This is my third reading of this sweeping saga involving the extended family of Jewish patriarch Reb Meshulam Moskat that culminates with the bombing of Warsaw by the invading Nazis. Stopping the story at that point is what makes this book so shattering. We have followed these people over the years, gotten to know their interrelationships, their quirks, their characteristics, and then the book just ends. As we readers know, so will their lives. After bombing and a siege, on October 1, 1939 German troops entered the city. Some 20,000 to 25,000 civilians had already been killed, and of course special treatment was reserved for the Jews in the city.
Before World War II, Warsaw was a major center of Jewish life and culture in Poland. Warsaw’s prewar Jewish population of more than 350,000 made up about 30 percent of the city’s total population. It was the second largest Jewish community in the world, following that of New York City.
Less than a week after the Germans came, they took steps to isolate the Jews. Warsaw’s Jews had to identify themselves by wearing white armbands with a blue Star of David. The German authorities closed Jewish schools, confiscated Jewish-owned property, conscripted Jewish men into forced labor, and dissolved prewar Jewish organizations.
On October 12, 1940, the Germans decreed the establishment of a ghetto in Warsaw, requiring all Jewish residents of Warsaw to move into a sealed area of 1.3 square miles, topped with barbed wire, and closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. The population of the ghetto, increased by Jews compelled to move in from nearby towns, was estimated to be over 400,000 Jews. There was an average of 7.2 persons per room in the ghetto.
Food allotments rationed to the ghetto by the German civilian authorities were not sufficient to sustain life. Between 1940 and mid-1942, 83,000 Jews died of starvation and disease. In addition, German SS and police units carried out mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka killing center; approximately 35,000 Jews from the ghetto were eliminated in this way.
In January 1943, SS and police units returned to Warsaw, with the intent of deporting the remaining approximately 70,000-80,000 Jews in the ghetto. This time, however, many of the Jews tried to fight back, some of them using small arms smuggled into the ghetto, in what became known as the “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” Although short-lived and ultimately defeated by the more powerful guns and tanks of the Nazis, the resistance offered hope to other Jews in Europe.
When Soviet troops liberated a devastated Warsaw in January, 1945, only about 174,000 people were left in the city, less than six per cent of the prewar population. Approximately 11,500 of the survivors were Jews. Generally throughout Poland, by the end of the war, 3 million Polish Jews — 90 percent of the prewar population—had been murdered by the Germans and their collaborators of various nationalities, one of the highest percentages in Europe.
Why is all this relevant? Because none of it is mentioned in the book at all. But this history would have been very familiar to most of its readers (the book was translated into English from Yiddish for publication in 1950). The narrative device of stopping the book right before all of this happened was brilliant, adding shock and poignancy to the story.
The focus of the book instead, is, as mentioned, on the years prior to the coming of the Nazis. Through the Moskat family, we see a wide assortment of Jewish people in pre-war Warsaw, from the most orthodox who spent all day in prayer, to the least religious who continually questioned the existence of God. [Judaism has always allowed for a multiplicity of voices in the interpretation of its laws and traditions. Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive: one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement. At the same time, Judaism emphasizes a commitment to communal obligation and commemoration. This reinforces solidarity in spite of differences in faith and in spite of Jews having to live in a diaspora under a variety of governments and societies with different rules for their survival.]
We also see, as the years pass, the growing hostility to Jews by Poles and the increasing numbers of young men forming gangs to beat up Jews with rubber truncheons and steal from them. The characters display a wide range of reactions to this intensification of historical anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviors Jews had regularly experienced.
Some of the characters turned to Zionism, believing that salvation would be found in a country of their own. Some became more fervidly religious and detached from the real world. Others became socialists, nihilists, or communists (arousing even more ire from the already hostile Polish authorities). My favorite exchange in the book is between Abram Shapiro, a Moskat son-in-law, and the communist girlfriend of another main character.
Abram points out:
“Here in Poland it’s bitter as gall. The whole world’s got together to suffocate us. These days I’ve got time to read the newspapers. They all have the same theme – Jews, Jews. Jews are all Bolsheviks, bankers, Masons, Wall Street speculators. All the sins of the world they ascribe to us. The others are all pure white spotless lambs. . . . . ”
The girlfriend, Barbara, suggests to Abram that everything is the fault of capitalism. Abram observes:
“Just the same as the anti-Semites put the blame for everything on the Jew, that’s the way you Leftists put all the blame for everything on the capitalists. There’s always got to be a sacrificial goat. . . What does the capitalist do that’s so bad? He buys and sells..”
In response, Barbara asks, “Then, according to your opinion, who’s to blame for the present crisis?” Abram answers:
“Human nature. You can call a man capitalist, Bolshevik, Jew, goy, Tartar, Turk, anything you want, but the real truth is that man is a stinker. If you beat him he yells. And if the other fellow is beaten, then he develops a theory. Maybe it’ll be better in the next world.”
And in fact, as bombs are raining down on Warsaw at the end of the book, one character says to another, “The Messiah will come soon.” “What do you mean?” the other asked. He answered, “Death is the Messiah. That’s the real truth.”
