Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chava Rosenfarb by Jeff Sharlet

For years after the war and after the camps, Chava Rosenfarb woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m. to write. She’d open her eyes in the darkness and slip out of bed without waking her husband, make herself a cup of coffee, and sit down in her study, still wearing her nightgown. The study was even smaller than her kitchen – barely large enough for the table she had bought from a doctor’s office for ten dollars. On it she kept her notebooks. Sipping coffee, she’d start with the one on the top, and by the light of the table lamp, beneath a portrait of the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, she’d review yesterday’s stories. Rereading drew her back like a current, not into her pages but into the world to which she wanted to return. When she felt that world thickening around her, she’d skip ahead to where she’d left off the night before, pick up a pencil, and begin to write, slipping from her apartment in Montreal back to the last days of the Lodz ghetto.

First to greet her there was always her favorite creation, Samuel Zuckerman. Born of Chava’s memories of the rich men of Lodz, Samuel was a “salon Zionist” and heir to a fortune, a Polish patriot who dreamed of Israel for other, poorer people, he couldn’t bear to think of leaving Lodz. His passion was writing – a history of the Jews of Lodz, 250,000 of them, living in a city then known as the Manchester of Poland for its forest of smokestacks.

But Samuel never got to tell the story. The war always came, and the barbed wire of the ghetto always crept up around him, and Samuel always betrayed Chava. Every day Chava wrote, he betrayed her. He joined the Judenrat, the Nazi-controlled Jewish government of the ghetto. He gave in so easily that Chava – sitting in a pool of dim light before dawn, speaking aloud as if Samuel was before her- wondered if she’d ever really known him, if her creation was really her own. That raised an interesting question, one that made Chava’s pencil pause on an alef or a beyz or a giml. If she, the creator, had no power over her creation, what was the good of being an author?

The novel she was writing, Dern boym fun lebn (The Tree of Life) would chronicle the five and a half years leading up to the ghetto’s final “liquidation” in 1944; other than that unavoidable end, Chava had no clear plans for what might happen to any of her characters. She knew she could not save them, from themselves any more than from the Germans. One day, though, Samuel abandoned the Judenrat and its privileges, and joined his fellows' suffering. He rescued himself. For that Chava loved him.

After Samuel came Adam Rosenberg. A pig to Samuel’s peacock, he was even richer than Samuel, his mouth “filled with a treasure of gold teeth.” But he was hollow, an obese man stuffed with nothing. “Puffing and panting,” wrote Chava of Adam at the ball, “he pressed his immense belly to the frame of his skeletal wife, as her protruding shoulder blades moved in and out, up and down, like parts of a machine.” Adam loved machines more than people. And he hated his fellow Jews, their flesh his flesh, nearly as much as he did the Nazis. But Chava spoke with him as she did with Samuel, and she listened to him attentively as she listened to Rachel Eibushitz, a tall, handsome teenage girl with wide, gray-green eyes, the same color as Chava’s. It was Rachel who allowed Chava to write about all the others. Like Chava, Rachael realized early on that she was different; while others simply suffered in the ghetto, she watched. She was fascinated by their suffering and by her own, as alert as Adam to all the symptoms of humanity, but entranced, not revolted.

At first Rachel wrote poems about the people around her. When poetry seemed to delicate, her lines too easily broken, like bones grown brittle, she wrote stories. And when those became ashes, she wrote only in her mind, words without form. After it was all over – the ghetto, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belson – in a tiny room in a small, warm apartment during the cold mornings of Montreal, Rachel – Chava- wrote The Tree of Life

As much as The Tree of Life plumbs the depths of collaboration, it explores the ethics of art in the presence of atrocity. Even artists – or, maybe, especially artists – face charges of betrayal. A painter is disdained by his colleagues because he makes portraits for the Nazis; he responds that his work hardly differs from that of a doctor: “Let’s not kid ourselves, by bringing a Jew back to health, you only fix a machine that works for the Germans.” A teacher finds herself denounced by her students for participating in musical events sponsored by Rumkowski. “Culture in the Ghetto is a sin!” they shout. Rachel, still in school, finds every literature class turned into an argument over literature’s right to exist at all. The lesson of the ghetto, insists one classmate, is that art is nothing more than a refuge for those who crave predictability, an alternative to real resistance. “Art is rebellion,” Rachel counters. “A desire to correct life.”

But Rachel has her own doubts. “Take the form of the novel,” she says:
The fact that it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Life is not like that. Beginning and end are birth and death. But in between, life flows sometimes in waves, sometimes in circles, sometimes it moves forward, sometimes it’s still…there’s a lot of non-narrative in life, while in the novel the story must keep going.

By 1940 the German occupiers had squeezed the city’s quarter million Jews into a small slum, the new Lodz ghetto. Henekh Morgentaler’s father had been among the first taken by the Nazis; his sister escaped to Warsaw. His family gone, he spent most of his time with the Rosenfarbs. But even as the ghetto pressed Chava and Henry together, it began pulling them apart. Henry despaired. Chava flourished even as her once full body grew bony and spare.

