Book II manages to convey experiences of the Jews, individually and as members of groups, in all their diversity as their normal lives are stripped away. The ghetto experience is portrayed from several imagined vantage points: Bundist, Communist, Socialist, Zionist, Jewish police, the pious, the unbelievers. They are all here, inside the barbed wire.
Outside, the Germans, rarely individualized, are a faceless force, often brutal, a kind of fate – but present only for the time being, since everyone inside speaks of “when the war is over, I will. . . .” Believing the ghetto to be a temporary, very unpleasant happening, they still anticipate that they will most likely survive. The reality of the irregular “selections,” the forced labor, the “massacres,” the random shooting into the ghetto and killing , the ever over-crowding with the transports is there but as part of a dark background. A building pressure.
For the most part Rosenfarb keeps the attention on her individual characters and the events in the ghetto that constantly impinge on and shape their relationships. Reading continues: Yiddish writers, such as Sholom Aleichem, Asch and Czarska, and even the German Schiller. The excerpts on p. 80 are very ironic and also suggest that as the ghetto is a temporary but horrific intrusion into their lives, so the Third Reich is a temporary but horrific intrusion historically into German culture, its literature, music and even its language.
And writing continues, in the ghetto newspaper and in the children’s diaries (p. 204), and in diaries and letters. My notes below concern a few topics for possible discussion in our group meeting on February 19.
What Does Fiction Do Here?
We should talk about how and where we see the writer's purpose-- being expressed, or not:“to discover the essence of humanity and see it reflected in the soul of the ghetto Jew who had been shred of artifice and pretense necessary to leading a normal life.” And we could ask ourselves why Rosenfarb chose fiction as her vehicle. Why not diaries or memoirs which were the more ordinary genres for recording ghetto/holocaust experience? Why not poetry?
What does fiction let her do here? How does it help serve her expressed purpose of discovering “the essence of humanity”?
In a letter late in 1941, the doctor Michal Levine writes of his I-core (IKAR), his essence, and wonders about it to Mira, his lover in Paris to whom he writes but never sends his letters. Why? Who or what is Mira?
While thinking about the use of fiction, we could also focus on points of view expressed in the narration. Rosenfarb employs the usual third-person omniscient point of view but interweaves various first person narration as well (Michal’s letters to Mira and David’s diary). What is gained in those first person narrations that couldn’t have been expressed through the omniscient point of view.
The Artist's Responsibility . . . and Culpability
Consider the remarks of Levine's tubercular patient Winter, a fabulously talented artist who survives by painting portraits of the Nazi occupiers. On p.265, Winter philosophizes about the obligation of artists to document--to “immortalize”--the events through which the Jews of Lodz are forced to live. He also notes the challenges and pitfalls of such an obligation. What are those challenges and pitfalls? This is a recurring theme, as in the characters’ earlier musings, on p.128, about the difficulties of recording life in the ghetto. And in later reflections Rachel and Bunim struggle again and again with the role of the writer.
Metafiction: Making the Historical Intensely Real
Many of these characters are fictional, but a few are based on real people such as the Nazi-appointed Jewish administrator of the ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, and the tormented writer Bunim Berkovitch (based on the real ghetto poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitsch). And Rosenfarb herself, mentored by Simkha Bunim Shayevitsch as she began writing poetry in the ghetto, is represented by the character Rachel Eibushitz.
Bunim is an important figure in the novel. The actual Bunim was the figure in the ghetto who introduced 17 year old Rosenfarb to the writers’ group. In the novel, his vacillations between the force of hunger on his body (he speaks of the animal, the beast inside him, whose insistent needs define him) and his spiritual needs which are expressed in various ways. These spiritual expressions include reading “religious verses” (p. 66), experiencing the cherry tree in the courtyard (where he and his family occupy a former latrine), appreciating moments of beauty, and writing. He, probably like so many others, shifted within moments and hours from peacefulness to dread.
Dara Horn, in her recent book of essays, People Love Dead Jews; Reports from a Haunted Present, celebrates Rosenfarb's achievement in writing honestly about the horrors of Jewish history. As readers of the first two books, we know that we are not in store for one among the deluge of Holocaust stories with an "uplifting" Hollywood ending. Horn points to the trajectory of the character Berkovitch/Shayevitch as a potent example both of Rosenfarb's depiction of the ambivalent load carried by artists in the ghetto and of Rosenfarb's own artistry. It is worth reproducing a screenshot of what Horn has to say about this:
The Cherry Tree
The cherry tree stands centrally in the courtyard where so many characters pass through. Through the tending of Itche Maier's wife, it survive, blossoms, lends shade and stands sentry. As he stands under the flowering cherry tree, Bunim's “heart winced with compassion for man who seemed to be the most disharmonious and most awkward work of creation” (p. 67).
It could be interesting to look at the cherry tree’s influence on the various characters: How do they each respond to it as individuals ? How do moments in the presence of the tree characterize each individual's situation and responses to events in the ghetto? The cherry tree is central, a symbol – but of what, to each? How does its presence help shape the story? What would be different without it?
Finally, what is the effect of the tree on the community? What effect does it have on relationships among the characters? How does it serve as a marker of events in the ghetto? Is this The Tree of Life of the book's title?
Mostly I think of the book as an extraordinary rendering of events. So many voices mobilize the multiple points of view, the disparate experiencing of these years, from the unflagging optimism of the Toffee Man to the ups and downs of so many other characters and the changes of fortune. The ghetto was a kind of leveling event with the wealthy becoming poorer than poor and some others gaining in whatever way possible. Throughout we see betrayals and loyalties, selfish acts and courageous ones. And some characters feel a (temporary) improvement. Reisel, a prostitute, thought that she could “become a ‘better woman’" and "truly enter the ‘upper windows.’" Indeed, Rosenfarb wrote, "the ghetto was capable of blowing up people’s imaginations, feeding them dreams which they had never before dreamed of dreaming” (p. 132). Strangely, others also note a change for the better in themselves. That’s pretty remarkable. How can that be?
And I learned a lot. At first ghetto life seemed an extension of their former lives: the same clubs, organizations, classes, school, theatre and book groups, people busy in their lives. Surprisingly, to me, the Germans supported some of these continuing institutions as well as the “work resorts” to provide a minimum income for some. And for a few people life was better. The selfish industrialist Adam thrives, at first, and the more community-minded rich man, Samuel, declines.
Time is still marked by Jewish holidays (especially the seder 230f) and also by the occasional news from the outside, from the barber’s smuggled newspaper to Samuel’s illegal radio: the German-Russian pact, Pearl Harbor, the entrance of the U.S. into the war, the German invasion of Russia, the English offensive in Syria.
Jews go into exile, just to the other side of town, but behind barbed wire. The experience of living in other people’s houses so recently abandoned, their own now occupied by the enemy. Michal’s thoughts about the evils of nationalism, about the need for an erasure of borders. These are interesting ruminations. Consider them in the context of the incoming German Jews and the increased discord their presence creates. New Year’s Eve again, now with overcrowding, typhus and TB and increased “transportations” mark the ever increasing downward plunge ends Part II.
--Andrea White, February 18, 2022
Andrea White is Emerita Professor of English at the California State University at Dominguez Hills. Her area of specialization is the work of the Polish born writer Joseph Conrad. YSIT thanks her for sending these informal comments for quick editing and posting as part of the group discussion on Saturday, February 19.