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Isaac Bashevis Singer died on July 24, 1991, in Florida.He was eighty-seven years old.
I did not know of Singer's existence until that moment in 1978 when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. I also knew nothing before that time about the world whose chronicler he was.
I didn't know any Jews, or at least I thought I didn't. No one had taught me their history or customs. Or pointed out how deeply rooted they were in this land that was mine. None made me aware of the foundations of the centuries-long Polish-Jewish heritage.
Singer's books, read one after another, opened up for me that hitherto closed universe. Even more important, they began filling out the missing pages of my own fate.
The internalized space of my childhood memories was Kazimierz on the Vistula, a small city in the Lublin region, about seventy-five miles from Warsaw. I spent every summer vacation there.All my initial impressions are from Kazimierz. On the riverbank or in the ravines, in the marketplace with its well, not far from a monastery or parish church, or on the Mount of Three Crosses.
I watched children's films in a movie theater that was unlike any other. It was small, rather squat, with a high vaulted ceiling and a purposeless little balcony. The hill at Czerniawy was our favorite spot for playing, where for years we dug in the earth with unfailing patience. We unearthed moss-covered stones, overgrown with time and sadness. We uncovered fragments of inscriptions in an unknown language, crippled reliefs of lions, or, occasionally, sketches of clasped hands, their fingers intertwined. The hunchbacked stones attracted us with their homeless secret.
Kazimierz saw itself depicted on many canvases. In the marketplace, the arcades, we looked it over in innumerable mirrors. In oils and watercolors, pencil and charcoal, from a birds-eye view and in the smallest detail of holidays and market days. The images were populated with figures in black suits, hats with fox fur brims, cloth caps. In vain I looked for them among the local inhabitants.
I began to recognize them at last in the Gimpels, Aarons, Szyjas, and Shmuls on the pages of Singer's prose. Soon not only their dress but also the ritual of their lives became a matter of course for me. Singer helped me reconstruct my shattered world. Wasn't it mine? Shouldn't it have been mine? After all, in story after story I recognized the geography of Polish cities and localities. All this had taken place here, in Kazimierz on the Vistula. Moreover, it happened recently, within the memory of living witnesses. Here too, as in countless Polish towns, Jews had lived, engaged in trade, prayed, and died. For so many years, unconsciously, I had connected with the places of their daily life: the market in the square, the little stores and workshops, the house of prayer and the house of death.
My movie theater — severe, cold, devoid, to be sure of the particular melody of prayerful voices, but obviously wiser than any ordinary movie house — was a Jewish synagogue. The hill-top at Czerniawy, overgrown with trees, grass, and nettles, it turned out was the final resting place of the Kazimierz Jews in the time when they were still dying peaceful deaths.
I wanted to return them to the places they belonged to, to give back their home to the orphaned, even if only on paper. To open up the scar and allow them to return home.
Copyright ) 1998 by Agata Tuszynska