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Chava Rosenfarb Returns to Lodz

The author’s daughter travels to the safe haven of Poland to celebrate her mother’s work, before returning to a Canada beset by antisemites

Goldie Morgentaler
January 18, 2024

This past October, the Polish city of Lodz hosted four days of festivities celebrating the Yiddish-language novelist, short story writer, and essayist Chava Rosenfarb—a rare honor for a Canadian writer, let alone a Jewish one. The celebrations began four days after the Hamas raid on Israel, an act of horrific violence that would jolt Canadian Jews like myself out of our complacency about antisemitism in our own country.

Chava Rosenfarb, who died in 2011, was my mother. A survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, and then of Auschwitz, Sasel, and Bergen-Belsen, she was born in Lodz 100 years ago this past year. The city council of Lodz, which is the third-largest city in Poland, celebrated her centennial by naming 2023 the Year of Chava Rosenfarb. Beginning with her birthday on Feb. 9, the Marek Edelman Dialogue Center in Lodz hosted walking tours, lectures, and concerts throughout the year, culminating in an international conference in October sponsored by the Dialogue Center and the University of Lodz. There was a reception at the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw hosted by the Canadian ambassador to Poland, as well as a televised ceremony which saw Rosenfarb’s name conferred on a street in downtown Lodz. The part of the city where the Lodz Ghetto had once stood was festooned with murals and wall drawings featuring her portrait, as well as lines of her poetry translated into Polish. The murals marked the places in the ghetto where she once lived.

How did this Yiddish-language writer whose works are scarcely known in Canada, the country in which she lived for over 50 years, and only slightly better known in the wider world, come to be such a heroine in her native Poland? The reason is simple: translation. Under the auspices of the Dialogue Center and its dynamo of a director, Joanna Podolska, all of Rosenfarb’s novels have been translated into Polish, including her most important novel, The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto (Drzewo Zycia in Polish). These translations have made Rosenfarb’s work accessible to a new generation of Polish readers and have helped to make her name better known.

Jewish Lodz is gone now, as are most of the once-thriving Jewish communities of Poland. When the Nazis marched into Poland in 1939, Lodz was Poland’s second-largest city after Warsaw and home to Europe’s second-largest population of Jews, again after Warsaw. The Nazis established a ghetto in a slum of the city and herded the entire Jewish population of about 230,000 into it. They then sealed the ghetto with barbed wire.

Rosenfarb, along with her family and her boyfriend, Henekh (later Henry) Morgentaler, and his family, was imprisoned in the ghetto for four long years before being sent to Auschwitz. She was finally liberated by the British Army at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Her major novel, The Tree of Life, originally written and published in Yiddish, but available now in Polish as well as English, is based on her experiences as a prisoner in the ghetto. Two of her other novels, Of Lodz and Love and Letters to Abrasha, all originally written in Yiddish, are similarly set in the city of her birth.

The October festivities took place under the shadow not only of world events like the Hamas attacks but also of political events in Poland itself. Three days before the start of the Rosenfarb conference, Poland’s national election saw the defeat of the Law and Justice Party whose policies have been the cause of tension between Jews and Poles for the past eight years because of its consistent downplaying of the history of Polish antisemitism. But the positive results of the Polish election did not quite dispel the darker shadow that hovered over the conference by its conjunction with Oct. 7, which prevented a number of Israeli presenters from attending in person (although they could still deliver their papers on Zoom).

The enormous discrepancy between what was and what is means that Jewish ghosts hover over whatever one sees in Poland and wherever one goes, especially if one looks with Jewish eyes. Nowhere is this more so than in the city of Lodz.

Poland has had a mixed reputation among Jews for a very long time. On the one hand, it is the ancestral homeland of a great many Ashkenazi Jews, and so inspires a kind of nostalgia for the flourishing Jewish life of the past. On the other hand, it has the reputation of a land in which antisemitism has been prevalent and sustained before, during, and after World War II, with restrictions on Jews before the war, followed by periodic pogroms during and after the war, most notoriously in Jebwabne and Kielce. Subsequent Communist Party campaigns against Jews culminated in their almost total expulsion from the country in 1968.

