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‘The Tree of Life’ Is a Brilliant Work of Art About the Holocaust

Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb brought cruel death in the Lodz ghetto to life

Dara Horn
February 21, 2018
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine

What is the purpose of literature that explores our darkest moments? As a novelist whose works involve Jewish history, I often ponder this question. But one day I received an email from a reader that made me consider it anew:

“Dear Ms. Horn, I began reading your book The World to Come [about a pogrom survivor]. After the scene of the horse being beaten, I put the book down. With all the cruelty in the world, I find it more of a service to mankind to write a book for people to laugh, enjoy, and be uplifted. Best wishes, Denise.”

I wrote, but did not send, a reply to Denise: “Dear Denise, Sorry about the horse. It was a reference to Crime and Punishment, which is another book you might want to avoid. You should also steer clear of the Bible. However, I do have some Garfield comics I can highly recommend for their service to mankind.”

Few readers are as blunt as Denise, but her message reveals many readers’ unspoken expectations about what literature is for. Even educated readers who appreciate tragedy still secretly expect a “redemptive” ending, an epiphany, a moment of grace. Yet notice how Christian these terms are, with their assumption that suffering—especially that of others—is ennobling or generates beauty and meaning.

The idea of uplift is truly obscene when applied to fiction about the Holocaust, yet it is the main type of Holocaust literature English readers encounter: stories about brave fighters, altruistic rescuers, and sweet girls who insist that people are good at heart—or worse, easy bromides about the absence of God instead of accusatory truths about the evils of man. We are all more like Denise than we’d like to think. Does that mean imagination ought to have no place in writing about atrocity? Not at all. But a work about the Holocaust should necessarily be painful, not inspiring, and should honor the fullness of the loss, not only of individuals but of entire communities.

Fortunately for English readers drowning in uplifting Holocaust stories, there exists a work in translation that accomplishes all this. It is Chava Rosenfarb’s The Tree of Life, a panoramic Yiddish-language trilogy about the Lodz Ghetto. To call it a masterpiece would be an understatement. It is the sort of work—long, immersive, engrossing, exquisite—that feels less like reading a book than living a life.

Make that 10 lives. That’s about how many major characters we come to know intimately in Rosenfarb’s sweeping epic, and we meet them all in vivid detail before the war begins, so we know who they are before sadists take over their lives. Some are sadists themselves, like Chaim Rumkowski, the infamous Nazi-selected “King of the Jews” who ruled the Lodz ghetto with an iron fist; we first meet him before the war, as an orphanage director who sucks up to rich donors while sexually molesting his young female wards. Most are “ordinary” people—except there’s no such thing as ordinary, as the vast variety of the Jews of Lodz makes clear.

Prewar Lodz was one-third Jewish, and Rosenfarb brilliantly unfolds a panorama of the city in all its diversity by intertwining her complex characters’ lives. The wealthy industrialist Samuel Zuckerman is obsessed with the history of the Jews of Lodz, an interest he shares with Itche Mayer, a poor Jewish carpenter in his employ—and into whose slum neighborhood Zuckerman himself moves when that slum becomes the ghetto. Zuckerman’s family-man civility is disdained by Adam Rosenberg, another wealthy industrialist in his circle who thrives on cruelty and sexual conquest. We meet rationalists like the doctor Michal Levine, proud Polish patriots like the spinster teacher Dora Diamant, passionate Communists like the orphaned Esther, Socialists and Zionists among Itche Mayer’s sons, and the slightly surreal “Toffee Man,” a religious father of nine who periodically appears unbidden, offering other characters unexpected moments of hope.

Yet Rosenfarb’s characters are not reducible to representatives of a type or class. They are each embedded, as real people are, in networks of families, lovers, friends, and enemies; each is inspired by their own commitments and also plagued by private doubts. The integrity of these characters depends, as it does for all of us, on their inherent adulthood, their agency in their own choices. In the ghetto, none of that disappears; each character remains exactly who he or she was before, just in inhuman circumstances. The Holocaust was not a morality play, except perhaps for its perpetrators. And that’s exactly what makes the ghetto’s horrors real.

I would have thought these horrors would be impossible to convey, except that Rosenfarb brings you there. Despite our own culture’s saturation in violence, The Tree of Life is extremely difficult to read. There is no ruminating about God here, no contrived conversations with Nazis that show their humanity, nor even any brave rebellion, at least not until the very end. Instead, there is confusion, starvation, denial, and sheer sadistic horror. As you read, you are shocked to realize that no one in the book knows what you know. Instead, they believe, when imprisonment and forced labor commence at the start of volume two, that this slavery and starvation is the central atrocity they are enduring.

