In the Land of the Postscript by Chava Rosenfarb

Jack Beder’s Grey Day, Prince Arthur Street (Montreal, 1937) fittingly forms the cover design of Chava Rosenfarb’s collection of short stories, In the Land of the Postscript. The bleak setting of Montreal’s street carries with it memories of Beder’s Polish birthplace, and its starkness captures the settings of most of the short stories in this collection. 1937 would suggest a kind of “pre-script” to these stories about life in Montreal after the Holocaust. Rosenfarb’s tales fill these empty streets with meaning and memories from before, during, and after the war, and this triple time scheme enriches each work of fiction so that her complete short stories are complete in more than one sense.

            “The Greenhorn,” the first story, mirrors Beder’s Grey Day with its solitary lamppost and matching bare tree. Prince Arthur Street is haunted with shadows from a Polish past. “The Greenhorn” begins with an unnamed foreman addressing the protagonist, Barukh: “Why do you stand there like a wooden pole and don’t say a word?” The simile places Barukh (whose name means blessed) in Beder’s streetscape with its dominant pole; it also objectifies the protagonist who, along with other characters, is dehumanized as a factory worker. Greenhorn and foreman interrelate in formulaic speech patterns, as if a linguistic void separates them: “This is how the foreman speaks to Barukh, all the while dialing a telephone number.” The atmospheric haze that hangs over the garment factory fosters a kind of fugue state in the workers who are dissociated from reality, not only in their present circumstances, but also in their memories of European suffering. Characters speak past one another because the past interferes with their ability to communicate. The foreman is busy dialing elsewhere, while Barukh “blinks at the foreman as if trying to see him better.” Like the wooden pole in the story and the painting, Barukh is “a slender young man with a bent back who wears a pair of glasses with cheap frames.” If Barukh’s vision is impaired, it is because he has seen too much: the postscript blurs because of the script.

            The foreman doesn’t hear Barukh because he is busy on the phone, as hearing impairment joins visual disability synaesthetically in the void of fugue states. “His English sounds like Polish Yiddish, but the words are incomprehensible.” In the midst of this Kafkaesque, expressionistic Babel, another gesture intrudes: “He stares at the ring the foreman wears on the little finger of his right hand. Mechanically, Barukh slides his hand into his left pocket and rubs his bare ring finger with his thumb, a habitual gesture whenever he feels lost.” Telephone dial, rims of glasses, rings on fingers, and office clock all contribute to the grim atmosphere of “The Greenhorn.” Indeed, the missing ring of yesteryear contrasts with the punctual clockwork of the factory. Barukh “had worn the ring with pride. Until that day….” This is the ellipsis that utters the ineffable, punctuating the past as a palimpsest beneath the present – the postscript over the script.

            Numbers accumulate: Barukh’s age is forty-one, while his number at the factory is sixty-one – a reminder of numbers tattooed on the arms of concentration camp inmates. In Warsaw Barukh was a typesetter for a Polish newspaper; in Montreal he is put “to work at the press” – garments replacing print, as the postscript gets stamped over the earlier script. If numbers are one way of measuring the man, so too is clothing. As opposed to the “racks hung with finished coats,” Barukh “hangs his coat on an empty coat rack.” If the overcoat is both a metonym for its wearer and an allusion to Gogol’s masterpiece, it also occasions some gallows humour when the foreman instructs Barukh to go “hang yourself up over there.” The “solitary coat looks forlorn and even more bedraggled than it actually is.” Rosenfarb’s Dickensian attention to details includes the piecework in the factory as well as features of minor characters such as François whose “two knots of curly hair cling moistly to his forehead,” and “the little French Canadian” whose “ringlets around her head are thin and so light that the glow from the lamp shines through them.”

            Barukh internalizes the factory’s cacophony: “his head aches as if a thousand hammers were pounding inside, and his legs buckle beneath him – just as they did on that hot, dark day that has not yet come to an end.” Like the earlier ellipsis, the dash thrusts the reader back to Barukh’s hidden past. The subtle interplay of sounds from multilingual dialogues dramatizes the short story as workers debate politics, and French Canadians fantasize about Paris, a cosmopolitan centre and refuge in the Diaspora. A “new circle” of workers forms around Barukh who remembers Warsaw, Otrovsk, and the concentration camp, as the story comes full circle with the foreman repeating his simile, “like a wooden pole.” The nameless “little French Canadian” places a Chiclet in Barukh’s mouth: “A drop of sweetness melts in his mouth and soothes his temper.” This bittersweet drop epitomizes the fate of the survivors in the final staccato paragraph that echoes the factory sounds. In memory of a tragic European past tinged with moments of happiness, the postscript remains bittersweet.

