Lost Landscapes: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland

Overview

When Agata Tuszynska, a Polish historian and best-selling author, began reading the novels and short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, she found in them not just literary characters and plots, but fascinating details of the missing world of Polish Jews - a world permanently erased by the Holocaust and the subsequent forty-five years of Communist rule. Singer, the only writer working in Yiddish to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, was an avid chronicler of that once rich and vibrant culture. So, surrounded ...
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1998 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. Price clipped. Condition new. Clean, no marks at all. Has price clipped. Great history. Fast shipping. Sewn binding. Paper ... over boards. 192 p. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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Overview

When Agata Tuszynska, a Polish historian and best-selling author, began reading the novels and short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, she found in them not just literary characters and plots, but fascinating details of the missing world of Polish Jews - a world permanently erased by the Holocaust and the subsequent forty-five years of Communist rule. Singer, the only writer working in Yiddish to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, was an avid chronicler of that once rich and vibrant culture. So, surrounded by silent mementos of that lost world - an overgrown cemetery full of broken tombstones, a cinema in an ancient synagogue - Tuszynska decided to re-create it from the memories of its dispersed and aged inhabitants. Her travels took her to small Polish towns, once resonant with the voices of Singer's heroes and now empty of any Jewish presence, to the cafes of Tel Aviv and the Jewish neighborhoods of New York. But her real journey took her deep into the memories of Singer's colleagues and co-workers, of Holocaust survivors and those who were merely witnesses. Tuszynska's search produces a series of emotional and cathartic encounters. Speaking with Jews and Poles alike, she patiently removes layers of pain and trauma, examining personal, tragic, and often purposely forgotten experiences. From these, she weaves a broad and tangled tapestry of lives lived side by side, and of collective yet vastly different memories of a tragically intertwined past.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The 1991 death of Singer motivated Tuszynska, a Polish historian, to learn about the Yiddish writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. After all, his works were her "first guide within the world of Polish Jewry." But this is no standard biography. In impressionistic, almost ethereal fashion, Tuszynska intersperses her reflections on the tragedy that befell Polish Jewry--before WWII by far the largest Jewish community in the world--both during and after the Holocaust with excerpts of interviews with ordinary Poles and Jewish intellectuals. Singer, who emigrated to New York in the 1930s, emerges as a symbol of Polish Jewry. While it's not surprising that some Poles interviewed in the book speak of Jews with a barely masked anti-Semitism, it's somewhat startling to read Singer's contemporaries describing him in unflattering terms--as a hack writer, a pornographer and a philanderer. Those looking for a thorough examination of Singer's life will be disappointed, as will those looking for an investigation into the philo-Semitism that has blossomed (as has anti-Semitism) in Poland since the fall of communism. Even though this well-translated book, which took the author to Israel and the U.S., appears to be something of a spiritual journey, Tuszynska resists personal reflection. But those who prefer a more philosophical approach to the life of a famous writer--and the death of his culture--will find much to digest. (Feb.)
Booknews
Tuszynska visits small Polish towns of the Yiddish novelist's stories as well as the caf<'e>s of Tel Aviv and the Jewish sections of New York to describe a series of emotional and cathartic encounters with Holocaust survivors and witnesses. Translated from Polish. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688122140
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 182
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

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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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