Vol. 4 No. 6 · 1 April 1982

Lost in America – Part Two of a Memoir by Isaac Bashevis Singer

4720 words

Thank God, none of my fears and premonitions came true. I wasn’t detained on Ellis Island. The Immigration officers didn’t make any trouble for me. My brother Joshua and a fellow writer of his, Zygmunt Salkin, a member of the Anglo-Jewish press in America, came to meet me at the ship. After a few formalities I was seated in Salkin’s car.

I wanted to carry my valises but Zygmunt Salkin snatched them out of my hands. I had heard of him back in Warsaw. When my brother visited America following the publication in the Jewish Daily Forward of his novel Yoshe Kalb, Zygmunt Salkin escorted him around New York, presented him to a number of American writers, theatre people, editors, publishers and translators. Salkin himself had translated several works from Yiddish into English.

He and Joshua were the same age, nearly 40, but Salkin appeared much younger. In the nearly two years we had been apart, my brother seemed to have aged. The hair surrounding his bald skull had grown nearly gray. Zygmunt Salkin had a head of curly brown hair. He wore a blue suit with red stripes, a shirt of a similar pattern and a gaudy tie. He spoke an old-home Yiddish without the English words employed by the American tourists I had encountered in Warsaw. Still, I could determine from his speech that he had already spent many years in the land of Columbus.

He had heard about me through my brother. He had read in the magazine Globus the serialisation of my novel, as well as several of my stories in the Forward, and he began to call me by my first name.

Before driving my brother and me to Seagate, where Joshua was now living, he wanted to show me New York. In the two hours that he drove us around I saw much – the avenues with the metal bridges, the ‘els’, looming overhead and the electric trains racing, as well as Fifth and Madison avenues, Radio City, Riverside Drive and, later, Wall Street, the streets and markets around the Lower East Side and finally the ten-storey Forward building where my brother worked as a staff member. I had forgotten that it was the first of May, but the columns of the Forward building were completely draped in red and a large throng stood before the building listening to a speaker.

We crossed the bridge to Brooklyn and a new area of New York revealed itself to me. It was less crowded, had almost no skyscrapers and resembled more a European city than Manhattan, which impressed me as a giant exhibition of Cubist paintings and theatre props. Without realising it, I registered whatever uniqueness I could see in the houses, the stores, the shops. The people here walked, they did not rush and run. They all wore new and light clothes. Within kosher butcher shops, bones were sawed rather than chopped with cleavers. The stores featured potatoes alongside oranges, radishes next to pineapples. In drugstores, food was served to men and women seated on high stools. Boys holding sticks resembling rolling pins and wearing huge gloves on one hand played ball in the middle of the streets. They bellowed in adult voices. Among shoe, lamp, rug stores and flower shops stood a mortuary. Pallbearers dressed in black carried out a coffin decorated in wreaths and loaded it into a car draped with curtains. The family or whoever came to the funeral did not show on their faces any sign of mourning. They conversed and behaved as if death was an everyday occurrence to them.

We came to Coney Island. To the left, the ocean flashed and flared with a blend of water and fire. To the right, carousels whirled, youths shot at tin ducks. On rails emerging from a tunnel, then looming straight up into the pale blue sky, boys rode metal horses while girls sitting behind them shrieked. Jazz music throbbed, whistled, screeched. A mechanical man, a robot, laughed hollowly. Before a kind of museum, a black giant cavorted with a midget on each arm. I could feel that some mental catastrophe was taking place here, some mutation for which there was no name in my vocabulary, not even a beginning of a notion. We drove through a gate with a barrier and guarded by a policeman, and it suddenly grew quiet and pastoral. We pulled up before a house with turrets and a long porch where elderly people sat and warmed themselves in the sun. My brother said, ‘This is the bastion of Yiddishism. Here, it’s decided who is mortal or immortal, who is progressive or reactionary.’

I heard someone ask: ‘So you’ve brought your brother?’

‘Yes, here he is.’


I got out of the car and a soft and moist hand clasped mine. A tiny man wearing a pair of large sunglasses said: ‘You don’t know me. How could you? But I know you. I read Globus faithfully. Thanks is due you for writing the naked truth. The scribblers here try to persuade the reader that the shtetl was a paradise full of saints. So comes along someone from the very place and he says “stuff and nonsense!” They’ll excommunicate you here, but don’t be alarmed.’

