Post-war Warsaw, April. A group of people meets next to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes to hear yet again the story of Izaak Feldwurm. Their narrator is the elderly Pan Abram, who knew Feldwurm from before the war and who even thinks that he once saw his legendary manuscript. But what was this legendary work all about and was it ever finished? Did it, as some claim, survive the war hidden in a tin receptacle under the rubble? Or was it rather destroyed by the author? And did Feldwurm himself survive? How else would he be pestering the living today – so many years later? Why would he not let himself be forgotten? Questions abound as the narrator of the story sets out in search of the manuscript and its legendary author...
He longed to be a writer. A great and famous writer like Yitskhok Leybush Peretz or Stefan Żeromski. When his office was closed, and so on Saturdays and feast-days, when he neither attended the promotional evenings of other authors nor visited the Hasidim, Izaak Feldwurm would write up the notes to his own book. He had been writing for years and was unable to finish it. According to friends, who referred to Feldwurm’s own confessions but had never seen the manuscript, it was a vast and vitally important novel about the city of Warsaw and its inhabitants. The action was to embrace several, if not fourteen generations. As to the main protagonists, Feldwurm had thought up over two dozen himself. They were merchants, clerks, staid middle-class townsfolk, rabbis and wonder-workers, but also representatives of Warsaw’s proletariat. Their stories were subtly interwoven; businesses passed from father to son; troubles with which grandmothers had wrestled affected granddaughters and great granddaughters. Some inherited servants, others poverty—as if in Feldwurm’s novelistic world no one was privileged to free themselves from their destiny, defined here once and for all, to some extent in harmony with the author’s fatalistic view of the deficiencies of earthly justice.
Feldwurm’s book was an unparalleled panorama of an era, even of several eras. Wars and revolutions, uprisings and periods of prosperity, birth and death—everything converged into one single stream, which admittedly was not so animated as the narratives heard in the Hasidic shtiebel, but similarly suggestive, shimmering with a thousand different colours and shades. The beginnings of Feldwurm’s Warsaw stretched back to time immemorial; its anticipated end was inconceivable, and although Feldwurm was sure it would happen sooner or later, he preferred not to write about it, convinced that what was once written down he’d never manage to erase. For the time being therefore he created his image of the city, its streets and squares, courtyards and secret nooks, joyfully describing life in all its ungraspable manifestations. He wrote and crossed out, added sentences, and stuck in sheets of paper containing new paragraphs, but the novel, despite being subject to constant revision, still did not satisfy him. His ambition was to carbon copy Warsaw as accurately as possible, each house separately and within it every room, to peep under every bed, inspect the privies and kitchens, count the jars of jam in the larders and list the titles of volumes concealed in library cupboards. He wished to penetrate the city’s interior, reach inside its guts, explore the cellars, sewage pipes and warehouses full of junk, examine Warsaw through and through, so that no recess remained untouched beneath the pavement or between the roofing tiles of high rise blocks, uncommemorated in at least a few words.
When it seemed to him he knew the city inside out, he was seized with desire to paint the portraits of all Varsovians, and not only of those randomly chosen as previously intended. He compiled a register of apartment buildings and their tenants—present-day as well as former, including their relatives and even distant acquaintances. He did not forget the homeless. He searched inside courthouse edifices and heating substations; sneaked into the city mortuary; peeked into advertising pillars, in the hope of chancing upon some person he’d not yet seen; chased doggedly after every individual, trying to remember distinctive facial features; even decided to visit the buried dead, to watch them lying peacefully in expectation before they were totally sucked in by the sandy soil.
