Land of the Postscript: Canada and the Post-Holocaust Fiction of Chava Rosenfarb

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BY DEFINITION, YIDDISH LITERATURE IS A LITERATURE of exile, since Yiddish itself is a language of the diaspora. Nevertheless, Yiddish literature does have a "home and native land"--to borrow the words of the Canadian national anthem--and that land is eastern Europe, where the language migrated during the late Middle Ages and where most of its speakers resided. Thus, to speak of Yiddish literature in Canada is to speak of a literature that has been doubly exiled--firstly from Israel, traditional homeland of the Jewish people, and secondly from eastern Europe, traditional homeland of Yiddish-speaking Jews.

The roots of Yiddish literature in Canada go back to the turn of the century, when east European Jews, seeking refuge from persecution and poverty, began arriving in large numbers, settling primarily in the cities of Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. Montreal, where most of the immigrants settled, provided particularly advantageous conditions for the establishment of a literature written in Yiddish. From 1900 to the outbreak of World War II, Jews made up Montreal's largest immigrant community and Yiddish was, after French and English, the city's most widely spoken language.

The result was a Yiddish-speaking culture of remarkable self-sufficiency and vitality, which earned for Montreal a reputation among Jews as "the Jerusalem of North America." After the Second World War, Canadian Yiddish literature was given another boost by the arrival of survivors of the conflagration in Europe--among them the poet Rokhl Korn, and the novelists Yehuda Elberg and Chava Rosenfarb.

In general, Yiddish literature written in Canada focused on Europe and on European concerns, despite the fact that many of the Canadian Yiddish writers lived the greater part of their lives in North America. Even J.J. Segal, arguably the most Canadian of the major Yiddish writers who settled in the country was essentially European in outlook, and filtered his vision of Montreal through the sieve of an Old World sensibility.

In what follows, I intend to argue that while the novels of Chava Rosenfarb--the youngest of the major Yiddish writers to settle in Canada-- conform to this pattern of Canadian creation and European subject matter, her short fiction does not. Rosenfarb's novels tend to be conceived in epic terms, dealing as they do with the impact of the holocaust on the Jews of Lodz. Her three major novels, The Tree of Life, Bociany, and Letters to Abrasha--all massive in scale--are European works by an essentially European writer who just happens to be living in North America.

It is only in her short fiction that Rosenfarb has permitted Canada--her adopted home since 1950--to play a role in her fiction. She has done this by effecting a synthesis between her primary theme of the holocaust and the Canadian milieu in which she finds herself, so that Canada becomes in these stories the land of the postscript, the country in which the survivors of the holocaust play out the tragedy's last act.

Rosenfarb's short fiction is thus a different take on a theme which has been explored by Saul Bellow in Mr. Sammler's Planet and by Isaac Bashevis Singer in several of his short stories--namely, the afterlife of the survivor. But Rosenfarb is one of the few writers on this theme who is a survivor herself, and thus intimately acquainted with the subtle under-currents of pain and self-delusion in the lives she writes about. Her characters are neither ennobled by their suffering nor necessarily embittered by it. Instead they represent a gallery of all conceivable human types, and all conceivable human reactions to devastation.

First, a little background on the writer herself, whose work has only recently become available in English translation. Chava Rosenfarb was born in Lodz, Poland in 1923. She attended a Yiddish secular school and a Polish high school from which she graduated in 1941. By that time, she and her family had been incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto, and it was in the ghetto that she received her matriculation diploma. …