‘He’s just arrived and already he’s getting compliments,’ remarked another individual with a head of milk-white hair and a freshly sunburned round face. ‘I had to wait 20 years before I heard a kind word in America. The fact is that I’m still waiting ... cheh, cheh, cheh... .’

My brother and Zygmunt Salkin exchanged a few more words with a girl who served someone a cup of tea, then we got in the car and drove for a few seconds and stopped before another house. My brother said: ‘This is where we live.’

I looked up and saw my sister-in-law Genia and their son Yosele. Genia seemed the same but Yosele had grown. Out of habit I started to address him in Polish but it turned out that he had completely forgotten that language. He spoke English now and also knew a little Yiddish.

My brother lived in a house built as a summer residence. It consisted of a bedroom and a huge room which served as a combination living and dining-room. There was no kitchen here, only a kitchenette, which opened like a closet. Joshua told me that he planned to spend only the summer here. The furniture belonged to the landlord, who was the brother of a well-known Yiddish critic. The bathroom was shared with another tenant, a writer, too. Genia reminded me to latch the door to the other apartment when I used the bathroom, and to unlatch it when I was through. Fortunately, the neighbour was an elderly bachelor who was away most of the day, she observed.

My brother had rented a room in the same house for me. A renewed surge of love for him coursed through me. He was not only my brother but my father and master as well. I could never address him first. I always had to wait for him to make the first overture. I went to my room and lay down on the sofa. I did not put on the light. I lay there in the darkness. I was still young, not yet 30, but I was overcome by a fatigue that most probably comes with old age. I had cut off whatever roots I had in Poland, yet I knew that I would remain a stranger here to my last day. I tried to imagine myself in Hitler’s Dachau, or in a labour camp in Siberia. Nothing was left for me in the future. All I could think about was the past.

My brother apparently sensed my melancholy since he did things for me with a particular energy. He and Zygmunt Salkin took me to Manhattan and forced me to exchange my heavy black Warsaw suit for a light American summer outfit. I also had to discard my stiff collar for a soft-collared shirt. Without even consulting me, Joshua arranged for the Forward to provide me with work and possibly publish a novel of mine as well. He took me along to the Café Royal downtown on Second Avenue and introduced me to writers, to theatre people. But my shyness returned with all its indignities. I blushed when he introduced me to women. I lost my tongue when men spoke to me and asked me questions. The actresses all claimed that my brother and I were as alike as two drops of water. They joked with me, tried flirting with me, made the comments of those who have long since shed every inhibition. The writers could hardly bring themselves to believe that I was the one who had written such a diabolical work as Satan in Goray and had published in Globus biting reviews of the works of famous Yiddish writers in Poland, Russia and America. My brother fully realised what I was enduring and he tried to help me, but this only exacerbated my embarrassment. I sweated and my heart pounded. A waiter brought me food. I couldn’t swallow a bit. A rage filled me against America, against my brother for bringing me here and against myself and my accursed nature. The enemy reposing within me had scored a smashing victory. In my anxiety I resolved to book a return trip to Poland as quickly as possible and to jump overboard en route.

A year had gone by. A novel I wrote for the Forward turned out badly, but the editor let it run to its conclusion and I managed to save up $1000. I had ceased writing fiction and supported myself from a short column that appeared every Sunday under the title ‘It’s worthwhile knowing’ – ‘facts’ culled from American magazines: How long would a man’s beard be if he lived to 70 and all the hairs he had shaved off during his lifetime were laid end to end? How much did the heaviest specimen of a whale weigh? How large was the vocabulary of a Zulu? I received $16 per column and this was more than enough for me to pay $5 per week rent for a furnished room on East 19th Street off Fourth Avenue and to eat in cafeterias.

My tourist visa had already been extended twice, but when I applied for a third time, it was extended for three more months with the stipulation that this was the last time this would be done. I had some ten weeks in which to obtain a permanent visa or go back to Poland, where Hitler was liable to march in at any time.

At the editorial office of the Forward, I found two letters for me, and I stuck them in my breast pocket. By the time I went outside, it was half past 12. I waited for a bus, but after a half hour it still hadn’t come. I started walking in the direction of 19th Street. I stopped under a lamppost and tried to make out the source of the letters. I couldn’t believe my own eyes – one letter was from Lena in Warsaw and one from Zosia in Boston – one in Yiddish, the other in Polish.

It was too dark on Avenue B to make out the writing, yet I managed to gather from Lena’s letter that she had just gotten out of Pawiak Prison. She had given birth to a son and had been arrested a few weeks later. Her comrades took care of the child. Her letter consisted of six densely filled pages. Zosia’s letter was only one page but I couldn’t make out her handwriting by the light of the lamppost. I didn’t walk but ran. My legs had grown unusually light. What a joke! Here I was on the verge of being deported from America and Lena demanded an affidavit from me! And during the worst crisis of my life I had become, of all things, the father of a child born to a Communist, a grandson of my pious father and Lena’s reactionary father Reb Solomon Simon. What a combination of events and genes!

Zosia wrote that she had written to me at my brother’s address in Seagate but the letter had come back. Someone who knew about me had given her the address of the Forward. She was coming to New York City from Boston now for an indefinite period of time and she gave me an address and telephone number where I could reach her – assuming I still remembered her.

I called the hotel and was connected with Zosia. I couldn’t invite her to my wretched room and we agreed to meet at the 42nd Street Cafeteria, near the public library.

She was a half-hour late and I was already preparing to leave when, through the window, I saw her coming. She wore a summer suit and a straw hat. She seemed to me taller, fairer and more elegant than the last time I had seen her aboard ship. She had apparently achieved some success in America. I went out to meet her and escorted her to my table, where I had left a book and a newspaper along with my crumpled hat. I brought coffee for her and for myself. Zosia began questioning me and, as is my nature, I told her everything. Zosia said: ‘Do anything, but don’t dare to go back to Poland!’

The next day I went to see a lawyer, a Mr Lemkin. I brought along all the documents that I possessed. Lemkin was tall, blond and youthful. His entire presence exuded the competence and energy of those for whom life with all its troubles and miseries is nothing but the kind of a challenge one encounters in solving some easy crossword puzzle. He received me standing up, eating an apple. He took one glance at my documents and said: ‘It’s not enough, but we’ll proceed with what we have.’

I witnessed something that astounded me, the frightened Polish Jew. He picked up the telephone and asked to be connected with the American consul in Toronto or perhaps with one of his aides. He called him by his first name and told him about me and my documents. I would never have believed speed like this possible. My previous lawyer, an immigrant himself, had delayed everything for weeks and months. He always began his conversation with the words ‘We’re having a problem.’ But Mr Lemkin accomplished everything in minutes. In him I had found the very epitome of the American notion that time is money.

‘What must I do?’ I asked.

‘You’ll have to smuggle yourself into Canada.’

Mr Lemkin continued: ‘Don’t be so timid. It’s all a matter of a few bucks. You’ll take the train to Detroit and meet a little man in a hotel lobby. He’ll lead you across the bridge into Windsor, which belongs to Canada. Thousands of Americans and Canadians cross this bridge daily and the officials haven’t the time for long formalities. The man who will take you across has his connections and his fee is $100. When you get to Windsor, you’ll take a bus to Toronto. You’ll carry no documents on you. You will forward your passport and the other documents to the King Edward Hotel in Toronto by mail. I’ll make a reservation for you there for a couple of days because it takes a while to obtain the visa. In case the Canadians should catch you, you mustn’t tell that you are a Polish citizen. You can rest easy, this hasn’t happened till now to any of my clients. Everything goes smooth as glass.’

The quiet, reticent Zosia had turned energetic overnight. She was ready to accompany me to Toronto and go on a trip with me to some other Canadian places – ‘just for the sake of doing something before I expire from boredom,’ she explained. I had proposed it to her without believing for a moment that she would agree. Only after she consented did I realise how many complications – financial, legal, psychological – this little venture would bring about.

We spent the first night sitting up in the coach car. We had rented pillows for a quarter apiece and, since I hadn’t slept the night before, I dozed the entire night. The car was half-empty and Zosia found a bench on which to stretch out. I slept and worried.

