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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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism