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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.

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.

***

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.

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: 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

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