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Chava Rosenfarb: The Tree of Life, Book 1, On the Brink of the Precipice, 1939

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Saturday, November 13, 2021, 5:00-6:30 pm Pacific


Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) grew up in a working class family in Lodz, Poland, in which her parents--a waiter and a textile worker--were active members of the Jewish Socialist Bund, a major force in interwar Poland's political and cultural life. Rosenfarb attended a Bundist Yiddish-language elementary school and a Polish-language high school that was funded by Jews for Jewish students. Much of her work as a poet, dramatist, novelist and short story writer draws directly on her experiences in the Lodz ghetto and concentration camps in Poland, as a slave laborer in Germany, a displaced person in Belgium and, after 1950, an immigrant in Montreal, Canada, where she emigrated with her then-husband Henik Morgantaler.


Goldie Morgantaler, Rosenfarb's daughter and translator writes, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Writers in Yiddish about the situation in Lodz that upended her mother's life: "During Rosenfarb's five years at the school [Jewish gymnasium] World War II broke out. By the time she received her matura (matriculation certificate), she was incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto. The ghetto had been established by the Germans in 1940, several months after their September 1939 invasion of Poland; they herded the Jews into Baluty, the poorest section of the city, and encircled the area with barbed wire. It was there that Rosenfarb began to rise at dawn to write poetry before leaving the family's cramped living space to go to her ghetto jobs. At seventeen, Rosenfarb became the youngest member of the ghetto's writers' group.


Above, Photo 1. The Rosenfarb family, Chava on left. Photo 2. The kitchen workers in the Lodz ghetto, Chava Rosenfarb's prospective mother-in-law Golda Morgentaler, back row, fourth from right; Photo 3. Frontispiece from Chava Rosenfarb's first book of poetry, published in London in 1947, while living as a displaced person with her husband, mother and sister in Belgium. Below: Chava Rosenfarb, age 35. Source: chavarosenfarb.com


Like other writers and composers who were prisoners in the concentration camps, Rosenfarb lost possession of her manuscripts when her knapsack was seized at Auschwitz. Later, at a slave labor camp near Hamburg, she used the pencil stub given to her by a German overseer to write poems on the ceiling of her bunk, poems that she committed to memory. Her first book of poetry was published in 1947.


In 1972, Rosenfarb's monumental three-volume work The Tree of Life was published in Tel Aviv in Yiddish as Der boym fun lebn. It stands as one of the few novels written by a Holocaust survivor, as distinct from memoirs by writers such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi and diaries such as the one by Anne Frank. Consequently, Rosenfarb’s trilogy lends itself to a deep discussion about the relationship of fictional truth to historical truth.


Fictional representation is often denigrated as a falsification of truth. But a writer's choice of the novel as a vehicle for lived experience opens possibilities that may not be available to the strict documentarian. Julie Spergel examines this question in her chapter on Rosenfarb's trilogy in the anthology, Women Writers of Yiddish Literature: Critical Essays. Spergel takes on the inevitable challenge to compare Rosenfarb's meticulous rendering of quotidian life from in the Lodz ghetto to the exhaustive archive of documents compiled by the ghetto's survivors over the same period. The documents appear in historian Lucjan Dobroszycki's magisterial compilation, Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto: 1940-1944, published by Yale University Press in 1987. To make the case for the validity of Rosenfarb's novelistic rendering, Spergel quotes Dobroszycki who wrote that "writers of documents never report what the victims think and feel about those who caused their tragedy, even when they are being sent to their deaths."


Further, Spergel notes, it was not until about 1980 that critics began to examine the Holocaust through the lens of class, gender, age and nationality. She cites scholar Sara R. Horowitz's argument that the "evolving master narrative was male" when the chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto, historian Emmanuel Ringelblum, announced future historians should "dedicate a proper page to the Jewish woman." The call for gendered analyses broke through the assumption that male survivors such Wiesel and Levi spoke for a generic human experience of suffering in the Holocaust. Rosenfarb's work provides a corrective. By no means does the author of The Tree of Life ignore or demean the suffering of men in the Lodz ghetto.


Instead, she attends to the specific indignities and sufferings of women with acute attention, in addition to those of men. A man whose beard was torn off his face suffered a certain type of physical, emotional and cultural indignity. A woman whose menses stopping during her internment experienced a different type of physical, emotional and suffering, causing her to live with different expectations and anxieties for her future. A man who witnessed a woman's rape might experience powerlessness and rage. A woman who experienced rape might live with the memory and shame without ever feeling it possible to admit to others what had happened to her.


Chava Rosenfarb, standing in back, giving a reading in London, March 1949. Sitting 3rd from right is Esther Kreitman, sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Next to her, on the right, is Moishe Oved, Jeweler to the Queen and publisher Chava's first book of poetry. Next to him on the right, half cut off, is the poet Itsik Manger. Source of photo and caption: chavarosenfarb.com

The questions of representation above, which concern the trustworthiness of the narrative-- its facticity ('Did it really happen?') and validity ('Does it speak for what it purports to?')--point in a direction that I find really interesting. Spergel proposes treating The Tree of Life as a work of "historiographic metafiction," a term Linda Hutcheon outlined in her book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. This kind of text, Spergel explains, "blurs the distinctions between public or official history and the more personal, unofficial kind." Spergel writes:


With details fed by history and memory, in a style she describes as a "mixture of fantasy, realism, and intuition," Rosenfarb recreates Jewish life in the Lodz ghetto. She is very clear about the book's status as a work of fiction, and yet its role as an historical account cannot be ignored. . . . Although she deems it necessary to reassure readers that the work is a novel, she admits, "I see life through a certain point of view, a prism of a particular kind of colouration of my own individuality. It's not always authentic, true to reality, sometimes my imagination wanders off."


