Poland's forgotten Jews

The vanished world of Singer's Warsaw

This weekend it will be 70 years since Warsaw fell to invading German forces, one of a string of Second World War anniversaries that has already started to be marked. The carve-up of that much-fought-over country by Hitler and Stalin produced something on the way to a half-apology from Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, at the beginning of the month, and there will be many more tragic events to be commemorated.

However, apart from a television screening of Roman Polanski's The Pianist, there has been very little mention of the fate of Poland's Jewish population, which numbered 3.5 million at the beginning of the war (Warsaw had the second-largest Jewish community in the world) but was reduced to roughly 180,000 by its end. Perhaps the thought is that there will be plenty of occasions -- too many -- for historians and commentators to revisit the Holocaust, and that the beginning of the war is not one of them.

One recent event in Poland suggested otherwise. From 29 August to 6 September a Jewish festival, "Warsaw of Singer", celebrated the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the late Nobel Prize-winner whose work is shamefully little known in this country, but who was the great elegist of Poland's historic shtetl culture wiped out by the conflict.

To read Singer is to enter a world that seems curiously antique, even for its time. He dealt with a deeply conservative society that cherished its ancient ways, kept itself separate, was steeped in tales of sorcery and superstition, but which also elevated purity, ritual, devotion and, above all, study. The enormity of the Holocaust often seems to allow little space to be given to describe the everyday, traditional ways that it obliterated. Singer's masterly, spellbinding narratives have not been best served by the way they reached perhaps their widest audience: through Barbra Streisand's film version of Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.

Yet in these works -- "Satan in Goray", "Gimpel the Fool" -- Singer reminds us of the tragedy that lay behind the genocide: the erasure of a culture.

What makes Singer so very human (and if the subject matter sounds a little forbidding, I urge you to pick up one of his books and discover otherwise) is his exploration of betrayal, lust, greed, of all the failings that stand condemned by the faith of his characters. In his stories of the postwar Jewish diaspora, particularly in New York, he links these frailties to the comfort of identity and the sense of its loss in a way that is often realistic and wry, when he could have chosen to be only raw and painful. The pang at what has gone is accompanied by a strength, even a little joy, in what there once was.

Singer himself was clearly a prickly type -- he refused to let Saul Bellow translate more than one of his short stories from Yiddish because he was afraid Bellow would take the credit. And when Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, Singer was disconsolate, believing that the committee wouldn't want to recognise another American Jew while he was still alive. In the event, he won it two years later.

He is not to everyone's tastes. I was amused to find that one of my favourite Singer stories, "The Penitent", a later work which I have used to introduce the writer to friends, was described by Harold Bloom as "his worst book", and "a very unpleasant work, without any redeeming esthetic merit or humane quality".

Others must decide for themselves on the merits of his New York tales. But few would disagree that Singer was without peer a recorder of what came before the destruction of Poland's Jewish culture. Amid the commemoration of the horrors of war, that should be remembered, too.


Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.