Jan 27, 2020
Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) was among the most important Yiddish writers in the latter half of the twentieth century. Born in Lodz, Poland, she survived incarceration in the Lodz Ghetto and in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and later settled in Montreal, Canada. In the late 1940s, Rosenfarb began to publish poetry, much of which she had composed in the ghetto. In subsequent years, she increasingly turned to prose and published major novels, including The Tree of Life, Of Lodz and Love/Bociany, and Letters to Abrasha, which occupy a unique position in Yiddish literary history.
In this interview, we talk with Goldie Morgentaler, Rosenfarb’s daughter and a professor of English at the University of Lethbridge. Together with her mother, Morgentaler co-translated The Tree of Life. She also served as the primary translator of Survivors: Seven Short Stories and edited a collection of Rosenfarb’s self-translated poetry, Exile at Last: Selected Poems. Morgentaler is the editor and translator of a new collection of Rosenfarb’s essays, Confessions of a Yiddish Writer, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2019. This collection is the main subject of the following interview.
For readers interested in further biographical and bibliographic information, Morgentaler maintains a website dedicated to her mother’s work: www.chavarosenfarb.com
Note: Morgentaler will speak at a book launch for Confessions of a Yiddish Writer at the YIVO Institute in New York. The event will take place on February 18, 2020, at 6:00pm. More information here: https://yivo.org/Chava-Rosenfarb
Matthew Johnson and Corbin Allardice: Can you tell us about the genesis of the book – Confessions of a Yiddish Writer? What was your role as editor?
Goldie Morgentaler: Chava had written a great many essays in her career as a writer, some at the instigation of Avrum Sutzkever, the great Yiddish poet and editor of Di goldene keyt, who occasionally asked her for more material for his publication. She also often turned her public lectures into essays. I don’t believe that she ever had any intention of publishing these essays together in one collection—at least she never said anything about this. I don’t mean to imply that she thought her essays were without value, but she thought of herself as primarily a fiction writer. Most of her essays remained untranslated at the time of her death.
The genesis of the book was when I discovered the English translation of one essay that I knew had meant a lot to her, the one about Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch. 1 1 Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch (1907-1944) was a Yiddish novelist and poet. In the Lodz ghetto, he mentored Rosenfarb and wrote the long poems Lekh-lekho and Spring 1942. He was then deported to Auschwitz and Kaufering, where he was murdered. In 1946, the historianNachman Blumental edited a booklet of Shayevitch’s writing, which was published by the Jewish Historical Commission in Lodz. Rosenfarb’s reflections on Shayevitch are included in Confessions of a Yiddish Writer. Her essay “The Last Poet of Lodz” is also available online: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/111880/the-last-poet-of-lodz I found this essay among Chava’s papers after her death. She had published the Yiddish original in Di goldene keyt in 1991, and then had translated it herself into English in the 1990s. At that time, she had asked for my help in editing it and then sent the English version out to various publications. But no one was interested in publishing it, possibly because it was too long, possibly because no one had heard of Shayevitch at the time, nor of my mother. After Chava died I found the essay among her papers, reread it, and decided that it really should be published. I showed it to the writer David Bezmozgis, who suggested that I submit it to Tablet. This I did; they accepted and published it. I then sent them my own translation of Chava’s Bergen-Belsen diary, which had originally been appended to Chava’s first book of poetry, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald. This too appeared in Tablet. Buoyed by these successes, and knowing that my mother had written many essays during her career, I decided to collect several of them in one book. I then approached McGill-Queens University Press to see if they would be interested in publishing them. I thought a Montreal publisher would be best because Chava had lived most of her life in Montreal, and because some of the essays were about Montreal.
My principle for selection was very simple: I picked those essays that most appealed to me or that I had had a hand in translating. I translated some of the essays myself, but I also had help from two Winnipeg translators, Roz Usiskin and Arnice Polack, who worked on the first drafts of some of the essays.
The book itself is divided into three categories: autobiographical essays and memoirs, mostly dealing with Chava’s childhood in Poland and her experiences during the Holocaust; literary essays, mostly about the work of Jewish writers; and two travelogues, one to Australia and the other to Prague.