In the beginning, he rejoiced at every encounter. When, however, he found himself plunging for the thousandth time down the same alleyways and straying over the familiar cemetery plots, he’d be overwhelmed by despair, since he was forever stumbling on new characters. His strength began to wane, yet the fear that he might have missed someone grew with each day, making his work all the harder. In addition, he got it into his head that he was not allowed to confine himself to the permanent residents. He took to observing travellers. For hours on end, he would hang around railway stations, observing the trains, looking out for people who didn’t even alight from the carriages in Warsaw. Silhouettes whisked by in train windows and Feldwurm wasn’t clear whether he should make a note of their stay. But because, for him, there were constantly too few of them; because he felt the longed-for rounded whole gradually slipping from his grasp, he filled his book with further successions of characters, this time taken from other stories. He would give them their own names, perhaps transcribed from other books, he himself wasn’t sure. Readers of his words, were they ever to exist, would lose their bearings in this thicket. However, this did not deter Feldwurm. He had no intention of worrying about readers, didn’t care in fact what they might have said to him. He wasn’t much concerned either about his heroes, felt no attachment to them—in any case, not an attachment that would have made him alter their fate. If he regretted anything, then it was the rejected pages, as if with every screwed-up piece of paper there perished not only a slice of Warsaw, but also someone’s name, and along with the name, also the person.
Friends mocked that Feldwurm was writing about a city he did not know. He spent whole days in his office after all, poring over documents, or in his own flat poring over the manuscript. It was said he never ventured beyond the next street corner, that his expeditions from Muranów to Grzybów were idle inventions. If he went outside at all, then it was solely on Friday evenings when people were sitting down to their ceremonial supper.
Feldwurm never took such gossip to heart and tried to persuade people that he could manage well enough without lengthy escapades, because he could make do with what he saw on his way home from work. He also mentioned conversations with strangers, who were supposed to provide him with confidential materials. This was also odd, since he in fact saw no people. He never opened his door to the postman; scared away pedlars; had no telephone. He obsessively avoided the neighbours and made sure before going out, by peering through the keyhole, that no light burned in the stairwell—or rather that there was no danger of bumping into some other person.
Only a few people dared to presuppose that Feldwurm roamed the streets of Warsaw significantly more often than he wished to admit. It was alleged he had a doppelgänger, a twin brother. Supposedly, it was this second Feldwurm, or some man deceptively like the solicitor’s clerk, who sat in the office on Nowolipki Street, while Izaak set off for the city in order to probe local life at close quarters. Pan Abram insisted that this was impossible, since Feldwurm was wholeheartedly committed to his work and would never have allowed himself such a negligent attitude. Pan Leon, in turn, with whom Abram always quarrelled, maintained that actually, Feldwurm had been seen in a variety of places where, had he been as diligent and scrupulous as Pan Abram wanted to believe, he had no right to be during office hours. One way or another, it seemed that Feldwurm was present at a variety of different events, standing somewhere on the sidelines, since he never took any active part but merely watched and took notes like a spy or a chronicler. Whether there was any grain of truth in all this, it’s hard to say.
It’s strange that Feldwurm did not read the daily newspapers; he claimed he wasn’t interested in current affairs at home or abroad. Instead he would skim through old police reports. To this end, he frequented second-hand bookshops. He was amused by the fascicles of old yellowing weeklies, into which no one dipped anymore, reassured by the distance separating him from the cases described. He imagined his own life and own death related by some inquisitive reporter and interpreted decades later. And saw from afar individuals similar to himself, as they aimed for one of those shops on Ujazdowskie Boulevard or Żelazna Street and leaned there unceremoniously over his corpse.
People from Feldwurm’s immediate circle, however, maintained that he knew perfectly well what was going on in the world. Allegedly, he had the gift of seeing into the future where he perceived a void around himself, a kind of hollowed-out space in which individual people stood, almost none however of his contemporaries. There was also no Izaak Feldwurm. He had melted away without leaving even a shadow, only a certain loss of substance, a still not entirely sealed-up chink. He played down these visions and attached no great importance to his prophetic talents—this brought people some consolation. To the question about what the immediate future might bring, his answers were evasive. He offered no one advice. When interrogated, he shrank into himself, reduced his contacts, explaining he wanted to concentrate on his historic work.
