, Chava Rosenfarb’s daughter and translator, concerned the order in which her mother’s stories would appear in the book and, having reflected on this, I was struck by how important it seems to begin Survivors with the story “The Greenhorn” because it introduces every reader to the questions needed to be thought about with respect to Holocaust-survivor trauma. Everything else in the book seems to logically flow from “The Greenhorn.”

From Paula Bursztyn Goldberg

Baruch the Greenhorn, finding himself in a “normal” environment so soon after his war experiences, is not adjusted yet to the present circumstances but is still living in the past—every word, every look, every smell, every sound catapults him to a painful experience in his past. I relate to his dilemma, because as a child survivor, to this day, although to a much lesser extent, I have throwbacks to the war years by the slightest stimulus. I think Rosenfarb captured that aspect of survival magnificently.

“Last Love”

From Josh Lambert:

“Last Love” is, for me, a profoundly unsettling story. There’s a line early on, when Gabriel and Amalia meet, that struck me as disturbing: “They recognized the racial kinship in each other’s accent and eyes—a Jewish gaze from Jewish eyes” (22). My wife, who grew up in New York, will occasionally say that someone “looks Jewish,” but I would never say that; I grew up in Toronto, in a very tight-knit Jewish community, and we had in the community people who looked all sorts of different ways (people of color, Jews by choice, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Jews from all sorts of different places), so the idea of someone looking Jewish just doesn’t make sense to me. And given the Holocaust as context for these stories, such phenotypic racialist thinking seems pretty uncomfortable, no?

From Barbara Tellerman:

The same caught my attention. It reminded me of something my father, a Holocaust survivor, shared with me. During the war it was a matter of survival determining whom you could trust. He used the word “Amchu” (one of us). I imagine this word would be whispered only after some quick appraisal or recognition of racial kinship. Perhaps the author alludes to this habit of survival.

From Elissa Sperling:

I would never even consider claiming to always be able to identify a Jew from a non-Jew. Jews have lived all over the world and therefore can look any which way. We’ve obviously mixed with the people amongst whom we’ve lived. People convert—they enter the community, they leave it. It is a spectrum. The vast majority of the Jews I know personally, however, are Ashkenazi Jews, so I don’t have much to say about Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews. But I can say that during my life I have occasionally encountered someone who I just knew was Jewish (or more specifically Ashkenazi), and I am not often mistaken in those situations. Although maybe it is also the way they carry themselves and not just purely physical (it’s hard to separate a person’s characteristics so neatly). And people have done the same to me—and they’re right, I am a Jew. This has happened in NYC, as well as Eastern Europe, and possibly other places I can’t recall now. It can be uncomfortable in certain contexts, potentially deriving from negative stereotypes. But I don’t think it has to be like that. I imagine that in many communities there are those who can spot fellow members one way or another, and this is not specific to Jews or Ashkenazi Jews. Rosenfarb’s line therefore did not seem disturbing to me. Actually, I quite liked how it was phrased. It’s poetic. And the emphasis is on their eyes, which are windows to the soul, no? So maybe it’s less about a Jewish face and more about a Jewish soul? But that’s a different debate.

From Josh Lambert:

Really, what is “Last Love” about? Do Jean-Pierre’s obsession and death suggest that his act wasn’t actually a generous gift to Amalia but some sort of moral lapse that he needs to be punished for? Or is the story saying that what happened between Jean-Pierre and Amalia was just so powerful that it took over his life?

From Avi Lichtenstein:

My reading is that it was closer to the latter. There seems to be something almost mystical about Amalia. After she and Gabriel became lovers, he went from being a mediocre artist to a great one (or at least lucrative one). When Amalia slept with Jean-Pierre, that energy she gave Gabriel seems to have left Gabriel and gone into Jean-Pierre, leaving the former a hollowed-out shell of a man. As Amalia had died, Jean-Pierre couldn’t keep her per se, so that energy that he took for her destroyed him too, but in a different way.

From Ted Schlecter:

The more I reread this story, the more I realized that “Last Love” is a wonderful operatic story, with elements of La Traviata. The heroine’s nickname was “Dame aux Camellias,” and she wore a white camellia in her hair. Like La Traviata, the artist falls deeply into love with a woman (Amalia) who is doomed with tuberculosis. Amalia is no courtesan. Though, like Violetta of La Traviata, she was a woman of erotic cravings (which were shaped by her love and fear of death). Her life climaxes in erotic passion with a younger man—Jean-Pierre. Death and sex are now one.

