Early responses to the events of the World War II can carry an uncanny charge. Though they are far from us as readers or viewers, they have the power to recover responses that are fresh and new to our way of thinking.
The 1960 film Chronique d’un été, which is characterized as the first example of cinema verité, carries this charge. Among the young Parisians the director interviews in response to the question, “Are you happy?” is a young camp survivor named Marceline. Late in the film she appears on a remarkably carless Place de la Concorde, where she remembers aloud her feelings, and her father’s response to them, as their family was caught up in the deportation engineered for the Germans by French military police.
A similar charge – via a voice unencumbered by familiar phrases and ideas – can be found in the poems collected in Exile at Last: Selected Poems, the recently published volume of selected work by the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb (Guernica Editions). Edited by Rosenfarb’s daughter, the scholar and translator Goldie Morgentaler, Exile at Last includes poems gathered from Rosenfarb’s earliest publication, the 1947 collection Di balade fun nekhtikn vald, from postwar publications, and, as well, poems that have not been published before.
Rosenfarb carried her earliest poems with her from the Lodz Ghetto, where she was trapped with her family, to Auschwitz, where her writings were taken from her. In a process of reconstruction begun in a German work camp, and then completed after the war in Belgium, she rewrote her early lost works.
Like so much of Rosenfarb’s writing, this places a poem like Isaac’s Dream – a rendering of the hideous period known in the ghetto as the Sperre, in which 6,000 children were taken from their parents and sent to the death camp at Chelmno – in a remarkable, possibly unique context. In the Yiddish original, a note attached to the poem describes it as having been written on a Thursday, the sixth of September, in the midst of the days-long roundup.
It introduces a theme that recurs in Rosenfarb’s postwar work – the emptiness, or, at least, childlike quality of biblical stories in light of the horrors the author has seen. Writing to her imaginary Isaac, Rosenfarb informs him: “‘Hide yourself in the Bible’s fairytale land./ For your God himself walks with me and my father,/ Right now, to the altar; with us – to His end.’”
Rosenfarb holds onto characters and motifs from biblical stories, turning them to her particular ends. In Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob become symbolic compatriots of the Jews of Lodz:
Rachel plays on the mandolin
And Leah plays on the flute.
Between the two women, the Shekhina is smiling.
She now knows how each life will conclude.
Among the ghetto poems, too, are portraits, intimate, lovely and sad, of the poet’s life while imprisoned by the Germans in the poorest district of her hometown:
Bats fly past the window.
Wings flutter. Dancing specters.
The sun is gone.
In the western sky
the remains of its disarrayed bed
Still warm from its body.
On purple sheets and torn pillows
lies the day and remembers.
Soon it will be gone.
Exile at Last includes an introduction that Rosenfarb wrote in English in the early 1970s, when she was translating her poems into the language of her new home. It offers an intriguing portrait of a writer who acknowledges Canada’s “magnificent air of freedom,” but does “not feel at home.” Rather, she is burdened by a feeling of “alienation” that she feels might be cured by her efforts at translating her Yiddish poetry for North American readers.
“I write,” she asserts, “not only from the experience of being Jewish, but also from the experience of being a woman in this turbulent century.” This latter theme runs through poems dedicated to describing motherhood and its challenges to a writing life: “Today my best poem’s a child./ My silence sings brighter than words.” In another rendering of this theme:
Children, you’re my poems,
moulded to the shape of bodies,
hummed into the lines of lips and
sung into the forms of earlobes.
In light of such work, Morgentaler’s commitment, as translator and editor of her mother’s writing, is a final chapter in the remarkable narrative of loss and recovery, of endangerment and dedication to work that underwrites Rosenfarb’s career. One feels keenly the life of the poems, the ill fortune and collaborative effort that allowed them to come down to us as readers.
Exile at Last cannot be expected to convey all the particulars of this story, some of which are bound up in the original Yiddish of the poems, and in their earliest publication by Yiddish-language publishers after the war. In the 1947 London edition of Di balade fun nekhtikn vald, Rosenfarb reminds her readers and herself that the German order that Jewish Lodzers enter the ghetto arrived on the eve of her birthday. The writer is in her 20s as she writes this, but the scale of her historical experience is already both a great burden and a source of writerly motivation.
Norman Ravvin’s most recent publications include the novel, The Joyful Child (Gaspereau Press), and Failure’s Opposite: Listening to A.M. Klein, co-edited with Sherry Simon. He is at work on a conference, to be held in Lodz, Poland, which will consider Canadian, Jewish and Polish culture.