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I had two famous parents. My father was Henry Morgentaler, the abortion rights advocate. My mother was Chava Rosenfarb, one of the major Yiddish writers of the second half of the 20th century, whose novels portray the Holocaust and life in Poland between the two world wars.
Whether or not one agreed with my father’s stance on abortion, it was hard to argue that he lacked the courage of his convictions. After all, he was jailed for them.
But what my mother accomplished also required courage, albeit of a quieter kind. For her there was no applause from committed followers, no headlines in the newspapers, no demonstrations in the streets.
She was 22 when the Second World War ended. For the next 25 years, she would devote herself to writing The Tree of Life, a three-volume novel based on her experiences during the war, when she was incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto and later in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Sasel and Bergen-Belsen.
That experience left its mark on her, as it did on my father.
My father’s way of dealing with the trauma of the Holocaust was to pretend that he was not
affected, to claim that he lived in the present and was not a hostage to the past, an attitude belied by his frequent horrific nightmares.
My mother’s way was to write about what she had lived through, to face the horror in order to come to terms with it. And, just as importantly, she wanted to memorialize the Jewish community of her native city of Lodz, which in five years of drawn-out genocide had ceased to exist.
She wanted the world to know what she and her community had lived through. Since this Jewish community had lived its life in Yiddish, she wrote about it in Yiddish out of fidelity to that lost world – a problematic choice, given that it limited the number of readers.
On one level my mother lived with her family as an immigrant in Montreal, took care of her ailing mother, who had also survived the war, and raised her children. On another she lived in the Lodz ghetto.
Through all the years I was growing up, she wrote about her life in the ghetto. My childhood friends remember her as always writing. When they came over to play, she would shush us, because she was busy writing. Whenever one of us said something clever, she would jump up and write it down for possible use in her novel. She was unpredictably moody during those years. It was only when I became an adult that I realized this was related to the painful events she was remembering and describing.
When The Tree of Life was published in Yiddish in 1972, she received a flood of letters from all over the world hailing her achievement. She won the Manger Prize, Israel’s highest award for Yiddish literature, as well as a host of other awards. But it took 30 years for the English translation to be published.
In the meantime, she had written another novel, Letters to Abrasha, which I am in the process of translating. Unlike The Tree of Life, which ended with the liquidation of the ghetto, followed by several blank pages to indicate that what came afterward was impossible to describe, Letters to Abrasha enters the belly of the beast. It describes unflinchingly what it was like to be in a stifling boxcar with 70 other people headed for Auschwitz. It describes the horrors of going through the selection for life or death – and underlines the randomness of that choice. To have lived through this experience and then to recreate it on paper required a fortitude I know I do not have.
When my mother died three years ago, The Globe published her obituary on the bottom half of the obits page and mentioned that she had been married to Henry Morgentaler, the abortion crusader.
When my father died last year, the Globe devoted much more space to his obituary. While my mother’s name was mentioned as his first wife, there was no indication that she had accomplishments of her own.
The same omission occurred in all the obituaries that followed my father’s death. When I contacted one of the obituary writers to complain, I was told that obituaries are only about the person who has died. The accomplishments of spouses are irrelevant.
Obviously, this is not always true. The Globe had not been hesitant to link my mother’s name to my father, as if her importance were dependent on his. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if there wasn’t more to this than simple sexism. Did the difference not also depend on our perception of what it means to have achieved great things in the world?
My father’s contribution to changing Canadian abortion laws had come at the end of a protracted and controversial public campaign, widely covered by the media.
My mother, like all writers, toiled in silence, propelled by private demons, encouraged by few readers and yet determined to recreate what had been so violently destroyed so that at least on paper it would continue to exist. That is no small accomplishment.
Goldie Morgentaler lives in Lethbridge, Alta.