The opera then shifts to the unfolding tragedy of Jean-Pierre. His unhappy marriage and ultimate divorce with the woman who was once the life of his love. He then drifts from mountain to mountain in the pursuit of women (not love). His life climaxes by driving off the precipice of a mountain in the Canadian Rockies. His action is precipitated by a vision of a woman in a long veil wrapped around her shoulder on the highway. This vision, of course, is of Amalia, which is Jean-Pierre’s embodiment of pure erotic passion. Again, we have the intertwining of sex and death.

Ironically, Jean-Pierre once said to Gabriel (the artist): “Every mountain is like a woman; whom you want to win, to conquer, and in the process, you are liable to break your neck and lose your soul.” Jean-Pierre was fated to lose his soul to the erotic passions of Amalia.

Two more points that I must make about this short story. One, Professor Morgentaler (Ms. Rosenfarb’s daughter and translator) commented that this story was triggered by a haze of fire in Melbourne that Ms. Rosenfarb once witnessed. I certainly see a haze of fire vis-à-vis sex and death in this short story. Two, another member of this Facebook page correctly observed that many of these short stories (including “Last Love”) take place (at least for part of the story) in Paris. This locale makes profound sense to me, as Paris represents the “City of Light,” and these survivors come from the land of darkness and hate.

A Day in the Life

From Josh Lambert:

One aspect of “A Friday in the Life” that struck me was Sarah’s deep distaste for contemporary art: “She abhorred the canvasses displayed at the art galleries, the so-called masterpieces of contemporary art. They irritated her. They seemed to mock her with their displays of childish doodles in crazy colours.” I’ve always felt, mostly intuitively, that so much postwar American and European art was a response to the Holocaust, whether directly or indirectly; that is, that the kinds of abstraction grouped as abstract expressionism (and very often created by Jewish artists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, and promoted by American Jewish art critics, too) were attempts to grapple with the ugliness of 20th-century history and the sense that the tragedy could not be represented by conventional means. And I’ve found that kind of work very moving—especially, for example, a room full of Rothko’s paintings. And yet I don’t know if I had ever really given thought to how survivors, themselves, would have felt about such work. It seems plausible that, like Sarah Zonabend, many of them would find it disgusting and insulting. I think I’ll be thinking about that the next time I’m in a museum.

From Jessica Parker:

What keeps catching me off guard about Rosenfarb’s stories is that I keep thinking it’s about another time and place, that I’m learning something new, and then I come around a bend and my breath catches because I can see myself and my thought processes in some of her writing. While not a major plot point, when I read, on p. 75, “But she no longer felt like shopping for clothes, she was unable to work herself into the proper frame of mind to undertake the excursion,” I thought, “This is me.” And suddenly I felt closer to the story, and to Sarah. Some of her “lived experience” became that much more accessible to me.

From Sylvia Peterson:

I’m continually amazed by how real Rosenfarb is able to make these these characters feel in just a few short pages. In the entirety of Zelmenyaners, I didn’t get nearly as good a sense of any of the characters or feel as intimately connected to them. It just goes to show how different the goals of her writing were from Kulbak’s.

“Edgia’s Revenge”

From Sharon Roseman:

These stories obligate us to witness the playing out of relationships and individual angst in such vivid and measured detail, while reading them I felt as though I was attending theater performances in the intimate setting of a small stage. In “Edgia’s Revenge,” this impression is reinforced by the contrast between the scenes that take place in domestic interiors and the references to a stream of outings. The narrator’s description of her social group’s preoccupation with the distractions provided by the consumption of cosmopolitan activities is presented as a form of escape from their awful past albeit with a twinned potential to be just another way to simultaneously marginalize others. “The ‘this’ was usually a lecture about the most recent discoveries in sexual research, or an experimental film, or an exhibit of modern painting, or a concert of electronic music, or a nightclub, or even a day-trip to the guru in his ashram in the Laurentians” (p. 114). Early in the story, Edgia’s absences were explained away by Lolek, she wasn’t well something wouldn’t “interest her” (p. 114). This was not just a playful series of liberal and innocuous “thises.” They were the stuff of an unrelenting competitiveness. These friends were “culture vultures” (in Pavel’s terms), the men’s “weekend pastimes” were for some of the women a “forum where they could indulge their inclination to devotion, even to fanaticism” (p. 111). For the narrator they were “another means of jumping out of my skin and obliterating the nightmare of my sins” (p. 111). 

