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2023, the “Year of Chava Rosenfarb” in Lodz

Mordecai Walfish


In her “Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945,” Chava Rosenfarb writes, in Goldie Morgentaler’s translation: “I think about Poland, the country of my childhood. I long for the familiar streets of my hometown. But what will happen if there is no one there to meet me?”

This past October, I spent a week in Lodz, Poland – the birth city of my grandmother, Henia Reinhartz, and her sister, Chava Rosenfarb. Lodz declared 2023, Rosenfarb’s centennial, the “Year of Chava Rosenfarb”. Under the tireless leadership of Joanna Podolska of the Marek Edelman Dialogue Center, the city hosted a rich and varied year-long tribute to her brilliant written works, capped off by an international conference.

I grew up amid elder secular Bundists. They were deeply and fervently non-religious. We used to joke that birthdays were their religion—their deep and unabiding appreciation for and celebration of life had an almost religious quality to it. The week in Lodz and its multi-modal celebration of Rosenfarb’s life and art also had a secular ritualistic quality to it. The week’s events included site-specific readings of her works, tours of Lodz through her lens, concerts inspired by her writing, film screenings, a cherry tree unveiled in front of the Dialogue Center representing her Tree of Life, murals adorning four sites where she lived, a reception at the Canadian embassy in Warsaw, and a three-day academic conference on “Chava Rosenfarb and Jewish Female Writers of the 20th Century.”

Throughout the week, I thought of the complicated nostalgia that my grandmother and great-aunt felt towards Lodz. Lodz was the site of formative childhood memories, but an “annihilated home,” destroyed beyond repair.

Lodz and its ghetto never left the consciousness of either sister. While they lived most of their lives in Canada, they lived in two realities: in Rosenfarb’s words, “the one that is past seeming more real, more palpable, than the actual one.”

She explains:

For those twenty years I led a divided existence: I lived with my family in a Canadian immigrant reality. I was a greenhorn. A mother of 2, the daughter of a sick mother. I worked in factories and did all kinds of odd jobs in order to help my husband finish his studies. And I lived in the Lodz ghetto. My characters interfered with my actions in real life. And even when I did not hold the pen in my mind, in my mind their fates intermingled with mine. At the same time my day to day life was always threatening, if not actually to cut the thread of my narrative, then at least to postpone its end. 1 1 Rosenfarb, Chava, “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer”, trans. Goldie Morgentaler, in Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays, ed. Goldie Morgentaler (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), p. 20.

Growing up with elders in two realities, Lodz complicated all sense of place and time. It loomed large, but it was also frozen in time and place, existing only through stories and our imaginations. Whether the Lodz of their childhood, the ghetto, or ultimately a Lodz in ruins, it was a Lodz that was always in the past tense. It was not a place we returned to– there was no one there to meet us. Everything that was ours had been destroyed or exiled.

And yet slowly over time, there were attempts at restoration and repair. Still, we never dreamed that Lodz would mark an entire year the “Year of Chava Rosenfarb.”

As I boarded the bus from the Warsaw airport to Lodz, words from Rosenfarb’s elegy to the ruins of the Lodz Ghetto,Mimaamakim,” translated here by Hannah Pollin-Galay, rang in my ears:

From the depths I call you,
Song of annihilated home…
There, amid rotten fences and blind holes
You trace your own tracks,
Like a stray dog.

We were not returning as stray dogs, but rather as honored guests. We were being “met” – by local Polish people who have dedicated their time and energies to preserving Jewish memory in Poland and by readers of Rosenfarb from around the world. But this was not a straightforward celebration of an author’s work. Instead in the Dialogue Center’s words, it was aimed at “restoring the memory of Chava Rosenfarb’s work.”

It was a beautiful corrective to Rosenfarb’s own sense that her works were not read. As she writes in “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer”:

If writing is a lonely profession, the Yiddish writer’s loneliness has an additional dimension. Her readership has perished. Her language has gone up with the smoke of the crematoria. She creates in a vacuum, almost without a readership, out of fidelity to a vanished language, as if to prove that Nazism did not succeed in extinguishing that language’s last breath, that it is still alive. 2 2 Rosenfarb, Chava, “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer”, trans. Goldie Morgentaler, in Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays, ed. Goldie Morgentaler (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), p. 186.

While Rosenfarb was well known and appreciated throughout her life in Yiddish circles, she struggled to be published and recognized in the English-speaking world. She deeply desired broader recognition and felt that she never received it. While Rosenfarb may not have felt the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, this conference was evidence of the volume, breadth, and diversity of Rosenfarb’s readers, which continue to grow over a decade after her death. Conference panelists hailed from the US, Canada, Sweden, Israel, the UK, Spain, Germany, Ukraine, Argentina, Italy, and of course Poland. There were serious analyses of her epic Tree of Life, as well as her poetry, her short stories, her plays and non-fiction work, including her written correspondence with childhood friend and fellow author Zenia Larsson. Rosenfarb’s work served as a jumping off point to discussing complexities of translation, and being a Jewish woman writer in the twentieth century. For once, Rosenfarb was at the center of the discourse, rather than the margins.

Rosenfarb’s desire to be read, to be seen, to be “met” was about more than her writerly ambitions and her yearning for an audience. There was something existential at play for her. In her Bergen-Belsen diary, she recalls a conversation in the ghetto with her mentor the poet Shayevitch, in which he told her: “Our lives have to be recorded as they are happening. I am letting the story of our daily lives drip off the tip of my pen. We do not need anything else.”

There is a sense pervading Rosenfarb’s writings that if she didn’t write these words down, no one would. And also a lingering question of what will happen with the words she put on this page, who will receive them, where will they go?

In “Mimaamakim” she writes about Lodz Ghetto ruins:

You flutter around in the white, ashen dust
Out from windows without panes
Like a white dream, like a dove
Over a town of haunted shades.

Lodz is no doubt haunted to this day. It is uncanny, then, that just as Lodz imprinted itself in Rosenfarb’s consciousness and writings, these very same writings, her name, and her visage are now literally imprinted onto the topography of today’s Lodz.

Lodz now includes Rosenfarb’s narrative, our family’s narrative. This does not redeem or erase anything. Poland will never cease being a lonely place for our family, the site of so much destruction and loss. We will never stop wondering, as Rosenfarb writes, “Where are you, Bunim? Where are all our friends? Where are the writers and painters and musicians of the ghetto? We are lonely. We are all together and yet each one of us is alone.”

But a future beyond anything Rosenfarb dared to imagine is now present, and it exists alongside the painful past. We strive to hold both together.

MLA STYLE
Walfish, Mordecai. “2023, the “Year of Chava Rosenfarb” in Lodz.” In geveb, May 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/year-of-rosenfarb.
CHICAGO STYLE
Walfish, Mordecai. “2023, the “Year of Chava Rosenfarb” in Lodz.” In geveb (May 2024): Accessed May 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mordecai Walfish

Mordecai Walfish is the great-nephew of Chava Rosenfarb. He lives in Oakland, CA and is the Chief Operating Officer of Leading Edge, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening leadership in the Jewish nonprofit sector.