Set in Warsaw in the years leading up to the Second World War, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shosha is a captivating tale of love in times of great danger and uncertainty. The protagonist, Aaron Greidinger, is a struggling Jewish writer with aspirations of creating a masterpiece. He writes in Yiddish, which isn’t widely spoken in the capital and is, by his own admission, a ‘dead’ language. It is not until Aaron is introduced to an American couple at the Writers’ Club he frequents – a rich businessman and his mistress, an actress – that the opportunity arises for him to put on a play that he’s been working on. Achieving wealth and fame are genuine possibilities, yet he finds himself returning to the street where he grew up, and to Shosha, who still lives there and is very close to his heart.
As neighbours on Krochmalna Street, Aaron and Shosha were close friends before the Great War. When he visits her some thirty years later, he is startled to discover that she has barely changed mentally or even physically. She is still very much the slow and sensitive girl that he remembers with such affection. Having been unexpectedly separated as children, Aaron is unable to tear himself away from such an important figure from his past, despite having the chance to escape Poland before the imminent arrival of the Nazis.
We reached Krochmalna Street and the stench I recalled from my childhood struck me first — a blend of burned oil, rotten fruit, and chimney smoke. Everything was the same — the cobblestone pavement, the steep gutter, the balconies hung with wash.Isaac Bashevis Singer
In this novel, Singer explores many of the themes present in some of his other books, such as Enemies: A Love Story and Shadows on the Hudson. Death and religion are of huge significance, as many characters grapple with their own mortality and the disturbing notion that God has silently stood by and allowed a monster like Hitler to inflict evil upon the world. Orthodox Judaism is also represented as very much being on the decline, not only because of persecution but also the lures of popular entertainment through which adhering to traditional forms of Jewishness is very difficult.
In typical Singer fashion, he expertly brings to life an array of colourful characters through entertaining and incisive dialogue. And as is often the case, his protagonist is tempted by many women, although in this case Aaron’s one true love is never in doubt. Through Shosha’s childlike sensitivity to the horrors of life, she symbolises the world’s lost innocence which has been marred by conflict. Not only that, but her largely unchanged household serves as a remnant of the kind of Jewishness that is fading from society.
“I see myself”, is Aaron’s response when asked what he sees in this woman child. To him, Shosha holds the key to his true Jewish self, to his upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish household, and the part of him that was at one time untouched by the darkness in the world. She is life before war. She is life as it never will be again.
Words by Callum McGee
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