07 September 2010
Listening to the news today of the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz over London, I was suddenly reminded of a short story called simply "Blitz" and written by Esther Kreitman. She was the enormously talented but sadly forgotten elder sister of the more famous Isaac Bashevis Singer, who himself was the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kreitman, too, was raised in Poland and wrote in Yiddish. But while Isaac and his brother Israel Joshua (also an author) moved to New York in the 1930s, Esther made London her home.
Anyway, I scoured my bookshelf and rediscovered a copy of Blitz and Other Stories, published in 2004 by David Paul Books. The eponymous story "Blitz" is all of four and a half pages - but what a little gem it is!
Expertly translated by Dorothee van Tendeloo, it tells of a Shabbat afternoon in September, when the "sun poured its cruel heat over the black city" and canaries in cages "were singing cheerfully, oblivious of the war taking over the world". Economic with her prose, Kreitman deftly reveals vivid impressions of a real community, Jews and Gentiles inhabiting the narrow streets around Commercial Road.
Suddenly the fragile, deceptive peace is broken when German planes descend on London out of the blue, "birds of prey with their flashing steel... and the little black houses are blown in all directions, like shards of coal under a miner's hammer". Fire spreads all around, bricks rain down, ordinary citizens desperately rummage through destroyed homes to rescue their children and neighbours, but only succeed in burying themselves. Perhaps the single most powerful image is that of tall Simon, a Jewish boxer, who having saved numerous victims suddenly goes crazy, breaks down a stable and releases still-burning panicked horse. They gallop through the streets "like running torches"... and then "collapse in mid-flight, stretching out as if in silent protest, with their hooves raised to the blazing sky".
Edited by Sylvia Plaskin and with an illuminating Afterword by Esther's son, Maurice Carr (died 2003), Blitz is a fascinating and highly readable collection of 14 stories, a tribute to Kreitman's rare talent, her alternately compassionate and acerbic prose - and a wonderful evocation of a time and place in London Jewish history. For more, see