Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
Herman Broder, a refugee from Poland, where the Nazis have destroyed his family. He lives in Brooklyn and makes a living by ghostwriting for a rabbi, though he tells his wife, Yadwiga, that he is a traveling book salesman so that he can spend time with his lover, Masha Tortshiner, in her apartment in the Bronx. He observes Jewish dietary laws but otherwise has largely forsaken his Jewish faith, having become utterly fatalistic. Perhaps it is this fatalistic attitude, coupled with a smoldering eroticism, that makes him attractive to the three women who love him.
Yadwiga Broder, a Polish peasant girl, Herman’s second wife and his savior. She hid Herman in the barn of her parents’ farm during the Nazi occupation of Poland. She fell in love with Herman when she worked for his family as a servant and has been devoted to him ever since. She worships Herman and after her conversion tries hard to be a good Jewish wife. Extremely shy and unable to speak much English, she avoids her kindly neighbors and lives only for Herman, with whom she finally has a child.
Masha Tortshiner, Herman’s lover, separated from her husband, Leon, who refuses to give her a divorce. Neurotic, beautiful, and demanding, she wants Herman to divorce Yadwiga and marry her. She is not above tricking him into consent.
Shifrah Puah Bloch
Shifrah Puah Bloch, Masha’s deeply religious mother, who is pained by her daughter’s behavior but bears it stoically. She keeps a kosher home and likes Herman, despite her disapproval of the affair with her daughter. Her dying effort is to prevent Herman and Masha from running away together to California after Yadwiga has become pregnant.
Tamara Broder, Herman’s first wife, believed to have been killed by the Nazis after her two children were taken by them and murdered. Miraculously, she survives the war and the camps and turns up at her uncle’s home on the East Side of New York City. She has retained her good looks, despite everything, but accepts her fate and her husband’s and does not wish to interfere with his new life. Her generosity grows even to helping Yadwiga care for her child when, at the end, Herman disappears. The two women live together, and she operates a bookstore left to her by her uncle.
Leon Tortshiner, Masha’s husband, who for a long while refuses to agree to a divorce. When he does, he also reveals to Herman the kind of woman Masha is, including giving Herman an account of her infidelity. Outraged, Herman refuses to have anything more to do with her and returns briefly to Yadwiga and to a religious life. Even Leon’s revelations are insufficient, however, to keep Herman from Masha.
Rabbi Milton Lampert
Rabbi Milton Lampert, a sophisticated, modern rabbi who supports Herman by paying him to write speeches for him. He arranges for Masha to run an old people’s home in New Jersey, where Shifrah Puah also can live, after Herman and Masha break up. The arrangement does not last long, however, before Masha returns to the Bronx and calls Herman.
Reb Abraham Nissen
Reb Abraham Nissen, Tamara’s uncle, who runs a bookstore in the Jewish section of the Lower East Side of New York. When Tamara comes to America after her ordeal, he places an ad in the personals column of a Yiddish newspaper to find Herman and arrange a reunion. After he dies, Herman briefly runs the bookstore, until Masha calls him; Tamara then takes over the store and helps support Yadwiga and her child.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673
Herman is deeply affected by the Holocaust. Everywhere he goes in New York City he seeks potential hiding places from imaginary Nazis. When he vanishes at the end of the novel, Tamara speculates that he has found another hayloft. Yet he flees not so much from the Nazis as from himself, his own greatest enemy. As Isaac Bashevis Singer writes in the author’s note to the novel, “the characters are not only Nazi victims but victims of their own personalities and fates.”
Nazis do not compel Herman to become a polygamist. Tamara offers to divorce him, as does Yadwiga. Masha is willing, however reluctantly, to leave him. It is his desire for all three women that deters him from living with only one. Even before World War II, he was a womanizer, and he was first attracted to Masha when he and Yadwiga were still in Germany waiting to sail for America.
Herman is also a victim of his nihilistic philosophy. Representative of modern Jewry, he is “without belief in himself or in the human race, a fatalistic hedonist who lived in presuicidal gloom,” as Singer describes him. He does not mourn his murdered children—whom he did not want in the first place—nor does he intend to become a father again. When Tamara asks what provisions he has made for Yadwiga’s pregnancy, he replies that the neighbors have done everything. Tamara reminds him, “But it’s your child, after all.” He does not respond but thinks, “So what?” Attached to nothing and to no one, he is finally blown into oblivion by the whirlwind of passions.
