These were mythologized as a bastion of Judaism – of the so-called “yidishkeyt” – in the context of their increasing disintegration.
Serving as a site of memory of eastern European Judaism since its systematic extermination by the Nazi regime, the shtetl existed for centuries as a socio-economic phenomenon and a socio-cultural construct, out of which a literary and cultural topos grew in the second half of the 19th century. The complexity of this term, which emerged in multi-ethnic Poland in the second half of the 17th century, lies in the difficulty in differentiating between mental perception and reality. These cities and town with populations predominantly consisting of Yiddish-speaking Jews were never Jewish municipalities. Autonomous self-administration by means of the so-called “kahal” and membership of a dense Jewish network which over time even extended overseas should not be confused with political autonomy. However, in their daily lives the shtetl Jews had this double experience of living in an essentially Jewish world on the one hand, and of the relative acceptance of this situation by the surrounding population on the other hand. In this way, these provisioning islands, which were characterized by a high degree of interethnic contact, were mythologized as a bastion of Judaism – of the so-called “yidishkeyt” – in the context of their increasing disintegration.
“Shtetl” (shtetlekh in plural) is an ambiguous term, referring on the one hand to socio-economic contexts which were an observable historical reality, while on the other hand having vague cultural meanings. Its complexity results from the difficulty in distinguishing between the socio-economic phenomenon, which no longer exists, and the socio-cultural construct, out of which a literary and cultural topos has emerged. The latter made the shtetl the symbol of original Jewishness. Thus, the shtetl became a mythological site of memory of eastern European Judaism after the latter’s extermination by the National Socialist regime.
While today the idea of a specific space of eastern European Jewish communities in the midst of a non-Jewish population suggests a marginal existence, nothing is more hotly debated among historians than this supposed Jewish isolation. In multi-ethnic Poland, the place in which they emerged, shtetls were not Jewish municipalities, but Polish cities and towns which had a significant proportion – or even a majority – of Yiddish-speaking Jews among their inhabitants. This definition presupposes that the concept of the shtetl is to be interpreted as the result of a particular perception.
The Urban Phenomenon
The region in which shtetls existed encompasses the present-day states of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Slovakia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and southern Latvia. The territories of these countries constituted the cultural home of Ashkenazi Judaism up to 1945.
The term “shtetl” as it is used in this article did not exist in politics or law. In 1875, the Russian senate established the category of mestechko (literally “little town”) to distinguish between ordinary villages and towns with local administration. At the time of the census of 1897, about one third of Jews lived in such mestechki. Interestingly, this term was not adopted into the Polish language, which had assimilated many Yiddish terms. In 1775, purely for tax purposes the Polish Sejm defined a miasteczko as a municipality consisting of less than 300 hearths and which held a weekly market.
The Jews themselves distinguished between a dorf (Yiddish) or a yishev (Yiddish, meaning tiny rural settlement) and a shtetl (shtetlekh in plural, sometimes also kleynshtetl), and contrasted the diminutive form shtetl with a fully-fledged city (shtot). These terms not only referred to the size of the settlements in the countryside, but also primarily to a particular way of life and the corresponding social relationships, as demonstrated by the adjectives kleynshtetldik (meaning provincial) and groysshtotish (meaning cosmopolitan). Yeshuvnik, on the other hand, was a term of abuse which the shtetl inhabitants used to refer to people such as the leaseholders of mills and taverns. To be a shtetl, a settlement had to be big enough to support the essential Jewish institutions. In the 18th century, settlements with a total population of roughly 2,000 tended to be referred to as shtetls. Subsequently, large towns and cities with populations of up to 10,000 or even 20,000 were referred to as shtetls. The determining factor was that the Jewish population constituted at least 40 per cent of the total.1 The Jewish community of the town (kehile) was led by a council of respected men known as the kahal. This council, the institutional manifestation of Jewish autonomy, appointed the rabbi, supervised the running of the mikvah (ritual bath), collected the taxes and represented the community in its dealings with the outside world. The kahal typically had extensive legal authority within the Jewish community, not only in judicial matters but also in cultural matters and in the charitable sphere. A shtetl had at least one synagogue (shul) with an accompanying school (bes-medresh), a ritual bath (mikvah), a graveyard, an elementary religious school (kheder) and other educational institutions (talmud-toyre), as well as associations (khevres) which performed fundamental religious and communal functions. The latter included the respected funeral brotherhood (chevra kadisha). From the 18th century, the so called shtiblekh, or prayer houses, increased in number as a result of the rise of Hasidism. The adherents of a tzaddik (originally meaning a genuinely pious man, but in the context of Hasidism referring to a spiritual leader, teacher and master) gathered in these prayer houses. There were often multiple Hasidic dynasties in one town.
