Updated: Feb 20, 2022
Saturday, February 19, 2022, 5:00-6:30 pm Pacific.
Read the essay "How I Came to Not Fear Reading 'Another' Holocaust Novel," by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, Co-Founder of the Yiddish Schmoozers
Each year rabbis go through a special gehenna searching for High Holiday sermon material that will respond to the spiritual needs of their congregants. I will spare you my laments over this process. Sometimes a new book or current events inspire the voice coming from the pulpit. While preparing this year for the Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur holidays, I was inspired by Dara Horn’s recent book, People Love Dead Jews. Published in 2021, this book may well echo from pulpits on the High Holidays for years to come, but also, more immediately, in workshops and reading groups like our ownYiddish Schmoozers.
How I came to not fear reading “another” Holocaust novel
Although we had already scheduled the reading of Chava Rosenfarb’s The Tree of Life, Book 1: On the Brink of the Precipice, 1939, I admit that I had reservations about it. American culture has developed a love affair with narratives about the destruction of Jewish lives, the occasional redemptive survivor story notwithstanding, as Dara Horn argues. The diversity and specificity of Jewish lives--real lives--has been lost in America's generic Holocaust narrative and its tropes.
But as Dara Horn further argues, Chava Rosenfarb's trilogy is a treatment of an entirely different order. Rosenfarb's contribution to literature--a masterpiece of world literature-- will nourish a profound a self-examination of the legacy of the Holocaust among American Jews. Reading Dara Horn’s encomium for the book dispelled my hesitancies that people would resist “another” Holocaust novel.
Rosenfarb’s book is a carefully constructed masterpiece based on the studied shared experience of a small coterie of Yiddish writers like Elie Wiesel. The redaction and careful editing of Wiesel's Night is a very prominent background to this trilogy. The world of Yiddish writers underwent a “taming” that is exemplified by Wiesel’s thousand-page 1954 Yiddish memoir, titled Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Kept Silent). In 1958, after the influence Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac, the slim book Night appeared.
Rosenfarb notes the influence of Wiesel’s experience on her 1972 decision to publish Der Boym Fun Lebn (The Tree of Life). The authorial elasticity of narrative voice having been established as seasoned with verity.
Is Rosenfarb’s Tree of Life an example of a literary type unique to Yiddish/Hebrew literature?
Horn claims in the crucial fifth chapter of People Love Dead Jews that Holocaust literature – in Yiddish and Hebrew - falls into the literary practices that were largely treated by the establishment literary mavens as insubstantial and unworthy because they broke the rules of literary presentation. Horn notes that other literatures sought resolution and tidy endings. Horn makes a broad claim about Yiddish literature that she discovered in graduate school is an exception. Yiddish/Hebrew literatures are characterized by a lack of resolution and very few happy endings. I like this claim but I don’t know if it can be sustained.
In order to accommodate to Christian narratives a focus on the dead Jews developed. Jews accepted and adopted this focus instead of understanding its implications for their public profile.
Horn’s claims are crisply presented in twelve interconnected chapters but it is Chapter 5 that zeroes in on our continued reading of Chava Rosenfarb’s trilogy,The Tree of Life: On the Brink of the Precipice, 1939. In particular, the post–1960s era of good feeling toward Jews in many quarters – among some Christian religious denominations and in liberal political and academic quarters- was premised in some measure on the horror at the death of 6 million Jews. But that era is over. Horn is claiming that an instrumentalization of the Holocaust in politics, tourism, fundraising, but especially in literature, may have reinforced a dehumanizing equation: Jews equal death.
I read each chapter of Dara Horn's book not only as a critique of current internal Jewish concerns but also as reflecting a collection of recurring attitudes from gentile worlds, from places as seemingly disconnected from Jewish life as Communist China and Imperial Japan. The incorporation of re-cycled anti-semitic tropes learned from Christian Europe and its twinned secular culture proves to be more than incidental. Horn connects contemporary threats and stereotypes about Jews to historically disparate times and places adding power to each successive essay. The reader is left with a certain dread and unease at the end of People Love Dead Jews.
Back to The Tree of Life, Horn claims that this novel portrays the events of the Lodz residents but conveys something deeper about their lives and commitments. In the vast mass of human carnage the individual stories were often lost. People’s connections to work, literature, belief, love and family were elided to tell the tale of their undoing. Rosenfarb restores their humanity.
Knowing too much but knowing nothing
For me, as for Les Field in our November 2021 discussion of The Tree of Life, Book 1, the book fills out in an important context for the people of my youth, in Phoenix, Arizona. I met many of the other greene (Yiddish, a newcomer) refugees that migrated to Arizona and gathered at Encanto Park for Sunday picnics. These events were attended by mostly Polish Jews, survivors, with Yiddish spoken by the adults. Among them were recovering members of the defeated Jewish Bund, reading the Yiddish papers carrying their arch enemies' Revisionist and Zionist narratives. At a later point, my communist aunt joined us from Paris.
Book 1 of Rosenfarb's trilogy introduced us to people like these among the Jews of Lodz, Poland at the moment of the September 1, 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland. Rosenfarb's narrative restored to us the lives, concerns, and hopes of the students, the petty vendors, the wealthy moguls, the intellectuals, the prostitutes and criminal toughs.
We hear the Bundists, the Communists, the Zionists as ordinary people. In my mind, their former arguments are now less distorted. The transmission includes something more than their bitterness which overwhelmed my youthful hearing. The raw human reality in its good and evil is present. The sense of the complex world of Polish Jewry in a modernizing industrial Lodz is hard to comprehend. Both its profound idealism and its radical corruption are lost to us in the nostalgic haze of hagiography. Encanto Park contributed to that haze. Chava Rosenfarb’s restores to me the otherwise missing context of mundane everyday life that illuminated their political commitments.
-- Haim Dov Beliak
Revised and posted, November 29, 2021
Dear Visitors to this Page,
YSIT invites you to add your comments and to submit a blog/essay on any of our books or themes.