Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
Generally considered the most important Yiddish writer of the twentieth century, Isaac Bashevis Singer won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, in large part because of his re-creation of a world that no longer exists. Singer often wrote about life in Polish-Jewish villages before they and their inhabitants were destroyed by the Nazis. Enemies, however, is set in the postwar, post-Holocaust period. Its subject is serious: the ways in which those who survived the Holocaust dealt with their memories and built new lives.
Appropriately, Enemies begins with Herman Broder’s reliving the past. Even though he is now safe, Herman has been forever changed by his experiences. He has lost his faith in God and in human life. While he has married again, Herman hedges his bets by also keeping a mistress and remaining open to other possibilities. He is adamantly opposed to having more children, for it is clear that one cannot count on a beneficent God to preserve them. In fact, all that Herman now believes in are lust, which existed even in the death camps, and deceit, which he believes is the only way one can make it through the world.
Singer also shows how his four major women characters have responded to the Holocaust. Shifrah Puah wears black to keep alive the memories of those who died and feels guilty because she is alive. However, Shifrah still believes in God and observes the Jewish rituals.
Masha hates God as much as her mother loves him. Now, the central reality in her life is the Holocaust. Masha finds sexual stimulation in telling stories of those days while she and Herman are making love. Masha is enchanted with death, and, indeed, she does finally commit suicide.
In a sense, Tamara does die in the Holocaust, for she has become a new person: more unselfish, more considerate, and far wiser than she was before the war. After she and Herman are reunited, Tamara asks nothing for herself, not even that he return to her. Ironically, it is Tamara who now becomes Herman’s only real friend and confidant. Even when he tells her that he is running off with Masha, Tamara accepts his decision with grace, and it is she who will fill Herman’s place at the bookstore and care for his wife and his child.
It is also ironic that it is a Polish Catholic, Yadwiga, who replaces Herman within the Jewish community. What begins as her attempt to please her husband by observing his rituals ends with her wholeheartedly accepting the faith in which he no longer believes. Although Herman would blame his Holocaust experience for his actions, Singer points out that Herman’s character was formed long before the Nazis came to power. It is appropriate that, at the end of the novel, the self-centered Herman, if not dead, is alone somewhere, while the generous Yadwiga is being cherished by her new community.
The tone of Enemies is not uniformly serious. Like the village storytellers from whom he drew his inspiration, Singer delights in the eccentricities of human behavior and in the capacity of human beings to make fools of themselves. Herman’s adventures in Enemies are essentially farcical, and Herman himself, though appealing, is devoid of common sense. After he escapes from the Nazis by hiding from them and from God by denying him, Herman uses his new freedom to become the willing slave of lust, especially as it is embodied in the equally irrational Masha.
Of his three wives, Masha alone is as irrational and as self-destructive as Herman. While both Tamara and Yadwiga try to keep Herman out of trouble, Masha always encourages him to behave like a fool. She gets him to marry her at the risk of being imprisoned or deported, and eventually she causes him to lose his job. Then, after ending the relationship with him, she quits her job and persuades him to quit his so that they can run off together; she even agrees with him that, because of a slight hitch in their plans, they might as well commit suicide. Ironically, at that point Herman is saved by his own irrationality. When Masha confesses that she deceived him about sleeping with her husband, Herman fails to see the parallel with his lying about sleeping with his wife Tamara, and he decides not to kill himself after all. Like a thwarted child, he decides to quit the whole world.
As it is applied to Herman and Masha, Singer’s subtitle, “A Love Story,” points to the accuracy of the title “Enemies.” Certainly these two lovers are each other’s worst enemies. However, the epilogue suggests that love can be redemptive rather than destructive. Thus, after Herman has rejected their aid and turned his back on life, Yadwiga and Tamara find gratification in helping each other, in loving the child Herman left them, and in being a part of the community which, through this new Jewish child, will itself be renewed.
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