The graves of modern Yiddish writers are scattered across the globe. In the great Jewish cemetery at the western edge of Warsaw, one can visit the elaborate marble tomb atop the burial place of I.L. Peretz. Sholem Aleichem and Joseph Opatoshu were laid to rest in the New Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens,
New York. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s grave can be found further afield in New Jersey. This month, the prolific, Lodz-born writer Chava Rosenfarb, most of whose career was spent in Montreal, was buried in the Workers’ Circle Cemetery in north Montreal.
Rosenfarb’s death this past month marks an end point in the Canadian Yiddish tradition. With the aid of her co-translator and daughter Goldie Morgentaler, Rosenfarb maintained an active career into her ninth decade. Beginning in 2004, the University of Wisconsin Press reintroduced her major work, The Tree of Life (Der Boim fun Lebn). In three volumes, it offers a detailed portrait of prewar Lodz and the Lodz Ghetto. In 1994, Toronto’s Cormorant Books brought out a story collection titled Survivors: Seven Short Stories, which includes an array of biting portraits of postwar life in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In recent years, Rosenfarb continued to travel, giving talks on her own work and that of other Yiddish writers, while Morgentaler worked on translations of unpublished work. From a distance one felt that Yiddish literature was still being tended and created anew.
This year, in an online journal devoted to Jewish fiction, Rosenfarb contributed a story titled April 19th, which is of a piece with her other portraits of survivors. A ghost story of sorts, it captures the lives of survivors in postwar Montreal when most of them lived in the vicinity of “de montn” – the Mountain, or Mount Royal – on Esplanade and Jeanne-Mance near an early incarnation of the Montreal Jewish Public Library.
The date in the story’s title reflects its setting, a Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemoration “packed with mourners.” Among other things, April 19th evokes an early stage in Holocaust commemoration in Canada. Survivors make up a major part of the audience, at a time when they are young and just beginning as parents themselves; the focus is on the lighting of six symbolic candles; and the focal text, sung by a choir, is by Shmerke Kaczerginski, a poet of the Vilna Ghetto and partisan. (Just as April 19th recalls a largely forgotten wartime lyric, the graveside gathering at Rosenfarb’s burial included the singing of the once well-known anthem of the Jewish Polish Bund, Di Shvue (The Oath).
In The Tree of Life, Rosenfarb makes intriguing use of a poet’s work to evoke the losses of war. There, it is Simcha Bunim Shayevitsh, whose poem Lekh-Lekho, dedicated to his young daughter, helps Rosenfarb contend, in fiction, with the heartbreak of Jewish families in the ghetto.
With her major work in print and well anthologized, Rosenfarb’s place in the Canadian Jewish literary canon is secure. While other major careers, such as those of Rochl Korn, Melech Ravitch and J.I. Segal fade from view, Rosenfarb remains accessible because of the wealth of her work that was translated into English. Her oeuvre operates like a time capsule. Open it and you find the millionaires’ mansions of prewar Lodz, the maddening Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski of the ghetto, and intimate portraits of survivors as they remade their lives in postwar cities. April 19th offers an evocative portrait of the edge of Montreal’s Mountain not long after the war, when the “lilacs and jasmine were just coming into bloom.” One might, this coming spring, take a walk along Esplanade Avenue and see if the trees still flower there as they once did.
Norman Ravvin’s new novel is The Joyful Child, from Gaspereau Press. He is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.