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Holocaust Poetry, Saved Again

New translations of three astonishing poems, which evoke the horror of the Lodz ghetto and its aftermath

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Chava’s first passport, from Belgium. (Courtesy Goldie Morgentaler)

The following three poems are part of a collection of poems by the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb that will be published in English in Spring 2013 by Guernica Editions of Toronto under the title Exile at Last: Selected Poems of Chava Rosenfarb. (Rosenfarb’s essay “The Last Poet of Lodz,” about her mentor, the Lodz ghetto poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, appeared in Tablet magazine last year.) The introduction below was written by Goldie Morgentaler, Rosenfarb’s daughter; all of the following poems were translated from Yiddish to English by Rosenfarb.

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Chava Rosenfarb was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1923. She was educated in Yiddish and in Polish. When she was 16, the war broke out. Along with her family and the rest of the Jews of Lodz, she was incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto from 1940 until the ghetto’s liquidation in August 1944, when she was deported to Auschwitz. After the war, she settled in Montreal, Canada, where she began a prolific literary career, which included the publication of three books of poetry, three multivolume novels, a play, and numerous short stories and essays, most of which were published in the Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt. All of her work was first published in Yiddish, but some of the novels and a short-story collection called Survivors are available in English. She is best known for her landmark Holocaust trilogy, The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto, one of the seminal works of fiction about the Holocaust.

The first two poems below, “Praise” and “A Dress for My Child,” were published in Yiddish in Rosenfarb’s last collection of poetry Aroys fun gan eydn [Out of Paradise] (Tel Aviv: Peretz Farlag, 1965). “Praise” is a paean to ordinary life by a poet who had lived too much in extraordinary times. “A Dress for My Child” is similarly about the day-to-day joys and cares of motherhood. Both these poems were composed in Montreal, where Rosenfarb lived for most of her life and where she raised her two children.

The poem “Isaac’s Dream” was first written in the Lodz ghetto. It was lost when the knapsack containing all of Rosenfarb’s poems was ripped out of her hands at Auschwitz. She survived the selection and, along with her mother and sister, was sent to a slave labor camp near Hamburg, where she helped to build houses for the bombed-out residents of that city. There she managed to beg a pencil stub from a kindly German overseer and wrote what she could remember of her poems on the ceiling above her bunk. She then memorized the poems. After the war, she published them in her first book of poetry, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald: geto un andere lider [The ballad of yesterday’s forest: ghetto and other poems] (London: Oved, 1947).

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wishnitz says:

The identity card that graces the beginning of this article is Belgian,dated after 1946.The address of the holder (the poet herself) is in Schaerbeek (Brussels). She seems already to be married to “Morgentaler”.

Wishnitz, for more on Chava’s life after the war, please read her moving article on the Lodz ghetto poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, published last year in Tablet: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/111880/the-last-poet-of-lodz

gemel says:

Based on the audio of the readings of the poems, the English translations may be poetic but they miss much of the flavor and nuance of the Yiddish originals.

how splendidly beautiful, these words..visual and mindful of small details.

I’m not clear about who made the translations, was it the poet herself or her daughter?

Very moving poetry. Thanks

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Holocaust Poetry, Saved Again

New translations of three astonishing poems, which evoke the horror of the Lodz ghetto and its aftermath