Emergence: The Shtetl as the Result of an Alliance between the Jews and the Polish Nobility
Already in the 13th and 14th centuries, Jews were living throughout the entire territory of the Polish state, which from 1386 was in a union of crowns with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the subsequent centuries, large numbers of Jews migrated to Poland as a result of increasing persecution in western Europe. This inward migration was also welcomed by Jews from Polish cities which had received the right of De non tolerandis Judaeis (the right to expel Jews), who wished to further develop the backward agriculture in the sparsely populated countryside. The Union of Lublin of 1569 established the Polish-Lithuanian Republic of the Nobility (also known as the Rzeczpospolita or Poland-Lithuania), which on the one hand had brought an eastward expansion and on the other hand finally established the szlachta (Polish for petty nobility ) as the politically, economically and socially dominant class in Polish society. This was also accompanied by the establishment of private towns by the Polish nobility (two thirds of the urban settlements in Poland-Lithuania were private towns). Trade networks were required in order to exploit and market products such as cereals, timber, honey, alcohol and other agricultural produce. The Cossack rebellion, during which 200,000 Jews are said to have fallen victim to the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648, and the subsequent Swedish invasion and war with Moscow plunged the country into chaos. The nobility turned to the Jews once more in the rebuilding process, which was mainly based on the foundation of more private towns in order to strengthen trade networks. The Jews were not in competition with the nobility for political power, and the nobility instrumentalized the Jews in a manner that at times resembled a colonization.2 At this time, numerous privileges were granted to the Jewish communities, which were guaranteed self-administration.
A contributing factor in the emergence of the urban phenomenon of the shtetl was the fact that Jews constituted almost half of the urban population of the Rzeczpospolita. Furthermore, 70 per cent of the Jewish population lived in the eastern territories, where in some places Jews constituted well over 50 per cent of the population. This was due in part to the rapid demographic growth of the Jewish population. However, this was more a result of low mortality than of a high birth rate. The other ethnic groups predominantly lived in the countryside. While in 1500 the Jews numbered about 30,000, constituting less than 0.5 per cent of the total population, by 1672 they had risen to about 3 per cent, and by 1765 the Jewish population had reached around 750,000 and constituted about 5.35 per cent of the total population.
Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, the power of the Polish magnates, the aristocratic elite, grew at the expense of the Polish crown and the lower and rural nobility. As between 50 and 75 per cent of the Jews living in Poland-Lithuania were living in cities and towns belonging to the magnates and the interests of both groups often overlapped, very close relationships developed between them. This relationship benefitted both sides. The protection provided by the magnates gave the Jews a certain degree of security, while the Jews provided experience and expertise in the areas of finance and trade, as well as in the crafts. In the towns and cities of the magnates, they faced hardly any competition, while in the royal cities they were confronted with the hostility of the Christian guilds. The system of the leasing of monopolies referred to by the term arenda – hence the term arendar referring to the primary leaseholder – was established in this context. Leases were granted primarily for the production and sale of alcoholic drinks (propinacja in Polish), which the szlachta used after 1670 as a strategy to compensate for falling grain prices. This system reached its apogee a century later, at which time about one third of the Jewish population was employed in the sector. Thus, the Jews found their place between the nobility and the peasantry, and performed the role of intermediaries between the urban centres and the countryside. They had been economically fully integrated. However, this success did not turn the shtetls into Jewish cities. Urban life continued to be directed by the urban councils, in which the Jews were not represented, even though they paid municipal taxes. Though the nobility and the royal authorities often treated the kahal as a parallel institution to the urban council, the Jews never obtained full autonomy.
The Shtetl in the 19th Century: Survival of an Outdated Model
After the fall of the Rzeczpospolita and the subsequent partitions of Poland, the Polish Jewish community – by this time the largest worldwide – became subject to the laws of the respective partitioning powers – Prussia, Austria and Russia. The 19th century brought the emancipation of the serfs and the legal emancipation of the Jews, which brought an end to their privileged relationship with the szlachta. In Galicia, which was now under Austrian rule, the population remained predominantly rural, and the economy thus remained poor, even though legal equality brought social advancement for some through migration to Vienna and other urban centres. The Jews who came under the rule of the Russian Empire fared worst. In contrast to multi-ethnic Poland-Lithuania, the Russian authorities had no concrete policy towards the Jewish minority. While Jews obtained equality under the law, they were only permitted to reside in the pale of settlement defined by Catherine the Great (1729‒1796) in 1791, and confirmed by a decree of Nicholas I (1796–1855) in 1835. The pale of settlement corresponded to the territory which the Jews had historically inhabited. Equality was made conditional on their assimilation. The next phase in the anti-Jewish policy of the imperial Russian government came in 1882, when the May Laws of Alexander III (1845–1894) placed renewed restrictions on the freedom of movement of the Jews. They were compelled to move to shtetls where they could constitute up to 80 per cent of the local population. A shtetl could accommodate up to 20,000 residents. Such high concentrations of Jews were common in Podlachia, Mazovia and Belarus. On the eve of the First World War, 94 percent of Russian Jews lived in the pale of settlement.
