This is the chapter from the Memoirs of my father Maurice Carr where he tells how, at the age of 13, he travelled with his mother, the writer Esther Kreitman from London to Swider in Poland where Yiddish writers and poets used to gather in the summer months. There he met the rest of his family and in particular his two uncles Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer . The latter, many years later, in 1978 was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature . But here we are in 1927 and all these writers are still very young -----
The train pulls into the Warsaw railway terminal. I help my mother down three steep cast-iron stairs onto the platform and we join the melee streaming to the exit.
'Look, Mamma, isn't that Itchele?'
In a flash of illumination I recognise the lean scraggy redhead who stands daydreaming beside the steam engine. He is her young brother, the one who at dead of night climbed into bed with his big sister Hindele. She, terrified of the evil spirits in the dark, enticed him with a temptation he couldn't resist – she'd tell him a story.
My mother gazes at grown-up Itchele in disbelief. He steps forward, darts at her two kisses which miss either cheek, and strides away. We race after him to another railway station and board a tram-like coach of a small train. Slowly it chugs out of town, stopping every few minutes to drop off sportily dressed passengers who, says Itchele, are commuters to dachas. We are left with black-caftaned Jews whose sidelocks and ritual fringes swing to the rhythm of their loud and plain Yiddish. They are headed for the shtetl Otwock.
We alight on an open-air platform bearing a signboard Swider. We walk on sand which smothers our feet and enter a fenced-in pinewood estate. Itchele is no longer at our side but stands before us grown taller and older; his gaunt face is become handsome; the ears still stick out but not any more like the wings of a bat about to take flight; the mop of red hair is lost on a massive bulging cranium; the chin is upturned, stubborn; most striking of all, the selfsame blue eyes are opened wide, away from lackadaisical brooding to expose in the whites a glitter of absolute authority and absolute melancholy.
This is my uncle Shiya. With a shriek of mingled joy and anguish my mother throws herself upon him in an embrace so passionate as to be more than sisterly. He struggles to disengage himself, takes a backward step and fixes her with a glare of mingled sorrow and revulsion.
My mother stands abashed. She blinks frenziedly, bites her lower lip smeared with lipstick, and takes manifest note of what her beloved brother leaves unsaid: 'You, Hindele, have been invited to a family reunion out of pity, or call it compassion, but certainly not love. I won't have you thrust yourself upon me. And since you have already made a pest of yourself, the sooner you go back to your husband, so much the better.'
After a wash and a change of clothes, my mother and I join the family for supper on the verandah of their bungalow.
Swider is the summer dacha of the Yiddish literati. They rent from Der Alter (The Old) Katzisner, landowner and weaver of folk tales, bungalows scattered far and wide in the pinewoods. These clapboard structures are each composed of a spacious living-room, flanked on either side by a bedroom and by a kitchen, the whole fronted by a verandah on stilts.
Shiya installs a camp-bed for me in the family living-room. I have no notion where and with whom he accommodates my mother. She joins us for meals, but holds herself aloof from him, looks down on his wife Genya as unworthy of him, and has little use for Itchele. For the rest, she communes to her heart's content with the writers of mammaloshen prose and poetry.
I am cast in the role of the legendary haroeh v'lo nireh, the heaven-sent carnal phantom who sees but cannot be seen by others catering to his creature comforts. This arrangement is heaven on earth for me.
At breakfast Itchele cracks open a boiled egg, takes an awestruck sniff at its stench and says, 'Such, yes, such is life!' There is an instant of silence followed by a burst of hilarity which rocks the table. His meditative air, head bent over the bad egg, raises the mirth to a new pitch. Even melancholic Shiya grins. My mother, only half-amused, echoes, 'Such, yes, such is life!' My aunt, dumpy Genya, very nearly tumbles off her chair laughing. Recovering herself she says, 'He has a way with him that is unnatural!' Antoshu serves a fresh egg and breakfast is resumed in a subdued mood.
Genya has me take time off from a yireh v'lo nireh to summon my two uncles to lunch. First I set out in search of Yitzhak – no, not Itchele outside the family circle – perched somewhere or other on a pine tree. In lofty seclusion he reads Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and German fiction and re-reads Spinoza and Kant. How do I know since he never says a word to me ? I hear it from the literati who are waiting for him to descend and favour them with one of his impersonations. When he chooses to perform, so they say, there is not a clown in the length and breadth of Poland who can hold a candle to my uncle Yitzhak.
He proves deaf to my call – his way of bidding me come again. I run off and climb the ladder to the loft of a disused bungalow where, beneath a broken roof on which birds nest, my uncle Shiya is busy writing. He sits on a stool before a bare wooden shelf which serves as his desk. Bemused, I watch his pen glide over a foolscap sheet, forming line after line of graceful script with never a pause. On second thoughts he does every now and then return to an earlier sheet, instantly locating the line where he changes, adds or deletes a word.
