For Every Life Saved
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 top, and by the light of a table lamp, beneath a portrait of the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, she’d review yesterday’s stories. Re-reading 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 of Lodz, the Manchester of Poland. 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 were 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 aleph 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, Der 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 would 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 was hollow, an obese man stuffed with nothing. “Puffing and panting,” wrote Chava of Adam at a 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 the parts of a machine.” Adam loved machines more than people. And he hated his fellow Jews, their flesh his flesh. But Chava spoke with him as she did with Samuel, and she listened to him as attentively as she listened to Rachel Eibushitz, a tall, handsome teen-age 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, Rachel 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. Only, she was entranced.
At first Rachel wrote poems about the people around her. When poetry seemed too 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-Belsen—in a tiny room in a small, warm apartment during the cold mornings of Montreal, Rachel—Chava—wrote The Tree of Life.
When the sun rose it would be time for Chava to wake her children, Goldie, born right after Chava had arrived in Montreal in 1950, and a younger son named Bamie. Chava would send Goldie off to school, then set Bamie on the floor of her study with a pile of toys and continue writing. Bamie was a builder. As Chava worked, miniature towers and fortresses rose from the floor around her. The two silently worked through the morning. At noon Chava dressed and took Bamie to the park, returning from Lodz to Montreal until the following morning. But once Bamie was old enough to follow Goldie to the local Jewish day school, Chava could continue writing throughout the afternoon. She’d finish each day’s work after her children were in bed and her husband, Henry—Henekh in Lodz, in Montreal he was Henry, the war sealed away—had fallen into resolutely untroubled sleep.
From the early 1950s to the early sixties, then through several years of revision before her novel’s publication in 1972, Samuel and Adam and Rachel and the dozens of others from the ghetto whom she resurrected, for a time, at least, were her most constant companions. “I lived with them. When they died, I wept. I wept many times. When I wept, I did not write. I did not believe I should write in that mood. I was describing, reporting. My work demanded that I be more objective than tears.”
Chava was seventy-four years old. She colored her hair red, and she wore pearls to greet me. In the warm afternoon light of her living room, her high cheekbones and a mask of rouge almost lent her the appearance of youth. Her gray-green eyes, outlined sharply in black, were eager. The face around them was forbidding. She spoke in a deep, slow, accented English, punctuated by a laugh that sometimes drew me in, sometimes slammed shut in my face like a gate pulled closed with a clang. When that happened, she’d toss her head to the side and the light would glint off the perfect white of her eyes and she’d lean back, holding her grin for too long. She had been forgotten, and she wanted to be remembered. But she was wary of the price of resurrection.
The judges who in 1979 awarded Chava the Itsik Manger Prize, Yiddish literature’s highest award, for her life’s work spoke of her as a savior: “During the years when the Jews of Eastern Europe rose from the ashes to a new life, the appearance of the young Chava Rosenfarb was… a miracle of continuity and creativity in the Yiddish language. It awoke in us the hope that she brought with her the promise that the storm-swept tree of Yiddish literature would flourish again.”
It didn’t. I learned of Chava’s writing when, after college, I took a job at the National Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts, an organization created as a repository for the thousands of Yiddish books discarded from urban libraries or packed up by the children and grandchildren of Chava’s generation, most never to be read again. The Yiddish Book Center gathered the books and redistributed them to the university libraries that would have them and built museum exhibits designed to open the books to people who could no longer read them. The Book Center sold books, too, Yiddish literature in translation and new books inspired by the wonders of a lost language. The bestsellers were cookbooks and compilations of folksy curses and bubbe–mayses, grandmotherly wisdom, with titles like From Shmear to Eternity and Just Say Nu. The Book Center also carried a stack of Chava’s Tree of Life, translated, no less, the work of the last living great Yiddish novelist. When I was there they never sold a copy.
The Tree of Life, three volumes in its Yiddish edition, had in English become one massive, 1,075page poorly printed tome, shortened by a crude translation. In 2004, the University of Wisconsin Press began re-publishing The Tree of Life in a new three-volume edition, the translation adapted by Chava’s daughter, Goldie Morgentaler, herself a scholar of Yiddish literature. The full work stands as perhaps the most completely detailed depiction of life in the Nazi ghettos. It is, in the words of one Yiddish critic, “unbearably sad.” The novel follows the lives of ten main characters and a dozen minor ones through the year before the war, then into the Ghetto until its liquidation in 1944. The only nonfictional character in the book is Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, the German-anointed king of the ghetto, the head the Judenrat established by the Nazis to keep order in the Lodz ghetto and transform it into one of their most profitable slave labor factories. Chava introduces Rumkowski before the war as, in his own eyes, a misunderstood leader, “carried away by his own rhetoric… as if he saw himself addressing a crowd of thousands.” He believes he can restore the Jews of Lodz to an Eastern European version of biblical greatness if only the richest among them will supply the funds for the orphanage under his control. He is, writes Chava, “a sentimental Polish patriot who loved children”—literally and brutally. But Rumkowski the molester is also Rumkowski the prophet, “his magnificent head held high, the silver hair disheveled, the bushy eyebrows pointed, he looked like a high priest blessing his people with the blood red dust of flowers”—roses that he has crushed in his hands as he loses himself to his vision. He sees—he is the only character to grasp the full scope of Hitler’s power and ambition—but he does not comprehend. In Chava’s rendering, he is a man who both craves power (and its privileges, its immunities) and sincerely believes that by offering up sacrifices to the Nazis—one thousand heads a day and more during the time of deportations—he will save a remnant. Unlike Chava, he believes he can rescue them.
I asked Chava if she loved Rumkowski as she did Samuel and Adam and Rachel. She sneered. “Of course not!” She paused and took a sip of coffee. “But I know him.”
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. The new novel, of the new times, will have to free itself of that harness. Take life in the Ghetto, how ought one to write a novel about the Ghetto? Perhaps in such a manner that the reader will throw it away half-read. Or perhaps so that the reader should not tire of reading it over and over again.
Ghettoniks often spoke of a “new world” that would follow the war; they couldn’t imagine the old one would survive. Zionists planned for Palestine, socialists for revolution, writers for a new literature. I asked Chava if The Tree of Life had fulfilled Rachel’s hopes. No, she said, those were a luxury of the ghetto. Modernism went up the chimney; postmodernism is its ashes. She has nothing to offer now but her witness, the martyrdom of Rachel and her “new literature.”
“The Holocaust did not make a writer out of me,” said Chava. “It had nothing to do with me being a writer.” Chava’s father had hoped that his first child would become a poet since the day she was born in 1923. “He was a dreamer, a romantic.” Raised in a shtetl, he embraced the Bund, a socialist movement for Jews, and moved to Lodz. “He discarded his religious attire and became a modern man. He started to read literature, and he wanted to write. But he thought he was too uneducated. He wanted me to fulfill his dreams.”
Instead of dolls Chava’s father gave her notebooks. When she was eight years old, he took one filled with her poems and asked a poet who frequented the cafe where he’d become a waiter to read it, as anxious as if they were his own words. The poet told him that he couldn’t say whether Chava would be a great writer because she was a child, and all children are poets. But yes, he said, there seemed to be promise. At school Chava excelled, equaled only by the student who shared her bench, a precocious boy named Henekh Morgentaler. When they finished their primary schooling in a dead heat, their teachers decided to give them both prizes. Awarding Chava hers, they accidentally called her Chava Morgentaler. She liked that. By then the two were a couple, green-eyed Chava and clever Henekh with his dark, arched brows. In The Tree of Life she describes a romance between Rachel and a boyfriend named David, “standing with his arms outstretched to [Rachel] under the awning which protected ‘their’ imported-food store. She took [a] jump, [a] step and found herself in his arms. ‘Hold me tight!’ she exclaimed, warmth spreading all over her. Smothered by his embrace, she panted, ‘Not so tight! I can’t breathe!’”
