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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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The subsequent two volumes of The Tree of Life—each of which encompasses two years in the life of the ghetto—describe in vivid and harrowing detail the deterioration and dismantling of this once vibrant community; how social masks are dropped in response to ever increasing hardship as the ghetto is established and random killings, starvation, disease, deportation, and death become the norms. Each book of the trilogy depicts the noose tightening a little more: Volume Two begins with the establishment of the ghetto and ends with another New Year’s Eve retrospective. Volume Three begins with the deportations from the ghetto, deportations that increase in intensity and number until the ghetto is finally liquidated. The chronological structure of the novel keeps readers tied to historical reality even as the events in the lives of the characters spiral out of control.

What gets captured is the constant anxiety that permeated every aspect of ghetto life, an anxiety about never knowing if one would survive to the end of the day, if one’s loved ones would survive, if one would make it through the Sperre [house arrest] or the deportations, an anxiety brought on by ever harsher decrees and ever decreasing food rations. It is this basic anxiety about being able to live another day and having no control over one’s fate, of being the sport in someone else’s game that gives this description of the Lodz ghetto its nightmarish quality. And it is the psychological probing of what it is like to live with such an unrelieved sense of impending doom that I believe is one of the novel’s contributions to our understanding of the Holocaust. What the novel conveys most vividly is that intangible quality of atmosphere, an atmosphere of dread that permeates the life of the ghetto.

Added to this is the novel’s vivid presentation of a broad range of characters. Because the 10 major characters of The Tree of Life come from all walks of life, the novel recreates, in all its complexity, an entire Jewish ghetto community. It captures in detail the everyday life in the ghetto workshops and food-distribution centers. It describes the gatherings of the ghetto intelligentsia and the Jewish underworld, as well as the ideological responses of the various political parties—the Zionists, Communists, and Bundists. Most important, it gives a portrait of that section of ghetto society that Rosenfarb knew well from personal experience, namely, the Lodz ghetto’s artistic community. Her portrayal of this community includes fictionalized portraits of the real-life poet Miriam Ulinover who appears as the elderly woman poet Sarah Samet, at whose apartment the writers’ group meets; and of the hunch-backed painter Israel Leizerowicz. Leizerowicz is the man featured in the cover photo of the English edition of The Tree of Life, holding a painter’s portfolio under his arm. Many of Leizerowicz’s drawings and paintings survived the war and are housed today in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and at Yad Vashem in Israel. Leizerowicz himself perished at Auschwitz in August 1944.

Questions about the role and value of art and culture in the face of barbarity permeate the narrative and fuel debate throughout the novel. Arguments about the “Jewishness” of Jewish art, about the so-called insularity of Yiddish literature versus the “international” quality of European literature, about the relative qualities of Yiddish versus Hebrew as appropriate languages for the Jews, about the value of theater and concerts in the ghetto are all raised during the course of the novel. One theme in particular arises at crucial moments, namely, the significance of Western culture for the Jews. For instance, the elderly literature teacher Miss Diamand uses Shakespeare’s The Tempest to try to comfort the students in her high-school class during the first months of the Nazi occupation of Lodz. She believes fervently that culture—that is, non-Jewish Western culture—equals salvation. The students initially respond to the play’s love story between Ferdinand and Miranda; but then some of the boys are brutally removed from the classroom by the Nazis and sent out to forced labor in the city streets. After this, none of the remaining students can concentrate on The Tempest, which is suddenly as remote and meaningless to them as a fairy tale. Miss Diamand offers her students the fruits of Western civilization as a way of making them forget their present situation.

[Miss Diamand] wanted them to hold on, as she did, to eternal indestructible values. … She was aware of what was going on around them, in their homes and in town. But [in school] at least, all that must be made to fade out of their minds, for only in this manner, she felt, could they acquire the strength and dignity to deal with the storm raging outside. She had therefore begun the first literature lesson by choosing the giant Shakespeare to assist her task. She spoke of Caliban and Prospero; she discussed Prospero’s dialogue with Ariel. The students listened to her, but their faces told her that she had not achieved what she desired.

This is one of several incidents in The Tree of Life that forces us to question the value of Western culture in addressing the problems of being Jewish in a world that despises Jews. By asking her students to study non-Jewish texts in order to find comfort and healing in the cultural heritage of Europe, Miss Diamond is accepting and perpetuating assumptions about the value of that heritage. But the younger generation rejects these assumptions. There are several confrontations of this type in the novel, and always it is the younger generation that is the more “Jewish,” and the more inclined to question the humanistic assumptions of its elders about the value and inclusiveness of Western culture.

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The Tree of Life is not sentimental in its depiction of the ghetto inhabitants. Rosenfarb’s characters may all be victims of the Nazis, but they are not necessarily innocents. The novel does not shy away from describing the activities of the Jewish ghetto spies and informers. For instance, the stool pigeon, Kripo spy, and sadist Adam Rosenberg is the most pathetic, the most despicable, and one of the most compelling of the characters in The Tree of Life. He is an uncaring husband and father, who loves his dog more than his family and does nothing to save his wife and son from deportation. He is a manipulator and an exploiter of the weak. When we first meet him he is the self-indulgent owner of a Lodz factory, who spends his days playing with the fish in his aquarium, thinking up ways to humiliate his female secretary, and burying his head in the sand. The result of this last propensity is that, despite his vast wealth, he defers leaving Lodz until it is too late and the Nazis have occupied the city.

But once incarcerated in the ghetto, the weak Adam proves to be an adept survivor precisely because he has no scruples. He betrays whomever he needs to betray in order to survive. Adam also has a sadistic streak. In one extraordinary scene, he gives a bath to his young lover, because he has convinced himself that she is always dirty. The water in the bath is scalding hot and Adam rubs the girl’s naked body with a scrub brush until she faints. His thoughts throughout this scene vacillate between the pleasure of inflicting pain and the tenderness and pity evoked by the pain that he inflicts. In this short, horrific episode Rosenfarb chillingly anatomizes the mixed emotions that animate the torturer. Suffering does not make Rosenfarb’s characters kinder or more noble than they were before; it merely highlights the qualities that were there before the war and in some cases turns those qualities into their opposites. At the same time, The Tree of Life never allows us to lose sight of the fact that this is suffering brought on by an outside force; that the ultimate evil belongs to the Nazis.

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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