Prior to the Holocaust, much of the Jewish landscape of Eastern Europe was made up of shtetls. Today, decades after its destruction, the shtetl’s residents, streets and buildings still remain etched in the Jewish collective memory.
In this episode of "On the Holocaust", Yad Vashem's podcast, Prof. Samuel Kassow takes us into the world of the shtetl, introducing its origins, history and inner-dynamics.
The Shtetl: Between Myth and Reality - Transcript
Hello, and welcome to this latest episode of "On the Holocaust", Yad Vashem's podcast. I'm Dafna Dolinko from the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.
Prior to the Holocaust, much of the Jewish landscape of Eastern Europe was made up of shtetls. In fact, it's impossible to discuss and imagine centuries of Jewish life in this area, and its ultimate fate during the Holocaust, without relating to the shtetl and its inhabitants. Today decades after its destruction, the shtetl's spaces, streets and buildings still remain etched in the Jewish collective memory.
In this episode of our series, Samuel Kassow, professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and author of many studies on East European Jewish history, including: "Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto," takes us into the world of the shtetl - introducing its origins, history and inner-dynamics, and exploring the place it held and still holds in the artistic and popular imagination.
Q: Thank you Prof. Kassow for being with us here today. For a lot of us, when we try to envision or to imagine these shtetls, or Shtetlekh, we often think about Fiddler on the Roof, or other popular representations. So can you please start us off by explaining what a shtetl actually was? How it can be defined? Should it be defined? What are its origins?
A: Okay, well in terms of law, in terms of political definitions or legal definitions, there was no such thing as a shtetl. In the eyes of the Russians, or the Austrians, or the Poles or the Hungarians, the term shtetl was absolutely meaningless. So it was a term, it was a Yiddish term used by Jews to refer to the small towns in prewar Eastern Europe, that had a large Yiddish speaking Jewish population. And there were many different kinds of shtetls, but if you want to, you know, get a garden variety definition - it was a kind of a Jewish settlement, marked by a compact, concentrated, Jewish population. Jews in the shtetl were distinguished from their non-Jewish neighbors by religion, by occupation, by language, by culture. And a shtetl was also a kaleidoscope of different economic and social relationships.
One kind of relationship was the interaction of Jews and peasants in the marketplace. Another relationship is the coming together of Jews for essential communal and religious functions. And if you want to get a definition of a shtetl, and again, it's very hard to define what a shtetl was, in the article for the YIVO Encyclopedia of Eastern Europe on the shtetl that I wrote, I say the following - that if you want to define a shtetl, the following clumsy rule is probably as good as any, which is, that a shtetl is big enough to support a basic network of institutions that are essential to Jewish, communal life - a synagogue, a mikveh (ritual bath), a cemetery, schools, a framework of voluntary associations or "khevres" that perform religious and communal functions. So that's the key difference between a shtetl and a "dorf" or a "yishuv", that is a shtetl and a village or some kind of a rural settlement. The shtetl has those institutions.
But the difference between a shtetl and a city or a "Shtot", or provincial city, is that the shtetl is a face-to-face community. In the shtetl people recognize each other, at least by sight. They probably know each other's first names. And, and this is very important, a shtetl is a place where people know each other, not just by names, but by nicknames. The nicknames that almost everybody had, were an essential part of shtetl society. My grandfather on my mother's side was called "Sam the American," because he had lived in the United States and had gone back to his shtetl before World War I. But many of the nicknames were rather uncomplimentary. There was one woman in a Memorial Book who was talking about her shtetl in the 1930's, and she was just listing some of the nicknames: Chaim the Redhead, Moishe the Icon, Faivel "parkh", which means that he was covered with scabs ("parkh" meaning ringworm in Yiddish), Ellie "boykh", because he had a big belly ("boykh" meaning stomach in Yiddish). Avrom "kile" - Avrom the Hernia, Berl the Redhead, Henokh the Tin Collar - because he hadn't cleaned his coat in 20 years and it showed, and this goes on and on - there was Yankl the Hunchback. So these nicknames also remind us that the shtetl was not this warm, close, mutually supportive community that gets idealized in say Fiddler on the Roof. By the way, in the original Sholem Aleichem stories "Tevye der milkhiger" - Tevye the Dairyman, Tevye is not living in a shtetl. He's living in the countryside. So he was kind of written into a shtetl for the Broadway production.
Q: Just if we can talk a little bit more about... because we're talking about these shtetls, and what was happening in them, and then the different nicknames, but what are their origins? Why are they even there? How do they start?
A: How did the shtetls start?
A: Oh, okay. Well that's a good question. Strictly speaking, the shtetl has its origins in the old, Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, that is Poland before the partitions, where the Polish nobility was very powerful. So the Polish nobility invited Jews in to settle on their lands, and to lease key functions - the cutting of timber, the distilling of alcohol, the running of taverns. There were all kinds of leases, but the thing that was the common denominator was kind of an economic and symbiotic relationship between the Jews and the Polish nobles. The Jews were kind of like a battery that you put into an iPhone, or you put into some kind of an appliance, to activate the whole economic system. The Jews would begin to organize the selling of all these commodities to distant markets. The Jews would also encourage the peasants to come in one or two days a week to trade in a market, and this trade also was taxed by the Polish noble, and this made him wealthier. Now the key point was how do you get Jews to settle in the middle of nowhere? So what the Polish nobles did, is that they told the Jews: "if you settle in my town," which today may be in the middle of Belarusian forests or Ukrainian swamps, "but if you settle in my town, I will give you a charter. I promise that I will protect you. I promise that there will never be any market days on Shabbat or on Jewish holidays. You will be able to live here in security." And so the shtetl developed certain common physical features. The shtetls were built around the market square. This was universal in any shtetl, the market square being the place where the peasants and the Jews would get together one or two days a week to trade. There would also be a Catholic church on one side of the market square showing that this belonged... this was the private property of the Polish noble. The shtetl would usually have a very dense Jewish population in the center of the town. And the farther out you got, you would begin to see non-Jews or the poorer Jews.
One of the things that's very important to emphasize is that the East European shtetl, in my mind, is unique in the history of Jewish Diaspora settlement. You don't have anything like a shtetl in Germany or in Spain or in Babylonia. What makes the shtetl different is - one, that the shtetl more often than not had a Jewish majority, whereas in these other countries, more often than not Jews would be in a minority. In the shtetl Jews basically lived in the entire area, whereas in Spain, Babylonia, Germany, there might be a few Jewish streets. Jews in the shtetl spoke Yiddish, a language, which was different from the speech of their Slavic or Baltic neighbors, whereas in Spain or Germany, the Judeo-Spanish or the Judeo-German that the Jews spoke could be comprehended by their non-Jewish neighbors. Another very important difference between the shtetl and these other forms of Diaspora settlement was, whereas in Iraq or in Spain or in Germany, Jews were often to be found in a relatively small number of occupations, very often determined by political limitations, in the shtetl you had Jews on the whole ladder of economic occupations - from wealthy Jews, entrepreneurs, wealthy lease holders, the so-called "sheyne yidn" or the upstanding Jews. And then you would have the shopkeepers, the "balebatim", the Jews who were economically independent, and then down the social scale, you might have the skilled tailors or the skilled shoemakers or the watchmakers. And then further down, you might have the "proste balmelokhes," that is the ordinary artisans, tailors, shoemakers. And then you would have the "vaser treger" or the water carriers. You would have the "balegoles", or the teamsters. But this differentiated social structure, which translated in turn into a lot of social tension and a lot of economic and social diversity. Adding to this a different language and adding to this a Jewish majority, you can say that it was in the shtetl, that the Jews of Eastern Europe became a separate, specific, different people. The Jews in Eastern Europe became a nation in their own right, with their language, with their folklore, with their humor, to an extent that you didn't see in the rest of the Jewish Diaspora,
Q: You mentioned the Jews being a majority, but yet they are still very much a minority in the lands that they're living in, and this must have caused some level of conflict. Also was the shtetl itself a completely Jewish environment. What did it mean also to be a majority and a minority at the same time? Can you talk a little bit about that interaction?
A: Yeah. First of all, it's important to distinguish between the real shtetl and the imaginary shtetl. So if you read Yiddish writers, like Sholem Aleichem, or like Mendele (Moykher-Sforim), or like Sholem Asch, the shtetl that they depict is largely a Jewish world, it's a Jewish community. There are very few non-Jews. In the real shtetl, of course, non-Jews play a very prominent role. The market is not only a time when Jews and peasants come together to trade and to deal, but Jews will have personal relationships with particular peasant families. And those personal relationships are often very, very strong. Now, when I say that the shtetl was a majority Jewish settlement, this was more often than not the case, even though the Jews were a minority in a particular province. So in Vilna or in Minsk province, the Jews might be ten to twelve to thirteen percent of the overall population, but the towns in that area might be eighty or ninety percent Jewish. The towns that my parents lived in, in Northeast Poland, on the eve of World War II were about 90% Jewish. What this shows is that the shtetls in Eastern Europe were located in predominantly peasant and agrarian settings, predominantly agrarian environments, where only a tiny minority of people lived in the towns. But those towns more often than not were heavily Jewish. Now that said, in the late 19th and early 20th century, because of various socioeconomic changes, you began to see more and more non-Jews moving into these towns. And in Poland between the wars, many shtetlekh lost their Jewish majority. They lost their Jewish majority because gentiles were moving in, because Polish authorities very often would annex large sections of the surrounding countryside in order to dilute the power of the Jews in local government. Many shtetlekh lost their predominant role as market towns because of the railroad or because of the fact that surrounding cities kind of turned them into suburbs. This was the case say in shtetlekh near Warsaw or near Krakow. But that said, in absolute terms, the shtetl still has on the eve of the war in Poland about half the Jewish population.
The changes in the shtetl are of course, very dramatic. When you talk about the Soviet Union after the revolution, here, of course, the Soviet determination to control the peasantry, and to subjugate the countryside, and to control the Jewish population meant that that former relationship between Jews and peasants really transformed. But many shtetlekh in Ukraine and Belarus in the twenties and thirties still continued to be predominantly Jewish settlements, except they assumed a different economic function. They became places where Jewish shoemakers or tailors would form collectives, or "artels" they would be places that would serve the surrounding collective farms and so on and so forth.
One point to remember about the shtetl in both Poland and the Soviet Union, was that while in the big cities like Warsaw or Krakow you had rapid acculturation, where more and more Jews were speaking Polish rather than Yiddish, in the shtetl acculturation was less smart. Jews were still more likely to speak a Jewish language. In the Soviet Union, despite the organized onslaught on Jewish religion and on Zionism, the fact that most Jewish kids in the Soviet shtetl went to Yiddish schools was a powerful barrier to assimilation. So the shtetl was depicted by many Jewish intellectuals - Bundist, Zionist, communist - was depicted as a dying community on its last legs. Zionism and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) produced negative and cutting and biting depictions of the shtetl. But the truth was that the shtetl continued to exist, the shtetl continued to survive, and it was only the Holocaust that really destroyed it.
Q: You talked about the different social groups that existed within the shtetl and the social hierarchy. How did these translate into the dynamics in the shtetl?
A: The dynamics in the shtetl were pretty complicated. On the one hand, there was a lot of social tension. If you were poor and low class, you were reminded of that in many ways - where you sat in the synagogue, how you were addressed, the nickname by which you were called, the very clear social distinctions, which meant that there was no way that a son of a tailor or shoemaker can even dream of marrying into a family of "shayne yidn" or even "balebatim." In the organizations of the shtetl, the poor or the socially inferior were very much kept out. The position of poor women in the shtetl was probably worst of all. If you were a woman coming from a poor family, you faced a lot of very difficult challenges. But on the other hand, the shtetl had a lot of shock absorbers, the shtetl had safety nets. Even though there was social tension, and even though there was an enormous amount of snobbery and pettiness, nevertheless, the shock absorbers were very important. What were some of those shock absorbers? First of all, the fact that the poor could organize their own forum, their own places, where they can get respect and social prestige. The tailors, or the shoemakers could organize their own synagogue, where they would have the honors and the "alies" (call to reading of the Torah), that they would be denied in the more upscale synagogue. After World War I, where the economic chaos had led to so many formerly wealthy Jews losing their fortunes, there was a certain degree of comeuppance and of social leveling. Previously despised groups in the shtetl, like the artisans now organized their own unions, like the "hantverker farayn" - the artisans' unions, which demanded more power in shtetl politics. Women began to organize.
There was also the fact that the very essence of Jewish communal dynamics created a safety net. The Jewish religion mandated that boys be taught how to read and how to pray, that Jews not be left totally unable to observe Shabbat, that Jews who couldn't afford, nevertheless get help to observe Passover. That it was not good to remain a single unmarried woman. So the shtetl would have a society to help poor Jewish girls find a partner, get married and start a home. While the position of women in many ways was inferior, the fact was that the spontaneous energy of the shtetl led to many arrangements where girls got an education, where girls would have books - in the early years the "Tsene-rene," in the 19th century Yiddish potboilers by Ayzik Meyer Dik and other popular writers. So the shtetl was a very dynamic society. And after World War I, you began to have even more transformative organizations - the youth movements, the Zionist youth movements, like Hashomer Hatzair or Dror. The Bundist youth movements. These reflected the fact that a younger generation of Jewish young men and women, growing up in the shtetl were no longer satisfied by having their lives regulated and defined in the traditional manner. And their parents were no longer able to protect them and to support them. And so you had a very, very powerful youth culture. Another very important transformative element was the growing impact of the big cities. A city like Warsaw, with its daily press would send out newspapers that would reach the shtetl day in and day out. There would be theater groups playing in the shtetl. There would be lecturers who would come for Shabes (Shabbat) to talk in the firemen's hall. And so the links between the shtetl and the big city began to get closer. Also as millions of Jews settled in new countries like the United States and Argentina and South Africa, you began to have the role of the "landsmanshaft," the society of former shtetl dwellers in a new country, who would begin to send money to the shtetl, who played a bigger and bigger role in supporting the essential network of shtetl institutions
Q: Up until now, Prof. Kassow, we've been talking a lot about the shtetl as a very real and tangible place. You did mention though the imagined shtetl, the one that exists beyond the historical and geographical - we talked a little bit about Fiddler on the Roof, you know, the mythical Anatevka, this imagined world... And Kasrilivke and Yehupetz, and Chagall's Vitebsk. Can you talk about how the real shtetl became an imagined one and why?