Discussion: Singer expertly captures the messy panoply of human thoughts, behaviors, passions, and urges, as well as the fear, dread, and despair that overtook the Jews as the Nazis closed in. But it must be noted that the characters so richly portrayed by Singer were men. Women characters displayed no subtle qualities or distinctions; the treatment of women in this book is less than complementary, to put it mildly. The value of women is understood as domestic and/or erotic. Most of them are harridans, although, importantly, still willing sex partners for the serially unfaithful men in the book. All of the men except the very orthodox are driven by sexual urges that don’t respect boundaries or borders. They are prone to grab and kiss with impunity, and enter into sexual liaisons whenever they can. This is depicted not as a negative trait but rather as an inevitable one. Moreover, the women are not offended or powerless but honored by being singled out.
This theme of misogyny and unfaithfulness in fact echoed Singer’s real life. As Evelyn Torton Beck, in her article, “I.B. Singer’s Misogyny” observed, Singer himself looked upon women as subservient and inferior, just as they are characterized in the book, betraying a deep mistrust towards them. She also points to his anger at female sexuality and his resentment over how, in this way, women ensnared men into their webs. [Singer seemed to exhibit no awareness, either in his own life or in this book, of how the non-Jewish world and its poisonous stereotypes shaped ideas of Jewish masculinity and sexuality. Other authors and filmmakers have dealt with this phenomenon extensively.]
Additional aspects of Singer’s personality and background show up in the book, mainly through the character of Asa Heshel Bannet.
Singer, like Asa Heshel, was born into a Polish rabbinical family. Elaine Showalter, writing in the “London Review of Books,” pointed out their many similarities. Singer also “grew up in an insulated enclave, rabbinical, full of almost medieval prohibitions, exclusions and rituals.” He too moved to Warsaw as a young man and got involved with others who had a liberating effect on his thinking. “‘I couldn’t be the sort of Jew my pious parents wanted to make of me,’ Singer later declared. ‘I couldn’t, and didn’t want to be, a non-Jew. I could live neither with, nor without, God. I aspired to the big, free world, but I had understood already early on that the world was nowhere near as big and as free as I had imagined.’”
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in “The New Republic” called Asa Heshel a “stand-in” for Singer. Both, she averred, were would-be intellectuals languishing in half thoughts and daydreams. Asa Heshel, like Singer, she writes, is “a libertine who never entirely sheds the invisible bindings of long abandoned phylacteries.”
Also like Singer, she added, Asa Heshel was “unsettled, unhappy, having hysterical conversion symptoms, thinking about running away, thinking about suicide.” He was consumed by sexual desire, and perhaps for that reason, “he could not see himself settling down with one woman, could not imagine a conventional life as a husband and father.” (Singer averred “the body did things of its own accord.”)
The wonder is that Asa Heshel, like Singer, always found willing women, who described both Asa Heshel in the book, and Singer in real life, as “‘capricious’, ‘captivating’ and ‘childlike’.” In other words, irresistible.
Ironically, Asa Heshel, as well as the rakish and libidinous Abram Shapiro, are the “heroes” of this saga, even if readers today might find them “essentially depraved,” as Goldstein calls them.
Milton Hindus, revisiting the book in a review from 1965, while disapproving of the main characters, insists the book still merits praise, adding an observation with which I would concur:
“If the book is a monument [the life of Polish Jewry], it is a monument with a difference. It does not simply extol or glorify its subject as monuments so often do. Singer’s feelings about his fellow Jews have something in common with those expressed by Mark Twain: ‘The Jews are human; that is the worst that anyone can say about them.’”
Evaluation: You may not enjoy this story if you are a female, and there is a legitimate question to be raised about Singer’s promotion of harmful stereotypes in perhaps another reflection of Singer’s own psychological issues. Yet I would still argue for the book’s status as a “great world classic,” as it has been called. (Singer was awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature for the body of his work.)
Singer’s prose is not poetic in any sense, but he manages to transport us to another time and place with startling clarity. He doesn’t shield us from grim details of poverty and prejudice, and because of the time period in which the story is set, distills a mood of foreboding without saying much of anything about it.
His characters ask questions about family, faith, and moral uncertainties that remain interesting and important: if there is a God, where is this God? How is the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent God consistent with the existence of evil or suffering in the world? What is the purpose of morality in a world with a seemingly absent God? What fidelity do we owe to the strictures imposed by our faith, culture, and our families? Does it matter what we do?
I found this story illuminating, in spite of its flaws. It is interesting that the unique situation of the Jewish people makes a story about them one that ends up placing personal responsibility largely in the background, in contrast to most narratives. The broader social and political systems take center stage, and structure our perceptions of the role of individual agency. We read all about the “guilt” or “innocence,” or one might say, “goodness” or “badness,” of particular characters, yet in the wider lens of this novel, none of it matters. They are all slated for destruction.
It is a stunning portrait of a lost world and of an attack on millions of people who just wanted to live, love, hate, argue, grow, thrive, and share hopes, dreams, tragedies and joys with one another, just like everyone else. By virtue of the literary device resembling apophasis writ large, this story is considered to be a towering literary achievement, as well as a memorial to a people and a time lost forever.
Published originally in English translation Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1950