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
Photo: Getty
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.