Humor Heals

The short story “Runners to Nowhere” is part of the book called The Death of Methuselah and Other Short Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and it portrays how authors use humor and laughter to relieve pain and suffering. “Runners to Nowhere” was in fact a memoir of a period in history between 1939 and 1945 when Hitler was waging his war against the world. It was a period of time when people were being persecuted for their beliefs and not their actions.

The narrator of the story is a man who is friends with, Zeinvel Markus, the man actually telling the story about runners to nowhere. Markus is shown to be a very comical man, making everything lighter than it really is. He talks about how coffee in America is never hot, only the containers in which it is served. Then he remarks on the American judicial system, linking the two. “The judge in an American court is not interesting in whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. All he cares about is whether his defense is faultless or not.” He links the two by saying Americans do not believe in the objective truth. Though his point of view is somewhat radical, there is some truth in his comment about the judge, therefore making the statement humorous, because it is so farfetched but simultaneously true.

When Markus starts talking about the running, it gets even funnier. To understand this, first one must know what they were running from, or what they were running to, and who was running. The runners were just masses of people, including Jews, Poles, and Stalinists. They were running from persecution, they were running from the Nazis, their planes and their bombs. They were running to freedom and a new life where they did not have to life in fear of the Nazis. “In my life I’ve seen at least a thousand forms of treachery, but the treachery of the two runners I never even imagined before 1939.” From this the reader will assume that the story will be about the torture of something terrible and sadistic from the Nazis. Then Markus goes on and says, “You remember that Feitl was small, even smaller than I am, but his wife, Tsvetl, was an aspiring actress, a giant of a woman with the voice of a man.” The poor man you think, his wife is larger than he is but it only gets worse and the story even funnier. “He was carrying a valise full of plays and she carried a box full of women’s garments and a huge basket of food. She ran and she ate—whole sausages, Swiss cheese, cans of sardines and herrings. She had long legs and ran quickly, but Feitl, that schlemiel, followed with his tiny steps.” The author goes from a comical description such as that to, “we all had to run, because any moment Nazi planes could come and destroy us with their guns.” He brings all the readers back to reality, and once again showing what this was all about, which the reader tends to forget when caught up with laughter.

The author also does this in vise versa. “They kept threatening one another that when the masses rose in the streets all the traitors would be hung from lampposts. The Stalinists would hang the Trotskyites, the Trotskyites would hang the Stalinists, and both would hang the general Zionists, and right Poale Zionists, the left Poale Zionists, and of course, all pious Jews.” The mental picture received from this description is a disturbing image of hundreds of corpses all hanging dead from lampposts lined up along a quiet street. He doesn’t let the reader keep this image long. He immediately says, “Where will they find so many lampposts in Warsaw?”

Though he shows the comical way that he sees everything, there is the reality of the whole story. The title of the short story is “Runners to Nowhere” which suggests they had no destination. This is not true, the runners knew where they wanted to go, and they knew exactly what they were looking for when they were running. They wanted the freedom that was rightfully theirs. At the end though, the runners had reached nowhere; they ran for nothing. “Not one of those people is alive. Feitl perished at the hands of the Nazis. Bentze finally got to the Soviet Russia and threw himself on the ground to kiss the earth of the socialistic land, a Red Army man clutched him by his collar and arrested him. Hundreds and thousands such as Bentze were exiled to a sure death, all in the name of a better morning and a beautiful future.” And the last person, Feitl’s wife, died of cancer when she finally got where she wanted to go. The harsh truth of the Nazi persecution was too hard for many people to handle, and everybody has their way of dealing with it. The way this author dealt with this is with sarcasm. He many times left the reader forgetting about what the story was really about, but then bringing them back without even the hint of ever trying to skirt the issue. Asher Lev healed his pain through his paintings and drawings, some people heal their pain by seeing a psychiatrist, but Isaac Bashevis Singer heals with humor.