Yiddish-Canadian author Chava Rosenfarb is honoured in Poland

University of Lethbridge professor Dr. Goldie Morgentaler with her mother, acclaimed Yiddish writer, Chava Rosenfarb z"l.

By Regan Treewater-Lipes

(AJNews) – Lodz, the third largest city in Poland, has just taken a significant and commendable step of paying tribute to a Jewish-Canadian author who once called the city ‘home.’ The Yiddish novelist, Chava Rosenfarb, was also a gifted writer of poetry, short-fiction, essays, and plays. Her three-volume novel, The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto, is a substantial contribution to scholarship and world literature. For those who live in Lodz, the industrial city that once bustled with Jewish life, and now only houses a grim memorial where the ghetto once stood and a cemetery as stark echoes of that world, 2023 is a year dedicated to remembering Chava Rosenfarb.

Local activist for the preservation of Jewish memory in Poland, Joanna Podolska, has been working for years to increase awareness and appreciation for Rosenfarb’s work within the greater Lodz community. Through her tireless efforts, the City Council recently named 2023 the Year of Chava Rosenfarb to honour and commemorate one hundred years since the author’s birth. Lodz features prominently in many of Rosenfarb’s works, and all three volumes of The Tree of Life have been translated into Polish, as have several of Rosenfarb’s other works. Her last novel, Letters to Abrasha, is currently being translated into Polish. With the exception of the latter, all of Rosenfarb’s works are also available in English translation. There is an academic conference planned to take place in October at the Centre for the Study of Jewish Culture in the Faculty of Philology at the University of Lodz as a part of this recognition.

Along with names like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Anita Badami, and Kim Thuy, Canadian literature by female authors continues to ferment a richly textured tradition of compelling storytelling. In growing numbers, avid readers of Canadian works, literati, and bookworms alike are becoming familiar with Rosenfarb, whose name has long been celebrated within the world of Yiddish literature. Rosenfarb, a contemporary of post-War Canadian Jewish creative contributors like Mordecai Richler, Adele Wiseman, and Leonard Cohen, was a staple in the Montreal-Jewish creative scene. But, unlike her Canadian-born counterparts, Rosenfarb’s journey was one of insurmountable suffering and harrowing perseverance. After Rosenfarb’s passing, her daughter discovered an untitled and undated essay.  Rosenfarb commented: “We newcomers to Canada, if we love this country, we love it more, if possible, than the native born, precisely because we were not born here.” It would certainly not be an exaggeration to call her oeuvre of Yiddish writings a collective masterful tribute devoted to survival.

Rosenfarb was born February 9, 1923 to Bundist parents living in Lodz. In a recent interview with Rosenfarb’s daughter, Dr. Goldie Morgentaler, young Chava was described as “a precocious and bright eight-year-old who managed to have her poetry published in a Yiddish literary magazine.” Morgentaler continued, “My grandparents were working-class. My grandmother mended fabric in a factory, and my grandfather was a waiter in a restaurant; they were Bundists, and education was very important to them.”

As a child, Rosenfarb attended the Bundist Medem School where the language of instruction was Yiddish. These early Yiddish seeds solidified and flourished, and even after immigrating to Canada in 1950, this would continue to be Rosenfarb’s language within her creative community and her home life. In Poland she had also attended a Polish-language high school run by Jews who were otherwise barred from attending Polish high schools and universities.

Even within the oppressive and stiflingly impoverished conditions of the infamous Lodz Ghetto, Rosenfarb’s passion for the written word was not extinguished. In a biographical summary about her mother, Morgentaler said: “In the ghetto she began to write poetry, waking up at dawn from her bed of chairs to compose her poems in bookkeeping registers in the hours before going to work at her various ghetto jobs.”

