Until the end of his life, writer Isaac Bashevis Singer would return to Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, both in his thoughts and on the pages of his works, even after the street had ceased to exist. The Warsaw from the days of his youth had been turned into ruin, and the neighbours living at the nearby streets had been murdered.

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born Itsek-Hersh Zinger in Leoncin, Poland, a village on the outskirts of the Kampinos Forest. Many historical sources (including the writer’s tombstone) suggest that he was born on 14 July 1904. In the 1970s, Singer himself revealed to his secretary Dvorah Telushkin and biographer Paul Kresh that he had been born on 21 November 1902.

He was the son of Pinchas Menachem and Batsheva, the daughter of the Biłograj Rabbi Yakov Zylberman. He had an elder sister, Esther Kreitman, who later became a writer,, an elder brother, Israel Joshua, also a writer,  and a younger brother named Moshe, who became
a rabbi.

When Itsek was about three and a half years old, his family moved to the other side of the Vistula, to Radzymin, where his father took up the position of the head of a yeshiva, and the boy started learning at a cheder. The Zinger family then lived in a house at Krochmalna Street (initially No. 10, and later No. 12) in Warsaw, near the Janasz Bazaar. They moved there around 1907–1908. Pinchas Zinger worked as a rabbi in the capital; however, he was not officially employed by the community or acknowledged by the authorities.

The relocation to Warsaw undoubtedly made a great impression on the small, sensitive boy. He observed people in the nearby streets, streets so different from the ones in Radzymin. Following in his elder brother’s footsteps, he started turning to secular literature. He absorbed everything he read in books and in the press.

The years of World War I were a difficult time for the Zinger family. In 1915, Warsaw was plagued by famine and a spreading typhoid epidemic. Isaac’s elder brother Joshua was hiding to avoid military conscription, and his younger brother contracted typhoid. In 1917, their mother decided to flee to her hometown, Biłgoraj, with her youngest children and wait there until the end of the war. At the time, their sister (Hinde Esther Kreitman) was already a married woman; she fled to England from the Netherlands with her family.  

In Biłgoraj, Isaac gave private Hebrew lessons, read books and made his first attempts at writing. When the war came to an end, he tried to return to Warsaw. In 1921, for one year, he attended the Warsaw rabbinical seminary Tachkemoni. However, he soon abandoned his education. He returned to Biłgoraj, where he made a living by giving private Hebrew lessons.

In 1923, with the help of his elder brother Israel Joshua, already a known writer at the time, he found employment as a proofreader on the editorial team of Literarishe Bleter. In June 1925, he won the best story competition held by his own journal with a story written under the alias “Ce”. His first work, a short story named Oyf der Elter (English: In Old Age), was published in the issue of Literarishe Bleter from 26 June 1925.

He also started working for Undzer Ekspres. In the subsequent years, his short stories and articles were published in the press under the alias “Icchak Bashevis” (derived from the name of his mother, Batsheva). Singer also had a part-time job as a translator. Among the pieces translated by him from German into Yiddish are works by Knut Hamsun, Erich Maria Remarque or Thomas Mann. 

He was a part of Warsaw’s literary community and a frequent guest at the Club of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists at 13 Tłomackie Street. He was friends with Hillel and Aaron Zeitlin.

In 1932, together with Aaron Zeitlin, he founded the monthly journal Globus. In 1933, his first novel, Der sotn in Goray (Satan in Goray), was printed in the journal as a serial. In 1935, the novel was published in the form of a book.

Singer left Poland the very same year. He went to the USA at the invitation of his brother, who had emigrated there the year before. Initially, he worked as a proofreader at the daily named Fortverts, where he later received his own column, for which he contributed for many years. He wrote articles, literary and theatre critique, as well as memoirs and replies to letters from readers under the aliases “I. Warszawski” and “D. Segal”. He authored further works under the English form of his full name (Isaac Bashevis Singer), first using it on the 1943 edition of Der sotn in Goray, and the novel Di Familje Moshkat (English: The Family Moskat), published in 1950.

Bashevis consistently wrote his works in Yiddish. He explained it in the following way:

People often ask me, “Why do you write in a dying language?” […] Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The more dead the language, the more alive the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I believe that the Messiah will come soon and millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves. Their first question will be: “Is there any new Yiddish book to read?”

[Isaac Bashevis Singer's speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 1978]

His novels and stories were printed in English, and the writer himself made sure that the works would be understandable to English-speaking readers. It is from these so-called “second originals” that translations into other languages have been performed.

Singer provided his readers with a mosaic of Jewish communities, the cultural changes which they underwent, and the issues they had to face – Der Knecht  (English: The Slave, 1968), Der hoyf (English: The Manor, 1967), Der kuntsnmakher fun Lublin (English: The Magician of Lublin, 1960), Shoym (English: Scum, 1991) or Tsertifikat (English: The Certificate, 1992). Many of his works contain implicit autobiographical motifs highlighting his ties with Poland – Mayn tatn’s bes-din shtub (English: In My Father’s Court, 1963), Shosha (1978) and Love and Exile (1984). The majority of his works take place in pre-war Poland.

Short stories published in collections were particularly notable in his work – Short Friday and Other Stories (1965), The Séance and Other Stories (1968), Passions and Other Stories (1975), The Spinoza of Market Street (1963), The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories (1988). He also wrote for children – Stories for Children (1984).

Singer’s prose has been translated into many languages and enjoyed by consecutive generations. Bashevis Singer was awarded several prestigious prizes and honorary doctorates in the United States, Italy, France and Israel, and in 1978 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Several feature films have been produced on the basis of his works – Yentl (1983), The Magician of Lublin (1979) and Enemies. A Love Story (1989). Some of his works were also turned into plays – in Poland e.g.: 1666 (2011; based on Satan in Goray), Enemies. A Love Story (1995, 2009), Stories for Children (2007), A Carp, a Goat and a Trumpet Which Extinguished Fires (2014).

Singer died in Florida in 1991.

Aleksandra Król

Bibliography:

  • Hadda J., Isaac Bashevis Singer. A life, New York 1997.
  • Sherman J., Singer, Isaac Bashevis, [in:] The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe [online] http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/singer_isaac_bashevis [Accessed 25.08.2016].
  • Tuszyńska A., Pejzaże pamięci, Gdańsk 1996.
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