“What Will Become of Yiddish?”

by Mark Chmiel

Chava Rosenfarb, Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays Edited by Goldie Morgentaler McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019 Scholar and professor Morgentaler has gathered an impressive collection of writings by her mother, Chava Rosenfarb. A survivor of the the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz death camp, Rosenfarb eventually moved to Canada and spent her adult life practicing remembrance through her novels, stories, and poems. In these personal and literary essays as well as travel writings, Rosenfarb gives us a glimpse of the vicissitudes of the Yiddish world from her youth to the end of her life. Included in this volume are reflections on Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Paul Celan, as well as explorations of feminism and translation. In what follows, I share passages which reveals this writer’s insight, commitment, and passion, which may lead us to deeper understanding of some of our own contemporary crises.


[When asked what message she has as a result of her experiences in Poland] The only answer I am capable of giving is to echo the passage in the Passover haggadah, which says that, in every generation, each individual must regard him or herself as having personally come out of Egypt. I would say that, in every generation, each individual must regard him or herself as having personally survived the Holocaust, and each person should transmit this awareness to the sons and daughters of the next generation. 24

The Nazis had not succeeded in wiping out the Jewish people, but the passing of time had made it ever more obvious that they may very well have succeeded in eradicating the Yiddish language and the culture that it nourished. After all, the majority of Jews who perished in the Holocaust had been Yiddish speakers. That generation could not pass on its language to its offspring—and without transmission from parent to child, a language is doomed. 186

[The Yiddish writer] creates in a vacuum, almost without a readership, out of fidelity to a vanished language, as if to prove that Nazism did not succeed in extinguishing that language’s last breath, that it is still alive. Creativity is a life-affirming activity. Lack of response to creativity and being condemned to write for the desk drawer is a stifling, destructive experience. Sandwiched between these two misfortunes struggles the spirit of the contemporary Yiddish writer. 190

I bore witness in the belief that there is no future for mankind if it refuses to face itself in the mirror of the Holocaust, disturbing and horrifying though that mirror may be….if we forget the Holocaust, we deprive ourselves of the knowledge of the human soul, with its hidden resources of love and care, of dignity and courage, for these were in fact the qualities that the humiliated, spat upon, doomed Jews displayed every day of the tortured lives they led between the barbed-wire fences of the ghetto. 21

But I have an account to settle with Germany and with the Germans of my generation. I do not know when my account will be settled. It is my personal account, and not one I propose that anyone else should keep, not even my children. 123

I have no idea that at the same time in the United States of America, Theodore Adorno has come out with the sweeping statement that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. A meaningful, powerful declaration, but it has nothing to do with me. The rhythms surging inside me deny his statement. I think of my father, who prodded me to write, even in the ghetto. I think of the poet [Simkha-Bunim] Shayevitch, who wrote poems even in the camp, just days before he was sent to the gas chamber. They too deny Adorno’s statement. 15

[Shayevitch] became my first real mentor. He taught me not only to take poetry seriously, but to take myself seriously as a poet, to dig to the bottom of what was most deeply hidden inside me in order to give my verses a more original, a more powerful, dimension. 5

Even the gates of those countries which had just freed themselves from the Nazi yoke and which should have understood us best in our homelessness and desolation were closed to us. No one wanted us. Perhaps the sight of us would have prevented them from forgetting the nightmare that had just passed. 9

These writers [who committed suicide] had in common the act that they were all Jews who wrote in non-Jewish language, that is, in languages other than Yiddish or Hebrew. None of them had grown up rooted in their Jewishness. Instead they came of age immeshed in the cultures of their countries in which they lived. 104 They were Jews by birth. Nonetheless, they never succeeded in acquiring a strong sense of Jewish identity. 105 And so they began to see themselves as belonging neither to the Jewish nor to the non-Jewish world. Separated both from the Jewish community and from their non-Jewish neighbors, who “had not been there,” they became homeless survivors, lost in a desert of existential alienation. 106

[Kafka’s] style was clear, his language was simple, but his literary method was astonishing. He sketched scenes of an impossible, yet believable, reality, and crafted a fantastical, realistic narrative which he seldom brought to a conclusion. With the help of his powerful and puzzling imaginative intuition, he had the ability to enter the most sacred corners of the modern psyche and create symbols for enigmas. Kafka’s novels and stories expressed the total alienation of human beings in the second half of the twentieth century. 252

The Jewish community of Montreal assimilated more and more into the broader Canadian culture, which in turn grew more accepting of Jews in general. Montreal Jews still attended Yiddish theater or sang Yiddish songs at klezmer concerts. But Jewish life in Canada was no longer lived in Yiddish. 185

I understand why Yiddish writers still draw on the theme of the old homeland, of the shtetl, where the people forged the treasure of their language and their lifestyle. But I believe that, no matter how strong and reassuring the news may be about the rebirth of Yiddish, especially about young people who are studying it around the world, Yiddish as a living, developing language can only exist where Jews live together in large numbers. Because only then do people use language creatively, and that gives the artist the material from which to draw her linguistic nourishment. Then, fed by the people, the artist gives back the artworks that enrich and stimulate the people, and thus, once again, the people give inspiration to the artist. This, it seems to me, is the natural cycle in the cultural life of a people. That is why I often wish that Yiddish-speaking cities and settlements would be created all over the world, including Yiddish-speaking kibbutzim in Israel. Is this really Utopian? Perhaps; but if it does not happen, what will become of Yiddish? 231