Rosenfarb, her younger sister, and her mother would be the family’s sole survivors of the Holocaust, enduring the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, deportation to Auschwitz, forced labor at Sasel, and a death march to Bergen-Belsen. The feverish nightmare that Rosenfarb experienced would colour, inspire, and haunt her writings to come. As she recovered from typhus, Rosenfarb befriended an English soldier, a member of the British Army that liberated Bergen-Belsen. She would translate for him, as he was not Jewish, not knowing that the conversational English she spoke casually with him would later be one of the national languages of her new home in Canada.

Rosenfarb’s high school sweetheart, and eventual first husband, Henry Morgentaler, would later find her in a displaced persons camp, having himself survived imprisonment at Dachau. Along with Rosenfarb’s mother and sister, the couple made their way to Brussels where they lived without legal status for five years. Morgantaler recounted that her mother returned to Poland only once after the Holocaust. “She went back secretly. She memorized a long list of names, and she was on a mission to find these people to let them know that they had travel visas awaiting them in Belgium.” Remarkably brave, Rosenfarb returned to Communist Poland alone.

While in Brussels the writer continued her work having lost her poems in Auschwitz when her satchel was thrown by the kapos onto a pile to be disposed of as refuse.  Her work caught the eye of Moshe Oved, a Yiddish writer living in London who was then the official jeweler to the Queen of England. Rosenfarb’s first collection of poetry Di balade fun nekhtikn vald (The ballad of yesterday’s forest) was published with his support. This is how her writing made its way across the pond, prompting Harry Herschman, a Jewish philanthropist in Montreal, to sponsor the newly married Rosenfarb and her husband Henry Morgentaler for Canadian immigration.

Having lost both her maternal and paternal grandfathers in the Holocaust, Goldie Morgentaler grew up calling Harry Herschman “Zeida” and still speaks his name with tenderness and admiration. Herschman revered Rosenfarb’s writing and was eager to bring her to Canada. Goldie Morgentaler explained: “Their boat docked in Halifax, and they took the train to Montreal. It was snowing outside, but when they got to the station, there was a party there to greet them. Snow was falling, and there was a celebration for their arrival.”

Montreal became home to more Holocaust survivors than any other Canadian city in the decade following the Second World War. Many of these European arrivals were speakers of Yiddish and infused Montreal with new creative Jewish energy.  Every year on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Chava Rosenfarb would deliver a lecture in Yiddish for the community. Montreal would come to feature prominently in her consciousness.

In case the name Henry Morgentaler sounds familiar, Rosenfarb’s first husband was indeed the noted political activist and proponent for abortion rights. In the early years after their immigration, as her husband studied medicine, Rosenfarb worked to support their young growing family. She still felt the call of her typewriter, and her daughter nostalgically remembers watching her mother as she composed.

The child of exceedingly accomplished parents, Dr. Goldie Morgentaler went on to build a significant and noteworthy career in academia. She is a celebrated educator but has contributed to Canadian literature tremendously as the primary translator for the bulk of her mother’s works to English. Rosenfarb’s short story collection Survivors: Seven Short Stories won the 2006 Modern Language Association’s Fenia and Yakov Leviant Memorial Prize for Yiddish Studies, and the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award to name but of few of her many accolades. Rosenfarb was awarded an honourary degree by her daughter’s university, the University of Lethbridge, in 2006. “My mother genuinely loved Lethbridge,” commented Morgentaler when asked about her mother’s relocation to the southern Alberta city.

Chava Rosenfarb passed away in 2011. Her literary legacy is one that Dr. Goldie Morgentaler has worked hard to preserve and make linguistically accessible to Canadians through her extensive translation work. Many of Chava’s original papers are now housed in an archive at the University of Toronto – a testament to her significant literary achievements. As Lodz observes 2023 in Rosenfarb’s honour, Canadians too must pay tribute to this accomplished, inspiring, creative woman as one of the bright stars of twentieth-century Jewish literature.

Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

Be the first to comment on "Yiddish-Canadian author Chava Rosenfarb is honoured in Poland"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.