Months slipped by, years flew past, yet still there was no sign of Feldwurm’s book. What the manuscript looked like was impossible to establish, because Feldwurm had never shown anyone as much as a line. Not even Pan Abram, who had apparently seen one of the rough drafts stored by Feldwurm in his tiny flat in the dingy garret, which they had reached one evening after a good fifty minutes or so wandering around the courtyards on Nowolipki Street and then squeezing from attic to attic, as if Feldwurm wanted to hide from his friend the way to his retreat. Taking advantage there of his host’s absence, who went to relieve himself or intentionally disappeared somewhere else, for instance under pretext of fetching the teapot, Pan Abram crept up to the table where, half-exposed under a tablecloth, a fragment of text had been left lying either from carelessness or perhaps on purpose. Pan Abram battled against his curiosity but eventually gave in and glanced at the scrawled pages. There were more crossings-out than complete sentences. Pan Abram strained his eyes but even then was unable to decipher the dense, nervous handwriting. Feldwurm soon returned, however. Noticing Pan Abram hanging around the table, he became greatly perturbed and shielded his notes all the faster with his own body. Then, politely but firmly, he showed Pan Abram the door. Pan Abram was never entertained there again. Later, we also stopped talking about Feldwurm’s book, as if its author, alienated by his friend’s indiscretion, had decided to cast a cloak of silence over the whole affair.
But it seems there was another reason: Feldwurm did not know how to complete his novel. The manuscript was bursting at the seams, acquiring new characters and threads, proliferating on every side, embracing not only Warsaw and its suburbs but the entire country, and perhaps even other continents. Feldwurm was drowning under his notes; index cards littered the floor of his flat and office, yet he lacked a guiding thought, a single spark that might illuminate the whole manuscript and endow it with radiance. Sentences written to date appeared to Feldwurm as dying embers. Their rugged lines overlapped, were more and more bespattered with insertions and hence illegible. He awaited the moment of revelation, constantly invoking the parables of the Hasidic Rebbe. He longed to write as the latter spoke—directly and succinctly—and was overcome by envy that he couldn’t.
The longer the writing went on, the more he grew convinced he would never reach the final page and give the book its ideal shape, because his work would be interrupted by some sort of violent events. He must have sensed their imminence ever more keenly, since, as Pan Adam and Pan Leon recalled, this time in unison, he spent not only whole days but whole nights at his office collecting papers and stuffing them into cardboard box files. Definitely, he had no time to write, and only later, when the war broke out and the solicitor’s office suspended its activity, did he return to his literary work.
I no longer remember what else I was told and what I myself, nourished over so many years by the story of Izaak Feldwurm, added to the narrative. I know only, and with absolute certainty, that during the war Feldwurm was still living on Nowolipki Street and that with redoubled energy, deprived of any other activity and sensing the race against time, he was writing his book. Feldwurm’s Warsaw, which he was determined to paint in words, resembled less and less the city of the era in which he’d initially sat down to write the first sketches.
While it was still possible, he sent letters to Łuck, to Granny and Uncle Motia. In one of them, he informed them he had finished writing. It seems he intended to post the manuscript from Warsaw but changed his plans and buried it instead in a tarred canister. His last letter contained precise instructions, so that one day someone from the family might recover it. After the war, they dug there—Uncle Motia and Granny, because Granddad, my Aunties and the others were gone, just like Izaak Feldwurm himself. Only somewhere underground his manuscript lived on in its tin receptacle. They were unable to locate it even though Feldwurm had described the exact spot, and the network of bird streets had not yet undergone such far-reaching change. The houses had ceased to exist, transformed into termitaries of rubble, but the canyons of former streets still survived, carved out of the desolation.
It was there that I decided to search for Feldwurm.
This is an excerpt from the short story “Izaak Feldwurm’s Manuscript” by Piotr Paziński, originally published in 2013 as part of the book “Ptasie ulice” [Bird Streets], translated by Ursula Phillips.
You can read our interview with Ursula Phillips here.