Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969
On a summer morning, Herman Broder stirs from his troubled dreams, wondering if he is in Nazi-occupied Poland, perhaps in the hayloft where his parents’ servant girl, Yadwiga, concealed him in order to save his life. Then, fully awake, he realizes that he is in the apartment in Brooklyn that he shares with Yadwiga, whom he marries after learning of the deaths of his wife and his children.
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Herman tells Yadwiga that he must make another of his overnight train trips to sell books. Actually, he remains in New York City, spending the day in the office of Rabbi Milton Lampert, for whom Herman works as a ghostwriter, and the night at the apartment of his mistress, Masha Tortshiner, and her mother, Shifrah Puah Bloch, who are also Holocaust survivors. Although Masha knows that Herman is married, her mother does not. She is determined to have Masha get a divorce from her husband, Leon, so that she can marry Herman.
One day, Shifrah Puah calls Herman’s attention to a notice in the newspaper asking him to telephone a certain number. When he makes the call, Herman finds himself speaking to the uncle of his first wife, Tamara, who, it seems, is alive and in New York. When Herman and Tamara are reunited, he is surprised to find her prettier than ever and considerably easier to get along with than she was in the past. Although Herman knows that he must choose between his two wives, he has to admit that he would like to keep them both, and the volatile Masha as well.
Herman’s trips to see Tamara arouse Masha’s suspicions, even though she does not guess that Herman’s first wife has come back from the dead. Herman thinks he might be able to reassure Masha about his feelings for her during a vacation in the Adirondack Mountains that they are planning. At first, they do relax and enjoy themselves, but then Masha tells Herman that she is pregnant. Taken by surprise, Herman rashly promises to marry Masha.
Blithely ignoring the fact that Herman is already married, which, after all, involves only a mere Gentile, Masha works on getting a divorce. Meanwhile, Herman’s other two relationships with women are becoming even more complicated. On an outing in the Catskill Mountains, he and Tamara, who were merely friends, find themselves making love and enjoying it. Then, Yadwiga decides that she can become closer to her husband if she converts to Judaism and gives him a Jewish child. Though he does not want to bring a child into a world so full of cruelty and suffering, Herman cannot refuse her.
Herman is still managing to keep the three women apart. However, he worries constantly about exposure, which he knows will cost him his job with the rabbi and might well lead to his being imprisoned or deported. He has a little time to decide about which of his present wives to keep, because he married Yadwiga in all innocence, believing Tamara to be dead. However, he will have no excuse, moral or legal, for acquiring a third wife.
Quite unexpectedly, Leon Tortshiner offers Herman a way out. He meets with Herman in order to warn him that Masha is a promiscuous, deceitful woman. Leon tells Herman that Masha was consistently unfaithful during their marriage and also that she betrayed Herman by sleeping with Leon as the price of obtaining her divorce. Herman’s immediate response is to end the relationship with Masha; however, she manages to convince him that it is Leon who is lying, and the two are married after all.
By the time winter arrives, Herman is in serious financial trouble. Yadwiga is expecting a baby, which means more bills in Brooklyn, and, after Masha’s pregnancy turns out to be purely psychological, she is too depressed to work, and so Herman has to provide all the support for the Bronx household as well. As a new convert to Judaism, Yadwiga is driving Herman crazy with her questions about a faith he no longer observes.
Finally, the inevitable happens. First, Tamara drops in at the Brooklyn apartment, and Yadwiga recognizes her. Then some neighbors bring a gossipy man named Nathan Pesheles to meet Mrs. Broder, and, though Tamara pretends to be Herman’s cousin, Pesheles takes a good look at Yadwiga. When Rabbi Lampert finds out that Herman recently married, he visits Masha and invites the newlyweds to a party. One of the rabbi’s guests is the observant Pesheles. He promptly informs Masha that he met a Tamara Broder at Herman’s apartment in Brooklyn, thus tipping her off to the fact that the dead wife is not dead, and then goes on to tell everyone else, including the rabbi, that, in addition to Masha, Herman also has a pretty, pregnant wife named Yadwiga.
Before the evening ends, the kindly rabbi offers Masha a job and both Masha and her mother a place to live. Masha accepts, telling Herman that she never wants to see him again. Tamara comes to Herman’s rescue, taking him in, giving him a job in her uncle’s bookstore, and even helping Yadwiga in any way she can.
Then, just when things are going well, Masha comes back into Herman’s life. Now she wants him again, and he agrees to run away with her. However, she is delayed, first by finding that her apartment is burglarized, then by her mother’s death. Herman and Masha consider a double suicide, but finally Herman decides to leave not only Masha but also everyone else.
Masha kills herself. Yadwiga moves in with Tamara, who runs the bookstore while Yadwiga takes care of their place and of her baby girl, little Masha. No one ever knows what happens to Herman.