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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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.