A Textured Trilogy of Ghetto Life

By Joshua Cohen

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto
By Chava Rosenfarb
Translated from the Yiddish by the author, in collaboration with Goldie Morgentaler

Book One: On the Brink of the Precipice, 1939
The University of Wisconsin Press, Terrace Books, 314 pages, $16.95.

Book Two: From the Depths I Call You, 1940-1942
The University of Wisconsin Press, Terrace Books, 398 pages, $21.95.

Book Three: The Cattle Cars Are Waiting, 1942-1944
The University of Wisconsin Press, Terrace Books, 376 pages, $21.95.

The Holocaust didn’t annihilate Judaism or the Jewish people or its languages or their literatures, but it did cause all this to become if not reinvented, then greatly rethought. The most modern or revised of this rethinking holds that the most necessary works of art created about such disasters as war or genocide must themselves internalize that disaster, make it not only subject but also style: imbuing the very flesh of the text or canvas, marble or musical score with all the scars and the wounds; literally representing its images in the exorcism of words that have become almost horrifically too familiar by now — words such as gas, trains, ovens and ghetto.

The best of this canon embodies its trauma, as in the poems and novels of Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, the early Jakov Lind and the late Hermann Broch, all of whom continued to write in the murderers’ German. In their works, words become utterances; phrases are left unfinished, or unmade. Theirs is the practice of a negative tikkun, a literature made proudly of shards.

But what then to make of Yiddish, a language without vocabulary for most of the technology and officialdom that spelled out the deaths of its speakers, a tongue subsuming any great distinction of rank or inflection between its highest literary utterances and its lowest gutter expression? What then of the achievement of octogenarian Yiddish master Chava Rosenbaum, native of Lodz, now resident of Toronto? Recently translated by the author with the help of her daughter, Rosenbaum’s three-volume opus offers no suffering internalized as typography, no narrative manner made servant to subject. “The Tree of Life” is a novel — in the oldest, most genuine sense.

Rosenfarb begins her plot nine months before Nazi occupation, and ends it upon the eve of Lodz’s deportation to Auschwitz — two enormous events that serve to bookend the daily existences of over 50 characters whom history failed. With the trilogy’s enormous cast, canvas and multitudes of notes and strokes, its touches of Tolstoy and Proust and just about anyone else who ever attempted an epic, Rosenfarb’s novel might seem an anachronism. Here are nearly 1,000 pages of small-font text written in the third person; there are many, many people here all saying many, many things (about Bundism, communism, Zionism – every “ism” under the European sun, it seems); various ideas are debated, letters are written, loves are won and lost; the prose is quiet and expert with the most confident culture. Rosenfarb’s is civilized, controlled art made of and about one of the worst historical hells: Lodz, Poland, the decline and fall of its Jews, their ghetto and its eventual liquidation in the fires of Auschwitz.

“Book One: On the Brink of the Precipice, 1939” begins with the New Year and its celebration, giving a taste of what life had been for Lodz’s most prominent Jews; its turn, despite all the food, drinking and music, will bring only destruction. These are assimilated people, industrialists and artists, hyphenate-Poles. All indications are subtle and smart, right from the very first sentence. “Samuel Zuckerman was born in Lodz. His great-grandfather Shmuel Ichaskel Zuckerman had been among the first Jews to leave the Ghetto and settle downtown.” Though the Yiddish Shmuel begets an assimilationist Samuel with a fine house and attractive, educated daughters and a lifestyle seemingly second to only that of the Rosenbergs to be introduced later, the ghetto beckons, calls in its strays. Samuel, the inheritor of Shmuel’s Talmud and Torah, considers writing a history of his family’s rise; his first page is the brink of its fall.

This ghetto (a district of the city named Baluty) is the setting for the two following volumes, “From the Depths I Call You, 1940-1942,” and “The Cattle Cars Are Waiting, 1942-1944.” The fall of the Zuckermans’ fortunes is intelligently wrought as Rosenfarb soon shuffles her focuses between the lives of that clan and those of the natives of the ghetto, those families who’d always lived in Baluty not because they’d been forced to yet but because its small, cramped flats were all they could ever afford.