In the 19th century, the traditional model of the market town began to crumble. After the abolition of serfdom, the agrarian population began to get organized. This occurred primarily through the foundation of agricultural cooperatives. This made them less and less dependent on the shtetl and the services it had provided. As industrialization progressed, some shtetls changed direction economically, becoming centres of specialized manufacturing, as occurred in Mazovia and near the centres of textile production in Łódź and Białystok. However, mechanization often resulted in underemployment among Jewish craftsmen. Additionally, the introduction of the railway created new national and regional networks of trade, which could decide the fate of a shtetl (the shtetl Berdichev declined in significance in this way, for example). The increasing mobility of large sections of the population also placed increasing pressure on Jews engaged in the trade and services sector. At the same time, transport services became increasingly important. Jewish chauffeurs and drivers (balegole in Yiddish) were a feature of most train stations and market halls. Migration from the countryside, which was often the first stage in a massive wave of westward and overseas emigration driven by various waves of pogroms and dire poverty, was a reality, though the population loss was compensated by demographic growth. Thus, from 1850 onward the focus of Jewish life increasingly shifted to the large cities of Warsaw, Vilnius, Odessa, Łódź and Vienna, though the shtetl did not lose its significance as a result. In spite of the increasing social tensions between the winners and losers of the modernization process and in spite of increasing secularization, the shtetl remained an extremely stable social entity up to the beginning of the 20th century.
Typical Features and Characteristics of Shtetl Culture
The private towns and cities were originally a manifestation of the emerging symbiosis between the nobility, the Jews and the serfs. Even though relations with Christian residents could sometimes be tense, usually as a result of the influence of the church,3 pogroms were rare. In the shtetl, there were basically two types of relationships between Christians and Jews: the day-to-day relationship which for pragmatic reasons was governed by the usual rules of civility, and crisis situations.4
In spite of tensions, the concentration of the Jewish network, the self-administration obtained by means of privileges, the self-confidence obtained from economic success and the relative acceptance of these circumstances by the surrounding population had an enormous psychological effect on the development of the eastern European Jews and their mentality and culture. The shtetl Jews had the daily experience of living in an essentially Jewish world, which had little interest in other cultures.5 This resulted in a feeling of isolation6 and the perception of the towns and cities in which they lived as genuine Jewish towns. From the cultural perspective, the division was indeed absolute.
The inhabitants of the shtetl differed from the surrounding population not only in terms of their religion, but also by having their own calendar, as well as different forms of employment, their own language, and by having a culture in which learned men were highly regarded and everyone (at least in theory) was literate. The Yiddish language and the perpetually recurring Sabbath remain quintessential elements of this culture to the present day.
At the centre of the shtetl was a (usually unpaved) market square, on which markets were held once or twice weekly. Around the market square stood one-storey or two-storey stone buildings (moyers) belonging to the wealthy (gvirim), as well as the church and the town hall. The synagogue was also usually located close to the market square. The other houses and often churches (Catholic, Uniate, Protestant or Orthodox) and synagogues were built of wood. Fires were a regular occurrence. The usual concentration of Jewish houses near the market square went back to the late-17th century. Streets and roads were usually unpaved, or at best covered with wooden planks, and when it rained they turned to mud. Living conditions were usually very difficult from a hygienic perspective.7
The shtetl served as a centre for the so-called dorfsgeyers, pedlars who sold craft goods from the city in the villages, as well as for the yeshuvnikes, who lived in the countryside and only came into the shtetl on special occasions (Jewish festivals, family occasions, administrative procedures) and who tended to be looked down on by the inhabitants of the shtetl.
The shtetl was also characterized by its strict hierarchy. The social divides, which resulted in internal tensions, were apparent everywhere, at the market place and in the synagogue. The sheyne yidn (respected members of the community, the elite) were at the top of the social hierarchy, the balebatim (balebos in singular, literally meaning “homeowner”, i.e. a burgess, an economically successful and respected man) as merchants came next, followed by the respected craftsmen. Towards the bottom were the coachmen and water carriers, and at the very bottom were the beggars and other so-called luftmenshen. Between these groups were the ordinary craftsmen and small traders. This hierarchy not only functioned as a vertical social structure, it should also be understood as a strict separation of the sexes which permeated all social classes. The women, who were mostly literate (at least in Yiddish) and were often responsible for the family bookkeeping and commercial correspondence, thus played a key role in local commercial life. The growing influence of Hasidism in the shtetls did not change this structure significantly.8 The tzaddikim preferred to use the existing infrastructure instead of undermining it.
