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My Mother’s Life

How Chava Rosenfarb survived the Lodz ghetto to write a masterpiece about the experience

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Chava Rosenfarb visiting Lodz c. 1946 indicating where she lived. (Courtesy of the author)
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The three volumes of my mother Chava Rosenfarb’s The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto chronicle in precise, unflinching detail the destruction of an entire Jewish community during the Holocaust. That this community was also intimately known to the author who had been one of its members lends both an urgency and an authenticity to the novel.

When The Tree of Life was published as Der boym fun lebn in 1972, the Yiddish press immediately acclaimed it as a masterpiece, repeatedly emphasizing its unique place in the literature of the Holocaust. Isaac Jonasovitch, writing in the quarterly Folk un Medine (Tel-Aviv, Summer 1975), announced that “The Tree of Life is a work that surpasses everything that has been expressed up to now on the tragedy of Eastern European Jewry, or more precisely, surpasses everything that has been written in prose on this topic.” And the jury that unanimously awarded Rosenfarb the 1979 Manger Prize concurred, noting that The Tree of Life “is a work that rises to the heights of the great creations in world literature and towers powerfully over the Jewish literature of the Holocaust, the literature which deals with the annihilation of European Jewry, in particular Polish Jewry.” Numerous other international prizes were conferred on Rosenfarb for this novel, including the Canadian Segal Prize and the Argentinian Niger Prize.

Yet despite the excitement in the Yiddish press, in the world at large the novel went unheralded and largely unknown. In effect, it suffered the fate of the language in which it was written. Its very strengths—the all-encompassing epic structure, the complexity, the detail and the length—made it a difficult book to publish in a non-Jewish language. While Der boym fun lebn was soon translated into Hebrew as Ets hahayim, for many years the English translation could not find a publisher. Finally, in 1985 Scribe Publications of Melbourne, Australia, brought out the novel in English, but without distribution rights in North America. The Australian edition also eliminated the introduction and compacted the novel’s three volumes into one large tome. In  2004, 32 years after its initial publication in Yiddish, the University of Wisconsin Press began publishing a paperback reissue of this Australian edition, this time returning to the original format of three separate volumes. That version is now available in North America. I am Chava Rosenfarb’s daughter and the co-translator with her of The Tree of Life. It is my fervent hope that on the heels of Yom HaShoah and as we approach the April 19 anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, this novel will serve as a reminder, not only of the dark days of the past, but of the ability of literature to both recreate and transcend them.

***

Chava Rosenfarb was 49 years old when she published the Yiddish original of The Tree of Life in 1972. She had been living in Canada for 23 years. She was the mother of two children, the wife of a doctor and, to all appearances, living an ordinary comfortable life in what she called “the Canadian reality.” But in truth, her mind and heart were back in the Poland of her youth, in the city of Lodz where she was born. She was 16 when World War II broke out. She was 17 when she and her family, along with the other Jews of Lodz were herded into the ghetto that the Germans had set up in the slums of the city. In the ghetto she became the protégée of Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, the great ghetto poet and author of the epic poem “Lekh Lekho,” the text of which was found on a garbage heap after the Lodz ghetto was liquidated. Shayevitch introduced her to the writers’ group of the Lodz ghetto, who quickly recognized her talent and accepted her, at age 17, as their youngest member. When the ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, Rosenfarb and her family were deported to Auschwitz and from Auschwitz she was sent, along with her mother and sister, to a forced labor camp at Sasel, near Hamburg, where they built houses for the bombed-out Germans of that city. In 1945, she was liberated by the British at Bergen Belsen. She lived for five years as a Displaced Person in Belgium before emigrating to Canada in 1950 and settling in Montreal.

The genesis of The Tree of Life actually began at Auschwitz. Here is Rosenfarb’s description:

When we disembarked at Auschwitz, I stood on the station platform with my knapsack on my back, one arm embracing my father. I held a bundle of poems that I had written in the ghetto under the other arm. A kapo tore the bundle from under my arm and tossed it onto a heap of discarded prayer books, letters and photographs. The men were separated from the women and my father was ordered to join the columns of men. That was the last I ever saw of him. Then came the selection. My mother, my sister and I were sent off through the gate with the inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Soon I stood naked, with my head shaved, but my life spared. It was then that the thought of one day writing a book about the Lodz ghetto—that is, if I survived—flickered for a moment across my mind.

