Life in the Warsaw ghetto of the early 20th century could be rough, even brutal, and Singer does not gloss over the conditions he endured as a child. He graphically describes the lack of running water and bathroom facilities, the filth and vermin, the abject poverty and disease in stories such as “The Shot at Sarajevo” and “Hunger.” Singer also depicts the cruelties human beings inflict upon one another, but they do not receive undue attention. Singer remembers that despite deplorable circumstances individual acts of kindness and charity, even from those least able to afford them, were not unusual. When the Singers find themselves in severe straits, a helping hand frequently appears to save them from ruin and despair. Finally forced to move from starving Warsaw to rural Bilgoray during World War I, Isaac recalls the shoemaker’s hovel where he went to get his shoes repaired in preparation for the journey. He could scarcely believe the cramped, unhealthy quarters-a single room for the entire family-in which the cobbler worked and lived. Although even today Singer blames squalor and poverty upon the ills of society and, as a boy, felt sympathy for the Russian revolutionaries, he also remembers feeling sorry for the deposed tsar, who was forced to chop wood and was later murdered with his family.
In “A Day of Pleasure,” Isaac encounters scurrilous individuals who cheat him of his dwindling kopeks, but he meets honest and worthy people too, such as the droshky driver who does not ask for his money in advance, takes him to the correct destination, and shows real concern for the little boy. Later, in “I Become a Collector,” Isaac discovers other aspects of worldly behavior usually hidden from boys attending cheder (religious school). He offers to collect contributions for his father after a series of dishonest professional collectors rob Rabbi Singer of most of the money due him. While many of the contributors Isaac meets are gracious and forthcoming, his quest also takes him to sweatshops and gambling dens, and he meets diseased and crippled human beings, even a corpse. Thoroughly frightened and revolted by his experience, he resolves never again to do anything for money that goes against the grain. His father, anticipating all this and preferring his son to spend his time studying, relieves him of this responsibility. Rabbi Singer apologizes and decides to do without the income rather than subjecting his family to the indignities of collecting or trusting in the honesty of professional collectors.