Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Israel Joshua Singer was born in Poland, but he had already been living in the United States for 10 years, and had been an American citizen for 4, when he first published Di Mishpokhe Karnovsky in book form in 1943. So naturally, when his characters, three generations of the Carnovsky family, are forced to flee the persecutions of Hitler’s Germany in the novel’s third section, Singer brings them to his adopted home, New York City. They’re lucky–we know now the horrific fate of those who didn’t escape Berlin before the war–but adjusting to the change isn’t easy. As Singer writes, ‘To the family Carnovsky, America was like a new pair of shoes–a pleasure to put on, a pain to wear.”
The novel’s three books track three generations of Carnovskys, each of which strays farther from the family’s roots in Eastern Europe. David, the patriarch, rejects the small-mindedness he sees in his Polish shtetl and moves with his young wife to Berlin, the seat of Enlightenment and culture. His son, Georg, grows out of his youthful aimlessness, and, thanks in part to an attractive female medical student, works his way up to become one of the city’s most prominent surgeons.
Though highly pursued by Jewish marriage brokers, Georg falls in love with a Christian, Teresa; their son, egor, matures in interwar Berlin and assimilates the disgusting racial theories peddled by the Nazis and their flunkies. Singer fleshes out his plot with a supporting cast that includes Solomon Burak, an appealing discount store magnate; Dr. Elsa Landau, a communist firebrand and member of the Reichstag; her father, a vegetarian and philanthropic physician; and Dr. Zerba, a failed mystical poet and pervert who becomes a low-level Nazi spy with a home on Long Island.
Over 110,000 refugees immigrated to America from Germany in the 1930s, and half of them settled on New York’s Upper West Side. Singer’s novel–incredible for having been written before the end of the war and the revelation of the most awful brutalities–offers a panorama of their experiences, from the prejudices Jews cultivated toward Jews from other lands, to the inconceivable reticence some had about describing the horrors of the homelands they had fled.
A document of its time, and a grand family saga, The Family Carnovsky is as valuable as it is compelling.
Further reading: Singer’s most famous novel, The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), gives similar epic treatment to the city of Lodz, Poland, and is even more powerful. Though he died tragically young from a heart attack in 1944, Singer’s oeuvre also includes a number of plays, short story collections, and a memoir, translated as Of a World That Is No More (1970). Readers interested in Singer’s relationship with his younger and ultimately more famous brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer, will find Clive Sinclair’s The Brothers Singer (1983) worthwhile (or see Isaac Bashevis Singer’s memoirs of childhood), while Anita Norich’s The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of I. J. Singer (1991) is the finest scholarly study of the author’s life and works.
Pronounced: shTETTull, Origin: Yiddish, a small town or village with a large Jewish population existing in Eastern or Central Europe in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century.