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In the early 1990s, after writing for most of his life in Yiddish, his mother tongue, Jacob Rosenberg decided to switch to English. The period of extraordinary creativity that followed was cut short only by his death in 2008, at the age of 86. During those fifteen-odd years, Rosenberg wrote and published three collections of poetry, a book of short stories, a novel, and two prize-winning memoirs that chart his journey from youth in the Lodz ghetto, through the nightmare of the Holocaust and the loss of his entire family, to the rebuilding of a future in Australia.

Singing for All He’s Worth brings together twelve men and women from Australian literary and intellectual life who knew Jacob Rosenberg and offer their responses to his writings. It is a colourful and moving collection, each contributor illuminating different facets of Rosenberg’s remarkable mind and personality.

As Raimond Gaita points out in his foreword: “All the contributors to this volume were his friends. All esteemed him as a man and as a writer. Many loved him. The love and the esteem are warmly evident in the essays.

Singing for All He’s Worth will enrich the experience of those already familiar with Rosenberg’s work, while helping to introduce him to a new community of readers. (MacMIllan)

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Raimond Gaita

Extract

Raimond Gaita

On Jacob Rosenberg’s Masterpiece

‘Each a World unto Himself’: The Wonder of East of Time’

Every writer needs an address”, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in his autobiography. The address in his heart from where Jacob Rosenberg sent us his painfully beautiful book is the Jewish quarter of Lodz, “the city of the waterless river” as he calls it, repeatedly through the book like a chant, because the river, Lodka, “consisted at that time largely of black mud from the town’s industrial waste”. From there he has written of the remarkable Jewish community that existed there and has given us pen portraits of many of the men and women who lived in it, narrating their lives from the mid-thirties until 3 August 1944 when Jacob, his mother, father, sister, and nine-year-old niece were transported in a cattle train to Auschwitz.

East of time, Jacob tells us in the preface, “is a rendezvous of history and imagination, of realities and dreams, of hopes and disenchantments”. That pairing of history and imagination, of realities and dreams, should not encourage the reader to doubt the book’s truthfulness. East of Time is heavy with truth and is translucently truthful, pious indeed in its determination to be faithful to the reality of what Jacob feels compelled to record. “The touchstone of his reminiscences”, he says, “their informing spirit, is the desire and determination of an entire community to remain human, even at the last frontier”.

Most of the people Jacob writes about are dead. Some were shot, some killed themselves, some were hanged and others were gassed. One reads many of the portraits with bleeding eyes, as Nora Levin once said of other Holocaust stories. I read most of East of Time at the house that my wife and I had built in Central Victoria. Often, I could no longer bear to read on. Then I walked, or worked hard physically, chopping wood or moving granite stones. Alex Miller, who launched it in Melbourne, responded in much the same way.

Poetry and songs were, for the most part, the educational literature offered to Jacob and his school friends. “Every word in those songs and poems”, he tells us, “we took for gospel, since they spoke to us with ingenuous and trusting credibility”. As a teenager, he was given this advice: “A story teller must be at home with his people, their folklore, their legends, their lullabies, their superstitions – he must know from whence he came and where he is going”. Jacob learnt his lessons well. He must have inscribed them in his heart, for it is certainly from there that he records the songs, the poems the superstitions of that community with lyrical pathos whose beauty is often hard to bear. It is especially hard when Jacob finishes a portrait by juxtaposing, with bitter irony, the circumstances of a person’s death (sometimes by suicide, usually by murder) with a hauntingly vivid account of what they had given themselves to, almost always with passionate, innocent intensity during their lifetime.

