Enemies: A Love Story (Sonim, Di Geshichte Fun a Liebe)

views updated

ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY (Sonim, di Geshichte fun a Liebe)

Novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1966

Enemies: A Love Story, originally published in Yiddish (1966) and later in English (1972), recognizes the enduring dark legacy of the Holocaust even as it indicts modern Judaism. Before World War II Herman Broder, the novel's protagonist, married and separated from Tamara Luria. Trapped in Poland during the Holocaust, Herman was saved by Yadwiga, the Broder family maid, who hid him in a hayloft. Believing that his wife is dead, Herman marries Yadwiga after the war, and the couple move to Brooklyn. Wherever he goes in New York, Herman seeks places to hide from imaginary Nazis. Yet Broder is a victim not only of the Nazis but also of his own personality. He works as a ghostwriter, a fitting occupation for someone who has rejected life, who wants no children. He also has rejected religion, and he is unfaithful to Yadwiga, carrying on an affair with Masha Tortshiner, another Holocaust survivor.

Like Herman, Masha is bitter and self-centered, caring only for her own pleasures. She cannot believe in a God who would permit the Holocaust, but without belief her life lacks meaning. Although she thinks that she is pregnant, she is suffering from nerves: she cannot bring forth new life. At the end of the novel she kills herself. Her materialism is shared by Yadwiga's Jewish neighbors. When Yadwiga talks to them to learn about Judaism, to which she is going to convert, she gets the impression from their conversations that "the insurance policy and the dishwasher were both necessary aspects of Jewish observances."

Contrasting with these tormented figures are those who are saved by belief and tradition. When Herman puts on his skullcap and returns to the sacred books, he feels peace, but he cannot remain faithful to God any more than he can to Yadwiga. At the end of Enemies he vanishes from the world of the book. Shifra Puah Bloch, Masha's mother, yet another Holocaust survivor, remains a believer, and her religion gives meaning to her life. Tamara, who in fact survived the war, has been chastened by her experiences and has learned compassion. And Yadwiga, who risked her life to save Herman's, brings forth new life as the book ends. Her daughter, Masha, represents a renewal that can occur only by accepting tradition. The new Masha, safe from the Nazis and surrounded by love, offers hope.

Though Enemies was Singer's fourth novel to be translated into English, it was the first with a contemporary American setting. His New York is bleak, wintry, gray—a fitting valley of ashes for the hollow men and women who inhabit it. Yet the novel is essentially comic in the sense that it ends with the promise of renewal. In a kind of fertility ritual, the old Masha and her bitterness die, and in the late spring, the season of rebirth, a new Masha is born.

In presenting Singer with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, the Swedish Academy praised "his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life." This novel's paradoxical title exemplifies Singer's concern with the eternal struggle of good and evil, the search for self, the desire for and fear of love.

—Joseph Rosenblum