Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays 9780773558304

A collection of essays by the great Yiddish novelist Chava Rosenfarb, most published in English for the first time. A

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Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays

Table of contents :
Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays
Introduction: Chava Rosenfarb
A Note on the Essays
Bibliography of Published Essays
Confessions of a Yiddish Writer
Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto
Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945
Ramblings through Inner Continents: Notes from a Life
Paul Celan: Jewish Writers and the Savage God
Stefan Zweig, the German Language, and Suicide
Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer
Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach
A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation
Harps on the St Lawrence: Yiddish Poets in Canada
Australian Notes, 1974
Laterna Magika, Prague 1993
APPENDIX A Bibliographical Citations of All Essays Included in This Volume
APPENDIX B List of Chava Rosenfarb’s Published Works

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Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays

Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays chava RosenfaRb

EditEd by

GoldiE MorGEntalEr McGill-Queen’s University Press Montreal & Kingston | London | Chicago

© McGill-Queen’s University Press 2019

iSbn 978-0-7735-5702-4 (cloth) iSbn 978-0-7735-5703-1 (paper) iSbn 978-0-7735-5830-4 (ePdF) iSbn 978-0-7735-5831-1 (ePUb)

pour mettre de l’art dans la vie des Canadiennes et des Canadiens de tout le pays. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are from the collection of Goldie Morgentaler.

Legal deposit second quarter 2019 Bibliothèque nationale du Québec Printed in Canada on acid-free paper that is 100% ancient forest free (100% post-consumer recycled), processed chlorine free This book has been published with the help of a grant from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program, using funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Funding was also received from the Dean of Arts and the Office of Research Services at the University of Lethbridge and the Foundation for Yiddish Culture.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $153 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country. Nous remercions le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien. L’an dernier, le Conseil a investi 153 millions de dollars

library and archivES canada cataloGUinG in PUblication Title: Confessions of a Yiddish writer and other essays by Chava Rosenfarb / edited by Goldie Morgentaler. Other titles: Essays. Selections Names: Rosenfarb, Chawa, 1923–2011, author. — Morgentaler, Goldie, 1950– editor. Description: Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20190049103 — Canadiana (ebook) 20190049146 — iSbn 9780773557031 (paper) — iSbn 9780773557024 (cloth) — iSbn 9780773558304 (ePdF ) — iSbn 9780773558311 (ePUb ) Subjects: lcSh : Rosenfarb, Chawa, 1923–2011. Classification: lcc PS 8535.o 764 a 6 2019 — ddc c 814/.54—dc23

Set in 10.5/14.5 Scala Pro and 10/14 Scala Sans Pro Book design & typesetting by Garet Markvoort, zijn digital

What is writing if not a form of confession in disguise? No matter what the subject, all literary roads lead back to the self. The writer descends like a miner into the deepest shafts of her soul in order to unearth the blackest coals of her torment, or to retrieve the most glittering diamonds of her memories, and bring them back to the surface in the form of fictions that she wishes to share with the world.

chava RosenfaRb


Introduction: Chava Rosenfarb A Note on the Essays Acknowledgments




Bibliography of Published Essays xxxi

PeRsonaL essaYs Confessions of a Yiddish Writer 3 Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto 27 Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945


Shloymele 69 Ramblings through Inner Continents: Notes from a Life 79

LITeRaRY essaYs Paul Celan: Jewish Writers and the Savage God 101 Stefan Zweig, the German Language, and Suicide 122

Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer 131 Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach 162 A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation 177 Harps on the St Lawrence: Yiddish Poets in Canada 192

TRaveL Australian Notes, 1974 Laterna Magika, Prague 1993 249 aPPEndiX a Bibliographical Citations of All Essays Included in This Volume 273 aPPEndiX b List of Chava Rosenfarb’s Published Works 275 Index


viii Contents


Introduction: Chava Rosenfarb

The essays in the following collection were all written by my mother, the Yiddish-language novelist Chava Rosenfarb, who has been called a “phenomenon” in Yiddish literature, both because of her personal history as a survivor of the Holocaust and because of her prodigious output of novels, stories, poems, dramas, and essays that were inspired by her experiences. One of the very few women novelists writing in Yiddish, Rosenfarb was the author of three multi-volume novels of Jewish life in Poland in the early decades of the twentieth century, of which the most significant is the threevolume The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto. In addition to her fiction, Rosenfarb published four collections of poetry, as well as numerous short stories and essays. Her play, Der foigl fun geto (The Bird of the Ghetto), was performed in Hebrew translation by the Israeli National Theatre in 1966, and in English by Threshold Theatre of Toronto in 2013.

Because she wrote primarily in Yiddish, her career followed the tragic fortunes of that language. Her relative obscurity in the nonYiddish-speaking world may be attributed to the fact that it is only in the last fifteen years or so that her work has become available in English translation. Even now, her last novel, Letters to Abrasha, awaits publication in English. Given that she was a survivor of the Holocaust, it is not surprising that most of Rosenfarb’s writing should deal with this event. What is unusual, however, is that, for the most part, she transmuted her experiences into fiction rather than memoir or autobiography. This collection of essays features some of the very few autobiographical essays that Rosenfarb wrote. When she was older, and I asked her to write her autobiography, so that I could get a better sense of what was fact and what was fiction in her novels, she did not get very far. “It’s all in my novels,” she said. And she was right. Because so many of the essays in this collection deal with her life, and do so in her own words, I will keep the biographical information to a minimum, but I do want to give readers a better understanding of the background to these essays, as well as to provide some context for the events that shaped Rosenfarb’s outlook on the world. My mother was a warm-hearted woman with a keen intelligence and a vivid imagination, whom I knew as well as any child can know her parent. We were not only mother and daughter, we were also co-workers and colleagues, in that I was the translator into English of many of her works, including most of the essays in this collection. My mother was an idealist and a romantic, who never abandoned her belief in the redemptive and transcendent power of art in general and literature in particular. She was a great reader of biographies, especially the biographies of writers, and she believed fervently, as she says in her essay on translation, that writers of all times and places belong to the same noble fellowship, that they form a kind of community of the spirit to which she dreamed of belonging, while yet feeling that she did not belong, not really. This feeling of alienation was linked, I suspect, to her despair over the fate of Yiddish, which was in turn linked to the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust, a catastrophe of which she had first-hand experience. Chava Rosenfarb was born in Lodz, Poland, on 9 February 1923, the elder of two daughters of Abraham Rosenfarb, a restaurant waiter. Her mother,



whose maiden name was Simma Pinchevska, worked as a “shtoperke” (a mender of faults in fabric) at a textile factory in the industrial city of Lodz, which was then the second-largest city in Poland. Both parents originally hailed from the small Polish shtetl of Końskie, near Kracow. Her father’s side of the family traced its descent from Reb Jonathan Eybeshutz, the famed rabbi who opposed the false Messiah, Sabbetai-Tzvi, in the seventeenth century, although he may also have been a secret follower. This famously learned yet ambiguous ancestor, of whom she was very proud, figures in Rosenfarb’s essay on Prague, the last essay in this collection. Although Rosenfarb’s parents knew each other in Końskie, they had migrated separately to Lodz to find work. In Lodz they were reunited, and there they married, so that Rosenfarb and her younger sister, Henia, were both born in the city rather than in a shtetl. Rosenfarb’s father began his working life as a weaver in a factory, but because he was a good-looking man, he landed a job as a waiter in a restaurant that catered to a literary and political clientele. This was his job when Chava, his first child, was born. Rosenfarb immortalized her father in a long poem published in book form, entitled Dos lid fun yidishn kelner Abram (The Song of the Jewish Waiter Abram), as well as in the novel Letters to Abrasha. She later published a fictional account of the early lives and courtship of her parents in her two-volume novel Botshani, published in English as Bociany and Of Lodz and Love. Rosenfarb’s parents were active in the Jewish Socialist Bund, a leftleaning political movement with an enormous following among workingclass Jews. In the period between the two world wars, the Bund was a major cultural and political force in Poland, where it elected representatives to the city council in the larger cities. Bundist ideology encouraged agitation for equal rights for Jews in Poland, where there was widespread discrimination against Jews. But it also incorporated a strong cultural element that promoted and encouraged the use of Yiddish as the lingua franca of the Jewish masses. Rosenfarb and her sister were educated in the Bundist Medem school, where all instruction was in Yiddish. One of the other students in Rosenfarb’s class at this school was Henekh Morgentaler, the son of Joseph Morgentaler, a Bundist representative to the city council of Lodz. Rosenfarb and Henekh graduated with top honours in their class. The school principal in announcing their prizes mixed up their names,

Introduction xi

referring to Chava Rosenfarb as Chava Morgentaler. The mistake proved prophetic when Chava Rosenfarb married Henekh Morgentaler in Belgium in 1949 and became Chava Morgentaler. (Rosenfarb’s second husband, Simkha-Bunim [Bono] Wiener, was also a student at the Medem school, but a few years ahead of Chava and Henekh.) While her elementary-school education had been all in Yiddish, Rosenfarb’s high-school education was in Polish, although the school she attended was funded by Jews and its student body was Jewish. Rosenfarb attended this school for five years, both before and after the outbreak of the war. By the time she received her “matura” (matriculation certificate), she was already incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto. Rosenfarb had early shown a talent for writing, and when she was still a child, her father had proudly shown off her poems to the literary clientele who frequented the restaurant where he worked. However, it was not until her incarceration in the ghetto that she began to write seriously. The Nazis had established the Lodz ghetto in February 1940, several months after their invasion of Poland. They herded the Jews into Baluty, one of the city’s slums, and encircled the area with barbed wire. Rosenfarb’s family was housed in a tiny apartment with only a kitchen and a bedroom. She and her sister slept in the kitchen on chairs and a sofa. It was from this bed of chairs that she would rise every morning at dawn to write poems before going to work at her various ghetto jobs. Her poetry brought Rosenfarb to the attention of Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, the great ghetto poet and author of the epic poem “LekhLekho.” She became Shayevitch’s protegée, and it was he who introduced her to the writers’ group of the Lodz ghetto, whose members quickly recognized her talent and accepted her as their youngest member. Rosenfarb’s tribute to Shayevitch is the essay “Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto,” which is included in this collection. The essay supplies some of the only information about the last years of this important Yiddish poet, whose influence over Rosenfarb can also be seen in her “Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945.” When the Nazis liquidated the Lodz ghetto in August 1944, Rosenfarb, the three members of her family, along with Henekh Morgentaler, his mother and brother (his father had earlier been shot by the Nazis), as well as Rosenfarb’s close friend Zenia Marcinkowska (later to become the Swedish novelist Zenia Larsson), Zenia’s stepmother, and Shayevitch all hid out in the bedroom of the Rosenfarbs’ tiny apartment. A wardrobe xii Introduction

had been placed against the wall of the outer room, where it hid the door to the bedroom, so that the apartment appeared to have only one room. The first few times they checked the apartment, the Nazis charged with liquidating the ghetto did not notice the hidden room, but on their last visit, they discovered the ruse, and all the people hiding in the second room were herded onto cattle cars and transported to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, the men were separated from the women. Rosenfarb’s knapsack, containing the poems she had written in the ghetto, was ripped from her arms and flung into the mud. She, her sister, and their mother passed the selection and were sent to Sasel, near Hamburg, where they were employed as slave-labourers, rebuilding houses for the bombedout Germans of that city. With a pencil stub that she had begged from a sympathetic German overseer, Rosenfarb composed poems on the ceiling above the upper bunk where she slept. These poems she memorized; they were to form the core of the first book of poetry she published in London after the war. As the Allies drew closer to Hamburg, the Nazis decided to liquidate the camp at Sasel, so Rosenfarb and her mother and sister were transported to Bergen-Belsen, where they were liberated by the British army on 15 April 1945. By that time Rosenfarb was sick with typhus. The British evacuated her to a makeshift lazarette outside the camp walls, and there she slowly recovered. After the liberation, Rosenfarb and her sister left their mother in the dP camp at Bergen-Belsen and set out across Germany in search of their father. Their search proved fruitless, and they returned to Bergen-Belsen only to be greeted by Henekh Morgentaler, who had been in Dachau along with their father. He informed them that their father had been killed in the American bombing of the train carrying inmates from Dachau further into Germany. Rosenfarb’s liberation at Bergen-Belsen and her subsequent search for her father make up the events of “Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945,” the diary that she kept during this time. Eventually Rosenfarb and a group of others, including her mother and sister, crossed the border illegally into Belgium, where they remained for five years. Rosenfarb describes this period of her life in “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer.” Since they were in Belgium illegally, Rosenfarb and her family were permitted to stay for only five years before they were obliged to emigrate. Henekh Morgentaler had a cousin in Canada who sponsored him, and Introduction xiii

by this time Rosenfarb also had a publisher in Montreal by the name of Harry Hershman, who sponsored her. Rosenfarb and Henekh got married and arrived in Halifax harbour on a blistery cold day in February 1950 after crossing the Atlantic in the steerage section of the boat Samaria. Rosenfarb’s pregnancy made the trip across the Atlantic particularly unpleasant for her, and she was sick all the time. From Halifax the couple took the train to Montreal. There they were greeted by representatives of Yiddish literary Montreal in the person of Melekh Ravitch, the great Yiddish poet and literary activist, and his wife, Rokhl. Six months later, in August, I was born, and named Goldie after my father’s mother, who had perished at Auschwitz. Eventually, Rosenfarb’s sister and her mother were also brought over to Canada from Belgium. In 1956, Rosenfarb gave birth to her second child, a boy named Abraham after her father. Rosenfarb was profoundly affected by her experiences during the Holocaust, and all her writing deals with this topic in one form or another. She began as a poet, publishing her first collection of poetry, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald (The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest) in London in 1947. When she was settled in Montreal, she followed this with the book-length poem about her father, Dos lid fun yidishn kelner Abram (The Song of the Jewish Waiter Abram), and the poetry collections Geto un andere lider (Ghetto and Other Poems) and Aroys fun gan-eydn (Out of Paradise). While some of the poems in these collections, like “Di balade fun nekhtikn vald,” focus on the Holocaust and its aftermath, most of Rosenfarb’s poems take the events of everyday life as their subject. A great many of the poems are love poems. Some, like “Loib” (“Praise”), are hymns of praise to ordinary life, to days in which nothing happens. This wish to bless the uneventful and the ordinary recurs as a theme in Rosenfarb’s short fiction, and is undoubtedly linked to her experiences as a concentration camp survivor to whom too much happened. (A selection of Rosenfarb’s poetry was published in English translation in 2013 under the title Exile at Last.) Rosenfarb also wrote plays. One of these, Der foigl fun geto (The Bird of the Ghetto), focuses on the final days of the Vilna (Vilnius) ghetto partisan leader, Isaac Wittenberg. Wittenberg’s martyrdom is portrayed against the backdrop of a conflict among the inhabitants of the ghetto between those who wanted to fight the Nazis, even if it meant certain annihilation, and those who wanted to appease them, in the hope that at least some of the ghetto population might survive.



But, as she tells us in the essay “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer,” Rosenfarb felt dissatisfied with both poetry and drama as a means of expressing her feelings about the Holocaust, so she turned to prose fiction. In 1972 she published in Yiddish the monumental three-volume Der boim fun lebn (The Tree of Life). This trilogy, which chronicles the destruction of the Jews of Lodz from before the beginning of the war in 1939 until the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in August 1944, remains one of the very few novels – as opposed to memoirs or diaries – written about the Holocaust by an actual survivor. Its publication was greeted with great enthusiasm by the critics, many of whom claimed that in breadth and scope there was nothing quite like The Tree of Life in Yiddish literature, especially given the fact that this is fiction based on the author’s own experience. The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto follows the fates of ten individuals from all walks of life who live through the terrible events of the years 1939–44, when the Nazis occupied Poland and herded the Jews into ghettos before transporting them to the death camps. Several of the characters are based on actual people, which makes The Tree of Life both a novel and a factual recreation. Among the most significant of these are Rosenfarb’s mentor, the poet Shayevitch, who appears under the name of Berkovitch, and the head of the Lodz ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the “eldest” of the Jews in the ghetto. Rumkowski is one of the novel’s most powerful and ambiguous creations. Rosenfarb describes the ironic road that Rumkowski travelled from being the founder and director of an orphanage before the war, to being the puppet leader of the ghetto, put in place by the Nazis. In one of the novel’s most chilling accounts of an actual historical event, Di Sperre [gehsperre, “house arrest”], he demands that the mothers of the ghetto willingly give up their children to the Nazis for the good of the collective. Because the ten major characters of The Tree of Life come from all walks of life, the novel recreates in all its complexity an entire Jewish ghetto community. In addition, it captures in detail the everyday life in the ghetto workshops and food-distribution centres. It describes the gatherings of the ghetto intelligentsia and the Jewish underworld, as well as the ideological manoeuvrings of the various political parties – the Zionists, Communists, and Bundists. Most importantly, Rosenfarb gives a portrait of that section of ghetto society that she knew well from personal experience, namely, the ghetto’s artistic community. Her portrayal of the

Introduction xv

tenacity and bravery of this community includes portraits based on actual people, such as the painter Guttman, a portrait of the real-life Yisroel Leizerowicz, and Sarah Samet, the elderly woman poet, who is modelled on the real-life Miriam Ulinover. Nor does the novel shy away from describing the activities of the ghetto spies and informers. The Yiddish press immediately hailed The Tree of Life as a masterpiece, repeatedly emphasizing its unique place in the literature of the Holocaust. The critic Isaac Jonasovitch, writing in the quarterly Folk un medine (Tel Aviv, Summer 1975), announced that “The Tree of Life is a work which surpasses everything that has been expressed up to now on the tragedy of Eastern-European Jewry, or more precisely, surpasses everything that has been written in prose on this topic.” And the jury that in 1979 unanimously awarded Rosenfarb Israel’s most prestigious prize for Yiddish literature, the Manger Prize, concurred, noting that “[The Tree of Life] is a work that rises to the heights of the great creations in world literature and towers powerfully over the Jewish literature of the Holocaust, the literature which deals with the annihilation of European Jewry, in particular Polish Jewry.” Ironically, The Tree of Life’s epic qualities, its complexity and length, made it a difficult book to publish in a non-Jewish language. While Der boim fun lebn was soon translated into Hebrew as Ets hahayim, for many years the English translation could not find a publisher. An English edition was finally published by Scribe Publications of Melbourne, Australia, in 1985. This Australian edition eliminated the introduction and compacted the novel’s three volumes into one large tome. In 2004, the University of Wisconsin Press published a reissue of this Australian edition, this time returning to the original format of three separate volumes.1 Rosenfarb’s next published novel was Botshani, which appeared in Yiddish in two volumes in 1982. The word botshani means “storks” in Polish, and this was the name that Rosenfarb gave her fictional Polish village, modelled after the actual shtetl of Końskie from which her parents came. Botshani is in fact the story of the childhood and youth of Rosenfarb’s parents, and is set before and after the First World War. Rosenfarb’s essay “Ramblings through Inner Continents: Notes from a Life” describes the actual people and events on which this novel is based. Botshani was translated into English by the author herself, and was published in 2000 by Syracuse University Press in two volumes as Bociany (the Polish spelling of the name) and Of Lodz and Love.



This translation won the John Glassco Prize of the Literary Translation Association of Canada. Despite the fact that the Holocaust had figured as a topic in all of Rosenfarb’s fiction, it was not until she began her novel Briv tsu Abrashn (Letters to Abrasha) that she finally felt capable of confronting the horrors of the concentration camps. In The Tree of Life, she had deliberately avoided taking her characters beyond the point where they were deported from the Lodz ghetto. This was her way of saying that she could describe their fates no further, that the coming horror was too terrible to put into words. The last few pages of The Tree of Life are thus purposely left blank, as if to illustrate the inadequacy of words when faced with the monstrous. It was not until she wrote Briv tsu Abrashn that Rosenfarb finally felt herself capable of attempting a description of the camps. The story is told through a series of letters penned after the war by Miriam, a Holocaust survivor, to a man recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Germany. Miriam believes that this man is her former teacher and friend Abrasha, and so she pours her heart out to him in her letters, recounting the events of her childhood and youth, then her incarceration in Auschwitz, Sasel, and Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated. Some of these descriptions make for harrowing reading, especially the scene in which Miriam loses her mother during the selection at Auschwitz. (This episode was excerpted in The Malahat Review in 2014 and reprinted in Tablet Magazine in 2015 under the title “In the Boxcar.”) Briv tsu Abrashn was published in Yiddish in Israel in 1992 and is currently in the process of being translated into English. It is in many ways Rosenfarb’s most powerful novel, although its unflinching descriptions of the death camps and their horrors make it an emotionally difficult book to read. Like most writers, Rosenfarb was an avid reader. When she was younger, her literary output was primarily poetry, so it is no surpise that she could recite the poems of both the Yiddish and the Polish poets by heart. In the essay “Ramblings through Inner Continents,” she describes how, on a childhood visit to her parents’ hometown of Końskie, she precociously recited wierszyki (short poems; nursery rhymes) to an awed crowd of shtetl onlookers. Throughout her youth, and even later in the ghetto, where she established a library in her parents’ tiny two-room flat, she read widely in Yiddish as well as in European literature. As a schoolgirl, she read Dickens’s Dombi un zun (Dombey and Son) and Oliver Tvist,

Introduction xvii

dos tragishe lebn fun a yosm (Oliver Twist, the Tragic Life of an Orphan) in abbreviated Yiddish translations.2 She also read the works of the great European novelists, such as Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Knut Hamsun, among others, in Polish translation. She studied Polish literature in her Polish-language high school and was especially taken with the poetry of Julian Tuwim. While imprisoned in the ghetto, she read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in Polish translation. She was thus greatly influenced by the epic tradition of nineteenth-century realism, especially as it pertains to the novel; but her own style, while generally realistic, also contains elements of magic realism and impressionism. Rosenfarb’s literary output was prodigious, and included essays and short stories in addition to the poems, plays, and novels already mentioned. Most of her essays and stories were published in the Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), a quarterly established in Israel in 1949 by the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever. In the subsequent forty-six years of its existence, Di goldene keyt became the most influential and widely read postwar literary journal in Yiddish, championing secular Yiddish high culture, and providing a home for the work of all the major Yiddish writers of the postwar era, including Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Eli Wiesel, Rokhl Korn, Sutzkever himself, the critics Dov Sadan, Khone Shmeruk, and Avrom Novershtern, the linguist Mordkhe Schaechter, as well as countless others. The painter Marc Chagall, a friend of Sutzkever’s, contributed drawings and autobiographical essays. Rosenfarb was one of the few women who over the years contributed consistently to Di goldene keyt, publishing not only essays, short stories, and reviews there, but also extracts from her novels. Although she was dismayed by Sutzkever’s editorial habit of “improving” her texts by cutting, changing words and phrases, and thus, in her words, “improving them into nonsense,” she was devastated when the journal folded in 1995, as she describes in the essay on translation that is included in the present volume. In an emotional tribute to Di goldene keyt published in 1997, two years after the journal’s demise, Rosenfarb credits the journal with inspiring a second flowering of Yiddish literature, with restoring a voice and a future to the nearly eradicated language, and so providing hope to its speakers and writers.3 As her quarrel with Sutzkever suggests, Rosenfarb was a meticulous stylist in Yiddish, although she was willing to accept editorial corrections



when she agreed with them. However, she insisted on the Polish-Yiddish version of grammar, spelling, and vocabulary, rather than the standardized yivo version that Sutzkever and her other Yiddish-language editors sometimes imposed on her texts. As she complained in a letter to Yisroel Rudnitsky, the editor of her novel Briv tsu Abrashn, certain aspects of standardized Yiddish sounded to her ears like language walking on stilts and heading for a fall.4 Among the many essays that she published in Di goldene keyt are travelogues and literary analyses of the work of most of the major Yiddish authors of her time, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, H. Leivik, I.J. Segal, and Avrom Sutzkever. Considerations of time and space have prevented me from including all these essays in the present collection. One of her most interesting essays, which is reproduced here, tries to account for the suicides of Paul Celan, Primo Levi, and other Jewish writers who had survived the Holocaust. Rosenfarb’s essay is an attempt to understand the motives that drove these writers, who had lived through so much suffering during the war, to commit suicide. Rosenfarb had always assumed that surviving the Holocaust had a life-affirming effect, that deliberate self-annihilation was the last thing that a Holocaust survivor – especially if he or she were a writer – would consider doing. So the suicides of these celebrated authors both horrified and puzzled her. Her essay, which is focused primarily on the poetry of Paul Celan, is thus a meditation on the effects of cultural alienation, since Celan, like the others, wrote in a non-Jewish language, in his case German, the language of his persecutors. In addition to these Yiddish-language essays, Rosenfarb also published a number of non-fiction pieces in English, most notably “The Last Poet of Lodz,” which was published in Rosenfarb’s own translation in Tablet Magazine on 13 September 2012. This essay, which appears here as “Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto,” is intended as a memorial to the man who served as Rosenfarb’s mentor in the Lodz ghetto and who, more than anyone else, influenced her career. Another essay that was published in English is “Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach.” This essay on the problems of being doubly marginalized, first as a woman writer and then as a Yiddish writer, appeared in Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992), a collection of essays on

Introduction xix

women’s writing in Jewish literature. Gender and Text represented an important milestone in Jewish literary scholarship, because it was one of the earliest attempts to apply feminist theory to the Jewish literature written in traditional Jewish langauges, such as Yiddish and Hebrew, two literary traditions that had disregarded and downplayed women’s contributions. The essay grew out of a conference on the same topic that took place at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and at which Rosenfarb had been invited to speak. She also contributed essays and reviews to the Montreal Gazette. In 1994, she was invited to give the inaugural Menachovsky Lecture at the University of Toronto, which was later published as a pamphlet titled Yiddish Poets in Canada and republished in New Readings of Yiddish Montreal/Traduire le Montréal Yiddish (University of Ottawa Press, 2007). In 1979, Rosenfarb’s marriage to Henry (anglicized from Henekh) Morgentaler officially came to an end. Morgentaler had by this time become famous in Canada as the leader of the struggle to legalize abortion. After her divorce, Rosenfarb became the common-law wife of Bono Wiener, a relationship that lasted until Wiener’s death in Montreal in 1995. Bono Wiener had been a schoolmate of Rosenfarb’s in Lodz. He too was a Holocaust survivor. After the war, he had settled in Melbourne, Australia, where he became a politician and part owner of one of that country’s largest travel agencies. Rosenfarb’s relationship with Wiener resulted in her living half the year in Melbourne. The essay “Australian Notes, 1974” describes her extended visit to Australia, right at the start of their relationship. (She had been to Australia earlier, in 1967, on a brief lecture tour.) For reasons that are not entirely clear, she leaves Wiener out of her description of Australia, even though it is at his house in Melbourne that she is staying, and he is clearly the person with whom she travels the country, including the final trips to Ayers Rock and Sydney. I suspect that the reason Wiener is never named in this essay is because Rosenfarb was not yet divorced from Henry Morgentaler when she published it, so she was reluctant to supply food for gossip, the Yiddish world being small and incestuous, despite its members being scattered over three continents. Despite her reticence about naming him, Rosenfarb’s relationship with Bono Wiener was a happy one. It also provided her with the opportunity to travel around the world, and these travels resulted in a



number of essays and stories directly inspired by her travels, including a visit to Prague in the early 1990s, which is the subject of the last essay in this volume. Some of the stories that resulted from Rosenfarb’s travels – for instance, “François,” about a trip to South America, or “Serengeti,” about a safari in Africa – formed part of a series of stories about the lives of Holocaust survivors in Canada that were written and published throughout the 1980s and 1990s in Di goldene keyt. Whereas Rosenfarb’s novels had all been set in Europe, her short stories take the afterlife of the Holocaust survivor as their subject, and so are set in North America in the second half of the twentieth century. The earliest of the stories, “The Greenhorn,” tells of a newly arrived Holocaust survivor working his first day at a Montreal sweatshop. It was originally translated by the noted Canadian author Miriam Waddington for her anthology Canadian Jewish Short Stories and has since been retranslated and reprinted in other anthologies. Rosenfarb’s most celebrated story is “Edgia’s Revenge,” first published in English in Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers and since republished in Survivors: Seven Short Stories. “Edgia’s Revenge” describes the unhealthy symbiotic relationship of two women survivors who meet again in Montreal after the war. Rella, the story’s narrator, had been a concentration camp kapo during the war, with the power of life and death over the other inmates. Kapos were camp inmates – sometimes, but not always, Jews themselves – who were put in place by the Nazis to serve as guards in the camps. This gave them unlimited power over the other inmates and earned them the hatred of the other prisoners. Rella’s one good deed had been to save Edgia’s life. In the postwar years, the two women act out the repercussions of that one good deed in an endless dance of guilt and dependence that is only resolved when one of them commits suicide. The story is remarkable, not only for its psychological description of the two central characters, but for the use it makes of its Montreal setting, which becomes integral to both the plot and the atmosphere of the story. From the time she arrived in Montreal in early 1950 until she left the city in 1998, Rosenfarb was one of the central cultural figures of the Yiddish-speaking community of the city, invited frequently to speak at various functions, especially at Holocaust memorials, as well as at the Jewish Public Library. Montreal in the 1950s had been a haven for Yiddish

Introduction xxi

culture. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, the city had been home to a vibrant community of Yiddish poets, novelists, scholars, and journalists, some of whom, like J.I. Segal, Melekh Ravitch, and Rokhl Korn, enjoyed worldwide reputations. Known as “the Jerusalem of the North,” Jewish Montreal maintained its Yiddish heritage and language longer than most other North American cities, nourishing and supporting one of the world’s few remaining Yiddish theatre companies and teaching Yiddish as part of the curriculum in the secular Jewish day schools. Montreal had been the ideal place for a young Yiddish writer to put down roots and flourish. In fact, a major reason for Rosenfarb’s coming to Montreal had been the sponsorship of her Yiddish-language Canadian publisher, Harry Hershman. Even after she left the city in 1998, the Jewish community there continued to treat Rosenfarb as one of its literary stars, eagerly buying her books, inviting her to give lectures, and showering her with attention and acclaim. In Alberta, where she spent the last years of her life, the University of Lethbridge conferred an honorary degree on Rosenfarb in May 2006, making her the first Yiddish writer to be so honoured by a Canadian university. But in the rest of the English-speaking world this kind of recognition was harder to come by. Despite all her literary awards – which, in addition to the Manger Prize and the John Glassco Award for Literary Translation mentioned above, include the Canadian J.I. Segal Prize, which she won in 1972 and 1993, as well as the New York Prize of the Congress for Jewish Culture, Israel’s Sholem Aleichem Prize, the Argentinean Niger Prize, and the Award of the American Association of Professors of Yiddish in 1998 – much of her work has been late in becoming available in English. This situation is slowly changing. In 2004, seven of Rosenfarb’s short stories were published in English translation under the title Survivors: Seven Short Stories. Survivors won the 2005 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Modern Language Association’s Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize for Yiddish Studies in 2006. In 2017 it was chosen as a selection for the Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books Book Club. As noted above, in 2004–06, the University of Wisconsin Press republished the Australian edition of The Tree of Life in the original three-volume format. In addition, The Tree of Life was the focus of a two-part documentary on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio program “Ideas,” a documentary that introduced Rosenfarb and



her work to a Canada-wide audience. The documentary was rebroadcast several times. Thus, when Rosenfarb’s work began appearing in English, it was warmly received. The Globe and Mail gave Survivors a glowing review in 2004, when it first appeared, and in 2007 listed it as an important contribution to readings about Jewish families. Bociany and its sequel, Of Lodz and Love, were warmly reviewed when they were published in 2000. D. Mesher, writing in Judaism 49, no. 8 (Fall 2000), called the two novels powerful, suggesting that together “they may prove to be the last great Yiddish novel.” Chava Rosenfarb died in 2011, two weeks shy of her eighty-eighth birthday. Since her death, her Bergen-Belsen diary has appeared in English in the online magazine Tablet. The diary was translated into Dutch and published in the popular Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland. A book of her selected poems, translated mostly by the author herself, has been published by Guernica Editions of Toronto under the title Exile at Last. A Spanish translation of her short stories was published in Spain by Xordica Editions in 2016, and the The Tree of Life has just been published in Polish translation. However, while Chava Rosenfarb’s fiction is becoming better known, her non-fiction writing has been largely unpublished in any language other than Yiddish. I hope that this book of essays will fill in that gap and help to further knowledge of Chava Rosenfarb’s large literary range by illuminating her strengths as an essayist, memoirist, and literary critic.

notES 1 The most recent review of the English translation of The Tree of Life was published by the American novelist Dara Horn in the influential online magazine Tablet on 21 February 2018 under the heading “The Tree of Life Is a Brilliant Work of Art about the Holocaust”: the-tree-of-life-chava-rosenfarb. Horn wrote: “To call [The Tree of Life] 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.” 2 For more on the popularity of translations of Dickens’s work into Yiddish and their use in the Jewish schools of inter-war Poland, please see my “When Dickens Spoke Yiddish: Translations of Dickens into the Language of East European Jews,” Dickens

Introduction xxiii

Quarterly 34, no. 2 (June 2017): 85–95; and Leonard Prager, “Charles Dickens in Yiddish (A Survey),” Jewish Language Review 4 (1984): 158–78. 3 See Chava Rosenfarb, “Di goldene keyt,” Di Tsukunft 102, no. 2 (May–June 1997): 1–5. 4 Rosenfarb’s objections stem from the difference between two of the main dialects of Yiddish, the Lithuanian, called Litvish or northern dialect, and Polish-Yiddish. When the yivo attempted to standardize Yiddish pronunciation, the phonetic preference was given to Litvish Yiddish, even though this dialect was actually spoken by a minority of East European Jews. The Litvish-Yiddish dialect also lacks a neuter, so standard Yiddish grammar is based on the more widely spoken Polish-Yiddish, which has both neuter nouns and neuter articles. These anomalies gave rise to discrepancies in vocabulary and grammar between varieties of Yiddish, and especially between Polish-Yiddish and standard Yiddish, which in turn led to the kind of frustrations that Rosenfarb, who spoke Polish-Yiddish, felt when dealing with the Litvish-speaking Sutzkever, as well as some of her other editors.



A Note on the Essays

Although she is known primarily as a novelist, Chava Rosenfarb wrote a great deal of non-fiction. The present collection represents only a portion of the many non-fiction works that she contributed to a variety of Yiddish publications, as well as the first time that her non-fiction works have been published as a group in English. For this collection, I have chosen those essays that have most appealed to me, or that I had a hand in translating into English, either for public presentations or for publication. With one exception, all the essays were first composed in Yiddish, Chava Rosenfarb’s mother tongue, and the language in which she felt most at home. The exception is “A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation,” which was delivered as a keynote address in Montreal to a joint meeting of the Literary Translators’ Associations of Canada and the United States on 4 November 2005. That essay

was written directly in English. The essay on feminism in Yiddish literature was likewise first delivered as a lecture in English at a conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. However, the text was originally written in Yiddish and translated into English before delivery, when it was also cut. The version that appears in this collection omits the autobiographical section that was published in Gender and Text, since that repeats portions of “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer.” It also reproduces the longer text from Rosenfarb’s original Yiddish manuscript. Rosenfarb was much in demand as a public speaker in Yiddish, especially at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. (Several of her talks were recorded by the library and may be found on the website of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Ma .) It is no surprise, then, that the majority of the essays collected here began life as the texts of lectures. Nine of the essays were first published in the prestigious Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain) that was edited by the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever. (I have included below a list of these essays with their bibliographic information.) The translations that appear in the present volume are based on manuscript drafts of Rosenfarb’s essays, rather than on their published versions, which is why they may differ from the Yiddish texts that appear in Di goldene keyt. I have chosen to work from these drafts rather than from the published versions because, while Rosenfarb was on friendly terms with Sutzkever, she often disagreed with his editorial decisions and complained that he changed her language and altered her meanings. This means that her manuscript drafts give a better sense of what she originally intended than do the published essays. For instance, in a letter dated 11 July 1994, she thanks Sutzkever for soliciting another essay from her, but then goes on to say that, if she does send him something, she hopes he will not “improve” it the way he “improved” her essay on Paul Celan, which ended by making nonsense of her text. She then gives several examples of where he changed the text to alter her meaning. The essay that is changed the most from its published form is “Ramblings through Inner Continents.” I have taken the liberty of dividing this long essay into two parts. The first part consists of autobiographical fragments that can be found in the Personal Essays section of this volume. I have also restored some of the autobiographical anecdotes that were cut from the published essay. The second part of this essay can be


A Note on the Essays

found under the title “Stefan Zweig, the German Language, and Suicide” in the section on Literary Essays. Another essay that differs from its published version is “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer.” This essay is easily the most travelled of all the works included in this collection. It began life as a talk delivered in Melbourne, Australia, in conjunction with the Yiddish publication of The Tree of Life in Israel in 1972. It was subsequently delivered in Yiddish in New York, Tel Aviv, and Montreal before being published in Di goldene keyt in 1973. In response to an invitation to Rosenfarb to speak at the University of Toronto, it was translated into English. It then became Rosenfarb’s signature English-language talk, delivered over a span of two decades in various locations and constantly adapted and tweaked to accommodate differing audiences, venues, and time constraints. The essay that appears in the present volume is thus an amalgam of several versions. I have placed it as the lead essay to serve as an introduction in her own words to Rosenfarb’s life and work. While most of the essays in this collection were published in Di goldene keyt, not all were. “Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945” first appeared as an addendum to Rosenfarb’s first book of poems, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald [The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest]. “Shloymele” was first published in the Yiddish Forverts in 1992. As will quickly become evident, Rosenfarb’s personal voice informs every one of these essays. No matter how diverse her subject matter, all the essays lead back to her own experiences and personal outlook on the world. She does not pretend to be objective. Thus, most of the essays are autobiographical to a greater or lesser extent. I have grouped those that are most obviously so, the ones in which Rosenfarb speaks directly about her own life, in the first section of this collection. The second section is devoted to the lives and literary works of other writers, especially Jewish writers. The two travelogues that end the collection, although they deal with Australia and the Czech Republic, are also personal, as Rosenfarb ties the landscape of the countries she visits to her own sense of herself as a Jew in a post-Holocaust world. No event had a greater impact on Rosenfarb’s understanding of the world and her place in it than the Holocaust. This is hardly surprising, given the horror of the events she lived through. Other themes, related to the Holocaust, also emerge in these essays, not least the sense of

A Note on the Essays xxvii

alienation that Rosenfarb feels as a secular Yiddish writer in a world where Yiddish is no longer widely spoken or read. Tied to this is her concern with the fate of the Yiddish language and the literature created in that language. Since most of these essays were published in Yiddish or delivered as lectures to Jewish audiences, they presuppose a familiarity with Jewish culture and history, as well as with political developments in Jewish life. In places where I have thought the references might be obscure, I have supplied notes with additional information. Rosenfarb frequently addressed audiences of Holocaust survivors, and here too she made assumptions that her allusions would be easily understood by her listeners and readers. For instance, she speaks of “the liberation,” as if this phrase could refer to one event only, namely, the liberation from the concentration and death camps. For other terms, like kapo, I have provided an explanation. In cases where the context was clear, I have allowed the references to stand without annotation. I have kept the Polish spelling for street names, but have anglicized Slavic surnames.

xxviii A Note on the Essays


As noted above, with one exception, all these essays are translations from Yiddish. The translations into English that were made before Rosenfarb’s death in 2011 are primarily her work and mine. She would do the first draft, and I would do all subsequent drafts in consultation with her. For those essays that were translated more recently, I owe a debt of gratitude to two translators from Winnipeg, Arnice Pollack and Ros Usiskin, as well as to Jeanette Block, also of Winnipeg, who put me in touch with them. Again, Arnice and Ros did the first drafts and I did all subsequent drafts. I also translated additional material that was not accessible to the two translators, since they were working from the published essays rather than the manuscripts. Translators are credited at the end of each essay. All mistakes and infelicities of style are my own.

I would like to thank the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge, and especially my dean, Craig Cooper, for a generous grant to support publication of this book. A thanks should go as well to Erasmus Okine and Claudia Malacrida, the administrators of the Strategic Opportunities Fund at the University of Lethbridge that helped to defray the costs of publication. The University of Lethbridge granted me two study leaves to work on this manuscript, for which I am very grateful. I also want to thank Bev Garnett, administrative assistant of the English department at the University of Lethbridge, for typing several of the essays from handwritten drafts. I would like to thank SShrc for awarding me a grant that made possible my frequent trips to Toronto to consult my mother’s manuscripts. I am also grateful to the Foundation for Yiddish Culture for their grant in support of this project. Finally, a note of appreciation and affection for Mark Abley, my editor at McGill-Queen’s University Press. Without his friendship, encouragement, and steady guidance, my work on this project would have been much less pleasant. And, as ever, I would like to thank Jonathan Seldin for being Jonathan Seldin, my haven in times of calm and storm.

PErMiSSionS “Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945” was originally published in Tablet Magazine at and is reprinted with permission. “Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto” was originally published as “The Last Poet of Lodz” in Tablet Magazine, jewish-arts-and-culture/books/111880/the-last-poet-of-lodz, and is reprinted with permission. “Canadian Yiddish Writers” is from New Readings of Yiddish Montreal/Traduire le Montréal Yiddish, edited by Pierre Anctil, Norman Ravvin, and Sherry Simon, 11–19. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2007. Reproduced with permission from the University of Ottawa Press. “Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach” is from Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapudus Lerner, and Anita Norich, 217–26. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Theological Seminary.



Bibliography of Published Essays

(For a fuller bibliographic listing of essay publications in all languages, please see Appendix A.) Of the thirteen essays in this volume, four have been published in English translation: “Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945.” Tablet Magazine (27 January 2014). Trans. Goldie Morgentaler. rosenfarb-bergen-belsen-diary. “The Last Poet of Lodz.” Tablet Magazine (13 September 2012). Trans. Chava Rosenfarb. jewish-arts-and-culture/ books/111880/the-last-poetof-lodz. “Canadian Yiddish Writers.” New Readings of Yiddish Montreal/ Traduire le Montréal Yiddish. Eds. Pierre Anctil, Norman Ravvin, Sherry Simon, 11–19. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2007.

“Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach.” Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature. Eds. Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapudus Lerner, Anita Norich, 217–26. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992. The following essays were published only in Yiddish: “Pol Tselan un zayne goyrl-brider” (“Paul Celan and His Brothers in Fate”). Di goldene keyt 138 (1994): 53–70. “Laterna Magika (Prague 1993).” Di goldene keyt 137 (1993): 119–37. “Itzkhok Bashevis un Sholem Asch.” (“Isaac Bashevis and Sholem Asch”). Di goldene keyt 133 (1992): 75–104. “Shloymele: a dermonung” (“Shloymele: A Reminiscence”). Forverts (18 September 1992): 18–19, 35. “Vanderungen iber inerveynikste kontinentn (notitsn)” (“Wanderings through Inner Continents (Notes)”). Di goldene keyt 88 (1975): 156–68. “Oystralishe notitsn.” (“Australian Notes”). Di goldene keyt 84/85 (1974): 59–90. “A videh fun a mekhaber” (“Confession of a Writer”). Di goldene keyt 81 (1973): 127–41.


Bibliography of Published Essays

PeRsonaL essaYs

Confessions of a Yiddish Writer

I was never a Sunday scribbler. Writing was never a hobby for me, a pastime to while away the hours. On the contrary, it was as necessary to me as life itself; it was a refuge, a substitute for living, a confrontation with myself, a form of confession – but always it was a necessity that allowed me to feel that my life had an accompanying motif, an underlying melody. Writing often gave me moments of such ecstasy as can only be experienced by lovers; it gave me instances of such intense spiritual forgetfulness that I truly believed that I and the cosmos were one, so that through the simple act of breathing the air in my room I felt that I was inhaling the universe itself. Clasped within the bosom of this universe, my physical self simply ceased to be. Rare moments these, but blessed. I have called this essay “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer,” because, after all, what is writing if not a form of confession in disguise? No matter what the subject, all literary roads lead back to the self. The writer descends like a miner into the deepest shafts of her soul in order to unearth the blackest coals of her torment, or to retrieve the most glittering diamonds of her memories, and bring them back to the surface in the form of fictions that she wishes to share with the world. I began writing when I was about eight years old. In Lodz, Poland, where I was born and raised, I was a student in the Yiddish secular school called the Medem School. One day our teacher, Mrs Kirshenbaum, gave us a lesson on what it means to write a literary composition. On my way home from school, I bought a notebook and wrote down all my poems. I then took coloured pencils and decorated each page with drawings of birds and flowers. On the first page, I wrote the title, “My Literary Works,” and the next day I carried this first poetry

collection to my teacher and generously gifted her with this “Work.” In return I received a kiss on the forehead, my first honorarium. When I was older, our teacher was Mr Resnik, who taught us Yiddish and history. Mr Resnik transformed each class into a grand voyage for the imagination. He had a habit of writing comments in the form of little letters in red ink under every written assignment that was submitted to him. To me, he wrote: “I have underlined a great deal in this paper. It is for the good of the work, and may it be for the good of the writer as well.” The language of my home was Yiddish. For most of my childhood it was the only language I knew, because my contact with the Poles was non-existent. Thus, from the beginning, I was deeply immersed in the Yiddish language and, for much of my life, Yiddish was for me the only means of literary expression. I was a high-school student when the war broke out. In February of 1940, I, my parents, and my sister, along with the entire Jewish population of Lodz, were herded into a ghetto established in the slums of Lodz, an area called Baluty. The ghetto was encircled by a barbed-wire fence, so that not one Jew managed to escape during all the years of the ghetto’s existence. There we subsisted on a starvation diet, labouring for the Germans, and in constant terror of deportation to the death camps of Chelmno and Auschwitz. During those horrible months and years of incarceration in the ghetto, I never stopped writing. I produced hundreds upon hundreds of poems, filling with stanzas the pages of bookkeeping registers, which were covered with calculations on one side, but blank on the other. There, despite the hunger, the cold, and the fear, I wrote poems more ardently than ever before – or since. I did not regard myself as a poet in those days. I had too exalted an opinion of the poetic vocation to see myself in the role of a poet. I was just a girl who wrote poems. There were many adolescent girls and boys in the ghetto who took to the pen in order to preserve the integrity of their spirit. Even children and old people were infected with the literary bug. In the ghetto, along with tuberculosis, typhus, and dysentery, there raged the epidemic of writing. The drive to write was as strong as the hunger for food. It subdued the hunger for food. Each writer nurtured the hope that his


Personal Essays

or her voice would be heard. It was a drive to raise oneself above fear through the magical power of the written word, and so to demonstrate one’s enduring capacity for love, for singing praise to life. Even in the concentration camps, even by the glare of the crematorium flames, there were those who wrote. It was in the ghetto that the Jews – and not for the first time in their history – denied the validity of the Latin proverb Inter arma silent musae (During war the muses are silent). Perhaps we found it so easy to sing because our companions in the cage were justice and the rage for freedom. We were like those songbirds which sing most beautifully when in captivity. It was in the ghetto that I met the poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, who became my first real mentor. He taught me not only to take poetry seriously, but to take myself seriously as a poet, to dig to the bottom of what was most deeply hidden inside me in order to give my verses a more original, a more powerful, dimension. I feel his spirit accompanying me even today, and it is because of him that I feel ashamed of my artistic inadequacies and dissatisfied with my limited abilities. It is to his influence, more than that of anyone else, that I owe the creation of The Tree of Life, my trilogy about the Lodz ghetto. In 1943, Shayevitch introduced me to the group of writers among whom I would serve my apprenticeship. This group of starving, doomed writers was led by the elderly Yiddish poet Miriam Ulinover.1 The group welcomed me as their youngest member and bestowed upon me the title of yunge dikhterin, young poet. But I did not yet dare to call myself so. To this group, which met in the home of the painter Israel Leizerovitch,2 I read my poems, which were then discussed and critiqued while we nibbled on pieces of what we called babka, a concoction made of the potato peels that we all brought as food contributions to our meetings. These meetings with the writers’ group were the closest I ever came to a class in creative writing. My apprenticeship as a writer was also helped by my association with the enigmatic Rabiner Hirshberg, a German Jew from Danzig, who had been deported to the Lodz ghetto. The Rabiner hired me to help him translate the psalms from Hebrew into Yiddish, my pay being a slice of bread and butter. The Rabiner Hirshberg was the dir-

Confessions of a Yiddish Writer 5

ector of the Wissenschaftliche Apteilung (Scientific Division of the “Jewish Museum”),3 an enterprise set up by the Nazis to study Jewish culture and folklore, a dubious project, located in the heart of the ghetto. In the ghetto, we lived in constant terror that the Germans would deport us to the death camps, especially to Auschwitz, which was the closest camp to Lodz. These deportations occurred continually from the time the Lodz ghetto was first established in 1940 until its liquidation in 1944. The deportations decimated the ghetto population, until, of the 203,000 Jews who were originally forced to live behind the barbed-wire fence, only 68,000 remained. At the end of the summer of 1944, the Lodz ghetto was liquidated. We – that is, my parents, my sister, and I – tried to avoid being sent on the transports that were emptying the ghetto. So, along with a group of about ten of our nearest and dearest friends, we hid in the back room of our two-room Baluty apartment, disguising the existence of this room by placing a large wardrobe in front of the entrance. We managed to fool the Germans for only two days. On 23 August we were discovered and transported to Auschwitz. On that dark day in August, a cattle-train unloaded me and my family, along with three thousand other Jews from the liquidated Lodz ghetto, onto the ramp of the train station at Auschwitz. There I stood, knapsack on back, one arm embracing my father, who was ordered to join the column of men. I held the small bundle of my ghetto poems under the other arm. A kapo tore the bundle out from under my arm and threw it onto a heap of discarded prayer books, letters, and photographs.4 Then came the selection. My mother, my sister, and I were sent off through the gate with the inscription Arbeit macht frei. Soon I stood naked, with my head shaved, but my life spared. It was then that the thought of one day writing a book about the Lodz ghetto – that is, if I survived – flickered for a split second across my mind. From Auschwitz we were transported to Sasel, a forced-labour camp near Hamburg, where we built houses for the bombed-out Germans of that city. I occupied the upper bunk in my barrack. I had managed to beg a pencil stub from a friendly German overseer at work. In the evenings before falling asleep I inscribed in minute letters on the


Personal Essays

ceiling above my head some of my lost ghetto poems, those poems which I could remember. I memorized them, and right after the war I published them in my first book of poems. When the battlefront neared Hamburg, we were again packed onto cattle cars, and this time transported to the hell of Bergen-Belsen. There I fell ill with typhus. On 15 April 1945, the very date of our liberation, my mind was wandering through a no-man’s land where typhus reigned supreme. I was unaware of being evacuated, the day after the liberation, to a lazarette on the other side of the concentration camp’s barbed-wire fence. Miraculously, I succeeded in smuggling myself back across the border from death to life. And so I tumbled into the reality of the time after the liberation, a reality that had nothing of the real about it, but appeared rather like an extension of my own feverish hallucinations. It seemed to me that I and the other survivors had been transported into a new kind of concentration camp, where our daytime delusions and nighttime longings took over the functions of guards and kapos, torturing us with the echoes of screaming silences, with the revival of blinding images, and with the continual summoning of the spectres of loved ones whom we had lost forever. While convalescing, I allowed the past to live on within me. One moment I relished the joy of rebirth. Every blade of grass, every tree and shrub, seemed to me to be retelling the story of Genesis. I was drunk with the happiness of being, of breathing, of sensing, of seeing how the flesh began to cover my skeletal body. The next moment I hugged my sorrows, so that they poisoned the previous moments of joyful oblivion. From time to time the thought of writing a book again entered my mind. The need to write and make order in the chaos raging within me was great. Yet the fear of writing, of again plunging into the abyss of terror, was greater still. More than once I was ready to take pencil in hand, and more than once I decided never to touch upon the subject of the ghetto and the camps. I doubted whether it was at all possible to impose a form, a discipline, on the painful phantasmagoria whirling inside me. The more strongly I felt the urge to write, the weaker I felt in face of the enormity of the subject. I feared it, and this fear

Confessions of a Yiddish Writer 7

hovers over me to this day, whenever I try to write on the subject of the Holocaust. The German soil was still warm with the blood on which it had gorged zum krepieren. Ravaged and eviscerated, its carcass lay stretched out over the heart of Europe, the fields ploughed through by tanks, the forests razed by bombs. Split in two, the bridges, bent like broken knees, dangled in the rivers. The ruined towns with their mountainous swells of rubble stood like tombstones on the graves of Germany’s vanquished conceit. The tips of former factory walls protruded like broken teeth, while winds rattled through houses that resembled broken lanterns, lacking doors or windows. The pitted and broken asphalt of what had once been streets led out onto what had once been boulevards and highways. Upon these former boulevards and highways, through the devastated towns and raw fields and forests, we, the survivors of the concentration camps, we, the “victors,” wandered about like ghosts. We were like corpses disgorged from the bursting mouths of mass graves – as if this German soil, surfeited with death, had been incapable of swallowing us, and so had left us free to wallow in its heaps of refuse. It was April. Nature followed its course and gradually began to cover the ugliness, the remnants of violence, with a veil of green and flowers. The sun warmed delightfully. Our dry bodies and frozen hearts began to thaw with the sprouting of that unbelievable, macabre spring, while the wound of bereavement still burned in our throats. May and June followed. We were still alone. In the past, when we had been trapped in the ghettos and concentration camps, we had tried to convince ourselves that the world had not come to save us because it was impossible to do so; but as soon as the storm was past – so we told ourselves – the world would rush to us with open arms to console and help us. The world would carry us in triumph in its arms. Now the storm was over, and the world was in no hurry to come and put its arms around us. It did not rush to soothe our wounds with balms of brotherhood. Nations did not open their hearts, countries did not open their borders to let us in. Even the gates of those countries


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which had just freed themselves from the Nazi yoke and which should have understood us best in our homelessness and desolation were closed to us. No one wanted us. Perhaps the sight of us would have prevented them from forgetting the nightmare that had just passed. The world wanted to forget. What were we to do with ourselves? What was there to do with our rescued lives? I had used to write poems in the ghetto. It was easy to write in the ghetto. We had had clean hands and clean consciences. The faces of good and of evil were clearly etched. We had no trouble distinguishing between the two. It was a time when black was black, and white was white. We were white. We were innocent. That was how we had felt in captivity. But now, when we could finally savour that freedom for which we had so stubbornly longed, of which we had so incessantly dreamed, things were far from being as simple as they had been in the past. The face of the postwar world, of which we had dreamed in the shadow of death, for which we had longed with a longing that helped us face the most vicious cruelties, was unrecognizable: a strange cold face. And so disillusionment crept into our hearts belatedly, like a bitter aftertaste. To our grief and sense of loss was added the sorrow that it had all been in vain. The stifled scream of our lost world, the pain of our orphanhood, combined with the awareness of the living world’s silent indifference towards us were devastating. This was not a propitious time for writing poems. My sister and I wandered through all the zones of occupied Germany. There was as yet no organized transportation system for civilians, so we hitched rides on top of lorries loaded with coal, or on military freight trucks; but mostly we wandered on foot, along with bands of other survivors. We made our way from the wreckage of one German town to the next; we hurried from one UnRRa office to the next,5 reading lists of survivors, searching for the name of our father and our other dear ones. We had left our mother, whom we had miraculously managed to save, in the camp at Bergen-Belsen, where, after liberation, we had taken up residence in the barracks of our former ss guards. There she was to wait for us, and if Father should come to Bergen-Belsen looking for us, there he would find her.

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Father did not come looking for us. My sister and I did not find him. On our return to Bergen-Belsen we were greeted by a friend who had survived.6 He had been with our father in Kaufering, Camp 4. He told us that our father had perished two days before the liberation. He had been on the last transport out of Dachau. The Americans had bombed the train, and my father had been among the dead. It was for me one of the final ironies: that my father had managed to survive all the horrors that the Nazis had inflicted on the Jews, only to be killed by an American bomb. The same young man told us that the poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch would write poems in Camp 4 in Kaufering and read them to his comrades in the barracks. During the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto, Shayevitch had hidden with us in the tiny back room of our flat, and together with us had been transported to Auschwitz. He was sent to the ovens during the very last selection before the liberation. Shayevitch was one of those mad scribblers who had written poems even in the concentration camp, even in the face of the crematorium fires. The period immediately following the liberation was not a propitious time for writing poetry. What were we to do with our lives? What was there to hold on to? How could we continue our existence without a spark of optimism, without a fragment of faith that the world might still change for the better? True, the world had abandoned us, but we must not abandon it. The sacrifice of millions must not be in vain. We must not be passive onlookers. In our desperation, we held fast to our former ideological beliefs. Political engagement became the order of the day. We renewed the dreams that we had nursed in the ghettos or in the camps, dreams which had once illuminated our darkest days. We breathed new life into the old political parties to which we had once belonged. We – my mother, my sister, and I – seized on our former belief in socialism, and along with other survivors we created a Bundist group in BergenBelsen.7 We took comfort in our fraternity. It substituted for the families we had lost. The members of our group were bound to each other and to our old ideal. We no longer lived in a vacuum. We knew what


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we wanted. Other survivors who before the war had had political affiliations of their own did the same. They too renewed the dreams that they had nursed in the ghettos or in the camps, dreams that had once illuminated their darkest days. We breathed new life into the old-time phraseology. The air of liberated Bergen-Belsen began to resound with the familiar songs we had once sung. Near the barracks where our meetings took place, Jewish actors, who were themselves Holocaust survivors, took to the stage in a tent theatre. The golden peacock, symbol of Yiddish poetry and song, began to spread its broken tail. “Yidn shmidn zingen …” (“Jews, smiths, sing!”) The words echoed triumphantly through the silent corridors of our former death camp, which was located a mere walk away from our place of entertainment. The young Zionists did more than just sing; they were preparing for a clandestine sea voyage to Palestine.8 But it was enough just to look at those singers to see the unarticulated pain burning in their eyes, just as it did in ours. Even the hope for a Jewish homeland could not sweeten the poison of disillusionment, could not alleviate the despair at so much spilled blood. The German soil began to burn beneath our feet. We wanted to escape it as soon as we could, and remove it forever from the map of our future lives. With my mother and sister, I left the Bergen-Belsen DP camp for the camp at Feldafing, where a Bundist committee was organizing groups to be smuggled illegally across the border into Belgium. We joined one such group of ten people. On a cold October night in the year 1945, led by two German smugglers, we and another group of ten left for the Belgian border. When we reached the border, we set out on a strenuous all-night walk. The smugglers told us that we had crossed safely into Belgium. They lied. They had abandoned us within sight of the Belgian border police. Fortunately, my group of ten realized the danger in time, and managed to slip across the border on our own, undetected. We came to a small town, where a kindly Belgian family allowed us to spend the night and, at the crack of the following dawn, transported us to Brussels in a workman’s bus. The group that tried to cross after us was not

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so lucky. Those ten concentration camp survivors, who had been so anxious to escape their German nightmare, were caught by the border police and spent the next twelve months in a Belgian prison. Brussels days. Brussels winter. Rain. Fog. Winds that creep into your bones. We wear clothes that we have made for ourselves out of UnRRa blankets. We walk around like drunkards. Belgium after the war displays an amazing profusion of goods for sale in its shop windows. The stores are full of all varieties of food, of rare fruits and sweets. The sight intoxicates us. Belgian comrades receive us with extraordinary kindness. They seat us at tables laden with meat, fish, bread, butter, all manner of cheeses and homemade cakes. They place platefuls of delicacies in front of us, entire tureens brimful of soup. They cannot do enough for us. They constantly ask us if there is anything else we need or want. They themselves have barely escaped with their own lives; most of them have lost relatives. Yet they insist that we have every right to demand to be attended to. We allow them to serve us. We look at them with envy. We cannot forgive them their “rich” apartments, their ordered lives, the fact that they have homes. We are friendly with them but not intimate. What do they know? They were not there. We are restless. We are confused. We are wild and merry. We are noisy and forever singing. We never stop singing in the loudest voices. We form an organization, just like before the war. Blue blouses, red neckerchiefs. We march through the streets of Brussels along with our liberated comrades. We fill the emptiness into which we have fallen with the noise of boisterous hurrahs in order not to hear the voice of loneliness that howls in our hearts. Our loneliness grows and expands, along with the panorama of annihilation that increases in range and scope as we become aware of the chilling statistics, of which we ourselves are but a minute fraction. Just like an object located in space, an event in time is subject to the laws of perspective; the object diminishes and fades the further one moves away from it. But with our tragedy, the opposite happens. The greater the lapse of time that separates us from our past, the clearer

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Frontispiece to Chava Rosenfarb’s first book of poetry, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald [The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest], 1947. 

and larger our tragedy grows. Our reason cannot digest the ciphers of destruction; they become an abstraction called six million. We are young. Most of us are in our twenties. Our individual horror stories gathered together would outlast even the longest life. We crave the opportunity to tell at least some of these stories. But no one is willing to listen. So we tell them to each other. We remember. We reminisce. We forget ourselves in remembering. Steeped in our misery, we long for happiness. We live in two realities, the one that is past seeming more real, more palpable, than the actual one. My mother is one of the few older women who have survived the camps. Our comrades call her “Mameshie,” and vie for her affection. There are difficulties in finding a place to live. We finally get a room on the rue D’une personne, a street so narrow that only one person can pass at a time. There is a brothel on the first landing. We spend strange nights, ravaged by nightmares, which tear us from sleep, screaming. Disturbing days. We have no right to work in this country. “Doit émigrer” is stamped on our identity cards. A joke. Where should we emigrate to? No country wants to admit us. And we are tired of the burden that we carry. We long for respite – for peace, repose. We want to enjoy what is left of our youth. I have had a slight fever ever since I recovered from the typhus that nearly killed me in Germany. I feel simultaneously cold and hot. I am restless, anxious, talkative. Along with our particular group of survivors, my sister and I drag ourselves through the streets of Brussels. We are still dressed in the suits and coats made from the blue UnRRa blankets. On my feet I wear a pair of threadbare shoes. A quaint, worn travel bag completes my toilette – the last word in feminine elegance. We feign good cheer. Carefree and playful, we ride up and down the electric stairs at the Bon Marché, Brussels’s sumptuous department store, unable to tear ourselves away. Never in our lives have we seen anything like it. Electric stairs! Such a wonder, such a marvel of human inventiveness! We work ourselves into a state of exaltation. Man and his well-being are important! Perhaps, after all, the world has learned something from the catastrophe. The voice of Edith Piaf rings out from a loudspeaker. She sings “La vie en rose.” A fire engine


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passes in the street outside. Its bells ring alarmingly. They ring out the rhythms of my own vie en rose. Yesterday there was a fire in the forest. Today there is a field after the storm. Where yesterday trees had lived Today only graves remain. The electric stairs transform themselves into lines and stanzas. They carry me away from my friends. They lead me into myself. I am alone. I walk energetically through the rue Neuve, stop at a tobacco kiosk and buy myself a pack of strong, bitter Belgian cigarettes. I sit at the window of my brothel house, which looks down on the rue D’une personne. Cigarette smoke. A pencil. A brown sheet of cheap writing paper. I feel good. I ache. I long, and calm my longing. I am grateful to destiny for granting me the ability to unburden myself with song. I have no idea that at the same time in the United States of America, Theodore Adorno has come out with the sweeping declaration that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. A meaningful, powerful declaration, but it has nothing to do with me. The rhythms surging inside me deny his statement. I think of my father, who prodded me to write, even in the ghetto. I think of the poet Shayevitch, who wrote poems even in the camp, just days before he was sent to the gas chamber. They too deny Adorno’s statement. As long as there is life, the human heart will never cease singing of its joys and sorrows. Up to the brink of the grave, man clings to his song, just as he clings to life. Moreover, those who feel the urge to sing, even when their throats emit only a whimper, or a screech, do not ask whether or not they ought to sing. Soon the philosophers will come, Sartre and Camus. Camus will say that life is absurd, nothing but the efforts of a Sisyphus. But the fact that he considers it important to write down his view of life proves just the opposite. Life without song, without spiritual expression, is absurd. Song gives meaning to the travails of Sisyphus. I don’t yet know about Sartre or Camus. It will take another three years before I read Les Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir.

