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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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One of Rosenfarb’s most psychologically complex portraits is of Mordecai Chaim Rumkovsky, the Jewish boss of the Lodz ghetto. When we first meet him at Samuel Zuckerman’s New Year’s Eve party, Rumkowski is soliciting funds for the orphanage he runs. Scenes set in the orphanage make it clear that Rumkowski loves the adulation of those who are weaker than he. The old man has a weakness for young girls, and in the culminating episode of the first chapter in which he appears he attempts to seduce a young girl from the orphanage, Sabinka, whom he has treated to an afternoon at the fair grounds of Luna Park. Rumkowski’s near-rape of the innocent 15-year-old Sabinka in the outlying bushes of the park is interrupted by some Polish boys, who are chanting, “Hep, hep, give it to her old Jew boy! Give it!” The reminder here is that the Jewish world of prewar Poland is hedged around with anti-Semitic hatred, even before the Germans march into the country. And the irony here is that this same anti-Semitism of the Polish thugs saves the innocent Jewish girl from assault by a Jewish predator.

Rosenfarb’s Rumkowski is a man with a mission: “He had come into this world to fulfill a mission, to become a Moses. … He had been created not in order to direct an orphanage, but to direct an entire people.” He is a man who is dangerous because he is so completely convinced of his own importance that he can blind himself to any reality. He is, ironically, an admirer of Hitler. When the Sperre starts, he realizes with regret that, “he would never now sit with Hitler at the same table, discussing the establishment of a Jewish state.”

Yet Rumkowski is not an out-and-out villain. Convinced as he is that only he can rescue the Jews, he nevertheless does act—at least some of the time—for altruistic reasons. And he can display bravery. But, as life in the ghetto becomes progressively more desperate, Rumkowski’s position becomes ever more untenable as the Nazis demand that he hand over larger and larger numbers of Jews for deportation to the death camps. Rosenfarb describes in chilling detail the kinds of accommodations with his own conscience that Rumkowski must make in order to justify handing over, first, the children from his beloved orphanage, then all children under the age of 10, then the sick from the hospitals, the elderly, the Western Jews, the Jews whose partners had been deported before, and so on. In one of the novel’s most horrifying accounts of an actual historical event—the Sperre—Rumkowski demands that the mothers of the ghetto willingly give up their children to the Nazis for the good of the collective.

Rosenfarb never personally knew Rumkowski, so his portrait in The Tree of Life is fiction. But clearly it is the moral ambiguity of Rumkowski’s position that fascinates her, the human kernel of good overlaid with layers of self-delusion, megalomania, and petty cruelty. The attempt to understand and convey evil from the inside also suggests a wish on the part of the author to come to terms with it, to fictionalize cruelty as a way of defanging the monster.

Yet, for all the complexity with which Rosenfarb depicts her Jewish characters, there is never any doubt that for her the Nazis are the enemy. She is always aware of the beast at the door; so while the focus of The Tree of Life is on the Jewish community of Lodz, the Nazis are not a shadowy presence. Their cruelty is both capricious and terrifying. Biebow and the other Nazi overseers appear as themselves, all too humanly enjoying their power over others, enforcing barbaric decrees, shooting randomly into the ghetto as if it were a fish pond. In one particularly chilling scene they shoot a young boy sitting near a water pump quietly reading a book on a very hot day, because he has removed his shirt with its identifying Star of David.

For the most part, the writing is realistic, but occasionally it can become symbolic as well.  For instance, we learn about the tortures in the Red House, the headquarters of the Police Criminal Unit (KRIPO), from the perspective of newly born ants who happily set out on a journey of discovery by crawling along a prisoner’s body only to drown in the castrated void between his legs.

Through a yellowish roundness covered with a prickling needle-like forest—a human four-day old beard—the ants descended into a valley which was a human neck, reaching a rocking surface covered with soft curling hair-weeds: a man’s chest. A long and fascinating march over skin and cloth finally brought the ants to a point where they could have gone in one of two directions: along two spread out human legs. They chose instead to descend straight from the belly into the depths between the two legs—and suddenly they lost the ground under their ant-feet, finding themselves in water that was sticky and red—in a deep sea of human blood oozing through the cloth between the thighs. Ants were not created with the ability to swim in human blood. For a moment they quivered. Finally they drowned. All that they had seen on their long and daring road drowned along with them.

The ants are ants, but they also represent the ghetto inhabitants in microcosm, crawling their way through a precarious life toward a bloody death.

The Tree of Life limits its narrative perspective to the ghetto; it ends with the liquidation of the ghetto and the deportation of all the characters, including Rumkowski. The death camps that await outside the barbed-wire fence of the ghetto are indicated simply by a short inscription: “AUSCHWITZ. WORDS STOP… LETTERS EXPIRE IN THE SMOKE OF THE CREMATORIUM’S CHIMNEY.” This is followed by a series of blank pages and an epilogue. In the epilogue, which is set in Brussels 10 years later, we are told that three of the characters have survived. One of the survivors is the author of the novel we have just read, and we see her sit down to begin her book with its actual first paragraph. But, of the fates of the other characters we learn nothing. Can we assume that some of them survived? The narrative is silent on this, but that silence is ominous.

This essay is adapted from “Chava Rosenfarb and The Tree of Life,” which appeared in 2008 in Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon: Essays in Literature and Culture in Honor of Ruth R. Wisse, edited by Justin Cammy, Dara Horn, Alyssa Quint, and Rachel Rubinstein, and published by The Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University Press.

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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:


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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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