MJ & CA: In the introduction, you highlight the autobiographical aspect of Confessions, especially because Rosenfarb never wrote an “autobiography” or “memoir” in the strict sense. Furthermore, several of the included essays thematize the relation between autobiography and fiction. In “Ramblings through Inner Continents,” for instance, Rosenfarb notes, “[…] I have kept my experiences to myself, and that has many times hindered my writing, because my spirit was always burdened, even though, in public, I superficially appeared free. I have since learned that if one does not give of oneself, in a manner of speaking, then what one writes has no value. It has become clear to me that all writers, no matter what veiled personas they assume, use their own experiences as the essence of their work” (91). What is your perspective on these questions? How do you understand the relationship between Rosenfarb’s fiction and her lived experience?
GM: This is a fraught question: I often used to ask my mother which of her fictional characters were based on real people, which incidents were based on actual events. She never liked to answer these questions. She would say that the answers were all there in her work. And it is clear that her fiction does contain many actual events, but reworked and fictionalized. I once asked her to write her autobiography, so that I would know what was true and what was not. She started, but she did not get very far. I think she needed the veil of fiction in order to speak honestly about her life. In this, she reminds me a little of Charles Dickens, who once began to write his autobiography, and quickly discovered that he couldn’t do it. He wrote David Copperfield instead, transmuting the biography into fiction. Some writers really do need the veil of fiction to write about themselves. My mother was one of them. She could be more honest and true to herself writing fiction than recounting actual occurrences. Also, fiction allowed her the possibility of imagining herself into the lives other people, even people she despised or disapproved of, such as Rumkowski in The Tree of Life, or the kapo narrator in “Edgia’s Revenge.”
MJ & CA: As a witness and survivor, Rosenfarb centers much of her writing on the Holocaust. In the introduction, however, you also highlight Rosenfarb’s concern for “the uneventful and the ordinary,” which you connect to her experience as a survivor (xiv). Can you say more about this connection? How does Rosenfarb’s work address the everyday?
GM: In her poem “Loyb”(published as “Praise” in English), Chava praises a day in which nothing happens, when there is no mail, when the telephone doesn’t ring, and there are no distractions from the pleasure of simply being alive. Her short story, “A Friday in the Life of Sarah Zonabend,” similarly describes a day in the life of a Holocaust survivor living in Montreal, who imagines all kinds of catastrophic events as she goes about her ordinary Friday routine, tidying her children’s rooms, buying milk at the grocery store, greeting the postman; it is a day in which nothing actually happens except within Sarah’s imagination. That story ends with the pregnant line, “Today is Friday, and thank heaven, nothing has happened.” I think these two works suggest that for Holocaust survivors, like Chava, ordinary uneventful days of the kind most of us take for granted or find boring are precious precisely because nothing happens. At the same time these uneventful days are contrasted to the horrific past in which too much happened.
MJ & CA: In many of the included essays and in her oeuvre more generally, Rosenfarb confronts the challenges of writing about the Holocaust. In “A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation,” she remarks, “The Holocaust is both the source of my inspiration, and the source of my frustrations and limitations” (179). How did the Holocaust both inspire and limit Rosenfarb’s work? How did her thinking about the Holocaust and its representation change over time?
GM: What I think she meant by the Holocaust both inspiring and limiting her is that, while the Holocaust was the subject that animated her thinking and inspired her most successful work, it was also the subject that she could not get away from. She did try to write about other subjects but those efforts tended to be misfires, because her heart was not in them. As for how her thinking about the Holocaust changed over time, I would say that her focus changed from recreating the events of her past as fiction to trying to assimilate those same events into her new Canadian reality. Even an essay like “Shloymele,” which deals with her teaching a class of boys in the Lodz ghetto, incorporates a Canadian frame.
When she was writing The Tree of Life, she could not bring herself to reimagine the concentration camps, and so the novel ends with the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto, and we are left to imagine the subsequent fates of the main characters. But as time went on, temporal distance might have cushioned some of her memories and made it easier for her to describe the concentration camps. “In the Boxcar” is an excerpt from Letters to Abrasha (not yet available in English), the novel she wrote after The Tree of Life. That excerpt describes the cattle car ride to Auschwitz, the characters’ arrival there, and the selection. I think it took great courage to write this scene; reliving that event must have been intensely painful.
I think that what distinguished Chava’s Holocaust fiction from that of others is that it is fiction written by an actual survivor of the Holocaust. Much of the vast literature that has been left behind by the survivors is factual, that is, it is memoir, diary, personal essays, historical accounts, and autobiographies. There have been very few fiction works by actual survivors, and this certainly sets The Tree of Life apart. So does the fact that it is an epic written by a woman writer. I cannot think of another woman writer who was also a survivor who tackled this same topic as fiction, unless one counts Zenia Larssen, Chava’s best friend from Lodz, who settled in Sweden after the war and who also wrote a novelistic trilogy about the Lodz ghetto in Swedish.