            In “The Greenhorn” Paris is a romantic and romanticized site between Eastern Europe and Canada; in the next story, “Last Love,” Paris is more fully developed in its artistic, almost utopian, setting. Ever since the Second World War Amalia has suffered from tuberculosis, and her “final request” is to die in Paris in the embrace of a young lover. “She wished to embark on her journey into Eternal Darkness from the City of Light, the site where she had gone directly after the war, the city where she had been young, where her beauty had come into bloom, and where she had fallen in love for the first time.” Paris, in other words, serves as another postscript in this story of light and darkness, floral patterns in the Tuileries Gardens, a sculpted beauty from flesh to bronze, firsts and lasts of bittersweetness. Whereas the factory’s atmosphere in “The Greenhorn” is confining, the settings in “Last Love” from Paris to the Rockies are more liberating, despite Amalia’s constrictive tuberculosis.

            Although Gabriel and Amalia find fulfillment in their love, she has a final request to take on a younger lover in Paris before she dies. That Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder is the background music for this story serves as a reminder of the lingering sadness of a lost European past. In turn, Amalia’s young lover, Jean-Pierre, is haunted by her spirit after she dies, and when he visits the Rockies he has a feeling “of both infinity and cozy intimacy.” This polarity between intimacy and immensity runs through the land of the postscript as Jean-Pierre plunges melodramatically to his death. In the final sentence Rosenfarb collapses time and space: “He caught up with her on the opposite side of the precipice.” The postscript’s precipice includes the Rockies and Henry Moore’s sculptures, last and everlasting love in the fugue state that hovers above the story.

            After the expansiveness of “Last Love,” the next story, “A Friday in the Life of Sarah Zonabend,” returns to a more claustrophobic, domestic scene. Sarah keeps a diary to track postscripts of her memories from the concentration camp. Against the blank pages, her past is a “black hole,” and she waits daily for the mailman to deliver a significant letter to fill “black holes of nothingness.” The mail as “deus ex machina” would provide relief from the tedium of her marriage to Moniek, which has fallen into mundane routine. For Sarah, Friday is a day of tragedies that she recounts from history. The story ends with an entry in her diary: “Today is Friday, and thank heaven nothing had happened.” Sarah teeters between the carpe diem of seizing the day and the deus ex machina of finding fulfillment elsewhere, between domestic routine and an escape into a sabbatical that never arrives.

            With “Edgia’s Revenge” Rosenfarb switches to first-person narration, yet the trauma and fugue state recur in Black Rella’s account of her life as a kapo in the concentration camp. “Perhaps, in my dazed state, I was helped by blind instinct …. A sandy, smoky phantasmagoria whirled ceaselessly before my eyes.” After she survives the war, she needs sleeping pills and she writes about “the gate to eternity” – in contrast to the gate of the camp. These gates form part of the larger architecture of settings in these stories. Montreal’s winding staircases ascend toward some form of transcendence; they descend toward tragic infernos of memory. Just as the staircase becomes part of a symbolic structure, so too does Mount Royal with its large crucifix that symbolizes opposition and displacement. These symbolic backdrops serve as objective correlatives for the tortured lives and convoluted interrelationships among survivors trying to find their way in the land of the postscript. It would be instructive to compare Rosenfarb’s treatment of Polish immigrants with Anne Michaels’s second novel, The Winter Vault.

            The microcosm of miniature and constricted space as postscript to the concentration camps, as opposed to a Canadian macrocosm, plays out in “Little Red Bird.” In this story, as in others, we find a dreamscape that consists of a  present postscript projected into the future; opposed to this is a “nightmarescape” where traumas from the past collide with wish fulfillment. Manya has lost her child, Faygele or Little Bird, and in her desperation to replace her, she kidnaps a baby from Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. A recurrent colour scheme courses through this story, as in others. The opening description of a Montreal snowfall sets the mood and memory, which are lyrical and elegiac in keeping with the inner state of Manya who stands by the window, peering out: “It has stopped snowing in Montreal for three days. The snow falls so lightly that it seems motionless, as if it were gossamer suspended in mid-air. But a closer look reveals snow petals floating playfully through the air or whirling weightlessly within shifting spirals dissolving on the ground.” Postscripts demand a closer look to reveal hidden meanings: the snow is real yet phantasmagoric in its gossamer suspension in mid-air, a suspension of disbelief, a floating fugue state, and a suspicion of the painted scene and atmosphere. The playful floral patterns contrast with the little girl dressed in red, “just like Little Red Ridinghood … in the story by the Brothers Grimm.” Rosenfarb rewrites the Grimms, as Manya’s child had been devoured by the Nazi wolves – “a wolf who was, in a sense, a grandchild of the wolf in the Grimms brothers’ story.” Like winding staircases, these shifting spirals created their own imaginary patterns that eventually dissolve.

            Manya and her husband drive with the stolen baby to Mexico: “The highway stretches to an infinity that seems to be without horizon.” Her infinite dreamscape leads to the Yucatán Peninsula, ancient kingdom of the Mayas. In this “land of majestically hovering pyramids” they try to conceal themselves among “traces of the old civilization.” The little red bird is as much a fantasy among majestic pyramids as among white snowflakes in the north. The story comes full circle in the final paragraph after the fantasy: “Outside, the snow continues to powder the street. The little girl in the red coat and red hat glides through the white fog. The fire crackles in the fireplace.” The white fog is part of the fugue state, while the crackling fire recalls the crematoria in the camps. “Little Red Bird” summons Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, The Painted Bird, and James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” where snow is general over Ireland.

            With “François,” Rosenfarb extends her geographic range to South America. The opening paragraph creates a frame for the eponymous character who is a figment of the protagonist Leah’s imagination. He “was born and died suddenly. He was born in his finite form as a Parisian Frenchman living in Montreal.” The “concealed longings of his soul” reflect those same longings in Leah, who fantasizes about this romantic creature because she is in a humdrum relationship with her husband Leon. From the romantic description of François, the narrative turns to another description of a snowstorm in Montreal. Rosenfarb’s familiar and fraught tropes of domesticity and cityscapes reappear in a “web of white, transparent clouds. Then strands of smoke, disturbed by the wind, rose from the chimneys … There were fires going on in the fireplaces of most of the houses.” Postscript fires from Auschwitz waft over Montreal’s white web. From the tedium of her cozy, domestic atmosphere Leah finds “that her will-power had recently entered an irresolute state.” François is the creation of her fugue state, which is further disturbed by the strains of Wieniawski’s violin concerto that drifts into her room, accompanying external snowdrifts and smoke.

            Leah’s husband, Leon, is a successful real estate developer, but memories from the past mar his success: “His coarse language was a leftover from the war; it was his psychological deformation of a former concentration camp inmate.” These deformations run through all of the stories in In the Land of the Postscript. François is a formation of Leah’s deformation, and he accompanies Leah and Leon on their trip to Venezuela and the Amazon where the music of Sibelius’s tone poem, “Swan of Tuonela,” plays atmospherically to evoke the land of the dead. “A vague unease permeated the atmosphere. The jungle beckoned mysteriously from across the river.” The postscript travels across continents: “The sharp, rattling sone of the cicadas sounded like the noise of distant freight train, a never-ending chain of boxcars rolling on and on, on countless wheels – boxcars loaded with people.” The music of the postscript is a cacophony of trauma. At Machu Picchu Leah encounters ancient civilizations and majestic heights – extremes of time and space. “The huge sun clock still showed the time – of the past or of the present? Or was it the time of eternity?” Leah does not succumb to suicide; instead, she returns to reality at the end of the story when she exorcises her “impossible, dazzling dream” and throws François over the precipice.

            “Serengeti” goes even farther afield to the African heart of darkness. A love triangle unfolds among Simon Brown, his wife Mildred, and another psychiatrist Marisha, who is a Polish-Jewish survivor. The postscript in this story is the scar on Marisha’s forehead, not only a mark of Cain, but also a universal marker shared with Simon, an assimilated American Jew. Marisha tells Simon: “This scar represents the truth about you just as it represents the truth about me.” The cut on her forehead appeared in 1943 when her mother threw her off a cattle train that was transporting them from Warsaw to Treblinka. When Marisha loses her sun hat during the safari, her scar becomes even more pronounced in the heat. The hot winds of Africa are reminders of the heat of the crematoria. Simon feels responsible for Marisha and gives her his hat, “as if the scar on her forehead had hypnotized him.” The scar is a displacement of the tattoos of victims, while the hypnosis underscores both psychiatry and the psychology in the exchange of hats and identities – forms of transference.

            The story funnels to a finale where hats and scars are synecdoche for a much larger world. Simon has a “cloudy recollection” of his childhood with his grandfather, part of his repressed memory. “During the sweltering heat of a New York summer his grandfather would sit on a deck chair on the porch, a large open volume of the Gemarah on his knees. Grandfather wore a red hanky, its four corners tied in knots, over the yarmulke on his head.” A Freudian textual commentary over the Talmudic commentary is one form of a palimpsest; the four corners of the hanky form another iconic palimpsest over the yarmulke, as they displace phylacteries (tefillin) and fringes (tsitsit) in Simon’s sublimation. This telescoping of the four knots from the four corners of the earth becomes even more pronounced in the small black fly swimming in circles inside Simon’s cup of water: “It circled round and round the edge of the cup – a little black fly, a tiny Jew, a ‘Yidele’.” Square hats and fly circles form the geometry of this postscript and align with the “round, empty zero” at the end of “Serengeti.” The transfer from Bernard Malamud’s short story, “Rembrandt’s Hat,” meets Simon’s transference: “The turmoil inside the cup had transferred itself to his head.” Ultimately Simon rejects the zero of nihilism and replaces it with human dignity. “He belonged to no one except the global Serengeti …. Dayenu … That was plenty.” This final reference to the Passover seder places him within a broader frame of history where exile and exodus fill his bittersweet cup. “Serengeti resets the clock of the imagination to pre-Genesis, to that pre-mythical time before God planted His paradise on Earth for the benefit of Adam and Eve.” Rosenfarb’s postscripts reset times and shuffle global spaces.

            Another psychiatrist, Dr. Yacov Sapir, is the protagonist of “Letter to God, which uses Rilke’s poem, “Autumn Day,” as a frame for the scene with a dying father. The father-son bond is also tied up with the nexus between poetry and psychiatry: “I told myself that psychiatry, like poetry, tackles the mystery of the human soul and heals its wounds in its own way.” But Yacov, the physician and forefather, has to heal himself, for he too enters a fugue state: “he felt as if he had been hypnotized,” and “As if in a trance, he began to recite Rilke’s ‘Autumn Day’.” When Yacov concludes with “I am your son Cain,” he conflates two names in Genesis, for he also says “I, your son Yacov, watching with my eyes open” – a reference to Isaac’s blindness.

            The final story in this collection, “April 19th,” commemorates the date of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Hersh, this story’s protagonist, exists in a fugue state: “Hersh was lost within himself like a traveler in a foreign city. He did not know whether he was moving forward or back, whether he was dreaming or wide awake.” Another survivor who lives in Montreal, “his life continued in a kind of dreamlike intoxication.”

Chava Rosenfarb fills the landscape of the postscript with survivors who grapple with the trauma of concentration camps. She paints Prince Arthur Street with shades of grey, but also with vibrant colours. Similarly, the musical rhythms of her prose are captured by her daughter, Goldie Morgentaler, in pitch-perfect translations and a nuanced “Introduction.” Roland Barthes distinguishes between lisible (readerly) and scriptible (writerly) texts – the former category designating works that don’t demand great effort from the reader, the latter more challenging. Like Dickens’s fiction, Rosenfarb’s postscripts are both readerly and writerly. Between blank and burnt pages, mother and daughter imprint meaning and memory in In the Land of the Postscript.

Chava Rosenfarb was one of the most important Yiddish novelists and writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Her primary subject was the Holocaust; she was a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen Belsen.

Goldie Morgentaler is a Canadian Yiddish-to-English literary translator as well as a professor of English literature. She currently holds a professorship at the University of Lethbridge, where she teaches nineteenth-century British and American literature as well as modern Jewish literature.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ White Goat Press (May 14 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 299 pages
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 979-8987707838