From Christa Whitney:

In “Edgia’s Revenge,” I was thinking a lot about persona. It is everywhere in this story. How the characters present themselves and how they are perceived shifts. These facades obscure the trauma, but also present it. I found myself wondering, “What is the ‘real’ personality? What is the truth?” while of course knowing I’ll never get to know more than is in the story, and even one’s “true” self is multilayered and complex. The relationships also have this veil of a public performative act over them. I returned to this line on p. 109:

“I like you very much, too, Rella,” she replied with a comical little sigh.

They seem to all know they are performing these personae, and seem all very invested in maintaining the act—in order to distract, obscure, and displace the pain and trauma and memory that are ever present.

From Avi Lichtenstein:

A big question, perhaps the big question, of the story: How does everyone feel about Rella? Is she a sympathetic character or a loathsome one (or both)? If she is sympathetic, how do you feel about having that kind of sympathy for a character who has done what she has done? Is Rella even a reliable narrator? Can we trust her telling?

From Lesley Yalen:

I had no problem feeling sympathy (and empathy) for Rella. She was a victim of the most horrendous trauma (her little sister)! How can I not feel empathy for someone who has suffered that loss? How could I judge the actions she took at (basically) gunpoint? Also, from a literary perspective, I think that I’m going to empathize with any narrator who I spend a long time with and who is drawn well. It doesn’t matter what kind of acts they’ve committed—if the author is able to find and convey their humanity, I’m going to take their part, on some level. I think that even goes for Humbert Humbert, though it’s been a long time since I’ve read that. And of course there are different kinds of sympathy/empathy. I may not like the person (I can’t say I liked Rella); I may even think the person should be in jail (Humbert?). But if I believe in their humanity then I think literature is doing its work.

From Max Weinreich:

I found “Edgia’s Revenge” horribly powerful, and I think it will stick with me for a long time. While I was first reading it, I thought the story would melt into a sort of Hollywood trope wherein the protagonist Rella and her antagonist-of-sorts Edgia turn out to be fundamentally the same, or they become one another, or are capable of the same evils. The story turns out to be much more haunting than that, though, because it preserves the asymmetry between their characters. One way of seeing that asymmetry is just in the books they read. Edgia, with her love of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, is somehow more pure than Rella, who flirts with an endless sea of postmodern meaninglessness. This got me thinking about something I once read about my great-great-grandmother Shifra: that she in 1938 held onto Tolstoyan ideals of the relation between human and land which were already considered out of date by then. I never really knew how to interpret that, but Rosenfarb’s story at least makes a good case that a person’s chosen literature might say something about how they will meet crisis.

From Robert Sternberg:

I agree with your comments, Max. I also found another strength in “Edgia’s Revenge”—an excellent illustration of the strong and sometimes codependent relationships that Holocaust survivors found with one another after reestablishing their lives in new countries. The only problem I have with “Edgia’s Revenge” is the same problem I have with a lot of Rosenfarb’s stories, which is that the plot line is often highly contrived and not entirely believable or credible. In the case of “Edgia’s Revenge” it does not make sense to me that Edgia would transform as a person so greatly from the person she is at the beginning of the story. People can change and transform, but I have never met a person who changed so dramatically as Edgia changed. To me, this seems unreal, not entirely credible and highly contrived.

From Avi Lichtenstein:

Max, I really like that observation about Edgia becoming Lolek rather than Rella. Perhaps her change is a manifestation of her own self-loathing, and the reason she starts to act and dress like Rella is both (1) she sees Rella as her eternal tormentor and thus by acting like Rella she is constantly torturing herself; and (2) by becoming like Rella, and also becoming so outwardly cruel, Edgia is showing her perception of and deep contempt for Rella.

