Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Sunday, December 11, 2022, 2:00 pm Pacific Time
The Shmoozers welcome back Goldie Morgentaler to continue discussing her mother Chava Rosenfarb's stories in the collection Survivors. The Shmoozers will focus on the stories "Edgia's Revenge" and "Serengeti."
Rosenfarb, born in Poland in 1923 was a prolific poet and prose writer in Yiddish and English. She survived the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen Belsen. Living in Belgium as a stateless person after the war, she gained entrance to Canada in 1950 and relocated to Montreal, joining an active community of displaced Yiddish writers .
Morgentaler, a literary scholar and professor at the University of Lethbridge, is translator of the seven short stories in this book, written in Yiddish. She also translated with her mother The Tree of Life trilogy, the first volume in English appearing in 2004. The Tree of Life closely follows a cast of 10 characters confined by Poland's Nazi occupiers in the Lodz ghetto from its creation until its liquidation, spanning events from 1939 to 1944.
A growing audience of readers in English now joins in acknowledging The Tree of Life as a masterpiece of world literature and possibly the greatest novel to emerge from the Holocaust. Its hallmark is its ambitious, unblinking historical sweep combined with an infinitely patient, fine-grained unfolding of events. Add to this an array of highly distinctive characters and social types portrayed with supreme psychological astuteness.
We also see in Rosenfarb's trilogy an entirely new exploration in the Holocaust "canon" of women's consciousness and experiences of sexual abuse and rape, as well as of romantic affairs, marriages, pregnancies, familial relationships, political events, and activism.
"A work that rises to the heights of the great creations of world literature and towers powerfully over the Jewish literature of the Holocaust."
—Decision of the Jury for the Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature, 1979
In Rosenfarb's subsequent work, her best known story, "Edgia's Revenge," is set in post-war Montreal. It explores the psychological interdependence and shifting moral claims of two women, Rella and Edgia. One having saved the life of the other in a concentration camp, they re-encounter one another in different circumstances after the war. While I will not say much more about the moral acts and claims in the story--no 'spoiler alert' needed--the question at stake concerns personal responsibility for immoral acts committed under duress. Needless to say, this question is usually projected onto Nazi perpetrators and rarely examined in the case of survivors.
Get your discounted copy of Survivors from the Yiddish Book Center for $10.
Personally, I put "Edgia's Revenge" on par with the acclaimed Yiddish writer Chaim Grade's short story, "My War with Hersh Rasseyner," which appeared in English in Commentary magazine in 1953 https://www.commentary.org/articles/chaim-grade/my-war-with-hersh-rasseynera-story/. Commentary's lead-in to Grade's piece states: "We know of no story that so movingly and intimately evokes the inner intellectual and spiritual struggle of the East European generation that lived through the Hitler ordeal as this." I suggest that "Edgia's Revenge" does as much (and perhaps more) to explore this inner struggle from a feminist authorial standpoint. By this, I mean that it deals less with abstract ideals of communal life than with the complexity of lived relationship and experience.
Grade's story format--encounters over time between two former friends after the Holocaust--orients toward the Socratic ideal of opposing arguments presented through dialogue. The men's argument attempts to settle the abstracted question of how Jews collectively should live in the post-Holocaust world. Grade's story examines a binary choice between the particularity of Jewish religious beliefs and community versus the universalist thrust of Enlightenment ideals. The story grabs the reader because Grade, identified with the narrator, cannot wholly and unequivocally affirm either side of the argument and come to a clear and complete resolution.
Rosenfarb's story is also a dialogue, but one that "speaks" through actions that take place over time between the two women, Rella and Edgia. There is no abstraction here, no binary, only their complex entanglement in lived experiences. Any elucidation of how to live takes place through Rella's reflections as the story's narrator and, at critical moments, Edgia's situated dialogue. The cultural milieux and specific structural positions in which the two women exist--their statuses in the concentration camp and, later, their positions in the social world of Holocaust survivors in Montreal--set the conditions for how they will live and what they will do next. These conditions are complex, partial, nuanced and intertwined.
Abstract principles play a part for Rosenfarb's characters, but only as embedded in relationships and circumstances. Psychologists might see in the contrast between Grade's and Rosenfarb's stories a nice mapping of Carol Gilligan's feminist critique of gender bias skewing toward a male viewpoint in theories of human development and moral reasoning. (See Gilligan's recent talk https://www.jtsa.edu/event/in-a-human-voice-in-conversation-with-psychologist-carol-gilligan/ ). Please note that my comments on Grade's abstraction from experience are meant to apply only to this story, "My War with Hersh Rasseyner." His novels are another matter.
Finally, in the second story that Goldie Morgentaler will discuss with us on December 11, "Serengeti," we get another chance to see her mother Chava Rosenfarb's psychological and cultural astuteness on display. As in "Edgia," two primary characters pull against one another in a situation of interdependence and unequal power. A conference of psychiatrists set in an ostensibly "primitive" setting in Kenya opens up a field of psychic danger for the secular, assimilated American Jewish psychiatrist who leads the conference. He is forced to confront and integrate the suppressed, excluded "Other" into his psyche, which in his case refers to the "repulsive little Jew" that lives inside him.
You can read more about past shmoozes exploring Chava Rosenfarb's work and Goldie Morgentaler's translation here on the Yiddish Shmoozers website.
Read the blog, access supplementary materials, watch the video of Goldie's 10/30/22 session