By then—1940—the German occupiers had squeezed the city’s quarter-million Jews into a small slum, the new Lodz Ghetto. Henekh’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 pushing 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 from her book, ”’Inter arma silent musae,’ as they say, ‘In war the muses are silent.’ And it’s 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 300 volumes of literature and history, now indistinguishable as 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 work like lamentations.
“What a weird long poem it was!” observes a character in The Tree of Life, crowded into a room in which a poet named Itka, her milk-white face and blank, staring sky-blue eyes lit by the flames of an open oven, speaks her poems:
It seemed to wind around the roofs of houses, to sing around the church with its red turrets and the dead clock, to describe the sick crows, each crow a house in the ghetto. The spread wings of the crows were the roofs over empty nests. The poem sang about a bed used for firewood. The words of the poem filled the bed with the bodies of a man and a woman. Then it spoke of the fire which devoured the bed; the voice seemed to jump along with the bed into the blaze, roaring from inside with a wild awesome roar and abandoning itself to a hysterical frenzy, unbearable to listen to.”
So poetry became to Chava. “One day I suddenly felt cramped. I had to break out of the confines of the poetic form.” She began to explore the psychology of those around her, wondering why one thrived as another wasted away; what it felt like to steal food from a friend; to take extra rations from a parent you knew couldn’t afford the loss; to fall in love with someone who was going to die; to desire another’s emaciated form; to imagine a future; why one might not want to. She studied the Germans, too, and the Jews who helped them, her contempt giving way to fascination and then a strange and awful empathy that terrified her and drew her closer. What would it feel like to live on the other side? “Before my eyes there rose another fantastic sight,” writes a doctor in a letter in The Tree of Life. “I saw a town outside the ghetto: the churches, the streets, the tramways, and nearby, the barbed wire fence, a snake striped with poles running past the very front of the house. I leaned out and saw a green uniform, the muzzle of a gun, a helmet. It occurred to me that the German soldier must be unbearably hot, dying for a drink of cold water.” Chava started to plan a novel about Hitler, told from his point of view, the führer as filtered through a redheaded Jewish girl in the ghetto.
To the Bund, “Jewish” was a nationality, not a religion, but Chava wanted that, too. The Germans had given a Czech rabbi the job of creating a museum of Jewish life before the war. 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 into the ghetto. Before the war, the Torah was a book for educated men who knew Hebrew. Now, the rabbi thought, everyone needed it. He would begin with the 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 the ordinary people, the men who were workers, not rabbis or rich men, and all the women, couldn’t read them. Hebrew was a holy language; they knew only Yiddish, dismissed as a 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 proper 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, the language of starving people. In exchange for her help, the rabbi told her, he 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.
Soon Chava was going to the rabbi’s office several times a week—not for the coffee, or the warmth, but for the Psalms. First she fell in love with the language, the rhythm of the words as they flowed in a halting trickle of half Yiddish from the rabbi’s tongue, then faster, through her pen and onto the page, remade, reconstituted according to her imagination, a collaboration between the psalmist, the rabbi and Chava. Their structure captivated her, the way they were shaped and the way she shaped them. She saw them, her channeled poems—Chava’s Psalms—as vessels made not to contain God but to express by their very form what she preferred to call beauty. G-d, said the rabbi. Chava would smile; the pen was in her hand, not his, and saw beauty, not God. Beauty, not God, sustained her.
At the rabbi’s museum Chava met writers and artists who gathered to make dioramas of pre-war 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 Sarah Samet:
She began to read a poem in her soft thin voice: a conversation between a grandmother and her Sabbath candles. It took a while before the restlessness in the eyes of her listeners quieted and they became attentive. Slowly the red in their faces subsided and a child-like dreaminess spread over them. It was as if they had been offered, like tired crying children, a toy that sparkled, radiant and genuine. As soon as she finished reading, they begged her for more. So she read a poem about her father’s slippers, then one about a little boy who got lost on his way to the heder, and a poem about a well in a shtetl, and a cycle of poems about shtetl brides. Unnoticed, the evening covered the window with a dark blue screen. The listeners did not notice that Sarah Samet had stopped reading from her black writing book and was reciting by heart. … [But one] spoke with a shy whisper, after she had finished. “These are not ghetto poems, Sarah…”
She gave him a cool glance. “And what would you call poems written in the ghetto?”
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 Rosenfarbs’ apartment, where they and Chava’s family and a few others hoped to wait out the liquidation of the ghetto. They made it ten days.
Chava took her poems and stories with her to the camps. As soon as she arrived, a Jewish kapo seized them and threw them into the mud. Shayevitch, whom Chava had urged to bury his epic poem as others had buried documents and treasures, clutched his writing to him. It died with him in Dachau.
“Lorry Number Five,” the overseer whispered in Chava’s ear. Then he walked away quickly. When the guards left to inspect other building sites, she hurried over to the fifth truck and fell to her knees. Beneath the engine lay a thin cotton slip, white as a dove. Her hand—bone and skin, some veins—darted out and snatched it. She crushed it between her fingers, making it as small as possible. Then, as she straightened up, she stuffed the slip into her wooden clog and marched back to the worksite. Later, in the barracks, she raised the slip above her head and let the cool snowfall of cotton cascade over her shoulders, her breasts, her stomach, the bones of her hips. Chava didn’t worry about the envy of the other women. She had learned the true meaning of privilege in the ghetto. It was not a luxury but a narrow blade, and the one who grabbed it, even for a second, might be the one who survived.
The cotton was warm, too, protection against the bitter winter winds of Hamburg. She’d been sent there to help build new houses for Germans. Her guards allowed her nothing more than the striped dress all the prisoners wore. Sometimes women would make vests and undercoats out of canvas cement bags. The rough material scratched and shredded their skin, but it kept them warm. When the guards patted the women down, they’d discover the bulky undergarments; then they would beat them. The beatings would kill a woman quicker than the cold.
The guards never felt the cotton slip Chava wore. She owed her life to that slip. She owed her life to the German overseer who’d whispered “Lorry Number Five.” His name was Hermann. He never told her his last name. Every day he carried with him a suitcase he’d packed full of his most prized possessions. He kept it with him always, afraid of the next bombing. She never saw what he considered his treasures, but she knew that among them were gifts for his prisoners: cotton slips and underwear. And newspapers. Like the slip, he’d drop the newspapers under a truck and whisper their location. She’d stuff them into her wooden shoes and take them back to the barracks, where she and the other prisoners would read between the lines. A newspaper could get them killed, so after they read it they’d use matches stolen from the kitchen to burn the paper, huddling over its warmth.
She had another source of news as well, an overseer who’d once been a communist. The prisoners called him the church mouse, because he was so poor. He couldn’t afford to bring newspapers. Instead he whispered what he knew, the headlines he’d read and the rumors he’d heard. But he never loved the prisoners the way Hermann did. Hermann told them so little of himself that they never understood his kindness. He wanted only to listen during those moments when words could be exchanged, to hear stories of Jews and their lives before the war. He loved Chava’s mother most of all; he called her the meisterin, “master craftswoman,” an honorific of sorts.
Chava’s mother was named Sima, and she was one of the few older women in the camps. Those who had 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 had arrived there with her two daughters. Leaning on their arms she had slowly moved forward in the line that forked like a snake’s tongue, left to work, right to 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 is my sister.”
“Our older sister,” said the other daughter.
Mengele stared at the three women. “How old is she?”
“She’s thirty-nine,” Chava said, shaving years off her mother’s age, and for that moment she believed it, the most important fiction she’d ever invent.
“He looked at her and let her go,” Chava remembered decades later. “And that’s how we saved our mother.”
As to how Hermann saved Chava: He gave her a pencil. The cotton protected her body, but the pencil saved her soul. It was the most precious gift she ever received, a dangerous thing to have and a dangerous thing to give. She’d asked him for it, and he had given it to her. No paper to write on, just the pencil. She hid the pencil in her shoe, and when she returned to the barracks she kept it in her shoe, each step reminding her of it until nightfall. Then she slipped it 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 ceiling’s planks. When there was no more pencil left, she read the words she’d 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. When the Germans sent her to Bergen-Belsen, there to starve among corpses because the crematoria no longer worked, the words recited themselves within her. They were the beginning of the story of how Chava survived.
“Life,” said Chava, “is so strange in our times and so complex that you now no longer have to seek a fictitious form for your stories.” We were sitting in her living room, sipping tea and eating cookies. Sunk into the corner cushions of a long, radiantly green sofa, Chava looked small. A chandelier of three spiraling strings of beads cast a cool bluish light upon us.
“It’s hardly stranger or more complex than during the Holocaust,” I replied.
“Exactly,” Chava said. Her “now” includes the decades since the Holocaust passed. “The whole Second World War,” she added, raising a hand above her head and slicing it back down into her lap. “The shock of all the things which happened, the Holocaust and the atom bomb. All this made us face our reality.”
Chava sometimes wished she could pluck just one character’s story out of The Tree of Life: cheap to produce for a publisher, short and direct for the contemporary reader. She thought a teacher named Esther would be her best hope for commercial success, because Esther has brilliant red hair, green eyes, a curvy figure, and would make a great film heroine. Chava’s most widely read story, however, is a translated excerpt about Bergen-Belsen from her novel, Briv tsu Abrasha, published in Yiddish in 1992, which appeared in the Montreal Gazette in 1995.
The Tree of Life stops in 1944; about the camps the novel contain only few lines: “WORDS STOP. UNDRESSED NAKED, THEIR MEANING, THEIR SENSE SHAVEN OFF. LETTERS EXPIRE, IN THE SMOKE OF THE CREMATORIUM’S CHIMNEY–” Then follow six blank pages. Letters to Abrasha could be described as what took place in those blank pages, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
“It’s strange,” Chava said. “I never thought I would write about it. I thought I could not. And then I did. But I did not live through my characters as I did in Tree of Life. Of course, I do not know if I could have lived through Letters to Abrasha like that. I had to keep it a little away from me.”
Miriam, the heroine of Letters to Abrasha, is a dancer, not a poet. The horror Miriam describes is kept at a distance by the form of her storytelling, letters to a former teacher named Abrasha who, like Miriam, languishes in a displaced persons camp. Miriam, the reader knows from the beginning, has at least survived.
Writing Letters to Abrasha sustained Chava, but she didn’t find the peculiar joy in it that she had in The Tree of Life. It was not a choice or even a duty but a movement dictated by gravity. “A moment comes. Fifty years after liberation, I suddenly felt I must return.”
Chava has gone back to the physical setting of her youth only once. The Bund reorganized in Poland after the war, hoping that socialism in Eastern Europe could be salvaged. A childhood friend, Bono Weiner, was among those who stayed. But many Poles secretly continued the anti-Semitic killing the Germans had begun, and the communist government cracked down on socialists. By 1947, most Bundists wanted to get out. Western party members arranged for false documents to await their comrades in Paris. The leadership selected Chava to memorize the names of 200 people for whom papers had been prepared and to relay them to Weiner, in Lodz.
In Lodz she had Weiner take snapshots of her standing in front of the rubble that had been her friend the poet Shayevitch’s home. She looked up from the street at the apartment where her family had once lived, now occupied by Poles who she feared might kill her if they thought she had returned to reclaim her property. One day she traveled to Warsaw with Weiner, and there the two posed together for a picture in front of the monument to the ghetto.
Henekh, now Henry, had survived the war; they reunited in Brussels, where Chava taught in a Jewish day school while Henry studied medicine. Both had decided they had no future in Europe. The Montreal representative of the Jewish Daily Forward, H. Hershman, had published Chava’s poems, so she and Henry decided to emigrate to Canada in 1949. They moved first into Hershman’s home, then into a one-room flat beneath the apartment of another Yiddish poet, Rukhl Korn. The poet Ida Maize helped Henry find a place in the medical program of the University of Montreal. At night, Henry dreamed of German soldiers. By day, the characters in Chava’s growing novel haunted him. He turned his own attention to the question of legalizing abortion in Canada—to his mind, an appropriate channel for one’s energies, a modern question, not mired in the past. He became an outspoken advocate for reproductive rights, then began to perform illegal abortions himself, taking grim delight in the wicked-sounding title of “abortionist.” As Henry’s reputation and notoriety grew, so did his estrangement from his wife. By the late 1960s, Henry and Chava barely spoke to one another.