That book became The Tree of Life, an epic in three volumes that chronicles the fates of 10 individuals from various walks of life, several political ideologies, and varying degrees of religious conviction as they live through the terrible events of the years 1939-44. They include impoverished carpenters and wealthy factory owners. There is the assimilationist Miss Diamond, a high-school teacher and Polish patriot; there is Esther, a great beauty and ardent Communist, who is active in the ghetto underground; there is the doctor, Michal Levine, who compulsively writes letters that he never sends to a woman he loved in Paris before the war. The most autobiographical characters are Rosenfarb’s alter ego Rachel Eibushitz, a politically committed high-school student and her boyfriend David, a diarist, who is modeled on Henekh (later Henry) Morgentaler, the man who would become Rosenfarb’s husband. In addition to these central characters, the novel is replete with memorable secondary portraits, so that the overall effect is of a community of individuals all responding in individual ways to the torments inflicted on them by powers that they can neither control nor propitiate.

Several of the characters in the novel are based on actual people. Among the most significant of these are Rosenfarb’s mentor, the poet Shayevitch (1907–1944), who appears in the novel as Simkha-Bunim Berkovitch. The Tree of Life supplies some of the only available information about the real Shayevitch’s life in the ghetto.

Another historical character whose name is not changed from what it really was is Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, the so-called “eldest of the Jews” of the Lodz ghetto. Rumkowski is one of the novel’s most powerful and ambiguous creations, a self-styled savior of the Jews, who nevertheless aided the Nazis in sending tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths. The Tree of Life describes the road that Rumkowski traveled from being the founder and director of the Helenowek orphanage in Lodz before the war to being the puppet leader of the ghetto, put in place by the Nazis and compelled to do their bidding even as he tried to “save” the ghetto.

The Tree of Life is organized chronologically, which allows for a logical progression through time even as each chapter concentrates on another major character. Book One begins with a New Year’s Eve party at the home of the rich factory owner Samuel Zuckerman, shepherding in the year 1939. It ends on New Year’s Eve 1940, thus encompassing a year of extraordinary change in the fortunes of Lodz Jewry, a year that sees the Nazis march into Poland and that signals the beginning of the end of the Jewish community. By beginning her novel in the months before the Nazi invasion of September 1939, Rosenfarb allows readers to see what that community was like before the war, when people still had the luxury of living normal lives. This first book of the trilogy thus gives a sense of what will be lost, of the vitality and creativity of the Jewish community of Lodz, which, within the space of a few short months, will be reduced to fighting for the bare essentials of survival.

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I had long heard of The Tree of Life but had put off reading it until only last year, when I found the three volumes on the shelves at the Grande Bibliotèque here in Montreal. What a shame.There is only one word that describes Chava Rosenfarb’s novel. Masterpiece. I occasionally had some contact with members of your family, Rosie. With your brother back in his high school days, and through family, with your dad. Each of you have “made a name for yourself”. It must have been a very rare privilege and if I may be so bold, not too easy, living in such a household. But each of you have been blessed. And perhaps no one more so than the great writer, Chava Rosenfarb, whose work, I have no doubt, will be more and more read and cherished as time goes on.

Meryl Frank says:

Yes, a masterpiece…beautifully written, each book is more moving than the last. I feel that I know those characters. Brilliant, alive and horrific. Every page a gift.
I cannot think of a book, or set of books that have had more of an impact on me. Rosenfarb’s other books, “Boicany”, about life in the schtetle, and “Of Lodz and Love”, about life in the city pre-war are masterpieces as well and probably should be read before the Tree of Life trilogy.

I plan to read this. By the way the three volumes are available from the publisher, University of Wisconsin Press, as ebooks: http://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/3801.htm.

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My Mother’s Life

How Chava Rosenfarb survived the Lodz ghetto to write a masterpiece about the experience