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I sit at the window of our tiny room. Stanzas spill over the brown sheet of paper in front of me. I don’t analyze or rationalize about art, about form and style. Everything is clear as day and comes to me as easily as if I were a medium and some other voice were dictating the lines. Within me there is both calm and agitation. I don’t want to only memorialize. I want to salvage my inner melody, so as to be able to continue with my life. I am the lone birch tree left on the border of the burnt-out forest. So I am the forest now. The stanzas pour out of me. I am reluctant to stop. But the ghost of my father, or perhaps of Shayevitch, takes hold of my hand. “Enough,” they say. “You will never express it all. Be content that you have said this much.” My poem is finished. With the arrogance of youth, with the chutzpah of a survivor saved by a miracle, I affix a name to my poem and call it “The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest.” What am I to do with it? I recall that before the war my father would unfold a Yiddish literary magazine from New York called Di tsukunft, which means “the future,” and place it before me, saying, “Here, read this.” A brand-new issue of Di tsukunft arrives at the library of the Brussels Bundist club on Boulevard de la revision. I copy the address of the editorial office. With the arrogance of youth, with the chutzpah of a survivor, I write a letter to the editors in New York and attach it to my poem. It is the first time since the liberation that I have put a letter into a mailbox. For the first time I have someone to whom to write. I am composed. I know what I will do with myself. On 16 April 1946, a year after my liberation, I debuted in Di tsukunft, and so found my tsukunft, my future. But it was not such an easy future. This poem was only the first outburst of the passion that I had newly conceived for writing. That passion cried out within me for expansion. I wrote two more books of poems, but still something was missing. I had not yet unburdened myself of the story I had to tell, firstly of my hometown, Lodz, and then of its ghetto. That story was alive within me; it plagued and haunted me like a dybbuk. A subjective tale, a personal landscape – the ghetto as I saw it. The last two years in the Lodz ghetto, my friend and mentor, the poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, had laboured over a long epic poem

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about the ghetto, which, had it survived, would doubtless have been acclaimed as a work of high artistic achievement. I used to criticize him, saying that in order to write such an epic, it was necessary to have perspective, the distance of time, whereas he did not even know whether he would have the good fortune to finish his work. But he would respond: “We have no choice. Since we are not given the luxury of time or perspective, we must take the moments as they come, and let them drip onto the page with the ink of our pen.” He was right. After the liberation, we were finally given the luxury of time and perspective. But could we remember precisely the atmosphere of those days in the ghettos and camps? Hadn’t we changed merely by virtue of our survival? How many times did we ask ourselves: Did it all really happen – to us? I was convinced that the nightmarish past could never be captured in words. And so I continued writing poetry, while the ghetto world lived on within me, incessantly demanding that I give it life. I could only free myself of that demand by recreating the world that I had known as it filtered through the prism of my awareness. I wanted to write about day-to-day life in the Lodz ghetto, about trivial matters, and about interpersonal relationships. I wanted to write about holidays in the ghetto, about love and spring. And so the work started to germinate within me. But I did not dare to begin. I feared to approach the world that I had lost. I was terrified of plunging once again into the abyss of suffering, of reliving the reality that had nearly destroyed me. I wanted to enjoy my life, to relish every moment. I had learned its value at great cost. I wanted to forget the nightmare. I deplored the fact that my memory was so vivid and would not allow me to forget. And I felt too weak, too incompetent, in the face of the enormity of what I had to describe. How could I encompass and give life to all those who populated my memory? Was not the novel too elegant and too polished a literary form for such a story, was it not too detached from any lived reality, too much a game of cleverly concocted plots? In writing a novel about the Holocaust would I not end by sinning against a reality that was impossible to encompass? Was I capable of recreating the specific atmosphere of those nightmarish days, assuming that it was possible to recreate it in the first place? As

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time went on, it became increasingly clear to me that no one, not even the most gifted writer, would be able to capture the true atmosphere of the ghetto. Even if the writer succeeded in writing a masterpiece, it would not, it could not, be the real thing. At the same time, it never occurred to me to consider any form but the novel as a vehicle for what I wanted to say. Only the novel seemed to have the necessary scope. One day, while I was still living in Brussels, I received a small booklet from Poland. In it were published two poems by my friend the poet Shayevitch. The two poems had been found on a pile of garbage in the ruins of the Lodz ghetto. I knew those poems. I knew the circumstances under which they had been written; I knew the long, threatening shadow of deportation to the death camps that had hovered over their creation. And suddenly I stopped asking myself any questions. I felt that only by going back into the ghetto with my mind could I arm myself against despair by grasping at the slim ray of hope that lay at the bottom of the deepest wretchedness of ghetto life. On my voyage back into the ghetto I wanted to take with me all the questions that had tormented me after the liberation. Why had the world learned nothing from our suffering? Were the Nazis only the most extreme example of the urge to do evil, or was the drive to destroy inherent in human nature? The Nazis were for me the most obvious channel through which the poison of hatred could flow freely, but the poison itself, where did it come from? What was its source? In writing about the ghetto, I wanted to find that source. I wanted to discover the essence of our humanity, to touch upon the core of the human soul and see it reflected in the soul of the ghetto Jew, who had stood stripped of every shred of artifice and pretence necessary to lead a normal life. There, in the ghetto, humans had faced humans without any embellishments or illusions; they had faced the brutality of their fellows, as well as the knowledge of what that brutality meant to their own destinies. It was as if the dams of a river had broken within me, and I was flooded with ideas for my book. I conceived of my novel as centring around ten characters and encompassing all five years of the ghetto’s existence. The first volume has thirteen chapters, twelve following the months of the year 1939. The thirteenth chapter is a retrospect of what has gone before. In this first


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volume, I show my characters as they were before the war, before the Holocaust had a chance to change them. The subsequent two volumes follow the fates of the same ten characters, but this time the books are divided into twenty-four chapters, so that each volume covers two years. In this way I hoped to encompass all the five years of the ghetto’s existence. The ten characters come from different walks of life and different political orientations. They are young and old, working class and capitalist. They include an industrialist, a factory owner, a doctor, a poet, a high-school student, a teacher, a carpenter. But regardless of their station in life, regardless of their ages or political affiliations, all are incarcerated in the ghetto, and all face the same fate. Most of these characters are fictional, but they are based on people I knew. One character, however, is historical. His name is Mordechai Chaim Rumkovsky, whom the Nazis called the “eldest of the Jews” when they set him up as the puppet dictator of the ghetto. All the events described in my trilogy actually occurred. I invented none of them. I couldn’t. As I immersed myself in my writing, I was never confronted by the problems I had anticipated before I began. The subject itself imposed its form on me. No longer did I worry whether what I was writing was art or mere testimony. The question of whether one can create a true work of art on the subject of the Holocaust stopped tormenting me. This is how I began to write prose. It was not that I agreed with Adorno that there is no place for poetry after the Holocaust. Poems were created in the ghettos, and even at the threshold of the crematoria. As long as there is life, the human heart will never cease singing of its joys and sorrows. But in telling my tale, I began to feel confined and restricted by the poetic form. What I wanted to say was impossible to sing. The brutal reality of the ghetto demanded the dry precision of unadorned words. Not that I wanted to ban the poet within me; on the contrary, I wanted her to stand by me, but I wanted her to creep with me through the maze of ghetto streets, through the muck of human baseness, as low to the ground as possible. So I wrote about day-to-day life in the ghetto, about all the various concoctions made from turnips and potato peels that we consumed in order to still the craving for food. I wrote about all the ways of tricking fate, in order to survive for another hour, another day. I wrote

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about interpersonal relationships, between husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and friends. I wrote about holidays in the ghetto, about spring and song and flights of the spirit. And I wrote about the ugliness of daily life, its wretchedness and its constant terror. What I always kept in mind was that in the ghetto, despite hunger, disease, and the threat of death, I had spent the richest and most inspiring years of my life. Mine is a brutal, nightmarish story, but also one of extraordinary endurance and nobility of heart, a story of moral strength and defiance. It is the story of the last six years in the life of a once-flourishing Jewish community. I called this novel about the death of the Jewish community of Lodz The Tree of Life. When I began my novel, I was about to become a mother and to emigrate to Canada. A new chapter in my life was about to begin. And so it happened that, on my arrival in Montreal, I found myself doubly pregnant, both physically and mentally, sitting at a table with pen in hand and a blank sheet of paper in front of me. I put the pen down twenty years and almost two thousand pages later. By that time my daughter was already grown, and my son was an adolescent. For those twenty years, I led a divided existence. I lived with my family in the Canadian immigrant reality. I was a greenhorn, the mother of two, 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 more than once interfered with my actions and behaviour in real life, and even when I was not holding the pen in my hand, 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 ending. I had to get up at four in the morning to do my writing. Those pre-dawn hours were the only ones that belonged solely to me. In the meantime, I paid for my absent-mindedness with burned pots and overcooked meals, and paid a much dearer price with attacks of guilt for neglecting my dear ones and my friends. I felt guilty for neglecting my own life. I often asked myself whether the end product would be worth the sacrifice.

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The years passed. The more entangled I became in the story I was telling, the less and less satisfied I was with it, and the more worries it caused me. A question began to nag at me: should what I had already written remain as I originally wrote it? Because, through the long span of time that my work required, my own life had not stood still. I grew older. Shattering events occurred in my life and in the world at large. My outlook on life underwent various transformations; even my writing style underwent changes. Whenever I reread the pages that I had written as a younger woman, I grew bitter and angry at myself, and had to correct and set things straight. No part of my work was ever in a finished state; it was always in the process of becoming. And so it went for those twenty-odd years until the manuscript of The Tree of Life was out of my hands. After The Tree of Life, I wrote two other novels connected to the Holocaust. One, the novel Bociany, deals with Jewish life prior to the Holocaust in a shtetl similar to the one in which my parents were born. As for the other novel, Letters to Abrasha, it recounts a childhood spent in the city of Lodz. This novel marks the first time that I was able to tackle the topic that I had always considered taboo – my experiences in the concentration camps. I wrote The Tree of Life in the hope that I might bring the next generations a little closer to the awareness of what it means to have survived the Holocaust. I bore witness in the belief that there is no future for mankind if it refuses to face itself in the mirror of the Holocaust, disturbing and horrifying though that mirror might be. It is a mirror that tells us that man is not the most beautiful and noble of God’s creatures, but the most tragic. It tells us that man’s potential for aggression and evil, for hating others and for self-hatred, for committing suicide through acts of homicide and genocide, may lead to his own eradication from the face of the earth. Moreover, if we forget the Holocaust, we deprive ourselves of the knowledge of the human soul, with its hidden recesses of love and care, of dignity and courage, for those were in fact the qualities that the humiliated, spat upon, doomed Jews displayed every day of the tortured lives they led between the barbedwire fences of the ghetto.

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Chava, standing in back, at a reading of her work in London, March 1949. Sitting third from right is the novelist Esther Kreitman, sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Next to her, on the right, is Moshe Oved, jeweller to the queen, and publisher of Chava’s first book of poetry. 

When we were in the ghettos and concentration camps, it seemed to us that we were the collective Isaac, lying on the sacrificial altar of the world, and that with our sacrifice we were ensuring a better future for our people and for humankind as a whole; after us would come a breed of men and women who would be good and would have it good. We hoped that after the storm the world would be cleansed of hatred, and that there would be brotherhood between the peoples of the world. This hope helped us live – and it helped us die. How naive we were and how bitter has been our awakening! How shocking the reality that we have come to face without any illusions! Finally, it has become clear to us that the world has learned nothing from our tragedy. After the horrendous cataclysm, everything reverted to business as usual, as if nothing had happened. The world has not stopped its wars. The clank of knives being sharpened can still be


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heard, if not in one place then in another. There have even emerged crackpot historians who claim that the Holocaust is a hoax, a figment of the Jewish imagination. Anti-Semitism has not disappeared from the face of the earth. Instead, it seems to be flowering anew. Its poisonous scent has not failed to reach our nostrils, even on the North American continent. And yet, we have no right to draw the curtains and separate ourselves from our surroundings. We must not turn our backs on the world, echoing the words of the heartbroken Yiddish poet Yakov Glatstein, who exclaimed “A gute nakht dir, velt!” (“Good-night to you, World!”) Like it or not, our fate is tied up with that of the rest of humanity. We must constantly hold the truths of the Holocaust in front of its eyes, like a mirror, so that the world might recognize itself in the reflection, might recognize the degree of baseness to which humankind may sink, but also the moral heights to which it may rise when it does not permit itself to be robbed of spiritual integrity. We mourn the annihilation of an entire Jewish world, a world with its own traditions, its own way of life, its own creativity and ideals – our world. Viavku ha’am, and the people wept. But in our collective sorrow, there is firmly planted the affirmation of our existence. I have many times tried to escape the subject of the Holocaust in my writing, but I have never succeeded. No matter which road I take, it invariably leads me back to the destination that I most want to avoid. My personal life and my literary life have forever been divided into two eras, the era before and the era after the Holocaust, and only from this perspective am I capable of viewing both my own life and human history. I have often been asked what message I, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, of Auschwitz, Sasel, and Bergen-Belsen, want to transmit to those who have not been there and to their children? The question confounds me. From which bag of highfalutin, well-sounding, hollow phrases do I take my response? What response exactly will satisfy my interrogators’ expectations? Would not any answer tarnish the memory of those who did not survive the bondage of the darkest Egypt that ever existed? The only answer I am capable of giving is to echo the passage in the Passover haggadah, which says that, in every generation,

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each individual must regard him or herself as having personally come out of Egypt. I would say that, in every generation, each individual must regard him or herself as having personally survived the Holocaust, and each individual should transmit this awareness to the sons and daughters of the next generation. tranSlation: chava roSEnFarb and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

notES 1 Miriam Ulinover (1890–1944) was a Yiddish poet whose 1922 collection of poems, Der bobes oytser (My Grandmother’s Treasure), was published to great acclaim. A second volume of poems was projected, but never appeared, due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Ulinover was incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto during the German occupation of Lodz and there, despite the hardship of life in the ghetto, carried on a kind of literary salon. She was deported to Auschwitz in August 1944 and perished there. She appears as Sarah Samet in Rosenfarb’s trilogy of the Lodz ghetto, The Tree of Life. 2 Israel Leizerovitch (1902–1944): Poet and painter in the Lodz ghetto. He too hosted a literary salon in the Lodz ghetto. He was a hunchback, which undoubtedly contributed to his meeting his death in Auschwitz after his deportation from Lodz some time in August 1944. He appears in The Tree of Life as the painter, Guttman. 3 Emanuel Hirshberg was originally from a town near Lodz. He became a Reform rabbi in Danzig. He was also a poet and journalist. When the Nazis came to power, he returned to Lodz and was incarcerated in the ghetto, along with his daughter. The Nazis made him the head of the Wissenschaftliche Apteilung (the Scientific or Research Institute), a Nazi project to document the culture and folkways of the Jews once they had become extinct. (For more on Emanuel Hirshberg and the Institute, please see the following essay on “Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto.”) During the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in August 1944, Rabbi Hirshberg was sent to Auschwitz and murdered there. 4 Kapos were concentration-camp inmates who policed their fellow prisoners in the camps. They were often petty criminals recruited from the local prisons or members of violent street gangs. They had absolute power over the other camp inmates. In return for carrying out their duties with the required brutality, the Germans gave them privileges, such as extra food rations, or better sleeping quarters. Some of these kapos were Jews, and thus played a part in the larger Nazi scheme to put Jews in charge of the destruction of Jews. After the end of the war, these Jewish kapos presented their fellow Jews with a moral dilemma. They were generally considered to be complicit in Nazi war crimes, and many were tried and convicted


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in Israel. But it was also true that the Jewish kapos had themselves been victims of Hitler’s murderous regime, which made their culpability morally ambiguous. Chava Rosenfarb’s long short story “Edgia’s Revenge,” told from the point of view of one such Jewish kapo, deals with this ambiguity. The story is based on Rosenfarb’s own interaction with a kapo in the labour camp at Sasel, where she risked her life by slapping a kapo who had been abusing her friend Zenia Marcinkowska. The slap forced the Jewish kapo to examine her own brutality, and in the end she not only spared Rosenfarb’s life, but made sure that Rosenfarb and her family were given extra rations for the duration of their stay in the labour camp. Unrra stands for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which provided relief to Holocaust survivors after the Second World World War. It shut down in 1947. This friend was Henekh (later Henry) Morgentaler, Rosenfarb’s future husband. Once settled in Canada, Henry Morgentaler became a doctor and the leader of the campaign to legalize abortion. This campaign was successful in 1988 when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the anti-abortion law. As of today, Canada has no laws criminalizing abortion. The Jewish Labour Bund was a secular Jewish socialist movement that agitated for equal rights for Jewish workers in Poland. It was anti-Communist and anti-Zionist and became the major political force among Polish Jewry in the period between the two world wars. It also had a cultural component that privileged Yiddish and Yiddish culture. The voyage had to be clandestine because Palestine was in British hands, and the British had put a stop to Jewish migration.

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In this photo from the 1930s, Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch is standing second from left in the top row.

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch’s name is known to only a very few people. It would have been buried in total oblivion, and he would have joined the mass of nameless ghetto Jews who perished without a trace, had it not been for the fact that, during his time in the ghetto, Shayevitch found himself in extremely difficult circumstances. In the Lodz ghetto – that Kafkaesque kingdom of King Chaim the First, as Chaim Rumkowski, the Eldest of the Jews, was called by the ghetto population – protectionism was a way of life, and, in a sense, a way of death. To have a good “back” in the ghetto meant to have an easier job, and thus to conserve precious energy. It meant getting an additional something on top of the deplorably meagre food ration. It meant being removed from the lists of those assigned for deportation, and thus prolonging one’s life, at least until the next round-up. A certain Shmuel Rosenstein, a journalist and Lodz reporter for the Warsaw-based Yiddish Zionist daily Haint (Today), had managed – most likely thanks to a pre-war acquaintance with Chaim Rumkowski – to secure an influential position for himself in the ghetto hierarchy. He became the editor of Rumkowski’s newspaper, the Ghetto Zeitung, a paper to which no self-respecting writer ever contributed. The Ghetto Zeitung was filled with Rumkowski’s philosophical articles about his vision of the ghetto as a haven for the Jews. It resounded with his lunatic self-praise as regards the achievements of his factories, his ghetto, his Jews, and with laudatory articles and panegyrics written by hacks singing praise to the Jewish king. Rosenstein was no fool. A modern Jewish intellectual, well versed in both the Talmud and contemporary literature, he was doubtless aware of the quality of the newspaper he was editing. However, clever,

pragmatic man that he was, he wanted to survive the war, and in order to do this, he readily paid the price of his integrity by obediently serving the most powerful master of life and death in the ghetto. (Rosenstein, like Rumkowski, perished in Auschwtiz.) In order to live in peace with his conscience, and out of a sense of kinship with people of the pen, Rosenstein occasionally interceded on their behalf, and thus provided one or another desperate ghetto writer with a better position, or more-spacious living quarters. It was to him that Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch turned in a moment of great distress. And out of gratitude for Rosenstein’s help, Shayevitch offered him, along with his letter of thanks, a poem called “LekhLekho.” This poem, and another named “Spring 1942,” as well as two letters addressed to Rosenstein, were found after the war among the heaps of rubble left in the empty ghetto of Lodz. And this was how the name of Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch was saved from oblivion. In the fall of 1945, my mother, my sister, and I left Bergen-Belsen, where we had been liberated, and illegally crossed the border into Belgium. We took lodgings in Brussels. A year later, when the memory of the ghetto and concentration-camp horrors were still so fresh and immediate that it could hardly be called memory, a slim booklet reached me from Poland, sent by mail by friends who had survived the concentration camps and returned to Lodz after the war. In it I found the two poems by Shayevitch, along with his two letters to Rosenstein, published by the Jewish Historical Commission in Lodz under the editorship of the historian Nachman Blumental.1 The booklet, under the general title Lekh-Lekho, assumed an important role in my postwar life; it became one of my most treasured possessions. All these years, I have kept it under glass. Nevertheless, despite my care, time has done its work, ravaging the pages and turning them a yellowish brown, while the booklet’s soft cover with its photo of a ghetto mother and her child on their way to the assembly yard for deportation has been criss-crossed by many white cracks. But the print on the yellow pages is still legible, and the words are still fresh and powerful, and I can still hear Shayevitch’s quick, slurping voice reciting his stanzas in Talmudic sing-song.


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Shayevitch was my mentor and friend. Through all the postwar years, his spirit has seemed to hover over me, a powerful presence in my own life as a writer. His poetic voice permeates my own poems and prose writings on the subject of the war. He himself, under a host of disguises, appears as a character in many of my stories. Even when I write on themes other than the Holocaust, he is somehow there with me, guiding me, forcing me to see present-day life through the prism of those earlier shattering experiences. Sometimes, at commemoration gatherings, I hear Shayevitch’s poem “Lekh-Lekho” recited. Because it is the poet’s deeply moving farewell to his five-year-old daughter, Blimele, this poem is usually given preference over the other recovered poem, “Spring 1942,” which is just as powerful. However, at no time during these commemoration ceremonies have I ever heard much said about the author himself, probably because so little is known about him. For a long time, I have been planning to write an account of what I knew about Shayevitch. I considered it my duty to do so, and felt pangs of guilt for procrastinating. But the mere thought of such a task aroused in me a feeling of discomfort and frustration. Having written about him in so many of my fictions, I dreaded repeating myself. Was that much not enough? I knew very well that it was not. Fiction distorts and disfigures. My obligation was to write about Shayevitch’s life and the extraordinary outpouring of poetic works that he wrote in the ghetto, of which the two recovered poems were only a sample. My problem was that I knew relatively little about his pre-war life. As for the poems that he produced in the ghetto, how could I prove their mastery if I had no texts to substantiate my opinion? To my shame, I hardly remembered the plot or any particular scenes from the major epic that he was working on in the ghetto and that perished with him. Yet throughout all the years of my silence about Shayevitch, I knew that, more than anything else, the fear of pain was at the root of my reluctance to write about him. Having lived through the Holocaust twice, once as a victim, and the second time through my writings, I dreaded having to plunge once more into the abyss of those dark days that still haunt me. But now, as time is beginning to run out, my waverings have begun to dissipate. With whatever means I have at my

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memory’s disposal, I shall tell the story of my friend Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, the poet of the Lodz ghetto. He was born in 1907 in Lenczyce, a small town not far from Lodz. His father was a magid (preacher). Shayevitch was the cosseted only son in a family of nine children. He attended cheder and yeshiva, from which he graduated with a rabbinical ordination. However, he never assumed a rabbinical post. His impoverished family had moved to Lodz in the hope that his sisters would find work in a factory. Despite the objections of his parents, Simkha-Bunim joined his sisters. He learned the trade of a textile worker and found work in a factory. Deeply attached to his orthodox family, but equally attracted by the secular modernity that inspired him to write stories of a worldly character, he felt obliged to leave home. This caused a painful rift with his religious family, but it never led to a complete break, as often happened in Jewish families of that time. In order not to further upset his parents, Shayevitch wore his Hasidic gabardine and traditional cap up until the outbreak of the war. In his orthodox attire, his innate shyness masked behind Hasidic mannerisms, he cut a strange figure at the meetings of the young Yiddish writers of Lodz, who gathered at the Under the Cup Café to read and discuss their work. Unlike many other young Yiddish writers, Shayevitch started his writing career with prose not poetry. He seldom read any of his stories to his friends, considering his work too weak to be appraised. A photo from this time shows him standing in his Hasidic garb in the company of a group of worldly young Yiddish writers. A robust young man of medium stature, Shayevitch has a round face, regular features, wavy, dark-brown hair and thick eyebrows, which protrude over a pair of short-sighted eyes peering out from behind thickly rimmed glasses. His mouth is full, prominently outlined, and seems to be hiding a contented guileless smile. After his marriage and the birth of his daughter, Blimele, he found little time to attend gatherings at Under the Cup. He was too busy with factory work, family, and writing. He was a homebody. Although his apartment reflected the state of the young family’s poverty and want, there was an air of neatness and contentment about it. The writer


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Isaac Goldkorn wrote in his memoirs, Lodzer portretn (Lodz Portraits),2 that Shayevitch’s family life was unusually harmonious and serene. He loved his wife, Miriam, and adored his little daughter. It was during this time that colleagues close to Shayevitch finally managed to talk him into submitting his stories to the Yiddish press, and his writings began to appear in print. The Yiddish literary establishment of Lodz considered him a promising talent, but saw nothing extraordinary in his work. A novel called The American was published in the 1930s, and another, On the Road to Blenkitna was due for publication by the Yiddish Pen Club on the eve of the war. It never appeared. After the German conquest of Poland, Shayevitch moved his wife and child into the Lodz ghetto, where they occupied a gloomy, dilapidated hut at 14 Lotnicza Street. The hut consisted of one room and a shed, which served as a kitchen. His parents and sisters found lodgings on another street. Finding himself without work and with no means of support, Shayevitch lived from the start under the threat of starvation. His worries were divided between two households, his parents’ and his own. He began to search frantically for something to do. Proud, shy, soft-spoken by nature, and always in doubt about his worth as a writer, he acquired a leonine ferocity in his struggle for his family’s survival. He knocked on doors, begged, pleaded, and boasted of his writer’s vocation in order to prove that he merited special treatment. Until the beginning of 1941, he and his family lived on the handouts of Rumkowski’s social-support department. There was little food in the house, but plenty of time to write. He switched from writing prose to writing poetry, because he must have felt that poetry would better express the state of his mind and soul. At length, he was granted the job of janitor and gatekeeper at the Vegetable Place, the large yard where the vegetable rations were distributed to the ghetto population. On those days when the ration of a few turnips, carrots, and some potatoes was to be distributed, his duty was to stand at the gate and let in the starved ghetto inhabitants, a few at a time, from the line forming along the street. He had to endure the unbearable commotion made by people trying to force themselves through the gate so as not to receive only the leftovers.

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No words can better describe the torment he endured at that time than the letter he wrote to Rosenstein on 30 September 1941, in which he complains that up to this point he has accepted his job with equanimity, although he has suffered abuse from both the consumers and the director of the Vegetable Place. The latter, writes Shayevitch, “accustomed to bygone times when a janitor would genuflect before his master, cannot bear the sight of me. Moreover, somebody has betrayed the secret of my being a Yiddish writer – and the director needs no better reason to deride me and make me the butt of his mocking laughter. It has taken a long time for me to get him to assume a proper attitude.” He next complains about the consumers who take advantage of his reluctance to abuse anyone physically: “They humiliate me, even to the point of shedding my blood … It is enough to go through such an experience only once to be scarred to the depths of one’s soul.” Then he goes on to confess: “I swear to you that I have never in my life experienced such bitterness. In the month of Sivan my father died, and after thirty days so did my mother. And how it grieves my conscience that I could do nothing to save them! Now I am forced to watch my five-year old daughter and my wife waste away. The child is frequently ill, while I haven’t got the slightest means [to save her].” He also confides to Rosenstein, I am in the process of writing a long poem about the ghetto. Our colleague, Mrs Ulinover,3 pressed my hand, saying that the poem will be a monument to our experiences in the ghetto, and other such superlatives … I don’t take the exaggerations of the kindhearted Ulinover seriously. As a matter of fact, I am telling you this in order to arouse your interest, so that you would honour me with an invitation to your house, thus giving me the opportunity of acquainting you with a fragment of the seventeen chapters that I managed to write last May. It would give me great pleasure were you to grant my work at least half an hour of your time. He adds,

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As you surely know, work in the Vegetable Place lasts from dawn until late in the evening. The people in my poem frequently flutter before my mind’s eye with their supplications; the more daring ones with bitterness and threats, while those who are the most highhanded lash my heart with bitter reproaches, “Why did you leave us? Why don’t you say, ‘let there be light’ in our temporary chaos? You made little demons out of us.” One such character, half-monster, half-clown, teases me, “Heaven forbid! You may not live to finish your work!” Shayevitch then adds: “I am aware that the opinion expressed by some people is not altogether groundless, that here in the ghetto, everything is nitchevo [Russian word meaning ‘nothing,’ or ‘no matter’]. But about this I beg to differ. One can with a clear head argue that precisely at this difficult hour, the greatest care should be given to culture.” He goes on to flatter Rosenstein: “I am convinced – no matter what opinion you yourself may have on the subject – that only you are capable of understanding my mood of depression and how empty I feel these days. You are the only person here, in the ghetto, who has an ear for even the thinnest sound of despair.” After many other compliments, he finally makes his plea that Rosenstein save him both from the material oppression and from the moral emptiness into which he has sunk. “Please,” he begs, “grant me the conditions to fulfill myself in accord with my potential … Please trust in the possibilities dormant within me. Be you now in the role of the High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies to kindle the flame of the menorah. Oh, what a re-awakening you could bring about in my life! I believe in you, and once again, I believe in you.” In the postscript, he indicates that he would like to take on a job for which wages are higher and hours of work shorter. But if I am meant to continue working as a janitor and gatekeeper in the ghetto, then let it at least be at the court house. (Such work would be of great interest to me. In the course of the last four months I have had the opportunity to acquaint

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myself with the visible side of human nature; there, I would be given the chance to acquaint myself with the concealed one.) Or perhaps at the Rabbinate? Whatever you decide, your good heart will, I hope, intuitively lead you towards finding something suitable for me. By the end of 1941, the situation in the ghetto had worsened. The food rations were deplorable; starvation and disease had begun to decimate the ghetto population. Helplessly, Shayevitch watched as one by one the members of his large family succumbed to disease and starvation. In addition, the mass deportations from the ghetto had started. The winter was merciless. There was no wood or peat briquettes to heat the houses. Some people grew so desperate that they joined the deportations voluntarily. It never crossed anyone’s mind that the journey on which these voluntary deportees embarked led directly to their annihilation. It was easy for people to believe that nothing could be worse than life in the ghetto. Shayevitch found himself among those who were at the very bottom of the ghetto hierarchy, the poorest of the poor, those who were the first to be sent away. He knew that any day he too might receive “a wedding invitation” – as the ghettoniks called a summons for deportation – and together with his wife and child be ordered to join the procession of those headed to the place of assembly. It was then that he put aside the long poem he had been working on and wrote “Lekh-Lekho.”4 In this poem he shows himself a prophet, intuitively feeling that these marches to the assembly place were marches towards separation and death. He opens the poem with the following words to his five-year-old daughter: And now, Blimele, my child, extinguish your childish joy, the quicksilver river of your laughter, and let us make ready for the unknown road. Don’t raise your big brown eyes to me so curiously;

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and don’t ask why and what for we must leave our home. He asks Blimele to: Put on the warm panties that your mother mended for you last night as she sang and laughed, Not knowing that this was her last cheerful laughter, like the cow that moos, unaware of the knife in the slaughterer’s hand. ... And now, Blimele, my child, don’t smile at me with your little white teeth. To take leave of our home is all the time that we have left. ... And although you are a little girl, and whoever teaches the Torah to a daughter is an unworthy man, teaching her a sin, The bitter day has come when I must teach you, my little girl, the horrific section “Lekh-Lekho.” But how can one compare that injunction to the bloody lekh-lekho of today?

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“And God said to Abraham, ‘Get thee out of thy land.’” In the poem Shayevitch and his daughter take leave of their home and of every object in it that has been a witness to their former joys and present sorrows. The objects, having become registers of the family’s daily existence, expand the symbols. The lines of the father’s poetic monologue are spoken with the utmost simplicity, as one would speak to a child, yet he does not spare the child by hiding the terrible truth from her. The starkness of the language suggests the restraint of a scream stifled in silence. In the original Yiddish text, the lines end with the most simple rhymes, falling into step with the lament hidden in the lilt of the rhythm. Not long after this, Rosenstein did Shayevitch an extraordinary favour, thanks to which Shayevitch was able to continue writing his epic work about the Lodz ghetto. He found him a job at a “gas kitchen.” There was always a lack of firewood or peat briquettes in the ghetto, and coal was hardly ever available. So it often happened that if a ghetto inhabitant did have something to cook in his pot, he had nothing to cook it on. The gas kitchens were communal rooms equipped with gas burners, where for a few pfennigs some pieces of potato could be cooked or the soup ration warmed up. The function of the supervisor in such a gas kitchen was to keep order in the queue of people waiting with their pots, to watch the clock and collect the money. Since he ran the kitchen, Shayevitch could write in the intervals between these activities. Amid the noise of the buzzing burners and sizzling pots, and in the general commotion created by exhausted and impatient people, he composed his verses on a sheet of bookkeeping paper covered with print on one side but clean on the other. Delighted with his new position, Shayevitch wrote a letter of thanks to Rosenstein, dated 10 February 1942: Very Distinguished and Dear Mr Rosenstein: As an expression of deep gratitude, my trembling hands offer bikurim [first fruits] as a gift to you – the lengthy poem “Lekh-Lekho.”

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As I once told you, we have no choice but to do as the troubadours, the minnesingers and our own Broder singers did:5 to disseminate our song by ourselves; to turn ourselves into preachers who go among the people with their sermons. It is a matter of great grief that the people, ourselves included, have more important worries on their minds. It would give me great pleasure to hear your opinion of my writing. I consider you a partner in everything that my feverish heart produces. Let all our merits stand by us, so that one day I may dedicate my joyful Yiddish poem to you. May we and the rest of the people of Israel live to see the hour of complete salvation. Amen. PS. On this occasion I take the liberty of reminding you about Hoffman. Perhaps it is possible to find some work for him? Later that year, after I had met Shayevitch and he had read “LekhLekho” to me, he explained why he offered the poem to Rosenstein. But I knew nothing of the existence of his two letters. These I discovered in the booklet containing his poems. I would never have believed Shayevitch capable of such flattering letters. He was a humble man, soft-spoken and magnanimous. He endured much suffering, but there was in his nature an undercurrent of passionate pleasure in life and a hunger for joy. Little was required to bring him to a state of Hasidic exultation. There was always a quiet dignity about him, a sense of pride and self-respect. In the ghetto, his sense of pride as an individual seemed to expand into a collective pride as well. He would grow heated when he spoke of the injustices committed in the ghetto by Jews against Jews. As long as I knew him, he never wanted to have anything to do with members of the ghetto’s privileged elite. I never saw him plead with anyone for anything. So it is obvious to me that it was not for his own sake that he humiliated himself by flattering Rosenstein, but for the sake of his wife and child, and for the sake of the writer within him. Nevertheless, his praise of his benefactor sounds genuine. He must have hit the deepest level of despair after the death of his parents, when his wife and child

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were ill and he himself could not find a single moment to release the pent-up anguish of his heart by writing. Perhaps Rosenstein was a father substitute, a more powerful figure than his own late father – a patron who could work miracles and elevate the poet to a spiritual re-awakening. Rosenstein was an older colleague, a fellow writer, a kindred soul. I suspect that, feeling lost and forlorn, Shayevitch badly needed a powerful protector-friend who was understanding and generous, to whom he could bare his soul. In such a case, it would be easier to stifle pride and resort to begging, since Rosenstein valued and respected him as a writer. Shayevitch’s kind-heartedness can also be seen in the fact that no sooner is his own problem solved than, in the same letter of thanks, he pleads with Rosenstein on behalf of his colleague Hoffman, a young Yiddish writer, who soon after died of tuberculosis. In the meantime, the ghetto inhabitants survived on more than just starvation rations. A multitude of idiomatic expressions, sayings, jokes, wisecracks, and songs circulated from mouth to mouth, vividly reflecting the people’s spirit of resistance and defiance. As the cultural life of the ghetto began to flourish, political parties organized underground networks. All kinds of discussion and self-education groups sprang to life. The Lodz ghetto began to swarm with writers and poets. The group of established Yiddish writers met in the home of Miriam Ulinover, the poetess mentioned in Shayevitch’s letter. Before the war, Miriam Ulinover had published collections of nostalgic poems full of picturesque charm, describing traditional life in Jewish homes. A dainty, grey-haired matron, with a heart full of warmth and tenderness, she was adored by her colleagues. Solemnly they gathered in her room in the ghetto to read and discuss their works in her presence. Fate had been kind to Shayevitch and his family during the pitiless winter-and-spring evacuations of 1941–42, when sixty thousand Jews were sent out of the ghetto straight to Chelmno, where the Nazis employed the still-primitive technique of releasing Cyclon B gas into buses packed with people. A short period of respite followed in the ghetto. Now that those “unproductive elements” were gone, Chaim Rumkowski promised “his” Jews that there would be no further evacuations, that the ghetto would be transformed into a factory town


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that would “tick like a clock,” producing goods for the Germans. The ghetto would be so indispensable to the German Kriegswirtschaft (wartime economy) that the Jews would survive the war in peace and quiet. Factories were in fact built. The Jews laboured there for twelve hours a day. At the same time the clique of “King Rumkowski’s favourites,” the so-called ghettocracy, established itself and grew into a powerful caste, while the rest of the population died of such “natural” causes as starvation, dysentery, and tuberculosis. It was during this time that Shayevitch wrote his other poem, “Spring 1942.” There is nothing in this poem to indicate that he had allowed himself to be fooled by the lull in the deportations, or by the promises of the Germans or Rumkowski. On the contrary, his tone becomes even more sombre and desperate than in “Lekh-Lekho.” Here is a fragment from “Spring 1942”: And in a propitious hour – Praised be the Lord – spring is here again. The night blows into the silver horn Of the young moon, Teaching it a new song In honour of spring, which this year Was such a belated visitor. And behold, like a camel, a mother carries The hump of her load on her back, While behind her straggle five little children – Each one smaller than the next, Bundled up in rags, In tatters of shoes Tied with string, Heavy bread bags – Beggars’ sacks – Hang on their chests. Exhausted, they cannot walk any further, So the mother hen, Spreads her arms. The oldest she leaves to his own devices,

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The second she curses, The third she pushes on from behind, The fourth she implores, The fifth she takes into her arms – And soon she herself must stop, out of breath, Like a dying fish With gaping eyes, Her mouth open, While the load on her back, And the child on her bosom Swing on the scales of Fate, Loaded down by maternal weights, Up and down, Back and forth. Up and down, Back and forth. And in a propitious hour, The miracle of revival occurs yet again, And spring once more is here. But in our ghetto Nobody minds the hunger for bread, That weeps from every human limb, And no one is frightened of Death Who taps familiarly on every door, Not skipping even one home. But like abandoned trembling sheep We teeter and flutter In fear of the evil decree: Exile into the unknown. We tremble and flutter. In fear of the secret Belshazzar writ: To life or to death. An old woman sees the hearse passing by And sparks of envy light up her eyes:

40 Personal Essays

“Fortunate creature, to have lived to such a moment.” A young man says without bowing his head, “One way or the other it makes no difference.” A young bride spits three times, “May the Angel of Death finally become my groom.” And even the child dragging itself on the road to exile Turns up its tear-smeared face and stammers, “Oh, Mameshie dear, I have no strength, Oh, please, put me on the little black wagon.” Written in blank verse, “Spring 1942” consists of various vignettes of particular people, or groups of people, juxtaposed against the background of the ghetto and the grey mass of ghetto inhabitants. Here no rhyme or measured rhythm stands in the way of the sweep of Shayevitch’s rage and despair. It is a haunting psalmodic chant. Shayevitch used this same style in the long epic poem that he was continually working on. In all the poetry that he wrote in the ghetto, Shayevitch seemed to be invoking the cadence of Jewish religious writing. The tone and imagery, as well as the simplicity of his words, echo the tone and reflect the imagery and expression of scriptural texts, or the piutim6 of the prayer books. A summer of relative calm was followed by the early autumn of 1942. The month of September brought with it the Sperre. The Sperre (from German gehsperre, curfew) lasted eight fateful days, during which Moloch swallowed almost all the children of the ghetto. Day after day the German guards, aided by the Jewish police, made mass selections in every courtyard. It was supposed to be a deportation limited to children under the age of ten and old people over sixty. But the Germans took whomever they pleased from the lineups. While the selection was taking place in the yards, the Jewish police rushed from door to door to check that no one was hiding in the rooms. They chased whomever they found down into the yard to pass the inspection. Shayevitch’s wife, Miriam, had just given birth to a baby boy. His daughter, Blimele, had spent the previous day of the Sperre hidden in the wardrobe whose mirror her father had described in his farewell

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch


song to her. Her little brother, not yet named, was hidden in a drawer. Miriam was in bed, unable to get up. The Jewish police failed to search the room that day. So the next morning, Shayevitch hid his children in the same places. There was no food in the house. The Germans and their helpers had not yet arrived in the yard. Shayevitch heard from a neighbour that there would be a distribution of bread and potatoes at the nearest distribution outlet, so he locked his family in the hut and ran out to join the queue for food. When he returned to the yard, he realized that the selection had already taken place. The door of his hut stood open. The room was empty. Miriam and the children were gone. I met Shayevitch for the first time in the winter of that same year, less than two years before the liquidation of the ghetto, two years and eight months before he perished. I was nineteen years old, a fledgling writer. He was a grizzled old man of thirty-five, an established poet, a member of the writers’ circle which at that time gathered at the home of the poet and painter Leizerovitch, since Miriam Ulinover and her husband had been taken away during the Sperre.7 We met in a strange place called Die Wissenschaftliche Abteilung (the Scientific Department), whose director was the Rabiner Hirshberg, a reform rabbi from Danzig.8 At the Wissenschafliche Abteilung, the work consisted of preparing exhibits in glass showcases that represented scenes from Jewish shtetl life in Poland. A team of artists and artisans fashioned various dolls out of papier-maché, clay, and metal scraps. The Germans required these showcases for “scientific” purposes. The Rabiner was an extremely handsome and amiable man, who treated his staff with great respect. The general atmosphere of this quaint workplace was one of ease and friendliness. When I think back on it today, the entire enterprise seems enigmatic and a little odd. The nature of the Rabiner Hirshberg’s services to the Germans has remained a puzzle to me. But at the time, the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung held a particular attraction for creative people of all sorts, who were welcomed and shown around whenever they dropped in. The Rabiner Hirshberg worked in his spare time on a Yiddish translation of the psalms. He had recruited me to check his Yiddish text,


Personal Essays

which he feared might be tarnished by his familiarity with German. Once in a while, I would drop in to the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung on the pretext of needing some explanation with regard to the translation. In truth, I was burning with impatience to read a just-written poem to him. He was the only person to whom I could read my poems. He was knowledgeable, well versed in European literature, a writer himself. I had great respect for his opinion and was grateful for what he taught me about the psalms and for the attention he paid to me as a budding poet. On this particular day, I had dropped into his Abteilung to read a poem that I had just written. Shayevitch had come in to see the painter Leizerovitch, who worked as an artistic advisor to the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung. I recall Shayevitch wearing a woman’s coat with a long-haired fur collar. The coat did not impress me. People’s clothes had begun to disintegrate, and the fashion of the ghetto was geared to wearing whatever one could to keep warm. But the puffy face of the man I saw before me expressed such misery, such grief, that it pierced my heart, and I could not take my eyes off him. His manner was abrupt, Hasidic, and awkward. He hardly glanced at me when the Rabiner introduced him to me as an important Yiddish poet. The Rabiner insisted that I read my latest poem to the guest, who, he said with assumed modesty, was more competent to appreciate my talent than he himself was. He also called Leizerovitch into his office. Leizerovitch, a humpbacked, dark-haired man, clad in a black cape that made him resemble a bird of prey, was the most severe literary critic in the ghetto. There, with bated breath, I read my poem for the first time to a literary public. Shayevitch and I left the Wissenschaftliche Abteilung together. He told me that this was the first time he had been out to meet people since the Sperre, when he had lost his wife and children. I asked him up to our room, and he met my parents and my sister. He soon became a friend of the family, and being someone’s friend meant to Shayevitch giving of himself all that he could, and more. One day he asked me whether I would like to hear a poem he had just written. The shutters of his hut were closed when I arrived to hear him read his new poem. I entered by way of the shed, which served as a kitchen. The entrance to the next room had no door. It was dark inside. He told

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch 43

me that he permitted no one to enter the next room, and made me sit down in the kitchen beside a box that seemed to serve as a kitchen table. There I sat, huddled in my coat and shawl. The kitchen was dark and painfully cold. An icy draft seemed to rise from the clay floor. The walls were covered with ice that glistened and sparkled in the light of the candle on the box. His lady’s coat unbuttoned, Shayevitch busied himself about the kitchen and brought in another two chairs from the next room. One he broke up and fed to the fire in the stove. He put a blackened kettle filled with water on the burner. Then he placed his manuscript on top of the box. The manuscript was, as usual, written on bookkeeping paper, covered with ciphers on one side and with his rushed but beautiful handwriting on the other. He brought over two tin cups containing hot water sweetened with saccharine, moved the other chair close to the box, and sat down to read his poem – the only poem that I can vaguely remember. It was called “Israel Noble.” In it Shayevitch immersed himself in the state of mind of a young man who had tried to escape from the inescapable ghetto. It was a composite portrait of the few people who had tried this impossible feat. They had all failed and been hanged in the ghetto square, while the workers from the factories were forced to watch. Shayevitch named his hero Israel, and gave him the family name Noble. The poem was a paean to inner nobility in the face of debasement, helplessness, and villainy. It celebrated the nature of the ghetto Jew, whose only means of resistance was through the spirit. The simple lines of the poem’s refrain have remained with me since that night: Kh’geher nisht keynem, keynem, keynem. Bloyz ayer der guf, nor nisht di neshome. [I belong to no one, no one, no one. Yours is only my body, but not my soul.] Soon, instead of running to the Rabiner Hirshberg with my newly written poems, I took to rushing before curfew to Shayevitch. Occasionally I would find him in the kitchen, washing his laundry in icecold water, then hanging it on a cord above the stove. But most often

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he would be sitting bent over sheets of paper, working. If he happened to be eating his ration of soup as he worked, he would force a spoon into my hand and insist that I eat from his pot. This was the price I had to pay for making him listen to my poem. Often, as if in order to prepare me, he spoke about the major work he was in the process of creating. One day, he hesitantly asked whether I would be willing to hear him read the twenty chapters of his epic that he had by then composed. I soon regretted that I had acquiesced to his proposal. Unlike the reading of his other poems, the reading of this one was transformed into a sort of morbid ritual. It would take place on the day when he had picked up his food and firewood or peat ration. He always wore one of his washed shirts for the occasion. His hair was combed. He would light not one, but two, candles, seat himself on the floor, and begin to recite the chapter of his work in a hasty, slurping voice, as if he were a pious Jew rushing through a prayer. He often broke into sobs, and his hoarse voice began to crack. His lips were moist with saliva. As he raced through the lines, his torso bent lower over the sheets of paper on his knees, and his entire body, like Laocoon’s, seemed to writhe with pain. It was torture to watch and listen to him. Once he finished reading, he would smile a faint, crooked smile, rise to his feet, and serve the babka of ersatz-coffee leavings that he had prepared and two cups of water sweetened with saccharine. We talked about everything in the world except his reading. He wanted to hear no criticism. He was fully aware of the power of what he was writing. The text was too sacred to him. He would not allow it to be taken as mere “literature.” For my part, I was so troubled and frightened by what I heard that I wanted to escape that gloomy room as soon as I could. I wanted to blot out the lines and rhythms that haunted me. I wanted to erase them from my memory. Like some of his other lengthy poems, this long work took the form of a chronicle of ghetto life. It was filled with the portraits of individuals against the backdrop of daily life in the ghetto. With utmost simplicity, he described everyday ghetto events and ghetto scenes. He described peoples’ clothes and the objects that were part of their daily lives in such a way that they acquired enormous symbolic signifi-

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch


cance, thus recreating the unearthly, phantasmagoric atmosphere of the ghetto. Image after image of the commonplace, seemingly trivial, ghetto reality was soaked in the anguish, the hunger, the fear, the pain of separation and loss of dear ones, so that it swelled into unfathomable dimensions of suffering. A biblical atmosphere permeated the entire text, heightening the sense of cataclysm that lurked in the heart of each ghetto inhabitant. In some of the chapters, the wretched ghettonik took on the appearance of Job in the throes of Fate. Abandoned by his fellow Man, abandoned by his God, he nevertheless clung with hope to both Man and God, alternately cursing and praising them. In other chapters, an unspeakable silence hovered over the lean lines – a mute scream against ineffable evil, the scream of a worm lost in a maze of debasement, but a worm who, despite its inability to speak, was still human, still had dignity, even though it was doomed – under empty skies, surrounded by an indifferent earth – to be squashed by the boot of destruction. Added to the stifled outcry within the depth of that silence was the choked scream of inanimate objects caught up in the ghetto dweller’s life. I can recall very vaguely that Shayevitch continued with the motif he had begun in “Lekh-Lekho,” reproducing the life cycle of a conjugal bed as it listened to the intimate whispers of two lovers, witnessed the birth of a child, comforted a body ravaged by hunger and disease, and finally was consecrated on the altar of the stove fire, so that a meal of turnips and water could be cooked in its flames. Shayevitch took me along to meet the other Yiddish ghetto writers at Leizerovitch’s apartment studio, the walls of which were hung with the latter’s paintings of the ghetto. There we would gather, sometimes once a week, sometimes every other week. Occasionally there was a long lapse in our gatherings because of some extraordinary events taking place in the ghetto, such as a prolonged period of deportations, which, on a smaller scale, went on continuously. But hunger alone was never a good enough reason to prevent us from getting together. The presence of a roomful of people made the cold bearable, and then there was always a fire going in the iron oven. Leizerovitch had it better than the rest of us. In exchange for a loaf of bread, he painted portraits for Rumkowski and the other ghetto dignitaries, and even

46 Personal Essays

for the Germans who worked in the Red House of the Kripo [Criminal Police]. Bread had the value of gold. Leizerovitch could sell parts of his bread on the black market and buy other necessities. There was always a piece of babka cake made not from the remains of ersatz coffee, but from potatoes and genuine flour, which we each consumed with a hot cup of ersatz coffee. There the writers read their works, which were then discussed and critiqued. Leizerovitch was the most analytical and severe. He believed that Jewish creativity in the ghetto must live up to the demands of those apocalyptic times. Nothing short of excellence was good enough for him. He abhorred self-pity or melodrama. He knew that, with his crippled body, he did not stand a chance of surviving a selection, and that it was only thanks to his work for Rumkowski and the Germans that he had been temporarily spared. No doubt this was the reason that he put such demands on himself and his colleagues. Shayevitch would read chapters of his major work to Leizerovitch in private. He seemed to enjoy provoking his criticism. But he was reluctant to read any part of it to the entire writers’ group. He read other poems instead, those which were the by-product of that work, or fragments that he could not fit into it. But everyone knew that something great and wonderful was in the process of being created, and his colleagues insisted that he read his work-in-progress. I recall him complying with this demand only once, on condition that there be no discussion after his reading. I remember the silence that followed the reading and the air of total despair that filled the room afterwards. We quickly turned to the babka cake and the coffee, as if seeking resuscitation from the blows of his stanzas. The twenty-third and twenty-fourth chapters of Shayevitch’s epic were devoted to the deportation of his wife and children. They were written in the summer of 1943, a year after the event. He read them to me in the room he had previously forbidden me to enter. The furniture of the room was missing, having gone for firewood. There was nothing left but the two beds. Shayevitch made me sit on Blimele’s small bed and he sat down beside me on the floor. He read and wept, sobbing loudly as he read. Yet I could have understood his words if I had wanted to. Only an image here and there – like Blimele’s doll,

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch


lying on the floor after she had been taken away – cut into my consciousness, despite my unwillingness to listen. I wept with him and was terribly frightened. Fear was our daily companion. By then the broadcasts of the clandestine Polish radio station, Swit, which were listened to in hiding by the members of the ghetto underground, had begun transmitting news of what was happening to the deportees. If Shayevitch, like the rest of us, nurtured any hope of his own survival, he allowed no trace of that hope to enter his epic, although his belief in the continuation of Jewish existence was never in question. Whenever, at a future time, I tried to be brave and force myself to listen to his newly composed chapters, they would disturb and depress me so completely that I blotted them out of my mind as soon as I heard them. I was young. I wanted to live. It was enough for me to write my own ghetto poems. Absorbing his, which were so much more disturbing than my own, was more than I could take. Shayevitch had all kinds of strange acquaintances for whom his door always stood open. He befriended the neighbours in his yard, performed all kinds of services for them, and fed them words of encouragement. He fetched the food rations for the sick, lonely men or women who had lost their families to disease or deportation, and more than once I saw him share parts of his food with a child miraculously saved from the Sperre. He seemed to do these things spontaneously, without great effort, with pleasure. Steeped in the Talmud and the Kabala as he was, he belonged to that type of modern Jew and freethinker whose mannerisms and idiosyncrasies spring from his former deep religiosity, while his conduct, like a conditioned reflex, responds to the ethical precepts of the Jewish faith. His generosity to friend and stranger alike often meant that he himself had to go without. One by one he lost his teeth, until he had only two front teeth left. He still worked at the gas kitchen, which was noisy and packed with people who now came more frequently to cook water than soup. They would chatter away about their daily cares and about past and pending deportations. He could no longer write in peace there. In any case, he preferred to listen to people talk in order to better recapture the authenticity of their dialogues in his work. Since he lived alone, there was


Personal Essays

no one to prevent him from working at night. His eyes, behind the heavily rimmed glasses, grew red and swollen. Soon his limbs began to swell. His heart became affected. He was running out of breath, running out of strength. I was teaching Polish to an influential tailor, who supervised a tailoring workshop in a camp for Polish youths outside the ghetto. My payment was a sandwich with a piece of sausage. An illiterate but kindly man, my student urgently needed to be able to communicate with the imprisoned young Poles. Thanks to his position, he lived in the ghetto in virtual luxury. There was no lack of food in his house. This master tailor had a great respect for learning and for people who could write. He became a patron of the arts in the ghetto. There was always a line of all kinds of intellectuals, artists, and writers in front of his kitchen door. I interceded with my student tailor on Shayevitch’s behalf, but it took a great deal of urging and pleading to talk Shayevitch into placing himself in line for a slice of bread. During the winter of 1943–44, I frequently found Shayevitch in bed when I came to visit him after work. He could barely drag himself to his feet. His entire body began to swell. When the summer came, rumours began to circulate of the total liquidation of the ghetto. The ghettoniks refused to believe the rumours. How could the German Reich survive without the produce of our factories? But the rumours persisted. There was no longer any doubt that the ghetto was facing, if not total liquidation, then deportation on a massive scale. With a sudden surge of strength, Shayevitch came to life. He started to compile a list of all the Yiddish writers in the ghetto, and was ready to submit it to one or another influential dignitary so that none of his colleagues would receive a “wedding invitation.” But the moment the list was finished, he tore it up, having decided that no one person’s life was worth more than that of another. As the summer neared its end, it became clear that the total liquidation of the ghetto was imminent. Shayevitch masterminded a plan of concealment. We could hide in our apartment by camouflaging the door dividing our kitchen from the small bedroom. But we packed our rucksacks anyway. Shayevitch rammed all his manuscripts into his bread sack.

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch


When the fateful day came, and the Germans entered the ghetto, cordoning off one block of houses after another, my family, Shayevitch, and a group of our closest friends managed to hide in the bedroom of our flat, its existence concealed by a large bureau in front of the door. We were ten people crammed into that one small room. We managed to avoid discovery for three days. On 23 August 1944, we were found and loaded onto cattle cars headed for Auschwitz. Shayevitch’s bread sack was the first thing torn from his hand as soon as we were deposited on the ramp of the train station at Auschwitz. The sheets of paper containing the poems I had written in the ghetto were likewise thrown onto a heap of discarded photographs and papers. The men were separated from the women, and the selection began. I never saw my father or Shayevitch again. After the liberation, when I was still at Bergen-Belsen, I met people who had been with both my father and Shayevitch at Camp Kaufering – one of the death camps associated with Dachau – where they had been sent from Auschwitz. From them I heard that Shayevitch had composed poems even in the camp, and had recited them to the inmates in the barracks. I was also told that he had been sent “to the ovens” during the last selection at the camp. As for my father, he perished two days before the liberation. An American bomb fell on the train in which he and other camp inmates were riding during the forced evacuation of the camp. I feel a bittersweet sense of gratification at the thought that at least some of Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch’s work has survived; that there exists at least something tangible and verifiable to support my praise of him, something never to be altered or deleted from history. The two poems found on the pile of garbage in the ghetto made their way into print, and are thus imperishable. I am grateful to fate, which, in the guise of accident, has allowed these poems with their cri de coeur, their Jeremiah-like lament, to reach us from “the other side,” so that those who were not there might have some idea of what it meant to live in the horrific reality of the Lodz ghetto. tranSlation: chava roSEnFarb


Personal Essays

notES 1 The booklet containing the two poems and two letters published by the Jewish Historical Commission of Lodz in 1946 has never appeared in English. “Lekh-Lekho” itself was published in English translation in The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, edited by David G. Roskies. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989. 2 Isaac Goldkorn, Lodger portretn (Tel Aviv: Hamenora, 1963). 3 Miriam Ulinover was a Yiddish poet. In the Lodz ghetto she hosted a literary salon in her flat, which Chava Rosenfarb attended. She appears in Rosenfarb’s trilogy, The Tree of Life, under the name Sarah Samet. See n1 of “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer.” 4 “Lekh-lekho” or “lech-lecha,” meaning “Go!” in Hebrew. From Genesis 12, in which God tells Abraham to leave the land where he is living and settle in the land that God will show him. 5 The Broder singers, named after the city of Brody in Ukraine, were itinerant Jewish minstrels and performers who wandered throughout Austria, Galicia, Romania, and Russia singing Yiddish songs that they wrote themselves and performing in one-act plays. 6 Piutim are hymns incorporated into Jewish festival liturgies. 7 Rosenfarb appears to be mistaken about this. Miriam Ulinover survived in the ghetto until its final liquidation in August 1944. 8 See n3 of “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer.” Hirshberg also appears in the essay entitled “A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation.”

Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch


A group of Holocaust survivors in Feldafing Displaced Persons camp. Chava is at the top, with her sister Henia just below her. Their mother is one row below Henia, third from the right. The photo was taken in late 1945, several months after their liberation from Bergen-Belsen. 

Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945

Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British Army on 15 April 1945. Conditions at the camp were so horrendous that the British burned it down in order to stop the spread of typhus and other diseases. They relocated the survivors to a former German Army barracks, two kilometres from the original camp. This new camp was called Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp. The diary appears to have been written in this DP camp.

Bergen-Belsen, 6 May 1945 Father, where are you? Today, for the first time, I hold a pencil in my hand. My fingers tremble over the white sheet of paper. Where is your warm, sure hand to cover my trembling fingers and lead them again to open the sacred doors of our Yiddish aleph-bet? When I was a little girl, you guided my hand over the neat white lines. We wrote the word “Tateh,” and there rose such a light from those five small letters that the word itself acquired a soul, and I saw that soul reflected in your loving smile: “Tateh.” I sit near the window. The branches of the large chestnut tree outside reach up to the second floor where we are staying. Today I can see the sky, and it is of the purest blue. Perhaps it is just an ordinary blue sky, with nothing remarkable about it. But I see this sky as it must have looked to the first human being when he suddenly recognized God and genuflected before the beautiful blue expanse that stretched above his head. I want to write: “How beautiful you are, blue sky,” but instead I see your luminous eyes. I can feel your blessings and your dreams, your smile and your longing.

Below my window I hear a commotion. It is nothing serious. Soup is being distributed. Everybody will get a portion. People are impatient, still haunted by the anxiety of yesterday that lives on in them. Although they know that no one will go away without his portion of soup – if not at this window, he will be served at the next – but still they all try to be served first. They want to be sure of that little bowl of soup, to stir it with a spoon. There is a man standing opposite my window. He emerges from the tangled crowd holding his bowl in his hand. He does not go to his room. He does not sit down at the table. Leaning against the stone wall, he gulps down the soup as fast as he can. God, how hungry he is! For years he has been hungry and for years he has been frightened. He is very thin. A heavy coat hangs from his shoulders and reaches to his ankles. Between one slurp of soup and the next he wipes his face with the sleeve of his coat. He is tired but happy. I can see his eyes dance with pleasure as they glance away from his bowl to embrace everything around him, from the green grass beneath the window to the tall chestnut tree. He is so happy. What is he thinking about, this man, this Jew, this tortured, emaciated Jew? Most likely, he is not thinking anything at all. Even so, I know and his limbs know and his body knows that soon he will cast off his heavy black overcoat. Soon the flesh will grow on his bones. Life has arrived! I shut my eyes. Deliberately I put out of my mind the man standing opposite. And suddenly I see you, Father. It is you. I can see how the strength is returning to your body. You are alive. Perhaps you too are standing somewhere at this very moment with your little pot of soup, leaning against another wall. Is it possible? I ask my heart, but it trembles with uncertainty.

7 May Wherever I look I see you. No matter what other thoughts come into my mind, you are always there. Where are you, Tateh? Will I ever be able to caress you and beg your forgiveness? I showed you so little kindness in the lost days of my feverish past. I told you very little of my innermost thoughts. You were so thirsty to know my feelings, and I

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was so stingy in sharing them with you. Where are you now, Tateh? I want to tell you everything! Did you hear the firing of the guns? The shots are meant to tell the world that peace has come, that the hour of freedom has arrived, those very days for which you so longed when you were shut up in the darkness of the ghetto. Have you lived to see them? The uncertainty is torturing me. My only hope is that a miracle has saved you. You were so tired after those five years in the ghetto. But then, cut off from us, how could you have survived the still-more-terrible atrocities of the camps? Perhaps the longing to see us again helped you to survive? Tateh, we are here. The fire is glowing, but you are missing from our joy.

