Jul 05, 2022
Last spring, as I prepared to donate my mother’s papers to the University of Toronto archives, I came across a three-page typescript in Yiddish entitled “An alte froy shpilt zikh” [An Old Woman at Play]. At the top, where the author’s name usually goes, I read Adele Wiseman, a name I knew well as belonging to an important English-language Canadian novelist and — more to the point — the name of a friend of my mother’s whom I remembered from my childhood. Rummaging further through the box that my mother had labeled “Poetry,” I discovered a series of six Yiddish poems, but this time the name of the author was Miriam Waddington. Miriam was another well-known English-language Canadian writer, a poet. She too was a friend of my mother’s, although not as close as Adele; I had never met Miriam in person. Neither of these women wrote in Yiddish; the papers were my mother’s translations.
My mother was the Yiddish-language writer Chava Rosenfarb (1923–2011), author of the Holocaust epic, Der boym fun lebn, published in English translation as The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto. A prolific writer, Chava also published two more novels, as well as short stories, plays, poetry, and essays, almost all of which were originally written and published in Yiddish. Chava was a committed and disciplined writer who spent every morning at her desk. She was also adept at languages and could read and speak five of them. But I had never known her to try her hand at translation, at least not into Yiddish.
More surprising was that the box marked “Poetry” held no indication of what Chava had intended to do with these translations. The pages were undated, and, to add to the mystery, I could find no hint as to why Chava had decided to translate these particular works, other than her personal friendship with both women. Each translated page had three holes on the right side, suggesting that the works had once been in a binder, or had been intended for a binder.
As far as I knew, neither the translated poems nor the excerpt from the beginning of Adele’s memoir had ever been published. Chava rarely wrote anything without the intention of publishing it. Had she intended to show these translations to Avrom Sutzkever for inclusion in Di goldene keyt? Had he rejected them for whatever reason? Were these just drafts that she never got around to polishing and sending out for publication? Or, to borrow the title of Adele’s memoir, were these just examples of a Yiddish poet at play, simply exercises in translation? I have no answer to any of these questions.
The pages have yellowed, but they were clearly typed on a typewriter with corrections carefully made with Wite-Out. The Price of Gold, the volume by Miriam Waddington from which all six poems are taken, was first published in 1976; Adele Wiseman’s memoir Old Woman at Play was published in 1978. These dates lead me to guess that the translations date from the early 1980s, before computers came into our lives.
What seems clear to me is that Chava must have done these translations at a time when it was still possible to publish literary work in Yiddish. Certainly, Di goldene keyt, Avrom Sutzkever’s prestigious literary journal with a worldwide readership, was still publishing and in apparent good health. Perhaps this was Chava’s way of making her friends’ work better known in the wider Yiddish-speaking world, or perhaps this was her way of thanking these two prominent Jewish-Canadian women writers for their support in nominating and recommending her for the Canada Council grants that she never won. Chava first encountered some of the classic works of European literature, such as Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger in Yiddish, so the idea of translating her friends’ English-language work into Yiddish would not have seemed strange to her.
Chava’s choice to translate Miriam Waddington and Adele Wiseman was significant not only because they were her friends, but because all three writers were women. It probably does not need repeating that for most of its history, Yiddish literature was very much a male preserve. While women might occasionally be recognized as gifted poets, women prose writers tended to be discounted, even by their male promoters. For instance, in the late 1960s when the famous Yiddish poet and literary activist Melekh Ravitch sent around a circular to help raise funds for the publication of Chava’s three-volume 1972 epic of the Lodz ghetto, Der boym fun lebn [The Tree of Life], he wrote: “[The novel is written with] an iron-willed self-discipline and Homeric sweep that is amazing in a woman writer – the more so since there is not a single trace of hysteria in the writing.”
