Some writers begin to write with talent, quickly earn a reputation among readers and critics, and then are suddenly silenced forever. We had two such men at the Yiddish Writers’ Club in Warsaw. One, Menahem Roshbom, had managed, before he was thirty, to publish three novels. The other, Zimmel Hesheles, had at the age of twenty-three written one long poem. Both got enthusiastic reviews in the Yiddish press. But then, as the saying goes, their literary wombs closed up and never opened again.
Roshbom was already in his fifties and Hesheles in his late forties when I became a member of the Writers’ Club. Both were considered good chess players. I often saw them playing together. Menahem Roshbom was always humming a tune, swaying, grimacing, and trying to pluck out the remaining few hairs from his salt-and-pepper goatee. He would raise his thumb and forefinger as if to move a piece, and then pull them back as if they had been singed. It was said that he was a better player than Hesheles, but toward the end of the game he inevitably lost his patience. Menahem Roshbom was a chain-smoker. His fingers and nails were stained yellow, and he suffered from a chronic cough. It was said that he smoked even while asleep. He was tall, emaciated, wrinkled, stooped. After he stopped writing fiction, he had taken to journalism and had become the head feuilletonist at one of the two Warsaw Yiddish newspapers. Although he was sick and it was said that he was consumptive, he carried on with women, mainly actresses from the Yiddish theater. He had in his lifetime divorced three wives, and the children of all his three wives came to him for money. His steady mistress was the wife of a Yiddish actor. It was never determined why her husband allowed her to be with Roshbom. I often heard it said that Roshbom deplored being too clever, too cynical. Frequently in his conversations, and even in his articles, he belittled the value of literature and the delusions of immortality. He had never allowed himself to be honored at a banquet. If someone called him a writer, Roshbom responded: “Maybe at one time . . . ”
Zimmel Hesheles was small, reserved, a lonely and silent little bachelor. His narrow face was always closely shaved and his cheeks were unusually smooth. Some thought that he was a eunuch whose beard didn’t even grow. He dragged a foot and carried a cane. One of his shoes had a higher heel. His brown hair had an unmanly thickness and sheen.
For a pauper who supported himself by filling in as a proofreader during the summer vacations, Zimmel Hesheles dressed decently enough. Both summer and winter he went around in a black broad-brimmed hat, spats, and an artist’s foulard. He had hardly given up his literary ambitions and let it be known that he was still writing even though he didn’t publish. He belonged to the Pen Club and attended literary evenings. He exercised a professional punctiliousness. He didn’t smoke, didn’t hum, didn’t grimace. He came each day to the Writers’ Club precisely at noon, ordered a glass of tea with lemon and nothing else, read the newspapers, played a game of chess with Roshbom or someone else, and left at two when the crowd began to gather for lunch. It was said at the club that Zimmel Hesheles prepared his own meals on a hot plate and that he even did his own laundry. Someone had seen him buying cheap army bread at Kercelak Place, where bargains could be found. Zimmel Hesheles had once blurted out to the management of the journalists’ association that he managed to feed and clothe himself on a sum that were he to reveal it no one would have believed him.
Menahem Roshbom was what is called an open book. But Zimmel Hesheles always sat erect over the chessboard, and after Roshbom had had his say, Zimmel would mumble: “So where does the king go?”
And we kibitzers knew that Roshbom’s king had fallen into a trap. When Roshbom realized that the situation was hopeless, he would knock the chess pieces away with a sweep of his hand and say something like: “I shouldn’t have moved the pawn.”
And he would blow a thick cloud of smoke right into Zimmel Hesheles’s face.
We younger writers often spoke of the two, probed the reasons they had stopped writing, and repeated all kinds of anecdotes and gossip, especially about Zimmel Hesheles. Was he a eunuch or simply impotent? Did he have secret relations with men? Was he really writing something or merely boasting? And what did he do with the other hours of the day and night? He was never seen at a movie, a theater, a library, or even walking. He always wore the same clothes, which looked clean and somehow as if new. Each time the young writers at the club were left without a topic of discussion, they turned to Zimmel Hesheles. Had he found the key to a perfect existence?