However, these enclave towns were by no means closed off from the surrounding population. On the contrary, they served as provisioning islands. At the market, commercial and personal relationships formed which undermined the myth of the hermetically sealed world of the shtetl. The influence of the non-Jewish world manifested itself in the very concrete areas of cuisine, clothing, idioms and language (for example, eastern Yiddish had many regional variants)9. It seems almost self-evident that the shtetl was a privileged site for inter-ethnic contact, and recent research confirms this.10 Even in the religious sphere, the divide was not necessarily as strict as often depicted. Hasidic centres were sometimes also Catholic pilgrimage centres and famous tzaddikim often also had Christian adherents.11
Additionally, social and economic relationships were often integrated into a network which reached far beyond the boundaries of the shtetl, and which included the historical interaction between Jews and peasants, and Jews and noblemen, as well as regional hierarchical structures, and the relationship between the shtetl and its former inhabitants who had emigrated overseas. Thus, a shtetl was always part of a larger system – whether this involved trade routes, railway lines, structures of industrialization or the network of Hasidic courts and pilgrimage sites.
Within this normative framework, a great diversity developed within the Jewish population as a result of regional differences, class-specific modes of living, different religious directions and city-country divides. The local patriotism, which subsequently manifested itself in the Landsmannschaften, had already existed in eastern Europe. The individual’s feeling of belonging was connected with one’s own community, one’s own shtetl, sometimes with one’s own prayer confraternity, adherence to a particular Hasidic rebbe or even to one’s local Yiddish dialect.12
The Great Transformation after the First World War
Though numerous Jewish writers, intellectuals and so-called activists foresaw the decline of the shtetl, its internal structures changed little up to the First World War. The big transformations only occurred in the aftermath of this armed conflict.13 The figures indicate that the urban and cultural entity that was the shtetl continued to exist and remained significant. In 1939, around one quarter of Poland’s Jews lived in one of the five large cities of the new Polish republic. However, the inhabitants of the shtetls still constituted about two fifths of the Jewish population.14 What was new was the mood that prevailed in the shtetl. Notwithstanding all clichés, in interwar Poland the shtetl experienced a unique blossoming. The ideological rivalry which some individuals had already engaged in during the second half of the 19th century became more intensive as Jewish society became increasingly secularized. Though this primarily affected the large cities, the shtetls did not escape this trend, particularly as in some cases the development of communications infrastructure made them suburbs of these large cities. The shtetls only differed in that linguistic assimilation was slower, attendance at the synagogue was higher, and the Sabbath was better observed. While the process of secularization was unmistakable, it is nevertheless not the case that traditional authority was disintegrating. Rather, the latter now had to share the public and private stage with other forces, which primarily consisted of the numerous Jewish (and in some cases non-Jewish) political parties. Zionists of various hues (including socialist and religious Mizrachi), diaspora nationalists15 and to a lesser extent Bundists16 flooded onto the now democratized shtetl stage. The orthodox Jews reacted to this development with the foundation in 1912 of the Aguda (in Yiddish Agudas Yisroel), which soon became the largest Jewish party in the Polish parliament.17 The outside world increasingly encroached in the form of political meetings, conferences and addresses on the eve of the Sabbath, beauty contests, sporting competitions and theatre rehearsals. Essentially, a kind of Jewish counter-culture was formed, which brought about a conflict between the generations and brought down the old hierarchies. Thus, the associations of workers and craftsmen promoted the self-confidence and assertiveness of these social groups, who had always been treated with such contempt in the shtetl. Women participated in communal life more often and more intensively than before, as reflected among other things in the emergence of froyen-fareynen. The changes were particularly conspicuous in the area of schooling, with an increasing proportion of children attending regular Polish schools at least in the mornings. Almost every political movement maintained its own school system, which competed with the traditional school system. Thus, the modernisation process also affected the traditional form of upbringing. Youth movements of every colour played a significant role: the Zionist Hashomer Hatsair (“the young watchman” in Yiddish), the Tseirei Misrachi (“Young Mizrachists”) which was attached to the Mizrachi, the Tseirei Agudas Yisroel attached to the Aguda, the revisionist Zionist Betar groups18 and the Tsukunft of the Bundists, to name just a few.19
The vitality of shtetl life remained evident even in the grim atmosphere of the anti-Jewish policies and anti-Semitic climate of the late-1930s. As a Jewish entity, the shtetl resisted the boycott of Jewish shops endorsed by the government by establishing credit institutions (kases) with the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The inhabitants of the shtetls were able to rely on the financial assistance of the Landsmannschaften referred to above. In general, the anti-Semitic climate was less noticeable in the shtetl, though Jewish-Polish relations had deteriorated considerably.
The fate of the shtetl in the territory under Soviet rule must be dealt with separately. As the Bolsheviks had a negative attitude towards the shtetls, alternatives were suggested, ranging from the resettlement of Jews in large cities to the foundation of agricultural colonies or even the foundation of an autonomous Jewish territory in Birobidzhan.20 Soviet law was in direct opposition to the traditional economy and the previous hierarchies. The sheyne yidn suddenly lost their status and their respect. Collectivization finally destroyed the centuries-old relationship between the shtetl and the surrounding countryside. The disintegration of the socio-economic structures was accompanied by the gradual but systematic dismantling of traditional culture, with the exception of the Yiddish-speaking schools, which continued to be tolerated into the 1930s. However, the system of religious schools was suppressed and the synagogues were closed. These measures took the form of a veritable campaign when they were implemented by the Jewish section of the Communist Party (Yevsektzia).21
The Mythologized Shtetl
Paradoxically, while historical descriptions of shtetls in the 19th century and early-20th century are scarce, there is little difficulty in finding descriptions of the mythologized shtetl.22 Thus, the most famous shtetls are not to be found on any map:23 neither the fictional Kasrilevke,24 whose Ukrainian suffix “-evke” is intended to give the impression of authenticity, nor the generic Kapstansk (town of beggars) nor Glupsk (town of fools),25 the names of which are suggestive of the privations of Jewish life and enable us to fully reconstruct this life. Particularly in the works of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature Sholem Yankev Abramovich (who used the pen name Mendele Moicher Sforim (1836–1917)) and Sholem Rabinovich (who used the pen name Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916)), depictions of the shtetl, in which the shtetl served not just as the scene of the action but as an integral component of the story and the place of identification of the characters, assumed a universal form. Through narrative depiction, answers to the historical catastrophes and survival strategies in a disintegrating traditional society are invented. In this way, Jewish identity was also reconfigured with the aim of resolving the dilemma between tradition and the upheaval of modernity.
The literary shtetl is in reality a product of the 19th century and of its most significant trend, the Haskalah. Thinkers of the Jewish Enlightenment (maskilim) such as Isaac Meir Dick (1814–1893), Israel Aksenfeld (1787–1866) and Isaac Joel Linetsky (1839–1915) made the shtetl on the one hand the symbolic site of the precarious situation of the Jewish people and on the other hand a social laboratory for exposing the backwardness of traditional life and for identifying changes. In this criticism, shtetl life was depicted as the epitome of narrowness and Hasidism was depicted as a sect with an antagonistic attitude towards progress. This parody and satire26, which employed polarizing effects, argued in favour of the necessity of modernisation or assimilation, which it depicted as being unavoidable in any case. The somewhat earlier Polish Enlightenment literature had already employed the image of the shtetl in its critique of the backwardness of Polish cities, a circumstance which was often blamed on the Jews. This theme ran through the entire 19th century and surfaced repeatedly in the writing of the progressive author Stefan Żeromski (1864–1925) in the first quarter of the 20th century. Other writers such as Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812–1887) produced stereotypes which were somewhat more positive.27
Regardless of what assumptions it was being employed in support of, the shtetl as a cultural and literary construct always appeared as a bastion of Judaism, the so-called yidishkeyt. Even when it was depicted as an anachronism, it was always perceived as pure and untouched.28 The romanticized shtetl is primarily characterized by the quasi-systematic absence of non-Jews. When the latter appear, it is only as very stereotypical characters. There is also continuity between the Haskalah literature and later works written in Hebrew or Yiddish.29 This phenomenon becomes particularly apparent in depictions of the porets (the noble estate owner under whose authority the Jews of a community lived), who symbolized immoral power and blind suppression. At the time when this fiction was published, the historical figure of the rural Polish nobleman had already lost his actual power as a result of the Polish rebellions of 1831 and 1863, which were suppressed by the Russian authorities, and the abolition of serfdom. Depictions of Christian peasants and non-Jewish city dwellers remain – to the extent that they occur at all – far removed from reality or are limited to scenes of violence.
