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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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood