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More Conversation about The Tree of Life, by Judith Jernow and the Book II Discussion Participants

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Part 1: Email from Judith Jernow

Dear Gelya, and Fellow Schmoozers,

So sorry to be missing the Chava discussion. Any chance you are recording it? Please let me know if you do. I’d love to hear others' reactions. This is such an insightful group and such a great set of books.

I believe Andrea has told you about this event in Santa Barbara that we need to attend where her husband, Bud, is being honored—unfortunately just at the time of the discussion.

I am lost in admiration for the saga Chava has written so brilliantly. Her characters are so real, so individualized and even those who are caricatures like Aaron Rosenberg--and that fabulous scene with the secretary and his dog in the first book--come across as real people full of pathos.

I found Esther and and her romance with her communist lover absolutely gripping. These are unforgettable characters.

I think David’s notes and the letter writing by the doctor Michal Levine to his fiancé in Paris work as a welcome variety and relief to the narrative, giving other points of view than those said from the writer's third-person omniscient viewpoint. As a reader, one feels awful for him getting no replies but continuing to write to her. Chava’s many characters and their relationships give the reader a real sense of what it was like to live in that unfortunate city of Lodz and others in Poland at that time.

Sadly I began to have nightmares and had to leave off reading Book II when I could see —without much imagination--the correspondence between events, people and politics akin to those arising here in our own country at this time. It is truly frightening to see these parallels when one realizes how quickly certain ideas, misinformation, and war can leap from germs of ideas to full blown catastrophe in short order. I‘ve lost a lot of sleep. Perhaps now is the time to get terrified.

Rumkowski ’s transfiguration from head of an orphanage to head of the Jewish Council of Elders of the Lodz ghetto blew me away. Including how his rise in position was reported through Rosenfarb's description of the chauffeured buggy ride that he takes while everyone else marches to the ghetto on foot.

Another scene I loved--looking back to Book I--was the one that takes place between the impoverished carpenter Itche Mayer's son, Shalom, and the wealthy industrialist Samuel Zuckerman. Their brilliantly drawn conversation at the beginning of the trilogy shows Zuckerman venturing into the courtyard in Baluty where Shalom, in the cellar apartment, lay ill. It is where Zuckerman, his family, their servant, friends and business associates would themselves be imprisoned when Baluty becomes the ghetto.

Please do share these comments and impressions with the group.

Best Regards,

Judith Jernow


Part 2: View or Listen to the Discussion

If you missed the discussion of Book II, you can view or listen to it on the blog post titled Rosenfarb's Tree of Life Trilogy for the upcoming discussion on 4/23/2022. Participants included Gelya, Haim Dov, Alexis, Leah and Doris.


Part 3: The Transcript

A few excerpts of the (mostly) uncorrected Zoom transcript of the Book II discussion are posted below.

Leah: I will say that was an exhausting read I could only read about 20 to 25 pages an hour of that book. So it took me forever to get through because I was so captured by the language.

Alexis: I mean I found all the, the detail not excessive at all been fascinated because she's like did all the research that anybody would need if they want to do a mini series it's all there right in front of you.

Haim: Yeah, I'd like to talk about the question that I was intrigued by and that also came up in Andrea's comments namely, what the author's goals are here, and what ought to be. The goals of writing about horrific human events, and history. . . . This book is not just dealing with, with traumatic events in history it's also dealing with the resilience of the human emotions that come up. You know someone starts writing poetry. There, you know so that it's not, it's not just dealing with traumatic events are so there's a huge range and the range itself is fascinating. I think about how this book will read in about 150 years. Sort of like, how does Warren Piece [Ed. War and Peace] read today. I mean, we're so distant from the events of the

Russian war, but it is for me it is the most clear entry into what that was emotionally. I mean it's certainly in a style that was [inaudible] but this book reads like a book to the future of how to think about what happened during 1941-1942.

Gelya: I think one of the most powerful things that Andrea says in her piece, that people wanted to believe that although these things were happening that they were going to survive and it was temporary. And if that's valid in terms of a true portrait of the general mood of what people carried with them during that time, then that's a profound.

Haim: So from my perspective. This is all very important conversation, but I think it's in some ways to sidestep the novel. And I sort of want us to talk about what she's written with the understanding that I haven't read the third volume.

And I apologize, because I've experienced exactly what Leah did. I could only read 20 to 25 pages of the most. . . . So, sort of as a technical answer [about what happened in the period between September 1, 1939 and June 20, 1941, most scholars believe that that is the period of time in which the highest height of mass killing has not yet begun book ends at those dates.

The mobile gas killing unit. . . That's one of the first mass killing apparatus, but most of the Jews were killed in various places--depending on what the train situation was--in either Treblinka or Auschwitz. And that didn't happen until after Book II of this novel. We've just passed the whatever number anniversary of the Wannsee conference, which was in January of 1942. And that's the first documentary evidence of the administrative division of how the Jews were to be killed. A written document, but that process had already been done in March or April, before operation Barber Rosa [Barbarosa], on June 21, 1941.

So Auschwitz was relatively new . . .the major killing camps, Treblinka. . . there are six of them. . . had just begun to function. Those are called the Reinhart killing camps. And that's where about. . . I'm speaking in round numbers. . . about three and a half to four million of the six million Jews were killed.

More excerpts of transcript, left unedited:

Leah: So what would you like us to talk about you say we're moving away from the novel. So do you have a question you'd like us to begin with?

Haim: I would almost say that for as much as we have patience. We should take little snippets, as she has, where she has addressed a specific problem, and talk about how she has written about this and how she has shaped each one of these characters which now have a volume one history and this. So, You know my character is Esther,

and how she has changed from who she was as the student that was molested by room cough ski [Rumkovski] to the woman who is nursing, a tuberculosis patient who who's saving Valentino, the underworldnik.

18:02:15 Who's finally doing that by giving herself to the highest German or highest Jewish official Jewish collaborator.

Gelya: So what do you make of that. I mean, that thank you so much for giving us that trajectory because that's part of what's so frustrating about this book is, how can you keep it all in your head.

18:02:33 It's like an encyclopedia you have to keep going back to it.

18:02:39 So what do you make of that I mean, personally, and, you know, in, in, in the sense of literature.

18:02:50 You know, What is this telling us.

Haim: You know, I have an example but I don't know what it means.

18:03:00 Yeah okay so I'll give you my reaction and it's a very male reaction. I'm almost embarrassed to express it because I know that it will be, will jump on it, and I will be forever grown into.

18:03:16 He is the location of a determination to survive.

18:03:24 Her or basic natural goodness.

18:03:30 As a subscriber her devotion to the communist ideals.

18:03:37 The description that

18:03:42 we have of her physically, is that she is. Mother Earth.

18:04:02 Everybody is starving, but she's got boobs and a butt and things that you would think of associating with life and voluptuousness. And she knows that, on some level, all that doesn't matter to her for herself.

18:04:10 But it doesn't matter for how she can save somebody. I mean, She's really a martyr character in so many ways.

18:04:24 If I was going to see who's the figure that represents the externality of the Jewish people.

18:04:33 It's Esther, and she's you know that appropriately Purim Esther type. Yeah.

Leah: So do you think that she is in Book Three going to infect go off to find out what is happening with deportations.

18:04:52 They want her to go at the end.

18:04:57 I don't know about the answer the question. I'm afraid to answer because I'm afraid I'm gonna have to start crying when she dies. Yeah.

18:05:08 She doesn't sound like she's came to do it, but we don't know whether she's going to know.

18:05:14 I thought she would have been bumped off by now.

18:05:17 I thought so too but no then I need to bring her about in terms of full fruition and not the book just structurally speaking.

18:05:27 Explain.

Alexis [?] and other voices: Yeah, Well you know and you have a character arc would catch it goes through various changes.

18:05:38 And there's a beginning, middle and end to book one beginning, middle and end the book to beginning middle end to book three but if you have too much closure, your book to them when they left with your book thread, if martyrdom.

18:05:51 And the death of millions of just as personified by Esther is a major theme of the overall trilogy then you can't kill her off of that book too.

18:06:05 It's interesting, I think from her relationship with this artist winter,

18:06:13 where she allows herself to be objectified by him.

18:06:19 And she.

18:06:24 It has this fling with him.

18:06:29 And he's the most hideous character.

18:06:31 There's something about that. Beauty and the Beast

18:06:37 combination you know he he says,

18:06:41 We are complicit in our own doing.

18:06:46 It just scribbling on canvas. You guys are providing uniforms and ammunition, the working people have footage. All I'm doing is, you know, putting some paint on canvas.

18:07:03 I mean, that as a challenge, you know, to, you know, does art, let's say, that's just one of the moments that comes to mind I mean, the fact that she

18:07:18 stays to be connected to him, and be part of that is in some ways the, the whole question of, you know, what does art do in the midst of brutality and, and, and, in humanity.

18:07:40 I found that to be a very moving set of questions that is being asked.

18:07:49 And, you know, I mean I could say a lot more about us too but for now that you have the corruption of art to with the violinist, the collaborator who longs to play his beautiful dramatic music, even to Esther who is molesting and destroying.

18:08:17 I think of the, the Passover, where she brings her portion of the matzah know everybody who's supposed to contribute their portion of the matzah.

18:08:32 And she does that.

18:08:36 Know that I don't remember that scene so well.

18:08:40 Well we remember it's back in the family that took her in when she was an orphan

18:08:50 her uncle's family.

18:08:51 Yeah.

18:08:55 Um, for me, thinking about what that Passover must have been like to think about saying the things you're supposed to say the Seder.

18:09:05 And for her to be present

18:09:09 and of itself some ways I was almost hoping that there would be a rebuttal by Rosen farm to, to the, to the Haggadah.

18:09:24 Huh, what kind of rebuttal.

18:09:29 Well I mean there's this this underlying theme in the Haggadah of, despite everything will will live past, whatever trouble it is, and each and every generation they arise, to destroy us destroys, but the Holy One of being saves us in the end.

18:09:52 I mean, I mean, you could just play that back against the reality of what they're experiencing the buying and she didn't do that she did that would have been the easy way out of.

18:10:07 She, in a sense, every knowledgeable reader who's thinking about what it's like to say these things at the Seder has to have those words just sticking their throat.

18:10:18 Let me ask Let me try another thing, another parallel to the Haggadah. So the recitation of the trials.

18:10:29 And the resilience of the ghetto, and the death camps is in fact the historical reenactment for us as we read it. We ourselves go through it, to learn whatever the lessons are in our generation.

18:10:53 Is that part of what she thinks she's doing.

18:10:57 Is that part of what she thinks the current Jon john novelist, the novelist is to do.

Gelya: Picking up from from both of you, Alexis and Leah I mean, Andrea says that quotes Rosenfarb saying that her purpose is to show the souls of the ordinary Jewish people.

18:11:30 That at that have been stripped of the

18:11:40 pretenses of normal life. So you know they don't have any more illusions, in a way, I think that's kind of what you were saying and, you know, can't there there's there, there are stripped down to basic need, and.

18:11:59 And so what I think.

18:12:02 She, she the writer is doing is

18:12:08 not so much showing us, but examining how that happens across all of these characters. And for that reason. I don't think she wants to editorialize about, you know, what her characters do or what they believe.

18:12:28 I don't I don't, I don't really pick up a lot of editorializing,

Leah: You're asking what she intends as a writer and does she want us to see the this story as a reenactment of the Esther story, or the Haggadah. That's not exactly what I meant.

18:12:57 What I meant more was is part of the intent of works of this kind.

18:13:07 In the ways in which it removed. Okay, so I think I'm trying to think back to the interview

18:13:14 with her daughter.

18:13:17 And I can't remember whether I'm making this up or whether this was part of it.

18:13:24 There is the fact of the mechanical the mechanized killing the deaths of millions of people Jews and others, which is horrific it the mind cannot take it in.

18:13:40 But what we can take in, are the individual people, we can take in what happens to them, we can take in what's in their heads, it's, it's a remarkably modern novel, in the sense that we have the interior lives of these of these people at great length

18:14:00 me every page is filled with their responses to what's happening. And through, through these experiences, are we meant to have a sense of what it would be like to have done that.

18:14:17 So, the reading of the Haggadah is meant for us to be as if we were there in the in the departure from Egypt, right. So is part of this the the intent of this work and others like it, to remind us as human beings, what it would be like to have these experiences.

Hopefully these excerpts will give you some sense of the conversation that continues on the recording and live on Saturday April 23. Don't miss it!

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