“‘The Jews of Baluty are privileged. They don’t have to move into the ghetto,’” says Sheyne Pessele, the woman upon whose shoulders much of this trilogy’s symbolism becomes rooted. Like an eastern Zola or Balzac, Rosenfarb ably engages the economic, educational and social stratifications at work here, the class lines like barbed wire that keep people imprisoned in circumstances of birth and of luck. Pessele, wife of Itche Mayer, whose family’s fortunes are actually improved in the resettlement, refuses to join the other women in gloating, “taking delight in the fact that they had lived to see their hour of vengeance on the rich, who must now move to the slums of Baluty.”

The Zuckermans soon exit stage everywhere to make room for the Haggadic four sons of Mayer and Pessele: Israel, Mottle, Yossi and Shalom, each of them enamored of a different political movement, none of which would offer salvation. Besides Mayer, a carpenter earthier than Christ, and Pessele, who used to make wigs, we have Mietek, a fallen ghetto policeman, and Mayer’s uncle, Blind Henech, a baker of loaves; there is a doctor, Michael Levine, and a teacher, Dora Diamand, whose name seems a homage to Kafka’s last love. Any roll call must have echoes of the Appellplatz to come: Guttman is a painter, Bunim Berkovitch a poet; there are historical personages reborn here as David and Rachel and Miriam, Adam the first man and Abraham the first Jew.

In all their circumscribed existences, these characters are as rings within rings, the setting or amassing of growths, the trunk’s layers — perhaps that of the titular Tree. And not a tree of Eden, but one more mundane, more real: a cherry tree, planted by Pessele in the yard just off Hockel Street, bearing its small sour berries in spring, weathering winter.

“It seemed strange, almost abnormal that a tree should burst into bloom in such surroundings. And this marvel, which bordered on the miraculous, filled people’s hearts both with hope and with a kind of philosophical resentment — that the world, that Mother Nature carried on as if nothing had happened.” Its very existence sustains the soul as much as its fruit sustains hunger, starvation; its cherries comfort Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski toward the third volume’s end. In a cattle car: “Abraham tried to free himself from Old Rumkowski’s body pressing against him. He finally succeeded. He reached out for his breadsack and drew a little cup out of it. He touched the old man’s knee, ‘Here, Mr. Rumkowski, taste a cherry from our cherry tree…. It’s a remedy for the heart.’”

This Rumkowski, too, is deported, but not without first being welcomed back into the community with the fruit of a terrible knowledge. One of a few real historical personages who haunt these pages (including his Nazi double, the terrifying Hans Biebow, the ghetto’s Nazi administrator), Rumkowski was king of the ghetto, the president of the Jews. And he is presented here, as he has been in many other accounts both fictive and testimonial, as a colloquy of too many selves — self-important one moment, self-sacrificing the next. He begins as a laughable character, almost a caricature, a schnorrer always scraping for funds for his orphanage, an unwanted guest, the community’s necessary burden. He ends as a king the equal of Lear, sad and mad, a victim of his own megalomania.

As this Book of Life turns its final pages, the tapestry becomes unwound; the Mona Lisa is turned around, to smile herself at the wall. The entire greater fiction that is the epic novel of characters and events and invention and dialogue and explanation ad infinitum comes to a halt; the trains whistle; the station is silent; the culture of Europe has become overturned. After page 362, it seems no longer possible for Rosenfarb to write novels or poems in which various things happen to various people, in which punctuation indicates breath, in which sentences come to an end; as the deportations pull out of Lodz, Rosenfarb gives a heading in bold: “Chapter Twenty-nine… Thirty… Thirty-one… ad infinitum.” We readers witness the breakdown of language and literature, finally countenanced and itself mourned after almost 1,000 pages of realism doomed. The text of these massed chapters is short and capitalized, bringing death-final closure: “AUSCHWITZ. WORDS STOP, UNDRESSED, NAKED, THEIR MEANING, THEIR SENSE SHAVEN OFF. LETTERS EXPIRE IN THE SMOKE OF THE CREMATORIUM’S CHIMNEY…”

Joshua Cohen’s latest books are a novel, “Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto” (Fugue State Press), and a translation from Czech of “I, City,” a collection of stories by Pavel Brycz (Twisted Spoon).






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