Close to the time The Tree of Life was published in 1972, Henry, by then a national figure embroiled in numerous political and legal battles, left the marriage for good. Before he went, he helped fund the publication of The Tree of Life. It was his last gift to his childhood sweetheart, his goodbye to her and the past in which she still lived.
“For every life saved another must be sacrificed,” says Rella, narrator of a novella by Chava called “Edgia’s Revenge.” “In order for a sum to tally there can only be one correct answer; no ifs or maybes.” The lives Rella refers to are those of the title character, Edgia, and her own; they are survivors of the same concentration camp, and both now live in Montreal, separated only by what each did, and did not do, to survive.
“Edgia’s Revenge” was first published in a 1994 anthology of Yiddish women writers, Found Treasures, that grew out of a Jewish women’s reading club. Chava was, at best, bemused by the association, her loyalty to feminism no more than a default position, a polite nod to the concerns of those who believe art can save them. Chava’s understanding of salvation, in its literal sense, was more dependent on calculation, compromise as fact, not virtue. “Edgia’s Revenge,” begins in contemporary Montreal as Rella prepares to commit suicide, a death she has planned since liberation. A tall, good-looking woman, in the camps Rella’s height had often caught the attention of her guards, who picked her out for beatings—until the day she smiled at a German kapo and made herself his. He elevated her to his side and made her a Jewish kapo over a woman’s barracks, a position she relished not only for its safety but for the chances it gave her to transform her suffering into punishment for others.
One day Rella finds a woman named Edgia hiding in a latrine, terrified that in her weakened state she will surely be selected for “scrap”: extermination. Although Rella doesn’t know Edgia and owes her nothing, she saves her from the daily selection. This single act of kindness will plague her for the rest of her life. As the war’s end approaches, Rella makes Edgia swear never to say a word of Rella’s identity as a kapo in the camps. “And must I also not reveal that you saved my life?” asks Edgia.
The two meet years after the war in Montreal. Rella has reinvented herself as a fashionable clothing designer, her tattooed number surgically removed and her accent refined through speech lessons. Edgia, though, remains a Muselman, one of those who lost their will to live in the camps. Rella no longer fears her; the “beneficiary of Rella’s only heroic act” has kept her silence. When Rella begins a loveless affair with Edgia’s husband, Edgia scrubs the lipstick stains out his shirts. Edgia’s silence confirms for Rella that Edgia no longer holds anything over her, that Rella’s noble act must have balanced out her collaboration.
But Edgia does not live in a Christian universe, where repentance, and the simple math of a good deed for the bad, can wash away crimes. When Rella meets her again at a theater years later, Edgia has transformed herself into a mirror image of Rella. She has filled out her figure and grown rosy, clothed herself in a style Rella herself might have chosen. She has even dyed her hair black, like Rella’s. Rella feels out of place and yet drawn to Edgia. But now Edgia is the kapo and Rella the weakling. Rella is enthralled, certain that a friendship between them will ensure her secret and her moral salvation. Edgia has other plans. Thank you for saving my life, she says to Rella, and goodbye. Edgia dispels Rella’s last illusion: There is no redemption, neither in Rella’s one good deed nor in Edgia’s forgiveness, which only returns Rella to the camps she thought she’d left years ago. “Every criminal craves the moment of judgment, no matter how afraid of it he might be,” she says. “I return to the camp, to the scene of my crime.”