I felt a particular curiosity toward this individual. I constantly set programs of behavior for myself and invariably broke them. I had decided to become a vegetarian, and three days later I slipped up with a sausage. I assumed regimens of morality and spiritual hygiene, determined to devote so many hours each day to writing, reading, sleeping, exercising, and walking, but I never stuck to anything. I tried several times to start a conversation with Zimmel Hesheles, but he answered me curtly, sharply, so that soon there was nothing left to say. At times he would only shake his head or wave a hand. It was as if Zimmel Hesheles had put a lock on himself, and it appeared that he would remain so to the end of his days. Strangely enough, the book of poems he had published had vanished not only from the bookstores but from the Yiddish libraries as well. I had wanted to read it on numerous occasions, but I could not find a single copy anywhere. At that time I had already become interested in psychic research, and it occurred to me that maybe Zimmel Hesheles was what is called a spirit.
One winter evening I went to the Writers’ Club instead of staying in my room and working on my never-ending novel as I had resolved. My colleagues, the young writers, came running up with particular excitement. Their eyes sparkled with that special triumph of a person who has just won a bet. One of them, Shmuel Blechman, a gossiper, said to me: “You’ve heard the news already?”
“You want to know, do you? Try to guess.”
“A cow flew over the roof and laid brass eggs,” I said.
“Something even more strange than that.”
I mentioned a few impossibilities: The Messiah had come, Stalin had become a Zionist, the anti-Semite Nowoczynski had converted to Judaism.
Shmuel Blechman could apparently no longer bear the suspense and cried out: “Zimmel Hesheles got married!”
He clapped his hands and began to rock with laughter. The others joined in.
For some reason I wasn’t in the mood to laugh, and I asked: “Who’s the lucky bride?”
He pushed me next door into the Large Hall, as it was called, where the older writers sat — long-standing members, not guests or beginners like us.
The walls here were tapestried and decorated with gilt-framed paintings. There was a piano and a stage where occasional lectures were held. Not far from the stage stood a table that — although anyone could sit there — was usually occupied by only the elite of the club: the president, the members of the board, editors, and the writers who were considered classicists. Foreign visitors were also entertained there, especially those from America. We beginners had given this table a name that reflected our envy: The Table of Impotents.
This time the table was filled to capacity. Seated at its head was Zimmel Hesheles, and next to him a young lady, apparently a foreigner, wearing a black hat with a broad, curving brim and a dress of a kind not seen in the Writers’ Club or in the streets I frequented. Her face was girlishly narrow, her eyes large, black, and bright. I stood there agape.
One of the group pinched my neck: “Well, what do you say?”
Someone at the table barked at us to shut the door, and we went back to the smaller hall. Shmuel Blechman asked me: “So what do you say to this?”
“How do you know they’re married?”
“There was an announcement in the Heint.”
He rummaged among the newspapers on the table but someone had torn out the notice.
Gradually, the information began to leak out. The bride, Señorita Lena Hesheles, a relative, had come to Warsaw on a visit from Buenos Aires, fallen in love with Zimmel “at first sight,” and married him. We hadn’t even noticed that Zimmel Hesheles hadn’t shown up at the club for a couple of days. The ceremony had taken place at a neighborhood rabbi’s. Like everything else Zimmel Hesheles did, his wedding was also intended to remain a secret. Lena Hesheles, a Spanish poetess, had brought letters of recommendation from the Argentine Pen Club to the Polish Pen Club in Warsaw, and an interview along with her photo had appeared in the Polish literary weekly. It was actually from this interview that the Yiddish Writers’ Club had learned of Hesheles’s marriage. The secretary of the club, himself a poet, who each summer had to wage a fresh campaign to have Hesheles hired as a substitute, had after lengthy arguments managed to persuade Hesheles to allow himself and his bride to be invited to tea.
The members of the Yiddish Writers’ Club had a lot of respect for the gentile world, in which writers were connected with magazines that sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Zimmel Hesheles had opened for the Yiddish writers in Warsaw a window to the world.
For a week or two after his reception Zimmel Hesheles didn’t show up at the Writers’ Club. It became obvious that he was no neuter, as had been assumed, but, to the contrary, a virile man able to win the love of a young, pretty woman who wrote in Spanish. After a while, Zimmel Hesheles began coming to the Writers’ Club again, no longer alone but with Lena. He no longer ordered one glass of tea but two, and cookies besides. He again played chess, and standing or sitting among the kibitzers was Lena.
Lena spoke Yiddish, but with a Spanish accent. She quickly struck up an acquaintance with us young writers, particularly the poets. As silent as Zimmel Hesheles was, so did Lena turn out to be garrulous. She talked about the Spanish writers in Argentina, the cafés, the little magazines published there, the literary feuds, intrigues, and slanders. We learned that the young writers in Argentina shared the same burden we did in Warsaw — they were kept out of the well-known magazines and found it difficult to publish a poem or story. Some of the writers published books at their own expense. The critics there displayed as little understanding of the new word and new approach in style as did the critics here. Lena had suffered particular difficulties due to her Jewishness and the fact that her parents had been Polish immigrants. She wasn’t even a citizen yet, although she had been born in Argentina.
Her words evoked within us both amazement and a feeling of sympathy for a visitor who had come to us from the outside world and had married one of ours, a Yiddish poet and a pauper. When Lena expressed a desire to become better acquainted with Yiddish literature and to take lessons in Yiddish, we were all ready to serve as her tutors. Lena acquired not one teacher but several. One taught her reading, another spelling, a third explained the Hebrew words that enter into the Yiddish language. She began coming to the Writers’ Club not only during the two hours her husband spent there but for long hours before and after lunch. We assumed that Zimmel Hesheles would become jealous and not let her spend time with writers her age, but he apparently trusted her. It didn’t take long before a number of older writers also began to get closer to Lena. An editor of the literary section of a Yiddish newspaper had one of her poems translated, and he ran it in a Friday edition in large type, along with her photograph, which as usual came out nearly all black.
One day the inevitable happened: Lena had written a poem in Yiddish. The poem was clumsy, banal, but the young poets praised it, fell into ecstasy, and congratulated her for becoming part of Yiddish literature. They showered her with advice on how to make the poem stronger and more original, and Lena agreed to all their revisions. I assumed that Zimmel wouldn’t let her publish such trash, but he seemed to be completely indifferent to her writing.
Then this happened: I had started a novella about the false messiah Jacob Frank, but by the end of the fourth chapter I hit a snag and couldn’t go on. The action had expired as if on its own. I tried again and again to begin Chapter 5, but I wasted an entire notebook and nothing came of it. It was a hot summer day. I had read in Payot’s The Education of the Will, or maybe in Farrell’s book about spiritual hygiene, that a long walk could sometimes help overcome such an inhibition, and I decided to test this theory. I went out into the Kraków suburb and strolled along Nowy Swiat Street until it turned into Ujazdów Avenue. Along the way I stopped in front of bookstore windows. I also observed monuments, churches, and the houses where the Polish aristocracy resided. I went into ?azienki Park and lingered for a long time around the pond where swans floated. From here I could see the palace of King Poniatowski.
Young women, tall and slim in their riding habits and boots, went by on horses. They sat erect and silent in their saddles, and it seemed to me that they were privy to some secret that they concealed from others. They struck me as members of some superhuman race. It occurred to me that the angels who had fallen from heaven, the giants mentioned in the Book of Genesis, had fallen in love with such females.
Gradually I also became aware of the error I had made in my novella. Jacob Frank had been a Sephardic Jew who spoke Turkish. Yiddish had not been his mother tongue and I had no right to use a hero whose life and heritage were so alien to me. I should have stuck to only his disciples in Poland: Elisha Shur; Rabbi Nachman of Busk; and others who later converted and assumed such fancy names as Wolowski and Majewski. I was amazed that I hadn’t realized this right at the very beginning.
Evening began to fall. Birds twittered. Somewhere a band was playing. Cool breezes blew from the Vistula. The sun hadn’t set yet, but a full moon had already emerged prematurely. The scent of plants and flowers blended with that of fresh horse manure. Together with my literary introspection I conducted a kind of personal one as well. I had already gone through a world war and revolutions. I had lived under three regimes — the Russian, the German, and the independent Polish. Jews had been granted with the Balfour Declaration the promise of a Jewish nation. I had chucked the religion of who knows how many generations and had tried hard to believe in evolution, in a universe that had evolved from an explosion. I was barely twenty-six, but it seemed to me that I had been wandering on this planet since prehistoric times. During those twilight hours I literally sensed the immortality of souls.
