Esther Singer Kre­it­man, 1912. Back­ground pho­to by Ed Robert­son on Unsplash

What was it like to grow up as part of one of the most cel­e­brat­ed Yid­dish lit­er­ary fam­i­lies, while being ostra­cized by its most famous members? 

Mau­rice Carr — born Mor­ris, or Moshe, Kre­it­man — was the son of Esther Kre­it­man, a Yid­dish writer and the old­er sis­ter of Isaac Bashe­vis and Israel Joshua Singer. Born in 1913 in Antwerp, Carr grew up in Lon­don where he became a nov­el­ist, trans­la­tor, and jour­nal­ist who served for sev­er­al decades as the Reuters cor­re­spon­dent in Paris. In addi­tion to Reuters, his jour­nal­ism was pub­lished by the BBC, the Dai­ly Tele­graph, The Jerusalem Post, Maariv, Haaretz, and Com­men­tary Mag­a­zine, among oth­ers. Carr’s mem­oir of his child­hood, The For­got­ten Singer: The Exiled Sis­ter of I. J. and Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, was pub­lished in 2023 by the Yid­dish Book Center’s White Goat Press. The book describes his tumul­tuous child­hood and com­ing of age as a Yid­dish-speak­ing child of immi­grants in inter­war Lon­don. In this excerpt Carr describes a trip he took with his moth­er at age thir­teen to Poland, where he met both of his uncles for the first time, and wit­nessed the fraught rela­tion­ship between his moth­er and the rest of her family.

— Ezra Glinter

The train pulls into the War­saw rail­way ter­mi­nal. I help my moth­er down three steep cast-iron stairs onto the plat­form and we join the crowd stream­ing to the exit.

Look, Mama, isn’t that Yitzhak over there?”

In a flash of illu­mi­na­tion I rec­og­nize the death­ly pale scrag­gly red­head with enor­mous gray-blue eyes, thin lips, and large ears who stands day­dream­ing behind the steam engine. He is her younger broth­er, the one who at dead of night climbed into bed with his sis­ter Hin­dele. She, ter­ri­fied of the evil spir­its in the dark, enticed him with a temp­ta­tion he couldn’t resist — she’d tell him a story.

My moth­er gazes at grown-up Yitzchak in dis­be­lief. He steps for­ward, darts at her two kiss­es, which miss either cheek, and strides away. We race after him to anoth­er rail­way sta­tion and board a dilap­i­dat­ed old train that chugs slow­ly out of town, stop­ping every few min­utes to drop off sporti­ly dressed pas­sen­gers, com­muters to dachas. We are left with black-caf­taned Jews whose side­locks and rit­u­al fringes swing to the rhythm of their loud and plain Yiddish.

With the elu­sive Yitzchak my habit­u­al­ly over­ef­fu­sive moth­er is at a loss for words.

We step out onto an open-air plat­form in the mid­dle of nowhere. A sign­post says SWIDER. We walk on burn­ing-hot sand that smoth­ers our feet and enter a for­est strewn with pinecones. The air is heady with pine sap and bird­song. The gold­en sun in the bluest sky I have ever seen spreads light and shade with the absolute­ness pecu­liar to dreams. We enter a fenced-in pinewood estate, and here the wak­ing dream takes an uncan­ny turn.

Yitzhak is no longer at our side but stands before us grown taller and old­er. The gaunt face has become hand­some; the ears still stick out, but they no longer look like the wings of a bat about to take flight. The mas­sive bulging cra­ni­um has lost its mop of red hair, the chin is upturned, stub­born, and most strik­ing of all, the same pale blue eyes are opened wide, but the indif­fer­ent far­away gaze has giv­en way to a strange light in the whites of the eyes, a glit­ter of absolute author­i­ty and absolute melancholy.

This is my oth­er uncle, Joshua Singer, or Shiya. With a shriek of min­gled joy and pain my moth­er throws her­self upon him in an embrace so pas­sion­ate as to be more than sis­ter­ly. He strug­gles to dis­en­gage him­self, takes a back­ward step, and fix­es her with a gaze of min­gled sor­row and revulsion.

My moth­er stands abashed. She blinks fren­zied­ly, bites her low­er lip smeared with lip­stick, and takes man­i­fest note of what her beloved broth­er leaves unsaid: You, Hin­dele, have been invit­ed to a fam­i­ly reunion out of pity, or call it com­pas­sion, but cer­tain­ly not love. I won’t have you thrust your­self upon me. You have already man­aged to make a pest of your­self, so the soon­er you go back to your unloved hus­band in Lon­don the better.”

For the rest of our stay she will hold her­self aloof from Shiya, will look down on his wife Genya as unwor­thy of him, will ignore and be ignored by Yitzhak, will con­sort with the dacha lit­er­ari, and have lit­tle to say to me. As of now her past is a closed book, and I have ceased to be her audience.

Swider is the sum­mer dacha of the Yid­dish writ­ers and poets. The rent­ed bun­ga­lows are scat­tered far and wide in the pinewoods. These clap­board struc­tures are each com­posed of a spa­cious liv­ing room flanked on either side by a bed­room and a kitchen, the whole front­ed by a veran­da on stilts.

Shiya installs a camp bed for me in the fam­i­ly liv­ing room. I have no notion where and with whom he accom­mo­dates my moth­er. She joins us for meals, but for the rest spends her time in fever­ish debate with the writ­ers of mameloshen Yid­dish prose and poetry …

… I am cast in the role of the leg­endary haroeh v’lo nireh, the heav­en-sent car­nal phan­tom who sees but can­not be seen by oth­ers. This arrange­ment is heav­en on earth for me.

From The For­got­ten Singer: The Exiled Sis­ter of I. J. and Isaac Bashe­vis Singer by Mau­rice Carr. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of White Goat Press.

Mau­rice Carr (born 1913 in Antwerp, died 2003 in Paris) was a writer, essay­ist, trans­la­tor, jour­nal­ist, and son of Esther Singer Kre­it­man and nephew of writ­ers Israel Joshua and Isaac Bashe­vis Singer. Carr was a Parisian cor­re­spon­dent for the Reuters Agency and edi­tor of Izrael Mag­a­zine. As a jour­nal­ist he worked for the BBC, the Dai­ly Tele­graph, The Jerusalem Post, Maariv, Haaretz, and Com­men­tary Mag­a­zine, among many oth­ers. Under the lit­er­ary pseu­do­nym of Mar­tin Lea, he pub­lished the nov­el The House of Napolitano.