In 1966, when Chava’s play The Bird of the Ghetto was being prepared for performance in Israel, The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, the local Montreal Jewish newspaper, wrote: “The wife of a Montreal Jewish doctor and the mother of growing children, one of the highly regarded poets in Yiddish literature, has had her drama The Bird of the Ghetto accepted for presentation by Israel’s National Theatre.” Notice the hierarchy of importance: Chava is first the wife of a Jewish doctor, then a mother of growing children, and lastly a highly regarded poet. Small wonder that Chava always had feminist inclinations, although she never called herself a feminist.
Mostly, these feminist inclinations showed themselves in the sympathy she felt for the work of women artists in all mediums, especially women writers. She loved to read the biographies and autobiographies of women writers in English, French, and Polish. Her particular heroine was Simone de Beauvoir, all of whose works she devoured in French. Another literary heroine was Sylvia Plath; among Chava’s papers I found numerous clippings of reviews of Plath’s work and biography. She was particularly sensitive to the problems encountered by women writers, and she believed very strongly that women writers needed to support one another. Her best friend since childhood was Zenia Larsson, the Lodz-born Swedish novelist whose own trilogy on the Holocaust, written in Swedish, became a best seller in Sweden in the 1960s. In a decades-long correspondence, carried on in Polish because Zenia was not comfortable in Yiddish, the two women constantly inquired about each other’s work and supported and encouraged each other.
Chava’s decision to reach out to Blume Lempel — one of the very few women, aside from Chava herself, whose work appeared regularly in Di goldene keyt — emphasizes just how lonely it could be to be a woman writing in Yiddish. Chava greatly admired Blume’s short stories and sent her a fan letter. This started a correspondence and the two women became friends, mostly through letters. But their friendship floundered when Blume mistook the first-person narrator of Chava’s short story, “Edgia’s Revenge,” to be a stand-in for Chava herself. “Edgia’s Revenge” is the story of a kapo, one of those Jews who tried to save their own lives by working for the Nazis. Blume accused Chava of having been a kapo herself — a confusion of fiction and life that is surprising coming from the author of “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” a story about mother-son incest that even Sutzkever thought was too shocking to publish. Blume eventually came to her senses and apologized, but the damage was done and the friendship was over.
While support from other women writers like Zenia Larsson and Blume Lempel was important to Chava, their physical distance from her in other countries meant that these friendships could only be conducted by correspondence. So Chava made other friends closer to home, primarily with Miriam Waddington and Adele Wiseman. These two prominent women writers from the Canadian Jewish literary world are now canonical in Canadian literature, but little known outside Canada. While Waddington and Wiseman wrote in English, they knew Yiddish well and could read and judge the quality of Chava’s work in the original; thus, they could serve as credible references for her when she applied for writing grants. I do not know exactly how Chava met the two women, but both of them lived in Montreal at certain points in their lives. Given the rich cultural Jewish life of that city, with its public lectures in Yiddish and English, its literary salons, and the many English and Yiddish writers who lived there, it is not surprising that all three women would have met and become friendly.
Why did Chava choose to translate the works that she did? Why these particular poems by Miriam Waddington and no others, and why the first three pages of Adele Wiseman’s memoir and not her fiction? Clearly, the works that Chava decided to translate were the ones that spoke most deeply to her own literary preoccupations. What Chava shared with her women friends was a fascination with creativity, the mysterious impulse that prompts artists of all stripes to do what they did. This fascination can be seen in her choice to translate “By the Sea,” Miriam Waddington’s poetic tribute to the famous Jewish-Canadian poet, A. M. Klein, and even more in her choice of Adele Wiseman’s memoir Old Woman at Play, where doll-making is celebrated as an act of feminine artistic creation. The works of both Waddington and Wiseman touch on the complicated, often constrained lives of women, as well as on the difficulties, tragedies, and joys of artistic creation. In translating into Yiddish the work of these two women writers, Chava gave voice to these Jewish writers in a Jewish language.
Read Chava Rosenfarb’s Yiddish translations of Miriam Waddington and Adele Wiseman here.