Mr Lemkin had written down for me the name of the hotel in Detroit where I was to await a man whom I would address as Mr Smith. Mr Smith was to leave a message with the desk clerk giving the time of our meeting. I would not need to rent a room at the Detroit hotel since I would be spending the coming night on the bus from Windsor to Toronto. I was simply to sit in the hotel lobby until Mr Smith contacted me. But the fact that Zosia was to come along with her two heavy valises and satchel posed unforeseen difficulties. It would look suspicious to arrive at a hotel with a lady and baggage, then sit for who knows how many hours in the lobby with her and wait for a message from a Mr Smith. On the other hand, I couldn’t afford the luxury of renting a room for merely a few hours. And what about Zosia? Was I to take a double room for Mr and Mrs So-and-so? Would Zosia consent to it? And what if the clerk asked for our passports?

I had fallen into a deep sleep before we reached Detroit and Zosia was waking me. She looked sick, faded, dishevelled. We got into a taxi and we were taken to a hotel that seemed to me fancy and expensive. Two porters fetched Zosia’s luggage and we were led to the desk where new arrivals registered. When the clerk asked me if I wanted a room with a double or twin bed, I heard Zosia say: ‘We aren’t married.’

‘In that case I’ll give you two adjacent rooms,’ the clerk said gallantly. He gave me a sidelong look and handed another card to Zosia for her to fill Out. I was too shocked to remember to ask for the price.

Zosia and I had realised it would endanger our plan if we were seen together by Mr Smith and so we decided that she would cross the bridge before Mr Smith took me there, and she would wait for me at the bus station in Windsor.

The telephone rang in my room, and it was Mr Smith. He said: ‘Come right down. I am waiting for you in the lobby. I’m wearing a hat with a little brush in it and I’ll be holding a copy of the Saturday Evening Post. Make it snappy.’

I went right out into the corridor and began searching for the elevator, but it had vanished. I raced up and down the lengthy corridor; there was not a trace of an elevator.

From somewhere, a black maid appeared. I asked her where the elevator was and she shouted something I couldn’t understand. I began searching for the stairs, but at that moment a door opened and someone stepped out of the elevator. I quickly raced inside it.

For some reason, I had pictured Mr Smith as being tall, but he turned out to be a runt. He winked at me to follow him; however, I hadn’t yet checked out. The bill came to over $40. I went outside with Mr Smith and we walked along. During the whole time, he didn’t speak a single word to me. The bridge was crowded with pedestrians. We passed two officials and it seemed to me that Mr Smith nodded to one of them. They let me pass without a word.

I no longer recall whether the distance to the bus station was long or short. It seems to me that the station was right on the other side of the bridge. The moment we had crossed it, Mr Smith vanished. I had the anxious premonition that when I got to the bus station Zosia wouldn’t be there. And that’s how it turned out.

The station was small. If she had gone to the ladies’ room, her suitcases would be out here. But there were no suitcases in sight. A catastrophe had occurred. Zosia had my passport. I could no longer return to the States. Nor could I obtain a visa without a passport. According to my calculations, Zosia should have been here more than an hour ago. ‘Well, this is my finish,’ I told myself.

The station began to fill up with passengers who were apparently bound for Toronto, too. Suddenly, I spotted Zosia. Someone carried in her valises and she handed the man a tip. I stood up and Zosia said to me: ‘They detained me at the frontier. They suspected me of being a Communist agitator, those idiots.’

It was all in the past – the examination by the American consul in Toronto (not unlike the examination by the American consul in Warsaw), Zosia’s congratulations, her wishes and kisses. As always when something propitious happens to me, I asked my inner I, my ego, superego, id or whatever it should be called, if I was finally happy. But they kept diplomatically silent. It seemed that I had a great talent for suffering, but no positive achievement could ever satisfy me.

Night had fallen when we finally returned to the hotel. In all the excitement of getting the visa I had almost forgotten that Zosia and I had come here with an unspoken agreement to deliver her from the disgrace of remaining a virgin at an age when other women had husbands or lovers or both.