By no means the most radical example of historiographic metafiction, Rosenfarb's work challenges the view of history that starts with Herodotus and has been ultimately established by the Enlightenment--that there is only one true history, linear, progressive, verifiable, authentic and authoritative. Spergel sees Rosenfarb's work as post-modern in defying these expectations from The Age of Reason with her "need to unearth subversive, controversial, and marginal pasts belonging to the underclass, the politically deviant or women and to place these stories in contrast to more official versions."


These ideas about historiographic metafiction can be applied productively, I would say, to the entire corpus of post-war Yiddish fiction that draws on the authors' lived experience of the interwar years. Spergel suggests that The Tree of Life, using Hutcheon's definition, belongs among those books "that admit openly they are fiction, but suggest that fiction is just another means by which we make sense of our world (past and present)." According to Spergel, Rosenfarb "thus portrays real men and women who existed within the ghetto and who interacted with fictional characters drawn so lifelike that they may just as well have been there." If this summation sounds familiar, we have only to return to our last discussion of Abraham Karpinowitz's stories in Vilna, My Vilna, where again we encountered actual and fictional characters interacting in such a lifelike manner as to make us feel as though the stories are historically true and real. The same insight can be applied to Chaim Grade's The Yeshiva, although Grade's work is more decisively modernist, with very little disclosure of the fault lines between the fictional and the actual.


As I've mentioned, I haven't yet begun to read The Tree of Life, and I hope I'll have the opportunity to update this essay before we discuss the book. The trilogy was acclaimed when published in Yiddish. Shortly after, in 1976, its author Chava Rosenfarb was awarded the prestigious Itsik Manger Prize for outstanding Yiddish literature. We have agreed to read Book One, but consider, as we get into this work, whether you feel we should complete the trilogy in 2022. Our decision to read Rosenfarb arises from YSIT's interest in women's, as well as canonical men's voices in Yiddish writing. It also reflects a renewed recent appreciation for Rosenfarb's work in English translation. (I will note that the first volume, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, is back-ordered to October 26 on Amazon.com. Even used copies seem hard to find at reasonable prices. I am reading an electronic copy found at my university library and U of W Press is selling a PDF for $9.99. A bargain!)


I would like to propose an experiment for us to engage ourselves in the work: The novel focuses on ten characters, each introduced in one of the first ten chapters, whose lives and fates are followed from 1939 to 1944. I suggest that to deepen our discussion, each of the Yiddish Schmoozers take one of the characters for his or her own. More than one Schmoozer per character is fine! This is NOT intended to be a homework assignment, and you do NOT have to write an essay, and you will NOT be excluded from the conversation. If you are interested, however, here are the main characters as described by Goldie Morgentaler and the YSIT readers who have opted, so far, to live with or "be" them:


Itche Mayer, an impoverished carpenter with four sons, each a member of a different political party (Les Field);


Samuel Zuckerman, a rich factory owner before the war (Alexis Krasilovsky);


Adam Rosenberg, another industrialist, who becomes a Kripo (Kriminalpolizei [German criminal police]);


Dora Diamond, an assimilationist high-school teacher and Polish patriot;


Esther, a great beauty and ardent communist who is active in the ghetto underground;


Michal Levine, a doctor who compulsively writes letters that he never sends to a woman in Paris who he loved before the war;


Rachel Eibushitz, a politically committed high school student (Gelya Frank);


David, Rachel's boyfriend;


Simcha Bunim Berkovitch, a writer modeled on Rosenfarb's mentor Shayevitch; and


Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a real individual who founded and directed an orphanage before the war and becomes the Germans' puppet leader of the Lodz ghetto.


Who would you choose? As I read the book, I choose to acquaint myself intimately with Rachel Eibushitz, the high school student, not only because she is modeled after the author, but also perhaps as a way to strengthen the political dissident in me. As a student at Rachel's age, I was much too preoccupied with the problems of growing up in my family to participate in politics in any organized or meaningful way. In fact, my family actively discouraged me. Perhaps Rachel will help me to undo the residue, the internalized suppression of political agency that still exists in me. Please write a comment below--or send me an email--in which you choose one of the characters and explain what you think he or she might possibly mean for you?


--Gelya Frank, September 29, 2021

Rev. 9/30/21


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Thank you for writing this, Gelya - and I look forward to how you revise it once you've read "The Tree of Life." (I just finished Volume One late last night.) I was fascinated to learn about "historiographic metafiction" here - something I've also practiced as a writer. Whaddaya know?! There's a name for it - from Linda Hutcheon's "A Poetics of Postmodernism." Learning more and more as the months go by... including about the origins of my own identity.

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I'll take Zuckerman - mainly because I'm interested in comparing him to the wealthy factory owners in "The Brothers Ashkenazi" and the father in "The Family Mashber," although I'm swamped with reading student screenwriting at the moment and can't give it my all. If somebody else wants to take on this character as well, that's fine: Hopefully someone else who's fully retired can do a more in-depth comparison, which I'd certainly love to read.

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