It is no wonder then that the bitter taste of Polish antisemitism lingers today in the memories of even second- and third-generation descendants of Polish Jews, and even among those who have never visited Poland, like the husband of a friend of mine who refused to allow her to attend the Lodz conference because he was convinced that she would be attacked by antisemitic thugs. I imbibed my own animosity toward Poland from both my parents, each of whom had a story to tell of Polish antisemitism that long predated the German invasion of Poland in 1939. I am surely not the only child of Holocaust survivors from Poland who grew up with the conviction that Poland was a terrible place.

And yet, nothing in human life is simple and nothing stays the same. Despite my earlier aversion, I have now been to Poland several times, usually to speak in Lodz about my mother and her work. I have been struck by the interest, among young Poles, in Jewish life and in my mother’s work. I have made friends in Poland and I have never felt uncomfortable there. Nor have I personally encountered any antisemitism in Poland, although I am sure that it still exists. In fact, this past Hanukkah, a member of the Law and Justice party used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames on a Hanukkah menorah that had been set up in the Polish parliament. He claimed that Judaism was a cult of the devil.

That there was a conference, shortly after Oct. 7, honoring a Jewish writer in a major Polish city felt like a small miracle in itself. Certainly my mother would never have believed that such a celebration of her work was possible. There have been other conferences in Poland honoring Jewish writers, including the great Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz, and there is a biennial Sholem Asch festival in Kutno as well as an annual Jewish cultural festival in Warsaw named after Isaac Bashevis Singer.

But as far as I know the past year’s events in Lodz marked the first time that a Polish city dedicated an entire year to celebrating the anniversary of a Yiddish-language writer. The fact that the city was honoring a woman writer in this way was also a first. The October conference at the University of Lodz encompassed not only Chava Rosenfarb’s work, but the work of many Jewish women writing in a diversity of languages. 

Yet despite all the attention paid to my mother and to other Jewish writers in Poland, it is hard not to shake the feeling that these recognitions are essentially memorial events. They are not celebrations of Jewish life in Poland today. Rather, they underline the fact that this country, which once boasted the largest Jewish community in the world, is now essentially Judenrein. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research suggests that the Jewish population of Poland is currently about 4,500, although that number appears to be rising. Before World War II, estimates of the Jewish population of Poland put it at around 3.3 million.

The enormous discrepancy between what was and what is means that Jewish ghosts hover over whatever one sees in Poland and wherever one goes, especially if one looks with Jewish eyes. Nowhere is this more so than in the city of Lodz. For instance, many of the buildings of the Lodz Ghetto are still standing. Ghosts hover over the Jewish cemetery in Lodz with its preserved pits dug by those few Jews whom the Nazis left to clean up the ghetto after it had been liquidated. The pits were intended to serve as the diggers’ own graves. There is the museum at the Radegast station, the train platform where Jews from the Lodz Ghetto were loaded onto cattle cars to Auschwitz. The museum also features house keys retrieved from those who had left their homes in the ghetto, thinking that they would soon return only to be gassed at Chelmno.

I have been asked by people who attended the conference how my mother would have reacted to having Lodz devote a year to celebrating her work, or to having a street in the heart of the city named after her, or wall paintings of her face decorating the ghetto buildings where she once lived.

I am not my mother and I cannot answer for her. Yet I am quite certain that she would have been thrilled. She had always yearned for recognition and not just by Jews but by the wider world. Like most writers, she wanted to be read. She once wrote that “being condemned to write for the desk drawer, is a stifling, soul-destroying experience.” The tragedy of her career was that she felt compelled by sentiment and inclination to write in Yiddish, a language whose readership diminished dramatically as time passed and the generation for whom Yiddish was a lingua franca died out. By the end of her life, my mother felt that she had been a failure as a writer because she had so few readers.