I heard a knocking on my door and I rushed to open it. On the other side of the threshold stood Zosia in a black nightgown (or was it a negligee?) and silver slippers. For the first time she wore a trace of make-up, discreetly applied, her nose powdered and a redness in her cheeks which might have been rouge. She had even changed her hairdo. ‘Unconditional surrender’, the phrase so often used at the end of World War Two, went through my mind. She smiled, half-frightened, with that naivety which sometimes shows up in even the most shrewd woman.

‘How beautiful you look! Come in.’

‘A day like this happens once in a lifetime.’

This was no longer the same Zosia who admired Baudelaire for being the only poet and thinker who could tell the world the full dismal truth, but an old maid who had decided to lose her virginity at any price. I sat down on my bed and I offered her the chair nearby.

The master of spite, as I call the special adversary of love-making, had his way. The first half of the night Zosia was willing but I was inhibited. After I gave up all hope and had an hour of sleep, my potency came back as strongly as ever but then Zosia became possessed by the same dybbuk. She pressed her legs together and my bony knees could not separate them. I reproached her contradictory behaviour but she said to me: ‘I can’t help it.’ She informed me that exactly the same thing happened to her on the night when she had tried to give herself to a professor in Warsaw. I had gotten so accustomed to the games of the adversary in me and in those near to me that I stopped being surprised. I had already learned that our genitals, which in the language of the vulgar are synonyms of stupidity and insensitivity, are actually the expression of the human soul, defiant of lechery, the most ardent defenders of true love.

Day was breaking when we both gave up and Zosia went back to her room. In the morning we had breakfast in the dining-room of the hotel, trying to make conversation about Hitler, Mussolini, the civil war in Spain. We avoided looking into each other’s eyes. It was clear to both of us that our planned journey together was over. Zosia had gotten information about her return to the USA at the desk. She intended to travel directly from Toronto to Boston and I was to take the train to New York. Both of our trains were leaving in the evening and we had the whole day to ourselves. We checked out from the hotel after lunch, leaving our luggage in the storage room – partners to a disenchantment we could never forget.

I was back in New York, back in my furnished room on 19th Street. Once again I read my visa in my passport and the card I would present when I took out my first papers, then I put them away in the drawer of my wobbly table.

I had failed in many areas, yet I now found myself on a continent where neither Hitler nor Stalin could threaten me. I had eaten a satisfying meal at the Automat opposite Grand Central Station and I was ready to get some sleep after the restless nights on the train to Detroit, on the bus to Toronto, on the train back to New York and with Zosia at the King Edward Hotel.

I returned to 19th Street. It was raining and I got drenched. I walked up the four flights to my room. There was no choice but to undress and go to bed. The blanket was thin and I had to put my feet into the sleeves of a sweater to warm them. I had turned out the ceiling light and was lying still. I fell asleep and dreamed. In the middle of the night someone knocked at my door. Who could it be? I had been told that Nazis lived in this building and I was afraid that someone might want to kill me. I looked around for something with which to defend myself. There was nothing except two wire clothes-hangers.

‘Who is it?’ I asked.

‘It’s the night man.’

The night man? What would a night man want in the middle of the night? I wondered. Aloud, I said: ‘What’s wrong?’

‘There’s a cable for you.’

‘A cable? For me? So late?’

‘The super gave it to me to give to you, but I forgot.’

I rolled out of bed naked and fell to the floor. I got up, stripped the sheet off my bed and draped myself in it. Then I opened the door.


And a black man handed me a cable.

I wanted to give him a nickel, but he didn’t have the patience to wait and he slammed the door.

I tore open the cablegram and read:


There was an address included that sounded Greek.

What kind of madness is this? I asked myself. Send money at once? This minute? What was she doing in Greece?

I threw off the sheet and glanced at my wristwatch. It had stopped at a quarter past five. Was it still today, or was it already tomorrow? It didn’t matter either way. In Athens of all places ... The rich uncle from America would send a cheque for $100,000, like in a trashy play. I felt like laughing, drinking the rusty water from the faucet and urinating. I stood for a while by the sink staring, as if seeking the means to fulfil all these three needs simultaneously. Then I went over to the window, opened it and looked out into the wet street, its black windows, flat roofs, the glowing sky, without a moon, without stars, opaque and stagnant like some global cover. I leaned out as far as I could, deeply inhaled the fumes of the city and proclaimed to myself and to the powers of the night:

I am lost in America, lost for ever.

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