Nov 08, 2023
Goldie Morgentaler (trans). In the Land of the Postscript: The Complete Short Stories of Chava Rosenfarb. Amherst: White Goat Press, 2023. $18.95.
Amalia and Gabriel are a couple, both Holocaust survivors, who now make their home in Montreal. Amalia is dying of tuberculosis. She asks Gabriel to take her to Paris, the city where, many years ago, they met and fell in love. In Paris, she has yet another request, her last wish—to make love with a young man. Reluctantly, Gabriel acquiesces, and in the Jardins des Tuileries encounters Jean-Pierre, a young Frenchman whom he invites back to their hotel. He leaves Jean-Pierre alone with Amalia. Amalia and the young man make love, after which she dies in his arms. Later, Jean-Pierre is haunted by her, and even when he is with his new, young wife “…he would see the dead Amalia beckoning to him,” luring him “with promises of an eternal life that was beyond age and time” (40-41).
This tale, “Last Love,” takes many curious twists and turns. Woven through the story are mentions of world peace—Jean-Pierre is an activist in the peace movement, and there is a conference on world peace being held in Amalia and Gabriel’s Paris hotel. Later, Jean-Pierre becomes a mountain climber; later still, he comes to Canada, where he drives through the Rocky Mountains. There, on the road, he sees a woman dressed in white “with a long white flowing veil wrapped around her shoulders” (44). A ghostly vision indeed, and one toward which Jean-Pierre drives, to his peril…
As Goldie Morgentaler, the translator of this new collection of short stories by Chava Rosenfarb, explains in her introduction, “Amalia herself represents the dying order of an Old World corrupted as much by the presence of its victims as by that of its aggressors” (xiv). She wishes to make love to this Frenchman, a peace activist, who represents a younger, “more innocent Europe, cleansed of atrocities and pain” (xiv). But in the end, the Old World triumphs over the New; Amalia bewitches Jean-Pierre and he is drawn into her web, into a realm that encompasses the horrors of Europe’s past.
In one way or another, all the stories in this collection are about Holocaust survivors, people who have lost wives, husbands, and children in the camps and crematoria, who are now remarried—for the most part unhappily—and have attempted to remake their lives in Montreal. But more than that, these are ghost stories, each one permeated by the dead, whether figments of the imagination, surrealist fantasies, or hallucinations, hovering over the living. These ghosts represent the Old World, the world left behind, that haunts the characters even as they attempt to rebuild their lives in the New World, in Canada.
Chava Rosenfarb was born in Lodz, Poland in 1923. While a teenager, she was incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto, and after its liquidation, was sent to Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After the war, she spent several years living illegally in Belgium before emigrating with her husband to Canada, where she settled in Montreal, raising two children and writing whenever and however she found the time. She became a vital and active figure in the cultural life of Yiddish Montreal, in this city that was home to a number of prominent Yiddish writers, such as Melech Ravitch, Rochl Korn, Ida Maze, and J.I. Segal.
Rosenfarb, who died in 2011, wrote short stories, poetry, novels, plays, and essays, almost all of it in Yiddish, her mother tongue, and virtually all of it about the Holocaust and its after-effects. This is the first complete collection of her short stories to appear in an English translation. Written between 1974 and 1995, some of these stories tell of an earlier time, the years when Holocaust survivors first arrived in Montreal.
Rosenfarb creates a faithful portrait of the area of the city nestled next to Mount Royal, a large, forested park, and the narrow streets nearby, lined with three-story brick buildings and their picturesque, winding staircases, an architectural feature particular to this neighborhood that, during the first half of the twentieth century, was home mainly to working class French Canadians and Jewish immigrants, Rosenfarb among them. These are the people who inhabit her stories, though the principal Jewish characters are all recent arrivals, Holocaust survivors, and not those belonging to an earlier wave of immigrants. The city’s English-speaking residents, a sizable portion of the population, who live in a different part of the city, don’t appear here at all.