After the disastrous political changes in the Russian Empire in 1881,30 Jewish authors tended to rehabilitate shtetl society. It came to be depicted as a bastion of Jewish spiritual values which was beset from all sides. This tendency became even more pronounced as a result of the waves of pogroms in the Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century, the barbarities of the First World War and the subsequent pogroms in the Ukraine. This trend was exemplified by the inner conversion of the modern classicist Isaac Leib Peretz (ca. 1852–1915) to a Judaism which he had rediscovered as an assimilated Jew and exponent of a cultural autonomy in the diaspora on the occasion of his participation in a statistical expedition to the shtetls around his native city of Zamość, and which he reinterpreted and re-stylized in his Hasidic stories.31 Parallel to the literary tradition, a genuine ethnographic reflection developed, which focused on the shtetl as the living site of memory of the Jewish people. These works presented themselves as a contribution towards the political struggle of the ethnic minorities. Among the most important theorists of a Jewish ethnography was Shlomo Zanvil Rapoport (who wrote under the pseudonym An-Ski, 1863–1920), who conducted important ethnographic expeditions in Podolia and Volhynia between 1912 and 1914.32
German-speaking authors also contributed to the mythologization of the shtetl, for example “westernized” Jews such as Karl Emil Franzos (1848–1904), “alienated” Jews such as Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) and Martin Buber (1878–1965), and shtetl “natives” such as Joseph Roth (1894–1939), who was constantly inspired by his native city of Brody.
Just before them and contemporaneous with them, a new generation of Yiddish writers attempted to overcome and correct the by now normative literary image of the shtetl. Isaac Meir Weissenberg (1881–1938) depicted class struggles during the Revolution of 1905; Scholem Asch (1880–1957) made the non-Jewish reality of the shtetl an integral component of his works; David Bergelson (1884–1952) captured the inner world of shtetl inhabitants and its banality with the help of modernist narrative techniques (see for example the novel Noch alemen); and Oser Warschawski (1898–1944) described the unvarnished reality of the life of Jewish smugglers in his novel Shmuglares.33
In Soviet Russia – for example the poet Izi Charik (1898–1937) – and in interwar Poland, literary endeavours reflected the belief that the traditional world of the shtetl was finally condemned to disintegrate. Some of these texts, such as those of the Polish Jewish authors Maurycy Szymel (1903–1942) and Czesława Rosenblattowa (writing under the pen name Czesław Halicz, born in 1879), were characterized by nostalgia, while others were full of rage, such as those of Mordechai Gebirtig (1877–1942), whose visionary poem Unzer shtetl brent depicted the shtetl one more time as the epitome of Polish Judaism.
Shtetl descriptions reached their most emotional expression in the aftermath of the Shoah in the more than 1,200 memorial books, referred to in Yiddish as yizker-bikher, which were compiled and published to commemorate the exterminated eastern European Jewish people. Some experts view these texts as peculiar fictions, in which the authors unconsciously and in good faith borrowed from literary sources and confused realities.34 In the memorial and commemorative literature and in autobiographical texts and analyses written directly after the Holocaust, the shtetl appeared as a totalizing form which permitted eastern European Jewish life to be retraced in its totality. Bestsellers such as Life is with People by Mark Zborowski (ca. 1908–1990) and Elisabeth Herzog (died 1970) and Irving Howe’s (1920–1993) A Treasury of Yiddish Stories clearly show how divisions, powerful tensions, diversity and gradations were left out or glossed over in order to create a homogeneous, ritualized and timeless image of the shtetl. Finally, the remarkable process of “shtetlization” should be mentioned, in which both important cities and small villages are identified as “shtetls” and their destruction is mourned – a literary device that had already been employed in the texts of former eastern European Jews who had emigrated and were living in large cities in the West, i.e., which were far removed from any commemorative intention.35 The use of the shtetl metaphor in these works unquestionably made the mythologized shtetl the “living Jewish body”.36
- Teller, The Shtetl 2004, p. 40.
- Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania 2006, p. 37
- Ibid., pp. 57–78.
- Cała, Wizerunek Żyda 1992, chapters 2 and 6.
- Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania 2006, p. 50. The Jews were very convinced that their culture was superior. The Polish culture of the other town dwellers held no attraction for them, let alone the culture of the peasants or that of the nobility, who were viewed as immoral.
- Teller, The Shtetl 2004, p. 40.
- This architecture can still be seen in the Ukrainian province of Winniza. See the work of Sokolova, The Podolian Shtetl 2000, pp. 36–79.
- Dynner, Men of Silk 2008.
- Weinreich, Geshikhte 1973, vol. 2, p. 185 and vol. 4, pp. 250–252.
- See for example the central role of the house employees, who Orla-Bukowska, Shetl Communities 1994 points to taking the example of the shtetl Frysztak, pp. 89–113.
- Galas, Inter-Religious Contacts 2004, pp. 39–50.
- Rüthers, Ostjüdische Vielfalt 2008.
- Many useful descriptions of Polish cities and towns exist for this period. See Kassow, Community and Identity 1989.
- Beranek, Das Judentum in Polen 1959, p. 120.
- This refers to Jewish movements whose Jewish nationalist aims focus on the Diaspora instead of Palestine (“Zion”).
- Members of the so-called Bund, the Jewish socialist party “Allgemeiner jüdischer Arbeiterbund von Litauen, Polen und Russland” founded in 1897.
- On this, see Morgenstern, Von Frankfurt nach Jerusalem 1995, pp. 72–74.
- Short name in Hebrew of the “Bund Yosef Trumpeldor”. This youth organization was founded in 1923 by the Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880–1940), who with Joseph Trumpeldor (1880–1920) had formed a Jewish unit in the British army during the First World War. The name Betar is also reminiscent of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans in 132–135.
- On all these aspects, see the last two chapters in Ertel, Le Shtetl 1982.
- From 1934, this territory in the Soviet Far East, which had been allocated to the Jewish minority from 1928, was officially known as the “Jewish Autonomous Region”. Yiddish was the official language there. Jewish settlement there occurred in the context of the movement for agricultural colonization. For example, see Kuchenbecker, Zionismus ohne Zion 2000.
- For example, see Shneer, Yiddish 2004.
- As early as 1819, Joseph Perl (1773–1839) published his novel Megale temirin in Vienna, in which he mocked the outdated way of life in the shtetls of Galicia.
- Roskies, The Shtetl 2000, p. 4.
- Sholem Rabinovitsh [Sholem Aleykhem] wrote the chronicle of the inhabitants of Kasrilevke between 1902 and 1915 in a conversational style.
- Mendele Moicher Sforim [Abramovitsh], Dos kleyne mentschele 1864 (published as a serialized novel in the newspaper Kol mevaser). Berditschew serves as a prototype for the fictitious town of idiots, which serves as a destination for the Kapstansk Jews fleeing poverty. Fishke der krumer (Fischke the Lame), published in 1869, was just one of the many other novels by Mendele Moicher Sforim.
- Here the Hassidim appeared as negative heroes. See Baumgarten, La Naissance du hassidisme 2006, pp. 176–182.
- Prokopówna, The Image of the Stetl 1993, pp. 319–331.
- The work of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–1991) should be mentioned here as a conspicuous exception, in which the shtetl appears as a place of ambivalence and of extreme psychological tension.
- Bartal, Non-Jews 1989.
- This refers to the so-called May Laws, the ordinance “On the Procedure for the Implementation of Regulations Regarding the Jews” which was approved in 1882 by Alexander III in the aftermath of the assassination of Alexander II (1818–1881) and the subsequent pogroms, in which the pogroms were basically classified as a further attack of the revolutionary movement against public order, and which the historian Simon Dubnow (1860–1941) has thus described as a “legislative pogrom”. See Dubnow, History of the Jews 1916, vol. 2, p. 309.
- Schumacher-Brunhes, Entre tradition et modernité 2005, pp. 482–525.
- The programme of the expedition recently became available in English translation. See Deutsch, The Jewish Dark Continent 2011.
- On Scholem Asch, see Stahl, Sholem Asch Reconsidered 2004; on David Bergelson, besides Chone Shmeruk’s unpublished dissertation in Hebrew (Jerusalem 1961), see Murav, “Marking Time”, [about to be published]; on Oser Warschawski, see Boyer, Rozier, L’éclat des crépuscules 1998 and also Slotnik, Oyzer Varshavski’s Shmuglares 2004.
- Roskies, The Jewish Search 1999,p. 64; see also Kugelmass, From a Ruined Garden 1998.
- See Kobrin, The Shtetl by the Highway 2006.
- Miron, Literary Image of the Shtetl 1995.
- Beranek, Franz J.: Das Judentum in Polen, in: Werner Markert et al. (eds.): Osteuropa Handbuch: Vol. 2: Polen, Cologne et al. 1959, pp. 119–127.
- Bartal, Israel: Non-Jews and Gentile Society in East European Hebrew and Yiddish Literature 1856–1914, in: Polin 4 (1989), pp. 53–69.
- Bauer, Yehuda: The Death of the Shtetl, New Haven, CT 2009.
- Baumgarten, Jean: La Naissance du hassidisme: Mystique, rituel et société (18e–19e siècle), Paris 2006.
- Boyer, Irène et al. (eds.): L’éclat des crépuscules: Oser Warszawski (1898–1944): Un écrivain yiddish entre chien et loup: ʻOzer Ṿarshaṿsḳi : A yidisher shrayber in likhṭ fun bin-hashemoshus̀, Paris 1998.
- Cała, Alina: Wizerunek Żyda w polskiej kulturze ludowej, Warsaw 1992.
- Deutsch, Nathaniel: The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Harvard 2011.
- Dubnow, Simon: History of the Jews in Russia and Poland: From the Earliest Times Until the Present Day, Philadelphia, PA 1916–1920, vol. 1–3.
