Magical Stories

Canada is home to someone whom Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel calls one of the best Yiddish writers today.’ Wiesel is talking about Chava Rosenfarb, an international prizewinner for her poetry and fiction.

In her new book, Survivors: Seven Short Stories (translated from the Yiddish by Goldie Morgentaler, Cormorant Books, Toronto, 2004, $24.95) Rosenfarb’s characters piece together their lives after Auschwitz in a postwar world that seems cruelly oblivious to their suffering. Survivors, however, also has an uplifting and almost magical quality, rare in stories that deal with such weight of memory. Many of her people embrace and explore the world around them with fascination. In regions around the world— Montreal, Paris, Latin America, Kenya—these survivors cope in very different ways in order to confront the absurdity of “normal” life after existing in the upside-down moral universe of the death camps. One woman keeps a diary obsessively to feel alive, giving herself “tangible proof that something—no matter how meaningless and insignificant that something was—^had actually happened” besides her time in the camps. While dying of tuberculosis, another character takes a young lover in order to experience the erotic passion she believes is a life giving force before passing away.

Many of Rosenfarb’s characters are women who, while struggling with the pain of their losses, share with their generation of women caught in the vortex of changing social values during the postwar years, an unfulfilled longing for independence.

In “A Friday in the Life of Sarah Zonabend,” a day passes without any accidents. This is miraculous for Sarah, whose existence is fraught with anxiety about further tragedy. In “Francois,” Leah retreats into a fantasy world with an imaginary lover to resist her husband’s contrived attempts to revitalize their relationship. While the couple shares the bond of being “two orphans facing an alien world” after liberation from the camps, they are as disappointed in and absorbed with each other, as any other couple in a failing marriage.

To relieve the emotional pain of losing her baby in the camps, Manya in “The Little Red Bird” daydreams about kidnapping a newborn from a maternity ward. While on flight to Mexico to evade the authorities in her kidnapping dream sequence, she finds herself amidst the ruins of an ancient Mayan kingdom and its altars for human sacrifice. It is here that the heroine grapples with the extent of human loss and the burden of being one who has survived. “To search for peace is futile. There is no choice,” she reflects, “but to continue living in the shadows of these altars.”

The “poisonous, impossible friendship” of the two women in “Edgia’s Revenge” lasts for decades into mid-life after an incident in concentration camp bonds. Reha, a former sadistic kapo, is finally confronted by Edgia, a survivor who remembers how Rella brutalized other inmates to assure her own survival. By doing so, Edgia frees both women from one another forever.

For Rosenfarb, who is a Holocaust survivor herself writing in Yiddish is an act of fidelity to a vanished language, as if to prove that Nazism did not succeed in extinguishing that language’s last breath. If writing in Yiddish is Rosenfarb’s way to defy the death of the language, then the characters in her new collection also defy being silenced when they reattach themselves to life, despite the shadows of Auschwitz which are always one step behind them.

The vibrancy of the Yiddish language used to describe the fragmented lives of Rosenfarb’s characters is evident in the strength of the translation by Goldie Morgentaler. That a translation has been published so quickly is fortunate, because the volume comprises a rich and deeply moving body of fiction about the Holocaust.

Deborah Ostrovsky Osmond lives in Montreal. Her articles have appeared in academic publications and in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. She was a finalist in the 2003 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quebec Short Story Competition.