MJ & CA: After the Holocaust, Rosenfarb immigrated to Montreal, where she lived for much of her life. Upon her arrival, Montreal was home to a vibrant Yiddish cultural scene, but Yiddish became increasingly marginalized in the ensuing decades. In Confessions, Rosenfarb remarks that “the sky has darkened in the garden of Canadian Yiddish creativity, just as it has darkened all over the world” (208). What were the implications of this melancholic view for Rosenfarb’s writing? How did she perceive her cultural environs? How did she relate to the Yiddish and non-Yiddish worlds?
GM: I think she answers these questions in her essays much better than I can. Chava arrived in Montreal in 1950, when the Yiddish cultural milieu in the city was vibrant. She was sponsored by her Yiddish-language publisher, Harry Hershman, and through him immediately contracted friendships with the local Yiddish writers, some of whom, like J. J. Segal, Melekh Ravitch, Ida Maze, and Rokhl Korn, were internationally renowned. And she took an active part in the Yiddish cultural life of the city. But as this older generation of writers, pedagogues, journalists, and intellectuals died, they were not replaced by new blood of a similar caliber that could contribute to the cultural life of Montreal in Yiddish. At the same time, Yiddish began to fade as a cultural force in the rest of the world, as well, so she began to feel more and more isolated and hemmed in by the need to confine her work constantly to Yiddish. She wanted to be known in the wider world, to have a non-Jewish as well as a Jewish readership. But she found it very difficult to break into English-language publishing. And she was stereotyped as a Yiddish writer. The Jewish Public Library in Montreal constantly invited her to give talks, but they only wanted her to speak in Yiddish. This limited her audience to those who knew that language. Long after she gave a very successful English-language talk at the University of Toronto, she still could not convince the Montreal library to invite her to speak in English, even though audiences for Yiddish language talks were steadily shrinking. Whether they were afraid that no one would come to hear her in English, or that her English was not up to par, I don’t know. But she found this frustrating. (In the end, she spoke only once in English at the Jewish Public Library and that was the very last talk that she gave there.) Chava deals with the problems of being a Yiddish writer in an English-speaking world more extensively in the essays “A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation” and “Harps on the St. Lawrence.” She ends the latter essay on an optimistic note, but I don’t believe she was really optimistic about the future of Yiddish. That was why she was so eager to be translated into English.
MJ & CA: In “Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach,” Rosenfarb seems to separate herself from the tradition of Yiddish women’s writing, which she characterizes as consisting primarily of poetry rather than novels, saying of herself, “Even though my being a woman is doubtless a factor in all my work, I am nevertheless not conscious of my femininity when I write. At such times, I feel instead as if I were a bisexual creature” (175). What do you make of this? How did Rosenfarb see herself in relation to genealogies of Yiddish women writers? How do you think gender informed her work, materially and thematically?
GM: Chava was always reluctant to label herself a feminist, because she thought the term was too confining. When she says that she feels bisexual when she is writing, I think she means that she can imagine herself into the minds of her male characters as well as her female ones, that she does not feel herself bound by her sex to focus only on women in her fiction, or that she feels more at ease writing about women. That said, however, I would call her a feminist. She always had sympathy for women’s issues, and she sought out and supported other female writers. Her best friend from childhood was Zenia Larsson, who became a best-selling author in Sweden and was the first writer to write about the Holocaust in Swedish. The two women maintained a correspondence into their 70s. The tragedy was that neither one could read the other’s work, since Zenia wrote in Swedish and Chava wrote in Yiddish. Zenia also did not know English, so even when Chava’s work started to be translated into that language, Zenia could not read it. Chava also sought out Blume Lempel, whose work she much admired when it appeared in Di goldene keyt. They carried on a correspondence for several years that disintegrated over Blume’s misreading of “Edgia’s Revenge,” the story of a former kapo. Blume mistook the first-person narrator of that story as being Chava herself and accused her of being a kapo during the war. She later apologized, but that brought an end to the friendship.
