Survivors: Seven Short Stories (Hardcover)

by Chava Rosenfarb (Author), Goldie Morgentaler (Translator)


Hardcover: 260 pages

Publisher: Cormorant Books (March 29, 2004)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1896951651

ISBN-13: 978-1896951652



It is easy to pigeonhole this book, to contextualize it in a category of Holocaust literature or Jewish American fiction, or Yiddish literature.  The title of this work almost appears to beg this contextualization, since the term “survivor” seems to connote the photographs of hungry-looking faces looking out from behind barbed wire.


And indeed this book of short stories does contribute to the study of the post-Holocaust experience, and to embody different aspects of the terrible tragedies inflicted upon the dead and the living from World War II.  Survivors also fits into the tradition of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and maintains the atmosphere of a defamiliarized language, the Yiddish with which one no longer communicates with others, but which communicates most deeply with the experience of the past.  In this it is a quintessential Yiddish work. 


But the very nature of the pieces in this book forbids mere contextualization, and is even antithetical to the idea of contextualization.  These are the tales of individuals endeavoring to prevail in a treacherous and changing world.  Emphasizing the plurality of the identities of survivors, each story is different, each life takes distinctive turns, and the people who inhabit these narratives, or who relate their own narratives, all have different lives and individual reactions to these lives.   Thus the passive unhappy housewife in “A Friday in the Life of Sarah Zonabend” is grateful that nothing happens, while Leah in “Francois” invents a lover to help her create the inertia necessary to change her life.  Barukh, the protagonist of “The Greenhorn,” still fresh from the DP camps, has difficulty adjusting to the tailoring workship in which he begins his new life in Canada, and Dr. Simon Brown, the third-generation American psychiatrist in “Serengeti,” has no initial connection to the Holocaust.


Nevertheless there are some characteristics that underlie all of these people.

For all of them do not entirely belong to where they are, and the world outside is a strange one, despite the many details that place the events clearly in the context of a real Montreal or a real Paris or South America or Africa.  But the real landscape is not part of the world of the survivor – who is always remote and strange here – and takes on primarily symbolic significances.  The cross on Mont Royal, visible everywhere in the city, becomes part of the world view of Edgia in “Edgia’s Revenge” of suffering.    For her the icon of Christianity is a reminder that human relationships are divided into the sufferer and the God who imposes this suffering.  Having survived Auschwitz because of the sudden and fleeting humanity of the Kapo (Jewish concentration camp guard)  Rella, Edgia marries a man who relegates her to a demeaning, slavish role in their relationship.  And when she marries again, having been widowed, she at first treats her second husband in the same way she herself had been treated before.  Throughout their friendship Edgia continues to admire Rella and to model herself according to Rella and her protective sadism. It is only when her second husband’s life is endangered does Edgia suddenly realize that all of her relationships have been based on her identification with her savior and her torturer, Rella.  Rella had learned the value of submission in the camps, when she was saved by her god, a German guard, and understood from this that relationships could only be based on a master-slave model.  Edgia transcends this damaging mindset at that moment, and ‘revenges’herself by creating a satisfying life.  “Edgia’s Revenge” itself illustrates the lesson of the story, by presenting a kapo as a complex and profound personality, wounded irrevocably by her own experience.  In an interview with Ramona Koval about this story, Rosenfarb notes: “I think that kapos were hated by everybody. I watched, after the liberation, kapos being killed by inmates, by ex-inmates after liberation. I understand that. Kapos caused death. They brought people to destruction, to be killed, to be annihilated, and the kapos were hated. There is already a certain level of humanness in forgiving the kapos because the kapos were the instruments of the Germans… Kapos had it so much better in the camp – they had food, they had clothing, they had a good life, relatively. So it was good to be a kapo, and you had power, power is a wonderful thing. You had power over others.” (”Books and Writing on Radio National, Radio Australia and the Web.” The awareness of the ambiguity of morality, the complexity of the choices made in the Holocaust, and the insistence on some moral framework despite the questionable nature of morality in the universe is part of what emerges in Survivors.


In many ways “Edgia’s Revenge” specifically and Survivors in general emerge as works concerned not only with the survivors, but the lives created after survival, as well as the inheritance of these lessons to the next generation.  Rella’s lack of realization of the significance of Edgia’s freedom from the imperatives of the concentration-camp mentality makes salient the extent to which the legacy of the Holocaust can continue to damage the individuals.  In “Little Red Bird,”  Manya’s husband dies while she is distracted and deaf to his calls for help, drawn into memories and fantasies of her lost daughter.  This is made even more clear in “Last Love,” in which the survivor whose dying wish is fulfilled, to sleep with a young man, continues to haunt the young man to the point of his destruction.


The stories may be read as single works and as stages in a spiritual development.  With the arrangement of the stories the definition of ‘survivor’ alters and expands in the course of the book.  The first story, “The Greenhorn,” portrays a typical refugee after the war who cannot overcome his past experiences, but in each subsequent portrayal, the concept of survival expands.  “Francois,” the penultimate tale, deals with the transcendence of the need for fantasy when the present reality is altered.   In the final story,“Serengeti,” set in the endangered environment of a preserve in Africa, survival is linked to environment, the world of jungle animals to the scarred survivor of the Holocaust whose intelligence and flexibility were aided by chance. 


Yet as the concept of ‘survivor’ expands, and the periods in which the stories are placed seem more and more contemporary, the  idea of memory remains.  Do not try to survive by forgetting, the book teaches, but by absorbing each successive lesson.  Marisha, the survivor in the final story, criticizes the morality of psychiatry: “This is because…psychiatry puts a negative emphasis on the individual’s sense of guilt, disregarding guilt’s positive role as a potential corrective to behavior.” (262-3)   The lesson is in part a response to American Jewish literature, and the psychiatrist protagonist incorporates it, “He belonged to the sun, the queen of life and death.  That was enough for him.  Dayenu…that was plenty.” This is not survival, it is acceptance and transcendence. 


Chava Rosenfarb who has been writing since she was eight years old in Lodz Poland,  is one of the most prominent living Yiddish writers, and has received numerous prizes for her work, including the 1988 and 1993 Prize of the Congress for Jewish Culture (New York), and the Sholem Aleichem Prize (Tel-Aviv). Her novel, Der Boym fun lieb (The Tree of Life) won the 1979 Itsik Manger Prize. Suvivors has  been awarded the 2005 Canadian Jewish Book Award and was nominated for the Howard O'Hagan Award for Short Fiction of the Alberta Book Awards.

The translation is also not without its awards.  Nominee for the ALTA National Translation Award 2005,  winner of the  2006  Modern Language Association of America Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies this translation is transparent.  Goldie Morganthaler deserves special commendation for a seamless English that nevertheless maintains the sense of the experiential strangeness of life in another language.  Thus while at least some of the depth and isolation of existence comes from the perspective of contemplation in Yiddish, and this perspective adds greatly to the atmosphere of the stories, the translation level maintains the original dignity as well.  

Karen Alkalay-Gut