Guernica Editions’ new selected poems of Chava Rosenfarb – who is billed as “one of the most important Yiddish writers of the second half of the twentieth century” – will be many people’s introduction to this true woman of letters. Rosenfarb, who also produced fiction, drama, and essays, died in 2011 in Montreal, where for more than 60 years she wrote “not only from the experience of being Jewish, but also from the experience of being a woman in this turbulent century.”
The latter quotation is from the book’s introduction, which the author composed in 1971 for an earlier volume that never actually appeared. This introduction is a harrowing document that may well induce tears in readers. It is the story of being deported from her native Lodz (“the Manchester of Poland”) to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Her manuscripts having been taken by the guards, she scratched her poems into the ceiling over her bunk in order to memorize them.
The first section of the book is made up of poems about Rosenfarb’s early life in Poland. The second is more deeply religious and even theological in character. The final section, “Poems Personal and Domestic,” is the one most likely to resonate with non-Jewish and Jewish readers alike. Short quotations here would do the poems a disservice by emphasizing what many would view as obsolete poetic conventions (for example, simple ABAB rhyme schemes and the use of a refrain). But these are striking poems of family life, motherhood, and matrimony, including some clearly dealing with the author’s long marriage to Dr. Henry Morgentaler, which ended in divorce in 1975.
The publishing history of the collection is unusual and interesting. Rosenfarb wrote a few poems in English (published here for the first time), but usually wrote in Yiddish and then translated the work into her adopted language. In several cases, the translator’s function has been performed by the poet’s daughter (also the volume’s editor), Goldie Morgentaler, a literary scholar at the University of Lethbridge. She has edited the collection – a moving testament to the human spirit – with daughterly affection and professional precision.