When deportations from the ghetto begin, some even opt-in, reasoning that things cannot possibly be worse. It is only when familiar and sometimes bloodstained clothing begins returning to the slave-labor processing centers (in some cases with family photographs still in the pockets) that some characters realize what is happening—yet even they are quickly (and gladly) silenced by the forces of denial. Meanwhile, German soldiers shoot children in the streets for fun. Power politics among “influential” Jews quickly becomes a blood sport, with people stopping at nothing, including sexual servitude, to protect themselves and those they love—all, of course, to no avail. Soon characters we care about begin falling like dominos, whether deported, starved, diseased, shot, or tortured; one major character winds up castrated. By volume three, the Germans demand that the Jews hand over all children under 10.

It surely goes without saying that Rosenfarb herself (1923-2011), a renowned Yiddish poet who lived most of her life in Canada, survived the Lodz ghetto and subsequently Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The Tree of Life, published in Yiddish in 1971 and in English in 1985, could be mistaken for a survivor’s testimony. The extreme level of detail that Rosenfarb gives to her portrait of Jewish Lodz, its people, and its passions, is itself an enormous achievement, a monument and a memorial to a destroyed community, written in the great (and alas, very long) tradition of Jewish literary lament.

Yet The Tree of Life is not a work of testimony, but a work of art, and its power lies in Rosenfarb’s artistic invention. One character, the aspiring teenage poet Rachel Eibushitz, most closely resembles Rosenfarb herself, but this character is simply one of many and hardly the most important. Instead of memoir, Rosenfarb offers true imagination, bringing us into the minds of many different people and rendering even the most despicable figures with the utmost imaginative empathy.

The greatest miracle for the reader is the chance to meet the city’s true artists, who come to life in Rosenfarb’s language. One of the novel’s most vivid characters is the poet Simkha Bunim Berkovitch, Rosenfarb’s stand-in for her own poetic mentor Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, who was murdered at Dachau after the murder of his wife and two young children. Berkovitch comes from a large Hasidic family but loses his faith as he discovers his poetic talent. A poor factory worker, Berkovitch is a true artist, living only to create; his life means nothing to him without the ability to produce his poetry, and his only fortune in the ghetto is a menial job he obtains (with help) that allows him time and space to write. It’s a drive all writers can understand, and which is unique to creative artists.

One of the book’s most affecting early scenes involves Berkovitch’s marriage to a woman who ultimately can’t appreciate his art. A lesser novelist would play up this conflict, but Rosenfarb knows that artists are humans who live with contradictions. The uncompromised beauty of Berkovitch’s family life is among the startling wonders of this novel—and its sudden destruction is among its most devastating.

But even amid the unrelenting horror, Rosenfarb’s characters render miracles. In one of the book’s most astonishing scenes, a group of young people and another poet gather in the street, drawn by the poet’s humming of a classical symphony; the poet leads them to the tiny room of Vladimir Winter, a middle-aged hunchback introduced as “the Rembrandt of the ghetto.” The young people crowd the room, whose walls are covered with brown paper, as Winter orders the poet to recite his work. As he recites, Winter takes a box of crayons and begins illustrating the words, covering the walls with surreal drawings that incorporate the men and women in the room, imposing their faces on animals, casting their bodies into open meadows, dipping their hands into pools of water, winding their hair into clouds.

When the poet finishes reciting, Winter continues drawing as the light fades outside, and one young woman begins to sing, continuing the creative trance. Once all four walls are covered, the poet turns on the electric light, and the visitors rise from the floor, looking around as if “falling into a dream. There was a land surrounding them, a land of painful beauty, of light and shadows, which enveloped them with the perfume of an unknown life.” Denise might have liked this scene, except that Winter immediately passes out from tubercular fever.

That unknown life, of course, was precisely the creativity lost by the murders of these artists, of whom Rosenfarb herself was a mere surviving remnant. For them, there is no redemption except in this novel’s pages—a redemption that is only possible through us, the readers.

But we as readers cannot expect the book to uplift us, the way we obscenely expect of every other book about atrocity. Reading this monumental work requires an active commitment. It provides a real service to mankind: It broadens your life beyond your own imagining, allowing your life to include many other lives within it. It brings you down to the deepest level of existence and gives you what Rosenfarb herself describes in a poem called “Praise,” in which her praise for an ordinary day concludes:

When the light fades
And the end approaches
And abruptly you see yourself standing
In a deep dark gate
Look back one more time
At that bubble of reality
And praise it, that day
That drips out from being
In the night of forgetting.

Dara Horn is the award-winning author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews.