Lost in America – Part One of a Memoir by Isaac Bashevis Singer

At the onset of the 1930s, my disillusionment with myself reached a stage in which I had lost all hope. If truth be told, I had had little of it to lose. Hitler was on the verge of assuming power in Germany. The Polish fascists proclaimed that as far as the Jews were concerned they had the same plans for them as did the Nazis.

It was summer and the heat engulfed Warsaw. I had two residences – one in Warsaw and one in the country, between Swider and Otwock. I still wrote for a Parisian Yiddish newspaper that was about to close, and from time to time I published a fragment of a story in the Express.

I had moved out of Mrs Alpert’s, but I had promised her and the maid Marila to return at the first opportunity if the room was still available. At the same time I knew that I would never go back since at that time I had already obtained an affidavit to America from my brother Joshua and I was waiting for a tourist visa from the American consul. I had also applied for a foreign passport but it turned out that I lacked the required documents. I had a premonition that I would never leave Poland and that all my endeavours were for naught.

The days were long in the summer. It wasn’t until ten o’clock that the last remnants of sunset vanished from sight. By three in the morning, the birds already commenced to twitter in my caricature of a dacha. My girlfriend Lena and I both slept in the nude since our garret room was baked by the sun all day, roasting our bodies like an oven. It wasn’t until dawn that some cool breezes from the pine forests began to blow. The entire villa was one enormous ruin. The roof had holes, and when it rained we had to set up buckets to catch the water. The floor was rotted and infested with vermin. The mice had fled for lack of food. For the sum of 150 zlotys, we had rented a room for the whole season. Actually, we had the entire house to ourselves, since no one else would move into this building. The doors to all the rooms stood open. The mattresses on the beds were torn, with rusted springs protruding. Occasionally, when the wind blew, the whole house shook as swarms of demons whistled and howled.

Lena and I had grown accustomed to the evil powers. They scampered over the stairs at night, opened and slammed doors, moved furniture. Even though Lena considered herself 100 per cent atheist and mocked me and my writings about the supernatural, she confessed that she had glimpsed phantoms in the corridors. At every opportunity Lena quoted Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin, yet she was afraid to go to the outhouse at night and she used a chamber pot. The reason she gave was that the outhouse was overgrown with weeds and snakes lurked there. We were given a kerosene lamp by the owner, but we seldom lit it, since the moment a light came on, moths, gnats and other insects entered through the broken windowpanes. Huge beetles emerged from holes and cracks in the floor. I covered the vat of water I brought in each day from the pump, else dozens of drowned creatures would be found floating there in the morning.

I had inherited Lena from an old girlfriend, Sabina. They were close friends for a time. They had even spent several months together in Pawiak Prison, in the women’s section nicknamed ‘Serbia’. There, in their prison cell, they had fallen out because Sabina had become a Trotskyite while Lena continued to swear allegiance to Comrade Stalin. Lena had been released on bail and was supposed to stand trial, which had been scheduled months before, but she had jumped bail because new witnesses had been found for the prosecution and she would surely have been sentenced to many years’ imprisonment.

She had come to me in Warsaw requesting a night’s sanctuary because she was, as she said, surrounded by police spies. I had only one narrow iron bed in my furnished room and she slept with me not just that one night, but for more than two weeks. She called me a capitalistic lackey even as she clamped her lips onto mine. She complained that my mystical stories helped to perpetuate fascism, but she tried to translate some of them into Polish. She swore to me that she had undergone a gynecological operation that had rendered her sterile, but she was already in her fifth month that summer. She said that she wanted to have a child by me even if the world were destroyed the next day. She assured me that the ultimate struggle between justice and exploitation was coming and, if truth triumphed, she wouldn’t need my support. I could go to America if I wanted to escape the unavoidable day of revenge by the Polish masses. The revolution would reach there as well.

Lena and I both lived for the present. In order to get through the day – and sometimes the miserable nights as well – I fantasised that I was already dead, one of those legendary corpses which, instead of resting in the cemetery, leave their graves to reside in the world of chaos. I had described such living dead in my stories and now in my imagination I had become one of my own protagonists. Since I was a corpse, I told myself, what need had I to worry? What could happen to me? A corpse could even afford to sin.

As I stood on the balcony one night I figured out my plans for the day. I had no real reason for going to Warsaw and spending the few zlotys for the fare, but I had to see the few people with whom I was still connected in this worst of all worlds. No one in Warsaw knew my Swider address. I had no telephone. I never saw a letter carrier enter this has-been villa. Perhaps the cheque from the newspaper in Paris had come? Maybe there was an answer from the American consul? Maybe there was a letter from Joshua waiting? It was too early to dress and I went back to bed. Lena was awake, too. She was sitting on the edge of the bed smoking a cigarette. For an instant I could see her naked body in the glow of its tip. She asked: ‘What time are you dashing to Warsaw?’

‘Ten o’clock.’

‘So early? Well, it’s all the same. Bring me back something to read, at least. Yesterday I finished Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.’

‘Is it good?’

‘Neither good nor bad. There is nothing American about this tragedy.’

‘I’ll drop by Bresler’s and bring you a whole stack of books.’

‘Don’t get lost in Warsaw.’

I was hungry after a meagre supper the night before. I was in a mood for fresh rolls, coffee with cream and a piece of herring, but all we had was stale bread and a package of chicory. The little bit of milk that remained had turned sour overnight. Maybe it’s already time to return to the grave? I asked myself. But somehow, I wasn’t ready yet. Experience had taught me that whenever things grow extremely bad and I think that the end is near, something inevitably happens that seems a miracle. Though I had refuted God, I still believed that somewhere in the celestial register accounts were being kept of every person, every worm, every microbe. I did not expect to fall asleep, but I did when I lay down on my torn mattress, and when I opened my eyes the sun was shining.

Lena lit the Primus stove and it began to seethe and stink of alcohol. She boiled water with chicory and handed me a thick slice of black bread smeared with jam. It seemed to me that she took a thinner slice for herself and less jam. Even though she preached equality of the sexes, a trace of respect for the male inherited from generations of grandmothers and great-grandmothers still reposed somewhere within her. I chewed the stale bread for so long that it began to taste fresh. Even the chicory and water acquired flavour when you drank it slowly. Millions of people in India, China and Manchuria didn’t even have this. Only ten years or so earlier, millions of peasants had starved to death in Soviet Russia.

It was too early to go to the station, but I could not spend all morning inside that ruin. Lena accompanied me. I warned her that she might be recognised and arrested and she contended that it would be better for her to be imprisoned. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about a maternity clinic and a place to live after the summer was over. We strolled along on the sand, each preoccupied with his own thoughts.

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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