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Eternally Estranged

Abraham Brumberg

Lost Landscapes tells two stories - one about the vanishing world of Polish Jews, in Poland as well as in the diaspora (a term in which in this case also embraces Israel), and the other about the Yiddish novelist and short story writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for literature. Beautifully translated by Madeline Levine, the two stories are interrelated, the announcement of the Nobel Prize having first made Agata Tuszyńska aware of the Yiddish writer; it was Singer's work (in Polish and English translations) that led her to explore the history of a people that she had known as little about as she had about Singer. It is somewhat astonishing that Tuszyńska, who judging by the photograph on the inside jacket, must be in her late thirties or early forties, and who is the author of many historical works and volumes of poetry, could have been so uninformed about a people who lived within her country's borders for at least nine centuries and who, before the last war, constituted mor than one tenth (nearly three and a half million) of Poland's total population.

And yet perhaps her innocence is not so baffling. With the exeption of a brief hiatus after the war, the Polish Communist government increasingly suppresed mention of Jews in the country's textbooks and media. Where, then, could Ms Tuszyńska and her coevals find reliable information about the history and culture of Polish Jews, the touching and unrequited love of so many of them for Poland, its history and literature, its woods and rivers? Where could she learn about Jewish contributions to Polish civilization on the one hand, and on the other, the relentless harassments and humiliations brought to bear on them by nearly all the pre-war political parties and the ruling junta.

Once she became aware of the scope of her task, however Tuszyńska's energy and curiosity knew no bounds. She travelled through towns and villages, listened to her interlocutors, scrupulously noted everything down, without any extraneous comments, and avoided gratuitous discussions or contretemps. No doubt she found some of the remarks distressing. Thus from a fourteen-year old: "Jews are a people known for their trickery and cheating in their own interest. The only virtue of the Jews is their ability to make money." From another teenager: "I will never forgive Solidarity for putting Poland in the hands of the Jews". A middle-aged worker: "If it weren't for the Germans, the Jews would have strangled us during the war". Or an older woman: "I can't bring myself to kill a fly on the wall, but I would have killed Jews without battling an eye."

Not all the comments were repugnant. Some were neutral, some sympathetic, some expressed shock and pain about the fate of the Jews, soem critisized Polish bigotry. Most of them, however, must have been hard to hear. All of them without exeption exude a pervasive sense of Jews as strangers. The Jews might be pitiable or decent; they may, says one Pole, have "interesting traits", such as sobriety and a willingness to work hard, but they certainly are not nasi - our own. The Jews whom Tuszyńska talked to - and she sought them out of Poland, in New York, in Israel - were perfectly aware that they were regarded as strangers in their country. Many refused to care, others were profoundly wounded by the attitude of most Poles, still others were filled with too much bitterness to want to think or talk about it. What Tuszyńska captures so well is the feeling of these Polish Jews that are bound to remain strangers in the new countries as well, the proverbial "eternal wanderers".

Over the past few years, the miniscule Jewish community in Poland has actually acquired a new lease of life, and Polish attitudes have also significantly improved, so much so that some of the younger Jewish activists are talking about a genuine resurgence of Jewish life in Poland. This might be wishful thinking; still it is part of the new reality in Poland, and it is curious that Tuszyńska should ignore it. Her stress on the traditional aspects of Jewish life in Poland and on Jewish-Polish relations, however, remains incisive and poignant. As a work of astute observation and calm honesty, her book has few equals.

The second subject of Lost Landscapes, Issac Bashevis Singer, is as riveting as the first. Until middle age, Singer was overshadowed by his older brother, the writer Israel Joshua Singer, but in the late 1920s he cought the eye of several eminent Yiddish critics, and with the publication of his first novel, Satan in Goray, in 1933, he achieved almost instantaneous fame. Set in a small town in eastern Poland at the end of the seventeenth century, the novel tells the story of t he appearance of a "false Messiah" at a time when the Jewish communities in the Ukraine and Eastern Poland were still physically and morally ravaged after the risingof the Ukrainian Hetman Bohdan Chmielnitsky, who led his Ukrainian peasants in a jacqueri against both Polish and Russian magnates, int the process slaughtering thousands of Jews whom they saw as the embodiment of the Antichrist and servants of the Polish pany (masters).

Yiddish literature had never seen such a book: an extraordinary fusion of realism (the predominant genre of Yiddish novels at the time), mysticism and explicit (for that time) erotisism. In 1935 Bashevis Singer came to the United States to join his older brother, but while Bashevis, unlike his brother never returned to Poland, that country of graveyards and crushed hopes, neither, as Tuszyńska writes, did he "ever really make the move to America... His permanent address remained in Poland." It was and address in Singer's memory only. The Jewish life he knew so intimately had vanished, all the friends and relatives, Bashevis had left behind him were murdered, homes in the shtetls and towns had been razed to the ground or occupied by new, Gentile owners, but Bashevis continued to write about the Polish Jews as if they were still vibrantly alive, pursuing their lives, raising families, flocking to their rabbits, occasionally engaging in an illicit spree with a local shikse, frolicking with dybbuks and imps as they had from time to time immemorial. (It is an open question, whether Singer actually believed in the existance of these ghostly creatures.)

After several years, Singer began to locate his stories and novels in his new home. His fame grew, even as his works were increasingly published more in English translations than in Yiddish. Increasingly, too, many Yiddish readers, shocked by Singer's treatment of erotic subjects as well as by his reportedly licentious personal life, turned against him. He was accused, in effect, of desecrating memory of the Holocaust's victims. Agata Tuszyńska quotes some of the accusations, again without editorial comment. In a way, the campaign was reminiscent of the hue and cry that arose in the Yiddish press in the eary 1940s in response to Sholem Asch's publication og his "Christian" novels such as The Nazarene and The Apostle. Like Asch, however, Singer 's stature - despite the wrath he incurred - remained unblemished.

Tuszyńska writes about Singer with a rare understanding not only of his personality and literary qualities, but of the role he played in the last years of Yiddish culture. Her book is elegiac, a tombstone for a vanished way of life.