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Chava Rosenfarb’s “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays”

This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.

Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2010) was undoubtedly one of the most important Yiddish writers after the Holocaust.

A new collection of her essays, has just arrived. The book, Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays, was translated into English by her daughter Goldie Morgentaler and published by McGill-Queens University Press.

Among prose writers she was also the most ambitious and perhaps even the best, other than I. B. Singer. (Although Singer deservedly won the Nobel Prize, he distinguished himself more for his short stories than for the novels he published in installments in the Jewish Daily Forward.) Rosenfarb, on the other hand, earned her stellar reputation for her epic novels, in the style of Tolstoy and her novellas, mostly psychological tales, in the style of Chekhov.

Although Rosenfarb’s literary reputation rests on her trilogy, “The Tree of Life” (Der Boym fun lebn, 1972), and novellas like “Edzhe’s Revenge” (Edzhes nekome, 1989), she began her career as a poet with the volume “The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest” (Di Balade fun nekhtikn vald, 1949). In a newly published volume of her literary and memoiristic essays, “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer,” translated into English and edited by her daughter Goldie Morgentaler, Rosenfarb frequently returns to the theme of her literary beginnings as a poet, and the reasons why she decided to switch to prose.

In the first essay of the collection, Rosenfarb writes: “The brutal reality of the ghetto demanded the dry precision of unadorned words. Not that I wanted to ban the poet within me; on the contrary, I wanted her to stand by me, but I wanted her to creep with me through the maze of ghetto streets, through the muck of human baseness, as low to the ground as possible.” (19)

Elsewhere in the essay, Rosenfarb recalls the famous pronouncement of the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Although Rosenfarb offers several arguments against Adorno’s stricture — in particular, that during the Holocaust Jews wrote, read, and recited poetry to maintain their human dignity — her explanation for her personal decision to write in prose actually confirms Adorno’s position. The values of poetry, or at least the type of poetry that Adorno and Rosenfarb each have in mind — the associations of poetry with order, grace, music, and refinement — could not withstand the murder and horror of the Holocaust. If Adorno’s contemporary, Nazi victim Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), wrote in the 1930s that culture exists in a continuous struggle with barbarism, the Holocaust demonstrated to both Adorno and Rosenfarb that barbarism had prevailed.

“Liberation,” Rosenfarb writes in a diary that she kept in a D.P. camp, “wears a prosaic face.” (55). Even before she had begun to write narratives, four years before Adorno had written his famous pronouncement, Rosenfarb understood that poetry couldn’t provide the necessary tools for her purposes, to “construct an artistic history of the ghetto”. (63) Her vision in those days, nearly identical to her developed fictional works, was to weave together the raw terror of the Holocaust with an artistic perspective to create a panoramic picture of what occurred and to whom, including both the fate of the victims and the vitality of Yiddish culture that had flowered until the war.

Although the collection is divided into three parts — personal essays, literary criticism, and travel sketches — it is clear that for Rosenfarb herself, there is no precise distinction among these genres. Her critique, perhaps her meditation, on the German-language poet Paul Celan (a contemporary of Adorno’s and one of his favorite poets), his “prohibition” of poetry after Auschwitz notwithstanding, is written as a personal rumination on life after the Holocaust, just like her diary from the D.P. camp.

For this reason, one should consider these essays as an extension or “appendix” to Rosenfarb’s masterworks in fiction. But as an extension, the essays also offer insight into her grand novels and penetrating novellas. Her immense literary legacy grew out of the first poems of her youth, which were literally carved into the walls of the ghetto. Those poems are the seeds from which her mature work flowered. As a result, one could consider her prose as a “poetry by other means,” in a complicated sense; at one and the same time, an act of resistance and acknowledgment of Adorno’s “stricture,” which allows us to understand not that one is forbidden but rather simply unable to write in the same way after the Holocaust as one would have, even hypothetically, before the Holocaust.

Goldie Morgentaler has earned our gratitude for her devotion in preparing this volume, so that readers can properly appreciate her mother not only as an important Yiddish novelist, but also as a significant Canadian one as well; not only as a distinguished writer of fiction but also as an engaged and always interesting essayist. In her debate against Adorno throughout her essays, it’s clear that both voices are heard, each in its own language, as a way of highlighting both the impossibility and the necessity of poetry after the Holocaust.

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