The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto

By Chava Rosenfarb

Translated by the author in collaboration with Goldie Morgentaler

University of Wisconsin Press

Book 1: On the Brink of the Precipice, 1939

315 pages, $19.50

Book 2: From the Depths I Call You, 1940-1942

398 pages, $24.95

Book 3: The Cattle Cars are Waiting, 1942-1944

376 pages, $24.95

Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész ends his Holocaust novel, Fateless, abruptly and ambivalently: "Yes, that's what I'll tell them the next time they ask me: about the happiness in those camps. If they ever do ask. And if I don't forget."

Unlike Kertész and Aharon Appelfeld, who use techniques of indirection in their fiction, Chava Rosenfarb -- a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Alberta -- remembers her Polish past in a more expansive manner as she chronicles life in the ghetto of Lodz from 1939-44. Combining fiction and documentary to follow the fate of numerous characters over the course of several years, her trilogy carries the amplitude of a Victorian three-decker novel: Her 1,000 pages are filled with Dickensian characteristics, as well as elements from the Yiddish masters: Sholom Aleichem, I. L. Peretz and Mendele Mocher Seforim. The broad strokes of The Tree of Life counter the confines of the ghetto, even as its humanitarian nature transcends the Nazi horrors.

Rosenfarb's novel opens with the family history of one of its leading characters: "Samuel Zuckerman was born in Lodz. His great-grandfather Shmuel Ichaskel Zuckerman had been among the first Jews to leave the Ghetto and settle downtown. He had been one of the pioneers who had laid the foundations for the Jewish cotton trade and textile industry in town, and it was he who in the year 1836 had moved into the massive brick house at No. 17 Novomieyska Street, where Samuel had lived until recently, and where his two daughters were born."

Zuckerman's upward mobility is soon cut short by the Nazi takeover of Lodz, where all of the city's Jews are rounded up and forced back into the ghetto for labour, starvation and torture.

A salon Zionist, Zuckerman strives for the good life, but the opening chapter, which describes his sumptuous New Year's Eve party at the end of 1938, closes with an ominous sign on his broken office window: "JEW -- TO PALESTINE." Among the guests at Zuckerman's party is Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, who later becomes the head of the ghetto, working for the Germans while trying to save as many Jews as possible.

Although he sees himself as a saviour of the Jews of Lodz, Rumkowski's immorality stands out in the hierarchies established within the ghetto, where he lives in relative comfort while the vast majority of his fellow Jews suffer. He believes that by creating a working structure within the ghetto, Jewish production and manufacturing in Lodz will be indispensable to Germany's war efforts. But he turns a blind eye to the fate of the transports from Lodz to Auschwitz, where he, too, is ultimately liquidated.

In Lodz's stratified world, Rosenfarb turns from the wealthy Rosenbergs and Zuckermans to the poorer inhabitants of Baluty, where the ghetto is established. With a Dickensian eye that includes pathetic fallacy and personification, the narrator takes us on a tour of Hockel Street: "From noisy Zgierska, it stretched awkwardly, to one side only, like a left arm, because on the right it was blocked by the red brick church of the Holiest Virgin Mary. The church hovered over the low-roofed houses of Baluty like a mother hen over her chicks, and in particular held the nearby Hockel Street under her protective wing. . . . The church's steeple looked down onto the street with its round wise eye: a clock."

In the cellar of one of the stucco houses lives Itche Mayer, the carpenter, with his wife Sheyne Pessele and their four sons, Israel, Mottle, Yossi and Shalom. Their basement apartment lies directly below the bakery, owned by Itche Mayer's uncle, Blind Henech. Each of Mayer's four sons belongs to a different political movement, ranging from socialism to communism to Zionism. Despite their revolutionary idealism, none of his sons is able to take revenge on the Nazis later in the ghetto, for the Jews of Lodz did not resist in the same militant manner as their brethren did during the Warsaw uprising. Nevertheless, they exhibited heroism in their own unique ways.

The rich tapestry of characters also includes Dr. Michal Levine, who writes letters to his absent lover Mira, and who tries to heal the ghetto's patients under circumstances beyond medical control. Similarly, Dora Diamand, a teacher (named after one of Kafka's lovers), displays the values of a humanistic education under the duress of Nazi atrocities. A series of artists, writers and lovers also inhabits the Lodz ghetto, further adding to the multi-dimensional spectrum of a society that was completely destroyed.

Rosenfarb includes a moving portrait of the Toffee Man, a simple soul who distributes candies throughout the ghetto -- a kind of foolish saint who is able to keep everyone's spirits alive during the grimmest moments.

The title of this novel carries a number of meanings. In the first place, the tree of life alludes to the Torah, or Five Books of Moses, a mainstay of Judaism, to which most of the city's Jews cling. The tree of life also refers to the family tree, for the novel arrays extended families and emphasizes the Jewish sociological maxim that life is with people. Despite the tensions within the ghetto, solidarity prevails as characters desperately try to rise above their abominable circumstances.

Within the ghetto, there is a solitary cherry tree, which in itself becomes the Edenic tree of life. Originally planted by Sheyne Pessele, the cherry tree becomes a gathering place for all groups seeking hope. The tree symbolizes the passing of seasons, which form the structure of Rosenfarb's trilogy: "Then, unnoticed, spring awoke in the streets, in the backyards and alleys. Until the month of April no one in the backyard of Hockel Street paid any attention to the cherry tree. . . . It seemed strange, almost abnormal that a tree should burst into bloom in such surroundings. And this marvel, which bordered on the miraculous, filled people's hearts both with hope and with a kind of philosophical resentment -- that the world, that Mother Nature carried on as if nothing had happened."

But the seasons turn, and spring's hope turns to fall's despair: "Ghetto and autumn -- what a wonderful match they made! . . . And how securely the swarthy child of their union, black-eyed despondence, played in their arms." Despite the epic quality of Rosenfarb's historic documentary, she questions her ability to depict this grey void: "Who has enough words with the thinness of needles, with the heaviness of rocks, with the snarl of swamp weeds to describe the soul of a ghetto Jew during that autumn?"

Like Book One, Book Two ends on New Year's Eve, with few illusions about the future, as the factories within the ghetto continue their production and the concentration camps accelerate their destruction. Book Three ends with Rumkowski being offered a cherry from the tree, as he departs for the cattle cars to Auschwitz.

The Tree of Life is a painful book to read, not only because of the Job-and Lear-like suffering of its characters in the Dantesque hell of the ghetto, but also because of its typographical "squint print," which results in a number of substantial errors. The trilogy could have further benefited from editorial pruning.

Despite these shortcomings in the book, the University of Wisconsin Press is to be congratulated for publishing this monumental tribute; kudos also to Goldie Morgentaler, a Dickens scholar who has fastidiously translated her mother's work from the mamaloshen, or mother tongue, further attesting to family continuity from Lodz to Montreal and Lethbridge.

Michael Greenstein is the editor of Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada: An Anthology.

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