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The final paragraph of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story "Pigeons" goes like this:

The following morning broke autumn-like and drab. The skies hung low and rusty. The smoke of the chimneys dropped back, gathering on the tile roofs. A thin rain fell, prickly as needles. During the night someone had painted a swastika on the professor's door. Tekla came out with a bag of feed, but only a few pigeons flew down. They pecked at the food hesitantly, glancing around as if afraid to be caught defying some avian ban. The smell of char and rot came up from the gutter, the acrid stench of imminent destruction.
(translated by the author and Elizabeth Shub)

Why are the pigeons so hesitant, and why is there the feeling of "imminent destruction"? The professor has already passed away, accompanied by the cloud of pigeons to the grave - so why is at the end of the story that there's this feeling of impending doom?

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One interpretation might be that the story is a prophetic work depicting the march of history through pre-invasion Poland, the rise of antisemitism, and the imminent Holocaust, and that the ending foreshadows the imminent Holocaust. So, the pigeons are hesitant out of fear and the feeling of impending doom presages the Holocaust.

Several critical points underlie this reading. When the dots are joined, hints of a deeper narrative become apparent. Let us walk through some of the critical points:

  1. Pigeons are mentioned earlier in the story:

”He had once read an excerpt from the Talmud in which the Jews were likened to pigeons, and only lately had he grasped the meaning of the comparison. Pigeons have no weapons in the fight for survival. They sustain themselves almost entirely on the scraps that people throw them. They fear noise, flee the smallest dog. They don’t even chase away the sparrows that steal their food. The pigeon, like the Jew, thrives on peace, quietude, and good will.

This sounds like an account of the vulnerability of Polish Jewry in the 1930’s to antisemitic forces. The reference to the Talmud emphasises and gives a flavour of the element of prophecy in the story.

  1. After being struck by stones he is helped to his bed by Tekla, and he undergoes a eureka moment:

A Hebrew word he had long since forgotten came suddenly to the professor’s mind: reshayim, the wicked. It is the wicked who make history.

The professor lay for a moment amazed. In one second, he had found an answer for which he had been searching for years. Like the apple that Newton had seen falling from a tree, the stone thrown by a hoodlum had revealed to him, Eibeschutz, a truth valid for all times. It was exactly as written in the Old Testament. Each Generation had Its men of falsehood and bloodshed. Villains cannot rest. Whether it be war or revolution, whether they fight under one flag or another, no matter what their slogan, their aim remains the same – to perpetuate evil, cause pain, shed blood. One common aim united Alexander of Macedonia and Hamilcar, Genghis Khan, and Charlemagne, Chieltzki and Napoleon, Robespierre, and Lenin. Too simple? The principle of gravitation was also simple and that is why it took so long to discover it.

Again, reference to a book of the scriptures highlights the role of prophecy, while the realization that Evil actors drive the march of history forward is made.

  1. Subsequently he has a dream during which he travels suspended above the earth. Being suspended over countries he has not travelled to perhaps represents a view of a Jewish diaspora from other countries under the thrall of antisemitism.

  2. He experiences an episode of angina, but elects not to call for help the pain momentarily remits then returns at which point he succumbs to a myocardial infarction, as he lays dying:

‘A last thought ran through his mind, what will happen to the pigeons?‘

This is the question is answered by the eventuation of the Holocaust.

5.The professor's funeral:

All but forgotten when he had been alive, the professor found fame in death.’ Delegations arrived from...universities...other organizations, brotherhoods, and societies‘. The professor’s apartment was filled with flowers…. The Jewish burial society sent two men…’

An account of the funeral cortege and 'a winged host' of pigeons escorting it is given.

Perhaps this looks forward into the future and speaks of the future remembrance and commemoration of Holocaust victims.

  1. The ending takes us back to the now of the story with an imminent holocaust in the making symbolised by the painted swastika on the professor’s door, the wariness of the few pigeons that come to be fed by Tekla recalls the Talmudic Jew/pigeon metaphor in point 1 above. The concluding line is a grim and prophetic metaphor.

The smell of char and rot came up from the gutter, the acrid stench of imminent destruction.

So, in summary I think the ending to Pigeons is the concluding phase of a prophetic account of the vulnerability of pre-invasion Polish Jewry, the rise of antisemitism and the impending spectre of the Holocaust.

I have used the online version of Pigeons on the internet archive here throughout.

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