I discovered the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer years ago and was immediately captivated. Whether he was writing about Jewish village life in Poland between the world wars, or of the experiences of Holocaust survivors in America, his short stories and novels seemed to be drawn from some bottomless well of inspiration.
Whenever I read a Singer story, I never feel that he is crafting a narrative, but rather sharing some deep truth or personal travail with me. When he died in 1991, it was like losing a friend.
Singer wrote his stories in Yiddish, the language of his childhood and the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, in which he grew up. He then translated – or had them translated – into English.
He came to the United States from Poland in 1935 and began submitting stories to The Jewish Daily Forward, a New York newspaper for the Yiddish-speaking community. This small, inauspicious periodical was his springboard to success in the wider literary world, culminating in his receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
In Singer's youth, Warsaw was the epicenter of European Jewry. In 1908, he and his family moved to Krochmalna Street, which he described as "a street of great poverty, a Jewish street."
It was a congeries of tenement slums, street merchants, and small shops; a place where bearded men huddled curbside, discussing the mysteries of their religion; where women tended to the affairs of the home and market and kept kosher kitchens; and where children – impoverished ragamuffins – were everywhere.
Emblematic of his affection for Krochmalna Street, Singer added, "As far as I'm concerned, this was the center of the universe."
I learned these details about Krochmalna Street a long time ago. I had even seen old photographs of the place. Dark, cobblestoned, and claustrophobic, it represented a poverty that was dire for those who lived there but a gift to the writer, who would later celebrate the sense of community and the embrace it offered him in his boyhood.
Singer left Krochmalna Street and Poland when they were still intact. Then came the Nazi onslaught, and almost overnight, Warsaw and the world Singer had known were decimated.
All of these thoughts took up lodgings in my imagination, as part and parcel of what I think about whenever I read one of Singer's stories. Just as growing up on Krochmalna Street was a gift to Singer as a writer, his recollections of that place are his gift to me as a reader.
To my great regret, I never met Isaac Bashevis Singer. But I recently came close. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, I was in Warsaw, visiting a dear friend who lives in one of the outlying communities of what is now a booming city.
The entire skyline of Poland's capital is changing as seemingly unlimited capital pours into the country. This has resulted in a frenzy of construction activity, making it a heady time for entrepreneurs and a gold mine of opportunity for Poles who came of age during the years under Communism and thought they would never live to see prosperity.
My friend Piotr was a gracious host. He drove me about the city, and I looked out at the traffic, the new buildings, and the construction sites with their hovering cranes, At one point, he paused to ask, "Is there anything special you'd like to see?"
"Yes," I quickly answered. "Do you know where Krochmalna Street was?"
His answer took my breath away. "Robert," he said, "it still exists."
It was as if one of Singer's stories were springing to life, and I was the principal character.
This seemed fitting, because one of Singer's running themes was the emotional and social struggles of those who find themselves in unfamiliar worlds. And here I was, heading for a place I thought had been long ago erased from the map.
If I had not seen the unassuming street sign, I would never have guessed we had arrived at Singer's beloved Krochmalna Street. It was open, airy, and nondescript now. The tenements – and the shadows they once cast – were gone, except for a remnant: two old, attached apartment buildings at one end of the street.
Otherwise, there was a park, a couple of convenience stores, and a few 1960s or '70s-vintage office structures.
The vanished community of impoverished Jews, so dependent on one another, had been replaced by automobiles and a few token pedestrians who were just passing through en route to other destinations.
Still, I knew I was standing on ground which had been hallowed by Singer's pen. I walked to the end of the street and stood there, gazing down its length.
Even without closing my eyes, I could see those old, dark buildings, the human commerce, the faces that bore the weight of the world in their lined expressions, and the Yeshiva boys hurrying to their lessons.
I looked down at my feet and thought of the cobblestones lying in state under the asphalt, worn smooth by the clatter of wagon wheels, horses' hooves, and the human step.
Yes, it's possible to destroy the bricks and mortar of a place and scatter its inhabitants.
But the spirit of the place goes on if it can give birth to even one messenger.
I imagine this must be what Isaac Bashevis Singer meant when he said that "literature is the memory of humanity."