Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) is a Canadian writer you should know about. An award-winning poet and novelist, she wrote in Yiddish. While living in Montreal, she began translating her own work into English. Her daughter Goldie Morgentaler joined her in these translations, and released a collection of poetry after Rosenfarb’s death in 2011: Exile at Last: Selected Poems (Guernica Editions 2013). Just last month, excerpts of Rosenfarb’s journal, kept while in a displaced persons camp after being liberated from Bergen Belsen in 1945, were published online in Tablet magazine. Although written after liberation, the excerpts reveal something of what it was like to survive the camp, where she, her sister and mother were slave labourers from 1944. Before that they were in Sasel, Auschwitz, and for most of the war, in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland.
Some of the poems in Exile at Last were written in Lodz. Talking in an interview (Pinsent’s The Late Show) about the ghetto’s writing community, Rosenfarb said, “There were many girls and boys in the [Lodz] ghetto who resorted to the pen in order to preserve the integrity of their spirit. In the ghetto, along with tuberculosis, typhus and dysentery, there raged an epidemic of writing. The drive to write was as strong as the hunger for food.”
Rosenfarb’s drive to write led to publication in 1947 and continued throughout her life. After her early poetry came the novels, published in Yiddish from the 1970s onwards. English translations were published later. The Tree of Life (1985) is about ten families in Lodz from 1939 to its liquidation in 1944. Perhaps the most renowned, it was followed by Bociany and Of Lodz and Love in 2000. Professor Morgentaler translated the 2004 collection of short stories, Survivors (Cormorant).
I’ve been reading Survivors this week. I’ve often felt uncomfortable reading a work in translation, fearing perhaps that I was missing out on livelier language in the original. For example, Rosenfarb’s English prose style makes more use of summation than contemporary writers might, and sometimes stumbles into overly long sentences. As well, her English stories use phrases that are now cliché, such as “darken the doorway” or “no shred of self-respect,” but we can no more fault her for this than we would Dickens. These pebbles in the reader’s path should not keep one from her work. The stories in Survivors are heart breaking, taking as their subject not only what happens after the holocaust but also love and need. “The Greenhorn,” for example, makes us laugh at the exquisitely embarrassing and naive questions that a Quebec workmate asks a new arrival — about his “travels” in Europe. And then in the next page it makes us draw a horrified breath and exhale in sympathy, reading of the greenhorn’s anger that the foreman speaks to him in much the same way as a camp kapo did.
Which brings us to “Edgia’s Revenge,” a story about a Jewish woman who was a kapo in Auschwitz. At over 80 pages, it could stand as a novella, because it explores the consequences of one action: as a kapo, Rella hides a weak woman from a selection and thus saves her life. The two women meet again in Montreal. Here Rosenfarb is at her best, probing the ramifications of their relationship. The narrator mentions several times that her intellectual gang wanted to escape the past, but she does not. Finally, there are some stories that are reminiscent in tone of Isak Dinesen’s fables, such as “Last Love.” While I prefer the realism of “The Greenhorn,” for example, I can see that some might appreciate the psychological fantasy of “Last Love” and “François.”
Chava Rosenfarb and her husband Henry Morgentaler had two children. After their divorce, she lived with another Lodz survivor, Simkha-Binem (Bono) Wiener, spending half the year in his home of Australia and the rest in Montreal, from the mid-1970s until Wiener’s death in 1995. She then left Montreal for Toronto and in 2003 moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, to be near her daughter. According to her website biography, “in 2006, the University of Lethbridge bestowed on Rosenfarb her first university degree, a doctor of laws honoris causa, making her the first Yiddish writer to be honoured in this way by a Canadian university.”