The Letter Writer

views updated


Short Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1968

Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction does not directly describe the Holocaust, yet that cataclysm underlies much of his writing, including this story. Herman Gombiner lives in New York, but he grew up in Poland, where his family perished when the Nazis destroyed their village of Kalomin. Alone, Gombiner has only one companion, a mouse he names Huldah (Hebrew for mole). He does, however, maintain an extensive correspondence with distant women whose names he finds in magazines devoted to mysticism and the occult.

Gombiner's belief in the supernatural is vindicated when one of his correspondents, Rose Beecham, appears at his door after he contracts pneumonia. Rose tells him that her dead grandmother sent her to Gombiner, thus saving his life. One night when Gombiner awakes, he sees Rose's lips moving in her sleep, and he understands that she is conversing with her dead relative.

In his own dreams Gombiner also communes with the dead. In one dream he is back in Kalomin walking with a girl. In another his mother and sisters argue over a comb. Before his illness, in daydreams he would return to heder, to yeshiva, to the Kalomin cemetery. To Gombiner these experiences prove that there is no oblivion. He recognizes that "six million souls must exist somewhere," and he imagines the spirits of the dead Jews fighting with the spirits of the dead Nazis. "The Letter Writer" thus offers consolation for the horrors of World War II. Though physically gone, the old Jewish world exists on a metaphysical plane as long as memory remains faithful to it, as long as writers like Singer continue to invoke it.

Singer offers a second consolation as well. Gombiner in this story recapitulates the experience of the Holocaust. He loses his job with the closing of the Hebrew publishing house for which he works. He then confines himself to his apartment, a form of ghetto. The furnace explodes, leaving him without heat, and he becomes so ill that he nearly dies. Huldah also suffers, since Gombiner is too ill to feed her. Singer explicitly links Huldah to European Jewry when he thinks, "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka." Yet both survive. They are thinner, weaker, after their ordeal, but alive. The story ends with a cascade of images of renewal. A pigeon flies through the snowfall, recalling the dove that brought hope to Noah. Children awaken. The sun casts a rosy glow on Gombiner's windowpanes, symbolizing the end of the storm and the dawning of a new day. Even the old bindings in the bookcase shine, indicating a revival of Jewish literature. Synecdoches of Judaism and the Jewish nation, Gombiner and Huldah have come close to extinction but have miraculously been recalled to life.

—Joseph Rosenblum

About this article

The Letter Writer

Updated About content Print Article