Suddenly, I stopped. On a bench beneath a thickly branched tree sat Menahem Roshbom and Lena. He held her hand in his. They talked, smiled. Lena laughed. Then Roshbom leaned toward her and kissed her. I stood there for a long time dumbfounded, concealed behind a tree so that they couldn’t see me. I had already read Maupassant, Strindberg, Artsybashev, Kuprin, the Polish writer Gabriela Zapolska, and a number of other authors who wrote about sex. I had even tried to translate into Yiddish Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character. I myself had published stories about the unfaithfulness of husbands and wives. But this was the first time I had experienced such treachery up close. I grew ashamed of my own naïveté. My heart pounded, my throat closed, and I could barely hold back my tears. I knew full well that it was unethical to stand there spying on the lovers, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Not four months had gone by since Lena had married Zimmel. He wasn’t only her husband but her uncle as well.
Menahem Roshbom was maybe forty years older than she. He had a mistress or several mistresses. Had he bought her with money? Did she actually love him? Did she know what love was?
Both in the poem that had been translated into Polish and in her Yiddish one, Lena had spoken of the holiness of love. I had often heard my father say, in his disputes with my elder brother, Joshua, that those who were in love were adulterers and liars, and that the novels describing these feelings were a deadly poison. Father contended that lovers didn’t love the other party but only themselves. Should the female become sick or crippled, God forbid, the lecher would leave her for another. At that time I had been too young to mix into these discussions, but secretly I had sided with my brother, who argued that arranging matches through a marriage broker was Asiatic, fanatical, an anachronism left over from the Middle Ages. At that time I had taken a holy vow to marry only for love.
It grew dark and the two figures on the bench merged into a cluster of shadows. I turned off to a side, went out another exit, and took an open streetcar home. That summer night was one of those said to drive people mad. The sun had long since set, but the sky retained the brightness of day. Waves of heat fell from it. Couples by the swarms strolled along the sidewalks. They didn’t walk but seemed rather to be dancing — the men in light-colored suits and straw hats, the women in hats adorned with fruits and flowers, and dresses revealing the curves and sways of their breasts, hips, loins. They were all intoxicated by love but I gazed at them with pity. They were all wallowing up to their chins in lies and deceit. I was tired and my bones ached. Old age had come down upon me. For the first time I resented that there did not exist a Jewish cloister where those who had realized the vanity of all human efforts could hide.
That night I didn’t close an eye until the light of dawn. When I fell asleep, nightmares woke me. The pillow beneath my head grew soaked. Mosquitoes buzzed about my ears and bit me. From outside I heard the cries of drunks or victims of assault. I kept on hearing my father’s voice. He was preaching a long sermon to me, but what he was saying I could not grasp. I got up after eleven and although I had skipped dinner, my stomach was bloated and my tongue coated. I had a quick cup of coffee at a café and went to the Writers’ Club. Maybe I would meet the protagonists of yesterday’s drama there? Yes, they were all present. Zimmel Hesheles, Lena, Menahem Roshbom. Zimmel Hesheles and Menahem Roshbom played chess, and Lena sat alongside and kibitzed. I stood behind her, but she didn’t notice me. Roshbom’s position on the chessboard was critical. He grunted, pulled the hair of his beard, grimaced, drew the cigarette smoke deeply into his lungs. For a while it seemed that, in his great confusion, he had swallowed the smoke, but suddenly it burst forth from both his mouth and his hairy nostrils. I even imagined that whirls of smoke escaped from his beard.
Zimmel Hesheles asked: “So where goes the king?”
“Yes, where goes the king?” Lena echoed.
She cast an inquisitive and radiant glance at Roshbom, who replied: “Madam, don’t fret. I have a thousand ways. I’ll teach him such a lesson, he’ll think twice before he pulls any more filthy stunts. I’ll tear him to shreds, the bungler.”
Then he waved his hand so that the pieces scattered.
“I shouldn’t have moved the rook.”
I left the club. On the stairs I made a vow never to come back. I kept this vow for two and a half weeks.
When I came back to the club, Shmuel Blechman asked me: “Where did you disappear to? Lena Hesheles read one of your stories and she’s simply enraptured. She’s been looking for you. She wants to translate it into Spanish. You lucky dog. It’s for you that she’s going to open a window into the world.”
“She’s already done it,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“He likes to play the big shot,” remarked another of the young writers.
They all winked and laughed.
I didn’t wait for her.