“François”

From Max Weinreich:

“François” has been a refreshing chance to get Rosenfarb’s characters out into the wider world! Here’s a question. Why does Rosenfarb want to write about Jews among the ruins of Inca civilization? Here is my partial answer: while the Inca and Ashkenazi civilizations were both destroyed, the passage of time and the permanence of magnificent physical structures have given the Inca ruins a kind of beauty for which there is no parallel in the destruction of Ashkenazi Europe (at least that I can name). There is therefore some kind of jealousy, or at least sadness, that emerges from bringing the Ashkenazi characters into another people’s destroyed ancestral home.

From Josh Lambert:

I like your answer, Max, and it reminds me of the way Edith Wharton contrasts arriviste Jews in America to an extinct Native American civilization in her novel The Professor’s House. But I’ve answered the question of why Rosenfarb sends her characters there, and on safari, a different way. I imagine these are more or less the trips she was able to take, and that writers mine their experiences to get whatever usable material they can. But also there’s a way in which this kind of tourism is especially poignant in a collection focused on survivors, given that the whole tragedy they suffered was, in one sense, caused by the inability of people to escape by traveling overseas. So the magical way a tourist can go anywhere, see anything, anywhere in the world—and yet feel kind of hollow and false while doing it—is somehow a very powerful irony as applied to survivors.

From Sylvia Peterson:

It also seems meaningful that they travel so many miles away from home, to a place in many ways opposite to Montreal, and manage to encounter another survivor, the Polish tour guide. It showed the sheer number of survivors out in the world, living strange, hollow lives, and the faraway places to which they were scattered. I like Leah’s exchange with the tour guide: “How strange! In what remote corners of the world we survivors show up!,” to which the tour guide gets very angry and defensive and says, “I did not ‘show up’! . . . This is my home! This is my happiness!” as though needing to prove something. I found this very moving.

From Ted Schlecter

I found Chava Rosenfarb’s “François” to be a magical mystery tour de force. When this story commences, Leah (its heroine) is a melancholy Holocaust survivor. Her husband is impervious to her needs and desires. Her children are launched. She tries, without success or enjoyment, painting, taking a college course on music, and working. Leah desperately needs a sensitive and intimate soulmate. Being a resourceful person, Leah conjures up François, who is a suave, dashing, sensitive man. François becomes Leah’s everything—soulmate, protector, consoler, guardian angel, and lover. Leah is changing and even cheerful, which Leon (her husband) finds troublesome. He thus decides that a trip abroad is needed to refresh them.

They initially journey to the jungles of South America—a metaphoric heart of darkness. Of course, François “joins” them on this adventure to protect and comfort Leah. This journey is full of symbolic encounters. There is a Polish guide who is most likely a Holocaust survivor who leaves them at an “El Dorado” of lakes and waterfalls. A poignant passage in this stop is the following monologue from François:

                  “You see, mon amour, we are swimming together inside nature’s womb. Listen to the hum of the waterfalls. They’re playing the sweet lament of  Sibelius’ doomed Swan of Tuonella.”

Leon, Leah, and François then travel to a strange encampment deep in the jungle. German expatriates, who take tourists for a ride, run this encampment. During this stay, mosquito bites mark Leah’s “whole body with patches of blood.” Metaphorically speaking, this journey into the heart of darkness has Leon and Leah (especially the latter) revisiting their Holocaust experiences.

Leon, Leah and François then travel to Cuzco, which is eleven thousand feet above sea level. This city is the ancient capital of the Incas, who also experienced a holocaust at the hands of a European power. Like the Shoah, this holocaust was for ethnic cleansing. Leon and Leah spend New Year’s Eve in this remote capital sleeping badly in their sunken beds. On New Year’s Day, they hear (without understanding a word of it) a fiery priest giving a speech that the crowd hears with an inner voice.

Leon, Leah, and François finally wind up at Machu Picchu, one of the world’s great wonders high in the Andes. It is here that Leah stands firmly (without François’ help) on a narrow high rock that “overlooked the world.” She has just decided to leave Leon and become her own person. This transformation is highlighted in the exchange between François and Leah:

“There is no room for you up here, François,” she whispered as her head begins to spin . . . “Have you found yourself at last between heaven and earth, ma bien-aimee?”