The great despair of “Edgia’s Revenge” is that doubling and re-invention offer no escape from the past. After the war it was Chava’s ability to exist in two worlds that for decades allowed her to live at all. By the 1980s, she was one of the last great Yiddish writers alive, and her only topic was destruction. Even as she represented the final breaths of a literary culture, she delivered its eulogy. Now, in her old age, she wondered what would become of her work—whether it would find a new audience or, like Rella, return to the camps. Chava sometimes likes to imagine The Tree of Life in a reader’s hands, a new discovery of her work. But most of her Yiddish readers are dead, her writer friends and Bundist comrades among them. Once, she was a celebrity in a small but international Yiddish community. “I am now an unknown, even among Jews,” she said one Shabbes evening while we sat at her kitchen table eating take-out chicken. “For whom should I write?”
The truth was that she couldn’t stop. “I won’t go back. I finally know that I won’t go back to the camps in my writing. But now I must write of the survivors, stories in which the Holocaust is not a theme, but a thread.””
“But in ‘Edgia’s Revenge’ it was far more than a thread,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, and left it at that.
I asked her if she had known a Rella.
“No. Not exactly. I started with Edgia, then I realized that to understand her I had to create Rella.”
“You knew an Edgia, then?”
“We were, we are, all Edgias.”
None of us has the power to truly forget.
In 1965 Chava traveled to Australia on a lecture tour sponsored by Melbourne Jewish groups. Chava knew her old Bundist friend Bono Weiner had moved there and that he’d done well for himself, but the man she found startled her: a survivor living in only one world, successful in a present continuous with the past. Bono still believed in the Bund, but he was also active in contemporary Australian politics. Like every other survivor, he carried with him the baggage of his experience—literally, in the form of two boxes of documents and notes he’d kept in the Ghetto. He’d buried them near the end, and then returned afterward to dig them out of the streets of post-war Lodz. But rather than hide his past, Bono seemed to use it as a source of strength. Like Hermann, Chava’s helper in the camps, everywhere he went he carried his ghetto archive with him. He was determined that it should not be lost, intent upon one day forcing himself to publish its contents.
The two stayed in close contact until the early 1970s, when, as Chava and Henry’s marriage reached its tortuous end, she and Bono found themselves in New York at the same time. They fell in love, or admitted their love, or maybe just took up living together. They lived in Chava’s house in Montreal and Bono’s in Australia, dividing the year between north and south, with numerous excursions to distant points in between. Their relationship was smooth and happy, and Chava never felt compelled to transform it into fiction. Then, in the spring of 1995, a strange anxiety overtook Chava. Bono could not live forever, and after he was gone, what would the world—what would she—have left of him? She insisted he write his memoirs.
Bono had never written his book about the ghetto, and he was not prepared to write his own story. Instead, he told Chava all that he remembered. She began to write a biography. That summer, Chava completed a draft of her first chapter, the story of his childhood. Satisfied with her work, she put it away and decided to read it to him the next day. The following morning, Bono had a stroke. A few days later he died. All she had left were his papers. She realized that the man who had always seemed whole and complete, living in the present but aware of the past, had in fact also doubled himself. The documents he had carried with him and put off writing about were “part of himself, of his sense of identity; they were his alter ego.” No matter how long he lived, he would never have written his book; to do so would have been to bring the past too close to the life he still lived.
Chava revised her single chapter about Bono, ending it with a story about a trip they once took to Tahiti. They stayed in a hotel set upon a cliff overlooking the sea. During their first night a hurricane hit the island. The electricity went out. Chava watched through darkness as uprooted trees and twisted pieces of roofing flew past their balcony. Bono, meanwhile, prepared for bed.
“How can you sleep at a moment like this?” she yelled. “Can’t you see what’s going on outside?”
“Why exactly should I start worrying now?” Bono answered. Then he turned to the wall and slept. Chava, shivering, stayed by the window through the night, watching the storm.
“For Every Life Saved” is excerpted from Sweet Heaven When I Die, a new collection of nonfiction stories by Killing the Buddha editor Jeff Sharlet. Buy it from your local independent bookstore, Powell’s, Amazon, or, if you must, Barnes & Noble.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).