My story, “Black Harness,” is out in this month’s Kenyon Review and online here. This one’s about a Jewish girl, a German boy, a concentration camp, and some blood. Not light reading, per se, but fairly short!
This is one of the most stunningly written accounts of life in the immediate aftermath of liberation from the concentration camps that I have ever encountered. I must look into Chava Rosenfarb‘s other works; I’ve somehow not heard of her to now, but I am wrenched and moved by this searing diary, which she wrote at only 22 years old. Perhaps I’m deciding to teach Cynthia Ozick‘s “The Shawl” in my fiction class this semester, after all. I want Rosenfarb’s diary to be required reading for the world. This and The Little Prince would be on my syllabus for humanity.
Urgency. Of course. This is memoir, not fiction. Can even the best fiction replicate this kind of urgency? On a day when I hadn’t so recently been so moved by this piece, I might say yes.
Far too many, I’m aware. The entirety of this diary are my favorite lines. As it is I’ve probably excerpted too much, but here are some moments of particularly exceptional insight, pain, power, beauty:
“Our liberation has come, but she wears a prosaic face. No one has died of joy. No one has gone mad with excitement. When we used to dream of freedom, we bathed her with our tears. We crowned her with the garlands of our smiles and dreams. Now that she is here, she looks like a beggar, and we have nothing to give her.”
“I saw my friend Yakov Borenstein, just as he was on that winter day when he prepared to leave on his last journey. His eyes were burning: “Don’t be sad, my friend. We will meet again…” Suddenly, my lips started to tremble. “Come with me; come with me, my dearest friend. We will go for a long walk.” “I am coming, I am coming,” I called back.”
“I can see him [poet Bunim Shayevitch] standing by the window of his room. Tomorrow he is going away. In the dark corners of the room there still linger the spirits of his loved ones, who are gone. Soon he too will be gone. The last of his family. He is taking a whole generation with him. Nobody will remember them. Nobody will remember him. A nameless end.”
“I know that back in those days when I was to share their fate, they did not pain me. They were with me, not in fact, but in essence. Somewhere on the way we got separated; at some unknown moment they left me. I went on the road to life.”
“A blade of grass, trodden down under heavy boots has a hard job righting itself again and must wait until the sap in its veins starts to pulse with new life. We are that trodden grass. We are preoccupied with ourselves, with straightening our bent bodies.”
“One can hear again the almost-forgotten sound of women’s laughter, a laughter meant specifically for men. Sometimes when I hear this laughter I have the impression that it will suddenly turn into a wild cry, into the painful longing wail of a woman’s soul, a woman who tries to find in the eyes, hands, and smiles of a stranger some small trace of the beloved man she once knew. […] “Look, I have forgotten!” the cheerful voices call. But it is enough to look into the women’s eyes to know something different.”
“How can one construct an artistic history of the ghetto? […] Is not the form of the novel too elegant, too peaceful, too comfortable, too quiet?”
“Where are you, Bunim? Where are all our friends? Where are the writers and painters and musicians of the ghetto? We are lonely. […] What are we going to do with this gift of life?”
“They describe their dear ones. Don’t they know that the picture they carry in their hearts has long ago been altered, that every day of the many that were spent in the camp changed one’s appearance beyond recognition?”
“Sometimes a couple walks past us. A man and a woman. They are holding hands, awkwardly caught between pain and joy. They are the lucky ones. We look after them with strange expressions in our eyes.”
“Tateh [Father], this very moment I am calling you with all the power of my being. If you are alive somewhere then surely you feel my anguish. Surely you hear my call. Do not lose hope. If you are alive there is no road too far for me to travel. If you are sick, do not give in. Wait. We will come.”
“We scan the lists of names of survivors of the camps. The long pages are crumpled from passing through too many impatient hands. There are finger marks on every single sheet of paper, like anonymous signatures. My fingers wander over the welter of names, my heart thumping wildly. Behind these names are actual human beings, Jews saved from death. They call to us. “Look, I am alive! I am here! Come find me, brother. Find me sister, friend …” How many of these names will not find an echo in any heart? Strange, solitary, lonely names; hundreds of them.”
“Now I must find all kinds of refined means to deaden my pain. I am going to make a lot of noise. I am going to run, laugh, busy myself with work, do everything I can to stifle the constant longing in my heart. But where does one get the strength for joy? How does one poison longing?”