                                    “Oh, not yet,” she answered sadly, smiling back.

                                    “But I’m on my way.”

Leah has found (I believe) the secret to surviving a holocaust. It is not (as proposed by Viktor Frankl) finding meaning in this world but rather in discovering one’s true self. Leah, unlike others mentioned in this story, is a true survivor. She has, unlike most of us, achieved self-actualization as she stands firmly on that precipice on top of the world.

“Little Red Bird”

From Lesley Yalen:

What can I say about “Little Red Bird”? I found it so profoundly sad that I’m having trouble conjuring any other more advanced thoughts. While all the stories are sad, this one—focusing on the mother’s longing for her murdered child, and also for any child—made me feel physical spasms of grief and pain.

From Susan Bronson:

I found “Little Red Bird” to be particularly haunting—the very idea of losing a child and the powerful imagery of the red coat was devastating to me. More so than “Last Love” and “Edgia’s Revenge,” both of which I found disturbing. Overall, I’m finding that each of these stories has made me think about the experience of being a survivor in ways that are less abstract than before picking up the book. Even when I find the story unlikely or improbable, the emotional stories seem real and so heartbreaking.

From Robert Sternberg:

I was very moved by “Little Red Bird.” Like “The Greenhorn,” it is the only one of Chava Rosenfarb’s stories we have discussed online so far about which I have no reservations or negative comments. “Little Red Bird” captures some powerful and very authentic realities of the lives of Holocaust survivors I have known. Many of these Holocaust survivors were young parents who survived while their spouses and children perished and who met and married for a second time to another survivor—usually a survivor they met in a displaced person’s camp, much like Manya and Feivel. Another reality that this story captured well is the trauma of trying desperately to build a new life but having extreme difficulty getting past the trauma of the loss of a former family and a former life in order to really live in the present and put the past in the background. A third reality, which is often unknown and not presented very much in literature, is the inability of a Holocaust survivor couple to have a child—sometimes because they were a little bit too old to do so and sometimes simply because of biological factors difficult to explain. I knew several couples like Manya and Feivel who suffered this trauma. Their lives were marked by a type of sadness that was difficult for them to get past, despite their desperate attempts to do so. One lovely couple like this that I knew well and was very close with when I lived in Montreal had had a daughter in Poland who had been a young ingenue in the Yiddish theater and who had been captured and murdered by the Nazis. This couple was rather elderly when I met them. They had escaped Poland and fled, with great difficulty, to Italy, where they found a hiding place and survived the war. They had a photo of their daughter they had kept with them the entire time and which they displayed in a prominent place in their home. This couple lived life to the fullest they could live it, had many friends, and were active in Montreal’s Holocaust survivor community, and especially with Montreal’s Yiddish theater and Yiddish writer’s circles. The fantasy created by Chava Rosenfarb of Manya stealing into Jewish General Hospital, kidnapping an infant, and then she and Feivel fleeing to Mexico to raise the child as their own was extremely powerful—a fantasy created in Manya’s mind as she watched a little girl in a red coat playing in the snow outside her window and fantasized about her own lost Feygele. This story had none of the problems I found in the story lines of Rosenfarb’s other stories (except for “The Greenhorn,” which I found equally powerful) where the characters seemed unreal, unnatural, and rather contrived.

Who Can Write Holocaust Literature?

From Avi Lichtenstein:

Does one need to be a survivor to write authentically about the Holocaust? And especially to write Holocaust fiction, as so many survivors (Elie Wiesel being perhaps the most prominent example) chose memoir.

From Josh Lambert:

Unfortunately, perhaps, I don’t think it’s practical to be prescriptive about Holocaust literature, or any literature. The moment someone says that X can’t be done in art, that automatically makes doing X interesting. And certainly thousands of nonsurvivors have written about the Holocaust in many different ways and genres. But the question I’d ask is whether there’s something we can hope to get from authors who are survivors that we can’t expect from writers who did not have those experiences. And I think the answer may be yes: because those who survived have more license to say difficult, harsh things (even in the form of fiction) without being pilloried for doing so.

From Christa Whitney:

I remember thinking a lot about this in a course on Holocaust lit my first semester of college, particularly when we read Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”: It’s not so much can a nonsurvivor, but it’s interesting to me to see how and what is different.