- Dynner, Glenn: Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society, Oxford 2008.
- Ertel, Rachel: Le Shtetl: La bourgade juive de Pologne de la tradition à la modernité, Paris 1982.
- Idem: Le Shtetl: La bourgade juive de Pologne de la tradition à la modernité, 3rd edition, Paris 2011.
- Estraikh, Gennady et al. (eds.): The Shtetl: Image and Reality: Papers of the Second Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish, Oxford 2000.
- Galas, Michał: Inter-Religious Contacts in the Shtetl, in: Polin 17 (2004), pp. 41–50.
- Hundert, Gershon David: The Jews in a Polish Private Town, Baltimore et al. 1992.
- Idem: Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity, Berkeley et al. 2006.
- Kassow, Samuel D.: Community and Identity in the Interwar Shtetl, in: Yisrael Gutman et al. (eds.): The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, Hanover, NH 1989, pp. 198–220.
- Klier, John. D.: What Exactly Was a Shtetl?, in: Gennady Estraikh et al. (eds.): The Shtetl: Image and Reality: Papers of the Second Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish, Oxford 2000, pp. 23–35.
- Kobrin, Rebecca: The Shtetl by the Highway: The East European City in New York’s Landsmanshaft Press, 1921–1939, in: Prooftexts 26,1 (2006), pp. 107–137.
- Kuchenbecker, Antje: Zionismus ohne Zion: Birobidzhan: Idee und Geschichte eines jüdischen Staates in Sowjet-Fernost, Berlin 2000.
- Kugelmass, Jack et al. (eds.): From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry, 2nd edition, Bloomington, IN 1998.
- Miron, Dan: Literary Image of the Shtetl, in: Jewish Social Studies 1,3 (1995), pp. 1–43.
- Mendele Moicher Sforim [Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh]: Fishke der krumer, ohne Ort 1869.
- Idem: Dos kleyne mentschele, in: Kol mevaser (1864).
- Morgenstern, Matthias: Von Frankfurt nach Jerusalem: Isaac Breuer und die Geschichte des Austrittsstreits in der deutsch-jüdischen Orthodoxie, Tübingen 1995.
- Murav, Harriet: “Marking Time”: A Book-length Study of the Yiddish Author David Bergelson in the Context of Early Twentieth Century Theoretical and Artistic Inquiries about Memory, Time and Consciousness, [about to be published].
- Orla-Bukowska, Annamaria: Shetl Communities: Another Image, in: Polin 8 (1994), pp. 89–113.
- Polonsky, Antony (ed.): Introduction: The Shtetl: Myth and Reality, in: Polin 17 (2004), pp. 3–24.
- Prokopówna, Eugenia: The Image of the Stetl in Polish Literature, in: Antony Polonsky (ed.): From Shtetl to Socialism, London et al. 1993 (Polin, selected contributions from vols. 1–7), pp. 318–331.
- Roskies, David G.: The Jewish Search for a Usable Past, Bloomington, IN et al. 1999 (The Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies).
- Idem: The Shtetl as Imagined Community, in: Gennady Estraikh et al. (eds.): The Shtetl: Image and Reality: Papers of the Second Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish, Oxford 2000, pp. 4–22.
- Rüthers, Monica: Ostjüdische Vielfalt in einer multikulturellen Umgebung: Versuch einer Annäherung, in: OWEP 9,3 (2008), pp. 163–174.
- Schumacher-Brunhes, Marie: Entre tradition et modernité: L’oeuvre de Y.L.Peretz [unpublished doctoral dissertation], Lille 2005.
- Shneer, David: Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture: 1918–1930, Cambridge et al. 2004.
- Slotnick, Susan A.: Oyzer Varshavski’s Shmuglares: A Study in Form and Meaning, in: The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Folklore, and Literature 4 (1980), pp. 185–236.
- Sokolova, Alla: The Podolian Shtetl as Architectural Phenomenon, in: Gennady Estraikh et al. (eds.): The Shtetl: Image and Reality: Papers of the Second Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish, Oxford 2000, pp. 36–80.
- Stahl, Nanette (ed.): Sholem Asch Reconsidered, New Haven, CT 2004.
- Teller, Adam: The Shtetl as an Arena for Polish-Jewish Integration in the Eighteenth Century, in: Polin 17 (2004), pp. 25–40.
- Weinreich, Max: Geshikhte fun der Yidisher shprakh: Bagrifn, Faktn, Metodn, New York, NY 1973, vol. 1–4.
- Zborowski, Mark / Herzog, Elisabeth: Life is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl, New York, NY 1970.
Originally published by EGO: Journal of European History Online, 07.03.2015, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.