Chava Rosenfarb, born in 1923 in Lodz, Poland, the eldest of two daughters to Abraham Rosenfarb, a restaurant waiter; and his wife Simma. Her parents were devoted to the secular Jewish Socialist Bund in Poland, a left-leaning organization that had a large following among working-class Jews in Poland. She was sent to a Bundist school.
Such studies, grounded in Yiddishkayt and menschkayt, had a marked influence “on Rosenfarb’s intellectual development, even though her secondary school education was in Polish,” says a biographical website devoted to her. No doubt, the ideas contained within its curriculum, can have a lasting influence on an young mind, notably if the ideas are based on goodness for humanity.
Then Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939; and the Jews in Lodz were forcibly confined within the walls of the ghetto. Before the ghetto was liquidated—its inhabitants killed—in August 1944, Rosenfarb, her sister (Henia who survived the war and also moved to Canada), and her mother and a few others hid in her second-floor apartment. But they were discovered by the Nazis two days later. They were sent to Auschwitz and then to a forced-labour camp at Sasel, where they built houses for German citizens.
From there, they were sent to Bergen Belsen, a concentration camp; when the British army liberated the death camp (on April 15, 1945), Rosenfarb was suffering from typhus, lying near death. She somehow survived. After she recovered, she learned that her father had died on the last transport out of Dachau, when the train was bombed by the Americans near the war’s end.
Rosenarb is among a handful of writers who was able to write about her experiences in the Holocaust using a literary form, but she avoided writing directly about inexplicable horrors. She started writing at age 17 while in the Lodz Ghetto, but in was in Montreal that she did the bulk of her writing and where she produced her most notable works. At the same time, it must be said that she brought the city of Lodz with her to her adopted home, in that it was her life in Europe that was the inspiration for her work. In her case, it was a desire to both chronicle what she both witnessed and experienced and what she viewed as was lost, which was much.
After being homeless and stateless for almost five years in Europe post-war, she arrived in Montreal with her husband Henekh (later anglicized to Henry) Morgentaler in February 1950, pregnant with Goldie, her daughter, during a raging blizzard; they were met at the train station by a delegation of Yiddish writers that included Melech Ravitch.
They brought $20 US with them and hopes for a better life. They had married a year earlier while both were in Europe waiting to emigrate to Canada. She was living illegally as a Displaced Person (DP) in Belgium. (It was the same Henry Morgentaler, another Holocaust survivor, who was instrumental in changing Canada’s abortion laws.) The marriage produced two children: a daughter Goldie (born in 1950), who became a university professor in Canada; and a son, Abraham (born in 1956), who became a medical doctor in the United States. The couple divorced in 1977.
Goldie Morgentaler, a professor of literature at the University of Lethbridge and a strong advocate of her work, writes about her mother as a Yiddish writer:
Rosenfarb was profoundly affected by her experiences during the Holocaust, and her prodigious output of poetry, novels, short stories, plays and essays all deal with this topic in one way or another. She began as a poet, following the publication of Di balade fun nekhtikn vald with a book-length poem about her father, Dos lid fun yidishn kelner Abram (The song of the Jewish waiter Abram). She then published two more poetry collections, Geto un andere lieder (Ghetto and other poems), and Aroys fun gan-eydn (Out of Paradise). Rosenfarb’s play Der foigl fun geto (The bird of the ghetto), about the martyrdom of the Vilna partisan leader Yitzhak Wittenberg (1907–1943), was translated into Hebrew and performed by Israel’s Habimah Theater in 1966.
Chava Rosenfarb receiving the Itzik Manger Prize
Photo Credit: ChavaRosenfarb
Her first published poem was in 1947: Di balade fun nekhtikn vald (“The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest”); her last collection of poems while alive was Aroys fun gan-eydn (1965). There is also a collection of her English-translated poems that were published after her death: Exile at Last: Selected Poems (2013). Besides her notable output in poetry, Rosenfarb wrote novels: Der boim fun lebn (1972; דער בוים פֿון לעבן; The Tree Life:2004–2006), a three-volume series revealing her experiences in the Lodz Ghetto; Botshani (1982; באָטשאַני), a prequel to The Tree of Life, which was issued in English as two volumes, Bociany (2000) and Of Lodz and Love (2000); and Briv tsu Abrashen (1992; בריוו צו אבראשען; Letters to Abrasha). The latter has not been translated into English, though excerpts were published in The Montreal Gazette (May 7, 1995).
Montreal gave her the safety of being able to write what she had experienced, what was pent up in her bones, in the fibre of her being, and where she could both cry out in despair and hope for a better life. In her 2007 essay, “Canadian Yiddish Writers,” Rosenfarb shows Canada as a place where these European Yiddish writers could live in relative freedom:
[O]ur Canadian Yiddish poets came to see in Canada a kind of merged landscape of their lost home and a better place to live. They saw in Canada the land that gave them the opportunity to cry out their despair over the Holocaust; and in this pristine land of the future, they shyly planted the hope for a new, better life. They saw in Canada a corner of the world where they could renew their communal life, but as they once knew it at home and in its more modern freer, more tolerant present reality. Here they could dream of a welcoming future, where they could live wherever they pleased and however their pleased.
Rosenfarb received a number of awards for her writing, including the Itzik Manger Prize in 1979, Israel’s highest award for Yiddish literature. It was for the masterpiece, Der boim fun lebn (The Tree of Life). Chava Rosenfarb died on January 30, 2011; she was 87. Her archive can be found at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto.