Lost Landscapes: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Polandby Agata Tuszynska
Agata Tuszynska first learned about the Jews of Poland by reading the novels of Isaac/i>
Lost Landscapes is the account of an intensely emotional journey by an award-winning Polish writer and historian who searches for the remaining traces of the culture of Polish Jews-permanently erased by the Holocaust and the subsequent forty-five years of Communist rule.
Agata Tuszynska first learned about the Jews of Poland by reading the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-born Yiddish novelist and short story writer. Surrounded by silent mementos of that lost world a cemetery full of broken tombstones, a cinema in an ancient synagogue she stubbornly refused to accept its passing, deciding to re-create it from the memories of its dispersed and now aged inhabitants. Her travels took her to small Polish towns, once vibrant with Singer's heroes and now empty of any Jewish presence, to the cafes of Tel Aviv and the Jewish neighborhoods of New York. There, speaking with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust, with Singer's colleagues and co-workers, working with the patient persistence of an archaeologist, she removes layers of pain and trauma to uncover memories deeply concealed and often purposely forgotten. From these personal and tragic experiences emerges a broad and tangled tapestry of Polish and Jewish lives lived side by side, observed in brilliant and vivid detail.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- 5.74(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.74(d)
Read an Excerpt
I was late for his death.
Isaac Bashevis Singer died on July 24, 1991, in Florida.He was eighty-seven years old. For several years he had been suffering from an illness that causes loss of memory. How could that be? After all, he had lived by memory, been nourished by it by his own memory and the memories of other people. When it was gone, he left this world. He died peacefully, staring up at the ceiling. In silence. Isaac Bashevis Singer was my first guide within the world of Polish Jewry. Before I was able to understand the word "Jew," the Jews had ceased to exist as a community. The reality that Singer described was as distant and inaccessible for me as the era of the pharaohs or ancient Romans, yet, instinctively, it was closer. I sensed, more than recognized, it's trace around me, in the ruins of synagogues and shattered symbols.
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
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