Lodz celebrates the life and works of Chava Rosenfarb

Stunning paintings of Chava Rosenfarb and her poetry adorned the walls and the street of Lodz, Poland during an International conference that celebrated her life and her work. Photo supplied.

By Regan Treewater-Lipes

(AJNews) – When one thinks of prominent writers associated with twentieth century Yiddish literature, names like Isaac Bashevis-Singer, Abraham Sutzkever, and Sholem Asch might come to mind. Canada has its own Yiddish literary gem to add to this constellation of literary glitterati: Chava Rosenfarb. Since Dr. Goldie Morgentaler, Professor Emerita from the University of Lethbridge, first received the news that her mother, the late Chava Rosenfarb OBM, would be honoured by the city of Lodz in Poland, the Canadian-born academic knew that 2023 would be a year of great significance not just for her family, but for many.

Morgentaler’s literarily accomplished mother was born in Lodz in 1923, and this year marks the centennial of her birth. In a unanimous decision, the City Council of Lodz voted to declare 2023 the ‘Year of Chava Rosenfarb.’ Now, because of the dedication of Polish academic and journalist Joanna Podolska, Rosenfarb’s works are widely available in Polish, and are being accessed by a larger readership in the country of the writer’s birth. Morgentaler herself was her mother’s English translator, and because of this, Canadian audiences are also able to engage with Rosenfarb’s extensive oeuvre.

Dr. Regan Lipes with Dr. Goldie Morgentaler in Lodz Poland.

Goldie Morgentaler, who does not speak Polish, did not require any translation when she watched a video recording of the City Council of Lodz’ unanimous vote and announcement that 2023 would be the ‘Year of Chava Rosenfarb.’ This historic step is not only significant as it acknowledges the literary legacy of an accomplished writer who immortalized her birthplace with texture and nuance, but because it also pays tribute to the Jewish spirit of Lodz that was lost when the Lodz Ghetto was liquidated.

Rosenfarb’s trilogy novel The Tree of Life is a significant contribution to documenting life in the Lodz Ghetto (Book One: On the Banks of the Precipice, Book Two: From the Depths, Book Three: The Cattle Cars Are Waiting). In a recent phone interview with the Alberta Jewish News, Morgentaler noted that: “Nothing will immerse you in the character of Lodz better than The Tree of Life.”

When Podolska first told Morgentaler that she wanted to have the three-volume novel translated to Polish, the career academic was skeptical of her new Polish acquaintance.  Podolska has since had the three volumes translated with the help of grants she tirelessly pursued and has also become a lifelong friend of the family. “It was all Joanna,” explained Morgentaler warmly. “The centennial, all of it.  Joanna is relentless.”

The ‘Year of Chava Rosenfarb’ was first reported by the Alberta Jewish News in February 2023, and as the year comes to a close, there are exciting things to take stock of. In October, Podolska and her colleagues from the University of Lodz and the Mark Edelman Dialogue Center organized an international conference to celebrate the works of Chava Rosenfarb and other Jewish women writers of the twentieth century. The event was exceptionally well attended with delegates from across Europe and the Americas.  Sadly, a sizeable Israeli contingent of scholars were not able to attend because of the heinous modern day pogrom on October 7, where some 3000 Hamas terrorists massacred over 1200 people in Southern Israel and took over 230 as hostages. Despite the ensuing war in Gaza, a small number of Israelis were able to attend virtually.

Although Chava Rosenfarb called Canada home, her story began in Lodz – a world away from the Albertan prairies where she would spend her later years. The conference in her honour began with a walking tour of the Jewish community of Lodz. Very little remains to testify that this was once a thriving Jewish civilization aside from a sizeable Jewish cemetery that is being maintained, and a modern-day monument in recognition of those lost in the Shoah.

Podolska has made a professional crusade of preserving the Jewish history of Lodz, and Chava Rosenfarb has been a big part of this mission. She and her team had not anticipated the worldwide interest in the ‘Year of Chava Rosenfarb’ and conferences taking place in their not-so-glamourous industrial Polish city. When all the conference participants convened for the first evening of official programming, the Mark Edelman Dialogue Center auditorium was packed.  Quite notably, there was a prominent cross Canada representation at the event including scholars from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta.

The opening ceremonies were attended by dignitaries from the municipal government and distinguished faculty from the University of Lodz all with simultaneous Polish to English, and English to Polish translation. The keynote was given by Dr. Goldie Morgentaler, with a touching tribute to her mother’s legacy. In Morgentaler’s speech she recalled heated discussions she would have with her mother over translation, and the sincerity and intimacy of her reminiscence made each attendee feel like they had been a fly on the wall. This was followed by Dr. Adele Reinhartz from the University of Ottawa speaking about her mother Henia Reinhartz OBM, Chava’s younger sister who was also literarily gifted.

An address was then delivered by Mordecai Walfish, Reinhartz’ son, who spoke about the work of his great-aunt Chava and grandmother Henia. These remarks culminated in a panel discussion with the family of Chava Rosenfarb, facilitated by Joanna Podolska. This was an exceptionally moving opportunity to see how first- and second-generation Shoah survivors process trauma and identity. Rosenfarb’s son, Dr. Abraham Morgentaler admitted that traveling to Lodz was a voyage that he first undertook with much trepidation.

“I think that this conference would have been something my mother would have been very happy with,” expressed Goldie Morgentaler during her post-conference interview. “I don’t think the possibility of something like this would have ever entered her mind.” The first evening ended with a concert featuring an original composition by Artur Zagajewski inspired by The Tree of Life. After returning to Canada, Morgentaler commented that: “My mother would have been touched to see that her work was reaching wider audiences.”

There were two days of conference panels in both English and Polish. Even displaced from their homes, some Israeli scholars managed to deliver their conference papers virtually: a moving testament to the universal power of literature and the unbreakable Jewish spirit. On the final day of the conference, a very excited, but secretive, Joanna Podolska insisted that attendees gather following the last panels of the event. In a surprise presentation, on a miserably cold and drizzly Lodz afternoon, a street in the city was renamed in honour of Chava Rosenfarb.

After surviving the dehumanization of ghettoization in Lodz, it is a poignant and reflective moment to realize that the name Chava Rosenfarb will now indelibly live on in the city’s day-to-day goings on.

“I think that this conference was possible because The Tree of Life was translated,” commented Morgentaler when reflecting on the popularity of her mother’s works. What began as a conversation about translation so many years ago, has now undoubtedly evolved. “When the Polish translations of her works began to materialize, my mother was already gone.”

Chava Rosenfarb had always hoped to have her works be available to the English-speaking world, and wider Western audiences, and if October’s conference is any indication, her dreams have come to fruition. The writings of this Canadian-Yiddish author are being taught and studied around the world. Shoah memory preservation is more important than ever as has been made abundantly clear in recent months. Rosenfarb loved Yiddish, and this was her language of inspiration and creation. Although not all Canadians are able to enjoy her works in their original splendour, her name is a part of the Canadian literary canon and is a valuable testimony of survivor memory.

 Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

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