I stand behind his back, ready to leave the moment he drops his pen. Comes the day when the silence is broken and he swings round to ask: Do I think in Yiddish or in English? I think and think and answer truthfully: Neither Yiddish nor English. The melancholy in the whites of my uncle's light-blue eyes flashes suspicion: Is this hutzpah on my part, a show of disdain to avenge my mother, or am I an honest nitwit? He resumes his writing and will never speak to me again.
I return to where my other uncle is up a tree – in more senses than one. The way the literati phrase it, er hengt in der looften, he hangs in mid-air. At twenty-two, under cover of a variety of pseudonyms – none yet Bashevis Singer – he dashes off kitsch romances for serialisation in the local Yiddish dailies which pay peanuts, sufficient for his frugal needs. He's a non-smoker, a non-boozer, a sparse eater and a vegetarian. He does witty interviews and merciless book reviews for the literary magazines and translates Thomas Mann's 'The Magic Mountain' into Yiddish, but so far has done no individualist creative writing.
The literati at the foot of the tree reckon that Yitzhak is under a constraint on how to achieve originality as a story-teller, since he's bound to draw on much the same wellspring of experience as his elder brother. But the consensus is that, breaking new ground, he will surpass – ibervaksen, grow taller than – I.J. Singer. How so? He will, say they, consummate realism with philosophic acceptance of the supernatural, with other-worldly elements which rationalists spurn as superstition but which are as inseparable from reality as is superstition from human nature. And given his gift for mime and mockery, Yitzhak will provide the reader with the singular entertainment for which the literati are now waiting at the risk of their being late for lunch.
They while the time away with sneers at I.J. Singer, the failed painter who took to writing, the Don Quixote who ran off to Kiev to liberate the oppressed proletariat and came away with his tail between his legs after the Bolshie apparatchiks threw 'Perl' back in his face as unfit for print. Admittedly a gem, that novella gained him his appointment of Warsaw correspondent for the New York Yiddish daily 'Forverts (Forward)', say the dacha literati, and far be it from them to begrudge his overnight leap from destitution to affluence. But they declare themselves wise to I.J. Singer's haughty airs masking his dread fear of the flowering of Yitzhak's latent talent.
I listen to the literatis' tittle-tattle and wonder if it reaches Yitzhak's ears up in the tree. When he slithers down, agile as a squirrel, they offer him the choice between two celebrities for his mimicry – either a nutty mystic or an alcoholic poet.
Yitzhak strikes a comic scarecrow pose of bewilderment, as if unable to make up his mind. Slowly the seconds – or minutes? – pass till suddenly he vanishes like a spectre from under our very noses. Has he taken advantage of an instant's inattention, or did he lull his would-be audience into a trance? There is no Yitzhak, there will be no burlesque.
Destiny in the guise of mere chance is the one masquerade which never falters. Uninformed of the arrival of the Singer elders from their distant Galician shtetl Zykow Stary, I nevertheless join the family reunion to which I've not been invited.
I espy, escorted by Shiya, a black-robed skeletal wisp of a woman taking gingerly steps on the sandy floor of the pinewoods. She is my grandmother Bathsheva. Hastening towards her is my mother in their first encounter since they parted ways in Berlin.
Bathsheva pauses out of reach of my mother's arms uplifted for an embrace. In a husky warble she declares, 'Why, Hindele, you're not all that ugly! I always thought you uglier than Lena.' Lena, I know from my mother's alte heim tales, is the Leoncin village idiot.
The candour of this rude welcome takes me aback. There is to Bathsheva more – and less – than my mother's oft-repeated portrayal of her. Shrivelled is the still erect frame. The fiery red has faded from the eyebrows. The blue of the eyes is no bluer than the thin lips. But there is to those enormous eyes in the haggard little face a preternatural blend of ruthless scorn and heartbreak self-pity that beggars the imagination.
My grandmother still cannot forgive nor abjure her Maker who made a woman of her, barring the public exercise of her rabbinical lore, her mastery of Torah and Talmud and her intimacy with the mysteries of Cabala. Cursed with a daughter, now lost to Judaism are two of her sons.
Shiya, who fetched his parents from Zykow Stary, laments the youngest of the three Singer brothers, Moshe, deemed in scholarship the gaon (genius) of the family. On the morrow of his bar mitzvah Moshe set about organising a Zionist youth movement throughout Galicia. In appearance and in oratory the peer of the Bilgoray rabbi, he preached in synagogues the return to the Promised Land. The hundreds of recruits he enlisted for aliya (ascent) to Israel duly departed – without him.