MJ & CA: Could you offer us insight into the translation process? In addition to editing Confessions, you translated many of the essays. You also translated Rosenfarb’s Survivors: Seven Short Stories and, with Rosenfarb herself, co-translated The Tree of Life. When did you begin to collaborate with your mother on translation? How did this collaboration take shape and develop over time? Are there ways in which your approach to translation differed from Rosenfarb’s, and how did you navigate those differences?
GM: As Chava writes in “A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation,” she first put me to work translating her play, The Bird of the Ghetto. I was thirteen years old then and bedridden, because I was recovering from a back operation. My knowledge of English was not very well developed, as you may imagine for a thirteen-year old child for whom English was actually a second language. So, I would not claim that this was a good translation. I put in a lot of Canadianisms, mostly because I did not know that they were Canadianisms. For instance, I made the Vilna partisan fighters in the play end every sentence with “eh,” because I was too young to realize that this was not necessarily common in the wider English-speaking world. My Vilna ghetto fighters thus sounded like Canadian backwoodsmen.
When I was older, Chava kept asking me to translate her work, but I was very reluctant for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with the wish to live my own life. We did not finally start to work together until I was in my mid-thirties and Chava had the possibility of publishing The Tree of Life in English in Melbourne, Australia. Since being published in English had always been one of her dreams, she again asked me to help her. This time I agreed. She did the first draft, and I did all subsequent drafts in coordination with her. We had terrible fights over language and vocabulary and English syntax, but in the end it was, at least for me, a pleasurable and eye-opening experience, because it introduced me to a side of my mother that I had not known before – her professional life as a writer. Until then, I had not read her work, including The Tree of Life, so I was blown away by its sweep, the depth of its characterizations, the skill of its storytelling and the extraordinary evocation of what it must have been like to live and die in the Lodz ghetto. I began to look at my mother with different eyes, and I began to relate to her differently as well. I thought she was a great writer.
MJ & CA: Many of the essays were originally published in the journal Di goldene keyt, edited by Avrom Sutzkever. Can you tell us about Rosenfarb’s relationship with Sutzkever, as well as with the Yiddish cultural scene in Israel more generally?
GM: I know very little about this. She and Sutzkever were on friendly terms up to the time of his death, and he sent her all his books of poetry as soon as they were published. I know that his good opinion of her work was important to her. But she also got angry when he changed things in her writing, and in one letter she rebukes him quite strongly for having “fixed” one of her essays so that it was incomprehensible. She says that she will only send him another piece of writing if he promises not to do it again. She also got upset when he imposed Litvish syntax or vocabulary on her text, and she would remind him that she was from Lodz and that what she had written was perfectly fine in Polish Yiddish. She was also close to Alexander Spiegelblatt, who worked with Sutzkever on Di goldene keyt. They carried on an extensive correspondence until shortly before Chava’s death. She visited with both Sutzkever and Spiegelblatt whenever she visited Israel, which was quite often. She also knew Binem Heller, but I don’t think he was a friend. Other than this, I don’t think she had much contact with Yiddish cultural life in Israel, although she did occasionally get fan letters from readers in Israel.
MJ & CA: We were excited to learn about Rosenfarb’s own reading habits. The book includes fascinating essays about Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Paul Celan, and Stefan Zweig, as well as passages about Celia Dropkin, Rokhl Korn, and Julian Tuwim, among others. However, these essays might not tell the complete story. In a revelatory footnote, for instance, you disclose that Rosenfarb’s favorite poet was H. Leivick (210). In your view, which writers, Yiddish and non-Yiddish, mattered most to Rosenfarb?
GM: Among Yiddish poets, Leivick was definitely her favourite and she had a profile of his face carved out of wood and set in a wooden plaque hanging above her writing desk. She also had a large framed photo of Peretz hanging above her desk. She read a lot and not just in Yiddish or English. She could read in five languages: Yiddish, English, Polish, French, and German. Of the non-Jewish writers, she especially liked Simone de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing. She liked to read the works of women writers. And she loved to read biographies of writers, female and male, Jewish or non-Jewish, as well as of painters, and other artists. This made her an easy person to buy presents for.
MJ & CA: To return to the question of translation, you note in the book that a translation of Letters to Abrasha is forthcoming. Can you tell us about this project?
GM: I have been working on the translation of Letters to Abrasha for a few years now. I make very slow progress, mostly because of constant distractions by my day job. But I am more than halfway finished and I’m hoping 2020 will be the year I can finally bring this project to an end, and find a publisher. I would very much like to see this long novel in print. It is the only one of Chava’s novels that has not yet been published in English.