8 May It is over. Our liberation has come, but she wears a prosaic face. No one has died of joy. No one has gone mad with excitement. When we used to dream of freedom, we bathed her with our tears. We crowned her with the garlands of our smiles and dreams. Now that she is here, she looks like a beggar, and we have nothing to give her. With what desperation did we call for her in those dark days. With what power did her far-off shimmer flesh out our thin bodies? Now she is here, and she beckons to us from every corner. She is right before our eyes, yet we cannot see her. She begs us: “Touch me … enjoy me.” But we are tired. Our past, like a hawk, circles overhead, fluttering its black wings, devouring our days with horrible memories. It poisons our nights with terror. Poor, sad Freedom! Will she ever have the strength to free us from those dark, shadowy wings? Bats circle outside the window. Their wings flutter in a ghostly dance. My unfinished ghetto poem torments my mind. It used to accompany me in the camp. With its words on my lips I used to drag myself through the snows in the early winter mornings to work. I pencilled the verses on the ceiling above my bunk. Each day a few more lines. In my mind, I hear them constantly. Through the open window I can hear the loudspeaker announcing that today the war is officially over. Where are you, Tateh? I want to

Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945 55

hug you. The air trembles to the distant salvos of guns. Thin clouds of smoke waft through the air. We celebrate this festive moment with a chunk of dry bread. We have nothing better.

10 May At night when I open my eyes, I see Mother and Henia. They are wiping the sweat from my forehead, and they constantly ask how I feel. We tremble over each other’s well-being. I want to comfort them. I want to tell them that we do not need to be afraid anymore. We are free now. But how can we protect ourselves from death? No, we are still very helpless. I have a fever. Perhaps it is a cold. Or is it, perhaps, typhus?

June 13 For four long weeks the fever boiled in my blood. It scorched my eyes and dulled my brain. From under steep mountains I saw my loved ones coming towards me. They talked to me as they used to talk in the past. They smiled at me as they used to smile in the past, and pleaded for my life. They cried through my eyes and squeezed my thin, bony hands. I embraced them in the emptiness. I snuggled my hot body into their fleshless arms, pressed my swollen, living lips to their lifeless faces. I stretched my thin fingers out into the shadows of the sweaty night and thought I was caressing their hair. I felt my own burning breath scalding my face, and thought that they were blowing hot air onto my cheeks. They were all there with me. I saw my friend Yakov Borenstein, just as he was on that winter day when he prepared to leave on his last journey. His eyes were burning: “Don’t be sad, my friend. We will meet again.” Suddenly, my lips started to tremble. “Come with me. Come with me, my dearest friend. We will go for a long walk.” “I am coming, I am coming,” I called back. But my other friend, Kuba Litmanovitch, took hold of my hand. “Bring me an apple.” I went with him to the cemetery. All our comrades were there. From a far-off pathway there suddenly appeared Esterl and Moniek. They were holding hands and running towards us. “Wait!” Esterl


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shouted. Then she laughed in my face. “So now you know that I don’t have much time.” Moniek lifted her into his arms and placed her in the grave, as if he were putting her to bed for the night. Then he lay down beside her. I inched myself closer to the wall near my hospital bed and made room for them all. But they angrily pressed me even closer to the wall. Suddenly their mood changed, and they became kinder. I saw the whole ghetto street full of people coming towards us in a happy, festive mood. Bunim Shayevitch came too. Then I was left alone. My bed swayed like a swing at the end of a long chain that stretched from heaven to the abyss, from life to dream, from dream to death. Bunim was standing by the window of my hospital room, just as he used to stand in his home at 14 Lotnicza Street, his hands in his pockets, his grey eyes squinting from behind the lenses of his glasses. He looked through the sky, through me and beyond. “I have perished,” he said. He took hold of the edge of my bed and swung it round. The earth started rocking. The sky began to shake. My body was on fire with the flames of the setting sun. I took off the checkered jacket that I was wearing and used it to fan myself as I went back and forth on the swing. I did this for a long time – so long, so long, so endlessly long, until my hands detached themselves from my body, and, with my fingers still clinging to the jacket, they fell into the depths of the night. I wanted to look down, to see where the jacket had fallen and where my hands had fallen, but tears blinded my eyes. Next to me stood my father, crying. His lips were very white and glued together, yet I could hear his voice. “Daughter,” he said, “I brought you some lovely broth. Boiled potatoes and carrots all mashed up into a tsimmes. Take it and eat. Open your mouth. Look how tasty it is and how good it smells.” The taste of something sweet and refreshing made me open my eyes. On my bed sat my mother. She whispered something. I could not make out what she was saying, but her words dripped like balm into my soul. The tears from her tired eyes cooled my burning body. At the foot of my bed stood my agonized sister. Her frightened eyes blinked a prayer at me, entreating me to live. Yes, I must live. Some blessed justice has preserved me for their sake and they for mine. I want to give this justice its due; and I want

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to pay it back for all the injustice that has been done to us, for our loneliness.

18 June Nearly six weeks in hospital. I have returned to life again. My body rejoices; my soul weeps. I suspect that it was not my body but my soul that was so ill. Helpless, hopeless, I feel like someone who has spent a long time in a dark cellar and has suddenly come up to the light. I am dazzled, drunk. I squint at the light, without the strength to absorb it. It is spring. The spring of liberation. The sun breathes life into everything. And yet, beneath its blue skies there is emptiness. The sun’s rays search in vain for so many faces, so many bodies that belong to those faces. They are nowhere to be found. The rays embrace a void, except when they settle, here and there, on a few solitary, half-starved individuals. I lead a double life. One part is thin, fragile, trembling, young, and yearning for joy. The other part is deeper and more painful, full of memory and sorrow. The first is full of shame and guilt; the second is stormy, tortured, and full of fury. The first trembles on the edge of the second, but never penetrates it. The second, however, often steals into my new, young life, disturbing, destroying, poisoning the least glimmer of joy. It demands attention constantly.

20 June I am learning to walk. Today, Mother helped me down the stairs and took me into the yard. She found an old canned-goods box and sat me down on top of it. A pity that there is so much dirt everywhere. Papers litter the ground; empty boxes, broken shelves and bed frames, discarded furniture soil the fresh green of the grass. Why can nothing be clean around us? Why is there no orchestra playing music to the rhythm of my heartbeat? Why is everything and everyone so indifferent? I am learning to walk! At least the sky is decorated with a sparkling sun. I look up at the sky. We are good friends again. It is good to be alive. It is delicious, a delight. I don’t want to think about


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anything. I want my body to acquire flesh. I want my legs to recover their strength. I want to sing. I want to roll in the grass. I want to run carefree through the fields. Henia brought me a little sprig full of blossoms. I am lying on the bed now, as pleased with myself as a young mother who has just given birth. The sprig of blossoms stands in a small bottle on the windowsill. When I turn my head, I will see it, but right now I do not have the strength. Perhaps later.

23 June Bats fly across windows. Their wings flutter in a dance of ghosts. Those lines haunt me. They are from Bunim Shayevitch’s poem about our fate. I can see him standing by the window of his room. Tomorrow he is going away. In the dark corners of the room there still linger the spirits of his loved ones, who are gone. Soon he too will be gone. The last of his family. He is taking a whole generation with him. Nobody will remember them. Nobody will remember him. A nameless end. But deep in my subconscious, they live on. They wake me at night. They pounce unexpectedly when I am in the middle of a laugh that is too carefree, or enjoy a moment that is too pleasurable. But when I want to bring them back to life, to take them out from their hidden places, then the slightest touch of a warm breeze, or the caress of a golden sunray, makes my limbs grow numb with pain, and I am seized with a powerful longing to escape them, to forget them all. I know that, back in those days when I was to share their fate, they did not pain me. They were with me, not in fact, but in essence. Somewhere on the way we got separated; at some unknown moment they left me. I went on the road to life. Now when I think about them, when I remember them, something breaks inside me, as if it would destroy me. Then I pray that something more powerful than this pain should come to my rescue. I want to live with them. I must remember them. I pray that time will not erase the details of their lives from my

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mind, that my memory of them will remain forever fresh and ready to serve me. But I’m afraid that it will not be so. My longing will remain eternally hungry, and as time goes on, more helpless. Memory will not serve longing. It will not be possible to remember all the little things, the tiny traces of individuality, which by themselves mean very little, but when put together create a unique human being. What will remain will be an abstract picture, a mere approximation of what once was and now exists no longer.

24 June Last night I had a nightmare. I woke up screaming. I dreamed that we were being chased. We ran across fields. Suddenly I lost Mother. I opened my eyes, and for a long time I could not calm down. In the darkness I could make out Mother’s pale face, but I could not bring myself to believe that it was really her. No, we no longer need to run anywhere. It is all over. I walk around all day as if in a fever. Every now and then a shiver passes through me without my understanding why.

26 June What lovely days we are having! Everything is green. Blossoms fall from the trees, gathering into white carpets under every tree trunk. Those trees which have not yet shed their blossoms look like religious Jews, slowly preparing to remove their prayer shawls. But what am I saying? These are just ordinary trees losing their blossoms. It is impossible to compare them to anything else. The sense of awe belongs to those of us who observe them. We are like children. Every day we make new discoveries. The joy of awakening makes us drunk. It is good to be able to breath, to feel, to see, to hear. It is good to be able to eat, to be able to bite into a chunk of bread. We perform this sacred ritual with wild animal joy and a sense of religious duty. We spend entire days doing nothing, but we are not bored. A blade of grass, trodden down under heavy boots, has a hard job righting itself again and must wait until the sap in its veins starts to pulse with new life. We are that trodden grass. We are preoccupied with

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ourselves, with straightening our bent bodies. Nothing else is as absorbing or thrilling. 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? I can see my father’s face before me. I can feel his hand caressing my cheek, the same hand which so lovingly and presciently caressed me as we travelled on the train to our final parting in Auschwitz. Tateh, the thought of your warm hand grieves me. Where are you? Where will we meet again on the many roads of this world? Where will you look for us? Where should we look for you?

27 June I went into the forest today. It’s good that they’ve brought us here to recuperate – although it seems to me that no matter where they brought us, we would see beauty everywhere. From now on we will always see and feel the value of every beautiful thing that we come across. I lay down on a mound of grass and stretched out my body to its full length, with my arms thrown over my head. I had the feeling that I was covering the whole earth. Above me, a thick clump of trees formed a circle, their branches entwined with clasped hands, as if they were dancing beneath the blue, festive sky. Nothing else happened, but this was enough. The world and life. I turned with my face to the earth and buried my head deep in the grass. The sweet smell of earth permeated my body and intoxicated my limbs. I bit off a blade of grass with my teeth and started to chew it. At this very moment, in distant towns and countries, people are drinking wine. Poor fools. They will never know the taste of grass.

28 June Two girls from our barrack did not come back to sleep last night. They arrived in time for lunch, bringing with them cigarettes and chocolates. They are not yet twenty years old. The Englishmen with whom they spent the night are the first men to admire their fresh, newly

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budding femininity. They are not the only ones in the camp. The forest is full of amorous couples. One meets them strolling along all the roads and pathways. One can hear again the almost-forgotten sound of women’s laughter, a laughter meant specifically for men. Sometimes when I hear this laughter, I have the impression that it will suddenly turn into a wild cry, into the painful, longing wail of a woman’s soul, a woman who tries to find in the eyes, hands, and smiles of a stranger some small trace of the beloved man she once knew. From all the corners of the yard, from all the rooms, I can hear the sounds of gaiety and laughter. “Look, I have forgotten!” the cheerful voices call. But it is enough to look into the women’s eyes to know something different. The eighteen- and nineteen-year-old girls laugh earnestly and unaffectedly. How clever and wonderful life is! As if afraid that the nightmare they have just lived through might destroy their tender, young, newly awakened bodies, Life has taught them to forget. Easy, pleasant forgetfulness. Is it their fault that in their dreams they see the reflections of their parents’ faces, or the smiles of their sisters and brothers, or shudder at the horrors they have so recently survived? During the day the girls flutter busily about singing, drawn from every barrack and courtyard to those who will teach them for the first time the language of love. The words may be strange, but they understand the gestures and the kisses. And then there is the sweetness of chocolate to bring back memories of their distant and yet not-so-distant childhoods. Some women sell themselves to the soldiers simply and knowingly, just for the taste of a slice of white bread.

30 June We must record and register every detail, even the most insignificant, of what has happened. It is a duty, an obligation, a compulsion. But around me there is sunshine and beauty and the carefree freedom of summer. I do not have the strength to resist it all. This is my first summer. Is it not poisoned to begin with? I postpone the writing from day to day.


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I wonder if there will ever be an all-encompassing literary masterpiece that recreates the past. I doubt it. I recall my conversations with Shayevitch in the ghetto, when he was writing his long poem. I told him that such an epic has to be written from a certain perspective. Time has to elapse. He had no way of knowing then how his long poem would end, or that it would remain unfinished. He told me: “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.” Today I realize that it could not have been otherwise. The perspective will grow with time; it will stretch out and grow thin. Who then will bring back the terror of those ghetto days? Days like those can only be described as they are happening – with sharp, bated breath. Just as the writers and painters did in the ghetto. When one has distance, one can only remember fragments of the whole. But that memory lacks the pulse of the trembling, feverish present. How can one construct an artistic history of the ghetto? Would such a work not mask the raw immediacy with which one must approach this topic? Is not the form of the novel too elegant, too peaceful, too comfortable, too quiet? I feel that to write such a novel would be an insult to my dear ones, and also to myself.

1 July I again saw Bunim Shayevitch in my dream. He was radiant with the same light that used to shine so often on his face when he was happy. We communicated with each other without words, just through thoughts alone. “I am very tired,” he said. “But I’m happy.” He was standing in his wooden shack. From somewhere he produced a big parcel of manuscripts. “Did you save them?” I asked him. He answered with his radiant smile: “I saved enough. Only the long poem, Israel Noble.” He started to read the poem. Suddenly he began to prepare for another journey. I told him: “We have been evacuated already, don’t you remember?” Where are you, Bunim? Where are all our friends? Where are the writers and painters and musicians of the ghetto? We are lonely. We

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are all together and yet each one of us is alone. What are we going to do with this gift of life? The world is closed to us. Somewhere there is a new beginning. For us, time stands still. Long days and nights take us back to the past. The world is rewriting the history of the injustice that has been done to us.

5 July From everywhere men flood into the camp. They are looking for their women. Every knock on the door makes us tremble with anticipation. With each knock someone new comes into our barrack. They come to ask if we have any news, if we know the whereabouts of their loved ones. They look at us with pleading eyes. “Maybe you know something about … ? Please, try to remember. Think hard.” They describe their dear ones. Don’t they know that the picture they carry in their hearts has long ago been altered, that every day of the many that were spent in the camp changed one’s appearance beyond recognition? We too make inquiries. The men answer brusquely, absent-mindedly. We tell them what we know, but they have no patience. They jump up and run to another barrack, looking for information. From an open door comes the sound of spasmodic sobbing. Bad news! An already-forlorn heart has lost its last glimmer of hope. Or perhaps these are the sounds of joy, of a long-cherished dream come true? The sudden emotion has released the pent-up tears, so that they gush forth in a stream of joyful relief. For whom does this person cry, for the living or the dead? We cannot stay still for long. We run downstairs. There is commotion everywhere, as the men move from barrack to barrack. They stand before the open windows and call out long lists of women’s names – wives, daughters, sisters. Then they wait to see if the miracle will happen, if from the depths of the rooms there will appear a beloved face. But they are greeted only by the eyes of strangers staring at them from the windows. – Where do you come from? – Perhaps you know … ?

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No, he does not know. – And you, young lady, perhaps you remember my little daughter? The camp trembles with expectation. We stop every man we meet. It would be so beautiful if one of these men turned out to be our father. How much strength we would need for such an encounter. When I see from the distance a man resembling my father, my knees give way. Sometimes a couple walks past us. A man and a woman. They are holding hands, awkwardly caught between pain and joy. They are the lucky ones. We look after them with strange expressions in our eyes.

8 July Tateh, this very moment I am calling you with all the power of my being. If you are alive somewhere, then surely you feel my anguish. Surely you hear my call. Do not lose hope. If you are alive, there is no road too far for me to travel. If you are sick, do not give in. Wait. We will come. Our joy will bring you back to life. We will make you well. We are calling you, Tateh!

10 July We scan the lists of names of survivors of the camps. The long pages are crumpled from passing through too many impatient hands. There are fingermarks on every single sheet of paper, like anonymous signatures. My fingers wander over the welter of names, my heart thumping wildly. Behind these names are actual human beings, Jews saved from death. They call to us. “Look, I am alive! I am here! Come find me, brother. Find me, sister, friend …” How many of these names will not find an echo in any heart? Strange, solitary, lonely names, hundreds of them. I have found some familiar names, some of people I knew well, some not so well. I am glad to know that they are alive. But my fingers do not stop at their names, but continue down the list. I am looking for those who are still closer to me. Very often my heart skips a beat.

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The same name as … ! No, it is another man with the same name. I continue the search.

16 July We are losing our peace of mind. The uncertainty is destroying us. It is painful to catch the eye of the strange men moving about our camp. They are healthy, with strong, tanned, half-naked bodies. I see them and I cannot keep from thinking about the men dearest to me.

19 July, Wednesday We have news of Father! By chance we stopped a man in the camp and asked him if he knew anything about Father. Yes, he knew. He was with Father until two days before the liberation.

20 July, Thursday Henia and I are going to look for Father. We left the camp this morning.

28 August We are back in the camp. Why am I telling all this anyway? For four long weeks we trudged all over Germany. We got lifts on coal wagons, hitched rides with lorries packed with horses. We walked for miles, tired, frightened, with an uneasy feeling in our hearts. We were not the only ones on the road. We met hundreds of lonely children just like us. Hundreds of wandering fathers, hundreds of solitary wives. It was all for nothing. Somewhere, perhaps in a forest or in a field lies the mutilated body of our father. Perhaps we passed the very spot, and did not hear the mute call of his body. He did not live long enough to feel our arms around his neck; we never even had the chance to kiss his wounds.


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We looked for Simkha-Buniun Shayevitch, but that, too, was a fruitless search. Perhaps somewhere a breeze blew past us carrying the breath of his burned body. But we did not feel it. When we returned to the camp, the bad news was waiting for us, brought by a friend who has survived. We have recovered a friend – but we have lost our father. Joy and sorrow. Why does the poor heart not break in agony? Our friend found our names on the lists. He told us that Father perished a day before the liberation, killed when an American bomb landed on the train that the Germans were using to transport Dachau prisoners deeper into Germany. Shayevitch was taken during the very last selection to the gas chambers. There is nobody left any more for whom to wait.

1 Sept. I do not read the names on the lists anymore. I do not go anywhere. I know that I shall never see my father again. Actually, I have known this for a long time. I felt it in Auschwitz the day we parted for the last time. Now I must find all kinds of refined means to deaden my pain. I am going to make a lot of noise. I am going to run, laugh, busy myself with work, do everything I can to stifle the constant longing in my heart. But where does one get the strength for joy? How does one poison longing? Even Nature has lost its charm for me. I am empty of all desires. I cannot get away from thoughts of my father’s death. I experience it over and over again. I lose myself imagining his lonely suffering – and yet, I am not dying of sorrow. I suppose that there must be a stillgreater depth of pain that I cannot reach. Last night I had a dream. I saw myself in the concentration camp with Henia. Every day fifty women were taken out of the camp to be shot. Henia and I tried every ruse we could think of to postpone being taken. When it was no longer possible to avoid our deaths, we begged the ss women guards to postpone our execution for just one day, because it was the Sabbath. We knew that we had to die, but could it not

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be one day later? That one extra day we pleaded for seemed to us to be more beautiful and enticing than our entire lifetimes. We pleaded with the guards and begged for that single day, but they did not want to grant it to us. They were already preparing the execution grounds, when suddenly Father appeared with a burning staff in his hand. The ss women disappeared, and Father told us that he would fight with us. It was true, he said, that we would have to die, but in fighting one does not feel one’s death. We were so afraid for our father. He was talking so loudly, somebody might betray him to the guards. Later, I saw us fighting. All the camps rose in one great uprising, Hamburg, Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen. I saw a wave of flame sweeping over all of Germany. And we, the fighters, glowed victorious in that flame. It was a night of fire, and everywhere I looked I saw my father with the burning staff in his hand. That staff emitted such fierce flames that the Germans sent airplanes to bomb us, and we had to run to the fields in order to escape. It was then that Father suddenly appeared next to us, saying that he wanted to die together with us. Never before had death seemed as attractive as it was in my dream. Later I saw us all in a cellar, but Father was no longer with us. Somebody opened the door. Our eyes were blinded by a grey shaft of light, and I felt a great sorrow in my heart. It was the beginning of a new day. tranSlation: GoldiE MorGEntalEr

notE These extracts from Chava Rosenfarb’s diary were published in Yiddish in 1948 as an addendum to her first collection of poems, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald. The text of the full diary has never been found.


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Springtime, when I see the carefree children of Montreal chasing each other in the parks, kicking balls in the alleys, or speeding by me on their bicycles; when their boisterous shouts and laughter rise from the yards and street corners to echo against the walls of my room, I am reminded of the children of the Lodz ghetto. Most often, my memory picks out the beautiful face of one particular dark-haired boy, with large, coal-black eyes. Once, long ago, the radiance of those eyes, filled as they were with the infinite longing for spring, illuminated the oppressive grey of a classroom located in the attic of a factory building in the Lodz ghetto. The face was that of my favourite pupil, Shloymele. I liked to talk to Shloymele’s eyes; they seemed so eager to swallow every word I spoke. If, as sometimes happened, Shloymele was absent from class, I had the impression that there was not enough light in the room. On such a day, the suffocating greyness of my surroundings penetrated my bones, and the words I spoke to the children fell mechanically from my lips, lifeless and without wings. I was always especially apprehensive if Shloymele failed to appear after a night of raids, when people were herded together for deportation to one or another of the extermination camps that dotted the maps of Poland and Germany. At such times, anguish would grip my heart. The wistful sparkle in Shloymele’s deep, dark eyes, so expressive of a longing for the end of fear and a desire for joy and laughter, is the reason that every spring I am haunted by my memories of the children of the ghetto. I am persecuted by images of these children as they confronted their Nazi murderers, a confrontation of the guileless and innocent against the brutal and barbaric. Out of this confronta-

tion emerges again the eternal question: What sort of creature is Man? Springtime, when all of nature comes to life, I hear in this riddle a warning to generations yet to come. During that long night of terror called the Second World War, the Jewish ghetto children were the most helpless of all the Nazi victims. The fact of their Jewishness, added to the fact that they were so young, sealed their fate. Whereas an adult could occasionally, by some stroke of luck, save his own life, no such good fortune ever befell the Jewish child. Even the child’s parents, whose duty it was – like the parents of other species – to protect their young, were protectors no longer, eager though they may have been to do all in their power to defend and save their offspring. The Nazi judgment of doom hung over the heads of all the children in the ghetto. Fear was their constant companion. It gnawed away at their young hearts as they slept, and pursued them when they woke. It ate at them as they chewed on their dry crusts of bread or sipped their rations of watery soup. No secrets were kept from the children of the ghetto. They knew the truth, understood their situation, and yet clung fiercely to life. Like small animals aware of the hunter’s pursuit, they huddled in the corners of buildings or inched their way stealthily along the walls of the ghetto, doing their best to appear invisible. At the very beginning of our incarceration in the ghetto, there had existed schools for the children. But these were abolished with the arrival of Jews from the provinces and from other countries. These newcomers, whom the Nazis deposited in the Lodz ghetto to await future deportations to the various concentration camps, were lodged in the school buildings. In 1942, the Lodz ghetto was designated a forced-labour camp, and in such a camp there was, of course, no room for children. It no longer mattered much anyway – the majority of the children had already perished by then, while the annihilation of those who remained was completed during the Sperre of August 1942. The Sperre, short for gehsperre, meaning “curfew” in German, consisted of eight days of house arrest, during which the entire ghetto population was ordered to stay indoors. Every day, from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, cohorts of ss men marched into the courtyards of the buildings, one building after another, roused the

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inhabitants, and ordered them to line up in the centre of the yards, so that a thorough selection could take place. Those selected for deportation were mostly the sick, the weak, the old, and the children. Every morning of the Sperre, frantic mothers dressed their little Moisheles and Yacovs, their little Miriams and Sarahs, in their finest clothes. They combed the little boys’ hair and wove colourful ribbons into the little girls’ braids in the futile hope that the sight of such “mothers’ treasures” would soften the hearts of the fathers of German children. After the selection, the young ones, earmarked for death, were placed on trucks. There they were neatly arranged in rows, one child next to the other, row upon row, and carted off in their tens, in their hundreds, in their thousands. When the trucks passed through the streets of the ghetto on their way to the train station, they looked like wagonloads full of colourful bouquets of freshly cut flowers. Despite the Germans’ vaunted thoroughness, a small number of children did succeed in temporarily eluding their Nazi pursuers by concealing themselves in ingenious hiding places. Officially, these children ceased to exist. They were provided with forged identity cards by those in a position to pull strings. On these new cards their ages were altered to make them appear older. Transformed overnight into maturer versions of themselves, they became ressort workers, ressort being the name given to any kind of factory or workplace in the ghetto. These old-before-their-time children could be seen in all the ressorts, working at any job assigned to them. Pale, scrawny, hardly more than skin and bone, they operated the simplest, as well as the most complicated, machinery, and were in no way distinguishable from their adult co-workers except by their size, and their agility and diligence. They displayed a wonderful dexterity, spurred on by an unquenchable zeal to excel. They seemed intent on showing off what they could do, on proving their usefulness, and in this way convincing the world that they deserved to be granted the gift of life. The results of their labour did not differ substantially in quality from that of the adults. However, the children’s workdays were twice as onerous and nervewracking as those of the adults, because, while they worked, their senses had to be constantly on the alert. Their ears were forever straining to catch the slightest noise coming from outside, while their eyes

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Children working in a locksmith’s workshop in the Lodz ghetto. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Robert Abrams. 

darted restlessly back and forth, in case a German commission should suddenly appear to conduct an inspection. In such an event, the children would vanish into previously prepared hiding places until the danger was past. Did I call them children? There were no children in the Lodz ghetto. There were only diminutive, emaciated Jews, visible here and there as they mingled with the rest of the ghetto population. Dressed in adult clothes, the cuffs of their oversized trousers trailing along the muddy pavements, the sleeves of their voluminous coats dangling over their hands, and the visors of their ill-fitting caps sliding down their foreheads, they went stealthily about their business. Peering out from beneath the shades of the visors, their eyes betrayed fear and anguish as they surveyed their surroundings, checking to see whether danger lurked on the left or the right, in front or behind. The empty canteens attached by a string to the buttons of their threadbare coats tapped out,


Personal Essays

with an incessant clicking, the sound of their craving for food and for the joys of childhood. The children possessed a fund of energy, whose source was as much a mystery as their survival. After a ten-hour day of toiling in the factories, they had to devote themselves to the problem of “making ends meet.” Their cunning and inventiveness in supplying themselves with the necessities of life put many adults to shame. They were more adept than the adults at sneaking boards for firewood out of the factories. They were better at stealing spools of thread and worming their way to the head of the line at a food distribution centre. No adult could surpass them in agility and speed when it came to snatching up a turnip or a few potatoes that had tumbled off a passing wagon on its way to the distribution points. Most of these children risked their lives to help their families – that is, if they still had families. Often they themselves were the heads of households, their parents being ill or deported. The children were the only support of these dwindling homes, or they were the sole survivors. And then, after such a long day of labour and fear, many of them still had enough energy left over to take part in all sorts of clandestine organizations. Sneaking through the backyards and alleys, they would hurry with their comrades to after-curfew meetings and discussion groups. For these working children of the ghetto, illegal schools were organized in the buildings of the ressorts where they were employed. I worked as a teacher in one such school at the Metal-Works Ressort No 2. My subject was Yiddish and Yiddish literature. The classroom was located in the loft of the building, and was furnished with a few tables, benches, and a blackboard. The loft, though drafty and bitterly cold during the winter, was nevertheless spacious and bright. Beyond and below the small windows lay the ghetto, and beyond the ghetto, the city of Lodz could be seen spread out as in a bas-relief. From that perch it was also easy to see German military vehicles stopping in front of the factory to unload the members of an army commission on their way to conduct an inspection. In such an event, we all made ourselves scarce, sneaking down the back stairs of the ressort and into the street.

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My students were eleven- to twelve-year-old boys, since only men were employed at the metal-works ressort. Some of the boys barely looked their age, while others resembled withered old people. They climbed the stairs to the loft directly from their work stations, their faces and hands smeared black with machine oil and dirt. Disciplined and solemn, adult expressions imprinted on their faces, they slid into their seats on the long benches. There was not a trace in their conduct or demeanour of the playfulness or mischief characteristic of elevenor twelve-year-old boys. Learning was serious business in the ghetto. With passionate greed they devoured the meagre crumbs of knowledge that the teachers managed to put before them during the limited hours allotted for the lessons. Shloymele, my favourite student, lived all alone in the ghetto. The rest of his family had been caught during a raid. On the morning of the raid, he had left home to fetch the family’s turnip ration at the vegetable distribution place. While he was gone, his parents and siblings had been loaded onto trucks and transported to the train station. But Shloymele’s life had been temporarily spared. I liked Shloymele very much. Whenever I entered the classroom and was greeted by the light from his flashing black eyes – eyes full of curiosity and expectation – I would begin my lesson with renewed zest. He charmed me with his comeliness, with the finesse of his manners, at the same time as the radiance of his face made my heart ache with pain. The light in his face spoke so clearly of his longing for both knowledge and laughter. He infected me with his burning hunger for life. He was as diligent a student as any of the other boys, but more than once I detected the glint of a threat in his burning eyes, a warning to me not to babble. This was because I sometimes liked to entertain my students with silly chatter. Still in my teens, I occasionally indulged my own yearning for escape during the lessons and fantasized aloud about the blissful times awaiting us after the liberation. Shloymele did not like this sort of talk. He would not tolerate digressions from the subject of the lesson. Whenever I launched into such a monologue, his eyes would turn towards the window, and I knew that I had lost his attention for the rest of the lesson. But there

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Children working in a wood workshop in the Lodz ghetto. Photograph by Mendel Grossman. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Moshe Zilber.

were moments when, observing the dreamy expression in Shloymele’s eyes as he peered through the window of the loft, I wondered whether my words had not, in fact, given flight to his imagination. Perhaps his mind was roaming freely in the open sky beyond the window, a sky which seemed so close that it could be touched. Perhaps he sought there an escape from his fears and from the sentence of doom hanging over his head. I shall never forget one particular class that I taught in the loft of the metal-works ressort. I read to the children the story “Miracles on the Sea” by the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. The story describes the life of a Jewish fisherman by the name of Satia, who lived in a Dutch village, far from any other Jews. The only Jewish holiday that Satia

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observed was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. One day, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Satia set out to catch a fish, so that his family would have food for after the fast. The other fishermen, Satia’s neighbours, warned him not to venture out on the sea that day, because a storm was gathering on the horizon. But Satia smiled trustingly, “There is a good Lord in the heavens, my friends. He will protect me.” And so Satia rowed out to sea on the eve of Yom Kippur. Sure enough, the storm caught up with him. Satia wrestled mightily with the gale, stubbornly bucking the waves and rowing with all his strength until it occurred to him that the sacred holiday must have begun. Physical labour was no longer permitted. So Satia dropped the oars, saying, “I won’t row on Yom Kippur.” He raised his eyes to the darkness above his head and exclaimed, “Do with me as you wish, Almighty God. I won’t row on Yom Kippur.” As I was reading the story, I felt that the children in the room saw themselves accompanying Satia on his boat, that in their imaginations they sat next to him on the stormy sea, and that Shloymele, my favourite, joined Satia and the others in facing the tempest. The sky seemed to have vanished from outside the small window of the loft. The only things that the children saw before their eyes were the towering waves tossing the helpless Satia from crest to crest, until he sank to his death beneath the cruel sea. When I finished reading, a heavy silence fell on the room, a silence that I sensed was about to explode. Shloymele jumped to his feet. Pounding his small fist against the tabletop, he angrily exclaimed, “I would never give up like that! I would never let the oars fall from my hands! Never!” And he sat down as abruptly as he had stood up. The other boys did not react. Their silence compressed the air between the walls of the loft, as if it contained a pent-up scream. Darkred blotches, like points of flame, broke out on the grimy, childish faces. It was clear to me that each child saw himself alone with his life on the stormy sea. Each of them became Satia. And again it was Shloymele who broke the silence. Once more, he jumped to his feet and began to formulate his own strategic plans for how the ghetto should resist the Germans. The other children perked up, and inspired by Shloymele’s vision of the struggle, began contributing ideas of their

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own. At first shyly and hesitantly, then with increasing enthusiasm, they chattered away, giving their imaginations free rein. Finally, they reached the height of their fantasies, imagining an all-out Jewish war against the Germans, dreaming of simultaneous uprisings in all the ghettos and concentration camps of Poland and Europe. The book containing I.L. Peretz’s “Miracles on the Sea” lay open before me, as if it were the great writer’s listening ear. It was as if in this loft in the Lodz ghetto a dialogue was taking place between Peretz, the literary master, who had written of the spiritual continuation of the Jewish people in his play The Golden Chain, and the generation to whom it was not given to become a link in that chain. The number of children in my class in the loft of the metal-work Ressort No. 2 dwindled from week to week. Fewer and fewer boys showed up for my lessons. Some were kept from their work and from my classes by hunger, or tuberculosis, or dysentery, or typhoid fever. Others had been caught and deported to the crematoria. Of the sixty boys I had taught at the beginning, only ten remained in August 1944 when the school and the ghetto were liquidated. After that we were all sent to Auschwitz. Shloymele attended my class to the very last. During all that time, he and I did not grow closer by so much as a hair’s breath. I knew that he took pleasure in my friendliness, in the affection I showed him – and that he feared it at the same time. He avoided me when he saw me in the street. I understood him. He did not want to attach himself to anybody, so as not to suffer any more losses. I never encountered a single one of my students after the liberation. Springtime, when I am most inclined to think of them, their faces all assume the features of my beloved Shloymele. Again I see before me his beautiful, coal-black eyes, which had expressed such eagerness for knowledge, for joy, and for laughter. I know that he did not for one moment let the oars fall from his hands. But the cruel black sea was stronger than he was. It prevented him from reaching the shores of freedom and the summer of his life. tranSlation: GoldiE MorGEntalEr

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Chava’s parents, her sister, Henia, as a baby, and Chava herself at about five years old. This is the only known photograph of Chava’s father. 

Ramblings through Inner Continents: Notes from a Life

What are the legends of my life? It would be worthwhile to explore them, because the older I get, the more indistinct my life appears to me. I would like to gather my various stories together in order to see them complete, at least as a story. Many Jewish writers begin the stories of their lives in a shtetl. That’s true for me as well, but not directly. The shtetl Kinsk (Końskie in Polish) belongs to my pre-history, to the history of my grandparents on both my mother’s and my father’s sides, who lived there, died there, or were killed there. I visited the shtetl as a child, and saw it with childish eyes. The image of that shtetl was filtered through those childish eyes and remained in my memory as a lovely, picturesque painting, retouched a little with the impressions of the shtetl that I gleaned from my reading when I was older. I see the garden in the very centre of the shtetl, right next to the Potcheyov, as we called the marketplace, which was surrounded by Jewish stores. In one store, my grandfather Khaml, from my mother’s side, sold chalk and lime. I remember him as old, half-blind, with a white chalky beard and moustache. I see his daughters, my aunts, with tousled, white curly wigs. They looked like angels hovering around God himself in the person of my majestic grandfather, carrying on the business of selling chalk and lime to the peasants in order to have enough for the Sabbath. I remember that I was never without a piece of chalk to draw my little boxes on the sidewalk for a game of hopscotch. I also remember that on the Sabbath my grandfather’s beard and sidelocks were not white, but red, because my family on my mother’s side were redheads, with Mongolian facial features.

Elsewhere on the Potcheyov was the stall of my grandmother FaygeMirl, my father’s mother. She was so poor that she didn’t even have a proper store. All she had was a kind of blind window with shelves on which she displayed her wares: shoelaces, needles, buttons. Summer or winter, she would sit outside on a bench beside the wall. At various spots throughout the Potcheyov, my other relatives had their stands, where they waited for customers. I remember one of my aunts, who had a daughter my age. Her name was Malka. She liked to talk in rhymes. When she was older, she would recite her own poems to me, poems that she never wrote down. In yet another shop there worked my father’s young cousin, Dvoyra, who was a “red,” that is, a Communist, may God help us. But most of all I remember my grandmother Fayge-Mirl’s garret, which could only be reached by climbing a crooked wooden staircase. When I looked out of her window, my eye fell on the convent garden below, and I could see the nuns walking between the rows of flower beds. How do I find the right words to describe the sweetness of the perfume that floated up to me from that garden, drifting into the garret through every one of my grandmother’s attic windows? That sweet smell follows me to this day. I search in vain for its duplicate in the rose gardens, jasmine bushes, lilac and acacia trees of my maturity. I say to myself, “That’s it; that’s almost the same” – but it never is. My grandmother Fayge-Mirl was a small, delicate, refined woman with a sweet smile. She and I understood each other. She would take me on her lap as she sat on the bench near her stall on the Potcheyov and tell me stories from the Tsene-rene, the Women’s Bible, written in Yiddish, so that women – who were not permitted to study Hebrew – could understand. When it was cold, my grandmother would place her hands over mine and hold them out over her small fire-pot. She would buy hot kidney beans for me to eat to help me keep warm. In the summer, she would buy me blueberries and give me a small pin to stick them with, or she would buy me sunflower seeds. She would tell story after story, and I would crack one sunflower seed after another as I listened. My grandmother was a descendent of the great Rabbi Jonathan Eybeshutz and of other learned men. I never knew her husband, who


Personal Essays

was a scribe. He and his eldest son, Itche, “the genius of the shtetl,” died of tuberculosis before I was born. A second son, the father of my poetic cousin Malka, was a scholar who worked as a porter, then died of a heart attack. (Scholarship and poverty went hand in hand in my father’s family.) In the years when I visited Kinsk with my parents, my grandmother was living with her two beautiful daughters, Blume and Shprintze. Blume was a flirt, had butterflies in her head, and was not in a hurry to marry. Shprintze, the younger one, was for me the best of all aunts. She was delicate like her mother, and very romantic. Her Polish was excellent, and for hours on end she would recite for me the works of the great Romantic Polish poets, Slowacki and Mickiewicz. I understood next to nothing, but, like a sponge, I absorbed the music of the words and the melody of the stanzas. Perhaps it was Shprintze’s recitations, or grandmother’s stories from the Tsene-rene, or my father’s spiritual dreams, with their longing for mysterious, distant places that gave rise to my yearning to write. My father, Avrom, was a “softie,” a mild, easygoing man. I cannot believe that he was a bad son, but I am sure that he gave my grandmother much grief with his freethinking. Poverty whistled in every corner of his home. From my romantic point of view, it seems to me that poverty contributed to the intellectual atmosphere that hovered over the house, striving to free itself of worldly things. But to my father, poverty spoke another language. It was the stimulus for a twelve-year-old boy to protest, to doubt that there was a just God, or even that there was a God at all. He did not want to go to yeshiva, so he went to work at a mill. Later, he came to Lodz and became a weaver. Because he was tall, handsome, and graceful, with an inborn courtliness in his dealings with people, he eventually became a restaurant waiter. He also became a Bundist and a member of the workers’ club, The Harp. Nevertheless, the devotion he felt for my grandmother and she for him never diminished. They were both masters of the greatest of all arts – they knew how to love. Quite different was the reaction of my mother’s family to her becoming a freethinker. Even physically, my mother’s family seemed to belong to another race of human beings. They were sturdily built,

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earthy, healthy people. They were good workers, disciplined, practical – and also very poor. I never knew my grandmother Chava, whose name I bear. She died in giving birth to my mother, and left behind seven young children, six daughters and one son. My mother actually raised herself on the street, eating whatever the kind neighbours threw her way. The raw roughness of her early life served to sharpen her native intelligence. She began to earn her bread from the moment she could walk. And as soon as she saw an opportunity to escape her misery, she ran away to Lodz and became a shtoperke (a mender of faults in fabric) at a factory. She also became a member of The Harp. Her friends called her “Red Simma,” on account of her red hair, and would go nowhere without her. It was not just her intelligence that drew people to her, but also a certain maternal quality, an earthiness and warmth, which made people feel secure and protected in her company. My other grandmother, Fayge-Mirl, her daughters, Shprintse and Blume, even my father, always seemed to me to be my equals, to be my age and to mature along with me. But my mother’s family seemed to possess a majestic kind of strength, despite the poverty in which they lived. My grandfather Khaml was an authoritarian father, and I was dreadfully afraid of him, really without reason. But in my mother and her sisters this strength of character expressed itself in a strong motherliness. In the concentration camps, and even after the liberation, everyone who knew my mother called her “Mameshie,” little mother. It was an endearment that she richly deserved. My mother did have a good reason to be afraid of her father. When he learned what kind of person she had become in Lodz, that is, that she had fallen – God help us! – off the path of righteousness and was hanging out with young men, he made the long trip to Lodz in his wagon, even though he was almost blind. He found where my mother was living and gave her such a beating with his cane that, on the part of her head where the strokes of the cane had landed, no hair ever grew again. Even so, although my mother never forgave her father for the beating, she always treated him with respect when she travelled with me to Kinsk. I have the impression that he felt some guilt over what he had done. After all, she was his youngest, his favourite. He never again reproached her with anything.


Personal Essays

Whenever I played on the Potcheyov, my aunts would warn me that I should not, for God’s sake, go into the stall of my father’s uncle. The unfortunate man was afflicted with Dvoyra, his angry, embittered daughter, who had become a revolutionary. Dvoyra spent more time living in prison than at home, so I was quite happy when I did find her sitting in the store. She told me wonderful stories. Many times, I would slide off Grandmother Fayge-Mirl’s lap, after she had told me about the brilliant, otherworldly paradise awaiting us in heaven, and steal into Dvoyra’s shop to hear about the brilliant proletarian paradise awaiting us on earth. Many many years later, Dvoyra actually saw the paradise that she had devoted her life to achieving. She encountered it first in Russia and then in Poland, and ran away from it as far as she could go. Today she lives in Sweden. I remember one trip I made to Kinsk when I was eight or nine years old. I was already a student at the Bundist Medem School in Lodz – and I caused a sensation in the shtetl. First of all, I looked rich and stylish, like someone from the big city, because I was well dressed. Shprintse made a show of parading me around the shtetl, walking me through all the courtyards on the Sabbath. Old and young followed me with their eyes, and when there gathered around me a group of young people, Shprintse began to show me off. She made me climb onto a bench and recite wierszyki in Yiddish,1 which seemed even more impressive than reciting them in Polish. Another reason I became famous in the shtetl was because of my appearance in the city garden. A Sabbath crowd had gathered around us, and I, who was about to enter the Jewish socialist children’s organization, known by the acronym sKIf , took it to be my skifistic duty to give a fiery speech. Standing on a bench, I loudly proclaimed, among other things, that there is no God. Not surprisingly, my declaration travelled like a bolt of lightening through the shtetl, and reached the ears of my grandmother Fayge-Mirl just before the Friday evening meal. My grandmother smiled quietly at my brilliance. She handed me my plate of cholent2 with a wink that said: “Child, listen to me. ‘Eat more and talk less.’” Shortly after this, I was demoted to a second-class attraction in the shtetl, because of the appearance of an American. A real American,

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no less. Not only was the American an American, but he was young, as handsome as Samson, and even more romantic-looking than the famous Romantic Polish poet Juliusz Slowacki. Who he was and what he was I don’t remember. What I do remember is that all the members of the “weaker sex” in the shtetl were head over heels in love with him, including my Aunt Shprintse and her best friend, who were at the head of the queue. The drama played itself out like something out of Ibsen or the Greek tragedians. Shprintse and her friend cried oceans of tears together, because they loved each other, and they cried separately, because each was jealous of the other. In the end, it was Shprintse who managed to reach the highest rung in the American’s heart, which didn’t surprise me because, if he was worth anything, he had to have noticed that Shprintse was the most beautiful, the most intelligent, and the most in love of all the girls in the shtetl. No small thing, my Shprintse! And the fact was that a proposal was so close, so any minute … The flame of love was at its most intense – Romeo and Juliet themselves had never felt such fire – when the young man disappeared, like a fish under water, right at the end of the summer. Shprintse started to cry, seriously this time, and that was how she cried herself into spinsterhood. In my father’s family, love was not a joke. I remember one Tishe B’Av.3 My little sister, Henia, and I sat on small stools, wearing only our socks, in a room full of weeping women, including my grandmother Fayge-Mirl. The women cried so loudly and plaintively that the walls seemed to shake. The entire world appeared about to drown in their great lamentations. I remember the dreadful trembling of those hours. I also remember the crippled, deranged Krayndele, who sat in the doorway of the hut that we occupied and laughed her crazy laugh. That is all that I remember about Kinsk. How very little it is – and how very much. No one and nothing is left of the Kinsk that I remember. The little that remains in my memory, in my sister Henia’s memory, in the memories of the remaining grandchildren of my grandparents, will die with us. Let me at least inscribe it on these pages. My Bundist parents carried on a love affair with the Bund, and gave me a Bundist education. How often, once I reached the age of awareness,


Personal Essays

The house in Końskie that used to belong to a member of Chava’s extended family, pictured in the summer of 2010. Photo by Gideon Hadary.

did I hear about brotherhood! Neither one of my parents was able to speak or write in Polish, let alone any other languages, but when they spoke to me, the entire world seemed close and familiar. I did not have a single Polish friend, yet I thought of every Polish child as a brother. I was afraid of the roughnecks, the hooligans that my mother always worried about. She was afraid that they would attack my father when he came home from work at night. But they belonged to a separate race of dark, evil people who would disappear when socialism was established. The Poles were brothers with whom we would build our beautiful new life. Oh, how I dreamed of this new life! I was born in a suburb of Lodz, in the “Geyers” region, at 1 Sieradzka, in a small, narrow room on the fourth floor. I remember that room, although we moved out when I was barely three years old. There was a narrow bed, and at its foot a table; near the table, the kitchen. One picture hung on the wall in a cheap frame. I believe it was a reproduction cut from a newspaper of a painting by one of the Dutch masters of a peasant woman lost in thought in the middle of a field.

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I remember a scene that took place in that room. It dates from my pre-memory, when my mind would not yet have registered anything, so most likely I was told about it very early in my childhood. I see my young mother cradling me, a tiny baby, in her arms. She is sitting stiff with terror, as rifle butts batter the door until it breaks. For some reason, my father is in hiding, and they are looking for him. I also remember the table that stood in that room. My mother, who learned how to be a mother at the Bundist club called The Harp, was a principled opponent of hitting children, and I remember very few instances when she slapped me, except, of course, when I didn’t want to eat. As for my father, I don’t remember that he ever laid a hand on me, or even yelled at me. I took advantage of my mother’s principles in the way of any spoiled only daughter of a woman who had herself never known a mother. I always knew how to get my way with her. And if she refused to give in, I had my means of making her do what I wanted: I would choke, which means that I would scream so loudly that I would lose my breath and then not be able to catch it again. My desperate mother would grab me, stand me on the table, and, barely breathing, stammer, “Chavchele! Chavchele!” and blow into my mouth, so that I should catch my breath again – which was exactly what I intended. However, one day, my mother, who was always in great distress after such a scene, came to her senses and, instead of giving in to me, spanked my behind, crying and sobbing as she did so. “There! Now will you choke! Now will you choke!” Did I have a choice? I had to shake my head no. And I never did it again. From those same times, I remember my childless Aunt Rivka, my mother’s sister, who lived across the hall from us. Yet another one of my mother’s sisters, my Aunt Tsiporah, lived in the same building, on the second floor. She was “rich.” She had two dwellings with a kitchen and a butter shop that we called “a business.” I spent a lot of time at my Aunt Rivka’s, who was happy to have an object on which to lavish her maternal affections. My freethinking mother’s relationship with her pious sisters consisted of helping them whenever there was a need, as they did for her, and being in attendance at all holiday meals – and that was all. She was truly close only with her third sister, Aydl, who lived in Baluty.4


Personal Essays

At my Aunt Rivka’s I could do whatever I wanted, and one day what I wanted to do was throw a bottle through the window of the fourth floor and listen to how it shattered on the sidewalk. The bottle was not empty. It was a bottle of what we called vitriol, that is, sulphuric acid. What my aunt was doing with this poison, I don’t know. Maybe she used it to “baptize” the mice that ran around the fourth floor. I don’t remember how the bottle came into my hands. What I do remember is that I heard a very pleasing cling-clang coming from the sidewalk when I dropped the bottle, immediately followed by my aunt’s scream: “Woe is me! The vitriol!” First, she grabbed hold of her wig,5 then she grabbed hold of me, and, more dead than alive, dragged me out of the apartment and hid with me in the outhouse. “Oh, the gentile boys! May it never happen to them!” She bit her lips and listened closely to the sounds coming from outside. On the third floor there was a school full of Polish boys, and my aunt was terrified that the bottle of vitriol might have hit one of them, since this was exactly the time when they were on their way home from school. After a long and very boring interval, my aunt worked up her courage, and we emerged from our hiding place to find no great harm done. Another time, I repeated this game with one of my aunt’s large white plates, which made a sound that was even more pleasing to my musical ears than the bottle. First it shattered when it crashed against the iron railing of my Aunt Ziporah’s second-floor balcony, and then it tinkled as it kissed the sidewalk. I remember all these incidents so well, because my Aunt Rivka used to recount them over and over again. I imagine that I was the cause of more than one of the grey hairs that grew under her wig. This was also the first time in my life that I saw a corpse. It belonged to one of the gentile boys from the school, who had been killed, I don’t know how. He lay stretched out in the gateway, and I could gaze down at him for as long as I liked. He made no impression on me. Even so, I knew he was dead. Later my father became a waiter. We moved out of the cramped, narrow room and into a larger room with a kitchen. It was on Skladowa Street in the city, that is, not in Baluty. This flat had one fault. It was located in a factory building at the end of a large factory yard. All day

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long, the flat shook like a ship on an angry sea, the motors humming constantly. At night everything was silent. We and the rats were the only living things in the yard. I have no idea how my mother managed all alone with a small child, especially since my father would come home from work at two or three o’clock in the morning. It was while we were living on Skladowa Street that I began kindergarten. I remember that I had a round hat and a yellow lunchbox. Of the kindergarten itself, I remember nothing except the fact that I preferred to play alone at home in our grey building. I remember that I enjoyed playing with tissue paper. I would pick at it and then roll it into little balls. When I had amassed a small pile of these little balls, I very systemically began to stuff them up my nose, until both nostrils were well and truly blocked. The little balls disappeared down the air tunnels of my nose and I began to breath in tissue paper rather than air. My frantic mother tried to pull the little balls out of my nose, but my nostrils were too small for her to do much good. She picked me up and rushed me to the doctor. I don’t remember what happened after that, but somehow I was relieved of the tissue paper balls blocking my nose, and I never played that game again. It was in the flat on Skladowa Street that my sister, Henele, was born. I don’t remember that I was very pleased with this development. What I do remember is that my sister’s coming into the world caused a great revolution in my life, since she robbed me of my mother’s attention, and I was not prepared to look with detachment on such an injustice. My sister was two weeks old, when, with murderous intent but without great result, I threw a shoe into her crib. I suspect that my resentment and my begrudging her my mother’s love lasted a while longer, but at the same time she was my little sister, so when she got sick and the feldsher 6 came and wanted to put cupping glasses on her, I accosted him with the same fury as had propelled the shoe: “I won’t let you put cupping glasses on my little sister!” Later there was a fire in the factory building. I was playing alone in the empty yard. Suddenly, I saw plumes of smoke coming from all the windows of the building, and in one of them, in ours, I saw my mother throwing down bundles of clothes and bedding onto the pavement below. Not long after, she herself came dashing down the stairs with


Personal Essays

my little sister in her arms. I ran to her, wrapped myself in her apron, and stammered: “Mameshie, my belly is knocking.” After the fire, my parents decided to return to the Geyers section of town, where my mother’s sisters lived. A goodly number of Bundist families with children my age also lived near Geyer’s factory. There my mother would have people with whom she could socialize, and I would have playmates. We moved into the same building where we had lived before, on Sieradzka No. 1, but in a flat with a kitchen, on the second floor, where my “rich” Aunt Ziporah lived. The Bundist parents, all factory workers who could not even afford to take a streetcar to work, decided to pool their resources and establish a nursery school – not just any nursery school, but the most modern institution possible for pre-school-age children. They renovated a wooden cottage with brightly lit rooms, which the mothers and fathers themselves painted and decorated. Obviously, they were trying to create for their children everything that had been missing from their own childhoods. There was no lack of tables and chairs, dolls and rocking horses, trumpets and all kinds of other playthings. We even had a dovecot with doves. They hired a teacher, Rokhl, who, it should be understood, gained more satisfaction from her work than from her pay. I remember with what pomp my birthdays were celebrated in that nursery school, complete with coloured hats and sparkles and presents. But I hated the school with all my heart. I was bored there, and too confined. I felt as if I were in a well-lit prison. The organized play that pleased the teacher did not please me; it poisoned my life. So every Monday and Thursday, that is, as often as I could, I would run away and get lost in the streets. My mother would become alarmed and go searching for me. She always found me, gave me a spanking, and warned me that she would come looking for me the next time too. I don’t remember if I was upset by this warning, or if I just finally took pity on her. Whichever it was, I stopped running away from nursery school, but that didn’t make my teacher Rokhl’s life any easier. I categorically refused to “make a little speech,” or to sing “Beautiful Flowers Grow in the Garden,” when I had no desire to do so. I also could not bear the cold, dead dolls. To this day I don’t remember a

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single doll I ever played with. When teacher Rokhl could no longer endure my anti-social behaviour, she sent me out into the yard. Her pedagogical instinct rightly told her that I no longer had the courage to run away. What did I do instead? I tucked up my sleeves and smeared all the windows with mud, so that the teacher could not see me from the inside. But my conscience bothered me, so I called upon the Messiah to come quickly and free me from this slavery, by which I meant that he should make me two years older, so that I could go to a “real” school. One of the Bundists, who lived in the Geyers district, was called Moishe Marcinkowski. He was a barber and had his barber shop in the marketplace. He spoke Polish well, but his Yiddish was not that of a native Lodzer, but rather had a Litvish intonation.7 He was a type of proletarian intellectual, and his hobby was writing poetry. Comrade Marcinkowski had a young wife, whose beauty was admired in the Bundist circles of the Geyers district. I remember her very well. I especially remember her standing in one of the two alcoves where they lived behind the barber shop, combing her unbelievably long, wavy hair that hung down to the base of her spine. I remember how the pallor of her face contrasted with the dark locks of hair that encircled her face. She was already sick then. The Marcinkowskis’ daughter, Zenia, was my age. I don’t remember if she too went to the nursery school. I used to play with Zenia when our parents were busy with party matters and we children were all brought together in one house to be supervised by one or another of the mothers. Even then, I was bound to Zenia in many ways. I even looked down upon her with reverence and respect. (I say “looked down upon” because she was always smaller than I was.) There were many stories about Zenia that circulated in the Geyers district. Compared to her, I was a coward, a nothing. Zenia would run away from home every chance she got, running far enough to reach the fields behind the Geyers. She had first-hand information about fields, trees, birds, dogs, cats, and male smart-alecks, while I was afraid of all of them. I remember, after Zenia’s mother died, how Zenia played in front of the barbershop without spirit or energy. And I remember when

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Eva Klachevska came to replace Zenia’s mother, and Zenia again grew mischievous and resumed her habit of running away from home. That is when our friendship began. Today Zenia Larsson lives in Stockholm, Sweden.8 She is a sculptor and the author of nine books in Swedish. At a ceremony marking the two hundredth anniversary of Jewish life in Sweden, a ceremony that took place under the auspices of the Swedish king and all the members of parliament, my Zenia gave the keynote speech in the name of Swedish Jewry. How many people can boast of a lifelong friendship that has survived unscathed through every fire; or go through life in tandem with another human being, each following her own path, undergoing changes, renewing herself, and yet continue to love one another, to remain soulmates for so long? This is not a common occurrence. Zenia and I are proud of our friendship. She has publicly told its story in a book. She believed that it would help whoever had a chance to read it. I have not yet done so, having always been overly discreet about revealing personal experiences. Just like an adolescent who writes poetry in greatest secrecy, or like any individual who keeps a secret love hidden in her heart, 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. And this must be so. And what are these immensely intimate secrets that the writer reveals about herself? Perhaps they are, in another form, also a part of the reader’s experiences, and that is why they find an echo in the reader’s soul as well. And yet it is still impossible for me to openly sing praises to Zenia’s character, to her humanity, even to her artistic talent. It would certainly have been easier for me to do so in fictional form. Writing about things as they really were seems cheap to me. But until I write my fiction, all I can do is record the facts. Zenia and I did not go to the same school. I attended the Jewish secular school – the Medem School – and she went to a state school.

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The Swedish novelist Zenia Larsson (née Marcinkowska), Chava’s best friend, in 1959. 

Later she went to Abs High School and I to the Wiedza High School, but we received our high-school diplomas together during the war years. Despite going to different schools, we met often before the out-


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break of the war. She continued to live in the Geyers district, while we moved to the other side of the city. We would meet and walk each other to our respective homes from one end of the city to the other, talking all the while. We were full of weltschmerz; the suffering in the world weighed heavily on our hearts. We were especially concerned about the situation of women in the world, and we agreed on the pressing need for emancipation. Nevertheless, any rain, especially a summer storm, always cheered us. We would hold hands, run out into the middle of the street, laughing and shouting loud enough to outshout each clap of thunder. During all the years that we were in high school, Zenia was writing a novel. She discussed her characters with me and told me about the problems she was having with the work. She was fully aware of her future role in life: she would be a writer. As for me, although I wrote poetry, my ambitions pulled me in another direction. I wanted to be a teacher. Not just any teacher, but a reformer of the school system on a global scale, because I hated school as an institution. At the time, I dreamed of a school like Summerhill,9 even though at that time I had never heard of such a school. Aside from this, I had political ambitions, while Zenia was completely naive when it came to politics. (Today it is more or less the opposite.) Once, during one of our get-togethers, she announced that she had destroyed the novel that she had been working on. That shook me. Even at that age, I had the feeling that destroying one’s own work was like committing suicide. I marvelled at her courage, even as I was overcome by a great sense of loss. After the Nazis established the ghetto in February 1940, there was seldom a day when we did not see each other to share our thoughts and our earnest “problems of the heart.” In the ghetto, Zenia, her father, and Eva lived in half of a room that was separated by a tablecloth curtain from the other half, where there lived another family who were friends of ours. Zenia’s side had a balcony. We often spent our evenings there. Soon after, Zenia’s father fell ill with what was once called “galloping consumption,” a virulent form of tuberculosis. Every time I visited, I noticed how shrunken his body had grown, how his eyes grew larger and more feverish. Zenia withdrew into herself. We would sit together and seldom exchange a word. She too began to shrink. She

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and Eva gave up most of their meagre food rations to the invalid. One day Zenia came running to see me, completely distraught. She told me that the woman doctor who looked after her father had told her that her father had, at most, six weeks to live. Zenia suspected that her father had heard the doctor’s whisper. A few days later, I went to visit Zenia to see what was happening. I walked into the room. I saw no one there. Suddenly I noticed Zenia’s father lying on the balcony, blood running down his hands. The razor lay on the floor. I do not remember when or how Zenia and Eva came into the room. I only remember Zenia on the balcony, bending over her father and murmuring incoherent words. After this incident, Zenia’s silence deepened, and she became even more withdrawn. I remember her going into the fields in Marysin10 with pails in her hands. She would fill them with the clay that she dug up. Her alcove in the small half-flat became peopled with figurines and heads that she sculpted from the clay. I remember that Eva, always devoted, would wrap damp towels around these heads while Zenia worked on them. There were days and weeks in the ghetto when we were so troubled and tormented that we saw each other for only very short periods, just to make sure that we were each all right. We did not hide together during the Sperre.11 But during the liquidation of the ghetto in August 1944, Zenia and her stepmother, Eva, came to us. The poet Shayevitch had devised a camouflaged hiding place in our two-room flat, and there ten of us hid in a room concealed behind a dresser. On 23 August 1944, the Germans found us and sent us to Auschwitz. Zenia, along with Eva, my mother, sister, and I walked together in a group of five whenever we were required to march in columns. We never separated. From Auschwitz, we were sent to the work camp Sasel on the outskirts of Hamburg. There we built houses for the bombed-out Germans of that city. All five of us lived together with two other women in a small barrack. Zenia slept on the bottom bunk, and I on the upper. In our free moments, Zenia would pull from her pocket pieces of clay that she brought from the workplace and mould figurines, while, with the stub of a pencil, I wrote poems on the ceiling above my upper bunk.

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Or we would pass the time by loudly recounting our dreams, dreams that were common to all concentration-camp inmates. Together we were sent to Bergen-Belsen, together we lay half-dead in the barrack on the day we were liberated. Eva died on the first or second day after our liberation from eating the too-rich tinned food that the British distributed to the starving inmates when they liberated the camp. Like me, Zenia had typhus, but we were not sent to the same hospital-barrack. My mother and sister, who remained ambulatory, even though they too were infected with typhus, brought me news of Zenia. Then came the days after the liberation. When she had recovered, Zenia decided to become a nurse. She had no reason to remain in Germany. She knew that none of her family had survived. As for me, I did not yet know what had happened to my dearest ones. Zenia and I separated. She left with a transport taking sick people to Sweden. In the meantime, my sister and I wandered all over Germany looking for my father and for those whom we had lost. This was in May 1945. In all the years since then, Zenia and I have met only twice. One time, we had a holiday rendezvous in Majorca for two days; the second time, I visited her in Stockholm. We carried on a rich correspondence and kept each other up-to-date about every aspect of our lives. Zenia finished the Academy of Arts in Stockholm and married Pelle Larsson, a wonderful man, who, although he is not Jewish, seems to have more Jewish feelings and Jewish warmth than even Zenia herself. Her sculpture shows have been very successful. But one day she found herself sitting at her table, pen in hand. And suddenly, in one creative burst, there poured out all her life experiences and sorrows. And so was born her war trilogy.12 I have never read it, because it was published in Swedish. But I imagine that we both used the same material, because our life experiences were the same. As often happens between writer-friends, we both use, unbeknownst to one another, our shared experiences as the basis for our work. That is good; it enriches us. The facts are perhaps the same, but they are filtered through our individual distinctiveness, so that we each write our own legends.