Bathsheva set to work on him. Out of filial devotion he stayed behind. Out of frustration he went to extremes of zealotry. Day and night he sits poring over Apocrypha. At dawn, even in midwinter when the ice has to be broken, he immerses himself in the running waters of a stream to do penance for the sins he hankered after and never committed. Every Monday and Thursday he fasts and eats precious little the rest of the week. He refused to travel to Swider, lest he find himself seated in a crowded railway compartment where his flesh might come under pressure of female flesh.
Says Shiya, 'Our mother has broken Moshe's spirit and his health is ruined.'
'Our mother has saved his soul from the everlasting hellfire into which you and I will be cast,' says Itchele, hanging his head as he did once over an egg that stank, but this time there is no laughter.
My mother says, 'Our mother Bathsheva will not be content till she recites the Kaddish (funeral prayer) over her redeemed Moshe.'
Daily I watch Itchele and his mother taking a stroll in the pinewoods. They have little to say to each other although – or because – they're so much alike. Both brood ruthless scorn. He is stricken with self-pity because of his looks, his unmanly resemblance to Bathsheva.
With his father, Itchele spends hours listening to what I guess are tales of Hassidic magic.
One evening, after a fiery sunset in which the forest stands unconsumed like the burning bush Moses saw in the desert, after the night sky is filled with a cohort of stars without number, after a full moon is risen and after Bathsheva is nowhere in sight, my grandfather Reb Pinhas Menahem approaches me with the dainty tread of a ballerina in rabbinic garb, a wavy golden beard glued to a girlish face.
He halts within touching distance and gazes at my bareheaded, bare-kneed self wearing no ritual fringes, no sidelocks. Never before have I seen, nor shall ever see again such childlike lovingness in a grown man, nor such innocence but also wisdom in those gentle blue eyes. His red lips stir and he says to me in a tremolo, 'I dearly love your mother and you, Moshe, her dear son, I dearly love too.' And with that he turns away.
The next day I miss my grandparent's unannounced leave-taking.
Autumn is in the air. A solitary crow settles on the verandah rail and caws.
Itchele, at Shiya's bequest, takes his sister and myself to a Yiddish theatre in Warsaw running a farce called 'Redaktor Katchke (Editor Duck)'. The title is funny, katchke being the Yiddish equivalent of the French canard, a whopping journalistic lie. There is also one gag, endlessly repeated and unfailingly raising a laugh. Each time the apoplectic editor opens his mouth, he splutters a deluge of spittle, obliging the other characters to shield themselves with straw hats or parasols.
My interest strays to Itchele. He obtained only two complimentary tickets at the box-office, so he has modestly squeezed the three of us into two seats, though there are vacant places on either side of us. He doesn't give the stage a glance. Evidently he considers this cheap fare good enough for us, while he gazes away into nothingness. I want to be angry with him but can't. Somehow he is out of reach, absent, even while his jagged bones poke into me. He has such an absent-minded air that at table it wouldn't be surprising if he poured a spoonful of soup into his ear instead of his mouth. But he never does. He's all there, even when his temples frenziedly twitch and flush and break out into a clammy sweat. Plainly, all manner of potent contradictory forces are at war within him, liable to throw him into convulsions but, evenly matched, they call a truce and, for all his feverish restlessness, he has poise.
After the show he takes us to Shiya's apartment on elegant Leszna Street. There we spend the night. Early next morning, back from shopping for breakfast, my mother and I enter with a borrowed front-door key. And we behold a crucifixion of sorts.
There in the hall, on the polished parquet floor, stands Itchele, his arms outstretched to their full length, nailed as it were in the clutches of a skinny young woman and of a buxom lass on either side, digging their fingernails into his wrists. They wage a desperate tug-of-war, which bids fair to split him clean down the middle, half a Yitzhak being better than none. His gaunt flushed face is wreathed in the torment of a mock-martyr. Must I feel sorry for him? I have a hunch that, of the three, he will emerge unscathed.
The one glorious summer of my early life draws to a close. Itchele sees us off to the station in Warsaw. The two kisses he darts at my mother miss either cheek. She stands in the corridor of the transcontinental express, waving goodbye through an open window. Short-sighted, she fails to see that he has long since vanished from the platform.
Porters slam the doors shut. The steam-engine blasts its whistle. With a jolt we are on the move on steel rails which, I tell myself, stretch away uninterrupted to the English Channel and on which, I promise myself, to be sooner than later back again.
It will never happen.
Maurice Carr, Israël Joshua Singer et Isaac Bashevis Singer par Lola Carr,
née à Vienne, fille de l'écrivain A.M. Fuchs, femme de Maurice Carr, journaliste et écrivain
Isaac Bashevis Singer by Hazel Karr
Isaac, Esther et Bashevis Singer by Hazel Karr