A: Yeah. Just as in Russian culture, at a time when Russia was undergoing a rapid political and economic change, Russian writers confronting this change began to look to the village, the "derevnya" as kind of the cradle of real Russian culture, kind of the natural homeland of the Russian people - as the traditional Jewish world of Eastern Europe began to, I wouldn't say break up, but began to change in a very rapid way, through industrialization, urbanization, secularization, migration, and so on, there was a tendency to ask: "Well, we Jews were people who lack political sovereignty. We lack power. We're a minority in Eastern Europe. We don't really have a lot of ability to change the world. And so let's try to understand who we are and where we come from. And in this quest for a new kind of Jewish self-understanding, the shtetl served for Jews what the village served for Russians, that is the shtetl could emerge as the place of origin, the "Jewish world," where the Jews had developed their folk culture. The shtetl was authentic in a way that the city was not, much less say new countries like America or Argentina. And so you could write about the shtetl and in so doing, you could create a fictional space, which was entirely Jewish, and which enabled you to deal with the problems or confront the issues of Jewish life, or to mine the contradictions or the ironies of Jewish life, to create a very humorous depiction of Jewish reality. The shtetl was a gold mine - its language, its proverbs, its folklore. And this ability to mine the shtetl was strengthened by the fact that if you look at writers like Sholem Abramovitsh or Shalom Rabinovitz, they didn't appear in the shtetl as Abramovitsh or as Rabinovitz. They appeared as Mendele Moykher-Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, that is, they created doubles of themselves, doubles that weren't like themselves at all. Unlike the real writers who were... who came from a totally different social class and who would have had a hard time gabbing with the ordinary shtetl Jews, by creating these, you might say these holographs: Mendele Moykher-Sforim - Mendele the Bookseller or Sholem Aleichem - Sholem "how do you do?", these are people who could gab in Yiddish, who could rub shoulders, who could trade gossip, who could tell jokes on themselves, who could register the woes and the complaints and the humorous asides of ordinary shtetl Jews, and recycle them into beautifully wrought stories, which could then be read in New York and in Paris and in Warsaw, and which could stimulate introspection and conversation about the changing state of the Jewish people.
Q: How does this imagined world of the shtetl change after the Holocaust, particularly for the survivors of these recently destroyed shtetls?
A: Well, I mean, I could talk from semi-firsthand experience. I'm a child of survivors. I was born in a DP community after the war in Germany, and for the survivors, as they looked back on the shtetl, as time went on, there was a certain glow of nostalgia, especially on Jewish holidays. The negative aspects of the shtetl kind of faded away, and the shtetl became home. It became the place where they grew up, where they played, where they had families, where they had parents. And you see this in the Memorial Books. We came from... both my mother and father came from little shtetlekh near Glubokoye, which is today Belarus, it had been in Poland, and there had been an enormous amount of poverty in the twenties and thirties, and I went through the shtetl newspaper and there were fistfights in the synagogues, and there were riots for poor people demanding more help for Passover. And yet when you read the Glubokoye Memorial Book, you have a sentence: "s'rov fun di yidn hobn gelebt farmeglekh," meaning most of the Jews were okay economically. Now that's total hogwash, but that goes hand in hand with the nostalgic picture of the destroyed world that was presented in this particular Memorial Book. And I think that's not true of all Memorial Books, but it's true of very many.
Q: And for these survivors, I mean that... they lost everything, the majority of them lost a very high percentage of their families, is there maybe a sense of gaining, maybe, a family by connecting with - you mentioned the "ladsmanshaftn," or maybe with fellow landsmen (fellow townspeople), or is there maybe an alternative family that is created around the shtetl?
A: Absolutely. My aunt and uncle in Petah Tikva were very active in organizing Beit Vilna (the Vilna House), Beit Glubokoye (the Glubokoye House), and this was very important to them and I'm sure it was important to many survivors in Israel, that there not only be the memory of their shtetl, but there be an actual building, an actual center where they could meet and where they could talk about their old shtetl, and also organize say fundraisers to send money to Jews who'd remained in the USSR, who were on hard times. So this remained very, very significant.
Thank you Prof. Kassow for being with us here today and for sharing both the imagined and real shtetls with us. This has been "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem. Thanks for listening.