In “The Greenhorn,” we encounter Barukh, alone and ill-at-ease in his cold, new country, Canada, on his first day working in a garment factory. He listens in on arguments between his Jewish co-workers, a mix of old-timers and newcomers to Canada. Yet he exists in a sort of dissonance with them, his mind constantly wandering back to Poland, to Warsaw, where he lived with his wife and two children, all now deceased.
From time to time, he is distracted by another garment worker, a young French-Canadian woman, with warm eyes, ringlets, fingernails painted red, and “tiny, perfect white teeth,” who takes Barukh for a Parisian. He explains that he lived in Paris for a year, as a D.P., a displaced person, but she has no inkling what this means. “Tell me something about Paris. To have lived for a whole year in Paris. Mon dieu! Some people have all the luck,” she says. Some luck. To Barukh, Paris was a dirty hotel room, empty pockets, and fountains that “spat streams of crystalline water” (7).
In contrast to the young woman, there is the factory foreman, a crass, rough character, who is alternately mocking and kind, and reminds Barukh of the kapo who saved his life in the camp, assigning him to clean the latrines so that he escaped being sent to the crematorium.
Here, Rosenfarb recreates the utter aloneness, incongruity, and confusion of life in a new country, the inability to decode the characters one encounters, the state of being stranded between past and present, between the living and the dead. Yet she winds up on a note that is not entirely pessimistic. After an angry encounter with the foreman, Barukh sits at the pressing machine, sweating in the heat, amidst the clatter of fans and motors, chewing a piece of gum the young woman has slipped into his mouth. “The little French Canadian is sewing buttons somewhere between the racks of finished clothing. Barukh chews on his gum. A drop of sweetness melts in his mouth and soothes his temper” (13). There is hope amid the chaos.
But most of the stories in this collection do not end on such an optimistic note. People drive over cliffs, commit suicide, and imagine committing horrific acts. “The Little Red Bird” tells the story of Manya, whose little girl, Faygele, was murdered in the camps, and the unbearable agony of living on without her, the eternal, limitless love she continues to feel for her dead child. On a snowy day Manya stands in front of her window watching a little girl in a red coat and hat out on the street and conjures a terrible fantasy in which she goes to the maternity ward of the local hospital, kidnaps a baby girl and absconds with her.
Through Manya’s fantasies, Rosenfarb evokes maternal love with such extreme tenderness and poignancy. “What a sweet feeling to hold a child’s hand in the palm of one’s own! Manya feels the warmth of a small, tender hand with its soft-boned fingers. The warmth spreads all over her body. How could anybody destroy a creature who has such soft, plump hands, such small delicate fingers?” (126-127).
Most of us can only try to imagine what it was like to live through the Holocaust, to lose one’s loved ones, and to continue existing. Yet through her writing, Rosenfarb allows the reader to feel, as much as possible, the desperation and depths of sorrow of the survivor, not to mention the total disorientation of having to remake a life for oneself in a strange new country.
Other stories in the collection have a romantic quality, describing women in unhappy marriages who fantasize about a passionate and devoted lover. In “François,” Rosenfarb takes her character Leah and her cold and uncaring husband (again, both are Holocaust survivors and Montrealers), to South America. Accompanying Leah is an Old-World ghost, François, who hovers nearby, constantly murmuring to her, comforting her. It is only when Leah decides to liberate herself, standing on a high and perilous peak, that she is able to throw off the illusory François.
A particularly powerful story is “Edgia’s Revenge,” about two women who cross paths briefly in a concentration camp and, after the war, meet again in Montreal. In the camp, Rella was a kapo who saved Edgia’s life but made her swear that she would never reveal to anyone Rella’s position in the camp hierarchy. Because of this pact, they are bound to each other, and become enmeshed in a complex and convoluted relationship.
And that is how I became Edgia’s omnipresent representative of the past and she mine. I was her living nightmare, and she was mine. She symbolized my one and only moment of humanity, of kindness, and I symbolized her moment of humiliation. I reminded her of the time when she had crawled on all fours and pleaded for her life. She reminded me of how I raised myself to the level of self-sacrifice. In this manner we became bound to one another in a singular friendship—our reward and punishment for having survived” (76).
The situation becomes ever more fraught and, in the end, Rella, who has worked so hard to make a life for herself in Montreal, chooses a tragic end.
One of my favorite stories in this collection is “A Friday Afternoon in the Life of Sarah Zonabend.” Possibly this is because, thanks to Rosenfarb’s specific descriptions, I can so clearly imagine the Montreal neighborhood and the flat where this story takes place, just as I can imagine the characters who figure in this tale. Quite possibly Sarah Zonabend is a stand-in for Chava Rosenfarb who, like the title character, was a Holocaust survivor, had a son and a daughter, and loved to read and write.
Sarah Zonabend dislikes Fridays:
She had always gotten the worst marks at school on a Friday. The war had broken out on a Friday. Her mother had died in the camp on a Friday. President Kennedy had been shot on a Friday. She had discovered, on a Friday, that her husband was unfaithful to her. On a Friday she had gone to see the doctor, and on a Friday she was operated on… (48).
On this particular Friday, Sarah Zonabend is feeling dispirited, disappointed in her life, in the lack of warmth and affection from her husband (“…she could still feel the imprint of Moniek’s cold peck on her cheek…”), in the distance from her children who are growing up and away from her, in her growing lack of interest in art, music, and literature.
The high point of her day is when the mail arrives. “The slot in the front door was a window of promise. Perhaps it would bring a solution to her loneliness, a solution to her troubles with Moniek and the children, perhaps it would bring her recognition as a valuable human being…” (50).
Sarah sews and smokes and tidies her children’s rooms. She makes scrambled eggs for lunch, goes to the store for milk, and peels potatoes for her supper. Yet at the very end of the story, in contrast to all the terror she experienced during the Holocaust, she now finds levity in the mundane activities that make up her day: She writes to herself, laughing, “Today is Friday and thank heaven, nothing has happened” (58).
Rosenfarb is one of the few Yiddish women writers who wrote about their experience of the Holocaust and its aftermath, who wrote about it as fiction and not as memoir, and who were published during their lifetime. Her inspiration didn’t come from other Yiddish writers; it came from European realism. Even as she wrote about fantasies and figments of the imagination, she did so in straightforward and realistic language, full of detail and description.
However, by the 1960s, recognizing that fewer and fewer people were reading in Yiddish, Rosenfarb became disheartened and sought a way to have her works translated into English for a wider readership. She translated some of it herself, her poetry in particular, but she also recruited her daughter, Goldie, at just thirteen years old, to translate her play, Der foigl fun geto (The Bird of the Ghetto). As Goldie Morgentaler has stated, as a teenager, she resisted—“I wanted to live my own life”—preferring to spend time with her friends rather than sit at home translating. In addition, as she describes it, she spoke the English of a thirteen-year-old, and it wasn’t her mother tongue.
But the seed had been planted. Years later, when Morgentaler was in her thirties, Rosenfarb asked her daughter, a scholar of literature in her own right, to translate her novel Der boim fun lebn (The Tree of Life). Morgentaler has described that moment as a revelation, when she read the novel and realized just how great a writer her mother was. 1 1 Goldie Morgentaler in Conversation with Christa Whitney; The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p46M-xOTaw After that, she translated a number of Rosenfarb’s works, working in close collaboration with her and discussing the intricacies of transforming her Yiddish sentences into English ones. More recently, Morgentaler has edited a fascinating collection of Rosenfarb’s nonfiction works, titled Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays (McGill Queen’s University Press, 2019), some translated by mother and daughter, some by other translators, and which includes essays about Rosenfarb’s childhood and life in the Lodz Ghetto; essays about writers such as Paul Celan, Stefan Zweig, and Isaac Bashevis Singer; and essays about feminism, translation, Yiddish poets in Canada, and more. 2 2 See also Matthew Johnson and Corbin Allardice’s interview with Goldie Morgentaler about this volume for In geveb.
Now, with In the Land of the Postscript, the reader is fortunate to have in Morgentaler a double interpreter—both translator and daughter—someone who has had singular access to, and insight into, the author, her language, and the intense emotions and experiences it conveys. She also provides an excellent introduction to this collection, decoding for the reader many of the symbols and metaphors that Chava Rosenfarb made use of in her stories.