Only a writer of the first rank can weave his love of song lyrically into a story of suffering that knows no redemption without debasing the suffering that he recounts. If that is true, then Jacob is a great writer. His are stories of dreams and hopes betrayed. Sometimes the dreams and hopes that were betrayed are political, as when Stalin concluded a non–aggression pact with Hitler, or when the Vienna socialists, whose uprising in 1934 had been passionately supported by their Jewish comrades in Lodz, volunteered to become guards to patrol the perimeter of the ghetto. Sometimes they are personal as when, under circumstances that defy anyone to point a finger – to judge in the sense of being judgmental – good men and women betrayed one another and what was best in them. But the bitterness with which Jacob records some of those betrayals never despoils his tender regard for the preciousness of each life whose strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices he records with scrupulous fidelity to the life itself. His moral assessments are offered more in the spirit of truthful descriptions than commentary. Who, possessing even a minimal sense of the categories that determine our understanding of what life means to us – especially in moments of crisis – could fail to be struck by the salience of those juxtapositions? Bitter irony is the name we give to one kind of truthful description of them. The bitterness in that irony never descends into cynicism, partly because the lover of story, song and poetry who wrote this book is not that kind of man, and partly because the irony is never generalised beyond the moment it captures in order to counter or to support beliefs or doctrines. It enters no arguments. It supports or criticises no theses about human nature. It exerts no pressure to sum things up. I am reminded of Walt Whitman’s remark about the poet, “who judges not as a judge judges, but as the sun falling about a helpless thing”.

In the preface Jacob says, “My rendezvous spans a period from childhood to early maturity, a period when I witnessed the grand belief in a just new world overtaken, first by the cataclysmic events of the 1930’s, then incarcerated between the walls of the ghetto established in my town by the Germans, and finally silenced at Auschwitz”. I hope I tell the truth when I say that is the only even slightly didactic sentence in the book. It is, I think we must grant, the author’s privilege to put such a sentence in a preface, but the book does not support the judgment it expresses. East of Time, it is true, ends with a terrible scene that leaves the reader entirely without hope. The pain of it is not lessened even slightly – indeed it is increased – by the fact that one knew from East of Times’ opening pages that it would– like a Greek tragedy – move unrelentingly, without sparing its reader, to its awful conclusion. Or, more accurately perhaps, one knew from the book’s opening pages that its author was not concerned to offer hope to his readers. His efforts were concentrated on his attempt to give readers only that doomed community truthfully described and those blighted lives truthfully narrated. He succeeded, and because he did, he gave us a spiritual treasure, one that will nourish our souls just because it is the work of unsparingly truthful love.

One of the least didactic books I have ever read, East of Time offers no lessons on politics, religion, or human nature, but we are wiser about all these things when we have finished it. Wisdom does not offer theories or knowledge of the kind that might go into textbooks or encyclopaedia. It offers a deepened understanding of what matters in our lives and it never, I believe, offers it in a style that is incidental to its content, never in prose that is not inflected by literature and poetry, never entirely to the head or to the heart, but always to the two combined.

The community Jacob remembers, which was pitilessly destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators (including Jewish collaborators), was in truth remarkable. “Like most of my school friends”, he writes, “I was brought up in a socialist spirit, in the belief that socialism would free our working-class parents from the drudgeries of life; that socialism – and in the view of some people – communism – would bring bread into our hungry homes”. In another place, he writes:

The city of the waterless river was renowned for its colourful working class, its many political parties, its stormy May Day demonstrations and the social fervour that so passionately guided the Jewish working community in its unshakeable belief that it was an integral part of a great universal fraternity. My neighbourhood had good reason to be proud. Though famous for its poverty, it was inhabited by hundreds of gifted artists singers musicians and thinkers who never had the chance to display their skills, along with scores of religious and secular messianic redeemers. I lived in the heart of an iridescent kaleidoscope; a veritable bazaar of diverse people and ideas – the kind of place you would expect to experience only in storybook. A local wit put it another way: out of the nine thousand denizens of our precinct, at least ten thousand were poets.

Earlier he had told the story of a remarkable barber shop: “[On} Saturday morning at the barber shop”, he writes, “Jews who could hardly make ends meet argued richly and passionately about Sacco and Vanzetti, Hitler, Spain, Mussolini and the war in Abyssinia, the famine in China and a hundred other topics. A barber shop in those days was a political market place”. The reference to the fact that these incorrigible controversialists could hardly make ends meet was to their circumstances in the earlier days of the ghetto. Later many were starving, eating soup that consisted only of hot water and an occasional potato peel. To celebrate a special occasion a cake might be made of potato peelings and the room warmed by feeding one’s furniture (but never books) to the stove. For many people, however, discussion continued, and for some with intensity that was unabated.

Contributors

Alex Skovron, Morag Frazer, Geoff Page, Raimond Gaita, Peter Steele, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Helen Garner, Danielle Charak, Arnold Zable, Marcia Jacobs

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