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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)

Listen to Chava Rosenfarb read “A Dress for My Child” in Yiddish, recorded at the Ashkenaz festival in Toronto in the late 1990s:

A Dress for My Child

I would sew a dress for you, my child,
out of tulle made of spring’s joyful green,
and gladly crown your head with a diadem
made of the sunniest smiles ever seen.

I would fit out your feet with a pair
of crystal-like, weightless, dance-ready shoes,
and let you step out of the house with bouquets,
bright with the promise of pinks and of blues.

But outside it is cold and dreary, my child,
the wanton winds lurking unbridled and wild.
They will mangle the dress of joy into shreds
and sweep the sun’s smiling crown off your head,

Shatter to dust the translucent glass of your shoes
and bury in mud the dreams of pinks and of blues.
From far away I can hear you call me and moan:
“Mother, mother, why did you leave me alone?”

So perhaps I should sew a robe for you, my child,
out of the cloak of my old-fashioned pain,
and alter my hat of experience for you
to shelter you from the ravaging rain?

On your feet I would put my own heavy boots,
the soles studded with spikes from my saviourless past
and guide your way through the door with a torchlight
of wisdom I’ve saved till this hour of dusk.

But outside it is cold and dreary, my child.
The wanton winds lurking unbridled and wild
will rip up the robe sewn with outdated thread,
bare your chest to all danger, to fear bare your head.

The heavy boots will sink in the swamp and will drown,
the light of wisdom mocked by the laugh of a clown.
From afar I hear you call me and moan:
“Mother, mother, why did you leave me alone?”

What a wretched seamstress your mother is—
Can’t sew a dress for her child!
All she does is prick her clumsy fingers,
cross-stitching her soul, while her eyes go blind.

The only thing that I can sew for you, my sweet, my golden child,
is a cotton shift of the love I store
in my heart. The only thing I can give to light your way
are my tears of blessing; I have nothing more.

So I must leave you outside, my child, and leave you there alone.
Perhaps dressed in clothing of love you will learn better how to go from home.
So I sit here and sew and sew, while in my heart I hope and pray—
my hands, unsteady, tremble; my mind, distracted, gone astray.

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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