Red-haired blue-eyed Arele – Aaron Gradinger, the son of a well-educated rabbi, lives with his family in Krohmalnaya Street, in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw. He has known three languages since childhood and is educated in the Talmud. The eight-year-old boy is friends with his coeval, daughter of neighbor Basie Shosha. She has blue eyes and blonde hair, and unlike the child prodigy Arele Shosh does not have the ability to study, she sits for two years in each class, and then the teacher sends her home at all, believing that the girl does not have a place in school. The boy retells Shoshe to stories that he read or heard from his father and mother, while giving vent to fantasies: “about the dense forests of Siberia, about Mexican robbers, about cannibals who eat even their own children.” Before Shosha he develops fantastic theories,
Then the irreparable happens: the family of Shoshi moves. Not far away, to the house two blocks away on the same Krokhmalnaya, but Arele knows that their friendship with Shosha will be interrupted: the son of a rabbi is worthless in front of the whole community to have a girl with a simple family. The summer of 1914 is coming. The First World War begins. There comes need and hunger. In the summer of the seventeenth year, the Arele family leaves Warsaw for a village where the mother’s relatives live and where life is cheaper.
Arele becomes an adult, he has to earn his own living.
In Warsaw, Arele has a love affair with Dora Stolnitz, a Communist girl who dreams of traveling to the Soviet Union, a country of socialism. Arèle does not share Dora’s ideas, he is frightened by his rhetorical phraseology, besides, he is afraid of being arrested for being in touch with this girl. He often happens to be near Krokhmalnaya, but never appears there – it’s no longer his street, although she is alive in his memory.
Aaron Gradinger believes that “the task of literature is to capture the passing of time.” But his own time flows between his fingers. Come the thirties. Pilsudski establishes a military dictatorship in Poland. Consulates almost do not give Jews an exit visa. “I lived in the country,” writes Aaron, “squeezed by two warring powers, and was associated with language and culture not known to anyone except a narrow circle of Yiddish and radicals.” In the Writers’ Club, Aaron has several friends. Best of all – Dr. Maurice Faytelzon.
Maurice Faytelzon is an outstanding personality. He is a philosopher, the author of the book “Spiritual hormones”, besides a brilliant conversationalist. It is an incredible success for women. His friendship with Aaron is not prevented by a difference of twenty-five years. Faytelzon introduces Aaron to the couple of the Cenchiners. Celia is one of the fans of Faytzon, she is smart and charming, has a subtle critical taste. Her husband Haimle, who never had to make a living (his father is very rich), short, fragile, not fit for life (Celia shears himself because Hayml is afraid of hairdressers). One evening, left alone with Aaron, Celia tells him about her connection with Faytzelon and tries unsuccessfully to seduce him. Having failed, Celia begins to call Aaron Tsutsik, and this nickname accompanies him for the rest of his life.
In the Writers’ Club Faytzon introduces Tsutsik to Sam Drayman, a wealthy American, and his mistress, actress Betty Slonim. By the order of Dreiman, Aaron writes a play (the received advance helps him survive) for Betty. This is a play about a girl from Ludmere, who wanted to live like a man. She studied the Torah. She became a rabbi, and she had her Hasidic court. In addition, the mul’imir girl was possessed by two dibbukas (the souls of the dead musician and prostitute). From the very beginning it is clear that the play is unlikely to be a success. In addition, everyone makes corrections to it, and it exists in a variety of variants, so it is impossible to understand what it really is. Tsutsik looses the hope of ever ending it. He spends a lot of time with Betty and once leads her to Starch to show the places where he grew up. Once there, Aaron enters the house, where Shoshha moved and finds Basya, her mother, and soon Shosha, almost unchanged, returns from the shop. Questions and memories begin. Then Betty and Aaron leave, he promises to return the next day. Tsutsik escorts Betty and stays with her for the night. On Krokhmalnuyu he comes and continues to appear there almost every day. He can not tear himself away from Shoshi. Her trustfulness and love, her naive wisdom enchant Aaron.
“Arele, what are you thinking about?” Shosh asked.
“About nothing, Shoshel.” Since I have you, in my life there is at least some meaning.
“You will not leave me alone?”