For this reason, I am sure that she would have endorsed any translation project into any language because it would have meant more readers. When she was alive, the one language she most wanted to be translated into was English, not only because she lived in an English-speaking country but because, today, English is the only truly global language. But I have no doubt that she would have jumped at the chance to have her work translated into Polish, as has now happened. Polish was her second language, and one she knew well. She would have wanted Poles to know about the culture of Jewish Poland—the culture in which she had been raised and which was the subject of all her novels. Like many Jews living in countries where they are a minority, she wanted to be understood and appreciated by the majority. And she was haunted by memories of her childhood and youth in Poland and by the culture of Polish Jewry which had been so violently destroyed by the Nazis. Her novels are attempts to both memorialize and recreate this culture. So, of course, she would want Poles to read her novels in their own language. Her novels belong to the history of Poland as much as they belong to the history of the Jews.

But I find another question about the Rosenfarb conference more difficult to answer: How do I, as my mother’s daughter, react to seeing the places where she had lived in Lodz? Do I feel any personal connection to the buildings associated with my mother and her novels? Am I moved by what I see?

I can sense that the questioner expects some deeply felt response from me. Sometimes, I just nod my head and agree that being in Lodz is very meaningful for me because I am the daughter of parents who were born in the city and because I am the translator into English of my mother’s novels. But for me, my mother’s novels are literature, not memory. I do not speak Polish, a language my parents only used when they didn’t want me to understand. When I visit Poland, I come as a tourist and as someone who has only known Poland secondhand through my parents’ memories. And so, I experience even those places in Lodz that my mother describes with such loving detail and often-painful specificity in her fiction at a remove, as literary constructions rather than actual memories.

For my mother—in fact, for both my parents—Poland meant something concrete: It represented their lived experiences, which included the deaths of many of their loved ones. Poland was the reason that both my parents became ardent Canadian patriots, grateful to Canada for giving them safe refuge after the Holocaust. They arrived in 1950 after living illegally in Belgium for five years. In Belgium, they were stateless persons who carried identity cards that required them to emigrate. After fruitlessly searching for a country that would accept them, they were sponsored by my mother’s Yiddish-language Montreal publisher, a man named Harry Hershman.

The Canada of that time was hardly free of antisemitism, which showed itself in quotas on Jews at universities, restrictions on Jews owning land, discrimination against hiring Jews for various positions, and so on. In Montreal where my parents settled, the Catholic Church remained a strong presence throughout the 1950s and, for Jews, not a particularly welcoming one. Jewish students were not accepted at Catholic schools and Jewish teachers could not teach at Protestant schools. My father was kept out of McGill Medical School by its quota on Jews and would have been kept out of the Université de Montréal as well, if not for the fact that, after five years of living in Brussels, he spoke French. (Unlike McGill, the French-language Université de Montréal did not have a formal quota on Jews; it simply refused to accept Jewish students on the grounds that they did not speak French.)

Despite discrimination, both my parents became great lovers of Canada. When they arrived in 1950, Montreal had a Jewish population of 85,000, the majority of them Yiddish speakers. The city had an extensive Yiddish infrastructure, which included a network of secular Jewish schools that taught Yiddish, as well as a Jewish Public Library, which offered extensive Yiddish programming and served as a cultural center. The city was home as well to several Yiddish-language periodicals, as well as an amateur Yiddish theater. It had also become a magnet for Yiddish writers, several of whom, like Melekh Ravitch and Rokhl Korn, had international reputations. It is no wonder, then, that in Canada, my parents finally felt that they had found safe haven. They felt at home. And this was the community in which I was raised.

The tragedy of her career was that she felt compelled by sentiment and inclination to write in Yiddish, a language whose readership diminished dramatically as time passed.

After her death, I found among my mother’s papers an undated, unpublished essay, written in English, that compared her life in Poland to her life in Canada.

