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From the archives

The (Other) October Crisis

A new book revisits one of Canada’s most traumatic and telling moments

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Processing Memories

An English edition of Chava Rosenfarb

Ruth Panofsky

In the Land of the Postscript: The Complete Short Stories of Chava Rosenfarb

Translated and edited by Goldie Morgentaler

White Goat Press

300 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

Chava Rosenfarb should be a familiar name. She lived most of her life in Montreal and was part of the city’s thriving literary culture. She was associated with well-known writers, including the poets Melekh Ravitch, J. I. Segal, and Rokhl Korn, as well as the poet Miriam Waddington and the novelist Adele Wiseman, whose work she translated. She was a frequent reader and speaker at the Jewish Public Library. And she was prolific. Rosenfarb produced poetry and drama, essays and fiction. Best known for The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto, an epic novel first published in 1972, she drew international attention and awards from Argentina, Israel, and the United States. If she is not better known as a Canadian writer, it is for one principal reason: Rosenfarb wrote in Yiddish.

Chava Rosenfarb was born in 1923 in Lodz, the city known as the Polish Manchester. During the Nazi occupation, she and her family were incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto and, in 1944, deported. Chava, her sister, and their mother survived Auschwitz, Sasel, and Bergen-Belsen. Chava’s father died in the final transport out of Dachau. In 1945, she made her way to Brussels, where she lived as a displaced person. Five years later, she immigrated to Montreal with her new husband, Henry Morgentaler (their ­marriage ended in 1979). That the Holocaust would become her literary subject is not surprising.

As a teenager, Rosenfarb began writing poetry, a practice she resumed soon after liberation. Two collections were published in London in 1947 and 1948; also in 1948, the Montreal publisher Harry Hershman brought out a new edition of her first volume, Di balade fun nekhtiken vald un andere lider (The ballad of yesterday’s forest and other songs), with the addition of her postwar diary, written in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp between May 6 and September 1, 1945. It was Hershman who ­sponsored Rosenfarb’s immigration to Canada.

In Montreal, Rosenfarb found a community. “I could count more than forty Yiddish writers living in Canada in the years just after my arrival,” she recalled in 1994, “writers of international reputation and recognized all over the Yiddish-speaking world.” Of equal importance was an international audience hungry for literary works written in mameloshen, the mother tongue, as Yiddish calls itself.

Around the time she arrived in Montreal.

Chava Rosenfarb; Canadian Writers Abroad; Wikimedia Commons

Over the decades, the vitality and presence of Yiddish would diminish. Eventually, in addition to the loneliness she knew as a Holocaust survivor, Rosenfarb experienced the isolation of the Yiddish writer who lacked a readership. The fading of the language —“as near to me as the skin on my body”— was ­unsettling. To ­compensate, she began to translate her work. But Rosenfarb struggled to transmit the “­emotionality” of Yiddish into English and enlisted the aid of her daughter. Now, due chiefly to Goldie Morgentaler’s dedication and talent (she is an award-winning translator), much of Rosenfarb’s oeuvre is accessible to a wider audience.

Rosenfarb processed her memories of the Holocaust through realistic novels. To write about survivors, however, she turned to magic realism and the short story. First published in Di goldene keyt (The golden chain), a ­literary journal led by the poet Avrom Sutzkever, Rosenfarb’s stories often blend reality and ­fantasy to convey the profound depersonalization of survivors who live with grief and trauma, far from the burial ground of Europe. With one exception, her stories unfold in Canada.

“The Greenhorn” recalls a slur directed at Jews who survived the death camps of Europe and emigrated elsewhere. Meant to humiliate and demean newcomers, it reinforced their sense of difference and exacerbated their ­sorrow. The character Barukh is the target of such derision. His wife and two children perished in the Holocaust, and he spent one year in Paris after the war as a displaced person. Recently arrived in Montreal, he begins a job as a presser in a garment factory. Barukh’s experience of Paris appeals to a young French Canadian woman who works in the factory. Her “carefree lightheartedness” and animated questions about her “dream” city contrast with Barukh’s despair and memory of “a dirty Paris hotel room.”

The factory is a site of internal conflict. Class distinctions differentiate the Jewish foreman from his Jewish employees, who are further separated by language and faith from their French Canadian co-workers. The machinists also form their own hierarchy — they mock Barukh as a “greenhorn from greenhorn land”— and debate politics and religion among themselves. Thus the shop serves as a microcosm of the divisions and tensions that informed Jewish life in pre‑war Europe. “Here is not like back home,” one worker asserts. But Europe is nonetheless present: in the factory dynamics and in the thoughts and feelings that overwhelm Barukh.

In “Last Love,” an elderly Jewish woman visits Paris, where she spent her youth. Amalia’s dying wish — facilitated by her devoted husband, Gabriel — is to make love to a young Frenchman. After she dies, both men are unmoored. Gabriel returns to Montreal, where he lives alone as a sculptor, while Jean-Pierre becomes a solitary traveller who plunges to his death in the Rocky Mountains. Canada, it would seem, offers no protection against the enduring influence of Amalia, who, Morgentaler posits, represents a Europe “corrupted as much by the presence of its victims as by that of its aggressors.”

The French capital also inspires an imaginary ardour in “François.” Leah and Leon meet and marry soon after liberation. After they settle in Quebec, Leon becomes successful and by turns cruel and neglectful as a husband. To assuage Leah and answer her desire for happiness, François emerges, both dreamlike and real, as a Parisian living in Montreal. François believes that “the soul lives on in the death of love” and, in ­becoming Leah’s sanctuary, helps her find “a reattachment to life.” When she separates from Leon and François both, Leah finally rejects the past of Europe and the promise of Canada.

Sarah Zonabend, another survivor, lives in Montreal, too, along with her inattentive husband. In “A Friday in the Life of Sarah Zonabend,” she goes about her daily household tasks of cooking, cleaning, and running errands, but she is no longer sure “who she was ­herself — or whether she was at all.” It is only in successive diaries, which she always destroys, that Sarah dares to make a record of “her suffering as a lonely wife, or of the illnesses and problems of her children, or of the loss of loved ones.” With each new entry, she hopes to uncover the “elusive inner life of the soul.” Although her search proves futile, she keeps writing, only to repeat the cycle of confiding and incinerating her deepest secrets.

“Edgia’s Revenge” is written as an extended suicide note by Rella, a former kapo, or prisoner functionary, in Auschwitz, where she saved Edgia’s life. After the war, the two reconnect in Montreal and form an interdependent albeit strained relationship, their identities tied but unstable, due in large part to their encounter in the camp. “She symbolized my one and only moment of humanity, of kindness,” Rella explains, “and I symbolized her moment of humiliation.” Initially, Rella treats Edgia with disdain and has an affair with Edgia’s husband, while Edgia is meek and self-effacing. Their roles reverse when Edgia severs their friendship and acquires Rella’s determination and confidence.

The lasting pain of the Holocaust is borne physically and psychically by both women. Rella is raped by a fellow kapo and has an abortion; Edgia is abused by her husband. Together, they also guard the secret of Rella’s past. But following their breach, while Edgia moves on, Rella is overcome with guilt. In her flat, far removed from “the dark abyss” of Auschwitz and still consumed with the sin of being a Jewish perpetrator, she decides the only way to end her nightmare is by taking her own life.

In “April 19th,” the protagonist, like Barukh, loses his wife and two children during the Holocaust. But Hersh is long settled in Montreal, with a new family. And over time, his two wives merge in his imagination, as if “Bronia had swallowed Rivkele, who continued living inside her, invisible to the outside world, invisible even to Bronia herself — but not to Hersh.”

During a commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — which erupted on April 19, 1943 — Hersh sees Rivkele ascend the altar to light a memorial candle. He heads outside for a loving reunion, though both realize that Rivkele is dead. Bronia appears and acknowledges Rivkele, but wants her to “go back where she came from.” Unexpectedly, Hersh embraces the family he loved in Europe and the family he loves in Canada: “It is the only way we can celebrate our victory.” The past and present seem to mesh. Yet the next morning, when Bronia charms Hersh to make Passover pancakes for breakfast and declares “we are starved to death,” it is clear that past terror still rules.

The title of this complete edition of Rosenfarb’s stories, Morgentaler explains in her introduction, invokes Canada as “bland, neutral territory,” one that “permits the intrusion of a corroding European reality” and where “survivors of the Holocaust play out the tragedy’s last act.” Indeed, the past — so palpable in the lives that Rosenfarb imagines — occludes the present and future. And even if Canada offers safety and stability, it cannot provide what her characters seek: oblivion and freedom from the torment of memory.

To mark the centenary of the author’s birth, the city of Lodz has declared 2023 the Year of Chava Rosenfarb, and the University of Lodz is holding a fall conference in her honour. This is Canada’s opportunity to finally celebrate Rosenfarb, too.

Ruth Panofsky is a professor of English at Toronto Metropolitan University, where she specializes in Canadian literature and culture.