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Of course, I am anxious to know how Zenia writes her stories. Even more, I regret that I cannot read her books, because I know that there I would find Zenia’s true nature. Her nine books stand on my bookshelf; we regard each other without comprehension. What an irony of fate that between us there should stand the barrier of a strange language! Often I take the books into my hands and leaf through them. When someone visits me who knows Swedish, I ask him or her to read a few paragraphs to me. I even bought a Swedish-English dictionary and tried to plough through a few sentences on my own, but without success. I knew the birth pangs that attended every one of Zenia’s books; I knew their essence. But that is not what mattered to me: I wanted more than anything to be able to read Zenia’s books for myself. The years flew by. The bundle of Zenia’s long, magnificent letters to me, written in Polish, grew in my drawer. A few times during the years, I would take them out to read again, from the first notes that she sent me about her successful arrival in Sweden to her last hurried letter. A few years ago, I received a letter from Zenia. She asked me to send back all the letters that she had written to me. She gave all kinds of vague reasons about why she wanted them back. This request came as a terrible blow to me. I felt as though a part of my life was being ripped away. I reread all her letters again – probably for masochistic reasons – because I wanted to absorb them before I parted with them. Then I sent them back. At my request, she sent my own letters back to me, wrapped in a neat little package. Our friendship was over. A year or so later, I received Zenia’s most recent book, with a dedication. The name of the book was: Letters from a New Reality. From her dedication, I learned that these letters from the new reality were the same letters that she had written to me over the past twenty-five years, now translated into Swedish. The story of our friendship was now out in a book, sent to the homes of thousands of strangers in a cold, faraway land, in order to warm their hearts. And so, we resumed our correspondence, which continues to this day, as does our friendship. The companionship I had with Zenia represents the kind of relationship I have longed for all my life, but seldom found: namely, to belong to a group of people who are broad-minded, curious about the


Personal Essays

world, original, speculative, stimulating, and, above all else, tolerant. What has always bothered me in my Montreal Jewish milieu is the conformity that I find: people trying to emulate others, hitching their wagons to dogmatic standards. Whoever does not conform is ostracized and disliked. Everyone sits in judgment of everyone else’s behaviour, actions, speech. They classify, they criticize, they moralize, they preach, they crawl into each other’s pockets, into each other’s motives. Many times, I catch myself thinking that I am no better; I allow the external world to influence me. I pay a heavy price for the comfort of being a part of the multitude. What saves me is that, when the feeling of narrow-minded shallowness threatens to overwhelm me, I return to my writing. And when I am not writing, I miss Zenia with all my heart. tranSlation: roz USiSkin and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

notES 1 Wierszyki are short poems, usually written for children. 2 Cholent (from Fr. chaud lent) is a stew of meat, beans, and potatoes. It is the traditional Sabbath dish, so called because it can be left to simmer overnight at a low heat, thereby avoiding the need to light a fire on the Sabbath, which is forbidden by Jewish law. The dish would be prepared before sundown on Friday and left to cook overnight. 3 Tishe B’Av is an annual fast day in Judaism, sometimes called the saddest day of the year. It commemorates a number of catastrophes in Jewish history, but primarily the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans. 4 Baluty (Balut in Yiddish) was a slum in the city of Lodz that was home to about half of Lodz’s poorest Jews before the Second World War. In February 1940, the Nazis established the ghetto in Baluty and herded the entire Jewish population of Lodz (about two hundred thousand people) into the area, which they then closed off behind a barbed-wire fence. 5 Pious Jewish women shave their heads when they marry, and then wear wigs for the rest of their lives. 6 A feldsher was an unlicensed medical practitioner, employed by the poor who could not afford a doctor. 7 Litvish literally means Lithuanian, but here it is a reference to the northeastern dialect of Yiddish spoken by Jews from Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, portions of

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8 9


11 12


northeasten Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. The Litvish accent in Yiddish differs considerably from the accent common in Poland. Zenia Larsson died in Stockholm in 2007. Summerhill is the name of an alternative boarding school in Suffolk, England. It was founded in the 1920s by A.S. Neill, whose book, Summerhill: An Approach to Child Rearing, published in 1960, introduced a wide audience to Neill’s permissive attitude toward education. The book caused a sensation when it was published and became an international bestseller. Marysin was the northeastern part of the Lodz ghetto, a large segment of which was made up of fields. This is where the more-favoured residents of the ghetto lived, including the Jewish head of the ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski. The sperre (more correctly gehsperre, German, meaning “curfew” or “house arrest”) is described more fully in “Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto.” Zenia’s trilogy consists of the following novels: Skuggorna vid Trabron (1960) [Shadows by the Wooden Bridge]; Lang ar Gryningen (1961) [The Dawn Is Long]; Livet till Motes (1962) [Meeting Life].

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LITeRaRY essaYs

Paul Celan: Jewish Writers and the Savage God

In order to explain myself to myself, I often try to imagine what the lives of other writers have been like, especially writers whom I admire and with whom I feel a connection. To do this, I sometimes resort to Freudian clichés, sometimes to intricate conjectures and rationalizations. And so, for lack of any better means of explication, I have resolved to apply these unsatisfactory tools to an issue which has recently preoccupied me, namely, the epidemic of suicides among Jewish writers who were also survivors of the Holocaust – writers such as Primo Levi, Romain Gary, Piotr Ravitch, Jerzy Kosinski, Adolf Rudnicki, and Paul Celan. Whenever I learn of such a suicide, I feel a sting in my heart, as if the tragedy had happened to a relative, or to an intimate friend, or to my alter ego. I am overcome by a sense of dread and pity, at the same time as I feel a surge of anger and resentment. Why did they do it? It seems to me that by destroying themselves these writers carried their own lives back to the altar of annihilation, to enlarge still further the German victory over the Jews. I ask myself what might have impelled these writers to commit such an act of violence against themselves. I try to identify with them, to grasp how tragic their postwar experiences must have been, how devastating the forces working within them, how deep the despair that dragged them down, if it could cause all the support mechanisms of their postwar existence to collapse. What compelled them, of their own free will, to shut the light of day from their eyes – that miraculously rescued day, which was such a dearly bought gift from Fate?

My speculations lead me no further than a still-deeper realization of how devastating these writers’ suffering must have been, if, having survived the fires of Hell during the war, they were unable to bear their postwar existence any longer. After all, those who survived the Holocaust should have been doubly resistant to any subsequent catastrophes. Jerzy Kosinski, for instance, had been a homeless little boy during the war, wandering alone through the Polish countryside. His Jewish parents, intent on saving his life, had made arrangements to hide him in a village, but they had lost contact with him. And so, without father or mother, friendless and desolate, he lived through the most unimaginable horrors. How, then, could he have experienced anything more miserable and solitary after the war?1 After his liberation from Auschwitz, Primo Levi spent time in a number of Soviet gulags before he finally returned to Turin, Italy, where he had been raised. He found his mother still alive, and managed to rebuild his family. What greater happiness could ever have come his way after that, and how could he have destroyed this happiness of his own free will? Romain Gary’s mother, Mina Kacev, a Jewish actress from Vilna, had used to prophesy a great future for her son while he was still a child. “My son,” she would say, “will be a hero, a writer, and a French ambassador. He will purchase his suits in the most distinguished tailor shops in London.” Her Vilna neighbours mocked her, but her prophecy came true. Her son became a heroic French pilot during the Second World War. Just before one of his missions, his mother telephoned him from the hospital. It was the last time he heard her voice. But for the next three years, until the end of the war, he regularly received letters from her. He remained unaware of his mother’s death until he returned to Nice after the war. She had died three years earlier, but, before her death, she had written 250 letters, entrusting them to a friend, whom she asked to keep her death a secret. This friend regularly posted the letters to Gary in England. After the war, Gary was hailed as a hero and became a distinguished French author and diplomat. So how could he have decided to take his own life, thereby trampling on his mother’s prophecy? How could

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he have brought himself to silence the voices of his perished comrades, whose spirits lived on within him as the voices that he called “my dybbuks”? On the whole, Kosinski, Levi, and Gary enjoyed better, more interesting, and more rewarding lives after the war than the majority of Jewish survivors, due to the fact that they were blessed with talent. Even though as writers they fulfilled their painful obligation of bearing witness to annihilation, testifying to Hell, they were nonetheless able to draw on the healing powers of creativity. Through writing, they freed themselves from the constraints of silence. The power of words liberated them from emotional oppression and allowed them to shed their mourners’ tears in the pages of their books. And they were successful in what they attempted. Their works were praised, and they themselves became famous. They were showered with honours and achieved a level of financial security as well (with the possible exception of Paul Celan). And yet all these advantages did not tip the scales to the side of life. Why not? The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, Survival at Auschwitz by Primo Levi, Romain Gary’s Promise at Dawn, Adolf Rudnicki’s novels and stories, and Paul Celan’s poems all bear witness to their authors’ great respect for life. These writers, who had been so cruelly tested by Fate, certainly knew the value of every moment of every day of their saved lives. So if Freud is right that our drive for self-preservation is in continuous struggle with the death wish, why then did the latter so often win out in the case of these writers? Is it not possible that, during the fateful moment of decision between life and death, they were thrust into a state of nervous shock, when the equilibrium of their reason was suddenly shattered, triggered perhaps by a sudden attack of insanity? But if that is the case, then why did this attack plunge them all into the same mental condition that culminated in an assault on their own lives? These suicides do not seem to be isolated events. There are too many of them. That is why I believe that there exists, apart from the personal and intimate, apart from the tragic and direct causes, yet another cause, one which establishes a string of related motivations that bind all these doomed writers into one fateful brotherhood.

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These writers had in common the fact that they were all Jews who wrote in non-Jewish languages, that is, in languages other than Yiddish or Hebrew. None of them had grown up rooted in their Jewishness. Instead they came of age immersed in the cultures of the countries in which they lived. All of them were to one degree or another alienated from their roots, even though their parents may have remained bound to the tenets of Judaism and they themselves may have spoken or understood Hebrew and Yiddish. They were in fact the heirs of those assimilated Jewish intellectuals who in previous generations had contributed so much to the flourishing of European culture and who had added pages to the literary histories of other nations: Heine writing in German, Proust in French, Tuwim in Polish, Mandelstam and Pasternak in Russian. Just like their predecessors, the writers who survived the Holocaust began by identifying with the people among whom they lived. In order to demonstrate how rooted they were in their non-Jewish surroundings, they made an effort to be plus catholique que le pape. They mastered the languages of their countries of residence better than many of the “legitimate” citizens of those countries. And along with their linguistic mastery, they assumed distinguished positions in the literatures of those nations: Primo Levi in Italian, Jerzy Kosinski in English, Romain Gary and Piotr Ravitch in French, Adolf Rudnicki in Polish, and Paul Celan in German. So, the question arises: What is the connection between this common trait of cultural and literary assimilation and the tragic act of taking one’s own life? Is not every suicide a result of a uniquely personal situation? Is it not unlike any other breakdown in an individual’s private life? It is; and yet I would contend that such an emphasis on the private and individual is illusory. It seems to me that the trajectory of one’s life follows the course of an all-embracing blueprint drawn up behind the scenes, which leads it in one direction and not in another. There must exist some form of social determinism, deciding human fate. I have the impression that the most lonely human being, in the most lonely moment of his or her life, is bound by destiny to a particular community. Consciously or not, we perform a predetermined dance, depending on who we are, where we come from, and where

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the drama of our lives and the lives of our ancestors has played out. Intuitively we cling to these ties of belonging. For instance, the American poet Sylvia Plath was very unhappy in her private life. Neither she nor her family had anything to do with the Jewish tragedy in Europe. Nevertheless, one single fact of her biography established an affinity in her mind between herself and the Jews of Europe: namely, that her father was a German. At the age of fourteen, he had emigrated from Grabow in Polish Pomerania to America, where he eventually became a professor of biology at Boston University. He died in 1940, when Sylvia was eight years old. But in her unforgettable poem “Daddy,” she expresses her resentment toward a father who had died too soon by presenting him as a Nazi. Because she suffered as an adult woman, she compares herself to a Jew. At the age of thirty, and not long after writing “Daddy,” she put her head into the oven of the kitchen stove in her London flat, and turned on the gas. By the act of gassing herself, she underlined her identification with the Jews exterminated in the gas chambers. The Jewish writers I have been discussing needed no such artificial means of identification with the Jewish people. They were Jews by birth. Nonetheless, they never succeeded in acquiring a strong sense of Jewish identity. Their works, although written with despairing Jewish hearts, allow us to perceive the vagueness of their self-definition as Jews; they seem not to have found, in their Jewishness, solid ground under their feet. Did they remain as unfriendly toward Yiddish and Jewish culture in general after the war as they had been before it? Hard to know. What we do know is that even after the Holocaust most of them kept themselves apart from Jewish communal life. Their suicides make me suspect that they continued to nurture a significant amount of assimilationist repugnance toward themselves. Perhaps their form of veiled Jewish self-hatred had become even more biting. Perhaps they had been contaminated by the hatred of our annihilators to destroy the Jew within themselves by destroying themselves. The Holocaust forced them to acknowledge their Jewishness at the same time as it allowed them to see themselves as innocent and just. They began to proclaim their adherence to the Jewish nation loudly and clearly, even with a certain boastfulness. And so, the business

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of disliking themselves as Jews became extremely complicated. The memory of their perished Jewish homes, whether those homes had been traditional or assimilated, became something sacred. The sentimental longing for the vanished past and for their own childhoods became entangled with an inner torment, fed by an immense sense of guilt for having held in contempt those who had perished. It was not only their attitude toward their own Jewishness that changed in the thinking of these assimilated writers after the Holocaust, but also their attitude toward the non-Jewish world and the part of themselves that wanted to belong to it. There sprang into existence a spiritual divide, separating them from their non-Jewish milieu, although they still craved inclusion in that world. In former times, they might have deluded themselves into thinking that they were comfortably integrated into their adopted homes. But after the Holocaust they began to feel acutely their alienation from the peoples among whom they lived. Their books about the annihilation of the Jews of Europe were well received, with admiration and praise; but as Jews, with their specifically Jewish sensibilities and pains, these authors came to realize how deep was the abyss that divided them from their non-Jewish surroundings. And so they began to see themselves as belonging neither to the Jewish nor to the non-Jewish world. Separated both from the Jewish community and from their non-Jewish neighbours, who “had not been there,” they became homeless survivors, lost in a desert of existential alienation. And then came the great shock: the revival of anti-Semitism after the Holocaust. It meant that the annihilation of six million Jews had not been enough. The world which these writers addressed in their work, the world which they tried to heal with their hope and humanism, compassion and love – despite the bitter truths about human nature that they had learned – this world had stuck out its poisonous Jewhating tongue at them. For Primo Levi and Paul Celan, the fear of a revival of anti-Semitism had turned into an obsession that endlessly persecuted them. And so, as I suppose, it became difficult for these writers to deal with the confusion in their minds. The unbearable contradictions that

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they had been unable to resolve reached the point of bursting, at the same time as their devastating feelings of guilt expanded – guilt for having profaned the sanctity of something for which they hardly had a name, and which they associated with those who had perished. Then, I imagine, there was one last drop of poison, some tragic personal experience, some brutal incident, and they lost the will to continue living. It was not a question of measuring the bitterness of that last drop of poison. Rather it was a question of the emptiness of a life lived “north of the future,” as Paul Celan put it. Paul Celan was the only poet among this group of writers; the others were all novelists. Celan’s baffling poems are not easy to understand, but they cast a light, not only on his personality, but also on the postwar destinies of Jewish writers in general, and in particular on the destinies of writers creating in languages other than Yiddish or Hebrew. It is possible to follow Celan’s poems, beginning with his unforgettable “Death Fugue,” like footprints in the sand leading from the Holocaust and the liberation to the River Seine in Paris, where he chose to end his life. He was an enigmatic modern Jeremiah, one of the outstanding European poets of the twentieth century. He wrote in German, the language of his parents’ exterminators. (In one of the lectures that he gave after the end of the war, the Jewish-Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig spoke about the tragedy of the German-language writers who were themselves victims of Nazism, but had no language other than that of their murderers with which to express themselves.) Celan’s actual family name was Antschel. Celan was an anagram of that name, which he adopted as his pseudonym in 1947. He was born at Chernowitz in Bukovina on 23 November 1920. Chernowitz was a Yiddish cultural centre, the site of the historical Yiddish Language Conference of 1908. The town took pride in its Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia. Celan’s father was a broker in the wood trade. The family suffered from frequent financial difficulties; however, the education of the son was never in question. The young Paul adored his mother. She was an intelligent, cultured woman of considerable beauty, with a keen interest in the arts and a broad knowledge of German literature. On his mother he bestowed

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all the feelings of affection and tenderness of which he was capable. The mother, for her part, was utterly intoxicated with love for her son. When he was a little boy, she participated in the games he played with his playmates, making an effort to accommodate herself to the mental level of her son’s friends. Celan’s attachment to his mother and hers to him was both a blessing and a curse. His childish love for her grew into an ardent devotion, a fixation that, in his youth, dominated his emotional life to the exclusion of all others. When he reached maturity, his love for his mother hampered his ability to enter into a lasting relationship with any other woman, especially any Jewish woman. Celan’s feelings towards his parents conformed to the pattern of Freud’s Oedipus complex – a love of his mother and an acute dislike of his father and all that his father represented. While the spirit of his mother hovers over Paul Celan’s entire literary output, his father is mentioned in his poems only once. That father was a practical, rigorous man, devoid of any inner softness, of any spiritual, or finer feelings. He was a traditional Jew, much at home in the world of the Talmud. His father’s attachment to Judaism was reason enough for the youthful Celan to turn his back on everything having to do with Jewish tradition and the Jewish God. A Zionist, his father spoke Hebrew with his acquaintances. So, along with his father’s “petit-bourgeois Zionism,” Celan rejected the Hebrew language. In fact, he grew to hate it and refused to study it until many years later. In his early youth, Hebrew represented for him his “father tongue,” while he regarded German, the language his mother spoke, as his mother tongue. He claimed that any writer who writes in a language other than his mother tongue writes lies. As for the Yiddish language, it was the language of the street, of the masses, and Celan’s dislike of Hebrew expanded to embrace Yiddish as well. He was fluent in Yiddish, was able to read it and to appreciate its rich idiom. Nevertheless, when he was young, nobody ever heard him utter a Yiddish word. But when an anti-Semitic teacher at the high school where he studied poked fun at the “Jewish jargon,” the young Celan protested, boldly informing the teacher that “significant literary works have been created in the Yiddish language and great works of world literature, yes, even Shakespeare, have been translated into this language.” 108

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When he was twelve years old he was given the gift of a collection of fables in verse by the Yiddish writer Eliezer Shtaynbarg.2 He was enchanted by the fables; his favourite was called “The Spear and the Needle.” The fables inspired him to write poems. A year later, he received for his bar mitzvah a copy of Goethe’s Faust. Under the stimulus both of Shtaynbarg’s fables and Goethe’s Faust, Paul Celan began to unfurl his poetic wings. His bar mitzvah was the last concession he made to satisfy his father. After his bar mitzvah he considered himself free, both from his father and from the burden of Jewish tradition. In the throes of youthful rebellion, Paul Celan embarked on a quest for his own brand of Jewishness, and, as if to spite his father, he discovered it in the Jewish left. He joined a Communist youth group and collected donations for Republican Spain. But he had ideological doubts. He required more profound answers to the riddles of life than political movements were capable of supplying. At this period of his youth, he began to immerse himself in the works of Rainer Maria Rilke. The older he grew, the more secretive and wrapped up in himself he became, and so he remained for the rest of his life. He had started medical studies in France, but his heart was not in medicine. Instead he was interested in linguistics. His interest in this subject, his enjoyment in penetrating to the very core of language, brought him back to Chernowitz, where he began to study the Romance languages at the university. Language meant much more to him than merely a means of communication. He believed that language was the repository of collective culture and individual creativity. And so he began to shape his literary persona. To the people with whom he came in contact, he seemed taciturn, locked up within himself, the type of man who would not permit easy access to his inner being, not even to his closest friends. He projected the same image of himself through his poetry, although there he seemed, with amazing ease and musicality, and with the greatest precision of language, to generously reveal all the nuances and depths in the landscape of his soul. The only problem was that he failed to provide the reader with a key to its meaning. The Jewish element played no part in Paul Celan’s pre-war creativity. He was a lyrical poet without national identity. But his linguistic destiny was linked to his mother tongue – German. He dreamed of Jewish Writers and the Savage God 109

settling down in Vienna, the cultural Mecca of German-speaking Europe. Long after the outbreak of the Second World War, Celan, along with other Jews raised on German culture, clung to the belief that “My being Jewish and my being German do each other no harm and much good.” (Mein Deutchtum und mein Judentum tun sich nichts zuleid, und vieles zulieb.) In 1940, the Red Army marched into Chernowitz, and for a short time the town was under Soviet occupation. Despite this occupation and the looming threat of war, Celan entered into a complicated love affair with a young woman named Ruth Lackner. Ruth’s father was an enthusiastic Yiddishist. As a child, Ruth had participated in the Yiddish Children’s Theatre founded by Eliezer Shtaynbarg, the Yiddish poet whom Celan so much admired. After graduating from drama school in Bucharest, she made her debut in the Yiddish State Theatre of Chernowitz, which the Soviets had established. Celan frequently attended the Yiddish theatre, and this was where he met Ruth. From the young Yiddish actor Yehudah Ehrenkrantz, he even learned the art of reciting his own poems. Celan was drawn to the Yiddish theatre in Chernowitz, much as his favourite writer, Franz Kafka, had been drawn to the Yiddish theatre in Prague. He felt himself to be spiritually related to Kafka. He made a point of reading a chapter of Kafka’s works every day, and he kept Kafka’s books by his bedside. He thought of Kafka as an older brother. After all, Kafka too had written in German. He too had had problems with his father and with his Jewishness, and he too had vacillated between Jewish identification and cultural assimilation. And Kafka had had mixed feelings toward the Yiddish language. In later years, in addition to Kafka’s prose writings and Rilke’s poetry, Paul Celan also admired the poems of the Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam. As for Celan’s attitude toward the Yiddish language, it underwent no significant change under the influence of the Lackner family and the Yiddish theatre. He continued to consider Yiddish a corrupt form of German, and he regarded Itzik Manger, the most prominent of the Chernowitz Yiddish poets, as merely a reworker of folkloric themes. But Celan was never one of the typical enemies of the Yiddish language. Far from it. He had a good ear for the language and was on


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friendly terms with the Yiddishists of Chernowitz. Through the Lackners, he made the acquaintance of the Yiddish enthusiast and linguist Haim Gininger. Brought together by their linguistic interests, these two erudite young men, Celan and Gininger, would spend long hours in passionate discussions about the Yiddish language and linguistic issues in general. Haim Gininger had a great influence on Paul Celan; however, even he was incapable of bringing about a total change in Celan’s attitude toward the Yiddish language. The reasons for Celan’s dislike of Yiddish were too deeply rooted in his psyche. After Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet Union, the Soviet Army withdrew from Chernowitz, and the city was occupied by the Germans. They established a ghetto in the town and began deportations to the camps. A great many Jews went into hiding to escape the frequent raids. Celan, who had been living with his parents, proposed that the three of them go into hiding as well. But his parents stubbornly refused to leave their apartment. His pleas and entreaties could not convince them. For the first time in his life, Celan had a serious quarrel with his mother. Finally, he left his parents and went into hiding by himself. When he returned home after one of the raids, his parents were gone. They had been sent to a concentration camp. He was also separated from Ruth Lackner. The Germans had caught him, and he was forced to work on the construction of highways. He slept in pits under the open sky, and was forced to work in all kinds of weather. In 1942 his father died of typhus in the concentration camp. In 1943, Celan learned from a man who had escaped the camp where his mother was held that she had been executed by a bullet to the neck during a forced march from one camp to the next. The image of his mother’s execution remained in Celan’s imagination for the rest of his life. The guilt-bell began to toll in his heart. It never stopped. One of his friends recounted his own success in arranging the escape of his parents from the concentration camp. Celan could not forgive himself for not having tried to do the same for his own parents. He felt that it was he who had murdered them. After the deaths of his parents, the Jewish motif became a powerful element in Celan’s writing. In 1945–46 he composed his masterpiece, “Death Fugue (Todesfuge),” which opens with the following lines:

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Black milk of the morning we drink it in the evening we drink it at noon and in the morning we drink it at night we drink it and drink it we are digging a grave in the air there one does not lie cramped a man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes he writes when it grows dark in Germany your golden hair Margarete he writes it and steps outside the stars are flashing he whistles for his dogs he whistles for his Jews makes them dig a grave in the ground he orders us to play dance music now ... death is a master from Germany your golden hair Margarete your ashen hair Shulamith I quote some of the other lines at random: death is a master from Germany his eye is blue he shoots you with the leaden bullet his aim is true he incites his dogs against us he offers us a grave in the air he plays with snakes he shouts play death more sweetly death is a master from Germany he calls for the fiddles to play darker so that one can rise like smoke into the air and bestows a grave in the clouds where one doesn’t lie cramped The first woman mentioned in the poem is the golden-haired Margarete, to whom the master writes in Germany. Margarete-Gretchen is the name of Faust’s lover, who had been granted life, despite having killed her child. But another woman is also mentioned. She is Shulamith, the heroine of the Song of Songs. Her hair is ashen. Life has

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not been granted the innocent Jewish Shulamith, who rises into the air with the smoke [“dein goldenes Haar Margarete / dein ashenes Haar Shulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen” (your golden hair, Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the snakes”)]. In the world of “Death Fugue,” the lines can be moved around; they are interchangeable. The text would not suffer from any transposition. Beginning and end do not exist here. There are no punctuation marks, no causal connections between one line and the other, no sentence construction, no completion of phrases. Human speech is finished. The devastating line that begins “black milk of the morning” leads us directly into the hell of the concentration camp, where the central image is that of the smoke from the crematoria chimneys rising into the air. “We are digging a grave in the air here one does not lie cramped.” In the air there is space enough for the masses of the dead. “Death is a master from Germany.” This image, too is repeated over and over again. Murder multiplied many times over. The repetitious rhythms and repeated lines have a macabre, hypnotic effect. You can hear the poisonous hisses of snakes. You can feel the snakes coiling around your neck. Death, the master from Germany, keeps one eye closed as he shoots, leaving us to peer into the horrific depth of the other eye, the open one, which is blue. After Germany’s capitulation, the Soviets returned to Chernowitz. Celan was again taken for forced labour. He escaped, first to Bucharest, then to Budapest, and from there paid a man to smuggle him across the border to Vienna, the city of his youthful dreams. Being penniless, he paid the smuggler with the watch he had received as a gift from his mother and which he had carried with him everywhere. In Vienna he wrote a series of Holocaust poems, each less lucid than the one before. Yet all are powerful and moving, due to the unusual juxtaposition of words and images. As for his tormented love affair with Ruth Lackner, it lasted throughout the war, dissolving at war’s end with a final separation. Celan could not cut the umbilical cord that bound him to his murdered mother. He felt that the erotic aspect of womanhood, in particular of Jewish womanhood, was taboo. Ruth married another man. But for many years she remained his muse. He sent her his poems, and she helped

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him prepare the manuscript of his first book of poetry, Sand aus den Urnen (Sand from the Urns). In these poems Celan gives voice to the guilt he feels toward his perished parents. With pain he recalls his love for his mother: “Poplar tree, your leaves shine white in the darkness. My mother’s hair never grew white.” However, what torments him even more are his love-hate feelings for his perished father. He is consumed by guilt for having disliked him so violently. In the poem, “A Letter,” the mother says: “Oh child, at least a cloth to wrap myself in, when the skies twinkle. When the pink earth (pink from the blood on the snow) bursts open. When, like snow, your father’s bones are dusting the air.” This is the only mention of his father in Celan’s work. The lives of Celan’s parents had been cut short, and so too was the natural process of his growing away from his parents. He remained their forever-orphaned child. And by way of this sense of abandonment, by way of his complicated, passionate, and tormented feelings toward those who were gone, he sought to strengthen his hold on his Jewishness in order to find support in it. This search for his Jewish self finds expression in his search for his roots. He begins talking about the beauty of the Hebrew language. (He would visit Israel in 1965.) He recites Shtaynbarg’s fables in Yiddish. He interests himself in Hasidism and studies Martin Buber’s writings. But something is missing at the core of his being that prevents him from cementing his individuality into a coherent entity. There is a lack of vitality at the very root of his innermost self. He tries to unburden himself of his discomfort by expressing his hatred for the Germans as well as for Christianity. “The Nazis owe a debt of gratutude to Christianity,” he says sarcastically. “There is no need for them to look for a scapegoat. Christianity provided it for them in the Jews.” He writes that the Nazis had learned their methods of torture from the Inquisition. One day, hearing the dismayed shouts of onlookers as a car hit and ran over a dog in the street, he remarked with bitterness, “When a dog gets killed they mourn.” Vienna proved a bitter disappointment. He may have been a poet writing in the German language, but he was no longer able to stay in German-speaking Vienna. He left for Paris, where he made his final

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home, obtaining a lectureship in German literature at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He married a French woman, Giselle Lestrange, and had two sons with her, one of whom died in infancy. Giselle was a graphic artist. She was not Jewish, did not understand a word of German, and never read his poems. It was as if Celan were frantically trying to escape from himself and his painful past by starting a new life with a woman to whom his Jewish soul, the soul of a tormented Jewish poet, was a closed book. Perhaps because this escape proved unsuccessful – he eventually separated from Giselle – he began to prepare his final escape. His second collection of poems, Poppies and Remembrance (Mohn und Gedechtnis), was published in 1952 and brought him literary fame. This collection included “Death Fugue.” Memories of the Holocaust were still fresh, and this poem had a great impact on the literary world. Its publication prompted the famous remark by the Jewish-German literary critic Theodore Adorno that it was “barbarous” to write poetry after Auschwitz. A number of other literary critics wrote negatively about “Death Fugue,” claiming that the poem was too esoteric, too aesthetic, too precious, too beautiful, even though its beauty is both gruesome and grotesque. Celan saw an irony in the fact that critics like Adorno, who had spent the war in America, felt no compunction about preaching to him, the true witness who had been there, the tested, much-suffering survivor of the tragedy. As far as Celan was concerned, his surrealistic interpretation of reality came closer to the truth than any “objective” recording of facts. He believed that Art was capable of touching those spheres of knowledge that no “research” could ever reach. “There are still songs to be sung on the other side of humanity,” he would say. “There is poetry also on the other side of the unspeakable.” Paul Celan has taken his place as an acknowledged German poet. Germany is proud of him. The “Death Fugue” has been included in a number of German anthologies. His poems have become part of the curriculum in German schools. Volumes of commentary have been written about his poetry, as if the poems were sacred texts. His poems are so multi-layered and his diction is so varied in meaning that the poems create problems for translators. Celan was the recipient of

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many literary prizes, including the prestigious George Buchner Prize of Germany, which he won in 1960. He accepted these prizes with mixed feelings. Instead of words of thanks, he would read aloud essays in which he discussed his complicated feelings toward the German language. “I had to break through a thousand darknesses of death-dealing words,” he said. He suffered especially from the fact that he was writing in the language of his parents’ murderers. He considered this to be his tragedy, as if it were a crippling disease. This language of death, the only language in which he was capable of expressing himself as a poet, had also been the language of his mother. In fact, in one of his poems he asks her, with veiled resentment, “Can you bear, Mother, as in the past at home, the quiet, the German, the painful rhyme?” He made an effort to distance his German language from the language of the murderers, as if he were trying to create a completely new language, as if he were trying to eradicate the hated German of the Nazis by kneading the human warmth of Yiddish into its verbal dough, almost as if he intended to transform German into Yiddish. In his poems he often broke away from German syntax, or discarded grammatical rules, adding in this manner to the obscurity of his poems. Yet none of these linguistic distortions altered the fact that Celan’s own poetic inventiveness raised the language of his parents’ murderers to new artistic heights. He was aware of this fact and was devoured by guilt, at the same time as he could not help rejoicing in his triumphs as a poet. The obscurity of Celan’s poems used to upset me very much. More than once I opened a collection of his poems with great eagerness, hoping to find there an expression of feelings that I myself was incapable of articulating; and I would close the book and push it away with resentment and frustration, deeply disappointed. The fact that the poems were replete with personal symbolism, that they seemed to be shorthand letters written by the poet to himself, made me question the purpose of their publication. Why did he publish them if he had no intention of allowing an outsider access to his inner world? I reproached him in my heart. I was irritated by the riddles, by his alter-


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nating revelations and obscurities, by his tempting me with the beauty of certain phrases and his disinclination to explain their meaning. I considered his method of writing to be a form of teasing. That he had published poems that were as incomprehensible as some texts of the Kabala made me think of him as cynical and haughty. Then I read somewhere his response to a plea that he explain one of his poems: “Read it again! Don’t stop reading. Understanding will come by itself.” He added that every story is true so long as nobody asks questions about it, and that the same goes for a poem. He denied that his poems were “hermetic.” He claimed instead that they were his salute to his fellow human beings; that they were like greetings enclosed in a bottle and thrown into the ocean, to be found or not, as fate decreed. He maintained that each one of his poems was his “I” calling out to a receptive “you.” To him, poetry was a form of desperate dialogue with the world, his manner of seeking for a way to return home. And so I took another look at his poems. I read some of them over and over again. And to my surprise, the lack of clarity ceased to annoy me. My incomprehension dissolved before the splendour of metaphors and images. I began to feel myself into the poems’ strangeness and to grasp their meaning without really grasping it. Intuitively, I began to understand what Celan wanted to tell me. And although my reason lagged behind, I sensed that no word in a poem was accidental, but that each made sense within its context, despite my inability to make it out. I began to see the extent to which the entanglement of broken sentences, combined with the piling up of neologisms, was permeated by angst, by the despair of the poet bleakly wandering through mazes of darkness and premonitions of death. Primo Levi said that in the obscurity of Celan’s poems could be heard the death rattle of a dying person. Paul Celan never found the moral and spiritual support that he had been seeking since the day of his liberation. All that he had to lean on was a negative theology with mystical undertones, located somewhere in devotion to a Kabalistic God of Nothingness and Agnosticism. His God is Niemand, Nobody. Denial and blasphemy are the means by which Celan remains on intimate terms with this God, who is not

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there. Overcome by the sense of being cursed and abandoned, he engages his God in a characteristically Jewish dialogue, as here in the poem “Psalm,” from the collection Die Niemandsrose. Nobody kneads us anew out of earth and clay. Nobody says an incantation over our dust. Nobody. Praise be to you, Nobody. For your sake we want to flower against you. We were nothing, we are, we shall remain, flowering. The nothing –, the no-one’s rose. With our stem soul-bright, our dust-thread against heaven’s desolation, with our crown red from the purple word which we sang beyond, oh, beyond the thorn. In light of such poems, how can we understand Celan’s ardent feelings of friendship for the philosopher Martin Heidegger, one of the founders of existentialism, who had supported Hitler’s regime, refusing, to the day of his death, to retract a single word of what he had said in praise of the Nazis? Celan even wrote a poem in which he tried to awaken some remorse in Heidegger. The more time that elapsed since the Holocaust, the more Celan began to suffer from anxieties, mainly centred around his fear of a revival of anti-Semitism. These attacks of anxiety were regarded by his friends as part of Celan’s persecution complex, a kind of paranoia from which Primo Levi suffered as well. The fears grew stronger with the expansion of right-wing power in Germany in the 1960s, an expansion that plunged Celan into selfdescribed “madness.” But if this was insanity, it was the clear-eyed insanity of a prophet. 118

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In his poem “Tenebrea,” Celan addresses God: We are near, Master, near and reachable. Already caught, Master, entangled in each other, as if the body of each one of us were your body, Master. Pray, Master, pray to us, we are near. Against the wind we went there, went there to bow over hole and pit. To troughs we went, Master. Blood it was, which you have spilled, Master. It shone. It cast your image in our eyes, Master. Eyes and mouths are so open and empty, Master. We drank, Master, the blood and the image that was in the blood, Master. Pray, Master. We are near. In his fiftieth year, in the fall of 1970, Paul Celan drowned himself in the river Seine in Paris. “At every step the world bursts into bloom, but only out of despair are poems born,” he once wrote. In his case, out of despair came both poems and the black milk of the Seine. Jewish Writers and the Savage God 119

In a sense Paul Celan’s poems bind the souls of this entire group of writers into a bond of relatedness. In Celan’s life and in his attitudes are reflected many elements of their collective lives and attitudes. Primo Levi said of Paul Celan’s suicide that this noble, tragic poet deserved to be pitied, but in no way emulated. Suicide, Primo Levi declared, was a punishment dealt out to one’s self for secret, never-articulated sins. However, three years later Primo Levi himself committed suicide. Primo Levi was the oldest of the group of writers whom I have been discussing. He was sixty-four years old when he threw himself over the banister of the staircase inside the house of his birth in Turin, where he had lived for most of his life. He was at the height of his creativity. He had written Survival at Auschwitz; If Not Now, When?; The Periodic Table; and other important works. Perhaps he felt that what he had written was nothing but a flawed second-hand report from a Hell that could not be described. Doubtless Paul Celan, too, had thoughts along these lines. Perhaps all these writers succumbed to the belief that they had “written themselves out,” and had nothing more to say, and they feared the emptiness of a life without creativity. (“I’ve finally said all that I had to say,” Romain Gary wrote in his suicide note.) Or perhaps they were ashamed of having enriched themselves at the expense of their own horror stories? Or they felt ashamed that, in return for describing our Jewish tragedy, they were rewarded with fame and the good life? There are traces of this line of thinking in the recorded words of each of these writers. Lorenzo, the Italian workman who had helped Primo Levi survive Auschwitz, died a short time after the liberation. Primo Levi said that, although Lorenzo had not been an inmate of the concentration camp, he had nonetheless died of the survivors’ disease. Clearly, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, and the other writers of this group were similarly infected with the survivors’ disease and lacked the inner immunity required to continue with their lives. tranSlation: chava roSEnFarb and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

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notES 1 Rosenfarb seems not to have been aware of the controversies surrounding Kosinski’s biography, probably because this essay was published in 1993, before they came to light. She assumes that Kosinski’s novel, The Painted Bird, is autobiographical, although Kosinski later claimed that it was pure fiction. This was after it was revealed that Kosinski’s family had spent the war in different circumstances than those depicted in The Painted Bird. 2 Eliezer Shtaynbarg (1880–1932) was a Yiddish teacher and poet in Poland, best known for a book of fables in verse called Mesholim. This work was not published until after Shtaynbarg’s death, when it became a bestseller. These intricate fables, with their morally ambiguous conclusions, seem designed more for adults than for children.

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Stefan Zweig, the German Language, and Suicide (From “Ramblings through Inner Continents”)

I am reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday in German and, wonder of wonders: the language does not distress me.1 I have the feeling that I am reading in European, not in German. Yes, I am still angry with Germany, an anger that I cannot reason myself out of. I studied German in high school, read the great writers of German literature in the original. Later I practised this language in the ghetto and in the camps, in my interactions with my German lords and masters. But right after the war, the language disappeared from my memory. I acquired a mental block when it came to German. The only thing that I remembered was a kind of echo – German and the snap of the whip. If anyone addressed me in German, even when I was visiting Switzerland, I would stubbornly answer in English, or turn to someone else for a translation. Whenever I was asked if I understood German, I would say no. I made an exception for the great writers of German literature. I have no quarrel with those magnificent, world-embracing spirits who wrote in German. Nazism desecrated their accomplishments. But I will not renounce them. I get much more pleasure from reading Goethe or Heine or the modern German writers and poets in the original than in translation. The first step I took to reconcile with their language occurred twenty years after my liberation from Bergen-Belsen, when I decided to read Rilke’s The Book of Hours in the original. And from time to time I leaf through a copy of Der Spiegel if I come upon it by chance. But in that case, I feel that I am reading the German words and phrases through a heavy veil of resentment.

It is now thirty years since I left Germany. Since then I have often been to Europe, but I have never again set foot in Germany. Germany is lovely, I am told; Austria is wonderful. I know this. I remember the beauty along with the horrors. But I have an account to settle with Germany and with the Germans of my generation. I do not know when my account will be settled. It is my personal account, and not one I propose that anyone else should keep, not even my children. Which brings me back to Stefan Zweig. I have just finished reading his memoir, The World of Yesterday, which I picked up after reading the biography written by his wife, Frederica. Frederica was not Jewish. She rarely mentions that Zweig was a Jew, an omission that seems to me a sign that this was a problem for her and that maybe this was one of the problems in their relationship. Her book is written without hysteria, with control, with love and understanding. Still, one feels a certain undertone of frustration, of pain and helplessness, when she tries to probe the psychological mystery of the Jewish strain in her husband’s character and behaviour. Zweig was quite assimilated and immersed in Austrian life. I imagine that, in their day-to-day interactions, the difference in their backgrounds was not significant. Frederica was talented and very intelligent. They both belonged to the same intellectual milieu, had the same spiritual needs. Most importantly, they loved each other. This was not the hot, blinding passion of a first love; they were already mature adults when they met. Frederica had two children by a previous husband. Still, no matter how compatible and intimate a couple may be, they cannot live isolated on their own island. Willingly or unwillingly, they are influenced by the winds that swirl around them. But I believe that Frederica and Stefan Zweig had too much in common to allow the everyday up-and-down vagaries of life to affect their harmonious relationship. The trouble was that what swirled around them were not the mild blasts of daily life, but a hurricane that blew strongly enough to make a tiny crack in the walls of the house that these two people had built around themselves. Frederica devotes a lot of space in her book to describing the home she shared with Zweig. She writes in great detail about their house, which was located on a hill in Salzburg, Austria, a city that was the Zweig, the German Language, and Suicide 123

musical and cultural centre of Europe. She describes their joy at the acquisition of every item that made their lives more comfortable. Over the course of time, this home came more and more to mirror their personalities. She felt uplifted by breathing in the atmosphere that surrounded Zweig’s creativity, as well as by her own flair for beauty; she loved being in the presence of famous composers, poets, thinkers. The great Yiddish writer Sholem Asch was one of these guests. His friendship with Zweig continued even after Asch moved to America. In his home, Zweig gathered together a vast collection of books and objets d’art, memorabilia of the personalities whom he admired. He even acquired Beethoven’s piano. But one day in 1934, police showed up at their home and carried out a search. Zweig, a free spirit, a naive believer in European culture and individual rights, was shaken by the intrusion into his home. How did the legal authorities have the audacity to invade the sanctuary of his private life? Suddenly, he felt the vibrations that would undermine all the foundations of his home. As a protest, he immediately gave up his residence in Salzburg. For her part, Frederica demanded restitution from the authorities for the affront that had befallen both herself and her home. But she, the proud Austrian citizen, could not understand how it was that her husband, likewise an Austrian citizen, had lost his patriotic attachment to his homeland and had taken to wandering around Europe as a voluntary exile. This self-imposed exile, during the last period of Zweig’s life, caused her great grief. Her love, sensitivity, and intelligence were evidently not enough to penetrate the psychological chaos tormenting the soul of a Jew during the Hitler era. Frederica tries to explain Zweig’s behaviour to herself and to the reader. But what you get is a portrait of her own personality, of a proud and courageous human being, of a sensitive woman in pain. It was certainly not easy for her to write these last chapters. The irony of fate! A year before the beginning of the Second World War, Frederica travelled between Salzburg and whatever city in Western Europe her husband had wandered to. She put all her energy into simultaneously maintaining her home in Salzburg and being together with Zweig. She provided for all his financial needs. Like the wives

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of many artists, she did not think of her own literary ambitions, but instead made Zweig’s creativity the centre of her life. She lived for him and through him and did everything in her power to ensure a peaceful place for him to do his work. It was she who looked after Zweig’s aging, sickly mother. She was also the one who had to carry out the most painful mission that he assigned to her: the selling of their house. Frederica comes to London to meet with Zweig. He cannot make a decision without her. He needs a knowledgeable secretary who will help him with his literary works. Frederica finds him an earnest Jewish girl named Lotte Altmann, a sad, melancholic girl who has just arrived, along with other refugees, from Germany. And it happens that the homeless, almost sixty-year-old writer and the homeless girl, who suffers from severe asthma attacks and is twenty-seven years younger than he is, find a common language, not just as Jews, but also as man and woman. Together they wander about during the Second World War, journeying through North and South America, and it is with her that he commits suicide in 1942 during carnival time in Rio.2 Frederica’s explanations of Zweig’s suicide do not strike me as very convincing, although who would know better than she, if it were only a question of knowing. Isn’t suicide always a tragic surprise, even for those who are closest to those who have taken their own lives? Frederica writes that Zweig felt lonely in South America. He had lost his readership and his language; his books were burned in Germany. His literary career appeared to be over. And above all, the world was burning in the flames of annihilation. Was his suicide a protest? Frederica does not argue for this as a reason. And why did he take Lotte with him? Or, perhaps, she took him with her? Such a drastic decision must originate in deeper sources. The despair to which a person sinks before committing such an act must come from an inner conviction that no other way out is possible. External conditions may certainly play a role, but only when the inner self feels that the time is right. How many Jewish writers found themselves in even more tragic conditions during this time? How many Jews in general found themselves in worse conditions? And yet the number of suicides in the ghettos and in the concentration camps was small. The daily struggle

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for existence made life more precious. Those suicides that did occur were expressions of an attachment to life, of a praise for life; that is why they were acts of heroism. Examples are Isaac Wittenberg’s suicide in the Vilna ghetto, or Widawsky’s in the Lodz ghetto,3 or the Warsaw ghetto fighters, or the many who took their own lives, not because they didn’t want to live, but to enable others to live. So I think that Zweig, precisely because he was far from Europe and because he was not directly threatened by the Holocaust’s hellish fire, fell into a kind of concentration camp of the spirit, from which he could not find a way out. In a situation of total helplessness, it seemed that the only thing that still made sense was to end his life. Albert Camus likens suicide to a masterpiece that matures in the stillness of the heart. If this is stillness, then I think it is stillness in the eye of a storm. It is difficult to imagine the chasms of desperation into which a person must fall in order to decide to take his own life. Sometimes such an act is depicted as a form of madness. But what is madness? True, the suicide creates for himself a world with its own rules, and he approaches his act through his own indisputable logic. But is this logic any less sane than the logic of others, who also create their own imaginary worlds but do not commit suicide? Whichever way one looks at it, individuals do have the right to take their own lives. The fact that people look askance at such an act, that they whisper about it when it happens to someone they know, derives, I believe, from the guilt feelings of the survivors. They feel the suicide’s accusatory finger pointing at them; they feel that they have somehow contributed to the act, that they are in a sense its instigators. I remember the suicides that shook me. One happened early during the time when I still had great hopes for the future: the death of my friend Zenia’s father in the Lodz ghetto. He took his life so that Zenia would not have to give him her bread during the last few weeks of life that he had left.4 The second happened between the border of hope and despair: the death of Artur Zygielboim.5 I knew him from Lodz. When I was in grade school, I used to go to his house to play with his young son, Artek. Zygielboim was close enough to the fire to observe what was going


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on, but far enough away not to get singed. He saw how the flames engulfed his wife and child, how they overtook the “Jewish masses” that he cared about so deeply and to whom he felt emotionally bound. He flew to London to try to rescue them. He was devoured by his own self-disgust that he was safe, while “over there” life was every day held in the balance. It corroded his being, his peace of mind. Weighed down by guilt, by a feeling of total helplessness and despair, he had to explode. He could not remain passive and continue living. He had to do something, and that something was the sacrifice of his own life. Many years later came the suicide of Sylvia Plath. I did not know her personally, and had never heard about her until I read her poems and The Bell Jar many years after her death. With the bravado and despair of a young person, she tore apart the elegant poetic forms of the 1950s, and, using the raw language of everyday speech, she gave voice to the storms that raged inside her, thus freeing herself from the nightmarish visions that had long tormented her. In her novel The Bell Jar, she leads us into the dark corridors of the inner hell that led to her mental breakdown and brought her to the brink of her first attempt at suicide. It is a cruel, stifling world, whose black gates carry the inscription “no exit.” Plath took the fact that she was the daughter of parents of German origin as the symbolic definition of her life. It was a fact that could neither be denied nor changed. In her poems, she called the father whom she loved, and who died when she was a child, a Nazi bastard. She, the Aryan child of the postwar generation, reimagined herself as symbolically Jewish, estranged, persecuted, rejected, and condemned. She turned on the gas in her stove and put her head into the oven. I have finished reading The World of Yesterday. The book convinces me that I am, and always will be, a European, but a European of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I feel most at home with the literature, paintings, and music of that era. What a beautiful, luminous work this book is! In its pages, Europe has no borders, no nationalities. To Zweig, Europe is like a spiritual garden, where the most impressive personalities of all nations parade

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in their slippers, tasting the fruit from each other’s trees, singing together the songs of Olympus. And who does not have a place there? Verhaeren, Rilke, Rodin, Herzl, Werfel, Pirandello … Zweig describes his first encounter with Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism. At the time, Zweig was a young man with literary ambitions. Herzl was the features editor of the Neue Freier Presse (New Free Press) in Vienna. Herzl was the darling of the Austrian reading public, his historical role as yet hidden in the secrets of the future, although the inner revolution that would alter his life had already begun. As a correspondent, Herzl had witnessed the degradation of Alfred Dreyfus and heard Dreyfus proclaim “I am innocent.” Zweig paid a visit to the King of Zion, as Herzl was already being called, in the editorial office of his newspaper. The young writer brought one of his essays to show the editor. Right then and there, Herzl read Zweig’s work from first letter to last, while the young man anxiously perused the lines in the face of his reader. Herzl accepted the essay for the Neue Freier Presse, and that is how Zweig became a published author. Just as interesting is Zweig’s description of his first encounter with Rodin. The master sculptor took his young guest into his studio to show him his sculptures. They entered a spacious hall that held the replicas of all of Rodin’s sculptures, as well as his latest works. After they had made a tour of all the works, Rodin led Zweig to a stand that held the sculpture on which he was then working, the figure of a woman. With his large hands, Rodin lifted the sheets from the figure and stepped back to contemplate his work. “Wonderful!” Zweig remarked, truly enraptured. The sculptor stared at the torso and muttered, “Really?” Suddenly he noticed something. “Just a minute,” he said to Zweig. He quickly put on his white smock, picked up a rasp, and smoothed out the torso’s arm. He stepped back, noticed another detail that he didn’t like, and fixed that too. He stopped talking and became even more absorbed in his work. His young guest waited longer than just a minute. Hours went by. Forgotten and awestruck, Zweig stood by the side, hypnotized by Rodin’s feverish activity, struck dumb by the wonder of artistic inspiration. Finally, Rodin’s fervour began to subside as he found less and less to fix. The fire in the sculptor’s eyes died down.


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He took off his smock and strode over to the door. He was about to leave, when he suddenly noticed the young man standing to the side, and anger flashed from his eyes. Who was this stranger who had the nerve to enter the great sculptor’s artistic sanctum, his Holy of Holies? After a few moments, he recognized Zweig, remembered why he was there, and apologized. But the young man remained silent, overcome with gratitude for the privilege of having witnessed the master in the process of creation. This gratitude and respect for artistic creation were characteristic of Zweig, who, after all, dedicated his life to it. He was a passionate, indefatigable collector of signatures and the handwritten manuscripts of writers, painters, and composers. He was their biographer, translator, and interpreter. His interest in the great artists of his time, his open ear and open heart, lifted him into the realm of the great. The World of Yesterday is Stephan Zweig’s collection of the legends of his life. Every person has his own mythology, taken mainly from childhood and youth. We create legends built on memories, on facts and stories that we were told about ourselves when we were children. Often, when my own children recount memories of their childhoods, and I compare these memories with what I myself remember of the same events, they are completely different. It is not important who has the better recollection. It matters only what one remembers of one’s own past and how one remembers it. That is the individual’s true history. tranSlation: roS USiSkin and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

notES 1 Stefan Zweig was a Jewish-Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist, and biographer. One of the most popular authors of the 1920s and 1930s, he was also a friend to some of the most prominent Jews of that time, including Theodore Herzl and Sigmund Freud, as well as the non-Jewish Richard Strauss. Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which Rosenfarb discusses in her essay, was completed a day before he committed suicide in 1942. 2 Zweig divorced Frederica in 1938 and married Lotte Altmann in Bath, England, in 1939, so she was his wife when they committed suicide together.

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3 Isaac Wittenberg was the partisan leader of the Vilna ghetto, who committed suicide by swallowing poison shortly after he was handed over to the Nazis by Jacob Gens, the head of the Vilna ghetto’s Judenrat, under pressure from the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto, who feared that the Germans would liquidate the ghetto and send them all to their deaths if Wittenberg were not sacrificed to the Nazis. Wittenberg’s story is told in Chava Rosenfarb’s play, The Bird of the Ghetto. Chaim Nathan Widawski was a Zionist leader in the Lodz ghetto. In 1944 he was denounced, along with several others, for having an illegal radio in the ghetto. He escaped capture but later committed suicide by swallowing arsenic, because he did not want to break down under Gestapo torture and name his confederates. 4 For a more detailed description of this event, please see “Wanderings through Inner Continents.” 5 Shmuel Artur Zygielboim (also spelled Zygielbojm) was a prominent Bundist in Poland. Zygielboim was living in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. In December 1939, he was smuggled out of that city by the Bund, who feared that he had made himself a target of the Nazis because of his fierce opposition to their creation of a ghetto in Warsaw. The Bund also hoped that he would spread the word about the persecution of the Jews in German-occupied Poland, and so arouse the conscience of the world, in hopes that the Allies would intervene. Zygielboim spent the next few years travelling to Belgium, France, and the United States, trying to arouse public sympathy. He arrived in London in 1942, where he became one of two Jewish members of the National Council of the Polish Government in Exile (the other was the Zionist Ignacy Schwartbart). In London, he continued to speak publicly about the fate of the Jews in Poland, meeting with the British Labour Party, and giving broadcasts on bbc Radio. In May 1943, Zygielboim received word of the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the final liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, which had also resulted in the deaths of his wife and son. On 11 May 1943, he committed suicide, leaving behind a letter that excoriated the Allies as well as the Polish government in exile for not doing more to alleviate the horrendous suffering of the Jews in Poland and the rest of Europe.

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Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer

Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer were two exceptional personalities in the world of Yiddish letters. They were also competitors in the race for international literary recognition, hoping to make a name for themselves as Yiddish writers by winning the Nobel Prize. Sholem Asch almost succeeded in winning the prize, but ultimately failed. Despite many attempts, he was never privileged to place that crown on the head of Yiddish, the Cinderella of languages. That distinction fell instead to Isaac Bashevis Singer. Nevertheless, in the race for pride of place in the field of literary accomplishment, the two Yiddish writers were not far apart. It was only luck that favoured one writer over the other as regards the Nobel Prize. Bashevis Singer was in the right place at the right time; Sholem Asch was not. There is a similarity in the way that Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer competed with each other for the attention of the nonJewish world: Asch espoused a theory of theological universalism, while Singer made a show of the exotic and erotic aspects of his Jewishness. Singer’s works when they first appeared in the Yiddish Forverts were generally chaotic and haphazard creations. Only when they appeared in English translation did they take on the lustre of artistic achievement. During the years when Singer’s fame was at its height in the non-Jewish world, he was in no hurry to publish the original Yiddish versions of his English works, although he could have done so without difficulty. A number of those works have in fact never appeared in Yiddish. Another way in which the two writers resembled each other was that they each evoked a similar ambivalence in the Yiddish-speaking world, which both loved and resented them. I see them as a pair of literary brothers, although Singer actually had a brother who was also

a writer – J.J. Singer, author of The Brothers Ashkenazi. He also had a sister, Esther Kreitman, who was a writer and the author of the novel Diamonds. But in this essay, I prefer to concentrate on the intellectual affinity between the two men and the similarity of their literary careers. And I shall refer to Singer by the name by which he was known to Yiddish-speaking Jews – Bashevis. Before I can draw a parallel between the two writers, they need to be abstracted from the canonization that occurred after they became famous; and then they need to be removed from the pedestals on which we Yiddish readers have placed them. The physical images of Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer are paired in my imagination, although they did not look alike. I know Sholem Asch only from his photos. But I had the pleasure of spending more than one enjoyable hour in the company of Bashevis. Sholem Asch, judging by his photos, had the air of an aristocrat. Tall, handsome, with dark, wavy hair and a pair of large, warm, dreamy eyes, he looked like an oriental potentate. Bashevis was also tall, but his height was somewhat anemic, a kind of airy, vegetarian length. His face was pale, but there shone out of it a pair of sky-blue eyes, as mischievous as those of a child – or of a satyr. It was said that in his youth his hair was bright yellow, but when I met him for the first time, he was already bald. An impish little smile played on his lips as he declared with a frankness that completely disarmed me that basically he was a married bachelor. Thus, in the outward appearance of these two men there was something reminiscent of two faces on the same coin. If Asch’s photo gives the impression of a secular worldly prince, Bashevis looked like a prince of the church, a playful life-greedy ascetic, who enjoys a good drink every now and again, although in truth Bashevis never touched any alcoholic beverages. So much for their outer appearance. But what about their biographical and literary likenesses? In one of his poems, the warm-hearted Yiddish poet Abraham Reisen asks the question: Vi kum ikh tsum zingen, fun vanen, mayn kind? (Where does my singing come from, my child?) Where do Sholem

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Asch’s and Isaac Bashevis’s tale-telling come from? From what soil did their muses derive nourishment? Sholem Asch was born in the Polish town of Kutno, in the year 1880. Bashevis was born twenty-four years later, in the shtetl Radzimin. His formative years were spent both in Warsaw on Krochmalna Street and at his grandfather’s house in the town of Bilgoray. Kutno and Bilgoray are the shtetls which influenced the two writers. Sholem Asch wrote that Kutno was not distinguished by any particular beauty. Bashevis wrote that Bilgoray was a quaint shtetl, not much changed over the course of the centuries. The traditions of hundreds of years ruled there. There was no nearby train station. Hidden in the forest, the town looked as it had in the times of Bogdan Chmielnicki, the seventeenthcentury leader of the Cossack and peasant rebellion against Polish rule, whose devastating pogroms caused his name to be execrated in Jewish history. Sholem Asch’s father was a simple shtetl Jew, who travelled through the towns of the surrounding districts, buying and selling the cattle and sheep that were his stock and trade. The only day that he spent with his family was the Sabbath. When he was a little boy, his father’s presence in the home highlighted for young Sholem the sanctity and festivity of the Sabbath. “My father,” he wrote, “came from the fruitful, dry region of Poland. He drew no distinctions between Jew and gentile. Through my father’s attitude toward the poor Christian neighbours who worked for him, I learned from my earliest youth not to differentiate between Jews and Christians in neighbourly transactions.” “My mother,” Asch writes, “came from the swampy fields around the town of Kalish. For this reason, her eyes were dreamy, and her spirit was both restless and melancholy. From her I inherited my own restlessness.” Asch’s mother descended from a rabbinical family, but this fact did nothing to ease the burdens of her life. She was always busy with the household and with the bearing and the care of children. She paid scant attention to little Sholem. He was his mother’s fifth child and his father’s twelfth. Asch writes that his childhood was filled with sadness. We can find in his childhood those elements of Asch’s personality that would permeate his life’s work; for instance, the influence of the

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shtetl on his imagination, and along with it, his rootedness in Jewish tradition. The exalted atmosphere that informed the shtetl’s celebration of the Sabbath would, years later, inspire Asch to create his shabes-yontevdike yidn, as Itzkhak Leybush Peretz called them.1 We also sense the influence of his father in Asch’s respect for the down-toearth, day-to-day business of living. In addition, his father’s attitude toward non-Jews planted in Asch’s soul the kernels of his future vision of a universal religion. From his mother, Asch inherited his restlessness and his poetic disposition. But I believe that she was also the source of his yearnings and sadness, of his longing for his never-available mother. A mother is always the centre of a child’s world, but when the father is constantly absent from home, the mother becomes the pillar that supports the child’s entire universe. Unfortunately, Asch’s mother had no time for her sensitive little Sholem. He was not the one and only to her. This created a tear in his outwardly ordered and harmonious childhood, a tear that resulted in a kind of soul-emptiness. His heart craved having his mother to himself, but the only way he could achieve this was through creating her in his imagination, that is, through the maternal characters in his fiction, who became real to him only in the pages of his books, where he forever sought the mother of the world. As a result of his never-healed obsession with motherhood, Sholem Asch was left feeling like a frustrated infant who had not suckled enough at the breast. His melancholy, never-ending, never-satisfied love for his mother was instrumental in contributing to the Peter Pan quality in Asch’s character, with all its pluses and minuses. To the pluses belonged his love of beauty, his dreaminess, his youthful idealism, his longing for warmth and affection between people. To the minuses belonged his desire to escape reality, and his rather simplistic approach to life’s problems, as well as his naïveté with regard to issues of gender and sexuality. He saw women as Madonna figures and romanticized them in his works. Isaac Bashevis Singer grew up in a rabbinical family. His father and both his grandfathers were Hasidic rabbis. His conception of the shtetl was based not only on his childhood memories of living with

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his grandfather in Bilgoray, but also on his memories of life in his parents’ home in Warsaw. It was a life steeped in learning and in Hasidic mysticism. In contrast to Asch, Bashevis inherited from his father, not earthiness and stolidity, but a mystical messianic otherworldliness. Bashevis’s father would say, “If you don’t believe in the saintly Jews, the tzadikim, today, then you will stop believing in God tomorrow.” The supernatural aspect of shtetl life made an enormous impression on Bashevis’s imagination; it became the treasure chest of his personal and literary mythologies. He spent most of his youth in Warsaw on Krochmalna Street, in the very heart of the impoverished Jewish ghetto. But even during his shtetl childhood, he lived in rabbinic courtyards and was not permitted unrestricted contact with nature and the surrounding world. Unlike Sholem Asch, his imagination had no opportunity to roam at will under spacious skies. It had to meander through smelly courtyards, dark corridors, murky stairwells, and muddy passages. This difference between the two writers can be easily seen, not only in their descriptions of nature, but also in their literary styles and in the linguistic and structural sweep of their works. In the dust of Krochmalna Street, in the bubbling, noisy tumult of the struggle for existence, an atmosphere permeated by the Jew-hatred of the surrounding Polish population, the boy Isaac Bashevis played his first games and made his first observations of life, a life in which human frailties, aggression, brutality, and grinding poverty were more vividly present than warm-heartedness and kindness. It was his mother, who came in direct contact with daily life, who provided young Isaac with realistic appraisals of the world in which he lived. Bashevis’s mother was a down-to-earth, life-savvy woman. She would say: “To have faith in God is one thing; to have faith in man is an altogether different thing.” Her comments on the vagaries of life jibed with the young Bashevis’s own observations. From his mother he inherited exactly the opposite of what Sholem Asch had inherited from his mother – not a dreamy and poetical world view, but a sharply realistic one. Bashevis absorbed his mother’s down-to-earth wisdom, her grasp of human frailties, her skepticism about people and piety, and her mistrust of ideas and ideals. In contrast to Asch, Bashevis stopped believing in human beings very early in life.

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Sholem Asch preserved a reverence for his father’s faith, his father’s honesty and humanity. He nourished an admiration for the simple Ashkenazic Jew, for his readiness to share his food with others, for his unshakable optimism. On the other hand, while Bashevis admired his father’s mysticism and messianic longings, his admiration was more covert, since even as a boy, he had begun to lean towards his mother’s philosophy of life. Thus he formulated his understanding of religion not as a rejection of God, but as a rejection of the dogmas concerning God, dogmas created by man. From early on in his life, he was convinced that God and the “higher powers” were one thing, while what human beings made out of godliness was something else entirely. And so, to spite his father, Bashevis stopped believing in the holy men, the tzadikim, and chose instead to believe in demons. Just as with Sholem Asch, there occurred a tear in Bashevis’s psychic makeup during his childhood and early youth. But in his case, the tear was related not to his mother, but to his father. This fact underlies both the similarities and the differences in the personalities of the two authors. Sholem Asch had many brothers and sisters. His brothers had no ardent desire to study. However, their father wanted at least one of his sons to become a Rov, a rabbi. So Sholem chose the road to Talmudic erudition, which led him directly to the gates of Yiddish literature. At the same time, choosing this path elevated him in the family hierarchy, raising his status above that of his brothers and sisters. This compensated somewhat for the emptiness in his heart due to the lack of maternal love. He acquired a sense of self-importance and selfassurance. He now held a secure position in the family pecking order, and this supported him in his conquest of the larger world outside his family. In Bashevis’s household, on the other hand, learning was nothing to boast about; it was the family’s bread and butter. There was no way that young Isaac could excel in the field of Talmudic erudition, because the figure of his profoundly erudite father overshadowed him. Moreover, he had a learned elder brother, Israel Joshua, whose ambition was to become a writer and who later became the distinguished novelist I.J. Singer. Even Bashevis’s sister harboured literary ambitions, becoming in later life the novelist Esther Kreitman. How then

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could young Isaac draw attention to himself? How could he secure for himself a distinguished place in his family, carve out his niche in the world, be boosted in his self-regard and self-respect? More than one talented person has ended his life in failure, crushed by the presence of a famous parent or sibling. Bashevis had two father figures towering over him, his father and his brother, who was ten years older and so also served as a kind of father figure. Another man would have given up the struggle. Not so Bashevis. The driving power of his talent was too strong. His solution was to give up competing with his father and brother in a straightforward way. Instead he pursued success through side roads. To attract attention to himself, to become a person in his own right and not a mere shadow of his father or brother, he sought out spiteful and contrary methods. He wanted to be different and unique, but he wanted to achieve these goals in the same field as his paternal and fraternal rivals, that is, in the field of intellectual creativity. Since Bashevis loved and admired his father and brother, despite his feelings of rivalry toward them, he expressed his affection in works such as In My Father’s Court and in the deeply ethical background of many of his short stories. In public appearances he always spoke with admiration of both his father and brother. His brother, in particular, he mentioned frequently, declaring him to be his literary mentor and guide. But he also let us sense the unresolved issues that he had with both father and brother, issues that resembled Sholem Asch’s unfinished business with his mother. From the very beginning of his writing career, Bashevis turned upside down the pious, puritanical world of his father and brother, with its high moral principles. With mischievous delight he seized every opportunity to describe scenes of abnormal sexuality, of orgies and pacts with the devil. In his work there is a constant exchange of roles between God and the Devil as rulers of the universe. I believe that the competition between Bashevis and his father figures continued throughout his lifetime. He never outgrew it, despite all his substantial literary achievements. It is true that he sometimes gives the impression of winking at us, as if he were merely amusing himself, hinting that we should not take him too seriously; that, in

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reality, behind the mask of the clown, he has remained the devoted son of his father and the faithful brother of his brother. But, in reality, Bashevis was never sure of his victory over those two. We sense in his works a kind of existential despair, a helplessness, a devil-may-care attitude, which goes hand in hand with a sort of exhibitionism, as if he were trying to show off his cleverness, as if he were still competing with the two powerful masculine figures of his childhood. This may also account for Bashevis’s choice of pseudonyms. He was unwilling to use his father’s and brother’s names – he used the name Singer only rarely, and mainly in the English editions of his works. His journalistic pen name was Isaac Warshavski, or D. Segal. But his literary works carry the name of his mother, Bat Sheva, which, slurred together, became Bashevis, that is, belonging to Bat Sheva. Unlike Asch, Bashevis had no problems with his mother. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Haskala – the name given to the Jewish Enlightenment – introduced liberalizing intellectual and social trends into Jewish cultural and intellectual life in Eastern Europe. Although this new way of thinking was largely secular and nonreligious, it was actually deeply rooted in traditional Jewish thought and ethical thinking. The Haskala introduced an ideology that had not previously existed in Jewish history, the ideology of Judaism without a God. Older generations had excoriated as traitors those who denied the existence of God, who trampled on their historic legacy, and thus betrayed their own parents and their own homes. The Jewish home was the protective bastion against a hostile world full of poisonous Jew-hatred. To break up that home, to break the hearts of parents, was therefore a double sin. Feelings of guilt weighed heavily on those who left the fold. Those guilt feelings, which were especially acute after the Holocaust, led Yiddish writers to idealize and glorify the way of life that they had previously willingly abandoned – the home, the shtetl, the past. The literary apotheosis of Jewish traditional life was perhaps a way of repaying a debt, a form of expiation for the sin of desertion. The process of Haskalic liberalization had started during Asch’s youth, and continued well after Bashevis’s youth. However, the


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impact that this process had on both writers was different because of the difference in their psychological makeups. Asch’s search for a faith to replace the one he had lost went hand in hand with the awakening of his literary aspirations. As a young man, just starting out on his career, he had made his way to No. 1, Ceglana Street in Warsaw, the home of Itzkhak Leybush Peretz, the father of modern Yiddish literature. Peretz’s home was steeped in the atmosphere of the Jewish cultural renaissance of the beginning of the twentieth century, providing a venue for airing socialist, nationalist, and various other political views. In Peretz’s home, radicalism mixed with the spirit of Jewish folklore and Hasidic tales. These Jewish influences, supplemented by his reading of Schiller, Goethe, Heine, and Tolstoy, among others, supplied the yeast on which Asch’s youthful creativity would grow. It also gave form to his search for faith. Peretz read Asch’s first short story, “Moyshele,” and helped to publish it in 1903, thus smoothing the way for his literary success. It seemed as if the world was waiting for Asch. The intellectual yeast on which Bashevis’s literary career would grow was similar. He too searched for a creed to take the place of the faith that he had lost in traditional religion. He was, on the one hand, living in intellectually stimulating Warsaw, and, on the other hand, in the rabbinical home where his father’s court was located. Men would come to ask questions of his father, who was a dayan, a religious authority and spiritual leader in the Jewish community, while women came to ease the burdens of their hearts by talking to his mother. This gave Bashevis an early window into the complexities of the human soul. At the same time, during the few years that he spent in his grandfather’s home in Bilgoray, he had secretly come into contact with the teachings of the Kabala, the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Bible. The first fiction that Bashevis mentions as having impressed him were the Sherlock Holmes detective stories that he read as a twelveyear-old boy. When he was older, he read another detective story, the novel Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevski. In his youth, he also read Edgar Allan Poe, and was impressed by Knut Hamsun’s Pan. This reading material, combined with his exposure to the Kabala, led him

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to turn his search for faith in the direction of the surreal, the otherworldly, the irrational. Like Asch, Bashevis started writing in Hebrew before switching to Yiddish. But Bashevis did not achieve literary success as smoothly as Asch did. His was a slow arrival. He entered Yiddish literature through the back door, by way of risqué stories and hack journalism. If Asch, at the beginning of his career, had the impression that the world was waiting for him, Bashevis was under no illusions that anyone was waiting for him. The zeitgeist, the spirit of the times in which Asch and Bashevis lived, was similar, but during the twenty-four years that separated them, modern Yiddish literature had expanded. By the time Bashevis began writing, Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz had already been canonized as the classical Yiddish writers. From under Peretz’s wings there had emerged such literary personalities as Sholem Asch and Bashevis’s own older brother I.J. Singer, the author of Yoshe Kalb. As a young writer, Bashevis did not have the nerve to compete with such a ripe outgrowth of literary talent. In contrast to the boisterous self-assurance of Sholem Asch, Bashevis simply did not have enough faith in himself. It took a very long time before he could look upon himself as a serious writer with serious artistic aspirations. His attitude toward writing was, in general, too cynical, and this was especially true of his attutde toward himself as a writer. He was too skeptical about people and about writers as people to take them seriously, or to take himself seriously. All that he could do, since he genuinely liked to write, was to play at writing. Bashevis tells us that, even as a child, before he could actually read or write, he would pretend to be writing, creating a game with pen and paper. He was miserable when the Sabbath came, and he could not continue with his scribbling. When he was older, he considered his writing to be an extension of this form of play. By contriving shocking stories to make fun of himself and others, he satisfied his desire to be contrary and spiteful. Until very late in life, he referred to his writing as “my scribblings.” Asch and Bashevis’s first literary reactions to the winds of change that blew through Eastern-European Jewish life were expressed in

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Sholem Asch in 1908, at the age of twentyeight. Courtesy of David Mazower.

their eager adoption to the theme of the shtetl as a way of holding on to Yiddishkeyt [Jewishness], as if they feared that the new winds might blow them too far off the well-worn track. Asch’s first full-length work was in fact called The Shtetl. This novella is a kind of ode in prose, a nostalgic song of praise to the place where he grew up, a shtetl steeped in inner peace, in idyllic family harmony, in beauty. He realistically depicts the shtetl streets where both the simple and the rough people live, as well as the streets that house the pious and learned. All his characters are three-dimensional personages. But Asch wants to elevate his shtetl to higher realms. He dresses it up with the air of the Sabbath, because he misses the Sabbaths of his childhood, when the entire shtetl wore the exalted appearance of spirituality. Asch chose to emphasize the shtetl’s beauty, even as he portrayed its ugliness.

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Already, in The Shtetl, written at the very start of Asch’s literary career, we can discern the first notes of his new faith, which, with the passage of time, would permeate his entire work. Here we can find the motif of universal love, of messianism, which would eventually lead to his Christian works. In this early work, we can also find the first example of his longing for the eternal mother – Mother Rachel, Mother Miriam, mother home, mother earth – which will echo through all of his works. Here we discover Asch, the romantic optimist, who in the struggle between the sacred and the profane, always makes sure that the sacred prevails. “There are writers,” the older Asch would say, “who believe that their literary mission is to uncover the faults in people and society. That is a noble mission. But I personally have a weakness always to uncover the good in people and in society.” Asch’s The Shtetl is closely related to the novel that he would write ten years later, Reb Shloyme Nogid, in which we can find an even-morenostalgic glance back at the past, because, by the time Asch wrote this later portrait of shtetl life, he was himself even further removed in time and feeling from the shtetl of his boyhood, while changes were occurring in the shtetl itself. Yet in Asch’s conception, the shekhina, that is, God’s emanation, had not abandoned the shtetl; nor did he believe that it ever would. Asch introduces us to the almost biblical personage of Reb Shloyme Nogid, a symbol of Jewish rootedness in the diaspora. And although we can find in this work the soul wrestling with the urge to sin, it is only a faint smudge on an otherwise bright background, as if the darkness existed solely to enhance the light. Since Asch felt guilty for having broken with the traditional way of life, he dedicated Reb Shloyme Nogid to his father. In his dedication, he writes: “For my father, the complete Jew and complete human being, whose life shines before me like a bright star on a foggy night, a star that I can see but cannot reach. To him I dedicate this work. I cannot follow in your footsteps, Father, so I follow you in my dream.” In his idealization of Reb Shloyme Nogid, we recognize how frantically Asch tries to hold on to the hand of his father, even as it slips out of his grasp.

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As noted earlier, Bashevis’s first literary publications were actionpacked, salacious newspaper serials that ended with the promise, “to be continued.” But his first serious work earned him a well-deserved place among Yiddish writers. This was the masterful Satan in Goray. In this novel, the name of Bashevis’s home shtetl of Bilgoray is shortened to Goray and transported back in time to the seventeenth century; although, in truth, this fictional shtetl exists beyond time. Satan in Goray is a nightmare in the form of a detective story. Through the macabre days and nights of a timeless time, we discover a false Messiah. Here the reader may indulge in a bit of detective work of her own. Why would a cynical writer of sleazy serials suddenly indulge in an idealistic search for the Messiah? It is startling to realize that the author of Satan in Goray is far from indifferent to the outcome of this search. But since Bashevis has an aversion to authority, to the towering figures of history, to the so-called folk heroes, since he shuns highfalutin ideals because of the imperfection of the people who preach them, he hides his real intentions behind a show of mockery. He conceals his weakness by exposing the orgiastic aftermath of the fall of a false Messiah. Like Sholem Asch, in this first major work, Bashevis lays out the intellectual and psychological concerns that will dominate his work for the rest of his life. And, like Asch, he speaks to us as a Jew formed by his immediate environment. He is a man of the twentieth century, a century in which the gods have failed. The motif of a false Messiah in Satan in Goray echoes the theme of Asch’s play Shabbtai Tzvi, about the most infamous of the many false messiahs. The new ideas of liberation and renewal in Jewish life caused both Asch and Bashevis to react with the same inner trepidation, but in different ways. Bashevis longs, as if against his own will, for the same ideals as Sholem Asch – that is, for deliverance, redemption, the integrity of the human spirit. He demonstrates this in his second work about the shtetl, which, like Asch’s second novel, was written after a ten-year interval. In The Magician of Lublin, Bashevis depicts a Jewish thief, who, by taking upon himself his own punishment for his sins, ends his life as a tsadik, a holy man. Bashevis’s saintly tsadik is a more human

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incarnation of one of Asch’s characters, the Psalm Jew, from the novel of the same name (Der tillim yid in Yiddish). He is more human because he knows what it means to sin; the task of purifying his soul is harder for him than for someone who was born pure to begin with. Both Sholem Asch and Bashevis Singer had a flair for the dramatic, as well as an unquenchable curiosity about people who lived at the lowest levels of physical and moral existence. This theme is particularly evident in the plays that they wrote. Asch had great success with his first plays, which made him famous throughout Europe, while in his later years, Bashevis actively collaborated in the dramatization of his stories. It is amazing how close Bashevis comes in his stories to Asch’s drama The God of Vengeance. Had Bashevis written The God of Vengeance, he would have taken more delight in the erotic scenes than Asch does, and would have introduced a couple of demons in order to more overtly depict Yankl Shapsovitch’s inner struggle and add more spice to the plot. But basically, the struggle between the first and second floors in Yankl Shapsovitch’s house of earthly delight, the struggle between sinfulness and sanctity, is typical of Bashevis’s literary interests as well.2 The Yiddish literary critic Leo Finkelstein noted the similarity between Asch’s play and Bashevis’s stories: “It appears that Bashevis divides his workday in two. Until two o’clock in the afternoon, he writes smut, after two o’clock he devotes himself to the purity of artistic creation, just as Asch’s Yankl Shapsovitch in The God of Vengeance divided his work into two, an upper floor and a lower floor, the upper floor being his home, the lower floor being his brothel.” Finkelstein was too critical of Bashevis to discern in his moretrashy literary productions an expression of his characteristic spitefulness, of his youthful rebellion, and to admit that, in spite of these neurotic regressions, Bashevis, like Asch, was a genuine talent, a seeker for answers to existential questions. Certainly, there is no lack of trash in Asch’s works either. Because of his unquestioning self-assurance, Asch often lacked a sense of responsibility toward his readers. He resorted to cheaply inflated descriptions and purple prose to

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embellish his scenes of sexual shenanigans, in the hope that the naive reader would mistake them for art. At the end of the first epoch of his life in Poland, Sholem Asch tried to respond to the new trends in Jewish culture with dramas and novels, like Mary and The Road to Oneself. As for Bashevis, at the end of his first epoch in Poland, his literary capital consisted of countless newspaper stories and articles and his one great work, Satan in Goray. If Bashevis had any interest in the new cultural trends of his times, that interest expressed itself in the erotic, often perverse, aspects of his writings. His innate pessimism caused him to see the erotic drive as the sole axis around which human existence revolves. Here is what Bashevis writes in his autobiography about that first period of his life, just prior to leaving Poland: I ran after worldly pleasures like a dog after its own tail. I was about to finish writing Satan in Goray and I began planning a new work, not about the past but about the present. I wanted to depict a person similar to myself. I foresaw the difficulties of such a work. How should I explain to others the complications of my character? And why would anybody care? I had already read Freud. But Freud could not explain my riddle. Neither in Freud nor in Adler can one find a remedy for human troubles, or for the condition that Freud calls “the discomfort of the culture.” Schopenhauer, Neitzsche, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski were all great specialists in describing the symptoms of human ills, but nobody has the slightest idea of how to cure these ills. On the other hand, does there really exist a form of behaviour that could serve as an example for the human race? We cannot all isolate ourselves at Yasnaya Polyana and become a Tolstoy. We cannot all become Gandhi. And what is there to learn from Thomas Mann and his Magic Mountain? What is it they all want, Thomas Mann, Stephan Zweig, Jacob Wasserman, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, and our Sholem Asch? All they want is money and fame. Another book, another play, more applause … The Polish press is full of Jew-hatred. In Germany, hating the Jews has become a profession. After 2,000 years of

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accusing the Jews of killing God, humanity has made a new discovery, that the Jews are also about to destroy the world. So, here I am, a Yiddish writer, a writer of the people on whose shoulders has been placed the entire burden of human sinfulness, a people who have become the focus of a cosmic rage. What should I write about? Should I become a defender of the Jewish people? Should I show the world the greatness of the Jew, his goodness and idealism? Who are those Jews whom I am supposed to sanctify? Should I depict the Hasidim from Radzimin or Trisk? Should I idealize the Jewish merchants, the tailors, the luftmenschn?3 Should I sing praise to the Jews from the Writers’ Union? Of course, my people are not responsible for all the disgusting sins for which Hitler, or the author of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, blame them. Nevertheless, the greatness of the present-day Jew is not in inverse proportion to the calumnies that are directed against him. Mendel Beilis did not become a Moses just because they invented the lie that he had killed Yushchinsky.4 We can sense in these words of the thirty-year-old Bashevis the emotional struggle taking place within him. On the one hand what he says here is proof that the feelings of love and hatred that he felt for his father had taken on the form of love and hatred for his people. On the other hand, his words show us that he is not at all indifferent to the fate of the Jews and of humanity in general. Bashevis added no comments to these words when he published them in his autobiography in his sixties, not even to the remarks about Jews, although by then he was writing after the Holocaust. His youthful attitude toward life remained the same, always marked by an existential despair. When he decided to become a vegetarian, he asked himself what was the point of not eating meat, when Nature itself had created animals with teeth to tear flesh and stomachs to digest it? What exaltation could there be in a natural world built entirely on murder? But despite this cynical declaration, he remained a vegetarian all his life.

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Sholem Asch was thirty-four years old when he arrived in America, just as the First World War was starting in Europe. He was by then an established writer and financially secure. He had a family, and took both life and himself very seriously. Isaac Bashevis Singer arrived in America at the age of thirty-one, four years before the start of the Second World War. Thus, both writers were more-or-less the same age at the time of their respective arrivals in the New World, although they were born twenty-four years apart. Both were mature people and mature artists, but in contrast to Sholem Asch’s self-assurance and faith in his literary destiny, Bashevis writes about himself as follows: When I arrived in the US in 1935, I lived through a great disappointment. It seemed to me that Yiddish as a language was finished. The result was that, in the course of five or six years, I did not write a word. I experienced such difficulty in my writing that even my knowledge of grammar fell apart. I could not write a coherent sentence. I started to write a novel and abandoned it. Years later, when I took up this novel again, I was amazed that this was supposed to be the work of a literate man. It was a real case of amnesia. A person needs to have experienced a real shock to react in this manner. But after a while I got over it. In fact, he got over it splendidly, but more on that later. In 1914 Asch published his fourth novel, Motke the Thief. In this novel, Asch, who could not bring himself to depict human nature in negative terms, stresses the pimp Motke’s innocent, melodramatic, and sentimental love for the café owner’s daughter, Hannele. He also stresses Motke’s noble love for his mother, in order to show us that a thief can also be a human being and have a human heart. (Bashevis, on the other hand, would have tried to show that a thief is a human being and nothing more that that: a mensch iz nor a mensch.) The first part of Motke the Thief, where Asch describes Motke’s childhood, with its folksy shtetl characters, is richly and artistically rendered. Asch had brought with him to America his shtetl’s trove of anecdotes and its gallery of human types. The second part of Asch’s novel falls into the

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then-popular genre of the criminal novel. It was published under this label in the Yiddish press. We can easily juxtapose Motke the Thief to Bashevis’s own depiction of a thief from The Magician of Lublin. Bashevis endows his thief with supernatural powers, turning him into a magician rather than a thief. Perhaps Bashevis himself would have liked to be such a magician, free as a bird, with no responsibilities, for whom the entire world is a playground and no door ever shuts in his face. The fact that the magician later pays for his sins, the fact that he hurts other people, well, this can be rationalized as part of the business of living. For the time being, he seizes his day, and even when near his end, he still profits from it. He expiates his sins by becoming a tsadik, a saint, a spokesman for society; in a word, he becomes another kind of magician. This is an example of Bashevis’s two-sidedness, an aspect of his fiction that contributes to the rich complexity of his works. It invites interpretation. The Magician of Lublin richly deserved the prize awarded it in France as the best work in a foreign language. Asch had been living in America for four years, when, in 1918, news reached him of the terrible pogroms in the Ukraine. For Asch the pogroms evoked the image of the diaspora Jew dancing the “bear’s dance,” that is, the Jew who humiliated himself in order to stay alive, but who was inwardly free, proud, whole, his spirit soaring to the heavens; the Jew who was ready to sacrifice his life when this essential part of himself was threatened. Asch honoured this diaspora Jew by creating his apotheosis in Kiddush Hashem and “The Sorceress of Castille.” The first of these works describes the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648 and 1649, while the second depicts the self-sacrifice of the Jews of Rome in the sixteenth century. In these two works, Asch highlights the struggle between the two worlds: the external, physically powerful, non-Jewish world, and the internal, spiritually powerful, Jewish world. According to Asch the nonJewish world is incapable of grasping the meaning of Jewish selfsacrifice. It must translate it into Christian terms. The heroines of both narratives are compared to the Virgin Mary, while the fate of the Jewish people is compared to the fate of Christ. To test the sanctity of


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these figures, the non-Jewish world uses its most convenient form of brutality – fire: fire from the gun, fire from the stake. How convincing a portrayal is this of reality? Is this really the way Christians understood the Jews who were martyred for kiddush hashem?5 I doubt it. It was Asch, whose personal ideology led him to see the fate of the Jewish people in the fates of Jesus and his Holy Mother Mary. Nevertheless, this interpretation of gentile behaviour does not detract from the beauty of these works, which stand out in Yiddish literature as songs of praise, not only to the power of the Jewish spirit, but also to the power of the human spirit in general. Bashevis reflects on Asch’s nightmarish Kiddush Hashem in his short story “A Wedding in Brownsville,” which is set in New York after the Holocaust. This story is like a novel compressed into a few pages, as if we were seeing the entirety of Jewish-American life through a microscope. The story’s hero, Dr Salomon Margolin, goes to a wedding at the home of a Jew from his landsmanschaft, that is, the congregation of Jews who had arrived in America from the same shtetl. Bashevis gives us the portrait of Dr Margolin and his landslayt (i.e., people from the same shtetl), a vivid, brutally realistic characterization. And suddenly the atmosphere of the story changes. Dr Margolin encounters a woman at the wedding with whom he had once been in love and whom the Nazis had shot. Does he really meet this woman? Is he dreaming? Is he a victim of the car accident that had occurred on his way to the wedding? We never find out. The real and the unreal merge into one. The image of the woman who was shot follows us in the same way as the image of Asch’s Deborah from Kiddush Hashem, or Jephta from “The Sorceress of Castille,” stays with us after the close of their narratives. As they matured, both Asch and Bashevis became more absorbed in determining the essential elements of Jewishness that remained to the Jews of the diaspora. Sholem Asch felt intuitively that what the Jew had been in the past, he would never be again. Bashevis, who lived a generation later, knew this truth as a reality. And so, each began to repay the second part of his debt to his own personal past, the first

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part having already been paid by their works on the Eastern-European shtetl. Now they both turned their attention to the Eastern-European metropolis. Sholem Asch devoted each of the three volumes of his trilogy Before the Flood to a different metropolis – Warsaw, St Petersburg, and Moscow – thus turning the work into an all-embracing panorama of Russian-Jewish and Polish-Jewish life during the first two decades of the twentieth century. His trilogy recounts the histories of three families, although Asch is primarily interested in the mother figures in these families. He also gives us magnificent descriptions of Jewish life in Moscow and St Petersburg, in Warsaw, and also in Lodz. His descriptions of the Jewish-Russian intelligentsia, of the members of the socialist and Zionist movements, as well as of the Russian Revolution, are full of atmosphere and vivid detail. But when it comes to the new ideas then circulating among the Jewish population, Asch keeps his distance. His discomfort can be felt in the portrayal of his principle character, Zachary Mirkin, Asch’s alter ego, who does not possess the strength of personality to support Asch’s intricate fictional edifice. Zachary Mirkin is a passive figure. Events happen to him. He himself rarely acts on his own initiative, and when he does, it is without inner conviction. Even his leaving St Petersburg for Warsaw is not the result of a deeply felt moral repugnance, which causes him to turn his back on the Bolshevik Revolution, but is instead motivated by his love for Mrs Hurvitz. What Sholem Asch really cares about in this work is the search for a faith that would put God back into the empty heavens. And he continues to cling to his search for the eternal mother. What he desires is to have a Father in the heavens and a mother on the earth. The only thing still missing is the longing for the Son, the purified child of Man and God. Bashevis’s way of repaying his debt to the past, especially to the past of his youth in the big city, is by giving us his own version of Before the Flood. He writes The Family Moskat, a novel about life in Poland between the two world wars. In The Family Moskat, Bashevis keeps his imagination in check and sticks to the portrayal of historical reality. In theory, this should come easily to him, because he himself lived this reality. The problem is that, although Bashevis describes reality in

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Isaac Bashevis Singer, right, with Montreal Yiddish poets Melekh Ravitch and Rokhl Korn at the annual meeting of the Jewish Public Library, Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, 1970. Courtesy of the Jewish Public Library.

great detail, his imagination cannot take wing in such a circumscribed atmosphere. He cannot soar into the realms of the otherworldly, where he feels more at home. In Satan in Goray, Bashevis is superficially faithful to history; yet he places his shtetl somewhere beyond historical time, eschewing realism. However, in The Family Moskat the past is too close, and Bashevis is forced to stand with both feet on the ground – an unpleasant position for someone whose instinct is always to try and escape the earth. Just as Asch’s hero, Zachary Mirkin, is the personification of the author himself, so are the two major characters in The Family Moskat personifications of Bashevis’s split personality. On the one hand, we have Oyser-Hershl, a confused, introspective young man, an idealist who is seeking the meaning of life, immersing himself in the works of Spinoza and other texts of Jewish mysticism. On the other hand, we have Avrom, the life-loving, Hasidic hedonist, always eager for

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adventure and pleasure. Unfortunately, Bashevis does not succeed in bringing these two characters to life, just as Asch failed in his characterization of Zachary Mirkin. Perhaps both writers were too close to their characters and therefore unable to depict them with objectivity. It is one thing to create a character in an imaginary story and quite another thing to fit an imaginary character into a historically realistic frame. For the most part, the realistic characters whom Bashevis creates for his short stories are sketches, the products of a few strokes of the pen, rather than the full-blown, three-dimensional human beings that novels require. As a rule, Bashevis’s tendency is to depict individuals abstractly, rather than charting their psychological development. Moreover, he has no great interest in social differentiation, and he has too strong an aversion to politics and ideology to be able to depict these topics convincingly, or to study their impact on the life of the individual, although, like Sholem Asch, Bashevis was fully aware that Jewish life in the twentieth century could not be described in any other way. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the search for a solution to humanity’s problems became even more pressing. Just as he had done in 1918 after the pogroms in Ukraine, when he wrote Kiddush Hashem, Asch now embarked on Der thilim yid (The Psalm Jew, also titled Salvation in English) in a frantic search for spiritual consolation and an escape from harsh reality. Is the Psalm Jew that chosen Son, the child of God and Man who has come to cure the sick world? Asch was often reproached that, in writing Der thilim yid, he was poaching from the Christian garden. But this same reproach might have been made from the start of Asch’s career, even in relation to his short story “In a Carnival Night,” where Jesus descends from the cross to take the place of an old Jew who had been ordered to entertain the Christian mob during a race in the city of Rome. It cannot be denied that Der thilim yid is a deeply Jewish, deeply humanistic work, perhaps the best that Asch ever wrote. Here Asch finds himself in his true element, in the exalted shtetl atmosphere of the Sabbath and the holidays, an atmosphere embellished but not undermined by the realism of the Kolyer Gesl, the street that is home to the butchers and other sundry denizens of the working class. In

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this novel Asch draws on the rich store of Jewish legends and folkloric tales: “The wars of Gog and Magog have passed and the steps of the dilatory Messiah have yet to be heard.” So complains the narrator at the beginning of the novel. In order to console himself while he waits, the narrator introduces us to Reb Yechiel, the Psalm Jew, who lives in peace with himself and with the world. Asch’s protagonist attains the highest level of humanity by way of his innate simplicity. His greatest treasure is his potential for giving of himself, for offering himself to others as a counter to the evil of the world. If we want to continue drawing the parallel between the two writers, we must now ask, which of Bashevis’s works can we compare to Asch’s Der thilim yid? A difficult question. But if we look at Bashevis’s short stories, we discover that most of them derive from the same source as the Der thilim yid. They too are permeated by the same realistic, yet mystical, folkloric atmosphere. All of Asch’s themes and concerns can be found in Bashevis’s short stories. Both writers are out to pair the actual life of the Jewish people with their spiritual life, to mix their faith with their superstitions, to infuse the Kabalistic motifs with demonism. For instance, Sholem Asch describes the Rabbi of Kotzk sitting at table in the company of the ghosts of dead rabbis, whom he has invited to join him. The scene could easily be lifted from one of Bashevis’s stories On the subject of mysticism, our two authors are in fact very close to one another. Both stand in amazement at the mystery of the human soul, and both draw from spiritual folk treasures to illuminate that soul in its Jewish form. But the similarity ends when it comes to the use they each make of their attraction to mysticism. Where Sholem Asch’s works echo the exaltation of Peretz’s short story “Oyb nisht nokh hekher” (“If Not Higher”),6 Bashevis’s maxim is the opposite, oyb nisht nokh nideriker (if not lower). If we can call Asch’s The Psalm Jew the diary of the yetzer tov, that is, the inclination toward what is best and most moral in human nature, we can call Bashevis’s folkloric stories the diary of the yetzer hara, the inclination toward everything that is low, immoral, and evil in human nature. For instance, in Bashevis’s story “The Spinozist,” we get a pairing of two contrasts: a male intellectual, and a female monster, who is

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also an old-maid bagel vendor. The author delights in describing the meeting of these two opposites and their adjustment to one another. In his story “Short Friday,” Bashevis depicts the physical love of a married couple – an unusual topic for him. In fact, as if he were ashamed to sing praise to the beauty of married love, he punishes the couple by asphyxiating them together. In another popular story, “Teibele and Her Demon,” the shtetl belfer, that is, the rabbi’s helper, who becomes Teibele’s lover, is the Devil in disguise, and Bashevis takes delight in depicting the sexual antics of the Devil with a respectable Jewish woman. In this way, Bashevis constructs his fantastic world of powerful passions and devilish tricks, where human and demon exchange masks, where human actions are at the mercy, not of rational will, but of a blind erotic drive, the drive to sinfulness. The laws of evil, of perversion and deviousness, dominate Bashevis’s world. He feels himself drawn ever deeper into the pit, just as Asch feels himself drawn higher and higher into the heavens. Bashevis is like a person who has become disillusioned because he believes that the higher spheres are empty, so instead he seeks the essence of life by descending into the lowest depths. He is masterful in his pleasurable cynicism, but there is no doubt that he is seeking something in this fantastical world of the dark night of the soul. I would venture a paradox: he is seeking the thilim yid, the Psalm Jew. He is looking for innocence, love, God himself; he submerges himself in the hell of evil in order to salvage the sparks of saintliness. In 1939, Sholem Asch published The Nazarene, the first volume of his Christian trilogy. Asch, the idealist, was shocked by the divisions of the world, by the prevalence of Jew-hatred and the hatred of human beings for one another. Helpless to effect any real change, in his imagination he raised mankind from the swamps of confusion, wrapped it in romantic veils, covered the ugliness with beauty and the crookedness with human kindness. He saw what was happening around him, but pretended not to see it. Since he longed for harmony and unity, for peace, it seemed to him that the artificial divisions created by religion were a denial of godliness itself. Since religious divisions are created by human beings,

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there was hope that human beings could change them. God is One, he believed, so religion must be One as well. Asch had expressed this belief in his very first book, The Shtetl, where he wrote, “Even the tall tip of the church tower and the little pennant flying on top of the synagogue have forgotten their usual war, and live now in unity and peace. One sky is spread above them, in the same valley where they stand steeped in their reveries, and one God watches over them.” Thus Sholem Asch’s dream becomes the dream of the Prophet Isaiah, a Jewish dream, perhaps nothing but a dream, but one that is worth dreaming, if only to sustain the moral qualities within us. But Asch is much too impatient. He wants the dream to come true immediately, so in his Christian trilogy, Judaism and Christianity are transformed into the same belief for both Jew and non-Jew. In his impatience, Asch forgets that, because the two religions differ in their current forms, they cannot coexist under the same roof; too divergent were the roads that led them away from each other. And despite his insistence on their essential unity, Asch is reluctant to cast off each religion’s particularity. He loves embellishments, ceremonies, customs; he loves the stories, the commentaries, the fables, the miracles. And so Asch went too far in his zeal. He forgot that Christianity, with its crosses, its miracles, its pagan trinity, would fill a Jewish reader with revulsion. These symbols would evoke memories of the Crusades, of burnings at the stake, of the Inquisition. Most especially, during the decade of Hitler’s rise to power, works extolling Christianity would be anathema to Jewish readers. He decided to forget what he must have known, namely, that publishing such works at such a time would inflame Jewish anger and resentment against anyone who, surrounded by fire, plays games with the arsonist. In truth, Asch had not forgotten these facts. His friend Moshe Oved wrote, “Asch knew, that this expedition (that is, writing his Christian trilogy) was the most dangerous enterprise that a Jew could undertake. He knew that this would cost him the love of his people, a love that he cherished as his greatest treasure. But he could not help himself.” Sholem Asch paid a high price for remaining faithful to himself – he was rejected by his fellow Jews. This was one of the greatest tragedies of his life. For this reason, at the same time as he was publishing

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his Christian novels, he began to write the novel Moses. He wanted to justify himself. He identified with Moses, who also loved his people and was more than once rejected by them. “Better to let the Moseses of this world perish,” Asch wrote in his novel, “than allow the redemption of the people to be delayed by even one moment.” One cannot condemn Asch for remaining faithful to himself. Even his lack of sensitivity in bringing such Christian works before a mixed Jewish and gentile readership at that perilous time can perhaps be disregarded, when we consider his lofty purpose in writing these novels. Art has no taboos, no forbidden subjects. And, after all, the topic of Jesus has tempted many writers, Jewish as well as gentile. Nevertheless, I believe that Asch deserved the bitter resentment that his Christian trilogy evoked for publishing his work when he did. I have the impression that Asch wanted to shape his Christian trilogy so that the first volume, The Nazarene, would represent the Jewish point of view on Jesus, while the second volume, The Apostle, would represent the Christian point of view. With the last volume, Mary, Asch intended a unifying fusion of the two, as found in the allembracing love of the eternal mother. In fact, The Nazarene is a magnificent Jewish work, a breathtaking panorama of Jewish life in Jesus’s times. It reveals the essence of Jewishness, and has no relation to the non-Jewish world. It tells the story of the Rabbi from Galilee, who is essentially a Thilim Yid, a Psalm Jew, the Baal Shem Tov of those times.7 And although Jesus’s personality remains obscure, we are still dealing with a work in which the true Sholem Asch feels at home, as do we. But when he writes the other two novels of the trilogy, The Apostle and Mary, and begins to weave his ecumenical theories into them, Asch fails miserably as an artist. The Apostle is nothing but a retelling of the stories of the New Testament, a regurgitation of the standard story of Paul’s wanderings and of his early Christian thoughts. The work is hollow, without inspiration. In the last novel, Mary, Asch returns to his favourite theme of the eternal mother. But here we are faced with the love of a mother toward a son who is a god, and we are left with an unpleasant feeling after finishing the book. Sholem Asch’s


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excellent translator, Maurice Samuel, refused to translate Mary into English. Because these last two volumes of the trilogy are not artistically successful, they diminish the impact of The Nazarene, as well as the impact of the trilogy as a whole. The apotheosis of the love of humanity, which Asch had intended to create, was reduced to a painful Jewish sigh, thereby striking the final, tragic chord in the life and works of a great Yiddish novelist. If we want to convince ourselves that the desire for wholeness, for universal peace, shines through Bashevis’s works in the same way as it does through Asch’s, if we want to find in Bashevis’s writing a similar dream of an all-embracing ecumenical love, we must turn to The Slave, which is in some ways a response to Sholem Asch’s Christian trilogy. With this novel, Bashevis exhales a long sigh of relief, as if finally freed from his self-imposed constraints. In order to feel completely at home, he embarks on a flight of imagination into the remote past, where he may discard the mask of the cynic. Without the slightest trace of irony, without resorting to the grotesque, he gives voice to his deepest longings in this poetic novel of hope. If we ever doubted that Bashevis had a deep well inside himself, that he was essentially a romantic dreamer, an old-fashioned idealist, this work disproves our doubts. There is transparency and beauty to be found in The Slave, along with simplicity and an almost childishly naive exaltation. The author’s longing for love and peace, for harmony between peoples and religions, the old Jewish longing for the coming of the Messiah, is depicted in this work through the love of a Jewish slave and a Christian peasant woman. It is a love that is fragile and delicate, and yet has the power to resist the surrounding world, which aims to destroy it and eventually succeeds in that goal, although in the end love remains triumphant. In order to achieve his purpose, Bashevis uses a method that is the opposite of the one used by Sholem Asch. Where Asch locates his longing for peace in the unification of religions, Bashevis locates it in the union between a man and a woman. Where Asch deploys the iconic mythical figures of Jesus, Paul, and Mary, for Bashevis a peasant

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woman and a Jewish slave are sufficient. Bashevis writes his novel in the form of a legend, echoing Sholem Asch’s literary style, but with language that is more succinct and more controlled. Bashevis defines the individual as a helpless speck of dust blown every which way by forces that are beyond his control. The individual deludes himself into thinking that he is captain of his ship and master of his own free will. He has a false sense of pride and self-importance, because, in reality, everything that makes sense to him is senseless, everything that has any value for him is worthless. He thinks that he is progressing towards a goal, whereas he is actually heading nowhere but to that remote point in time that is called the end. As the individual proceeds on the road leading nowhere, he is nothing but the slave of his own desires and inexplicable passions, a plaything for the passions and desires of others. Torn by nightmares, by hallucinations, he waits for redemption. And when redemption does not arrive, he asks the questions: What kind of God is God? Is He with us or against us? Does he take us seriously, or does he mock us? Is it not possible that He who holds us in his power is not God but the Devil? We may believe in Bashevis’s existential perspective, which, after all, resembles our own. But we also feel that he is only pretending when he claims indifference to any ideal, when he denies that he seeks redemption for the human being. He stresses his cynical negativity so often and with such passion, that it convinces us that the opposite is true. After all, if he were not searching for a ray of light, he should logically have stopped writing, because any form of creativity, no matter how filled with despair, is in itself a form of saying yes to life and to humanity. If Sholem Asch is a wide, sprawling river, Bashevis as a secretive, twisting, subterranean stream, but no less powerful. The same can be said for the differences in their use of language: Asch’s language is rich, decorative, picturesque, and so sweeping that he sometimes trips over his own syntax and loses his grammatical sense. By contrast, Bashevis’s prose is austere and frugal, condensed, concentrated, but crystal clear.


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Sholem Asch has a wide sweep; he daringly aims his pen at large canvases and imposing themes. Bashevis, in contrast, has a more limited scope, a short, quick, staccato rhythm. Sholem Asch depicts the world in macrocosm, Bashevis in microcosm. Asch can gallop away with breakneck recklessness, courting literary danger; Bashevis, in his serious works, is more careful, calculating the effect of every dot. Asch has almost no artistic objectivity when it comes to himself, little self-criticism; Bashevis has a great deal. He is careful in his choice of themes. That is why he never dared to write about the Holocaust itself, but wrote exclusively about the post-Holocaust migration to America. His healthy sense of restraint and his wisdom prevented him from falling flat on his face. Thematically, both novelists are deeply rooted in traditional Judaism, both of them nurture Messianic longings, both tremble with fright before any false Messiah. Both are mystics, who draw inspiration from Jewish legends and Hasidic folklore. And they are both strongest as artists when they remain faithful to the source of their inspiration – the shtetl. All his life, Sholem Asch remained a citizen of Kutno, while Bashevis remained a Bilgorayer. The best of their works carries the stamp of the shtetl. Not only did they transplant their personal shtetls into the big city, but they transformed them into an entire world, a kind of global shtetl, located beyond time and space. Their philosophies of life belonged to the shtetl, and it is in the shtetl that the two meet most obviously as brothers, whose literary routes, while outwardly divergent, touch at the same point. To hold on to the thread of the shtetl, Asch transformed it into legend. To (unsuccessfully) tear himself away from the shtetl, Bashevis transformed it into legend. Over Asch’s version of the legend there hovers the charm of a children’s fable. Over Bashevis’s version there hovers the horror of a nightmare. Asch wraps reality in rosy veils, Bashevis in dark ones. For both writers, the veils serve as an escape, a place to hide from reality. Both writers use reality as a trampoline for their leap into the higher reaches of the imagination. Both of them seek the ideal – one in the heavens, the other in dark tunnels, in the underworld of consciousness.

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If I ask myself whether in the works of these two writers we get an accurate picture of Jewish life in Poland before the war, I must concede that yes, we do, but that it is not an objective picture. Instead, it is a subjective image of Jewish reality. Both writers were romantics and individualists, one openly so, the other more covertly. Both were masters at describing the static conditions of Jewish life in Poland, with its deeply rooted traditions. But they were less successful at rendering Jewish life as an ongoing process of transition, as a search for new ways of being. When it comes to dealing with the evolving social conditions, with day-to-day life, we can feel how ill at ease each writer is. And although they both attribute psychological depth to their characters, this is not their primary aim, because a detailed psychological characterization is also a form of realism, and that is not what they are about. As writers and thinkers, they are preoccupied with existential problems, both Jewish and universal. They are trying to fit their view of the Jew, of the human being and his fate, into their overall vision of existence. They both seek an all-embracing formula to solve the riddle of creation. And yet, despite the fact that their works do not give us an objective picture of the social and historical realities of East European Jewish life, both writers succeed wonderfully in reflecting the Jewish people’s soul and longings. In the final analysis, I doubt whether it is possible to create an all-embracing image of the life of a people. The closest that we can come to such an image is through the literature of that people taken as a whole. Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer reflected through the prism of their personalities and unique talents the soul of the Jew as a human being, and in this way they became universal writers. tranSlation: chava roSEnFarb and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

notES 1 Shabes-yontevdike yidn are Jews who are in a permanent state of exaltation, as if every day were the Sabbath. The phrase was coined by I.L. Peretz.

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2 God of Vengeance is Asch’s most famous play. First produced in 1907 in Yiddish, it caused a scandal when it was translated into English and performed on Broadway in 1923, because it is set in a brothel and contains a scene of lesbian love. After six weeks, the Broadway run was cut short when the actors and producer were arrested and charged with obscenity. The plot concerns a Jewish brothel owner, Yankl Shapsovitch, who lives on the second floor above the brothel that he owns. He tries to keep the upper floor, where he lives with his wife and daughter, free from the moral taint of the lower floor by commissioning a Torah scroll to be written in honour of the arranged marriage of his daughter to a pious young man. Yankl’s attempt to separate the purity of the upper floor from the moral depravity of the lower meets with failure when his daughter is corrupted by her love for one of the prostitutes on the first floor. 3 Luftmensch: a person who lives on air, that is, a schemer, whose impossible getrich-quick schemes never turn out well, a ne’er-do-well – a character type first popularized by Sholem Aleichem. 4 Mendel Beilis was a Russian Jew, accused of blood libel for murdering a Russian boy named Andrei Yushchinsky. His trial in 1913 became a cause célèbre, highlighting the anti-Semitic policies of the Russian government. He was subsequently found to be not guilty, but his trial became the occasion for massive pogroms in Russia. Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer is based on Beilis’s life and trial. 5 Kiddush hashem literally means “the sanctification of the name.” To die for kiddush hashem is to die a martyr’s death. 6 “Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher” (“If Not Higher”) is one I.L. Peretz’s most famous stories, in which a Hasidic rabbi breaks the religious law that forbids work on the Sabbath in order to chop wood for a poor widow, so that she might not freeze in the winter. The skeptical narrator who witnesses this act of desecration of the Sabbath is forced to admit the sanctity of the rabbi. 7 The Baal Shem Tov (Master of God’s Name) is the name given to Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (1700–1760), the founder of Hasidism.

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Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach

Feminism as a social and political movement has in the last few decades begun to play a remarkable role in the social life of the western world; certainly, it has changed certain long-held assumptions about women and their problems. It has also become a force in the academic world, and in literary studies in particular, where it focuses on an understanding of literature from a feminist point of view. These same feminist winds have blown through the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where in 1991 I was invited to take part in a symposium on the subject of feminism in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. This was the first time that I was forced to focus on this topic in any kind of coherent way. I sat down to write my talk on a typical Montreal day in early spring. A wintry wind blew past my window, as a light snow fell. Looking out of my fogged-up window I could just make out the green shoots of tulips starting to rise from the flowerbeds across the street in front of my neighbour’s house. It was just the right kind of day for me to clarify to myself my own attitude toward feminism – and to admit to myself that my attitude is just as ambiguous as a wintry day in early spring in Montreal. I am not a card-carrying feminist, but the intellectual baggage that I bring to the act of writing is certainly coloured by my femininity. The feminist approach to literary criticism intrigues me and arouses my sympathy. And yet, this way of looking at literature has not really penetrated to the heart of what matters most to me in literature. I ask myself whether my wavering attitude toward feminism is not rooted in the fact of my being not just a woman writer, but a Yiddish woman writer.

There is a saying in Yiddish,“vi es kristlt zikh azoy yidisht zikh” – meaning that there is little difference between Yiddish literature and any other literature. But this is not so. If a people’s literature is a mirror in which it finds it own reflection, then modern Yiddish literature holds up just such a mirror to Jewish life. Just as our history has for the last two thousand years meandered through a path very different from that of any other people, so has our literature followed a distinctive route. Consequently, the attitude of male and female Jewish writers toward life and toward their craft also differs from that of nonJewish writers. How then does it differ in my particular case, as a Yiddish woman writer and a survivor of the Holocaust? The first answer that occurs to me is that there have always been so many more important issues in Jewish history and culture that the question of women’s emancipation and women’s rights have always seemed secondary and trivial by comparison. I think back to the annihilated Eastern-European Jewish world from which I spring, from which every Yiddish writer springs, and from which she extracts the inspirational nourishment for her Yiddishspeaking muse. It was a world marked by poverty and want, but enriched by a deeply felt religious spirituality. It was a world that was often shaken to its foundations by anti-Jewish decrees, by persecutions and pogroms. In such a world, the Jewish people took on the feminine role in their relationship to God, a role which differed from the traditional symbolic interpretation of the Song of Songs, where the Jewish people are associated with the female beloved, while God is the male lover. In the Eastern-European context, God was no longer the lover of the Song’s free-spirited, vibrant heroine, Shulamith, who represented the people of Israel. Rather, God’s people acquired the attributes of femininity by virtue of their passivity and helplessness. In this case, God was the father of an effeminate son. The Jewish male, so exalted and praised in the Scriptures as the son of God’s chosen people, suffered terrible blows to his manhood at the hands of his hostile non-Jewish neighbours. Although heroic in his perseverance and determination to protect his existence and his way of life, he was for the most part deprived of any effective possibility for doing so. In

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order to save his soul and often his life, he was forced to surrender, to submit in a way usually associated with women. Thus, the Jewish male assumed the role of master in his home, not only because he was male, but also because of his need to compensate for his loss of pride and dignity when facing the outside world. In order to sustain his self-esteem, he had only one means at his disposal – that of the spirit and the intellect. Learning and being the head of the family were the only forms of masculine action that remained to a Jew in galut, in exile. This is why Jewish men sat day and night studying the Scriptures, while their wives served them and eked out a living for the family. The man took care of the olam haba (“the world to come”) and the woman took care of the olam hazeh (“the present world”) and bore and raised the children. He thanked God every day for not making him a woman, while she looked forward to Friday evening, when he would serenade her with “eshes khayil mi yimtsa?” (“a woman of valour, who can find her?”). Excluded from the brotherhood of those who studied God’s word, the Jewish woman was reduced to being a kind of benign, resourceful golem – a workhorse with a tender, ever-loving heart, a never-resting womb, and hands that were never idle. In the sphere of Jewish social life, it was she who assumed the role of oppressed Jew vis-à-vis the Jewish male – and was thus burdened with a double load of suffering. The Jewish woman’s life was like a tight shoe – it hurt to walk in it, yet she had no choice but to wear it. What sense would it have made for her to complain about her debasement and enslavement, both as a Jewess and as a woman, if the life of the Jews as a people was fraught with such danger and their general oppression was so great? And then, God willed it so. She and her mate had no choice but to accept their lot and to await the coming of the Messiah. In the meantime, she consoled herself that, in the afterlife in Paradise, she would serve as her husband’s footstool and have no worries. In general, the man’s spiritual life and his faith in God permeated the atmosphere of the Jewish home with the belief that there would be a better future, if not in this life, then in the next. The woman’s submissiveness, her acknowledgment of the authority of her husband, her self-sacrifice and her efficiency in practical matters established a

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hierarchical equilibrium in the home. Nevertheless, the supposed authority of the husband was often only a figurative one, and the wife was the actual power behind the throne. The Yiddish folk saying got it right: a woman is nothing more than a broken vessel, but more than one man has been broken through her. So, despite the disparity in their roles, there existed an exceptionally powerful bond in the relationship between the Jewish man and woman – the bond of their Jewishness. Facing the hostile world together and trembling over the safety of their home and children created a particular understanding between them and introduced an added emotional link to their marital union. True, they were unequal partners in the struggle for survival; nevertheless, they were comrades-in-arms. It was this oppressed-yet-powerful Jewish woman who throughout the centuries prepared the fertile ground for the emergence of Yiddish literature. She was the creator of Yiddish prayers and the anonymous author of countless folktales, folksongs, and lullabies. A Yiddish proverb says that a yidene hot nayn mos reyd (a Jewish woman has nine measures of talk). Talking was the only means of self-expression available to Jewish women. It was by means of their spoken words that they produced a Yiddish literature “bal peh,” that is, an oral literature. With her intimate knowledge of the Tsenerene and the midrashic tales,1 the Jewish woman remained attuned to her people’s collective unconscious, repeating or embellishing the biblical legends or inventing new ones. She created the rhythms, the cadences of the language, and ceaselessly enriched Yiddish vocabulary, modifying and moulding it into a pliant, expressive tongue. The Jewish woman was also one of the first readers of Yiddish literature, especially stories. In times when Jewish men would not stoop to read simple storybooks, Jewish women eagerly awaited the arrival of the book peddler in the shtetl. For a few kopeks a week, the woman could borrow the books to read while she sat in the marketplace selling whatever she had to sell. Because she needed to trade with the gentiles, she also learned the local language. In this way the culture and folklore of the surrounding non-Jewish population was filtered through her imagination and seeped into the Jewish psyche.

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The sons of these Jewish women, of these anonymous creators of the Yiddish oral tradition, were in fact the same writers who created modern Yiddish literature as we know it today. Their souls were nurtured by their mothers’ “nine measures of talk,” by the strength of their mothers’ imaginations and linguistic inventiveness. The Jewish mothers’ songs and stories put wind in the sails of the male Yiddish writers’ creativity. They in turn transformed the mother into the primary figure among their female heroines. Modern Yiddish literature attained its maturity with the work of three classical masters: Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz. These three authors were the literary forebears whom subsequent generations of Yiddish writers both emulated and rebelled against. Under the influence of the liberating movements of socialism and Zionism, the Jewish male grew more self-confident and began to consider the Jewish woman as his partner-in-arms in the fight for a better life. At least, he did so superficially. However, the Jewish male’s subconscious attitude toward women, an attitude formed by years spent in kheder and yeshiva studying the biblical texts, took a longer time to change and has, even today, not yet changed completely.2 Nor was the Jewish woman standing still during this stormy period of rebirth. She believed that the time had come for her own awakening, and started the push to become an autonomous individual. Rebellious Jewish women zealously threw themselves into the vast sea of ideas and ideologies that were suddenly available to them. Generations of silence, of acquiescing to demands, of stifling protests, of bitterness and anger, gave way to revolutionary and nationalistic activities. It was assumed that the gates to the world of men had opened for Jewish women, that their own voices would finally have the opportunity to be heard. But all too often the rebellious Jewish woman was blocked and frustrated by the lack of understanding from the male comrades in her movement. Sometimes this resulted in the women forming their own movements, apart from the men. My own mother, for instance, belonged to the Yaf , which stood for yidishe arbeter froyen (Jewish Women Workers), an organization of Jewish working women that was connected to the socialist Jewish workers’ party, the Bund, so that the


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feminist movement of today is not news to those of us who descend from Yaf women. We will never be able to judge the talent and creativity of the Jewish women of earlier generations. With the exception of a very few published texts, that is lost to us forever. But from among those few texts, we can nevertheless still clearly make out the voices of two exceptional women that have reached us from the mists of our pre-literary past. These two women took up the pen to tell us about their feelings and thoughts. One of these women was Sarah Bat Tuvim, whose voice has come down to us from the Middle Ages; the other was Glickl of Hamlin, who lived in the seventeenth century. Sarah Bat Tuvim wrote tkhines, private devotions and prayers containing moralistic instructions about how a good Jewish daughter should conduct herself. Glickl of Hamlin, on the other hand, wrote about her sorrows as a woman who had been twice widowed, so that her children would know what tribulations their mother had experienced and overcome. Both these texts reach far beyond the goals that the two writers had set themselves. They illuminate the times in which these two creative women lived and, in this sense, the texts also function as literary and historical documents. It has taken hundreds of years for the totality of Jewish women’s experiences and accomplishments to be acknowledged and incorporated as a part of Yiddish literature. As noted, modern Yiddish literature came to maturity with the writing of the three classical writers, Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz, whose influence served as both guide and catalyst for the generation of Yiddish writers who came after them. But all the members of this generation were male. It was only in the earlytwentieth century that Yiddish women writers began to be published. These women took to writing like fish to water. However, unlike the men, the women writers did not have forebears of their own sex whom they could emulate or rebel against. Their creative forebears were their storytelling mothers and grandmothers, whose fates these younger women writers wanted to escape. By taking pen in hand, these women erased the barrier that had made creative writing an exclusively male

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activity, and in so doing, they proclaimed their break with the past. But they also subconsciously assimilated the masculine attitude toward women in general and in particular toward themselves as female writers. In other words, the Jewish woman writer saw herself and her world with the same eyes as the male writer. She tried to make herself fit into the pre-existing national, moral, and ethical framework of Yiddish literature. Celia Dropkin was that rare exception that proved the rule. Though she is little known today, her poetry is important because it is the most spontaneous expression of the repressed feelings of the silent woman of earlier times. Here is what she says in one of her poems: My mother, Widowed at twenty-two And left with two small children, Chastely determined Never to be anyone’s wife again. Her days and years went by quietly As if lit by a grudging candle. My mother was never anyone’s wife again, But through many days, many years, Many nights, the sighs Of her young and loving being, Of her yearning blood, Entered my childish heart. Deep within me I absorbed them all. My mother’s hidden yearning Poured into me freely Like an underground stream. And now my mother’s seething, Holy, Deeply hidden desire Spurts openly from me. (Translation: Seymour Levitan) Celia Dropkin’s embittered voice pierces through the chorus of Yiddish women writers, giving free rein to her accumulated resentment


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against the masculine world. She is Yiddish literature’s answer to Sylvia Plath, who has been so celebrated in the feminist world. In one of her poems, Celia Dropkin says to her lover: I never saw you asleep. I wish I could see you sleeping, When you lose your power Over me. I want to see you helpless, Weak, Mute. I want to see how you look with your eyes Shut, without breath, I want to see you – dead. I don’t think I have ever seen such words echoed in the works of other Yiddish women writers. I suspect that the bitterness and resentment that accumulated in the hearts of the other women writers were stifled by their Jewish consciousness. The common fate that was shared by Jewish men and women remained as powerful a bond as ever. Even when they rejected their religion, these Jews still felt bound to the moral precepts of Judaism. To openly express anger and hostility against fellow Jews was not the Jewish way, and certainly not the way of Jewish women. So the Yiddish woman writer tried to sublimate her bitterness and rise above it by expressing instead her deeply felt humanity, her tenderness, her sensuality, and her love. For instance, here is a poem about sensuality and love, but one that marches over the accepted norms of a Yiddish woman’s writing, a poem in which the woman talks about sacrificing a basic part of her sexual nature in order to remain the sex object of her husband. The poem is by Rachelle Veprinski, the wife of the renowned Yiddish poet Mani Leib. From my slender limbs there cry the voices of unborn children, Who want to emerge from my body to gambol in the white world And blossom under the sun,

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With their curly heads And wide wondering eyes, Black and blue. But I bury their pleas deep inside myself, With the thousand other voices of a feverish instinct, In order to remain, as I am now, forever supple and slender And free to follow my weakness For starry nights And your tender hands. With a few lucky exceptions, the Yiddish writer could never make a living by writing alone, and most of his days were spent working at all kinds of odd jobs. Even when he arrived in America’s Golden Land, his situation was far from golden. H. Leivik became a housepainter; Mani Leib became a shoemaker. The Yiddish woman writer was likewise either busy earning her living, or preoccupied with her responsibilities as mother, housekeeper, and cook. Nevertheless, there was a difference in the daily lives of male and female Yiddish writers. The male writer usually had a wife who revered him in much the same way as the pious Jewish woman revered her husband, the Talmudic scholar. She was his pillar of support, his guardian angel, his well-meaning critic, his faithful servant, who tiptoed around the house when he was writing and admonished the children to be quiet. Thus, Oscar Wilde’s maxim that women may inspire men to great things, but then prevent them from carrying them out, can in no way be applied to the wives of Yiddish writers. Such a godsend, such a wife, the Yiddish woman writer never had and badly needed. Between the two world wars, when modern Yiddish literature was flourishing, there was a healthy division between poetry and prose. Yiddish women writers, however, have always been primarily poets. They seldom wrote prose, and when they did, it usually took the form of short stories, rather than novels. Writing poems was perhaps more in tune with women’s inherent sensitivity, their lyricism, and their drive to express their emotions. Perhaps, as well, the woman writer may have accepted the masculine opinion that she was incapable of

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mastering the complex structure of a novel. But the best explanation, as far as I can see, for women’s preference for poetry is practical. A man, once he had finished his workday, had the rest of the time to himself. But a woman’s workday never finished. A poem has the great advantage over longer works in that it can be conceived from beginning to end while scrubbing floors or ironing laundry, and it can be jotted down in the blink of an eye. For whatever reason, it is a fact that, in comparison to other literatures, especially English literature, there are very few women novelists in Yiddish literature. As a consequence, the female heroine in Yiddish novels and stories is primarily a product of the male imagination. Although my main focus here is on actual women writers, I would also like to say something about the way women are depicted in Yiddish literature. We Jews have every right to be proud of our Yiddish literature, which flowered in such a short time, and which explored both the heights and the depths of Jewish thought and feeling. But the depiction of Jewish women is, with some exceptions, not among our literature’s finest accomplishments. Throughout all of Yiddish literature, beginning with the classical writers, for instance Mendele and his portrayal of Beyle in Fishke the Cripple, or Sholem Aleichem’s depiction of Tevye’s daughters in Tevye the Milkman, or Rokhele in Stempenyu, or Bashevis’s “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” and Grade’s The Agunah, there is an undercurrent of sympathy for the Jewish woman, as well as guilt about her double enslavement, both as woman and as Jew. Itzkhok Leybush Peretz was most aware of the Jewish woman’s double bind and depicted it without embellishment. I would say that he was the first thoroughgoing feminist in the literature, as can be seen in his two strongest stories from Folkstimlekhe Geshikhtn (Folkloric Tales). The first of these stories, “Brayna’s Mendel,” takes its name from the fact that Brayna’s husband, Mendel, is a nothing of a man. But because he is so insignificant, he becomes Brayna’s creation. She builds him up physically by waiting on him hand and foot, feeding him his favourite dishes and foregoing her own nourishment in order that he not go hungry. She also builds him up psychologically, by feeding his masculine pride and his arrogance, so that he feels he can do no wrong. He is so preoccupied with himself

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and with his own importance that he does not notice that Brayna is wasting away. In fact, he is so unaware that one day she amazes him by dying of starvation. In the second story, “The Anger of a Jewess,” Peretz describes a woman who is so overwhelmed by her troubles that she decides to end her life by hanging herself. But just as she is about to tighten the cord around her neck, she hears her baby crying in its crib and, in desperation, she calls out: “God in Heaven, can’t I even hang myself in peace!” Thus, some male Yiddish prose writers did faithfully and realistically describe the situation of women in the late-nineteenth century. They depicted their female characters with great tenderness and understanding. But as a general rule, they avoided looking deeper into the more complicated qualities that make up a woman’s individuality. The male writer sympathized with the woman’s plight; he idealized her, sang her praises, wondered at her, but he knew nothing about who she really was. He did not illuminate her from within. He described her superficially, as she appeared to his gaze. If he talked about her heart and her feelings, then these emotions were depicted stereotypically, as characteristic of women in general. The female figures that men created in their writing may be attractive, they may be moving; it is possible to fall in love with them; superficially, they are true-to-life. But they are not completely realistic. For instance, young women are portrayed in Yiddish literature in a variety of ways – as noble, high-minded figures, romantic and tragic. Against the restrictive background of shtetl life, these young women possess little but their dreams. As depicted by male writers, they are the embodiments of modesty, and it is impossible to imagine that they ever have an impure thought. What they do possess is an extraordinary ability to love. They are capable of a powerful, self-sacrificing love. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman claims that there is no joy in having daughters, because when his daughters fall in love, they do so without restraint. And the great Sholem Asch never sees women as they really are, but rather as he would like them to be, that is, saintly and self-sacrificing. Her heart overflowing with love, the Yiddish literary heroine is ready to throw away her life for the man she loves and the people she loves. Asch’s favourite female type is the mother. As is


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well-known, Asch suffered from a mother-fixation, a fixation that leads him to the apotheosis of all mother figures in the novel Mary, the third volume of his Christian trilogy. Even in earlier work – for instance, Kiddush-Hashem and “The Sorceress of Castille” – Asch describes his heroines, Dvora and Jephta, as if they were Jewish versions of the Virgin Mary. But Asch never shows us the human complexity that troubles his heroines’ souls. In fact, in the course of the entire narrative of “The Sorceress of Castille,” Jephta does not utter a single word. Male writers do describe Jewish women when they rebel, when they begin to take part in the broader social and political world. But even there, everything the woman does is dictated by her love of her man. Tevye’s daughter Hodel takes over the revolutionary ideals of her lover, Perchik. She leaves her home and exiles herself to Siberia in order to be with her beloved. The revolutionary heroine in the works of male Yiddish writers struggles for her independence, but not for her identity. Nor does she succumb to the power of love as an equal to the man, but rather she submits to being overpowered by the love that the man has for her. As for the hot-blooded, sensual woman, she too appears in Yiddish literature, not as an assimilated Jewish woman, but as the non-Jewish shiksa, a type of Lillith,3 who with her seductive feminine charms can lead the Jewish man down the path of sinfulness. Lillith first appears in Yiddish literature in Peretz’s long poem “Monish.” But even there she is not autonomous, but is subject to the commands of her male master, the Devil. After Monish’s defeat, Lillith does not have much of a career in Yiddish literature. In Leivik’s drama, In the Days of Job, the Devil’s helper is not Lillith but Job’s wife, that is, the Jewish mother. The most successful and exalted female figure in Yiddish literature is the Jewish mother. With this character, there is no danger of sexual allure. Instead, the mother is depicted as a source of endless, selfsacrificing love, the kind of love with which the male Yiddish writer feels most at home. In this way he repays his mother for her maternal qualities; he portrays her masterfully, sometimes with humour, always with loyalty, with love, with an unpretentious intimacy, so that she emerges in the pages of Yiddish novels more realistically and more convincingly than all other types of heroine, in contrast to the Jewish

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writers of American literature, who express their hatred for themselves as Jews by creating ugly caricatures of the Jewish mother. What I want to say with this quick overview of the rich gallery of female types in Yiddish literature is that Yiddish writers would have agreed with Goethe’s notion of Das Ewig-Weibliche, the eternal feminine, as exerting a constant influence on them. And yet, the male Yiddish writer keeps himself aloof from confronting the complex human nature of his female characters, and does so with even greater caution in poetry than in prose, as if he were afraid to free some frightening passions within himself. In their poetic self-portraits, Yiddish women writers also seem to shy away from examining their own femininity, as if they too were afraid to unleash dangerous passions in their personal makeup – passions that both male and female writers fear might lead them beyond the acceptable limits of Jewish sexual morality. Yiddish literature has often been, and still remains, didactic, hyper-modest, and puritanical. The subject of sexuality is approached in a round-about way, cautiously, allusively, or metaphorically. Despite this, it is more often the Yiddish woman writer who comes closer to transgressing the accepted norms of morality. She is more open and direct. The fact that she is on the margins of the literary mainstream perhaps gives her a greater freedom. The veiled eroticism of her poetry can be seen as a form of defiance and rebellion. But it seems to me that, since the Holocaust and thanks to the influence of modern feminism, the Yiddish woman writer has come to think of herself as more of an equal citizen in the republic of writers. She has emerged in her writing as a fuller and more authentic individual than she was in the past. I am thinking here specifically of the poetry of Rachel Korn, Malke Haifetz-Tussman, Reyzl Zhikhlinsky, and Rachel Fishman. And yet, if one leafs through the anthologies of Yiddish literature that have been published in our own times, it becomes clear how disproportionately few women writers are represented there. There are no women writers represented in Howe and Greenberg’s famous anthology.4 Literary criticism in Yiddish has always been recognized as a male domain, and there have never been any prominent women

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critics writing in Yiddish. This means that Yiddish literature has always been influenced by the male point of view, and the male critic’s judgments have been accepted as if they were written in stone. I once heard a male critic compliment the great Yiddish-Canadian poet Rachel Korn after one of her lectures with the questionable assertion that she carried a man’s head on her shoulders. By this he meant that, because she was capable of writing and delivering a lecture packed full of astute observations and intellectual commentary, her beautiful woman’s head had somehow been transformed into that of a man. As for me, the fact that I am a woman matters to me only in my day-to-day life. 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. What intrigues me in human nature is precisely the thing that defies gender and sexual difference, heredity and upbringing. If my character is male, then I must try to immerse myself in his masculinity in order to inhabit him completely. The same is true if my character is female. If it is true that Adam was androgynous until Eve was abstracted from his body, then the process of separation as regards their innermost natures was probably never complete. That is why Flaubert could say, “Madame Bovary c’est moi!” (“I am Madame Bovary!”). I believe that in a successful literary work the writer rises above her inner censor and transcends the confines of gender; that in such a work it makes little difference if the female characters are depicted by a male or a female writer. In such a work the writer, whatever his or her actual gender, is a feminist. In such a work the female writer is faithful to her own essence and the male writer sees his female characters as autonomous beings, similar to himself and yet different. Such a work would make us realize that we all have an equal share in our common humanity. That, at least, would be my ideal. tranSlation: chava roSEnFarb and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

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notES 1 The Tsrenerena, also spelled Tseno Ureno or Tsene-rene, was named after a passage in the biblical Song of Songs that translates as “Go forth and see, O daughters of Zion.” It was the Jewish woman’s bible, written in Yiddish, so that women, who were not taught Hebrew and so could not read the Torah, could follow the weekly Torah portions that are read aloud as part of Jewish worship services. It is made up of passages from the Torah, as well as teachings from the Talmud and Midrash. The midrashim are Jewish commentaries and interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures, compiled between 200 and 1200 cE and based on exegesis, parable, and legend. 2 A kheder is a school for Jewish children, traditionally only boys, in which Hebrew and religious knowledge is taught. When a boy was older and had graduated from kheder he could continue his religious studies at the yeshiva, which was dedicated to the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Torah and the Talmud. 3 In Jewish mythology, Lillith was Adam’s first wife, created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam, which caused her to claim equality with him. This led to her banishment from the Garden of Eden. She then turned into a demon who tempts men by night. In Jewish tradition, she is the type of the femme fatale, the dangerous woman who tempts men to sexual excess and sin. 4 In 1954, Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg edited a collection of Yiddish stories in English translation that instantly became a classic. It was called A Treasury of Yiddish Stories and published by Viking. Penguin re-issued the collection in 1990. Notoriously, no women writers were featured in this collection, and Irving Howe, who went on to make a name for himself with the bestselling World of Our Fathers, was often criticized for neglecting Jewish women’s contributions to the life and culture of the Yiddish-speaking community.


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A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation

It seems to me that there is an inherent difference between being a Yiddish writer and being a writer of any other language. The difference is both psychological and linguistic. The Yiddish language, written with the Hebrew letters of the Bible, automatically places every Yiddish text within the context of Jewish history, of Jewish national and religious experience, and so endows it with a near-sacred quality. The mystical power that Jews ascribe to the Hebrew letters seems to influence the texture of even the most secular Yiddish works, endowing them with an additional lustre. As a result, the relationship between the Yiddish writer and her public is imbued with a sense of spiritual and intellectual connection. We, the people of the book, revere the written word. Books possess a special power for us. We love to surround ourselves with them; we nurture a sense of intimacy with them. And this love we extend to the authors of the books, as if they had inherited the mantle of the prophets. We consider our writers to be our rebbes, our teachers, our role models and guides. The admiration of readers, in turn, invests the Yiddish writer with a sense of mission. The writer never ceases to analyze her role, never ceases to examine what it means to be a shrayber bay yidn (“a writer among Jews”), what it means to take upon herself – very often to the detriment of her talent and individual freedom of expression – the function of consoling, encouraging, humouring, of being the people’s tireless champion and chronicler on the thorny road through history. For me, personally, the Holocaust has complicated this sense of mis-

Chava with her Montreal Yiddish publisher, Hirsch (Harry) Hershman.

sion with the need to bear witness. The Holocaust is both the source of my inspiration, and the source of my frustrations and limitations. What does it mean to be a Yiddish writer in Canada today? Let me answer the question obliquely: When my children were small, they spoke only Yiddish. My husband and I were recent arrivals in Canada, and we spoke to them in Yiddish, the language of the Jews in our native Poland. When I was writing my trilogy The Tree of Life in the back room of my apartment on Ducharme Street in Montreal, my little boy Bamie (his own version of the name Abraham) would sit on the floor by my feet playing with his building blocks and chattering to himself in Yiddish, while I scribbled away, pouring my soul onto paper, absorbed in constructing my own fictional building blocks – also in Yiddish. It was a sweet companionship. One summer’s day as we sat on the beach at Cape Cod, another little boy, slightly older than Bamie, came over and sat down beside him and started playing with him in the sand. At length, Bamie initiated a serious conversation with his new friend – a conversation that immediately transformed itself into a lengthy monologue. He was trying to explain to his playmate in Yiddish the intricate sequence of events that had brought him and his family to this beach by the sea. The other little boy stared at my son in amazement, listened for a while, mesmerized, inching closer and closer to Bamie in the hope of getting a better grasp of the words he was hearing. When he realized that his effort was useless, he turned angrily towards my husband and me and demanded: “Doesn’t he speak language?” We were stunned. Our son not speaking language! We had failed as parents; we had thwarted our son’s social development by speaking to him only in Yiddish, thereby depriving him of meaningful contact with his peers in Canada and the United States. My husband decided that the only remedy was to stop speaking Yiddish at home and to pull Bamie out of the Jewish parochial school he was attending and send him to an English school. This we did and, to my eternal regret, Bamie never again spoke a word of Yiddish. Many years later, when Bamie was himself a father, he said to me, “You know, Ma, the one thing I regret most is that I cannot read the books that I saw you writing during all those years of my childhood.”

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His words moved me deeply. Not long afterwards I started work on the translation of my novels and short stories into English. I do not see myself primarily as a translator, although I have in fact, with the help of my daughter, translated much of my own work. Nevertheless, when I reflect more deeply on this subject, I realize that my entire life has been a process of translation. I have been translated from my birthplace in Europe to my present home in North America. I have written three novels, one collection of short stories, four books of poetry, three plays, many essays and travelogues. Yet, without translation, all of these would have been relegated to the graveyard of those few libraries that still contain books in my language, or to the bottom drawer of my own desk. This is because the language in which I write, Yiddish, has fewer and fewer readers and writers. Translation represents to me my literary future. It makes me think that not everything I write will be totally lost, even if things do inevitably get lost in translation. Yiddish has died a thousand deaths in the course of its history. It is the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is about a thousand years old and grew out of Old German with an admixture of Hebrew and vocabulary borrowings from the Romance languages, especially French and Italian. For instance, the well-known Yiddish name Yentl comes from the Italian word “gentile.” A popular man’s name in Yiddish is Bunem, which is a corruption of the French word “bonhomme.” The Yiddish word for blessing, “bentshn,” comes from the Latin word “benedictare.” When the Jews moved eastward during the Middle Ages and settled in the Slavic lands of Europe, Yiddish took on the further strong influence of Russian and Polish. I would say that Yiddish is like a sponge, soaking up vocabulary and grammar from all the major language groups of Europe – the Romance, the Germanic, and the Slavic. To this mixture of European languages, it added Hebrew words and sayings, so that about 15 per cent of Yiddish vocabulary derives from Hebrew. It is thus the ultimate fusion language. By the eighteenth century, Yiddish had become the everyday language of the Ashkenazic Jews in Europe. Unfortunately, it soon fell on


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hard times – come to think of it, it had very few good times! During the Enlightenment it was considered a form of bad German, especially by the Jews themselves, who longed to be accepted by the nonJewish peoples among whom they lived, and so were ashamed of their language. Under the influence of the great eighteenth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who felt embarrassed that his people spoke what he considered to be a bastardized German, Yiddish died out in Germany, in Austria, and in France. At the same time, the Jewish population in Poland, Russia, and other East European countries grew rapidly, and these Jews were Yiddish speakers. To bring the Enlightenment to the Jews of Eastern Europe, Jewish intellectuals had to use Yiddish. In other words, they had to use Yiddish to eradicate Yiddish. And, paradoxically, out of this destructive impulse came the flowering of Yiddish culture, language, and literature in Eastern Europe. By the time I was born in 1923 in Lodz, which was at the time the second-largest city in Poland, Yiddish was the lingua franca of Eastern-European Jews. It was our daily language, our language of instruction, of theatre, newspapers, literature, and all other forms of daily discourse. And it was an international language, spoken wherever Ashkenazic Jews had settled. Before the Second World War, there were an estimated eleven million speakers of Yiddish in the world. Yet, I must say that there was then, as now, an inherent limitation to Yiddish. Yes, it was the language of the Jews. But was it translatable? It was so closely identified with Judaism and with Jewishness, so fully an expression of Jewish thought and emotion, so closely identified with being Jewish, that there was always a danger that it would not translate into a non-Jewish language, that it would keep the Jews cut off from the non-Jewish world. One might almost argue that Yiddish came into the world requiring translation. What happened after this – that is, after the amazing flowering of Yiddish culture and literature between the two world wars – was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, when the world experienced the trauma of the Second World War and the Jews of Europe faced mass extinction. Sadly, this too is the history of Yiddish – and it is my

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own personal history as well. Because my own fate as a writer was so closely dependent on the fate of that beautiful, piquant, tragic language, Yiddish. I was born in Poland, in the town of Lodz, known as the Polish Manchester. There I spent my childhood and early youth. There I began to write poems when I was about eight years old. The language I wrote in, the language I spoke and was raised in, the language of my education, was Yiddish. When I was young, Yiddish was the only language I knew. Our neighbours spoke Yiddish, the Jewish children in our backyard spoke Yiddish, just as the Polish children spoke Polish. But my contact with the Poles was non-existent. We Jews lived almost completely cut off from the Polish majority, partly because of antiSemitism, partly because the self-sufficiency of Jewish life in Poland made it possible. My parents rocked my sister and me to sleep with Yiddish lullabies. They told us fairy tales in Yiddish. Our one-room flat was full of Yiddish books, because my parents were avid readers. They knew no language other than Yiddish, a problem which caused my father great difficulties. He was a waiter in a posh restaurant on the fashionable Piotrkowska Street in Lodz. He had learned by heart the Polishlanguage menu and some standard Polish phrases and, for the rest, he pretended to understand the customers’ orders perfectly well, relying on his own skimpy vocabulary of Polish words and on the help of the Almighty, in whom he did not believe. He was a freethinker and a socialist. The ever-present threat of losing his job motivated my father to learn the Polish language as quickly as he could. But he never learned it well and he never lost his Yiddish accent, which caused him to be ridiculed and sometimes even cursed by his linguistically sensitive, anti-Semitic Polish customers. I tell you this so that you may understand how deeply immersed we Jews were in the Yiddish language in pre–Second World War Poland, and yet how important it was for us to be multilingual. My literary career began on the day that I first learned to hold a pen in my hand. By which I mean to say that there was never a time when I was not a writer. But my career as a Holocaust writer began on a memorable day in February of 1940, when I was still a high-school


Literary Essays

student. On 8 February 1940, one day before my seventeenth birthday, I, my sister, and our parents, along with the entire Jewish population of the city of Lodz, were herded into a ghetto established by the Nazis. On that day, the nightmare of my early life began in earnest. The ghetto was surrounded by a fence of barbed wire from which no Jew ever managed to escape. Caged behind those barbed-wire barricades, we subsisted on the edge of starvation, while we laboured for the Germans, in constant terror of deportation to the death camps. During those horrible months and years of incarceration in the ghetto, I never stopped writing. I produced hundreds upon hundreds of poems. It was in the ghetto that I met the poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, who introduced me to the group of writers among whom I would serve my apprenticeship. This group of starving, doomed writers was led by the elderly Yiddish poet Miriam Ulinover. To this group, which met in the home of the painter Israel Leizerovitch, I read my poems, which were then discussed and critiqued while we nibbled on pieces of what we called “babka,” made out of potato peels that we all brought as food contributions to our meetings. During these meeting, we squabbled endlessly about ways and means of leaving behind a trace of ourselves. We sensed that we were staring death in the face, that we had no hope of surviving the ghetto. But we longed to leave behind some kind of message, some part of ourselves, for those who would come after us. We were writers, after all, and like all writers we craved readers, if not for the present, then for the future. At the same time, we were not sure that the Yiddish language, the language in which we all wrote, would survive our own extermination, and so we decided that we needed a translator, a translator who would know Yiddish, as well as Polish. But knowing Yiddish to perfection seemed to exclude the knowledge of Polish to perfection, and vice versa. We were all self-taught, self-educated. I was the only one of this writers’ group to have graduated from high school. We dared not look outside our own circle, for fear of further risking our lives. We did not dare take a chance on the Germans finding out that our writers’ group existed. But we wanted so badly to find a translator that finally we decided to take a chance and search for somebody suitable. First, we had to gather together all our writing, so that it might be

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prepared for translation. We intended to bury this translated material underground. Unfortunately, we never found a translator who was suitable. The person we picked had excellent Yiddish, but his Polish was wanting. The reverse would have been better, but again we found no likely candidate. So we resigned ourselves to the limitations of our own language, hoping that posterity would contain at least some speakers of Yiddish who would be able to tell the world of our suffering and our hopes after we were gone. This was another point in my life when I looked upon translation as a form of rescue, as a lifeline to the future. And, in fact, translation did supply me with the means of supplementing at least some of my meagre ghetto rations, so that I might keep body and soul together for a little while longer. This occurred when I went to work for the enigmatic Rabiner Hirshberg (or Hirszberg), a German Jew from Danzig, who had been deported to the Lodz ghetto. The Rabiner Hirshberg hired me to help him translate the psalms from Hebrew into Yiddish, my pay being a slice of bread and butter. The Rabiner was the director of the Wiessenshaftliche Apteilung (Research or Scientific Department), an enterprise set up by the Nazis to study Jewish culture and folklore, a dubious and rather suspicious project, the offices of which were located in the heart of the ghetto. It was the first time that I was ever “paid” for my literary work, but the memory lingers with me as something more bitter than sweet, given the circumstances in which I was forced to work. Still this was my first attempt at translation, and while I needed the Rabiner’s help with the Hebrew, I was entranced by the kind of magic that went into the act of transposing words from one language into another. It allowed me to forget for a few hours of every day that I was a prisoner in the ghetto, with people dying all around me from hunger and disease – when they were not being shipped off to the death camps by the Nazis. The Lodz ghetto was liquidated in August of 1944, and its remaining inhabitants rounded up and transported to the death camps. As that terrible summer drew to a close, we lived in constant terror that the Germans would deport us to Auschwitz. We hid in a room in my parents’ flat, but we managed to fool the Germans for only two days.


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On 23 August we were discovered and transported by cattle train to Auschwitz. I will say no more about the horrors of the concentration camps. They are indescribable and untranslatable. After the war, I, and what was left of my family, spent five years in Brussels before finally immigrating to Canada in 1950. Montreal in the 1950s was a marvel as far as Yiddish culture was concerned. It bustled with a lively intellectual and social life, was home to several important Yiddish writers, and boasted a Yiddish library and a system of private Yiddish-language day schools, to which I sent my children. But while I found in Canada a Jewish community that still spoke Yiddish, the focus of this community had turned away from the universalism of my European past to more specifically Jewish concerns, such as supporting the state of Israel. It was in Montreal that I wrote my novels, and I wrote them in Yiddish. I wrote in Yiddish because it was the language in which I was most at home; it was the language that I knew like the map of my own heart. I could create in no other language. And I wrote in Yiddish out of a sense of loyalty to the vanished world of my youth, out of a sense of obligation to a world that no longer existed. And yet, I hardly knew how it happened, but I gradually became aware that Yiddish was in trouble in Montreal and in the world at large, that the number of its speakers and readers was decreasing. The Jewish community of Montreal assimilated more and more into the broader Canadian culture, which in turn grew more accepting of Jews in general. Montreal Jews still attended Yiddish theatre or sang Yiddish songs at klezmer concerts. But Jewish life in Canada was no longer lived in Yiddish. I absorbed this fact bit by bit, but it was a shock nonetheless. The small group of Yiddish writers whom I knew began to seem more like postwar vagabonds and lost souls than a vibrant literary community. I began to feel trapped within the narrow confines of immigrant life, isolated from the larger Jewish community, which now lived its life increasingly in English and French, and I felt isolated as well from the Canadian literary mainstream. My desk drawer bulged with

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manuscripts doomed never to be read; my published books rotted in my basement. Writing is a lonely profession, and after the Holocaust, Yiddish writers were doubly lonely. The Yiddish newspaper of Montreal, the Keneder Adler, was forced to close for lack of readers. The attendance at Yiddish lectures at the Jewish Public Library diminished dramatically. The stimulating vibrancy of my Yiddish life in the city began to seem like a distant memory. For me, personally, the greatest blow was the demise of Di goldene keyt, the respected Yiddish literary journal to which I had contributed stories, essays, and travelogues for nearly forty years and which suddenly ceased publication in the 1990s. The folding of Di goldene keyt threw me into a profound depression, because it meant that I no longer had a venue for publishing what I wrote in Yiddish. So, what was the point of continuing to write in this language? But if I didn’t write in Yiddish, then in what language could I write? I was forced to acknowledge the potential oblivion of both my language and my writing career. As the years passed, it had become obvious to me that, if I wanted readers, I had to be published in English. The Nazis had not succeeded in wiping out the Jewish people, but the passing of time had made it ever more obvious that they may very well have succeeded in eradicating the Yiddish language and the culture that it nourished. After all, the majority of Jews who perished in the Holocaust had been Yiddish speakers. That generation could not pass on its language to its offspring – and without transmission from parent to child, a language is doomed. And so, I was faced with the task of translating my work into English, a language I had learned as an adult. It was a daunting task. I must admit that I thought primarily of translating into English rather than French, despite the fact that Montreal was primarily a French city by the time I arrived here, and despite the fact that, thanks to my sojourn in Brussels after the war, I was initially more at ease with French than with English. But the language of the Jews of Montreal was English, and the language of most of Canada was English. My children went to English schools, and so the language of my home became English as well. Like most writers, I wanted to be read. But I also


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wanted the rest of Canada to know what I and millions of other Jews like me had lived through during those terrible war years. I wanted the non-Jewish world to recognize our pain, and I wanted to memorialize our vanished past and our lost communities. And so, I found myself once again face to face with the need to find a translator. It did not occur to me to translate myself, since I felt so unsure of my English. By this time, my daughter was a teenager. She was also an avid reader of books, and had a fine, intuitive taste for literature. Like many immigrant parents, I envied her grasp of English, which was superior to mine, given that she was Canadian born and educated. Why not harness her talents to my literary wagon? And so I did. I made her sit at the table with my texts by her side, and, through a combination of bribery, insistence, and cajolery, I induced her to translate my work into English. She was thirteen when we began this, and I don’t think she enjoyed the experience. Translation must have seemed like very tedious work to a North American teenager who wanted nothing better than to be out playing with her friends. But as time went on and my daughter grew older, I believe she realized that translation was, for me, a lifeline; that without her expertise in English, my future as a writer was doomed. And, as she matured, my daughter started to take her role as my translator more seriously. Working together on the translation of my books forged a bond between us that is stronger than the bond I have with any other human being, because it is made up of the intimacy that only translation can confer on a writer and her translator, and because it implies a shared creative effort. Watching my daughter manipulate Yiddish sentences so that they sounded as if they had originally been written in English permitted me to improve my own literary grasp of English, until the day came when my daughter suggested that I try translating two of my novels on my own. And that is how I myself came to do the translation into English of my novels Bociany and Of Lodz and Love. You might say that parenting and love were my mentors in English. But to tell the truth, despite my success in translating these two novels,1 I still prefer to have my daughter work on my translations, rather than doing them myself. It is not merely that there is less work for me this way, but it is also less lonely. It means that we are engaged

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in a shared undertaking, my daughter and I. And, to the extent that translation involves rewriting and rethinking the original text, I get the benefit of another point of view when my daughter translates my material. Translation, I believe, is about interaction, interaction between one language and another, between one form of writing and another. It is the most optimistic of literary endeavours, because it suggests that everything may be transposed, and once transposed, comprehensible. Even idioms, phrases, and sayings that have no equivalents in other languages can, in one approximation or another, be somehow transmuted, so that those who speak an entirely foreign language and belong to an entirely different culture may nevertheless understand one another through the medium of translation. What are the hardest things to convey when going from Yiddish to English? I would say that it is the emotionality of the language. Yiddish is a language of overstatement, of highly charged emotion. Translated into English, this kind of emotion appears overwrought, too much of a good thing, too sentimental. For instance, English frowns on redundancy; Yiddish thrives on it. Nobody ever just cries in Yiddish; they cry with tears, they cry out their eyes, they cry so as to sink a ship with buttermilk. Curses are never short and cutting in Yiddish, they are long, involved, and often very funny. The curse is deliberately made fantastical, because it is never meant to come true. For instance, “a thunder should enter you through the ears; it should polish your intestines until they shine and leave through your feet, after which, you should swallow an umbrella and it should open inside you.” Yiddish may also appear very sentimental to non-Yiddish speakers, because so many degrees of diminution and endearment are possible. Both English and French are relatively impoverished in their use of the diminutive, which in these languages is generally formed by adding the word “little” or its synonyms to the noun. But Yiddish – like the Slavic and Germanic languages – makes a diminutive by changing the form of the word itself. And several levels of diminishment are possible, which may convey several nuances of meaning. For instance, “katz” in Yiddish is a cat. “Ketzl” is a smaller cat. “Ketzele” is even


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smaller, a kitten. “Ketzishie” is still a kitten, but is used as an endearment for a person. “Ketzinyu” and “Ketzoukhna” are other possible variations. The process of translation, of moving from one language to another, closely mirrors my own experience as a writer, driven from one country to another and from one language to another. I am so grateful to translators, to all translators, for making the literature of the world available to me and to all the peoples of the world, no matter what language they speak, because I do still believe that literature is the primary way in which we may come to understand one another. When translators sit down to their work, they are engaged in more than a mere transposing of thoughts and phrases from one language into another. Sometimes, as in the case of Yiddish, there is much more at stake: it is not merely that translation allows literary works to exist in languages in which they never existed before, but also that translators are engaged in snatching from the jaws of oblivion that which is in danger of disappearing. It is a most honourable calling; it is a preservation of the past in the present. I thank all translators for the fact that they exist and have devoted their lives to breaking down the barriers between peoples and alleviating the curse of the Tower of Babel. But let me return to the question with which I started this talk: what does it mean to be a Yiddish writer in Canada today? As I said at the beginning, writing in Yiddish is not the same as writing in any other language. Most languages have a home and native land, where potential readers speak the language of the writer. This is not true of Yiddish. For me, writing in Yiddish has meant writing in a language that my own children cannot read. It has meant relying on translation – with all its inevitable imperfections – in order to be read at all. Yiddish is my own language, as near to me as the skin on my body. In my youth, when I voraciously read the works of the great European writers, they all spoke to me in Yiddish, because I read them in Yiddish translation. Yiddish was my Esperanto, my key to understanding the lives of other peoples. It established the affinity between them and

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me, giving me an entree into the obscurest corners of the human soul. To me, Yiddish was never a parochial language. On the contrary, Yiddish literature was a splendid edifice, with open doors and windows. When I started to write in Yiddish, I was subconsciously hoping to emulate my “foreign language” idols, that is, the European writers whom I worshipped and read in Yiddish. My burning ambition was to be deserving of their distinguished company. They were my literary role models, my guides, who let me know that the only way I could join them was not by emulating them, but by being true to myself in the fullest sense of the word and writing in the language that best expressed my authentic self. Now my literary friends and fellow writers are all gone. Yiddish Montreal no longer exists. I am a writer and I cannot speak only to myself. But as I venture out onto broader English-language waters, I am overcome by trepidation. I wonder whether I, with my painful history and my East European Jewish sensibility, will be understood by an English-language readership. Will Canadian readers appreciate my style; will they accept my fiction’s harrowing subject matter; will the translation be good enough to convey my meaning? I remain unsure of myself in English – and this feeling will doubtless never leave me. What affects me most is the continual sense of isolation that I feel as a Holocaust survivor, an isolation enhanced by my being a Yiddish writer. I feel myself to be an anachronism, wandering across a page of history where I do not really belong. 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. Creativity is a life-affirming activity. Lack of response to creativity and being condemned to write for the desk drawer is a stifling, destructive experience. Sandwiched between these two misfortunes struggles the spirit of the contemporary Yiddish writer. Nevertheless, I hold to my old romantic belief that writers of all times and places belong to a noble fellowship; that although they are the voices of their own cultures and languages, they transcend these

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boundaries. This belief helps me surmount my doubts as I reach out in my foreign language of English to the hearts and minds of the people among whom I live. I want to be accepted as an equal by my literary peers in this country, to be recognized as a writer who is both Jewish and Canadian. I want to come in from the cold.

notES Keynote lecture delivered to a joint meeting of the ltac and alta (Literary Translators Associations of Canada and the United States), Montreal, October 2005. 1 In 2000 the Literary Translators Association of Canada (ltac ) awarded Chava Rosenfarb the John Glassco Award for Literary Translation for her translations from Yiddish to English of her own novels, Bociany and Of Lodz and Love.

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Harps on the St Lawrence: Yiddish Poets in Canada

I consider myself a makhateneste (mother-in-law) at every gathering where Yiddish is being celebrated. Despite the fact that so many years ago I was torn out of my Yiddish-speaking world, my heart and mind are still rooted in it. Yiddish is still the language of my daily life. It is still the medium through which I come in contact with my surroundings and through which I try to harness my life’s experiences and recreate them into literature. Yiddish is not only the language of my yesterdays, it is the language of my here and now. It is the language of both my nightmares and my daydreams. It is my most intimate means of expression. And so, I have decided to dedicate my remarks today to creativity in the Yiddish language in Canada. I am not an academic, so I hope that you will forgive me if I ramble rather freely through the streets and alleys of our Yiddish-Canadian past. Upon my arrival in Montreal in 1950, I found here a bustling Yiddish social life. Without having to wait until I learned English properly, I could read the Keneder Adler every day, and so keep up-to-date with world and Canadian news events. Harry Hershman, my Montreal publisher, who had made it possible for me to immigrate to Canada, supplied me with Yiddish literary periodicals that kept me informed about Yiddish cultural life both here and abroad. He took me to the Folk University at the Jewish Public Library, which was the centre for Yiddish cultural life in the city. I visited the Peretz schools and the Folk Shule (Jewish People’s School) and became a student at the Yiddish teachers’ seminary.

I could count more than forty Yiddish writers living in Canada in the years just after my arrival in this country, writers of international reputation and recognized all over the Yiddish-speaking world, as well as more marginal writers, so-called Sunday scribblers – or “graphomanes,” as they were called in Poland. There was an active writers’ union in Montreal, which I was invited to join. There were constant public lectures on literary topics. There were visits by the great Yiddish writers from abroad. Here I met Abraham Reisen, H. Leivik, Opatoshu, Bialostocki, Itzik Manger, Israel Joshua Singer, and his brother Bashevis. They came to give public lectures and were feted at private parties. They joined us for promenades on Mount Royal and came along on excursions to the Yiddish literary chalet in Sainte-Agathe in the Laurentians. Space does not permit me to enumerate all the many Yiddishlanguage journalists, historians, pedagogues, and essayists who lived in this city in the early 1950s, nor do I have time to mention the names of all those who wrote belles lettres, who were novelists or poets. So I will confine myself to speaking about the three most outstanding representatives of the Yiddish-Canadian literary group: J.I. Segal, Melekh Ravitch, and Rokhl Korn. Their presence in Canada corresponds to the most fruitful period of Yiddish-Canadian cultural life. How does one define a Canadian-Yiddish writer, or – more accurately – a Canadian-Yiddish poet, because, in fact, most of the Yiddish writers who settled in Canada have been poets? The three poets whom I have just mentioned, although very different from one another, belonged to the same generation. They were all born in the last decade of the nineteenth century. This meant that the drama of their lives often merged with the drama of Eastern-European Jewish life in the first half of the twentieth century, and then with the reality of Jewish immigrant life in North America in the second half of the same century. Can one say that their works have particular characteristics that separate them as a group from other groups of Yiddish writers? We can speak, for instance, of American-Yiddish literature as a distinct and recognizable branch of Yiddish literary activity. But can we say the same about Canadian-Yiddish writing? Would it not be wiser to discuss Canadian-Yiddish writing under the all-embracing umbrella of

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North American literary achievements in Yiddish, despite the fact that such a large number of Yiddish writers made Canada their home? Can we, in fact, distinguish characteristic motifs in the works of Canadian writers of Yiddish that add a specific flavour to their overall Jewish sensibility? The American-Yiddish writer has always looked upon the world, upon his people, and upon himself, through the sharp, clear lens of self-awareness as an American. This expressed itself in the American writer’s subject matter, in his vocabulary, in the rhythm and style of his works. American-Yiddish poets made an effort to blend their otherness into the American cultural milieu. Sure of their identity as American Jews, American-Yiddish poets created their own trends and literary schools, which sometimes reflected current trends in American poetry, or, more often, defiantly opposed them. At the same time, they were always keenly aware of the borderlines that divided what was within them from what was around them. Canadian-Yiddish poets, on the other hand, looked upon their adopted homeland through glasses that were somewhat out of focus. Although they liked and appreciated Canada just as much as their confreres in the United States liked and appreciated the United States, Canadian poets felt themselves less at home here than their American counterparts did in America. As is often the case between mismatched lovers, the Yiddish poet liked Canada more than Canada liked the Yiddish poet. He or she was more ardent to learn about Canada than Canada was to learn about him or her. But it was not language alone that created this alienation. It was also the fact that the Canadian-Yiddish writer walked not in the middle of the sidewalk of Canadian life, but rather slunk along its edges. The reason for this was, perhaps, that English-Canadian culture in the middle decades of the twentieth century was so unsure of itself. It was constantly suffering an identity crisis and was constantly in the process of defining itself. Americanism imposed itself; Canadianism had to be looked for. Furthermore, unlike the American-Yiddish writer, the CanadianYiddish writer never made the effort to blend into the Canadian cultural milieu. Even the bi-cultural pull of a city like Montreal was never

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strong enough or attractive enough to intrigue or stimulate a Yiddish writer who arrived here from Europe already possessed of rich cultural baggage. The Canadian-Yiddish poet, unlike his American counterpart, never completely unpacked his Eastern-European valises. He felt that he had a superior degree of sophistication, of worldliness, even though he may have just recently stepped out of the shtetl. And this assumption of superiority left Canadian-Yiddish poets indifferent to Canadian culture, which often seemed parochial to them. Estranged and isolated in their otherness, yet nurtured and encouraged by the camaraderie and warm fellow-feeling of their equally isolated fellow writers, Canadian-Yiddish writers found in their East-European valises all the necessary nourishment for their muse. How, then, did these poets assume a new coloration, becoming Canadian-Yiddish poets with a literature of their own? They achieved this, I would argue, first of all by opening their eyes, not to the Canadian people, and not to Canadian culture – but to the immensity and magnificence of the Canadian landscape. The Canadian landscape, breathtaking in its diversity, powerful, raw, and largely devoid of the destructive touch of technology, exerted a mesmerizing power over the Yiddish poets. Canadian winters, Indian summers, the mountains and prairies, the endless expanse of uninhabited land stretching from Atlantic to Pacific represented an elemental, all-embracing, glorious metaphor for freedom to those Jewish escapees from the narrow ghetto streets of Eastern Europe. Once they discovered the literary potential of the Canadian landscape, they fell under its spell forever. For instance, in this exhilarated outburst from J.I. Segal: In our free and vast prairies, winter carries on its great dominion, with its magic storms rolling down wild mountains, avalanches of snow diving into deep valleys. In our free and vast prairies, how joyfully cold merges with light! Clear white bed sheets of frost unroll across steppes with the spell of magnificent swiftness.

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Three Yiddish literary men. From left to right, publisher Harry Hershman, writer Avrum Reisen, poet J.I. Segal.

In our free and vast prairies, there hovers in the air a longing for those wild and free tribes who know no limit to their sense of belonging. It was this wild beauty, this power concealed in a vast, unexplored land that spoke to the heart of the Canadian-Yiddish poet. For this reason, if there is a specifically Canadian element in the work of these writers, it finds its expression in the hundreds of the nature poems they wrote in praise of the Canadian landscape. In keeping with the metaphor of the Canadian landscape, let us now approach the Rockies of Yiddish poetry in Canada, and attempt to scale their three highest peaks: J.I. Segal, Melekh Ravitch, and Rokhl Korn. In the voices of these three great poets – who contributed so much to Yiddish literature as a whole – one can discern most strongly


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the shared impact of Canadian identity on Jewish sensibility, as well as the artistic individuality of each writer. What united these three was their historic experiences as Jews who had settled in Canada; what separated them was their individual approaches to and understanding of their own unique place under that endless Canadian sky. Jacob Isaac Segal was the most nationalistically Jewish of the three poets, as well as the most Canadian. He was also the first to arrive in Canada. The poetic air that Segal inhaled in Canada was not only the air of Montreal, where he settled, but also the air of his hometown, Korets, in the Ukraine. While physically living on Canadian soil, Segal played spiritual host to the Baal-Shem-Tov, to the Bratslaver and Berdichever Rabbis.1 His imagination relocated Korets to Canada. Here, in the country of his escape, he put out a sign saying: Yiddishland. Yiddish was his home. He spoke Yiddish to the Canadian landscape, and it responded in Yiddish. He loved the Yiddish language and sang its praises in countless poems, publishing an entire collection entitled Sefer Yiddish (The Book of Yiddish). He constantly wondered how modern Jews would remain Jewish without Yiddish? When I arrived in Canada in 1950, Segal was at the peak of his literary powers. I lived in what was then called “a double parlour,” as a boarder with a refugee family who had come to Canada shortly before me. The apartment was located on the corner of Park Avenue, which was the main promenade for us newcomers. There I would often run into Segal, his prematurely grey head raised high, his eyes staring into the distance through his glasses, his mind preoccupied with some new poem. He was a prolific writer. Two poems a day were his normal output. Sometimes I would meet him on Mount Royal, where, in some literary dispute with the always cool and composed Melekh Ravitch, Segal would hotly defend his position, as if the fate of the entire world depended on the outcome of their disagreement. Or I would encounter him arguing with Rokhl Korn, insistently trying to convince her that her most-recent poem was much more profound than she had intended it to be. Sometimes I met him at the home of Ida Maze, who wrote the most beautiful children’s poetry. Having consumed a

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couple of glasses of cherry wine, Segal would crack jokes, shake proverbs out of his sleeve, or entertain those present with tidbits of literary gossip. Or I would see him at the Jewish Public Library, where, given his position as president of the Yiddish Writers’ Union, he would be greeting a distinguished visitor, like Leivik or Opatoshu or Manger, before reading a thoughtful essay about their works.2 Yakov Isaac Segal was born in 1896 in Podolia, a province of Russia. His father was a scribe and a cantor, who died when Yakov Isaac was not yet three years old. The family moved to the shtetl of Korets, into the very heart of Volhynian Jewish poverty. Korets was therefore the town of Segal’s childhood, the object of his later homesickness. His mother had a stall in the marketplace, selling, as he said, squalor and candy, candy and squalor. “Her book,” he said, was the saddest of all the books in the world – the account book. In Korets, the thirteen-year-old Segal lived through a horrific experience, which had a lasting impact on the formation of his character. During one of the town’s fairs, he was arrested by a policeman, who accused him of having stolen money from a gentile. He was thrown in jail and flogged with thick ropes until late into the night, when his weeping mother finally succeeded in persuading the authorities to set him free. This experience was so devastating that Segal never shook off its impact. Its traces can be found not only in his poems, but also in his character, in his unthinking abruptness, and in his often rude behaviour toward others. Segal arrived in Canada in 1911 at the age of fifteen, a young man who wrote a young man’s poetry. For a few years, he worked in the garment trade, then became a teacher in the Jewish school system. How did Segal, the young, restless, homesick poet, take to his new homeland of Canada? Like fire takes to water – that is, not well! His first impulse was to beat a retreat. After spending ten years in Montreal, he decided to leave for America and join the group of rebellious YiddishAmerican poets who called themselves “Di Yunge.” In 1923 he and his wife, Elke, left for New York. The heart and soul of Di Yunge was the poet Mani Leib, who was by profession a shoemaker. In New York, Mani Leib had founded a shoemakers’ collective made up of poets. Segal joined this collective.


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He was much influenced by Di Yunge. They helped him to modernize his verse, to seek new forms and expressions, new symbols and metaphors. He became the first Yiddish poet to use blank verse, rejecting rhymes and measured rhythms. But the shoemakers’ collective was short lived. Disillusioned with the Golden Land of America, Segal returned to Montreal. Only then did he come to terms with Canada – and with himself. Where before, his stormy, restless nature had felt stifled in the narrow confines of his surroundings, he now aimed at breaking through to the free open spaces that Canada seemed to promise. His curiosity about what was going on within him stimulated his curiosity about his adopted country. And the more he identified himself as a Canadian, the sharper became the images of his vanished world. Disillusioned by the great secular ideologies of the twentieth century, by communism and by socialism, he returned to what I would call a literary religiosity. He became what was very common among young Jews at the time, an agnostic believer, someone steeped in tradition and religious learning, who uses his religiosity to add depths to his work without ever becoming a practising Jew. This rediscovered piety lent an air of religious romanticism, of ecstatic elation, to his work. Confident in his creative powers, he sang out enthusiastically: I light the candles, I light my poems, I light my love in the crystal holders of your menorahs of trees, Almighty. On the broad, great, quiet Earth, On the peaceful table of your radiance, We celebrate your golden Sabbath, Your golden fall. Although he does not mention Canada by name here, one can sense that it is the Canadian earth and the Canadian autumn that he is so joyously describing. Segal was at the peak of his creativity when the horrendous details of the Holocaust reached him. Opening his heart to his people, he

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began to sanctify the language of those who had died, the Yiddish language. For him, Yiddish became more than a language. It became the essence of everything that had to do with the Yid, the Jew, and with Jewishness. Yiddish became both his house of prayer and the prayer itself. Yiddish became his substitute for religion, for faith. Like most Yiddish writers, Segal did not come to Yiddish literature through college or university. He came from a world far removed from the main road of Western culture. Yet Segal’s language was rich, refined, and sophisticated. The road to poetry leads through many different paths. The spiritual influences working on Segal came from his traditional Hasidic upbringing, from the Bible, the Talmud, and Midrashim, from Hasidic tunes and Kabalistic flights of the imagination. This, combined with the later influence of Western literature, the influence of the great poet Rilke, and the impact of the Canadian landscape, helped Segal to transform his language into one of Yiddish poetry’s finest instruments. An altogether different poetic personality was Melekh Ravitch. And altogether differently did Canada impress itself upon his consciousness. I actually met Ravitch before I met Segal, on the very first day of my arrival in Montreal. It was a bitterly cold day in the month of February, forty-four years ago, when the train deposited me and my husband on the platform of Windsor Station in Montreal. Five short years earlier, I had been liberated from the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. At the train station, I was welcomed by Harry Hershman, the Canadian publisher of my first book of poems. It was he who sponsored me as an immigrant to Canada. As we stood there, on the windswept platform, a couple approached us. The woman was dainty and fragile-looking, with a long braid wrapped around her head in the Russian fashion. The man wore a French beret. A long shawl encircled his neck; snowwhite socks gleamed from above his galoshes. He carried a walking stick in his gloved hand. The man and woman smiled warmly at me. “I am Ravitch and this is Rokhl Eisenberg,” the man said to me. Then he raised my hand to his lips and planted a chivalrous kiss on the back of it. I was stunned. Not only had I never been kissed on the hand

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From left to right, Melekh Ravitch, Chava Rosenfarb, Benjamin Jacob Bialostotsky (a Yiddish poet), Rokhl Ravitch (wife of Melekh), Henry Morgentaler. 

before, but to have such an honour bestowed by a man of Ravitch’s renown added to my bewilderment. Melekh Ravitch had been a name to conjure with in my home in Poland. I recalled the emotions that his book of poems Continents and Oceans had aroused in me, how overwhelmed I had been by the poems’ romantic sweep. I also remembered how, in 1943, in the Lodz ghetto, I had stood in front of a clandestine class of children miraculously saved from deportation to the death camps, who now, disguised as adults, were studying Yiddish literature. I, their teacher, taught them Ravitch’s poem, “Spring over Europe.” And here, in the city of Montreal in February of 1950, I found myself in front of the same Melekh Ravitch. In his coming to the train station to welcome me on such a frigid day, and in the form of his greeting, I was given an introduction to some of Ravitch’s characteristics.

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Melekh Ravitch was the pseudonym of Zakharia Khone Bergner. He was born to well-to-do parents in the town of Radym (Radymno) in Eastern Galicia. His mother was strongly inclined to Polish assimilation, his father to German. Consequently, Ravitch’s mother tongue was Polish rather than Yiddish, and his second language was German. He received a worldly education, then worked as a bank clerk, first in Lemberg and then in Vienna. Very early in his life, Ravitch began to write poems. He wrote them in Yiddish. He knew the language from his Yiddish-speaking environs, but how he came to create poetry in Yiddish is a mystery – well, almost a mystery. When Ravitch was fifteen years old, he met the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz and fell head-over-heels in love, first, with Peretz himself, and then with Yiddish literature. He was also, obviously, in rebellion against his assimilationist parents. At the outbreak of the First World War, Ravitch got married and was inducted into the Austrian army. He was wounded in the foot at the front, not, heaven forbid, by an enemy bullet, but, as befits a Jewish soldier and a poet, by his own absent-mindedness, getting his foot caught under the wheel of a cannon. After the war, Ravitch had a secure position at the bank in Vienna. All his life he had had a passion for numbers. He saw in them a poetic beauty and derived great pleasure from making columns of numbers tally with one another. In fact, he rose from position to position at the bank, and might have eventually become a bank director had it not been for his even-greater passion for the beauty of Yiddish literature. News reached him of a flowering of Yiddish culture in Poland, and he could no longer remain in Austria. In 1921, Ravitch and his young family arrived in Warsaw. In a very short time, he found himself at the helm of the poetic movement called Di Khaliastre (The Gang), along with Uri Zvi Greenberg and Peretz Markish. He also became the secretary of the famous Warsaw Writers’ Union. After 1934, when he left Poland, Ravitch travelled all over the world as a representative of one or another Yiddish cultural institution. And that was how, in 1941, he came to Montreal, after first having lived in Australia, Mexico, and Israel. In Montreal, he spent the rest of his

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life working at the Jewish Public Library. It was thanks to him that Montreal became a great literary centre for Yiddish. At a banquet celebrating Expo 67, the Quebec provincial minister of culture honoured Ravitch for his achievement in promoting Yiddish culture in Quebec. Thus it was that, in Canada, the great world traveller put away his wanderer’s staff. Here he built his last home, but a home with its doors and windows open to his Canadian surroundings. As he breathed the air of Montreal, he felt himself inhaling the air of the entire universe. Whereas, for Segal, the past came to Canada, for Ravitch, Montreal was his springboard into the future. Ravitch was the type of the modern Jew, a Yiddishist in the most beautiful sense of the word. He believed that, if man is not good, he nonetheless has the potential to become good. Ravitch himself was endlessly monitoring and shaping his own character in order to reach some ideal level of perfection. For obvious reasons, he was not always successful in these endeavours. There is no perfection in human nature. His was a complicated personality, full of contradictions. Perhaps because of his overwhelming craving for harmony, Ravitch clung compulsively to order. He abhorred chaos. When he visited me in my apartment and noticed that the telephone cord was entangled, he felt compelled to straighten it out. In his Mayn leksikon, he recounts how once, when he was secretary of the Writers’ Union in Warsaw, there was an evening in honour of Itzik Manger.3 Manger, the dishevelled troubadour, caused Ravitch great grief, almost physical pain, with his unkempt, unbuttoned appearance. Before the evening started, Ravitch made Manger get up on a chair, so that he might clean the cuffs of his pants and straighten his tie. Why should Ravitch have cared if Manger appeared unkempt and dishevelled in front of the public? He cared because having order around him gave Ravitch the sense that all was well with the world. How gladly Ravitch would have taken this world and cleaned it of its unruliness, of its lack of harmony! How gladly would he have tidied it up and made it whole. Mathematician that he was, in his heart of hearts he always longed for one and one to equal one! He longed for harmony, for order, for peace.

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Rokhl Korn’s understanding of Canada was entirely different from that of her two distinguished colleagues. To her, Canada meant both home and homelessness. Rokhl Korn was the Yiddish poet who, it seems to me, best grasped the essence of Canadian-ness, although she did not directly celebrate the Canadian landscape. While Segal and Ravitch were cerebral poets, Korn’s poetry was full of emotion, sweeping the reader along with its passionate, hypnotic power. In one of her most famous poems she writes: On the other side of the poem miracles may happen Even on this overcast day, When the feverish longing of a wounded hour, Pulsates against the glass of the window pane. On the other side of the poem my mother may appear standing on the threshold, musing for a while, then call me to come home – just like then, just like then: Enough play for today, Rokhl. Can’t you see? It is night. Rokhl Korn was not born in a shtetl or in the big city, but rather on a farm in Eastern Galicia, on 5 January 1898. She was ten years old when she lost her father, a loss that increased her attachment to her mother, who figures so prominently in her poems. Rokhl learned the Polish language from a village teacher, and then she studied for some years in a Polish high school. She debuted by writing poems and short stories in Polish. Shaken to the core by the persecutions of the Jews in the independent Polish republic established after the First World War, she decided never to write in Polish again, and instead began writing exclusively in Yiddish. Unlike other young Yiddish writers, who started their literary careers writing poems and then changed to writing prose, Rokhl Korn began her career as a Yiddish writer by creating works of prose, and only much later did she begin to write poetry. When she did, she took Yiddish literature by storm. She was a revelation. She was the great news that illuminated modern Yiddish poetry and prose in Poland. Rokhl Korn appeared on the Yiddish literary


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scene in the after-Peretz period, those wonderful years when Yiddish culture almost overnight created a multi-branched literature in all possible genres. The commotion created by the boisterous Khaliastre had already dissipated, but there was no lack of new and original trends. Rokhl Korn’s style drew attention because these were the Sturm-undDrang years of Yiddish women’s poetry. Suddenly, numerous talented women poets appeared on the literary scene, celebrating their liberation from religious prejudice and from masculine authority. But Rokhl Korn did not have to liberate herself. She was born free. She recognized no power outside herself. What bound her to the new feminine poetry was the freedom to express her sensuality openly and directly. In matters of sexuality, our women poets were franker than the men. For instance, in the following lines by Rokhl: When the day braids its blond tresses and the evening gathers the pearls of its dew, My brown body falls at your feet like the stalk that breaks before the harvester. Or, she writes: I am soaked with you, like the soil with the rains of spring. My blondest day is suspended from the pulsating rhythm of your most quiet word, like the bee from the branch of a blossoming linden tree. With lines like these, with their directness and authenticity of expression, Rokhl Korn revolutionized both Yiddish nature poetry and Yiddish love poetry. When the Second World War broke out, Korn was in Lvov visiting her daughter, who was studying medicine there. She and her daughter escaped to Soviet Russia. Her husband, her mother, her two brothers and their families, all perished in the Holocaust. Rokhl and her daughter wandered all over the Soviet Union. She wandered to Tashkent, Ufa, Fergana. From 1944 until 1946, she lived in Moscow, then in Lodz, Poland. From Lodz she went to Stockholm.

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In 1948, she, her daughter, and her son-in-law arrived in Canada and settled in Montreal. After the shock of the Holocaust and her own tragic losses, Korn did not find it difficult to see her lost homeland reflected in the Canadian landscape, which so closely resembled the landscape of her childhood, except that it was wilder, less inhabited, and more mysterious. The deep grey of the long Canadian winter served Korn as a metaphor for the chill of uprootedness, and as a shortcut back to her lost home. Even in those poems in which she says goodbye to life, we have the impression that her leave-taking – and she was always taking leave of life in her poems – was actually a nonchalant greeting to existence, a kind of hint that, as long as she is saying goodbye, she is okay; she is happy. Each one of her goodbyes is a passionate love declaration, a substitute for an ecstatic outburst of enthusiasm. There is little marzipan sweetness in her joy, nor in her sadness. Her sadness is powerful and devastating, while her joy is sober and simple, as simple as the joy of the first breath of spring after the long Canadian winter. Poetry did not serve Rokhl Korn as an escape from life, but as a means of embracing life with all her being. She writes: All that which is lonesome has the colour of my sadness, and all that is humiliated and tired stands in a crown of extinguished stars at the first word of my poem. Abandoned leaves, rejected places, forgotten smiles, delayed tears – who will bow his head before you and invite you all, when I will no longer be around? Canada became an existential symbol for her, a spiritual territory that merged with Galicia, with Poland and Russia, with the land of Israel, with the entire universe. I remember her mainly as she appeared before me one afternoon in fall, near the end of her life. She loved the golden months of the Canadian autumn and wrote about this season often in her poems. I recall


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From left to right, Saul Bellow, Rokhl Korn, unidentified woman, and Chava Rosenfarb, taken 9 November 1968 at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, during Jewish Book Month. Courtesy of the Jewish Public Library.

the soft outlines of her majestic figure, the half-smile on her full lips, the proud forehead, the grey of her short-sighted eyes squinting from behind her eye-glasses. I recall her greeting me with her hoarse voice, cello-like and deep from too much smoking. I can see the cigarette in her hand, her full eager lips stretching towards it. I remember the quiet elegance of the dress she wore, a dress of dark, warm colours. A cameo pin decorated the neckline. Her rich

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head of hair, with all its nuances of brown and grey shone in that Indian summer, golden fall. So she stood on the threshold of her home, holding the cigarette in one hand, and with the other feeding the squirrels which she had befriended and which had come to pay her a visit. This is how she has remained in my memory from that golden Canadian afternoon, wrapped in the beauty of the setting sun. I imagine her now in the garden of her soul, feeding the squirrels of thought and feeling. And I can hear her whisper, “On the other side of the poem miracles may happen …” And I can see her at the same time on this side of the poem, in her factual garden, in her actual life. And so our Canadian Yiddish poets came to see in Canada a kind of merged landscape of their lost home and a better place to live. They saw in Canada the land that gave them the opportunity to cry out their despair after the Holocaust; and in this pristine land of the future, they shyly planted the hope for a new, better life. They saw in Canada a corner of the world where they could renew their communal life, both as they once knew it at home and in its more modern, freer, more tolerant present reality. Here they could dream of a welcoming future, where they could live wherever they pleased and however they pleased. But now the sky has darkened in the garden of Canadian Yiddish creativity, just as it has darkened all over the world. J.I. Segal once asked desolately, “Is it autumn in your garden, Yiddish? Are we with trembling hands reaping the last fruit from your branches? Perhaps there will come another summer, another miracle, and above our tired eyes, new fruit will appear?” There are no more Yiddish periodicals or Yiddish daily newspapers appearing in Canada. The Jewish Public Library is no longer the Yiddish Public Library. In the span of the forty-four years since my arrival, a desert has replaced the forest. I am convinced that the treasure of our rich Yiddish literature will never perish. It bears witness to our people’s spiritual triumph. Our poets and prose writers will be with us whenever we shall encounter their winged words between the covers of their books. Yet it fills me with nostalgia, and, yes, with grief, to cast my mind back to the images


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of my Canadian literary past. These memories make me aware of how dim the lights have grown in the garden of Yiddish literary creativity. We have lost almost all the dreamers and poets who sat with us by the waters of the St Lawrence and who never hung up their harps on the weeping willows, but instead transformed our alienation into a home of unimagined beauty and welcome. Now they themselves have become the weeping willows. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that Yiddish literature as such will survive. There are signs on the horizon that we are not yet the last Mohicans. I grasp at straws of hope whenever I hear of young writers publishing in Yiddish in North and South America, in Israel and the former Soviet Union. They are like trees miraculously growing without soil for their roots, as if they too were defying annihilation by proving the power of the Yiddish language and its spirit. There is a durability to works of literature, no matter what language they are written in. “Ars longa vita brevis.” Life is short, but art is long. Art is eternal. Yiddish literature is eternal. Perhaps a day will come when the process will reverse itself, and those seeking nourishment for their souls will plant their spiritual roots in its soil. The proverb says that hope is the mother of fools. But who knows, perhaps the fate of the Yiddish language is like the fate of the Jewish people. Defying annihilation, Yiddish might still rise from the ashes like a phoenix. Let us hope that the treasure of our sumptuous Yiddish literature will not be forgotten or dismissed as merely a curiosity, but will instead imbue new generations with vitality and riches for many years to come. Then perhaps the sound of Yiddish harps will once again be heard by the shores of the St Lawrence. tranSlation: chava roSEnFarb and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

notES 1 The Baal-Shem-Tov (1698–1760) was the founder of Hasidism. For more on this important figure in Judaism, please see Rosenfarb’s essay on Sholem Asch. Reb Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810) was a great-grandson of the Baal-Shem-Tov and the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movememt. Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev (1740–1809) was known as the Berdichever rebbe, and was also a Hasidic leader.

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2 Ida Maze was a Canadian Yiddish-language poet born in Belarus. Her home in Montreal became a literary salon, and she herself became a mother figure to an entire generation of Yiddish-language writers who settled in Montreal. H. Leivik was the pen name of the Yiddish poet Leivik Halpern (1888–1962), Chava Rosenfarb’s favourite poet and the author, most famously, of The Golem, a dramatic poem in eight scenes. Joseph Opatoshu (1886–1954) was a Polish-born Yiddish novelist and short-story writer. Itzik Manger (1901–1969), who called himself a folk bard, was one of the most prominent and best known of the younger generation of Yiddish poets. 3 The five encyclopedic volumes of Melekh Ravitch’s Mayn leksikon were published between 1945 and 1982. They contain portraits of all the Yiddish and Hebrew writers whom Ravitch had known.

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Chava in 1967, being greeted on her first trip to Australia for a lecture tour. Bono Wiener, third from left, would become her second partner.

Australian Notes, 1974

I sit in the airplane and look out the window. Sea, sky, and air, a monotonous trinity. I have been travelling now for almost thirty hours, and I look out at this endless expanse – looking for myself. Finally, land appears. A brown sheet of earth with ragged, toothmarked edges; particles of land like torn rags swim out to announce the presence of terra firma, until eventually the ground spreads out over the sea and covers it to the edge of the horizon. Little by little, we descend. The sheet of earth begins to show its markings, like a map drawn by long-ago seafarers, or the relief of a prehistoric landscape. This sheet of earth was once brand new, probably a part of that gigantic continental blanket that is called Asia. Perhaps the glaciers of the South Pole reached all the way up here, and when they fell away, they left behind rivers and lakes. Perhaps this sheet of earth was once a green carpet, not just around the edges, but also in the centre? Its rich vegetation provided a living for the primitive animals and people who passed by. Who knows what kind of civilization would have developed here if the tropical sun had not overdone her generosity. She heated and dried the soaking continent for so long that she burned it, and transformed its heart into a desert. Fortunately, she caught herself a minute before it was too late and left the edges around the desert succulent and green. Perhaps that is why the Aboriginals, who wandered here from Southeast Asia about 25,000 bce , did not create a powerful civilization. It seems that civilization develops where nature gives promise that she will allow herself to be tamed. I am eager to see the Aboriginals whose technology remained in the stone-age, and who were yet able to create their own culture.

I ask myself if the seafarers, the gold and spice seekers who a thousand years ago left the advanced civilizations of China and India, ever landed on these shores? Did they ever meet the Aboriginals and attempt to colonize them? Perhaps they were fearful of the stories that were passed on for generations in the Far East about an island of pure gold, guarded by mermaids who live in the waves. Australia, end of the world, land of “down under,” I send you regards from a wandering Jewish daughter. You rise to greet me, ready to answer my weariness with your rest. You bring me your secrets. How will I understand you? My spiritual baggage is not empty. Like all wanderers, I carry my inner domain with me, my innermost continent, my world, whose measurements I take over and over again in all directions. My continent is as large and as small as I am, so that only cracks remain to permit your peace to seep into me, or to permit egress for my desire to know you. Won’t the same thing happen to me as happened in Africa, in Asia, in South America, in Europe: lost in myself, will I barely notice you? I am descending to you, world’s end, and I see how your sun, your air, your sky and sea, smile broadly at me, with the brown-green teeth of your shores, the brown-green smile of prehistoric earth, prehistoric man, and prehistoric love. I want to be enveloped by your radiant, spacious arms. I want to close my eyes and dream the primitive dream of innocence. Quietly, I recite to myself a wordless prayer. I pray that the jungle-filled, volcanic continent inside me should disappear, at least for a little while, so that I may hear your music. Here is the magnificent entrance to Sydney’s harbour. The opera house, with its rounded seashell roofs, looks like a giant white swan sitting on the shore with half-raised, majestic wings. Not far from here is Botany Bay, where Captain Cook accidentally landed in 1770, and through this accident ensured that the white race from the northern continent of Europe would become the ruler of the large island-continent in the southern sea. White civilization in the land of the brown, what a marriage of contrasts! I, who am of the white race, am intrigued by the brown, and I have a sentimental regard for the white Captain Cook. I imagine that his sea travels taught him cleverness, while

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rinsing away his white arrogance. Of the Aboriginals he perceptively remarked that they may seem to be the most unfortunate people in the world, but in fact they are a lot luckier than the Europeans, luckier in their total ignorance of “the comforts of civilization.” I would like to know if it was with the captain’s agreement that one of the members of his expedition suggested to the English Parliament that here, yes here, a colony should be established for English law-breakers who were sentenced to banishment. Seven hundred and fifty men and women, thieves, robbers, and prostitutes, landed a few years later, not far from where I myself will land in a few minutes. What did they think, those banished ones, when they landed on these shores? On the day of their arrival did the sunshine seem as close and bright as it does today? Were they as entranced as I am by this end-of-the-world distance, far from the whirlpool of current events, of conflicts, of elusive chimeras, far from the West’s decadence? Were they charmed by the promise of spaciousness, by the promise of a new beginning? I imagine that the more enterprising ones among them consoled themselves with the thought that even here there could be possibilities. They made plans, perhaps to go into trade with the surrounding islands, or perhaps even with the countries of Asia? But surely there were some among them who wanted to see their dreams come true in this land, who wanted to lead a simple, honest life, to work the land, tend the sheep, and who knows what else? Perhaps to create a Garden of Eden on this earth? With the songs of those beginnings, with the ballad of white and brown, of those forgotten by God and Man, you draw me to you, Australia! Disembarking, I am greeted by the polite, smiling airport police. They are well-built, broad-shouldered, sportive people. They wear shorts, white short-sleeved shirts, and white knee socks. Are they descendants of the convicts, or of later migrations? Seeing their informal attire, my heart grows calmer. “Welcome to Australia,” I read on an inscription. The weariness of thirty hours in the air drops away from me. I feel light-hearted and enthusiastic. But, Lady, take it easy and come down from your poetic heights. You are in a Commonwealth country in the twentieth century, and your

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yellow inoculation card shows that your smallpox shot was marked with an unreadable date. Don’t let our politeness mislead you, love, and don’t tell us any stories, because they won’t help you anyway. What you have to do, honey, you have to make your way there, to that room, where there waits a polite, smiling doctor in shorts and a white shortsleeved shirt and white knee socks. He will give you the necessary shot in your foreigner’s arm and then … “Have a nice stay in Australia.” I am sitting in the airport in Sydney, waiting for a plane to Melbourne. To the right of me sits a bearded young man in shorts, with sandals on his bare feet. He sips beer through a hole in a can and reads a sports newspaper. To my left sits a slim young woman who is dressed exactly like the young man on my right: shorts with sandals on bare feet. In place of the beard, she has long, blonde Lorelei hair. She is eating fish and chips from a paper plate. She reminds me of my blonde daughter, and I cannot take my eyes off her. She smiles at me with her full lips: “Nice die to die.” I am startled, and for a moment I don’t know what she means. She seems to be the picture of youth, of good health. Why is she talking like Hamlet – “to die or not to die”? Used to Canadian English, I hear, “A nice day to die.” What’s the hurry? I ask myself. But it becomes clear; the Australians change our “a” sound to an “i” sound. With them, it’s Sun-die, Mon-die, with us it’s Sunday, Monday. “Yes, indeed,” I nod my head, and with that our conversation ends, because I see from the look in the blonde girl’s blue eyes that there is nothing in her face that resembles my blonde daughter’s Jewish eyes. How unique is the fate of each individual Jew! When did I ever dream of setting foot in this land? How we have spread out over the whole world, we survivors of the flood, we, who have been rescued from the fire! I think of the concentration-camp survivors, from Lodz, from Warsaw, from the scores of cities and towns in Europe, who have ended up in this place. Yes, I know what they were looking for here. They were looking for rest, for peace. They wanted to be far from God and from people. The further away the better. They had had enough of being



the chosen people. Chosen for pain. They had had enough agitation, enough anxiety, more than one human life can bear. Here they tried to restore at least a fraction of what their lives had been like before the storm, to revive at least a glimmer of the past. In their stubborn clinging to their Eastern-European identity there is the doubt and despair of a Sisyphus, the pathos of the eternal Jewish people. What do they know of Australia, and how strongly do they feel themselves a part of her, these Jews who have lived here for ten, twenty years? Certainly, they are grateful for the tranquil skies over their children’s heads. Children. I think about my children. My body and my soul are completely separated from each other. The body sits here in the Sydney airport, and the soul, clumsy mathematician that she is, cannot do the calculation! How late is it now in Canada, where my children are? The tarmac before my eyes is as flat as a table, and seems endless. The surface looks white in the glare of the sun. White as snow. Somewhere far beyond the endlessness must be the South Pole. Or perhaps the North Pole? It is February, the hottest month in Australia, the coldest in faraway Canada. Heat and frost – one and the same, blinding and illusionary. I have a feeling of déjà vu, of having once before had a similar experience. Twenty-four years ago, I sat just like this, with bundles at my feet, riding in a train, newly arrived in Canada. The train passes through a snowy desert. White earth. White sky. White flakes in the haze that passes by the train window. But in that white world I managed to sow a seed of hope. There, in that strange land, I would bring a little blonde girl into the world and later a little boy with dark curls. It’s good to look at a snow-covered world through a window. There is something warm in the appearance of snow. It evokes white swaddling clothes and the naive pleasures of childhood; it brings to the ear the echoes of sleigh bells and laughter. I, who so hate the cold, long in this Australian heat for the white sting of snow, for the laughter of my children. I am so pitifully far from them. I hear laughter and look up to see a half-naked little boy laughing impatiently. He can hardly wait for his Australian mother to hand him an ice cream.

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My friends are waiting to greet me at the Melbourne airport. I look at their smiling faces. Each one of them – that is who I am. The seeds of hope that I planted twenty-four years ago in the winds of a Canadian blizzard, they planted here in the salty sea wind. Those seeds of hope bloom in the looks that we exchange in greeting one another. The dry, fine-sounding phrase, “common destiny,” becomes flesh and blood. It ripples through the arms that embrace me. I drive through the city of Melbourne, looking around me with open mouth. Is this another delusion? What happened to the brutal distance from there to here? Where did it disappear? Once again, I am in Canada, driving through the city of Toronto, which is familiar to me because my sister lives there. Melbourne reminds me of Toronto. The familiar look of the city adds to my feeling that, actually, I am already a resident here. We drive by the imposing, massive buildings of the city centre and then past the hundreds and hundreds of one-family houses. In the older parts of the city, the one-family houses are small and quaint, like wooden toys. Their balconies and ledges are adorned with iron railings in gorgeous patterns of filigree. Hard to believe that such beautiful designs can be made from cold, hard iron. They make the houses look as if they were adorned with embroidered lace, the work of a needle artist. In front of the houses are small gardens with flowers. How rich is the colour of each red, yellow, and violet flower that shines out from the green. In these houses, poor but well-kept, live the proletariat, the unskilled labourers. My companions tell me that the older Australians jealously guard their privacy, and prefer to take their friends to a pub rather than invite them into their homes. We drive by a brewery, and I’m informed that Australians are very proud of their beer, that it has a better taste, and, more importantly, more alcohol, than any other beer in the world. Wherever I look, I see signs that announce “bottle shops.” The bottles one gets there are not empty; they are full of the “sharp drops.” There are even “drive-in bottle shops” for the convenience of car drivers. Australians, I am told, love sports, but even when they just have to go to the corner store to pick up a pack of cigarettes, they would rather drive than walk. My companions remind me that I am not strapped into my seat belt, and this can lead to a twenty-dollar fine. Sitting constrained by the seat belt gets on my nerves. I agree that the belts should do what 218


they have to do, that is, lie unused nearby, while I will do what I have to do, that is feel free. But here the law is the law, and, anyway, it is for my benefit. My companions also take the occasion to warn me that I should not even think of driving when I have a few glasses of whisky in my system. An unnecessary warning, since here they drive on the opposite side of the road from what I am used to, and, even as a passenger, I tremble with fear that every car heading towards us will cause a head-on collision. I enjoy the green of the parks. Melbourne is bathed in green. Old, majestic, green-leafed trees. So many of them are blooming that each tree resembles its own flower garden. My friends tell me that the only possibility for a revolution in Australia is if the government closed the beer breweries and the “bottle shops.” But demonstrations against the city administration do occur if, for city-planning reasons, they chop down a tree. We drive along the shore of a huge bay with white, sandy beaches. On the other side of the road, we pass by white houses. Everything looks bright, easy, rural. I am glad that I will be living by the sea. I don’t know where the time goes. So much tumult around me that my head runs in circles. I have seen almost nothing of the city. Friends keep coming to see me, as if I were a guru. I had to buy an appointment book to keep track of whom I’m meeting with and when, because otherwise I get mixed up. As for the little that I have been able to learn about this city, I have to thank those of my guests who have thought to enliven our get-togethers with a dash of tourism. This is how I got to see Melbourne city centre with its town hall and the nearby miniature Hyde Park, where shaven-headed young people in yellow robes beat out on cymbals the repetitious chant of “hari krishna, hari rama,” while the smoke of incense hovered in the air. I also saw the museum with its rich Oriental collection, as well as an interesting display of aboriginal art; and I went walking in the magnificent botanical gardens. And of course, of course, I’ve already been to the famous restaurant, Sheherazade, and tasted such local delicacies as calf’s foot in jelly and cholent.1 Sheherazade sounds like a Middle Eastern name, but in fact this restaurant owes more to Vilna and Lodz than it does to the mysterious Orient, and the role it plays in Melbourne’s Jewish life is not Australian Notes, 1974 219

inconsiderable. Firstly, it is a political café, where the local ins and outs of Jewish politics are hotly discussed in all their permutations, accompanied by glasses of hot tea. Aside from this, it is also the meeting place for the literary-artistic community, which carries on lively analyses and critiques of the articles in the Jewish newspapers, as well as of the plays in the local theatres, where Jews make up a large part of the audience. Sheherazade is also home to a discussion-and-business club, and serves as well as a matchmaking venue, where the meeting of male and female takes place in the most natural way; they do not need to be introduced to one another, since everybody knows everybody else. When there are events in Jewish life anywhere in the world, but especially in Israel, the radio is turned up very loudly. When I am not busy with my guests, I go visiting. First, there are the suppers, which are called “tea” here, although after such a meal, there is little room left for tea. Then there are the parties. The morning after such a party, a golden-hearted friend will appear at my door holding a plate of pastel-coloured sugar doughnuts for my breakfast. If I continue with all this eating and drinking, I will need two tickets to fly home, not just one. I have the impression that I am growing in width just from the pleasure, satisfaction, and joy that I am experiencing here. The homes of my friends are like ships, full of talk, of singing, laughter, and dancing. I am no longer used to such warm-heartedness, such hospitality. I imbibe with pleasure the hospitality, the friendliness, but I am also drowning in it, so much so that I lose track of who I am. I say the “homes” of my friends, but what I really mean are the palaces or near-palaces. Life is not bad for the Jews of Australia. They make a good living and are not as overwhelmed with work as Jews in the West. If there is a worm that eats at them, it is the same worm that eats at me – the worm of memories and uprootedness. This is true, despite the fact that they are bound body and soul to Australia and are such ardent patriots that one must avoid making even a slightly negative comment about their land. They are dissatisfied with being so cut off from the rest of the world, and at the same time quite content that it be so. Most of them can afford to link up with the world through trips. And they really do take many trips, and afterwards live with the

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memories of these trips or spend their time planning more trips. In fact, their lives are divided into chapters according to their trips. They might say to me: “My Moishele got married before my first trip, and Srulikl got his Master’s after my second trip.” At Sheharazade I was introduced to a young man who had just returned from his first “world trip.” (Here the only trips are “world trips,” even if one is only going to Israel.) Since this young man is the president of a society, he is often asked to introduce a speaker to the public. But it is only recently that his introductions of the speaker have achieved real prestige, while he himself has gained more status and esteem. These days, when he introduces a speaker, he begins with these words: “You must know, my dear friends, that I have recently returned from a world trip. I want to assure you, my dear friends, that I have never in all my travels met with such a fine speaker as our honoured guest today.” And if he assures you of this, you may well believe him. After all, he has just come back from a trip around the world. Scoffers have told me that he has also changed the style of the obituaries that he sends to the newspaper. “Mr X and wife, who have just returned from a world trip, extend their deepest sympathy to the family of Y.” The sympathy thus elicited feels all the more sincere and respectful. To return to the subject of parties, not only can I not decline the invitations, but I also don’t want to. Everybody wants to show me his or her accomplishments, both materially and in family life. The children, the daughters-in-law, the sons-in-law. And I myself am eager to hear everything and to meet everyone. So I have only one legitimate reason for not accepting an invitation: when I must, absolutely, attend a lecture, because I am the speaker. These public gatherings take place in the cultural centre called Kadima, which is the jewel of Yiddishspeaking Melbourne. To have an audience made up of Australian Jews should be the dream of every speaker. The crowd – more intelligent and younger than anywhere else – listens, not uncritically, because here they are used to speakers that the Kadima brings in from every corner of the world. But they listen with friendliness and with tolerance and, best of all, with an eager attentiveness to what the speaker will say. And after

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the lecture is over, it is portioned out, as if on plates, to be discussed and analyzed with great earnestness. The following morning one can read long articles appraising the speech in the Jewish newspaper. But I have been told that the audience is becoming spoiled. In the past, a lecture had to last two hours, with a break in the middle. Now the audience sits still for no more than an hour and a half, with a break in the middle. A friend of mine, a naive New Yorker, who was invited to Australia for a series of lectures, told me that, accustomed as he was to impatient New York audiences, and wishing to find favour with his Australian listeners, he made his first lecture short, no more than one hour. After he had finished speaking, the audience stayed put, awaiting the second part. When it became clear that there would be no second part, they were bitterly disappointed. The lazy speaker was invited to a meeting, at which he was appropriately reproved, and thenceforth adjusted the length of his speeches accordingly. Sometimes I forget that Australia is not made up just of my friends, the Kadima, the Jewish homes, the parties, the societies, the Jewish schools and orphanages, the Jewish youth organizations and theatres, the synagogues and study houses, the Scheherazade restaurant, the Jewish stores, bakeries, delicatessens, the Jewish Congress, that is here called the “Board of Deputies.” I forget that it is also a vast, spacious continent. I made my first outing to the capital, Canberra, a well-planned city, built with a feeling for beauty and convenience. It reminds me of Brasilia in Brazil. There isn’t any pulsating life in Canberra. The city hasn’t as yet fully rooted itself in the present. But in contrast to Brasilia, which feels neglected, Canberra seems to be a city in waiting, full of hope for the future. It was good to stroll through the streets and to imagine what the city would one day look like. When I returned to Melbourne, I didn’t let anybody know I was back. I wanted a moment of quiet, to renew contact with myself, to listen to myself. I didn’t want to completely blind myself to my innermost continent, the weight of which I carry around with me wherever I go. My problem is that it pulls me down too much, as if I were carrying a perpetual burden. What is this burden, and how do I free myself from it? 222


It seems to me that my burden consists of the past and the future, and I must find the way to crawl out from under both. As far as the past is concerned, I don’t mean that I want to free myself of my memories. I do not want to forget them, and I will not forget them. In any event, neither forgetting nor remembering depends on me. On the contrary, when I say to myself that a particular event is something that I wish to forget, I find myself at the whim of my internal clown, who controls the innermost archives of my memories. He answers me: “Oh, no, little sister: This event, you will be so good as to remember forever and remind yourself of very often.” I am helpless against this clown, because he lives in a dark I-don’t-know-where that is called the subconscious, and he chooses which memories to pack up and store in the cellars of my mind for “innermost use,” so that they have an effect on my life without my being aware of them, and which memories to publicize and display in the front windows of my recollections under the heading, “I remember.” This clown, this archivist, also has a small computer, where he calculates, according to the sum of all my experiences and other such data, what my dreams should be. These, too, he portions out according to his whims. He is the creator of a special kind of dream that I have, the kind that is dreamed by day, fully awake, a series of wish-films, projected into the future. Like all dreamers, I can live as completely in these daydreams as I can in my memories. And I know that my clownish data-master mocks me as I make a fool of myself by wasting my energy on useless daydreams. When I talk about freeing myself from the past, I mean from living in the past; from living with my whole spiritual and emotional paraphernalia in an unreal world, a world that no longer exists and that differs from the world of the future only in that I did once actually experience it, while the future might or might not be what I imagine it will be. In that sense, the past and the future resemble each other, because neither exists. Obviously, when I involve myself with them, they seem more real and more important to me than the present reality in which I find myself. But I am passive there. I don’t affect the future or the past. But they affect me; they paralyze me. They are vital to me, because they are the bread and salt of my creative activities, but they also Australian Notes, 1974 223

steal from me the ability to feel with all my senses the only thing that I truly possess – the present. We drove out today to the Dandenong Ranges, not far from Melbourne. These are gently rolling, forested hills. There I made the acquaintance of the eucalyptus, the gum tree that is so characteristic of Australia. The eucalyptus is forever shedding its bark, which falls to the ground in long strips, leaving the exposed trunks white and silhouetting the crowns of the trees against the sky as if they had been drawn by a black pen in a Japanese ink drawing. I am eager to make the acquaintance of another kind of indigenous growth here – the human one. I would like to meet an Aboriginal. My friends smile: You won’t see any Aboriginals here. I already know that. When the white convicts and the new streams of immigrants began to colonize this land, they grabbed the fertile areas for themselves, and, in so doing, slaughtered 75 per cent of the Aboriginals. Those who remained are not to be found, even today, where the earth is good and fertile. On the whole, the white Australians have remained racist, and they find it very hard to shed their white megalomania. The fact that a person was once enslaved is no guarantee that he won’t enslave others. Often it is exactly the opposite. But we can bring you a little closer to the Aboriginals, my friends console me. How? I ask. Through the efforts of a white Australian. Fine, I think, because, really, I haven’t yet met an authentic white Australian either. You won’t actually meet him, friends explain, but you will see his work. He is a sculptor, and his name is William Ricketts. We drive high up a wooded hill and stop. It’s raining, and my companions open their umbrellas. Through a narrow path, we make our way deep into a jungle of old trees, deeply entwined vines and branches. The moss, the earth, the trees look like one thick, sodden, dark-green lump, and that is all I see. But suddenly, I notice that some of the tree trunks take on the shape of a human body, while some of the stumps assume the form of children’s heads. Sculptures grow here. I approach one of them, a group of entwined bodies, their limbs reaching to the skies. The faces are the faces of the age-old inhabitants of the land. Strong, sensual lips,

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wide, flat noses, high foreheads. A dreamy longing flows in every line; and the same dreamy longing embraces all the animals and plants that Ricketts shapes. There is an inner strength, as if a force of nature lay hidden in the figures that make up this forest of forms; and suddenly it becomes clear to me that the source from which Ricketts’s artistic passion stems – the world of birds, animals, forests, desert, water, rocks, and human beings – are all one, and that one is harmony, beauty, and love. But this conclusion of his is not cozy and heart-warming. It is a scream that tears out of the fire of suffering and pain. “From the deepest pit of a black hell, my love grows and spreads its roots to everything that lives,” he remarks in a plaque describing one of his sculptures. He is angry at God and Man, especially the white man, for the injustice done to the dark races of the world. Humbly, this civilized white Christian comes to the Aboriginal to learn the truths about life. But with the Aboriginal, everything does not begin and end with Man. In contrast to the self-centred white man, the Aboriginal acknowledges his modest place in nature. He thinks of plants and animals as his great-grandparents, and himself as the great-grandparent of plants and animals. Everything is encompassed in one harmonious whole. I begin to think that perhaps there is a poetic logic to the concept of reincarnation in which the Aboriginals believe, as do other primitive peoples and the peoples of the Far East. Perhaps humankind would not be so destructive if we did not have this “after me, the flood” attitude toward existence. If humans believed that we return to live in everything that comes after us, then we would always be a part of the world that never ends. I am staying in the part of Melbourne that is called Elwood, a block away from the sea. I have not done much swimming there yet, but I do often stroll along the shore, alone or with friends. It is just fifteen minutes to the city centre, but here it feels like the end of the world, or perhaps the beginning of the world, especially at night, when the air smells of freshly cut grass from the surrounding fields, and both the air and the sea carry to my nose an intoxicating cocktail of scents. The sky is big here, the stars like small lanterns. The constellations in this sky are different from those we have in North America. There

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is no North Star, no Big Dipper. Here the Southern Cross twinkles down at me from above. Australia is beginning to affect my spirits. I feel more primitive, not so complicated, lighter than at the beginning of my visit – especially so, when I walk by the sea. Then my thoughts have no weight. My most serious reflections focus on the skin of my arms, my feet, my face, which all rejoice in the wonderful sweetness of the air. I am not in love with the sea. I am intrigued by it, afraid of it, but it draws me like a charming charlatan who hides his nefarious intentions. When I walk along the shore, I think of it as a tame, well-trained lion that is calmly following behind me. It has the power to quiet my spirit and prepare a feast for my eyes. I would like to live in a house with windows facing the sea, to sit at a desk and allow my eyes to wander from the sea to the sheet of paper in front of me and back to the sea again. Not much has changed in my daily routine since my arrival. I have finally found the time to be alone a little and also to read books. I finished Barry Stevens’s book about her experiences with Gestalt Therapy2 and went into a bookstore to buy something else to read. What did I buy? A yoga book! Perhaps I picked this book because I was influenced by Barry Stevens, and perhaps because yoga is very much in style, especially here in Australia, where the bookstores are full of books about yoga. Perhaps the proximity of the Orient accounts for this, or the tranquil melancholy of life here, or perhaps it is even the influence of the Aboriginals. Whatever it is, I have found my “salvation,” and today I walk with confident steps on the path of righteousness towards becoming a true yogi. And, like all converts, I am more Catholic than the pope. I am so enthusiastic, I can hardly wait to begin my daily yoga session. I won’t claim that I understand all the theoretical tenets of yoga philosophy. But I rely on my teacher, the author of the book, who calms me by saying: “When the time comes, you will know … and in the meantime don’t sit with folded hands (except when you are in the holy lotus position), but start doing the asanas.” So I do as my teacher instructs, because the first principle of yoga is to rely on the teacher and believe in what he or she says.

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I don’t know how long I will continue to rely on him. My problem is that I don’t readily accept any authority, that my biggest authority is myself – both in wisdom and in foolishness. When I was young, the orders of my parents, or even of my beloved teachers, had to harmonize with my own will, and I had to agree with them in order to obey without protest. That’s why I ran away from nursery school when I was three years old. The teacher insisted that, as a little girl, I had to play with dolls. Instead I was drawn to the pigeons that we were raising in the school and that the boys took care of. Is it any wonder that I am a supporter of women’s liberation, albeit with reservations. To this day, I don’t place anybody on a pedestal, because even those whom I respect and from whom I learn, are, like me, imperfect, and have their own Achilles heels, and will, sooner or later, lose their balance and fall from the pedestals on which I have placed them. But to return to yoga, I am learning what I have long known: spirit and body are one; they are knotted together, and if the spirit is to be healthy enough to develop its potential, it must live in a whole and healthy vessel – a truth that I learned in my youth: a healthy mind in a healthy body. And with this information, I feel on comfortable ground, especially since I am growing in girth and must quickly do something about my weight, because if I don’t, I won’t have anything to wear. In other words, I must do my yoga exercises, especially the upside-down positions, such as standing on the head or the shoulders, because that will help me solve my weight problem, as well as the problem of my spiritual weight (i.e., laziness). I have also learned about the “third eye,” which is often mentioned in Indian literature. According to the yogis, the third eye can be found in the middle of the forehead, between the eyebrows. I read somewhere that when people die the pupils of their eyes roll upward because they are searching for their “third eye.” What are they looking for? At a world that is opening for them, or at a world that is closing forever? We spent the weekend at Phillip Island, where we went to see the penguins, the koala bears, and the sea horses. The days were warm, and the magnificent beaches gleamed in the sun. The sea was as still

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as a mirror. We drove to the eucalyptus forest, where the koala bears sit motionless for days on end. They are as large as cats and yet are the opposite of cats. Cats are active, dexterous, mobile. Koalas are clumsy, lazy, and unconcerned. They look like teddy bears and are just as cute. Nature must have been smiling to herself, indulging a mischievous childish whim when she created these cartoon-like creatures. They gorge themselves on the eucalyptus leaves, rest their bottoms on one branch, holding onto another with their feet, and doze off. If you approach them, they prick up their ears, open one eye – and sleep some more. They often choose the middle of the road for a nap, and if a car should come along, they cannot be bothered to move. The driver must stop, excuse himself to the other passengers as he gets out of the car to carry the koala over to the side of the road. They have protective colouring, and at first I could not distinguish them from the trees. But after a while I began to recognize their shapes between the branches and, just like the children who come to see them, I ran to look at those brown packets of life hanging lugubriously from the branches. In the evening there was a real spectacle – the penguins. They are small, the size of chickens, with black coats, surmounted by white pinafores over their stomachs. They are the masters of their domain, the disciplined burghers of their colony. What a wonder of nature they are! Every morning they leave for “work,” that is, they catch fish; and every evening, exactly at the moment when the sun sets, they return; then they can be seen. The people who come to this “performance” – and there are hundreds of them – come wrapped in the warmest clothing they can find and bring along cans of beer and bottles of whisky, because it is cold near the sea after sundown; a biting wind roars over the sand dunes. A few minutes before the spectacle begins, the sand dunes are transformed into an amphitheatre. On three sides sit the spectators, and on the fourth side there is a clear path to the sea. Wave after wave hits the shore as the tide comes in. The air grows grey. The last golden ray of the sun disappears and suddenly, on the white foam of a wave, there appears a head – then another, and another. Carried on the waves, they approach the shore. At first there are only a few of them. They look around, have a small conference, and jump back into the water.



It seems they have arrived too early. The same happens with the next few groups. But then they start to arrive in larger numbers. They climb onto the sand and arrange themselves in columns. They look like a group of fishermen who have just returned from the sea. Their pouches are full of fish for the children. Of course, they are impatient to see their offspring. Haven’t been home all day. But discipline is discipline. The group is finally complete. And, as if at an order, they march together, with delicate, duck-like little steps, up the beach to the dunes, where their homes are. However, one of them remains behind on duty to wait for the second party, and then for the third. Finally, there are hundreds marching. Every group goes to its quarters, its street, its spot in the dunes. The shore becomes empty. Night falls. The hills and dunes buzz, like small, crowded towns – a call from lovers, cries from children, greetings from couples who haven’t seen each other all day. The penguins stand at the entrances to their houses. In the darkness, you can see dozens upon dozens of double-white aprons nestling against each other. Here and there a single stray penguin wanders about. Perhaps he has forgotten where his home is, or perhaps he is just looking for some action; perhaps the lone penguin is a widow or even a poet? How strangely human, how amazingly familiar, is this miniature-life of the swimming birds! Next morning, we walk to see the sea lions. They live among the massive, bare boulders on the other side of the island, where the waves are always stormy and bombard the stone walls with foamy anger. Waterfalls, split in two by boulders, fall to the earth with measured rhythms, then shoot tall columns of spray up to the sky. The sea lions are far in the distance. For them, this is home. They are incomprehensible, elemental in the interaction of their lives with harsh stones and even harsher water. My inner peace is precarious. The slightest breeze can blow it out of me and throw me into a whirlpool of heart palpitations. I went down to get the mail. A bundle of letters arrived, and my heart started to pound. I became tense and nervous – a sort of goodbad uneasiness. I reached for my cigarettes (a very anti-yoga thing to do) and grew angry when I couldn’t find the matches that I was

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holding in my hand. Finally, I began reading. Slowly my heart quieted. Thank goodness, everything is all right at home. The pleasure of reading grows. My head fills with noise; it is full of talk, full of my answers to the letters. How wonderful! Here I am so far away from all those nearest to me, and yet here they all are, sitting with me at the table. My son is wandering all over Europe with a backpack. This is his university before starting university. He is travelling around the world to find out about the world on his own – and to find out about himself. He is learning how to be independent, how to be hard, and how to protect himself from any sentimentality. True, he writes that he loves me and that he misses me, but my eyes go chasing between the lines, looking for more. Foolish mother that I am, how many times do I want him to repeat what is as clear as the day? Love and separation make one weak and over-sensitive. He has conquered this. I let myself be defeated. I miss my children. In addition to my nervousness about the children, I am tormented about Israel. This topic makes my heart heavy. It is a private, personal anguish. My heart aches for the Israeli Jews, and especially for the Israeli mothers. They amaze me; I don’t understand their courage. I am writing this sitting next to the radio, which is turned on for the news. All day long I wait for the news, for those two or three laconic sentences about what is happening over there. When I listen to the radio news or read the newspaper, I feel how truly far away from everywhere Australia is and how this spares the nerves, although it exacerbates my nerves. News that, over there, would provide many days’ fodder for discussion in newspapers and on the radio is here mentioned the very first day on page one of the newspapers and the next day is replaced by news about horse races and football. I think of Dr Isaac Nachman Steinberg. For many years, he lobbied for an autonomous Jewish colony here in Australia, in northwest Kimberley. I am not surprised that he chose this particular land. It would ease the hearts of many of us – and, secondly, perhaps also be a salvation for the Yiddish language. I understand why Yiddish writers still draw on the theme of the old homeland, of the shtetl, where the people forged the treasure of their language and their lifestyle. But I believe that, no matter how strong and reassuring the news may be about the rebirth of Yiddish, 230 Travel

especially about young people who are studying it around the world, Yiddish as a living, developing language can only exist where Jews live together in large numbers. Because only then do people use language creatively, and that gives the artist the material from which to draw her linguistic nourishment. Then, fed by the people, the artist gives back the artworks that enrich and stimulate the people, and thus, once again, the people give inspiration to the artist. This, it seems to me, is the natural cycle in the cultural life of a people. That is why I often wish that Yiddish-speaking cities and settlements would be created all over the world, including Yiddish-speaking kibbutzim in Israel. Is this really Utopian? Perhaps; but if it does not happen what will become of Yiddish? As I write these notes, I often toy with the idea of what it means to turn personal experience into literature. Sometimes this seems to me too pretentious an undertaking, even when its aim is artistic. When you write about yourself, you play a role, create a picture of yourself, a better picture than when the “I” is without embellishment. Basically, you have to deal with the problem of what is “I” and what is a pose, what stance the “I” adopts, even in an intimate diary, where one is supposedly 100 per cent honest with oneself. When we write a letter to a friend, don’t we also assume a pose? It seems to me that every literary style is a pose. Sentence structure, choice of words, are all a form of constructed reality. It cannot be otherwise when one transforms life into words. So, I ask this question: if in the matter of communication, everything is a pose, then what is the actual intention of the person doing the writing? Does she in fact want to share, to give of herself, and receive understanding in return? How can she expect this if her writing is nothing but a put-on? But just as the writer believes that what she has presented is the real thing, so the reader intuitively searches out the “naked emperor” under the royal garments of artificial prose. It remains for the creative person to try to make the garment fit, so that it properly covers the emperor and suits his body and thus may be all the more easily cast off. I am reading a book about Edith Piaf, written by her sister. Of course, I know that a sister cannot be objective, and Piaf’s sister is not. And yet the real Edith Piaf shines through with all the lights and Australian Notes, 1974 231

shadows of her personality. Edith Piaf, a child of the street, raised in brothels, grew up to be a star, the love-child of an entire nation. She had the ability to overcome all the obstacles in her way, to overcome the weaknesses of her own body. She was stronger than herself. For her, singing was life. Almost to the last moment, when she was hardly able to stand on her feet, when she got injections backstage after every song that she sang onstage; after all that, she could still excavate from her innermost being the unforgettable raw beauty of her voice. As the ballet dancer Nureyev once said: for every movement I make, I pay with my life. The compulsion to create knows no compromise. It demands that one either give all, or give nothing. And this creative imperative is what I felt in the work of the Australian sculptor William Ricketts, as well as in the presentations of the local ballet. But not in the Australian theatre. I have seen two plays on Australian subjects, written by local dramatists. The local themes of the plays would not have bothered me if they had allowed me to find under their Australian exterior a connection to all of humanity. Yes, my oldfashioned taste has long been searching and not finding – not just here, but everywhere – a dramatic reflection of the tragic and the exalted in a person’s struggle with himself and with fate. Nevertheless, for me, as an outsider, the plays were instructive. The dialogue was good, peppered with many “bloodies,” and the atmosphere was authentic. One of the characteristic signs of an Australian play, it seems, is the downing of several casks of beer on stage and the introduction of fisticuffs at every opportunity, as a way of defending one’s honour and often also used as a way of preventing one’s honour from being insulted. What kind of people are the Australians? I know many Australians. Hundreds. But they all come from Lodz or Warsaw, or a small town in Eastern Europe. Of those Australians who have lived in Australia for generations and descend from the convicts, or the original settlers, or the later English immigrants, I know as many as I have fingers on one hand. But this past week I met one more.

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Since I am intrigued by the never-seen Aboriginal, and since my interest in primitive art is now in full bloom, I whispered to one of my friends that perhaps I could see some art and perhaps buy something. This resulted in my getting an address. I walked into a house that was like a museum. All the walls were hung with primitive Australian artworks, most of them paintings on the bark of trees. The colours were not paint, but derived from ground-up coloured rocks, a technique probably passed down with taboo-secrets from one generation to another, a technique that is dying out with the older generation of Aboriginals. The drawings reflect legendary totem symbols, animals, and representations of nature. Also hanging on the walls were many masks and primitive weapons, and on the tables and in every corner were black wooden carvings decorated with the same colours as the bark paintings. The friendly man who greeted us looked about sixty – tall, bulky, his brown face sun-burned, as if raked by winds. His eyes glowed with life. When he saw that I was interested in the art in which he was a specialist, he accompanied me from wall to wall, giving me generous explanations of what we were seeing. Then he asked me to be seated, and I made myself comfortable near a table which held a bottle of whisky and one glass. He told me that he had lived for years among the Aboriginals, that he has a tremendous reverence for them, collects their legends and tapes their songs and music, and that he has already published a few books on this topic. I mentioned that, when I was in Kenya, I visited the Maasai and that I noticed a similarity between their figure drawings and the drawings of the Aboriginals. When he heard this, he began to fish out from his cupboards dozens of albums to show me the pictures he had taken of the Maasai, since he had lived among them too, not far from the plains of Serengeti. We grew even more excited and comradely in our conversation. The minutes flew by. He is truly very friendly, I thought to myself, but really, I am nothing more than a customer. So I chose a few bark drawings and started to take leave of my new friend. But it seemed that we had become friends, united by a common passion, and he was reluctant to let me go, so I had to promise that I would return the following Sunday and learn to throw a boomerang.

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When I left him, I was drunk – not from whisky, because I had looked at but not touched the bottle and glass on the table – but from the sheer cordiality of the man. These, then, are the real Australians, I thought, direct, easy to talk to, delightful. Naturally, I did not keep this encounter a secret. On the contrary, I got together a group of people to accompany me on a visit to my newfound friend the next Sunday, with the idea that, through me, they would meet a real Australian and learn something at the same time. So, on Sunday, eight of us went to the museum-house at the agreedupon time and the same tall man greeted us. However, his face seemed to be different. The light in his eyes that had so attracted me on my previous visit was gone. I thought this meant that he did not recognize me, so I asked if he remembered me. “Surely!” he answered. Well then, very proudly, I introduced him to my friends and my friends to him, but we remained standing in the middle of the room, while an uncomfortable silence fell upon us. I forced myself to break the silence by harking back to our previous conversation. I asked if he would show my friends his private collection, which I had so admired on my last visit. “Surely,” he said again and motioned with his chin to the adjoining room. We went into the room, but he did not accompany us. When we came out again, I noticed that on the table where we had sat that first time there was today no whisky bottle and no glass. Not knowing what to do next, I suggested that he show us how to throw a boomerang. “Surely,” he repeated. He took a bag of boomerangs and went out with us to the field behind the house. He threw a few boomerangs, and we were amazed how they shot to the sky, made a huge circle, and came back to his feet. After he showed us all the movements of the boomerangs, he gathered them up in the bag and once again we were left standing with an uncomfortable silence between us. Then we slowly walked back to the vicinity of the house. He did not invite us in, and we left. The moral of this experience: the Australian is a fine, upright person, happy to meet you halfway, if he can. But his company should only be sought after he has had a few glasses of whisky. Once they have had their drink, there are no more warm-hearted or friendlier people than the Australians.



I had already noticed this in the restaurants. Early in the evening, they sit stiff and correct at the tables. But after a few hours have passed, the alcohol begins to warm them, and it becomes a lot noisier in the room. Someone starts a song at one table, then a second, until the entire restaurant is swaying in rhythm to the singing and the customers begin to fraternize. What makes this even more interesting is that many restaurants don’t have a liquor licence, so you often see elegant gentlemen and ladies come into the restaurant carrying bottles of wine in their hands. I have also noticed that Australians like to put on a mask of crudeness. They often use four-letter words and vulgar expressions; the word “bloody” is always on their lips. But from what I am told by my friends who have daily dealings with them, they can be as naive as children, and they have hearts of gold. In addition to their love of imbibing, they also love gambling, sport, and often politics – that is, local politics. Still, I begin to notice a hint of depression, a melancholy under the surface of life here. Perhaps it is the melancholy of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, when life was too good. I have a few friends here, in whose every gesture and facial expression, I read the cry of loneliness. Australia, they say, makes the lonely feel even lonelier. It strengthens the feeling of isolation. Every person is an island, and here every island is inside an island. But when it comes to escaping from loneliness, the Australian way is the same as that of the rest of the Western world. They use Valium, or alcohol; they run away from their own homes, from their own wives or husbands, to clandestine lovers. Going to psychiatrists is not yet as common here as it is in New York. But then, in Australia every bestseller arrives late, so the fad for psychoanalysis will also eventually arrive. I ask: doesn’t anyone here think of running away, to the sea, for instance (not into the sea, God forbid)? Of course, one can also be lonely by the sea. The sea is lonely. But to be together with such a gigantic, elemental loneliness is, I believe, a comfort and an honour. One’s personal loneliness then becomes as deep as the sea and at the same time as universal. This makes the sea’s influence a healing one. One’s own loneliness becomes the universal loneliness of the world,

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and therefore something natural. It becomes a part of life. All worlds are silent: Every grain of sand, every speck of dust, falls and rises alone. These thoughts about loneliness and the different ways of dealing with it are what I enjoy thinking about when I myself do not feel lonely. And when I do not feel lonely, then I like to be alone with myself. Then I can better feel the breath of life (what is called in yoga the prana). I really like to spend time with people, to be happy, to act a little foolishly, to take part in serious conversations, eye-to-eye with another human being, but I don’t want this as my style of life, my daily bread. There are people who cannot bear to be alone for a moment, as if they were afraid of their own company. They run to other people, which they say means that they “love people”; but, in truth, they do not really love other people so much as they hate to be alone. It’s now the end of summer here. The days are often very hot, but it is cool in the morning and the evening. I love the summer magnificence of Australia. The beauty of the blooming oleanders, the hibiscus trees, the magnolias delight my eyes. I like to look at the rubber trees, the eucalyptuses, which are silhouetted like inked designs against the blue of the sky. The fact that they resemble Chinese or Japanese ink drawings of trees against a large, empty background seems to me quite fitting. Western artists suffer from horror vacuii, the terror of emptiness; they must fill in the background with colour. Perhaps this is the reason for the melancholy of life here? On this continent, the Australian, who is essentially a Western person, feels himself to be like a eucalyptus tree in front of a huge, empty canvas. In fact, I too am now a resident here in this vast empty land. I have already attended a funeral and a circumcision. After a few weeks with my feet on the ground, I have taken to the air again, this time on a flight to the Coral Sea of Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef. This is the eastern edge of the continent. To the south is the so-called “surfers’ paradise,” the Australian Miami, where Jewish Melbourne moves during the great heat of the summer to dip their toes into the water, play cards, spread gossip, eat, and have love affairs. I don’t care



to go there, because I don’t want to go to places where humans pollute nature with their noise. But here, in the north, both residents and visitors are filled with awe for the beauty of the landscape. There is no beauty that intrigues me like the coral formations under the water. If nature has achieved artistic perfection in colour and form anywhere, it is here. So many combinations, variations – it is overwhelming, breathtaking! And it all lives! Not only the multicoloured, variegated, shape-shifting fish, but the whole bottom of the sea, with its coral tunnels, niches, palaces. A storybook place that any second will reveal the enchanted princess and her prince, or perhaps the water-nymphs, the sirens who wait in the coral-grottos for Narcissus, who will come to gaze at his own reflection in the waters and see that there is something in the world more beautiful than he, and in despair throw himself into the sea. But Narcissus must be careful here. The sea is not everywhere deep enough to dive into, and he could, Heaven forbid, injure his beautiful head. I once kept tropical fish in an aquarium and tried to copy the beauty of the coral reefs. They so tempted me that a few years ago, not being satisfied with viewing the reefs through the glass bottom of a boat in the lagoons off one of the Caribbean islands, I allowed myself to be talked into strapping on an oxygen tank and diving under the water to see them. But I was too occupied with my worries about heart palpitations, breathing obstructions, and the general fear of being dependent on a mechanical device to truly enjoy the underwater world. The coral barrier, which extends for hundreds of miles, is in places so flat that one can marvel at its splendour just by wading in the water in rubber shoes. There are also places where man has made it more accommodating by building glass corridors under the sea, so that he can wander freely about among those mysterious, festively adorned, more-dream-than-reality palaces. From the shore, we boarded a small two-passenger airplane for a short hop to one of the hundreds of islands that lie offshore in this part of Australia, bathed in water and sun. I have often used the word “paradise” in my notes about Australia, but here it is absolutely justified. Forty people live on Lindeman Island; the other inhabitants are

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trees, flowers, and lush meadows surrounded by a friendly jungle, devoid of mosquitoes and poisonous scorpions. The dominant colours here are white, green, and turquoise – turquoise from the sky and sea, green from the earth, and white from the sandy shores. Here the sea is as smooth as a mirror, as mild as a lamb, and as tender as a lover’s caress. To swim in this water is like floating in your mother’s womb. Here, all my burdens fall away. I grow as playful and dreamy as a child. It is difficult to part with this island and with my own longlost self, which I have rediscovered here – and which I long ago left behind. I know that from now on, when I dream again of a corner of pure rest, my thoughts will return to this place. Where does one find the strength and stomach to do justice to the overwhelming Australian hospitality? Wherever I go, there are tables loaded down with magnificent jellies, onions, kugels, pickles, herring, cakes that bring back the taste of mother’s homemade dishes. No wonder I work so hard at yoga, in which I’m growing disappointed, because it is not helping me to lose a single pound – just the opposite. And I do mean just the opposite. I had to go to a tailor to let out the seams of my clothes – those that hadn’t burst on their own. My whole torso and especially my left shoulder blade are very sore today, and I can hardly move. Once a week, I have been working on my asana, a yoga pose of meditation that requires you to stop thinking altogether, with your feet over your head (an upside-down frozen somersault in plain language). Just try it! The vertebrae of my spine have certainly known greater pleasures. To twist oneself into the shape of a bow may be good for a cat, or a snake, or, more precisely, for an acrobat or a Bolshoi ballet dancer, but not for a telegraph pole (better said: chunk of wood) like me. Ovetoveh – anyway, as they say in Lodz – yesterday I tried it, once, then again, then a third time. My spine, very slowly, learned the lesson, as long as I was patient with it. But the twentieth time, when I made a hasty movement (which goes against yoga principles), I felt something crack under my shoulder blade, so I reached my goal at the cost of a torn ligament or a muscle, or who knows what.



In the evening I went to see the fine film The Sensualist, and at the end of the tragedy, I felt a pain near my heart that started in my shoulder blade and spread over my body until it gripped me in the pit of my stomach. And suddenly, out of nowhere, I could no longer bend in any direction without such searing pain that I had to scream. Groaning and moaning, I dragged myself back home and swallowed two painkillers, which really goes against yoga principles. Because, according to the gurus, at such a moment one should not fall into a panic, but instead breath deeply and concentrate one’s thoughts on the painful location. But, in my defense, I must say, I couldn’t breathe deeply, or even shallowly, because I really couldn’t breathe at all. This morning, I complained to a friend that I have a pain under my left shoulder blade. That was all I needed to do. Ever since then, the phone has been ringing with friends inquiring about my left shoulder blade. All of Melbourne is today living with the drama of my left shoulder blade – and this gives me moral support. The overall balance of my yoga experience up to today is that now, without difficulty, I can follow yoga theory; my only problem is the practice. First of all, I smoke, which is the biggest sin in yoga, because yoga theory teaches us that breathing in, deeply and completely, is the alpha and omega of existence. Therefore, the air that one inhales must be as pure as possible, because the air represents the parana, the lifeenergy. Well, because I smoke, I inhale constantly a tainted parana, which could, God forbid, finish me off. Awful! Secondly, I stopped trying to stand on my head, although this was my original ambition, because I know that David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of the State of Israel, stood on his head until the ripe old age of eighty years; and following in the footsteps (headsteps) of someone who reached such a venerable old age is a Jewish tradition that should be honoured. My biggest practical sin is that I do everything impatiently, even the meditating, that is, the thinking about nothing, which is not so easy. I do that impatiently too. What’s the hurry? Why don’t I have the time? Basically, it is only one life that I am living now, and waiting for me, there are many different – perhaps better – incarnations. But my greater, more unforgivable, sin is that I am jealous. Yes, I am jealous of my twenty-three-year-old yoga teacher (a very popular

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profession among the local professionals), whom I met here, and who lent me the autobiographical writings of Hermann Hesse. She does wonders with her body. Is that a surprise? She believes with her whole being in what she does. She meditates by sitting next to a lit candle, burns incense, which makes me dizzy. I am jealous, not only because I cannot copy her tricks, but because I cannot even stand straight on two legs. When she talks about her swami, her guru, she has stars in her eyes, her hands folded reverently one on top of the other. It is her utter faith that makes me skeptical. And I am skeptical because I am jealous. So, I continue to suffer – my limbs ache, my body is sore, and I have a suspicion that the God of Yoga is punishing me for my little indulgence in skepticism. But since I am only mocking myself, why should He feel so upset? I have begun reading Hermann Hesse’s autobiographical writings. I am not surprised that my young yoga teacher is so taken with him. Hesse has also become the favourite author of all the local youth. Perhaps my teacher came to him the way she came to yoga – out of loneliness, searching for a new belief, a new way in life. Perhaps Hesse captured her with his Siddharta and those of his other books which describe journeys to the kingdom of the spirit. But I have the feeling that, basically, Hesse is not a warm writer. He keeps himself at a stoical distance from the hot, painful bloodstream of life. He seems to me to be indifferent, even when he writes about love and justice. His last great work, Magister Ludi, or the Glass Bead Game, is, in essence, a work about love, about the search for an ideal community, about self-sacrifice. But I don’t feel any warmth in it, although this is possibly a result of Hesse’s literary style, which is Gothic and crystal-clear, icily lucid. Style, they say, is the person. In contrast to Hesse, I think about Kazantzakis,3 who is not as deep as Hesse, but has some human warmth, some Greek sunshine, in his prose. To me he speaks with a Jewish heart. I approve of Hesse; I love Kazantzakis. It is interesting what Hesse writes about rebellious natures. He, himself, often ran away from school, ran away from home, and at six-



teen completely abandoned his formal education. (He was self-taught, first by reading through his grandfather’s library, and later he worked in a bookstore.) Progress, he said, is basically made by those who rebel against the accepted order. But the accepted order protects itself against the push for change – and takes revenge on the rebels. When he was thirteen, Hesse decided to become “either a poet, or nothing,” and that was when he realized that it is easy to be a poet, but hard to become one. To be a poet is an honour, but to want to become a poet is laughable and grotesque, and it seemed to him that the teachers in the schools had been specially selected and trained to protect the community from the development of poets in particular, and creative, free-spirited people in general. I should send that quotation to my son, who has the same complaint about today’s school system. Maybe that is why he sends me such enthusiastic letters from Moshav ein Yahav, in the Arava, between Eilat and Beersheba. There he works ten hours a day in the field, learns from nature and the rhythms of his own limbs how to become a poet. (This is what my maternal intuition tells me.) I often spend time with my children in my mind. My days are filled with them. I am where they are. They are where I am. And yet it is not enough. I long to at least catch a glimpse of them. But you have to let go, to give in, not cling so tightly, no matter how the heart flutters and trembles. That is how humans are formed. One must not interfere in the process of their becoming, because what is the point, after all, if children do not develop into adults? Still, no matter what I tell myself, I am happy that I will see them soon. I have just returned from my last excursion in Australia – to the heart of the continent. This has been the high point of all that I have seen here. There was a Canadian poet who came here to a literary festival in Adelaide. During a radio interview, he remarked that Australia is a dead continent. How the Australians digested that remark I don’t know, but this poet’s poetic licence has made him a non-poet in my

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eyes, because I’ve just returned from the “deadest” centre of this dead continent, and it throbs with life! The Australian desert is the most beautiful desert that I have ever seen. We flew to Alice Springs, the pioneer town that breathes with the origins of the Australians as a people and with the mysterious life of the Aboriginals. Not surprisingly, there is a William Ricketts Sanctuary in Alice Springs, full of his soaring sculptures. Also on display are antique wagons, dishes, and tools that the first Australians used when they settled in the land. The purpose of our trip was to visit the mysterious Ayers Rock, a gigantic mountain made out of one massive rock that juts up from the desert plateau, right at the midpoint of the continent. Normally, one would fly out there, but we decided to rent a car and drive through the desert. There is a road, but its surface resembles a washboard or a potato grater. The car shakes constantly, and, sometimes, it seems to be driving us, not we it. We land in sand dunes, from which we only extricate ourselves by a miracle. Ten miles an hour is a good speed – actually too good, not only for safety, but also because the desert captivates and dazzles. The desert earth is a purplish-red colour, and the clumps of grass that sprout out of it are a shade of green that I have never seen – a golden-yellowish, pastel green, so delicate, as if it were made of glass. The occasional trees are a deep green, bordering on brown. Some of the cactuses are a succulent green, some a metallic silver, while the rocks, polished by the sun and wind, shine like diamonds. Above us the sky is blue, the sun is golden and etches everything with pencillines of dazzling light. But the most wonderful thing here is the air. It has the quality of mirroring in itself all the gradations of colour from above and below. It sings with colour! Fata Morganas jump at us from all sides. We see lakes, palaces, far-off cities – all unreal. When the sun sets, the few remaining clouds in the sky become accessories to the light show that is just beginning. The red earth burns like copper against the sky. The blue of the sky outlines the sand hills and plants, and the air becomes a symphony of rose, green, violet, as well as other colours never before

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seen. No wonder that we drive off the road three times and get stuck in the sand. Twice we had luck. A passing car helped pull our car out of the dune. But the third time we got stuck after sunset, and night was beginning to contribute its granite hues to the sky’s colourful display. The road was empty, and we had no reason to hope that anyone would appear to rescue us. We thought we would have to spend the night in the desert. The prospect of such an adventure was both intriguing and frightening. Using whatever tools we could find in the trunk, as well as our own hands, we tried to rock the car out of the dune. After we had laboured in this way for two or three hours, there suddenly appeared a bus on the road, full of students on their way back from the Rock. We had barely managed to catch our breaths, when the bus stopped, the whole group jumped out, lifted our car, and carried it to the road. Before we could utter a word of thanks, they climbed back onto the bus and disappeared. A true deus ex machina. We arrived at the Rock late at night. Ayers Rock is considered one of the wonders of the world. It is 230 million years old; its circumference is six miles and its height 1,100 feet. It consists of one solid block of red sandstone that changes colour with the light of day; at night it is black. There are many scientific and quasi-scientific explanations of how the Rock came to be there, in the middle of a desert, in the middle of flatland – even the author of Chariots of the Gods4 has an explanation. The Rock also plays a very important role in the mythology of the Aboriginals who live in the area. You have to climb the Rock before daylight to see the sunrise. This is because not even the colourful splendour of the desert can compare with the Rock. The highlight of an excursion to the top is to witness the sunrise from the summit. Tired from the drive through the desert, we stop only long enough to say hello to the jet-black monolith that glows so mysteriously in the moonlight. Then we hurry to get some sleep, so that we won’t be late for daybreak. We fall into our lumpy cots in the small rooms of the best hotel at the Rock. This hotel exemplifies the good and the bad of Australian attractions. Americans would by now have built comfortable hotels, swimming pools, a casino, made a

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kind of Las Vegas out of the Rock. But Australians prefer things to remain primitive (including the primitive Aboriginals, whom they help in the same way that we Canadians have helped the Indians). So, we really slept badly and missed the sunrise, which meant that we spent the whole day wandering around the Rock – around and around. Acacia trees grow here with long, drooping branches that earn them the nickname “the willows of the desert.” There are also eucalyptus trees that are called “bloodwood,” because the sap that runs out of them is red. Our feet walk on a carpet of tall desert grass called “kangaroo grass.” There are caves in the Rock, their walls covered with drawings in a style similar to the bark pictures that I have bought. Here the Aboriginals conducted their religious ceremonies, and the engraved symbols on the walls refer to these ceremonies. There is a concealed mystery in the symbolism. Here, around the Rock, the Aboriginals would perform their ritual dances to the sound of the boomerangs, which they would clap against each other. Here too took place the rituals marking the initiation into manhood. They circumcised the boys at six years of age (with a stone knife and hot ash on the wound). Here they knocked out their front teeth, made decorative cuts on their chests and arms, plucked out the hair from their bodies and faces. The boys went through these ritual deaths in order to be born again as men. As for the women, the rituals by which a girl becomes a woman are shrouded in secrecy, and men don’t know how this happens. I wasn’t able to find out if these ceremonies still occur – nor where they occur, now that the white man has taken over the holy Rock. The Aboriginals call the Rock “Uluru,” and it has a meaning for them similar to what Mount Sinai means for the Jews. Yes, somewhere at the dawn of time, we all had similar dreams and visions. According to Aboriginal legends, the Uluru is the origin of creation, springing up in response to the song of the Earth Mother and the other Heroes of Creation. As she sang, the Earth Mother accompanied herself by banging on the Rod of Creation, a sound which awoke the world to life. The Earth Mother is constantly in the process of dying and rising to a new life – and so too does everything that she creates. All living things – the Earth Mother, the Heroes of Creation, mankind,

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animals, plants, everything – are guarded by a holy snake that lives in a cave on Uluru. At dusk, we climb up the steep slope of Uluru. The rock face has a chain-link fence, which gives us something to hold onto as we clamber up the steep slope. Not long before, a teacher who came here on an excursion lost her grip and fell off the slope to her death. There is a warning at the entrance that climbing is at one’s own risk. The fact that a Red Cross van is waiting nearby is not a very reassuring sign, especially when one looks up to the top. Better not to look. But since we have come from so far … We scramble up the almost-vertical wall of stone, hearts fluttering, as if we were thieves. The sweat pours down our faces. Just don’t look down; lift your feet, higher and higher. There, at the top of the Rock, there is nobody. All is silence, as if in a temple. God is near, and His hand is outstretched. At our feet, the endless red desert. Mankind is alone, small, a particle of dust in an endless eternity. The sun glides to the western edge of the horizon and announces its triumph with the orchestra of colours that it gathers to itself from the sky and the earth. All around there is the sound of silence. The throat chokes with suspense. You want to cry with helplessness, with the inability to produce a suitable word of prayer, of praise, of gratitude. Feelings of exhilarating joy and of haunting sadness twist themselves into a primitive knot of longing to know the great secret – u-lu-ru. We must hurry, the sun is sinking into the desert; it is already at the horizon, and soon it will be dark. How will we go back in the dark? Going down is more dangerous than climbing up – one careless step, one slip … We don’t wait for the sun to disappear completely, but, keeping our eyes on its progress, we slowly make our way down the mountainside. We have to keep our eyes lowered in order to see where to put our feet. But how can we not look up? Where will we ever see such a sunset again? Just one more look; just one more glance. We manage to glimpse the sun’s last rays, when suddenly – darkness. Like the blind, we feel with our feet where to step. I am not usually lazy, but I lower myself to a sitting position and slide down. It’s safer that way. A wind

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cools my flushed face. I am panting from the tension, willing to sacrifice the slacks I am wearing, so long as I can get down in one piece. Made it! Hurray! We have conquered the Rock. Now we are on our way back, driving on the same potato-grater road as before, the car shaking back and forth like a drunkard. Our bodies shake and shiver in the heat, as if we were cold. One hour, two hours, and then – the wheel trembles in my friend’s hand, then hangs limply, like a sprained limb. In another minute it will come off in his hand. Not a living soul on the road, and we have already passed one of the two desert stations. The only answer “hashkevani nazad,”5 back to the station – that is, if the wheel doesn’t decide to completely divorce itself from the engine before we can get there. The wheel becomes the wheel of good luck for us. My friend handles it with the greatest care. He hardly dares to touch it, and we barely move along the road. But somehow we reach the station. A mechanic examines the patient, that is, the car. We were playing with our lives, he says. Eight main screws are missing from the motor, and the rest are either broken or loose. We smile nonchalantly, proud of our good fortune. No big deal to take a chance with your life for those of us who have made it up and down the Rock. We make a toast with the best beer in the world – Australian beer, of course. Now we have to wait patiently while the car is put back on its wheels. So we promenade in the desert. We examine the house pets that the station agent keeps in cages: a couple of ostriches, monkeys, birds of paradise, parrots, and a kangaroo. It is remarkable that, up to now, I have only seen kangaroos in cages. We observe the Aboriginal children running around naked, as well as the whites who stop for gasoline or to fill ten or twelve containers to take on the road. When they are close to nature, the white Australians are open and talkative, even before they drink beer. And they are eager to help. This is the pioneer spirit living on in them. Here in the bush, or in the desert, a man alone could not survive. He had to depend on others. The practical result is that, in helping others, you help yourself. After a full day of driving, we return without incident to Alice Springs, buy souvenirs of Aboriginal crafts, and on the way back to Melbourne stop in Adelaide, a pleasant city situated between hills and the sea. There, en route to the airport, we experience the last accident 246 Travel

of our trip: a car drives into our taxi, resulting in bruised and scratched limbs and the breaking of some of our souvenirs. The important thing, however, is that we escape in one piece, and that the memories of the past few day have not been tarnished. How can anyone say that Australia is a dead continent? The evening before I am due to leave Australia, the house fills with friends who have come to say goodbye. In the morning, they drive to the airport to see me off. We console ourselves with the thought that the world is becoming smaller, so we will soon see each other again. Once again, I am in Sydney, but this time I see the city with my Sydney friends. I like Sydney more than Melbourne. (I would never dare to say this to one of my Melbourne friends.) My hotel is right in the centre of King’s Cross, the Village, the Soho of Sydney. Through the window I can see the bay, the port, and the shell-like roof of the Sydney Opera House. The city bears a strong resemblance to Rio de Janeiro, and also to Haifa. The streets are hilly, and the hills are full of houses with red roofs. The wonderfully curved beaches embrace the blue-green waters. In some places, the sea is encircled by natural stone walls, which have been polished by the waves. Their shapes remind me of the sculptures of Henry Moore. We go to the Sydney Opera House to see Nabuko by Verdi. This is an experience! The building itself is a visual treat. I don’t care how many millions it cost to build. Could the money have been used for other things? Maybe so. But the millions will be forgotten, and this temple of beauty will remain. Now I have the opportunity to examine the seashell roof up close. It is covered with the finest mosaic stones, arranged in a pattern that mimics the style of the seashells. Inside, the hall is arranged like an amphitheatre, an amphitheatre that can accommodate two thousand people, yet still feels intimate. After the show, we wander around outside the opera house. The moon, reflected by the sea, illuminates the white building. Nearby is the majestic Sydney Harbour Bridge, like a gate opened wide to the world. And on the other side of the bay twinkle the lights of Luna Park. Not far from here is Botany Bay, where the convicts landed. Australian Notes, 1974 247

Today I awake, and it is raining. A heavy, interminable downpour. My friend says that the Australian sky is mourning my imminent departure. I am in the airplane and look out of the window. Under me the large earthly plateau falls away. But while it recedes from the inner continent of my mind, it leaves a permanent mark on my spirit. Be well and live in peace, Australia, and all of you who dwell in this corner of our vast Earth. tranSlation: arnicE Pollock and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

notES This essay was published in Di goldene keyt in 1974. It describes Rosenfarb’s second trip to Australia, where she went with Bono Wiener, the man who would be her life’s partner after the collapse of her marriage to Henry Morgentaler. (Her first trip was a lecture tour in 1967.) Because in 1974 she was not yet divorced from Morgentaler, she is very circumspect about mentioning Wiener’s name, which appears nowhere in this essay, although he is clearly her companion on the expedition to Ayers Rock, as well as on the other trips that she describes. For the next two decades, she would spend part of every year in Melbourne. 1 Calf’s foot in jelly (galeh in Yiddish) and cholent (from the French chaud lent) are traditional East-European Jewish dishes. Cholent, a kind of stew, usually made up of meat, potatoes, beans, and barley, was the traditional Sabbath midday meal. Because Jews are forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath, the pot was brought to a boil on Friday, before the onset of Shabat at sundown, and then allowed to simmer overnight until lunchtime on the following day. 2 Barry Stevens (1902–1985), whose original name was Mildred Fox, was a Gestalt therapist, best known for her 1970 book, Don’t Push the River: It Flows by Itself. This is most likely the book that Rosenfarb is referring to. 3 Nikos Kazantzakis (1883–1957) is considered one of the major Greek writers of modern times, who was nine times nominated for the Nobel Prize, allthough he never won. His most famous works are Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. He also wrote an epic novel in verse called The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. 4 Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past by Erich von Daniken (1968) hypothesized that many of the world’s wonders, including the technologies and religious beliefs of ancient civilzations, were the result of visits by astronauts from other planets, who were received on earth as gods. 5 Hashkevani nazad is a saying from the work of the Yiddish classical writer, Mendele Mokher Sforim, meaning “to turn back.”



Laterna Magika, Prague 1993

Laterna Magika, the magic lantern, is a cultural product of Czechoslovakia, created especially for tourists and for export. It originated during the era of the Communist regime. The first time I saw Laterna Magika was during Expo 1967 in a theatre in Montreal, and I remember how I was mesmerized by the visual and imaginative magnificence of that presentation, where magic was created by a fantastic combination of “mixed media” – movies, theatre, music, ballet, technology – and some innovative “kitsch.” I don’t remember the subject of that particular performance, but I do remember the jaw-dropping excitement I felt at the amazing display of light and colour. I remember how I suddenly saw flesh and blood actors emerge out of the movie screen and continue the presentation as if it were the story line of an actual play rather than a film. Afterwards they climbed up another screen that was projecting the same film. All the performing arts were combined in a playful cocktail of serious fantasy designed to absorb and enchant the viewer. It is clear that Laterna Magica was a providential way for the totalitarian Czech regime of that time to shoot two rabbits with one bullet. In the first place, the powers that be in Czechoslovakia allowed the artists to forget the stifling reality of their home country by immersing themselves in the innocent, colourful play of fantasy. Secondly, they could show the world the kind of freedom of expression with which their totalitarian country was blessed. The fact that the artists shot their own two rabbits with this presentation by inserting ingeniously constructed dissents between the lines of these wordless presentations was something that the exporters of the magical lantern were not refined enough to grasp. From that

same artistic source, we in the West began to decipher the messages sent to us in, for instance, Milan Kundera’s first book, The Joke, or in the early plays of Václav Havel. They gave the regime a powerful push in the direction of liberalization, which culminated in the Prague Spring of 1968. Now, at the beginning of summer 1993, we are in Prague, in the truly democratic Czech Republic, and find ourselves at a presentation of Laterna Magika, which is still today the pride and joy of the city when it comes to the cultural entertainment of tourists. Under normal circumstances, it is not easy to get tickets for a show. The tickets, though quite expensive, sell out very quickly, primarily to tourists. But this time we were lucky. The Laterna Magika has its own theatre in Prague. And what a theatre! Magnificent! How the former starving Communist regime of Czechoslovakia could have afforded such a palace of modern luxury is a puzzle. It is a sign of how politically important this theatre must have been for the regime. The same is true for the present regime, though no longer for political reasons, but more for reasons of national and cultural prestige. And because of the country’s desire for American dollars. Everywhere there is marble: marble floors, marble walls, and carpeted marble flights of stairs that rise from the lobby to the top floor of the building. Inside, in the amphitheatre-like hall, everything is specially arranged to accommodate the needs of the multimedia performances, which can take two years to prepare. The acoustics are wonderful. Sounds reach the ear with astonishing clarity. From every seat in the hall, there is a full view of the entire stage. As for the seating itself, never have I sat in such an armchair in any theatre in the world! A wonderfully soft seat, padded and upholstered with the softest imaginable leather. The headrest of the armchair is rounded, presenting an inviting place to lean one’s head, but not, heaven forbid, in order to be lulled by the extraordinary comfort into taking a nap and dreaming dreams! Rather the opposite: to induce such an active wakefulness that it will carry you into the kind of state that can only exist outside of dreams and reality.



