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Eloquent, Hilarious . . . and Heartbreaking
on June 29, 2004
Imagine being a Jew in Brooklyn, NY in 1949. Just about everyone you know has been through the Nazi camps. Just about everyone you know has lost husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and sometimes all of the above. Just about everyone you know has survived years of awful, humiliating, degrading and terrifying experiences. How would you cope? How would you maintain your faith in God? How would you begin--not to mention maintain--a relationship based on love, one with hope for the future and the dream of children?
This is the story of Herman Broder, a fortyish Polish expatriate. He was not a survivor of the camps. Instead, he escaped them by spending three years in a barn owned by the mother of his illiterate peasant servant, Yadwiga, who hid and fed him. In helpless gratitude, and for no other reason, he married her after the war so that she could come to the U. S.
Herman also has a mistress, Masha. Masha is married but is separated from her husband. Masha spent years in the camps. She is very beautiful. She smokes incessantly, speaks rapidly, is a bundle of nervous energy and she can't sleep. "If I do . . . then I'm back with them immediately. They're dragging me, beating me, chasing me. They come running from all sides, like hounds after a hare." She lives in a cramped apartment with her mother whom she loves but whose strictly orthodox ways are a reminder to her every day of her wayward current life . . . and possibly also the life she led in the camps from which she escaped.
Herman ekes out a living by ghost-writing for a showy rabbi, but tells Yadwiga that he sells books out of town so he can stay with Masha for days at a time. He doesn't want anyone else to know that he works for the rabbi and doesn't want the rabbi to know where he lives. His life is a complex weave of lies and cover-ups, stories and duplicity, and into the middle of it comes his wife from Poland, Tamara, whom he had thought to be dead these many years. She has also survived the camps. "We sawed logs in the forest--twelve and fourteen hours a day. At night it as so cold I couldn't sleep at all. It stank so, I couldn't breathe. Many of the people suffered from beriberi. One minute a person would be talking to you, making plans, and suddenly he would be silent. You spoke to him and he didn't answer. You moved closer and saw that he was dead."
It turns out that Herman wasn't such a great husband before the war. It turns out that he abandoned his wife and his two children for another woman. It turns out that his children did not survive the camps. Imagine this.
Herman is a mass of indecisiveness. He can not say no to anybody. He can not believe in God but finds he can not abandon him. He can not practice his religion but can not leave those who do. He can not plan for the future because he can not believe there will be one. He can not leave Yadwiga but he can not love her. He can not meet Masha's expectations but is helplessly in love with her. He feels he must do right by Tamara but finds that he is physically, mentally, legally and emotionally incapable of doing so.
He is a clown; a sad clown; a forlorn, likable, exasperating clown, stumbling from one comical misadventure to the next, complicating his life further with every effort he makes to simplify it. He lives in a world in which no one can bear to confront the truth; a world in which the truth is simply a philosophical conceit which is as likely as anything else to cause pain.
His story is told in a very straightforward style by his creator, Mr. Singer, who is a careful and deliberate observer, but who never passes judgment, expresses opinion, or provides explanation. His characters are sharply defined. Their conversations are loaded with meaning, and sometimes that which is not said speaks more loudly than that which is. It is a humorous tale that is also sad and poignant and true. It is a remarkable piece of work, a brilliant piece of work, and it stands as a testament to the survivors and victims of the Holocaust.