Culture & Conversation

Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011)

The lights are flickering out. One by one, those who illuminated one of the darkest chapters of human history are leaving. They are the witnesses – victims, liberators and, yes, even perpetrators – who were a part of the cataclysm that was the Second World War.

Last week saw the passing of Chava Rosenfarb who deserves particular mention. The Polish-born Yiddish author was informed by the experience of being a survivor of the Holocaust, but her personality was defined by her desire to be a writer.

Such was the strength of that desire that, when she was imprisoned in Auschwitz, she scrounged a pencil stub so that she could re-create on the ceiling above her bunk her poems, which had been stripped away at the death camp’s gate, the better to preserve them.

The poems were published following her immigration to Montreal in 1950. In this city, Rosenfarb’s writing extended into fiction, short stories and novels about life in Poland and Canada before and after the camps.

Her masterwork was The Tree of Life, a sprawling trilogy of about the Jewish experience in Lodz, before and during the war. Later, among other works, came Bocainy, about a Polish shtetl and Survivors, about the experiences of those who rebuilt lives in Montreal’s post-war immigrant community.

In these works, Rosenfarb approaches the Holocaust obliquely. The Tree of Life takes readers to the gates of Auschwitz and then offers blank pages to represent the unfathomable. In Survivors, the trauma inflicted is later seen in the impact it has had on lives reconstituted.

All of this output came in Yiddish, a language once large on the landscape of global culture, but now nearly extinguished. Its decline was a comfortless reality that had to be borne and overcome. “To lose one’s language is an unspeakable, painful thing for a writer,” Rosenfarb has said.

But the creative impulse seeks consolation for its losses and for Rosenfarb it came in the form of her daughter, Goldie Morgentaler, who became her translator into English and a lifelong helpmate.

In the name Morgentaler another other facet of Rosenfarb’s life is revealed – her marriage to the doctor, Henry Morgentaler, a fellow concentration camp survivor who pioneered women’s reproductive rights in Canada. Their marriage ended in 1975. Rosenfarb went on to find a new partner in Simkha-Binem (Bono) Wiener, like her and Morgentaler, a child of Lodz. (Wiener died in 1995.)

Doubtless, there will be much more to say about these entwined lives, some of which has already appeared in an absorbing CBC Ideas documentary by Elaine Kalman Naves.

Meanwhile, we have the words of Rosenfarb in all her writings and in the following remarkable speech, given on the occasion of her presentation with a honorary doctorate by the University of Lethbridge in 2006, and on YouTube.

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