So we sit in this magical theatre and see a performance that depicts the wanderings of Odysseus, as described by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. First, we meet Odysseus, king of the Ionian island of Ithaca. He is in his own home, which is wrapped in a colourful play of light depicting the Mediterranean’s water, sky, and sun. We see Odysseus caressing his beloved wife, Penelope. The actors who play Odysseus and Penelope are perfect, as if their bodies had been shaped by a sculptor’s hands – how could it be otherwise in a drama about mythical Greece? And I admire the graceful farewell pas-dedeux that the two actors dance. Their beauty and the classical perfection of every movement that their supple bodies execute dazzle me, on the one hand, but also prevent me from getting too deeply involved in the tragedy they depict: the separation of a husband and wife who are deeply in love. It occurs to me that, for European Jews like myself, who have lived through so much, such perfectly harmonious scenes can have no effect. We have suffered through enough tragic separations in our own lives to know how far from reality such perfectly harmonious scenes are. Not long after this, we travel with Odysseus far away from his island home. We accompany him on his wanderings and, through the magical illusions of the Laterna Magika, we experience his amazing adventures, his exotic encounters, and his temptations. The sophisticated technology gives the impression that, along with Odysseus, we ourselves are experiencing the storm at sea; that, like him, we too cling to the raft after the shipwreck. We too are nearly drowned in the angry, foaming waves, which reach to our feet and threaten to sink the armchairs in which we sit. And yet, despite the fact that I am so deeply immersed in the fictional reality of the life-threatening scenes playing out before my eyes, my thoughts follow their own path, parallel to the plot line unfolding on stage. For instance, I think that every generation of writers, beginning with the ancient Greeks and Romans, through Dante and Cervantes, up to James Joyce and Nikos Kazantzakis,1 have understood the significance of Odysseus and his wanderings from the point of view of their own epochs, their own inner cravings, and their own

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philosophy of life. I ask myself how Odysseus should be interpreted by writers and artists of my own generation. Suddenly a passing fancy illuminates a particular face in my imagination, a face that I immediately recognize, having just seen it on a plaque before going into the theatre. In the embodiment of the Greek Odysseus, who is constantly being hurled into a whirlpool of ever-changing dramatic adventures in his mythological never-never land, I see a Jew fastened by the nails of fate to the real day-before-yesterday of our century. I see how he suffers, how he longs for home, how he struggles for his own life. This Jewish person, this young Jewish man who stands before my eyes, is Franz Kafka. Why suddenly Franz Kafka? I ask myself. The answer is simple. Before we entered the theatre, we had passed a café called the Franz Kafka and also the Franz Kafka Theatre. That is why Kafka came into my mind. But there is another reason, more important and more basic than this, namely, that I am convinced that the writer of this Laterna Magika show is struggling with Kafka’s influence and cannot find a way to deal with it. On the one hand, he wants to give in to it, and on the other, he wants to avoid dramatizing Kafka’s despair. I continue to believe that Kafka was essentially the creator of magical realism. Since the Second World War, which ended two decades after Kafka’s death, writers and artists have regarded him as a modern-day prophet. His style was clear, his language was simple, but his literary method was astonishing. He sketched scenes of an impossible, yet believable, reality and crafted a fantastical, realistic narrative which he seldom brought to a conclusion. With the help of his powerful and puzzling imaginative intuition, he had the ability to enter the most sacred corners of the modern psyche and create symbols for its enigmas. Kafka’s novels and stories expressed the total alienation of human beings in the second half of the twentieth century. So, it really is no surprise that Kafka should enter my mind as I sit in this theatre, here, in Kafka’s hometown. I look at the gentile Odysseus on the stage, and my heart aches for the young Jewish Franz Kafka, who never had a wife, but still felt the pangs of loneliness; who never created a home for himself, but longed for domesticity; who



never left his German environs, but nevertheless wandered through the world of Jewish sensibility in his visions. He demonstrated his understanding of humanity in The Metamorphosis by dressing Gregor Samsa, his protagonist, in the magical-yet-realistic garment of a giant cockroach. It occurs to me that I have never before thought in terms of Jewishness and non-Jewishness when it comes to art. I have always thought of art as the highest form of human endeavour, far beyond any linguistic or ethnic barrier to understanding between peoples. A literary protagonist interested me only from the point of view of his or her character, or innate humanity, and not as a representative of this or that race, of this or that ethnic group. It seems that the city of Prague, with its peculiar magic, has touched a sensitive nerve in me and rearranged the furniture of my mind. All of Prague seems to me like a Laterna Magika. Perhaps the reasoning mind is incapable of fully grasping this city. It is amazing that Prague, which is located in the heart of Europe, was not badly destroyed during the Second World War. The city stirs one’s senses. As if seen behind the fogged-up glass of a lantern, it is both dreamy and historical. Walking through its streets, I have the impression of treading on the open pages of a three-dimensional history book, and at the same time of skipping through the pages of a children’s book. It seems to me that even the residents of Prague do not know exactly in which world they find themselves. It is as if they themselves have lost the key to the soul of their city and cannot decide if they have hidden it in one of the majestic castles on the two mountaintops, or in the depths of the turbid waters of the green-banked Vltava River, which the Germans call the Moldau, a tributary of the Elbe. To take a walk along the shore of the Vltava means to shift your gaze back and forth between the artistic talent of nature and the human talent that enhances nature. Far and wide, the river snakes along before the eyes, like a secretive, glowing, melancholy smile, wrapped in a mantle of sunny cobwebs. Thirteen bridges connect one bank with the other, while the city spreads out on both sides of the river. Waving and undulating, the houses of the historical district of Malá Strana are

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reflected in the muddy, mirror-like waters, while a little further on we can see the buildings of the new city. They occupy the flatlands along the banks of the river up to the terraced slopes in the distance. Green parks, medieval castles, and massive baroque buildings adorn these slopes, which gradually ascend to the two mountains that loom over the entire city, with two historically significant castles at their peaks: Vyšehrad on the right bank of the Vltava, and Hradcany on the left. The giant fortified Hradcany Castle was once the residence of princes, then home to the kings of Bohemia, and finally it housed the president of the Czechoslovak Republic. Wherever Franz Kafka walked as a boy in this city, he could see one or the other of the gigantic mountaintop castles. Perhaps one of these castles, perhaps even both, later served him as the model for the fortress in his work The Castle. To visit at least one of the two castles is a must for any selfrespecting first-time tourist. So we took a tour. Here we are high up in the garden of Hradcany Castle, which is surrounded by no-lessimposing smaller buildings. We are led into the gigantic rooms at the heart of the palace. Such rich decorations! Gold everywhere. Broad golden frames surround the portraits of the kings. As we move through the hall, the refined, genteel eyes, large as cherries, of the anti-Semitic Empress Maria Theresa gaze down upon us. Her predecessors and successors, staring down at us from the gigantic portraits near hers, were probably no friendlier to the Jews than she was. Around us are massive pieces of baroque furniture, and walls covered with tapestries. We are shown the window from which, in the fourteenth century, during the religious rebellion of the Hussites, two Hussite emissaries were thrown to their deaths. Fortunately for the emissaries, below the high wall of the castle, there was a mountain of rubbish. They fell into it and were able to save themselves. But it seems that the procedure of throwing “unwanted elements” from the windows of tall buildings became an effective Bohemian method of dealing with political and religious problems. There is even an elegant-sounding name for this procedure: defenestration. Also in our own times, in the year 1948, during Communist rule, the Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk, a son of President Tomas Masaryk, was defenestrated.

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On the way down the mountain from Hradcany Castle, as we walk through the picturesque, winding, narrow streets we are caught in a sudden downpour. The uneven stones of the ancient pavement become very slippery. The streets change into gurgling rivers. We take shelter under the roofs of mysterious medieval passageways. We run through alcoves, through thick stone gates and broad arcades. It seems as if time flows away with the rain-filled rivulets, and that we, along with the waters, flow back into the past centuries. When we come out of hiding and continue to carefully make our way down the mountainside, our nostrils breathe in the intoxicating smells of the damp, fragrant air after the rain, while our eyes drink in the magnificence of the city before us as it spreads down the slope to the Vltava. All around us rise the spires of churches that pierce the blue sky after the rain. Prague is a city of hundreds upon hundreds of spires. This arrogant human challenge to the heights makes the spirit uneasy. But not for long. Eventually, one’s eyes pick out the variable shapes of the buildings as they rise up out of their surrounding green gardens like gigantic multi-petaled flowers carved out of ivory. Centuries pass before our eyes in a kaleidoscopic mixture of the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles, but mainly of the baroque style of the seventeenth century. The seventeenth century was the time when the great architects and builders of Europe were invited to Prague to beautify the city. The result is that Prague provides an insight into the history of European architecture, whose various styles are presented here in a chaotic-but-pleasant synthesis. This synthesis is most obvious when one walks through the narrow, winding streets and charming squares of the Malá Strana district. There is an intimacy in the atmosphere of this district, a charming elegance and good feeling that emanates from every structure that appears before us, as if the buildings were trying to convince us that they were once occupied by contented, if not necessarily happy, people. The fact that Mozart had an occasional home here – a villa with the playful name “Bertramka” – seems to me a sort of double-edged wink at the illusory quality of external impressions. The Malá Strana district is connected to the old city by the historical Charles Bridge – or, in Czech, Karluv most – that dates from the

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fourteenth century. The bridge is decorated with magnificent baroque statues, and two richly decorated towers guard both its entrances. This bridge cannot be simply crossed over. One must linger to absorb its magnificence and its quaintness. It is besieged by tourists. Street musicians play melodies from Smetana’s Die Moldau, or endlessly repeat Antonin Dvorak’s Humoresque. At the foot of the statues are the stalls that stretch along the entire length of the bridge, selling souvenirs, cheap jewellery, toys for children, and all kinds of touristy trinkets. The proficient hand of a starving Czech artist can sketch your portrait in just a few minutes, or a hungry amateur sculptor can sell you, for a dollar, a clay copy of that mystical-mythical ghetto figure, Yosl the Golem, which the Maharal of Prague,2 kneaded out of the clay of the Vltava. Here, one can even hear Yiddish spoken. We are stopped for a chat by two people we know, former inmates of the concentration camps, who have come to Prague all the way from Australia. On the other side of the Vltava are the massive buildings that house various cultural institutions. Prague is immersed in culture. For many centuries, the city was one of the largest cultural centres of Europe. The University of Prague, the first university in Central Europe, established in 1348, was renowned throughout Europe for its scholars. Prague has twenty-six theatres. Mozart’s Don Juan premiered in Prague. In addition to Mozart, there lived here for a while my beloved composer, Gustav Mahler, a converted Jew, born in Bohemia, the son of a poor Jewish innkeeper. He too spent some time in Prague, working as an orchestra conductor. Here too lived the writer Franz Werfel, who married Alma, Gustav Mahler’s widow. Werfel was a friend of Kafka. With Jewish empathy and Jewish pain, Werfel described in his novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh the horrible deaths of a million Armenians at the hands of the Turks in the year 1915. Musa Dagh was the most popular book in the Lodz ghetto. I look down at the quietly flowing waters of the Vltava, and I am not surprised that, on this pleasant summery afternoon, my thoughts have turned back to the Lodz ghetto. This is not the first time since we arrived in Prague that I have found myself thinking about the ghetto. Perhaps it has a connection to the hotel in which we are staying. But

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now it seems to me that the flowing currents of the Vltava are the strings of a harp playing those motifs from Mahler’s music that are closest to my mood. Yes, a musician may renounce his Judaism and convert, but his music cannot be converted. I hear a woman’s voice singing the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) that Mahler composed long before the children of the Terezin ghetto were sent to the crematoria. The history of Prague begins in the marketplace of the old city. The marketplace is surrounded by churches and beautiful old houses, decorated with Romanesque or Gothic colonnades, or with Renaissance and Baroque facades. This was the centre of the religious rebellion of the Hussites. On one side of the marketplace stands a statue of Jan Huss. Across the way, stands the imposing old City Hall with its famous medieval clock of moving figures, and an astronomical dial. And next to this, there stand the houses that remain from the old Jewish quarter, which is called “Josefov,” after King Joseph the Second, who was “good to the Jews.” The Jewish community of Prague was one of the oldest in Europe. It was founded in the tenth century, at the same time as the city of Prague. The treatment of the Jews was no better in Bohemia than it was in the other countries of Europe. Long before the Nazis forced Jews to wear the yellow star, it was already being worn by the Jews of Prague. At the start, Jewish life in Prague was concentrated in several far-flung districts of the city. But as time passed, the districts were cleansed of Jews for “hygienic reasons,” until, of all the districts, there remained only one – Josefov. This area was converted into a closed ghetto, separated from the rest of the city by walls and gates. The ghetto was constantly destroyed and returned to prosperity, burned and rebuilt again. There were constant edicts of expulsion. Sometimes they were revoked, when those in power realized that they could not afford the luxury of losing Jewish taxes. Or else they forbade the Jews to leave the ghetto, and they burned down their synagogues and homes. They spread rumours, blood libels. They blamed Jews for spreading the plague. Pogroms and killings, arson and false accusations, never stopped, whether a king took the Jews under protection or not. Despite being divided and enduring many misfortunes,

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the community continually regenerated itself, blossomed and grew, in commerce, in Torah, in wisdom and creativity. By the end of the seventeenth century, it had become one of the largest and most influential cultural and religious Jewish communities in Europe. What a vitality the Jewish community of Prague once had! Just think of the magnificent cultural figures that it attracted to itself and contributed to the world! It seems to me that in the streets of the Jewish district there still lingers the spirit of the Jewish community of Prague, with its mixture of piety and dread. I have the impression that the old Jewish folktales whisper to one another in the secret corners of the district’s courtyards; that in this city of dreams, of melancholy and mystery, the longing for a Messiah could easily have taken on a tangible form. Prague is such a beautiful city – and yet its Jews endured so many persecutions and afflictions. I believe that where the beauty of the surroundings is coupled with murder, that union impregnates the very air with messianic whisperings which give birth to the illusion that salvation is at hand. As a young man, Rabbi Yehuda Levi ben Bezalel, the Maharal (chief rabbi) of Prague (1520–1609), came to Prague to study at the famous old Prague yeshiva. Here he lived with his wife, Pearl. He was a religious thinker and philosopher, an expert in Kabala, who also studied astrology and astronomy. Rabbi Levi was close to the people, and the people showered him with love, and told many legends about him. The legends found their way to the non-Jewish population of Prague, and to this day the stories of the Maharal’s miracles are recounted with Czech pride to Prague’s many tourists. For example, it is told that Rabbi Levi earned the warm friendship of Kaiser Rudolph II (1576– 1612) and, because of this, many anti-Jewish decrees were abrogated. Kaiser Rudolph moved his residence from Vienna to Prague. His proximity to the Jews gave him the opportunity to better protect them; in other words, it was easier for him to exact higher taxes. During his reign, the head tax on Jews doubled. From time to time, Kaiser Rudolph II would invite the most important councillors of the Jewish community of Prague to the Hradchany



Palace. Among them was Reb Mordecai Meisel, the wonderful head of the Jewish community, who, at his own expense, paved all the streets of the ghetto with cobblestones. Reb Mordecai was a great philanthropist; he built the Jewish community centre, a hospital for the poor, a yeshiva, a bathhouse, and his own synagogue, the Maisel Synagogue, which was burned down many times and rebuilt. He was the financier of the Kaiser’s court. But oftener than Reb Mordecai Meisel, the King summoned Rabbi Levi for friendly conversations in the Hradchany Palace. It is told that one such conversation between the King and Rabbi Levi occurred in relation to a quarrel between two storekeepers, who had their stores next to each other. The stores were separated by a wooden wall, through whose cracks one could see from one store into the other. One store belonged to a Jew, a trader in used goods (at that time Jews were not permitted to deal in new things), and the second store belonged to a gentile butcher. One time it happened that the gentile butcher was looking through the crack into the Jewish used-goods store in order to see what was going on there, when he saw the Jew sit down at the table, take out a wallet full of thaler,3 count them, put them back in the wallet, put the wallet in a drawer, and lock the drawer. The gentile butcher could not get the Jew’s thalers out of his mind. Finally, he decided to close his stop and go to the courthouse. There, he complained loudly that he had been robbed of a wallet full of thaler. He gave a precise description of the wallet and its contents, so the guards went to look for the thief. And that was how they found that very same wallet, with the same exact number of thaler that the butcher had described, in the shop of the Jew who sold used goods. No amount of pleading and swearing that he was innocent helped the Jew, nor did his accusation that it was his gentile neighbour, not he, who had looked through the cracks in the wooden wall and seen the wallet with the money. A trial date was set, and this provided an opportunity for Kaiser Rudolph to test the Rabbi, who everybody said possessed the wisdom of Solomon. The Kaiser sent for the Rabbi and told him to decide who was right in the dispute between the two shopkeepers. The Rabbi ordered that a pot of water be put on the fire. When the water started to boil, he ordered that the thalers be taken out of the

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wallet and thrown into the boiling water. Then he ordered that the pot be taken off the fire. The Rabbi looked into the pot and delivered the verdict: “Your Majesty, the used-goods dealer is innocent. A pig butcher always has his hands smeared with fat, and because of that, the money that he counts with his fingers is also smeared with fat. Here, look into the water; there are no droplets of fat swimming on the surface of the water.” And that was how the innocent used-goods dealer was freed. Eventually Kaiser Rudolph grew tired of his benevolence to the Jews, and in that same year he decided that all Jews must be expelled from the kingdom. The Jews came to Rabbi Levi seeking help and comfort. The legend tells that, on that very night, the Kaiser had a dream. He dreamed that he was riding in his coach with his attendants. When they came to the Vltava, the Kaiser felt a desire to swim. He got out of the coach, took off his clothes, and jumped into the water. He swam far out into the middle of the river, but when he swam back and got out on the shore, he saw that his coach and his attendants had disappeared and that his kingly clothes were no longer where he had left them. So, naked, he hid among the bushes. Through the branches, he saw a gang of woodcutters at work. He called to them: “I am your Kaiser! Help me! Give me something to wear and something to eat!” But they laughed at him, and he ran away from them. As he was running, he saw a Jewish beggar coming towards him down the road. So he asked the beggar for some clothing and a piece of bread. “Oh, you are poorer than I am,” the beggar said, and gave the King some rags to cover himself and shared his bread with him. As he made his way towards the palace, the Kaiser met people whom he knew from the royal court. He told them who he was, but they laughed at him. One of them said scornfully: “The Kaiser is in Hradchany Palace. I met him there myself this morning.” The King understood that someone had put on his clothes and had usurped the throne. So he went to the Prague ghetto to consult Rabbi Levi. The Rabbi recognized him right away. He gave him water to cleanse himself and some clean clothes.



This was his advice to the King: “The days are hot, your Royal Majesty. That scoundrel, the throne usurper, will most certainly go to the Vltava for a swim, so Your Majesty should make an effort to go there too. When the scoundrel goes into the water, you should do to him exactly what he did to you! Grab the royal robes and put them on. But remember, my lord Kaiser, that he who wishes to remove an injustice, should not also commit an injustice. So be good enough, Your Majesty, to write out instructions for your ministers to nullify the expulsion of the Jews.” The Kaiser gladly wrote out such a document and signed it. No sooner had he done so, than he woke from his sleep and looked around. He was lying in bed in his own bedroom at the Hradchany Palace. He got out of bed and began to wander around the room to convince himself that what was happening to him right then was the reality. Suddenly he saw lying on a table the signed document that he had written for his ministers in his dream. On a nearby chair there lay some beggarly rags, in order to remind him of the poor Jewish man and the persecuted Jewish people. And this was how the decree was cancelled and the Jews remained in the country. But it was not long before there were new expulsion edicts. The Jews went to the Rabbi and complained that every night there was the danger that some gentile might deposit the corpse of a Christian in the ghetto and then accuse the Jews of murder, because the gentiles stubbornly clung to the belief that the Jews use Christian blood for their rituals. It was then that Rabbi Levi, with the help of his sonin-law and one of his students, fashioned a golem out of the clay of the Vltava. The Rabbi placed a charm with God’s name in the golem’s mouth, and in that way brought him to life. The Rabbi named the golem Joseph – Yosl in Yiddish – and informed him that he had been created in order to keep the Jews from harm. The golem nodded his head. He could hear but not speak. He was, it seems, a forerunner of the modern robot. He carried out his orders like a machine, and if he was not told to stop what he was doing, he would not stop. That was why he kept carrying water to the Rabbi’s house until it flooded, because nobody told him to stop. He did a lot of other damage to the Rabbi’s house in which he lived.

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Every night, the Rabbi sent the golem out to guard the streets of the ghetto. He did this, especially, in the days before Passover, when the gentiles spread rumours that the Jews were looking for a Christian to sacrifice in order to get blood for their Passover matzas. It once happened that a gentile woman who worked as a Shabos goy 4 in the Jewish ghetto disappeared. Right after this, a Jewish girl named Dinah, the daughter of a Jewish doctor, ran away from the ghetto to the nearest monastery with the intention of converting. “Tell us,” the monks asked her, “is it true that Jews use Christian blood to bake their matzahs?” Dinah wanted to find favour in their eyes, so she answered: “Yes, it’s true.” The monks asked again, “Tell us, do you know from whom the Jews took the Christian blood to bake this year’s matzas?” “Yes, I know,” Dinah answered. “A Christian servant girl has disappeared in the Jewish ghetto.” When Rabbi Levi heard about Dinah’s babbling, he became despondent. But he roused himself and sent Yosl the Golem to look for the Christian servant throughout Bohemia. Meanwhile, all the synagogues in Prague were full of people praying. At the same time, the trial of the two Jews accused of killing the Christian servant began. Rabbi Levi and the head of the Prague Jewish community, Reb Mordecai Meisel, were called upon to take part in the trial. The golem was not seen and was not heard from. When Dinah, the lying accuser, got up in the court to give evidence, the gentile mob broke out in jubilant shouts. But, at exactly that moment, came the sound of wagon wheels from beneath the windows of the courtroom. Shortly thereafter, Yosl the Golem appeared, tightly grasping the arm of the Christian servant girl. That was when Rabbi Levi presented his argument for the defence, the best speech that he ever gave. He said that a lie digs a grave for itself. Dinah, the traitor, grew pale as chalk. This is how the golem served the Rabbi very faithfully, until, one Sabbath, the day of rest, when he exploded in a great rage, because the Rabbi had neglected to give him any orders. Since he had nothing to do, so much energy accumulated in the golem that he grew rebellious and impossible to control. He grabbed an axe, ran out of the

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Rabbi’s house, and broke and destroyed everything that stood in his way. Frightened Jews ran from him in confusion. They locked themselves in their houses and, with bated breath, listened as he strode up and down the streets. The Rabbi was in the synagogue at the time. When he was told of the golem’s wild behaviour, the Rabbi realized that unlimited, unrestrained strength is like a stick with two ends: it can protect, but it can also bring chaos and destruction. The situation was out of control and presented life-threatening danger. He interrupted his praying and went into the street. In a voice like the thundering roar of a lion, he called out to the golem: “Yosef, stand still!” Yosef stood still. The axe fell from his hand. The Rabbi walked up to him and ordered: “Bend down and tie up the laces of my shoes.” The golem obeyed. As he bent down, the Rabbi quickly extracted the charm that carried God’s name out of the golem’s mouth. This was how the golem became a lump of clay once more. All this happened at exactly the time when it should have happened. Because, as the Czech legend relates, the Jews no longer needed a golem. The relationship between Jews and Christians became peaceful and harmonious, and the rumours that Jews use Christian blood for their matzas stopped completely. That’s the well-meaning, non-Jewish version of the legend. But in the non-legendary Jewish reality, the blood libels did not magically come to an end. No matter how civilized the land may have become, blood libel remained fresh and vivid in the beliefs of the people. For this reason, too, there was no diminishment of the longing for a saviour, a Messiah, among the Jews of Prague. Quite the contrary. One of those Messiah-dreamers was my own great-greatgrandfather Reb Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690–1764). My grandmother, on my father’s side, was an Eybeschutz. Her family wandered from Bohemia to Lesser Poland. Reb Eybeshutz, my famous great-greatgrandfather, was an inspired orator, a writer of books, who attained the position of head of the yeshiva in Prague. His name was known far and wide throughout Bohemia. A devoted child of the times that made him, in his youth he had become involved with the Kabalists and the local followers of Sabbetai-Tzvi.5 As he aged, he maintained his

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interest in Kabala. His reluctance to give up his belief in the illusory Sabbetai-Tzvi was a factor in the long years of persecution that he had to endure. It occurs to me that the reason I feel so much at home in Prague is because this is where my great-great-grandfather dreamed his hopeless dreams. The stories and legends of the Prague Jews are a part of Prague folklore to this day. They served and still serve as inspiration for a great many non-Jewish artists. The bronze statue of the biblical Moses looks dramatically out of a small garden near the Old-New Synagogue. And at the entrance to the new City Hall there stands a majestic statue of Rabbi Levi, the Maharal of Prague. These are the works of Czech sculptors, made to order by the Prague city council. The golem legend also served as the inspiration for a number of works in European literature. The Yiddish poet H. Leivik created two colossal and complex figures in his poem “The Golem,” based on the story of the Maharal and the golem.6 This dramatic poem can be interpreted in many ways – for instance, as a tract on Messianism and Jewish ethics, as a description of political reality, dramatizing the Bolshevik axiom that the end justifies the means, or as an allegory of the creative process and the relationship between the artist and his work. And what is the relationship between Joseph, the golem in the legend, and Kafka’s anti-hero Joseph K. in The Trial? The Jewish district of Prague has six synagogues. The main synagogue, the Staronova (Old-New Synagogue) dates from the thirteenth century and is the oldest synagogue still in use in Europe, built in an early-Gothic style. The entrance to the synagogue is through a small, narrow door. Nowhere is it explained why the door and the windows of the building are so small and narrow, nor why the synagogue is built like a small fortress. I look around and ask myself how many times in bygone years did the Jews barricade themselves inside this building and try to save themselves from a pogrom? To this day, there is a feeling of Sabbath serenity in the quiet space between the curved shapes of the white walls and the windows, between the benches along the walls and the bimah7 made of massive pieces of dark wood and decorated with carvings.

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From the anteroom, one emerges onto a street that leads through narrow lanes around to the back, to the old Jewish cemetery. We wander among the gravestones. I see the shape of a violin carved on one of the moss-covered stones, the gravestone of a musician. A little further on, I see a pair of scissors carved on a slanting half-sunken stone, the tombstone of a tailor. The gravestone of a printer is decorated with a book; a mortar and pestle identify that of a doctor. Here and there, I see engravings of hands with outstretched fingers, the thumbs touching – the sign of the priestly class of kohanim. On other gravestones I can make out grapevines and rose garlands engraved into the moss-covered stone. Small stones are piled on top of the gravestones. The tourist book tells us that this tradition stems from the times when the Jews wandered in the desert, where there were no flowers. At that time, they laid little stones on the graves instead of flowers. Thousands of notes lie between the cracks in the gravestones. Here can be found the tombs of the Maharal Reb Levi and his wife, Pearl, the tombs of Reb Mordecai Meisel and his wife, Frumet. Here is the gravestone of David Gantz (1541–1613), who was a Talmudist, as well as a writer of scientific works, a personal friend of the astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Here too can be found the gravestone of Rivka Bas Me’ir Tiktiner (d. 1605), whose book of ethics in Yiddish, in which she warns women against believing in superstitions, made her the first known female author of a Jewish book.8 Prague was lucky. Many relics of the Jewish past were preserved. In other European cities, the signs of Jewish life were erased almost without a trace. But when it came to Prague, Hitler was inspired with a more “pedagogical” idea. Instead of razing the old Jewish ghetto to the ground, he deported the Prague Jews to the Terezin concentration camp, and on the site of the liquidated ghetto, he erected an exotic museum to showcase the extinct Jewish race. All kinds of holy objects – artfully designed silver Chanukah lamps from different eras; spice boxes; beautifully engraved silver candlestick holders for the Sabbath; amulets; pointers – were plundered from Jewish homes, yeshivas, and synagogues, after which the buildings were set on fire. This gathering of Jewish ritual artifacts transformed the Prague Jewish Museum into the holder of the richest collection of Judaica in Europe.

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In the street stalls on Maiselova Street, at the entrance to the museum, the synagogue, and the cemetery, Czech vendors sell painted cardboard caps at a dollar seventy-five each. The stalls also sell replicas of the old cemetery, with its artistically engraved tombstones, in the form of exotic souvenir sculptures, one dollar each. One can also buy, as souvenirs, a bust of Rabbi Levi, the Maharal of Prague, as well as dozens of cute Yosls, small, clay golems, arranged on small tables, all for pennies. A playful “Disneyland” mood reigns on Maiselova Street. Not far from Maiselova Street, there is another museum, the Kafka Museum, located in the house where Kafka was born in 1883. Outside the wall of the museum, there stands a memorial sculpture of a bronze head, more reminiscent of a romantic Lord Byron than of an ordinary young Jewish man. There is no significant material about Kafka’s life in the museum, except for a few photographs pasted onto white cardboard and a few quotations from his diaries, from his famous letter to his father, and from his letters to Milena.9 I am not surprised at the poverty of the museum. The nationalistic Czechs were never supportive of Kafka, and for many years the Communists considered him taboo. At length, they rehabilitated him and declared him to be a decadent genius. Today he is regarded as a national figure. And since tourists are interested in him, probably, as time passes, the museum will enrich itself to meet the demand. Prague is so packed with tourists that we could not get a hotel in the centre of the city. Our hotel is in a working-class district, across from the building that once housed the central committee of the trade unions. The trade-union building is comparatively new in comparison with the nearby houses, and its style is in sharp contrast to them. It is just as neglected as they are, but without a shred of decoration – a four-storey, barracks-like, grey boredom yawns from the facade. It seems to me that I am familiar with the streets of this district. The houses remind me of Polish houses, the courtyards are like Polish courtyards, the walls are the same shabby, stinking walls with peeling plaster that I remember from my youth. It looks as if the Second World War passed through here just yesterday. And the city, blackened but miraculously not destroyed, was immediately frozen in time by the chill of the Communist regime. But if you look more closely, you notice that, peeking out from behind the shabby facades, are remnants 266


of the district’s past glories. There is not a single house that does not sport some fragment of decoration, of relief work, of wall murals, and sculptures in niches between the upper stories. It feels as if the district were a neglected architectural museum, enclosed in a cobweb of sadness. This district is a clear indication that Prague has not completely shaken off the heritage of the two horrific epochs of its recent past, the Nazi occupation followed by the Communist dictatorship. They still rule over the spirits not only of the people, but also of their houses. The people who pass us on the street look as if they don’t know in which direction they want to go, forward or back. One can detect an embarrassment in the way their eyes avoid making contact, as if they were ashamed that we should notice their confusion as they tinker with the chaos of democracy and the free market. The hotel is modern, most likely built at the same time as the trade-union house, in a style that I would call communist-functional modernism. It is a pretty good hotel. Right now, most of the tourists staying here are German, which means that there is a lot of German spoken in the hotel – more than in all of Prague. In the lobby there is a long counter, where day and night grey-suited men sit drinking beer. Squeezed in on stools between the men are the street women, their faces painted in garish colours. Outside, near the hotel, there is a casino. And in the background, a little further down the street from the hotel, there is an amusement park, which is empty, with silent, empty carousels whose seats sway gently in the wind, as if ghosts were swinging on them. Near the park stands a former train station, with tracks that cross and stretch out in all directions. On the white-stone outer wall of our hotel hangs a large bronze bas-relief, a memorial tablet. It represents a column of Jews: men, women, mothers with infants in their arms, young people, old men and women – a deportation scene. This bronze relief is the reason why I feel a gnawing at the heart ever since our first day in Prague. A question torments me: Is the place where our hotel stands today the same spot where the Jews of Prague were assembled before their deportation? On 15 March 1939, when the Nazis occupied Prague, the Jewish population of the city numbered fifty-six thousand souls. Not long afterward, the Nazis established the “Central Bureau for Jewish ImLaterna Magika, Prague 1993 267

migration from Bohemia and Moravia,” whose director was Adolf Eichmann. They began by deporting the most prominent Jews to Buchenwald; then they created the ghetto at Teresienstadt. After that, everything unfolded in the same way as it did in other Jewish communities under Nazi occupation. After the war, there were attempts to re-establish a Jewish community in Prague. But the Slánský trial,10 and the officially sanctioned anti-Semitism of the Communist regime that followed, destroyed all the initiatives. Celebrations to mark the thousand years of Jewish life in Prague were cancelled four times. (A thousand years, because, as a matter of fact, there was a Jewish community here in Roman times, but the First Crusade of 1096 destroyed it.) We find ourselves in the business district of the city. This is where there is a real flood of tourists. It is as if the natives of Prague have moved into the shadows to make room for the waves of foreign-speaking guests, who push and stream over the sidewalks in all directions. The local people are hospitable and welcoming to the tourists. The more tourists who come, the better. May they keep coming! Let them fill the sidewalks and buy whatever they like. The awakening to life of the city is expressed by the stubbornness with which the city struggles to survive every day, to catch up with economic progress by means of a cheap, often comical, commercialism. They deal in everything and anything – even in the good name of their beloved president Václav Havel. They point out to tourists the massive four-storey building near the Vltava where he lives. They brag that the Czech president is not only a thinker and a writer, but also a true democrat. He lives in an apartment, there high up, like an ordinary citizen, instead of occupying the salons of the Hradchany Palace, like a king. But it seems that Kafka is even more famous in Prague than President Havel. An entire Kafka industry has blossomed here. He is sold in every store: Kafka shirts, Kafka toys; beer mugs and pots with Kafka’s picture. There are Kafka restaurants, cafeterias, theatres. He looks down at us from everywhere. Kafka, the sickly, alienated individualist, the Jew who never completely felt himself to be a citizen of the



Jewish, the Czech, or the German worlds, has risen from the dead in the vulgarized form of a sort of Czech rock star. Another item of Czech commerce is the exotic and “melodramatic” fate of the Jews, who are no longer here. They make good merchandise. Even dead Jews are useful. One can profit from the “must-see” tourist attractions that they left behind, both from long ago and from not so long ago. And if the tourists are not satiated with visiting what remains of the dead Jews of Prague, they can be taken on an excursion to nearby Terezin. Holocaust-themed postcards are sold everywhere: photographs of life in the Terezin ghetto, or copies of children’s drawings from that ghetto for the tourists to send home. We stroll in Wenceslas Square. This is the heart of both the historical Prague of yesterday and the freedom-loving Prague of today. This is where the Soviet tanks stood during the Soviet invasion to quell the Prague Spring. Here the student Jan Palach, protesting the Communist invasion, set himself on fire and became a living torch. Here in 1989 occurred the demonstrations that proclaimed the “Velvet Revolution.” It was a time of rare emotional exaltation. The long, spacious boulevard hums like a beehive. Wenceslas Square is, for the inhabitants of Prague, a half-luxurious, half-impoverished version of the Champs-Elysées. Restaurants line the sidewalks on both sides of the street, enticing customers with dishes for all tastes and with prices for every pocket. We climb up the broad staircase that leads to the most famous speakers’ podium in the country. Once at the top, we see behind us the impressive building of the National Museum. In front of us is the massive memorial to Saint Wenceslas. We look down on the bustling street. Here, where we are now standing, Alexander Dubček and Václav Havel proclaimed the rebirth of a democratic Czechoslovakia. Here, one can clearly sense that a free Czech nation is coming into being. May it be a land of peace and well-being! But one thing is clear: the Jews will not be part of this Czech revival. Their place is limited exclusively to the history of the country. Of course, I happily rejoice with all the other peoples who have now been freed from the Communist dictatorship. I rejoice that they have finally achieved their freedom. But it is a painful joy.

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It pains me that our misfortune has become cheapened and vulgarized into a commercial enterprise that trades on the sentimental. This is one of the reasons why I see a demarcation between Jew and non-Jew in modern life, and in our modern understanding of art. It is a difference in sensitivity, a difference in what is called in English “a frame of reference.” The Laterna Magika of the city of Prague illuminates for me all the wonders of Europe in a particularly painful light. It is a Europe to which we Jews were loyal for so long. The best that we had we contributed to its culture, to its intellectual wealth, and, in return, for generations, we were jeered at and abused with savage hatred – so much so that the last traces of our existence have been almost totally erased from its current history. Prague has once again proven to me that I will never again be able to enjoy Europe’s beauty without feeling homesick and bereaved – and terribly resentful. tranSlation: arnicE Pollack and GoldiE MorGEntalEr

notES 1 For more on Kazantzakis, see n4 of “Australian Notes.” 2 Maharal is a Hebrew acronym for Moreinu Ha-Rav Loew, that is, “our teacher, Rabbi Loew.” The reference is to Judah Loew ben Bezalel, an important Talmudist, mystic, and philosopher, who was the leading rabbi of Prague. Legend has it that he created the golem. 3 A thaler was a silver coin used throughout Europe for almost four hundred years. Thaler is the origin of the word dollar. 4 A Shabos goy is a gentile who works for Jews during the Sabbath. Because she or he is not Jewish, the Shabos goy is allowed to light stoves and candles and generally serve the convenience of observant Jews, who are prohibited by religious injunction from lighting a fire on the Sabbath. 5 Sabbetai-Tzvi was the most notorious of several false messiahs who captured the Jewish imagination in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 6 Leivik’s “The Golem” is a dramatic poem in eight scenes. For more on Leivik, see n2 to “Harps on the St Lawrence: Yiddish Poets in Canada.” 7 Raised wooden platform in a synagogue from which the Torah is read. 8 Rivke bas Me’ir’s book, Meynekes Rivke (Rebecca’s Wet Nurse), was published after her death in Prague in 1609. It belongs to the genre of Musar (ethical) literature

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written in Yiddish and appears to be the first book written by a Jewish woman, preceding the memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln by nearly a century. 9 Milena Jesenska was a Czech journalist, writer, translator, with whom Kafka exchanged letters that were later published in Kafka’s book Letters to Milena. 10 The Slánský trial took place in 1952, and was a Communist Party show trial, brought about by Tito’s break with the Soviet Union. It was an attempt by the Czechoslovak Communist Party to please Stalin by purging the party of its Jewish element. Eleven of the thirteen people put on trial for Trostkyite-Titoist-Zionist leanings were Jewish. As general secretary of the party, Rudolf Slánský was the most prominent politician of all the people arrested and tried. He was found guilty and publicly hanged a few days after the verdict was delivered. His trial was notable for its anti-Semitic rhetoric.

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Appendix A: Bibliographical Citations of All Essays Included in This Volume

Bibliographic listings in reverse chronological order of all essays in the current volume: “El ultimo poeta de Lodz” (Translation into Spanish of “The Last Poet of Lodz”). In Supervivientes (Survivors), 173–202. Zaragoza: Xordica, 2016. “Bergen-Belsen Dagboek, 1945” (Translation into Dutch of “BergenBelsen Diary, 1945”). In Vrij Nederland (25 April 2015). Archief/Samenleving/Artikel-Samenleving/Dagboek-de-maanden-nade-bevrijding-uit-BergenBelsen.htm. “Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945” (In English). Tablet (27 Jan. 2014). Trans. Goldie Morgentaler. books/160640/rosenfarb-bergen-belsen-diary. Rpt. The New Spice Box, ed. Ruth Panofsky, 121–37. Toronto: New Jewish Press, 2017. “The Last Poet of Lodz” (In English). Tablet (13 Sept. 2012). Trans. Chava Rosenfarb. books/111880/the-last-poet-of-lodz. “Canadian Yiddish Writers.” In New Readings of Yiddish Montreal/ Traduire le Montréal Yiddish, edited by Pierre Anctil, Norman Ravvin, Sherry Simon, 11–19. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2007. “Pol Tselan un zayne goyrl-brider” (“Paul Celan and His Brothers in Fate”). Di goldene keyt 138 (1994): 53–70. “Laterna Magika (Prague 1993).” Di goldene keyt 137 (1993): 119–37. “Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach.” In Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapudus Lerner, Anita Norich, 217–26. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992.

“Itzkhok Bashevis un Sholem Asch.” Di goldene keyt 133 (1992): 75–104. “Shloymele: a dermonung” (“Shloymele: A Reminiscence”). Forverts (18 Sept. 1992): 18–19, 35. “Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch (dermonungen)” (“Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch [reminiscences]”). Di goldene keyt 131 (1991): 9–28. “Vanderungen iber inerveynikste kontinentn (notitsn)” (Wanderings through Inner Continents [Notes]). Di goldene keyt 88 (1975): 156–68. “Oystralishe notitsn” (“Australian Notes”). Di goldene keyt 84/85 (1974): 59–90. “A videh fun a mekhaber” (“Confession of a Writer”). Di goldene keyt 81 (1973): 127–41.

274 Appendix A

Appendix B: List of Chava Rosenfarb’s Published Works

novElS and Short StoriES Drzewo Zycia [The Tree of Life]. 3 vols. In Polish. Trans. by J. Lisek, M. Ruta, M. Tuszewicki, N. Krynicka. Lodz: Biblioteka Centrum Dialogu, 2015–2017. Supervivientes (Survivors). In Spanish. Trans. by Daniel Gascon. Zaragoza: Xordica, 2016. The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto. Book 3: The Cattlecars Are Waiting. 1942–1944. (In English.) Trans. by the author in collaboration with Goldie Morgentaler. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. Winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Award for Translation and Publication. The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto. Book 2: From the Depths I Call You, 1940–1942. (In English.) Trans. by the author in collaboration with Goldie Morgentaler. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto. Book 1: On the Brink of the Precipice, 1939. (In English.) Trans. by the author in collaboration with Goldie Morgentaler. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Survivors: Seven Short Stories. (In English.) Trans. by Goldie Morgentaler. Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2004. Bociany. (In English.) Trans. by the author. Syracuse: Syracuse UP , 2000. Of Lodz and Love. (In English.) Trans. by the author. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000. Briv tsu Abrashn (Letters to Abrasha). (In Yiddish.) Tel Aviv: I.L. Peretz Publishing House, 1992. Excerpted in English translation in the Montreal Gazette, 7 May 1995; and in Tablet 27 (Jan. 2015). in-the-boxcar. Botshani. (In Yiddish.) 2 vols. Tel Aviv: I.L. Peretz Publishing House, 1983. Ets Hakhayim (The Tree of Life). (In Hebrew.) 3 vols. Trans. by Shloyme Shenhod. Tel Aviv: Syfriat Poalim, 1978. Der boim fun lebn (The Tree of Life). (In Yiddish.) 3 vols. Tel Aviv: Hamenora, 1972.

PlayS Der foigl fun geto (The Bird of the Ghetto). Montreal: H. Morgentaler, 1958.

PoEtry collEctionS Exile at Last: Selected Poems. (In English.) Toronto: Guernica, 2013. Aroys fun gan-eydn (Out of Paradise) (In Yiddish.) Tel Aviv: Peretz farlag, 1965. Geto un andere lider (Ghetto and Other Poems). (In Yiddish.) Montreal: H. Hershman, 1950. Dos lid fun dem yidishn kelner Abram (The Song of the Jewish Waiter Abram). (In Yiddish.) London: Moshe Oved, 1948. Di balade fun nekhtikn vald (The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest). (In Yiddish.) London: Moishe Oved, 1947. This was republished a year later as Di balade fun nekhtiken vald un andere lider (The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest and Other Poems), in conjunction with Fragmentn fun a tog-bukh (Fragments of a Diary). Montreal: H. Hershman, 1948. [64 pp]

276 Appendix B


Numbers in bold indicate main entry. Adorno, Theodore, 15, 19, 115 anti-Semitism, 23, 106, 118, 145–6, 150, 161n4, 182, 268, 270; blood libel, 161n4, 257, 261–3; deportations from Lodz, 4, 6, 18, 27, 34, 39, 41, 46–9, 69–70, 111, 183; deportations from Prague, 267–8; Empress Maria Theresa, anti-Semitism of, 254; persecution of Jews in Poland, 204; pogroms in Poland, 204; pogroms in Ukraine, 133, 148, 152, 161n4; in Prague, 254, 257, 260, 267–8. See also Holocaust survivors; Slánský, Rudolf Asch, Sholem, xviii, xix, 124, 131–60, 172; father of, 142, 136; mother of, 133–4, 136–8; obsession with motherhood, 134, 142, 150, 156, 173; WorkS : The Apostle, 156; Before the Flood, 150–1; Christian trilogy, 155–7; The God of Vengeance, 144, 161n2; Kiddush Hashem, 148–9, 152, 173; Mary, 145, 156; Moses, 156; Mottke the Thief, 147– 8; The Nazarene, 154, 156; The Psalm Jew (Der tillim yid), 144, 152–3, 156; Reb Shloyme Nogid, 142; Shabbtai Tzvi, 143; The Shtetl, 142, 156; “The Sorceress of Castille,” 148–9, 173 Auschwitz, xiii, xiv, xvii, 6, 10, 15, 23, 24nn1–3, 50, 61, 67, 77, 94, 102, 120, 184–5

Australia, xvi–xx, 212–48, 256; Aboriginals, 213–15, 224–5, 233, 242, 244–6; Alice Springs, 242; Ayer’s Rock, 242–6; Canberra, 222; Great Barrier Reef, 236–7; Kadima, 221; Lindeman Island, 237–8; Melbourne, 216, 218–41, 247–8; Philip Island, 227–9; William Rickets, 224, 232, 242; Sheherazade Restaurant, 219–21; Sydney, 214, 247; theatre, 232 Baal Shem Tov, 156, 161n7, 197, 209n1 Baluty (Balut). See Lodz; Lodz ghetto Bat Tuvim, Sarah, 167 Beilis, Mendel, 146, 161n4 Belgium, xii–xiii; crossing illegally into, 11–12, 28 ben Bezalal, Rabbi Yehuda Levi. See Maharal (The) ben Gurion, David, 239. See also Zionism Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, xiii, xvii, 7, 23, 52, 95, 122, 200 Bergen-Belsen dP (Displaced Persons) camp, 9–11, 28, 50, 53–68 Bociany. See under Rosenfarb, Chava Brussels, 12–18, 28, 185, 186 Bund, Jewish Labour (Yidisher arbeter bund), xi, xv, 10, 11, 16, 25n7, 84, 89–90, 130n5; Bundism of Avrom Rosenfarb, 81; Bundist club, The Harp (di harfe), 86; Bundist nursery, 89; SkiF , 83; yaF (yidishe arbeter

froyen), 166–7. See also Medem School Canada, xiii, xxi, 25n6, 179, 185–7, 194–5, 197–9, 200, 203–4, 217; Canada as existential symbol, 206; Canadian English, 216; Canadian-English culture, 194; Canadian landscape, 195–6, 200, 204, 206, 208; Canadian literature, 185; Toronto, 218; Canadian-Yiddish writers (see Yiddish literature in Canada). See also Montreal Celan, Paul, xix, 101, 103–4, 106, 107–20 Chariots of the Gods, 243, 248n4 Chelmno extermination camp, 4, 38 Chmielnicki, Bogdan, 133, 148 Communism, xv, 25, 83, 109, 199, 249–50, 254, 266–9, 271n10 Cook, Captain James, 214–15 Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, 249–50, 254, 269. See also Prague Dachau concentration camp, xiii, 10, 67, 68; Kaufering subcamp, 10 Di goldene keyt, xviii, xix, xxi, 186. See also Sutzkever, Avrom Di tsukunft, 16 Di yunge, 198–9. See also Yiddish literature Dropkin, Celia, 168–9 Eichmann, Adolf, 268 English language, xxii, xxiii, 122, 138, 179, 185–8, 190–1, 192; English literature, 171; translation into English (see translation) Eybeshutz, Rabbi Jonathan, xi, 80, 263–4 Feldafing dP (Displaced Persons) camp, 11, 52 Folk shule (Jewish People’s School), 192



Folkstimlekhe geshikhtn. See under Peretz, I.L. Forverts, The Yiddish Daily, 131 Freud, Sigmund, 101, 103, 108, 129n1, 145 Gary, Romain, 101–4, 120 German language, xix, 41, 43, 104, 107–10, 114–16, 122, 125, 180–1, 188, 202, 267 Germany, xiii, xvii, 8–9, 66, 68, 99, 115, 122–3, 145; in the poetry of Celan, 112–13, 115–16; Stefan Zweig’s attitude toward, 157. See also Rosenfarb, Chava Glatstein, Jacob (Yakov), 23 Glickl of Hamlin, 167 Golem (Yosl, the), 164, 256, 261–3, 266, 270n6; in H. Leivik’s works, 210n2, 264, 270n6 Grade, Chaim, Di agunah. See Yiddish literature Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), 138 Havel, Vaclav, 250, 268, 269. See also Prague Heidegger, Martin, 118 Hershman, Harry, xiv, xxii, 178, 192, 196, 200 Hesse, Hermann, 240–1 Hirshberg, Rabiner Emanuel, 5–6, 24n3, 42–3, 44, 184 Holocaust survivors, xxi, 7–12, 25n5, 52, 53–68, 101, 103, 106, 120, 126, 216–17 Huss, Jan, 257 Jesus, 149, 152, 156–7 Jewish People’s School. See Folk shule Jewish Public Library. See under Montreal Josefov (old Jewish Quarter). See Prague Kafka, Franz, 110, 252–4, 256, 268, 271n9; The Castle, 254; Kafka

Museum, 266; Lodz ghetto as kafkaesque, 27; The Trial, 264. See also Prague kapo, xxi, 6, 24–5n4 Kaufering. See Dachau Kazantzakis, Nikos, 240, 248n3, 251 Keneder Adler. See under Montreal Końskie (Kinsk), xi, xvi, xvii, 79–84, 85. See also Poland Korn, Rachel (Rokhl), xviii, xxii, 151, 174–5, 193, 196, 197, 204–8 Kosinski, Jerzy, 101–3, 104, 121n1 Kreitman, Esther, 22, 136 Larsson, Zenia (Marcinkowska), xii, 90–7, 98n8, 98n12; Letters from a New Reality, 96; suicide of her father, 94, 126 Leib, Mani, 169, 170, 198 Leivik, H. (Leivik Halpern), xix, 170, 173, 193, 198, 210n2, 264, 270n6 Leizerovitch (Leizerowicz), Israel (Yisroel), xvi, 5, 24n2, 42, 43, 46–7, 183. See also Lodz ghetto: writers’ group Levi, Primo, xix, 101–2, 104, 106, 117, 118, 120, 133; Survival at Auschwitz, 103 Levi, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bezalal. See Maharal Lilith, 173, 176n3 Lodz, city of, x–xi, xx, 3, 16, 21, 28, 30–1, 73, 81–2, 85, 126, 181–3, 205, 216, 232, 238; Baluty, xii, 4, 6, 86, 97n4; in Before the Flood, 150; Geyers suburb, 85; in Letters to Abrasha, 21; Marysin, 98n10 Lodz ghetto, xii–xiii, xv, xvii, 6, 10, 16–21, 23, 27–8, 31–50, 69–77, 93–5, 126, 127–51, 182–5, 201, 256; Baluty (see Lodz); Sperre (gehsperre), xv, 41–2, 43, 48, 70–1, 94, 98n11; writers’ group, xii, 4–6, 38, 46–7, 51n3, 183–4. See

also Rosenfarb, Chava; Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto Maasai, 233 Maharal, The (Rabbi Yehuda Levi ben Bezalal), 256, 258–64, 265, 266, 270n2. See also Prague Mahler, Gustav, 256–7 Manger, Itzik, 110, 193, 198, 203, 210n2 Manger Prize, xvi, xxii Masaryk, Jan, 254. See also Prague Maze, Ida, 197, 210n2 Meisel, Reb Mordecai, 259, 262, 265. See also Prague Medem School, xi–xii, 3–4, 83, 91. See also Bund Mendele Mokher Sforim, 140, 167, 248n5 Montreal, city of, xiv, xxi–xxii, 20, 69, 101, 162, 179, 194, 197–9, 200–1, 210n2, 249; biculturalism in, 194–5; Jewish cultural milieu in, xxii, 97, 185–6, 190, 192, 203; Jewish Public Library, xxi, 192, 198, 203, 207, 208; Keneder Adler, 186, 192; Korn settles in, 206; Montreal Gazette, xx; Ravitch settles in, 202–3; in Rosenfarb stories, xxi; Segal settles in, 197; writers’ union in, 193; Yiddish in, xxii, 185–6, 190. See also Korn, Rachel; Ravitch, Melekh; Segal, J.I.; Yiddish literature in Canada Morgentaler, Abraham (Bamie), xiv, 20, 179–80, 230, 241 Morgentaler, Goldie, xiv, xxiii–xxivn2, 180, 187–8, 216, 241 Morgentaler, Henekh (Henry), xi–xiv, xx, 200, 201; abortion campaign, xx, 25n6; divorce from Rosenfarb, 248; experiences during Holocaust, xii–xiii; as father, 179; marriage to Rosenfarb, xii, xx Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, 255, 256



Odysseus, 251–2 Oved, Moshe, 22, 155 Palach, Jan, 269. See also Prague Peretz, I.L. (Yitzkhak Leybush), 134, 139–40, 153, 160n1, 166, 167, 202, 205; as father of modern Yiddish literature, 139, 140; as feminist, 171–2; WorkS : “The Anger of a Jewess,” 172; “Brayna’s Mendel,” 171–2; Folkstimlekhe geshikhtn, 171; “Miracles on the Sea,” 75–7; “Monish,” 173; “Oyb nisht nokh hekher,” 153, 161n6 Peretz School, 192 Piaf, Edith, 14, 231–2 Plath, Sylvia, 105, 127, 169 Poland, xxiii, 61, 85, 145, 263; antiSemitism in, 182; Bund in, 25n7; Communism in, 83; Eastern Galicia, 204; Jewish life in, ix, 25, 42, 133, 160, 181; Nazi occupation of, xii, xv, 31, 69, 77, 130n5; Yiddish culture in, 97n7, 179, 202, 204, 205. See also Lodz; Warsaw Polish language, xii, xviii, xxiii, 4, 49, 81, 83, 85, 94, 96, 180–4, 202, 204; Polish radio station, 48; writing in, 104, 204 Prague, xi, xxi, 209, 249–70; Charles Bridge, 255–6; Communist antiSemitism, 268; defenestration, 254; Jewish community in, 257–8, 267–8; Josefov (old Jewish quarter), 257, 265; Laterna Magika, 249–53; synagogues in, 262, 264–5; Terezin concentration camp, 265, 268; Terezin ghetto, 257, 269; Yiddish theatre in, 110 Ravitch, Melekh (Zakharia Khone Bergner), xiv, xxii, 151, 193, 196, 197, 200–3, 204; WorkS : Continents and



Oceans, 201; Mayn Leksikon, 203, 210n3; “Spring over Europe,” 201 Ravitch, Piotr, 101, 104 Reinhartz, Henia (Rosenfarb), xi, xii–xiv, 4, 6, 9–11, 14, 28, 43, 52, 56–7, 59, 66–8, 78, 84, 218; as a child, 88–9, 182; in concentration camp, 94; in dP camp, 95; in Lodz ghetto, 183. See also Rosenfarb, Chava Reisen, Abraham, 132, 193, 196 Ricketts, William. See Australia Rosenfarb, Avrom, x–xiii, 10, 15–16, 50, 78, 81, 82, 181, 182; in Auschwitz, 6; death of, 67; direct address to, 53–6; Dos lid fun yidishn kelner Abram, xiv; in dreams, 57, 68; family, 80, 83–4; in Lodz, 85–8; personality, 81; search for, 9–10, 66, 95 Rosenfarb, Chava, ix–x. bioGraPhy : attitude towards German language (see German language); Aunt Shprintse, 81, 83–4; awards, xvi, xxii, 191n1; childhood, x, 3–4, 61, 79–91, 182; children (see Morgentaler, Abraham; Morgentaler, Goldie); education, xii, 3–4, 84, 182 (see also Medem School); experiences during Holocaust, xiv–xv, xxix, 4–8, 17, 21, 177–9, 182–5; father (see Rosenfarb, Avrom); grandmother Fayge-Mirl, 80–3, 263; honorary degree, xxii; husband (see Morgentaler, Henekh (Henry)); immigration to Canada, 20, 185, 192, 200, 217; life in Montreal, xxi, 20, 69, 97, 162, 185–6, 190, 192–3, 200–1; mother (see Rosenfarb, Simma Pinchevska); motherhood, 20, 187–8, 230; residence in Germany, xiii, 8–12, 53–68, 95, 123; sister (see Reinhartz, Henia Rosenfarb); writing in Lodz ghetto, 4–9; writing after the

war, 15–17; Yiddish literary milieu, xxi– xxiii. See also Bund; Germany; Lodz; Poland. WorkS : Aroys fun gan-eydn, xiv; “Bergen-Belsen Diary,” xii, xiii, 53–68; Briv tsu Abrashn (see Letters to Abrasha); Botshani (Bociany/Of Lodz and Love), xi, xvi, xxiii, 21, 187, 191n1; Der boym fun lebn (see Tree of Life); Der foigl fun geto (play), ix, xiv; Di balade fun nekhtikn vald, xiv, 13, 161; Dos lid fun yidishn kelner Abram, xi, xiv; “Edgia’s Revenge,” xxi, 25n4; Exile at Last, xiv, xxiii; “François,” xxi; Geto un andere lider, xiv; “The Greenhorn,” xxi; Letters to Abrasha, x, xi, xvii, xix, 21; “Loib,” xiv; “Serengeti,” Survivors: Seven Short Stories, xxi, xxii–xxiii. See also Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto Rosenfarb, Henia. See Reinhartz, Henia Rosenfarb, Simma Pinchevska, xi, xiii– xiv, 6, 9–11, 14, 20, 28, 52, 56–8, 60, 79, 81–2, 85–6, 88–9, 94–5 Rosenstein, Shmuel, 27–8, 32–3, 36–8 Rumkowski, Chaim Mordechai, 27–8, 31, 38–9, 46–7, 98n10; in The Tree of Life, xv, 19 Sabbetai-Tzvi (Shabtai-Tzvi), xi, 263–4, 270n5. See also Asch, Sholem Sasel labour camp, xiii, xvii, 6, 23, 25n4, 94 Segal, J.I. (Yaakov Yitzkhak Skolar), xix, xxii, 193, 195–6, 197–200, 203, 204, 208; arrival in Canada, 198; horrific childhood experience, 198; Sefer yidish, 197 Shayevitch, Simkha-Bunim, xii, xv, xix, 5, 10, 15, 16–17, 26, 27–51, 57, 59, 63, 67, 94, 183; “Lekh-Lekho,” 18, 28–9, 34–6, 37, 46, 51n1; Lekh-Lekho

(booklet), xii, 18, 28, 37; “Spring 1942,” 28–9, 39–41 Sholem Aleichem, 140, 161n3, 166, 167; Sholem Aleichem prize, xxii; Stempenyu, 171; Tevye the Milkman, 171–3 Shtaynbarg, Eliezer, 109, 110, 114, 121n2 shtetl, xi, xvi, 21, 42, 79, 83–4, 133–5, 138, 141, 149–50, 159, 165, 198, 204, 230; in Bashevis Singer’s work, 134–5, 143, 151, 154; in Sholem Asch’s work, 141–2, 147, 152, 155; women in, 165, 172 Singer, Isaac Bashevis, xviii, xix, 22, 131–60, 193; childhood and youth, 134–40; father / father figures, 136–7, 139, 146; Holocaust in his work, 159; mother, 135–6, 138; pseudonyms, 138. WorkS : The Family Moskat, 150–1; The Magician of Lublin, 143, 148; Satan in Goray, 143, 145, 151; “Short Friday,” 154; The Slave, 157–8; “The Spinozist,” 153–4; “Teibele and Her Demon,” 154; “A Wedding in Brownsville,” 149; “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” 171. See also Kreitman, Esther; Singer, I.J. Singer, I.J. (Israel Joshua), 136–7, 140, 193; Yoshe Kalb, 140. See also Kreitman, Esther; Singer, Isaac Bashevis Slánský, Rudolf, 268, 271n10 Slowacki, Julius, 81, 84 Sperre (gehsperre). See Lodz ghetto Steinberg, Dr Isaac Nachman, 230 Stevens, Barry, 226, 248n2 suicide, xix, xxi, 21, 93, 126–7, 130n3; among Jewish writers, 101–21; Sylvia Plath, 127; Isaac Wittenberg, 130n3; Stefan Zweig, 125–6, 129nn1–2; Artur Zygielboim, 130n5

Index 281

Sutzkever, Avrom (Abraham), xviii–xix, xxivn4. See also Di goldene keyt Sweden, 83, 91, 95–6; Stockholm, 205; Swedish, 91. See also Larsson, Zenia Tiktiner, Rivka Bas Meir, 265, 270–1n8. See also Yiddish literature translation, 177–91; into English, x, xi, xiv, xvi, xix, 51n1, 104, 131, 157, 161n2, 176n4, 180, 191n1; from Hebrew to Yiddish, 5, 42 Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto (Der boym fun lebn), The, ix, xv–xvii, xxii, xxiii, xxiiin1, 5, 24n1, 24n2, 51n3, 179; conception of, 7, 18–21; Shayevitch’s influence on, 5 Tsene-rene, 80, 81, 165, 176n1 Ulinover, Miriam, xvi, 5, 24n1, 32, 38, 42, 51n3, 51n7, 183 Veprinski, Rachelle, 169–70 Waddington, Miriam, xxi Warsaw, 126, 130n5, 133, 135, 139, 150, 202, 203, 216, 232. See also Poland Wiener, Simkha-Bunim (Bono), xii, xx, 20, 212, 248. See also Australia Wittenberg, Isaac, xiv, 126, 130n3 Yiddish language, x, xviii–xix, xxivn4, 4, 25n7, 42, 53, 73, 80, 90, 97–8n7,



104–5, 108, 110–11, 116n2, 131, 140, 147, 163, 165, 179–85, 188, 191, 197, 200, 202, 231, 256; Bund encourages, xi, xiii; in Canada, 185; Chernowitz Language Conference, 107, 111; decline of, 185–7, 189–90, 208, 230; Sefer yidish, 197; writing in, xii, 53, 140, 147; Yiddishists, 110–11. See also Bund; Yiddish literature Yiddish literature, xv, xvii, xx–xxiii, 11, 51n5, 73, 124, 131–61, 140, 148, 202, 205, 208–9, 230; Di khaliastre, 202; Chaim Grade, Di agunah, 171; female characters in 171–4; feminism in, 162–76; Howe and Greenberg anthology of, 174, 176n4; in Lodz ghetto, 36–8, 43, 46, 49; in Poland, 30–1; Rosenfarb as phenomenon in Yiddish literature, ix. See also Di yunge; Lodz ghetto: writers’ group Yiddish literature in Canada, xiv, xxi–ii, 175, 178, 179, 190, 192–210 Yiddish schools, xii. See also Folk shule; Medem School Yiddish writers’ group in Lodz ghetto. See Lodz ghetto: writers’ group Zionism, xv, 11, 25, 108, 128, 130n3, 150, 166; Zionist newspaper Haint, 27 Zweig, Stefan, 107, 122–9, 145 Zygielboim, Shmuel Artur, 126–7, 130n5