– No, Shoshel. I will be with you for as long as I am destined. Sam is sick, and Betty is going to take him to America. She wants Tsutsik to go with them, marry her (Sam will not mind), and they will help to take Shoshu to America, but Tsutsik, realizing that war and destruction is coming, realizes nevertheless that Shosh can not be taken anywhere with Krokhmalnoy. His life without it, he also does not think. In the Writers’ Club, Betty and Tsutsik meet Maurice Faytelzon. Betty mockingly informs him of Tsutsik’s alleged early marriage to Shosha, calling the girl “treasure” and “something special.” (“She’s mocking me,” I said, “Shosha is a girl from my childhood.” We played together before I even started going to the cheder…)
On the holiday of Yom Kippur Tsutsik invites Faytelzon to himself. There is Mark Elbinger. The conversation is about the secret forces, and Elbinger tells the strange stories that happened to him in his childhood, because of which he developed the gift of clairvoyance.
Aaron announces to Shoshe that soon they will become husband and wife. Shosh’s happy, her mother too. In connection with the imminent wedding in the house appears Shoshi’s father, who has long abandoned his family. Zelig is cynical and rude, in full accordance with his profession: he works in a funeral home.
Aaron’s former girlfriend, Dora, was supposed to leave for Russia one month ago. But she is in Warsaw, recently was poisoned with iodine, but she remained alive. Her party comrade, Wolf Felender, illegally crossed the border and returned to Poland after a year and a half of staying in Russia. He tells terrible things: Dora’s best friend was shot, most of the party members who left for the Soviet Union sit in jail or get gold in the Far North. Aaron goes to visit Dora and finds her Felender. He is unrecognizable: he has lost weight, he has aged, his front teeth have been knocked out. Felender admits that he often recalled Aaron in prison and admitted his rightness. But Felander, despite the terrible things that he had to endure, is still blind: he thinks that, come to power Trotsky, and not Stalin, everything would be different. (Aaron believes that any revolution leads to terror.)
Shosha and Aaron are getting married. At the wedding, his mother and brother come. After the ceremony, the newlyweds leave for a week in Otwock, where Celia and Heiml booked a hotel room for them for a week as a wedding present. The bodily aspect of marriage soon ceases to frighten Shosh. She is perfectly happy.
“Oh, Arele, how nice to be with you.” And what will we do when the Nazis come?
– We will die.
– Yes, Shochel.
Aaron writes a series of articles for the newspaper, in the evenings he walks with Shosha on Krokhmalnaya. Betty Slonim appears again in the hope that she will be able to take away and save him. But it is absolutely clear to her that no one will give Shoshe any visa. She inquires why Aaron married Shoshe. And he is surprised to hear his own answer: “I really do not know, but I’ll tell you this: she’s the only woman I’m sure of.”
Betty and Aaron say goodbye forever.
And after thirteen years, working in one of the New York newspapers, Aaron Gradinger makes a trip to London, Paris and Israel. He stops at a hotel in Tel Aviv. A note appears in the newspaper about his arrival, so that he is visited by writers and journalists, old friends and distant relatives. A thin little man comes in with a white beard and snow-white eyes. “Sholom, Tsutsik!” he greets Aaron. He is a Warsaw friend of Tsutsik Heiml Chenchiner. He tells how he lived in Warsaw under the Germans, how Celia hid him and Faitelzon in a secret shelter. Faytelzon died in the forty-first, and a month after him – Celia. Heyml managed to leave Warsaw. Then where only he was not: Vilna, Kovno, Kiev, Moscow, Kazakhstan. His present wife he met at the camp in Landsberg. (Genie lost her husband there, she has terrible scars on her cheek – traces of beating with a piece of pipe.) Aaron tells his story – Shosha died the next day as they left Warsaw. People were in a hurry, and Shosha could not keep up with them. She began to stop every few minutes. Suddenly she sat down on the ground, but a minute later she died. Aaron himself got to Kovno, from there – to Shanghai, where he worked as a compositor and continued to write. He got to America at the beginning of the forty-eighth, an affidavit was sent to him by an American, a military man, whom Betty married for.
Aaron and Heiml are in the room at Haimle’s. Twilight is gathering. Haimle says: “I’m religious.” Only in your own way. I believe in the immortality of the soul. If a rock can exist for millions of years, then why does the human soul, or what should it be called, disappear? I am with those who have died. I live with them. When I close my eyes, they are here, with me…