Jacob Rosenberg, poet (1922-2008)

Jacob Rosenberg's writings were greatly loved by readers who appreciated the fable-like quality of his prose and poetry, its gentle humour and the depth of his humanity. He was born in Lodz in 1922.  Though his first language was Polish, his first poetry was written in Yiddish.  Jason Steger who wrote about him in The Age on 3rd October, 2008 reported that he used to liken his writings to ‘a plant growing in the mud of a dungeon, striving to reach the light from a window high up on the wall’.
When he was sixteen   his whole family perished at Auschwitz. He remained for about two months, spending the rest of the war in a series of concentration camps. After liberation in 1945 he lived in a displaced persons’ camp in Italy, where he met Esther Laufer whom he married. They migrated to Melbourne in 1948, where they had one daughter, Marcia.

After years of writing poetry and prose in Yiddish, he started writing in English so as to reach a wider audience. His first book of poems in English was My Father’s Silence published in Melbourne in 1994 by Focus Press. After publishing two more collections of poetry: Elegy on Ghetto: Night at Sunrise (Melbourne: Atlanta T.V., 1996, a video recording), and Behind the Moon (Wollongong University: Five Islands Press, 2000) he wrote a book of short fiction Lives and Embers (Blackheath: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2003).  His memoirs of growing up in Poland in the  1930s and his experiences in the camps, East of Time and Sunrise West won prestigious awards.  East of Time (Blackheath, NSW:Brandl & Schlesinger, 2005) won the National Biography Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary prize for non-fiction. The sequel Sunrise West ( Blackheath, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2007) was awarded the Adelaide Festival’s non-fiction prize.  His only  novel The Hollow Tree was published at Crows Nest, NSW by Allen & Unwin in 2009.

In 2011 twelve of Australia’s leading writers paid tribute to Rosenberg in a new book entitled Singing for All He’s Worth  published by Picador/Macmillan.  The editors Alex Skovron, Raimond Gaita and Alex Miller sought original contributions from people who knew Rosenberg well including Arnold Zable, Richard Freadman, Danielle Charak and  Rosenberg’s daughter Marcia Jacobs. Other contributors included Helen Garner, Morag Fraser and Chris Wallace-Crabbe.  Gaita wrote in his foreward that  Rosenberg’s thirst for learning even at Auschwitz was almost as acute as his will to live. He added that throughout his life Rosenberg  remained a prodigious reader and was equally at home with Kafka, George Orwell or Oscar Wilde, and  a good deal of Australian poetry. In addition he was steeped in the Jewish sages and prophets, and a passionate champion of the Yiddish language and  its rich tradition.

Currently composer Judy Campbell is setting Rosenberg’s poems to music.  She recently wrote an arrangement to his poem, the Waltz of Survival, a piece about reconciling the past, with the US-based a cappella group The Western Wind.  This was performed at the Sydney Jewish Museum on March 19, 2012. Rosenberg’s work will continue to endure and will survive the test of time.