Masha, too, is a modern Jew who has rejected a God who could permit the Holocaust. Like Herman, she is bitter and self-centered, caring only for her own pleasures. She has no qualms about tearing Herman away from his wife—or wives. Her one constant link to the world is her mother, whom she rescues from death at the end of the war; yet even with her mother, her relationship includes as much hate as love, as much selfishness as generosity.
Herman’s other two wives are as selfless as Masha and Herman are selfish. Before the war Tamara had been self-centered, like her husband, more concerned with crusades than with people. The war, however, has chastened her. She sees much cruelty, noting that under stress most people sink beneath humanity. Some, however, transcend their human limitations to become saintlike, and she chooses to imitate these. Hence, she makes no demands on Herman; instead, she helps him as much as she can and cares for his wife and child after he abandons them.
Yadwiga, too, is saintlike. She risks her life to save Herman from the Nazis and later, in an effort to be closer to him, embraces his religion. When Tamara visits them for the first time, Yadwiga offers to return to Poland so that Herman can live with his first wife—both Tamara and Yadwiga are willing to relinquish their own claims in favor of each other’s claim to Herman. When Herman hastily goes off with Masha in the midst of a snowstorm, Yadwiga throws his galoshes out the window after him.
Between these two poles of selfishness and generosity is Rabbi Lampert. Like Herman, he is a charlatan, building a scholarly reputation on ghostwritten sermons, articles, and books. Like Herman, too, he is lustful, always trying to seduce women. Yet he is also capable of great compassion and tries to help Herman, Masha, and others. He pays for Shifrah Puah’s tombstone, and one senses that he joins with Tamara in providing for Yadwiga and her infant.
Completing this rich tapestry is Shifrah Puah, another Holocaust survivor. Masha has been embittered by her experiences, and her faith has been shattered; Shifrah Puah’s faith has been strengthened by the Holocaust. Her husband had been a nonbeliever, but she had always adhered to Jewish traditions. In America, her devotion increases, and her faith gives pattern and meaning to her life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242
Similar to many Singer characters, Herman is a victim of society and of himself. He is haunted by hallucinations and nightmares of Nazis still chasing him. As he attempts to escape and to assimilate into American life, he becomes a ghost writer for a rabbi and involves himself with a mistress, a former friend from the concentration camp. When his lover obtains a divorce, he marries her too. Unknown to Herman, his first wife miraculously has survived and immigrated to America. He rationalizes his misery by saying that "after what I've been through, what I have is no longer part of this world." As a result, lust becomes his new religion and, incapable of making decisions for himself, Herman digs his own grave.
Yadwiga, the Polish girl who saved him from the Nazis and later married him, is at first portrayed as a lowly alien, who speaks little English, keeps to herself, and naively believes her husband's trickery. Later, however, she emerges as the heroine, whose conversion to Judaism will result in the perpetuation of the religion, which the Holocaust survivors failed to provide.
Masha, the mistress who feigns pregnancy, is a cheat and a prostitute. Unable to cope with life, she commits suicide. In contrast, Tamara, Herman's first wife, is an almost saintlike figure who agrees to divorce him to rescue him from his predicament. None of the survivors returns to tradition and the role in society Singer apparently thought appropriate.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282
Sources for Further Study
Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A thorough and insightful work. The chapter devoted to Enemies emphasizes the importance of the Holocaust in the novel and in Jewish intellectual history.
Denman, Hugh, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer: His Work and His World. Boston: Brill, 2002.
Farrell, Grace, ed. Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
Farrell, Grace, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. A collection of interviews in which Enemies is frequently mentioned. Singer points out that he understands Herman Broder’s lack of belief in God but does not share his attitude.
Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Isaac Bashevis Singer. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. Shows how the novel reflects its post-Holocaust setting. The Jews who survived and immigrated to America had to deal with religious doubt, along with their loss of a common language and of a sense of community.
Hadda, Janet. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Lee, Grace Farrell. From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Systematically traces the development of Singer’s thought, classifying the late work Enemies as a story of redemption. Although Herman exiles himself from God, Yadwiga and Tamara affirm their faith by nurturing a Jewish child.
Noiville, Florence. Isaac B. Singer: A Life. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Qiao, Guo Qiang. The Jewishness of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
Wirth-Nesher, Hana. City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Wolitz, Seth L., ed. The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.