We newcomers to Canada, if we love this country, we love it more, if possible, than the native born, precisely because we were not born here.
After I was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen death camp, my first desire was to return to my homeland of Poland, to my native city of Lodz, to the familiar streets of my childhood, to the house where I once lived. It was a longing so strong, a homesickness so great that I could not control it.
But then I remembered how we lived in Poland before the war, a family of four crowded into one single room. We were hated by our neighbors for the fault of being Jewish. I could not continue my studies because there was a quota for Jews in higher education. And in the universities themselves there was a “bench ghetto,” which meant that those Jewish students “lucky” enough to be admitted to the university had to remain standing during all the lectures. I remembered how my father had his two front teeth knocked out by the “friendly” hand of our Polish janitor when we tried to move our furniture from our flat into the ghetto that the Nazis established in the slums of Lodz in February 1940. But such thinking was rational; and emotionally I still loved the land of my birth.
Still, I wanted to be reasonable, so I did not go back to Poland after the war. Instead I went to Belgium. But Belgium is a small and overpopulated country. There was no room for anyone but the Belgians. Again, I felt like a stranger. Every three months I had to register with the police; my identity card bore a big stamp in red ink: “doit émigrer,” must emigrate. We were not permitted to stay; we would never be able to become citizens ... We were tolerated guests who were expected to leave sooner or later. I wanted to go home again. And home meant Poland.
Finally, in 1948, I got a visa to go to Poland and I went home to Lodz, the city of my birth. The streets and houses were the same. Nothing had changed. The only part of the city that had been destroyed was the Jewish ghetto, where I had been imprisoned during the war. But with the destruction of the Jewish ghetto had come the destruction of everything I had loved about Poland—my childhood, my house, my friends, my dreams about a better, freer life after the liberation. And so I buried the love and longing for the country of my birth. I was homeless, forlorn, and despondent. Then along came Canada and adopted me.
The first thing that amazed me when I arrived in my new country was the fact that I could move into a house and I didn’t have to register with the police. I didn’t even need an identity card to carry with me wherever I went. Nobody was bothered about where I lived or what I did, so long as I did not disturb other people. I could start working right away. I could open a business, buy a house, sell merchandise and no one would stop me. I was free to do as I pleased and to say what I thought. Through this experience of freedom came my love for Canada. From the day I landed on Canadian soil I was no longer a stranger. This country was the peaceful port where I dropped my anchor after years of suffering and wandering. Here in Canada we Jews have come to rest. Only a person who has lived without a home for such a long time can know how dear this country is to me.

Three months after the conference, I am still delighted that the city of Lodz decided to honor my mother and her work in the way it did. What has made this honor even more poignant are the events that came afterward. I hadn’t realized when we were in Poland the extent to which the October conference in Lodz had served as a protective bubble, shielding us from the changes happening in the rest of the world.

When my husband and I returned in late October to the Canada that my mother so loved for its tolerance and acceptance, I was shocked by the atmosphere that greeted us. There were anti-Israel marches in the streets of major Canadian cities. Sometimes, as in Toronto, the demonstrators deliberately stopped traffic and yelled insults in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. I was shocked by the vandalism directed against the Jewish communities of Montreal and Toronto, and by seeing Jewish businesses defaced. In Canadian cities, there have been large pro-Palestinian demonstrations idolizing Hamas terrorists as freedom fighters, calling into question or totally ignoring the massacres in Israel, or arguing that Israelis deserved what happened to them because of the “occupation.” In Toronto, there has been a fire-bombing of a kosher grocery store with graffiti sprayed on the windows and walls. I was also surprised and depressed by the vitriol on campuses, and by watching the presidents of elite universities in the United States being unable to say whether calls for the genocide of the Jews should be punished. All of this is defended on social media and sometimes in the mainstream press and by mainstream broadcasters, while campus administrators say they are powerless to stop the demonstrations because of academic freedom.

For Jews, it seems, the world has again become a very dark place. Yet for seven days in October, Poland of all places had seemed like an island of welcome, a respite and sanctuary from a Jew-hating world where a Yiddish-language author could be feted, honored, and celebrated. I am sure that my mother would have appreciated both the honors and the bitter ironies.

Goldie Morgentaler is the translator and editor of Chava Rosenfarb’s collection of short stories, In the Land of the Postscript: The Complete Short Stories of Chava Rosenfarb, published by White Goat Press.