“Usually when you’re hungry you don’t talk about art,” she remembered, echoing a line in her book, ‘Inter arma silent musae,’ as they say. And its true. But not for the Jews. The Jews could discuss poetry and art on an empty stomach.” And politics. Chava followed her father’s lead into the socialist Bund. She compiled a secret library for her comrades, going from door to door asking for books she would then loan out from her parents’ apartment. She collected more than three hundred volumes. Poets and historians and novelists and musicians were all reduced to the same simple genre, survival. They’d gather in small rooms and sit close for heat and chant their works like lamentations.

To the Bund “Jewish” was a nationality, not a religion, but Chava wanted that, too. The Germans had imposed on a Czech rabbi the job of creating a museum of the Jewish life they were strangling. They gave him the art and books they’d looted and a building to put everything in. Then they left him alone. The rabbi decided to bring the Torah to the ghetto. Beore the war the Torah was a book for educated men who knew Hebrew. Now, the rabbi thought, everyone needed it. He would begin with Psalms, 150 poems that contained all the states of the soul: gratitude and despair, joy and fury, vengefulness and mournfulness and sorrow and endurance and awe. But ordinary people, the men who were workers, not rabbis or rich men, and all the women, couldn’t read them. Hebrew was a holy tongue; they only knew Yiddish, dismissed as jargon, a poor man’s stew of German and Russian and Polish and some Hebrew. So, the rabbi decided, the Psalms must go into the stew. He began translating them.

But the rabbi was a refined man, his knowledge of mameloshn, “ the mother tongue”, rooted in German. He needed a real Yiddish writer to help him. A Yiddish writer? They were all dead or dying. “I could do this for you,” Chava said, her voice wary and her tone that of a businesswoman, speaking the language of starving people. In exchange for her help, the rabbi would give her a few hours a week in his warm office and all the coffee she could drink, supplied by the Germans. Deal. He would also teach her, a girl, Torah. She would accept that, too…

At the rabbi’s museum Chava met writers and artists, wraiths who gathered to make dioramas of prewar Jewish life and sip the rabbi’s German coffee. Among them was Shayevitch, author of an epic poem of the ghetto. Shayevitch introduced Chava to the secret circles of artists who met in the home of a serene woman who wrote loving verses about the Sabbaths of her childhood, fictionalized in The Tree of Life as Sara Samet.

After the Germans deported the Sabbath poet, the group met in the hut of a painter who made pictures of Lodz before the war. When he was taken away, Chava and Shayevitch continued their discussions on their own, at first walking through the ghetto streets, then, after Shayevitch’s wife and daughter were deported, by the stove in his barren home. Finally they talked about whatever art they still believed in as they hid in a tiny room of the Rosenfarb’s apartment, where they and Chava’s family and a few others hoped to wait out the liquidation of the ghetto. They lasted ten days before the Germans discovered them.

Chava took her poems and stories with her to the camps. As soon as she arrived, a Jewish capo, a collaborator, seized them and threw them in the mud. Shayevitch, who Chava had urged to bury his epic poems as others had buried documents and treasures, clutched his writing to him. It died with him in Dachau.

Chava’s mother was named Sima, and she was one of the few older women in the camps. Those who survived the ghetto and all the deportations of the old, the sick, the unlucky – shot in the woods of Chelmno and shoveled into mass graves – had been weeded out at Auschwitz. Sima arrived there with her two daughters. Leaning on their arms she had slowly moved forward in the line that forked like a snakes tongue: Left to work, right to gas and ashes. In between life and death stood Mengele; or at least that’s what Chava remembers now. Sima and her daughters came before him. Mengele pointed at Sima: the crematoria.

“No,” said one daughter. “She’s my sister.”

“Our older sister,” said the other daughter.

Mengele stared at the three women. “How old?”

“She’s thirty-nine,” Chava said, shaving enough years off her mother’s age.

“He looked at her and let her go,” Chava remembered decades later. “And that’s how we saved our mother.”

Herman, a German overseer, saved Chava. He gave her a pencil. It was the most precious gift she ever received, a dangerous thing to have and a dangerous thing to give. She asked him for it, and he had given it to her. No paper to write on, just the pencil. She hid it in her shoe, and when she returned to the barracks she kept it in her shoe, each step reminding her of her treasure until nightfall. Then she slipped the pencil out and took it to bed with her. She had an upper bunk, close to the ceiling. While the other prisoners froze, starved, and dreamed nightmares no worse than their days, Chava scribbled across the planks of the ceiling. When there was no more pencil left, she read the words she’s written. She read them every night before she slept. Slowly they crept into her mind. Each word became a part of her, until she no longer had to think to remember them. She hid them deep inside herself, and when the Germans sent her to Bergen-Belson, there to starve among corpses because the crematoria no longer worked, the words recited themselves within her, the beginning of the story of how Chava survived.

Chapter Six, “For Every Life Saved” in Sweet Heaven When I Die; Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country Between by Jeff Sharlet; W.W. Norton & Company, N.Y., 2011

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