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In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine

In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine

by Jeffrey Veidlinger

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The story of how the Holocaust decimated Jewish life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe is well known. Still, thousands of Jews in these small towns survived the war and returned afterward to rebuild their communities. The recollections of some 400 returnees in Ukraine provide the basis for Jeffrey Veidlinger’s reappraisal of the traditional narrative of


The story of how the Holocaust decimated Jewish life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe is well known. Still, thousands of Jews in these small towns survived the war and returned afterward to rebuild their communities. The recollections of some 400 returnees in Ukraine provide the basis for Jeffrey Veidlinger’s reappraisal of the traditional narrative of 20th-century Jewish history. These elderly Yiddish speakers relate their memories of Jewish life in the prewar shtetl, their stories of survival during the Holocaust, and their experiences living as Jews under Communism. Despite Stalinist repressions, the Holocaust, and official antisemitism, their individual remembrances of family life, religious observance, education, and work testify to the survival of Jewish life in the shadow of the shtetl to this day.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Hitherto the story of the Holocaust in the Eastern European shtetl has been told by those who left—on behalf of those who did not survive. What do we learn from these stories told from the shtetl itself? In the Shadow of the Shtetl restores horror to the setting in which it occurred: at home, among familiar people and places.... In their accounts the everyday and the extraordinary, the innocuous and the gruesome are continually intertwined. The same people participated in both. The relationship between the normal and the abnormal, the intimate and the alien takes on a different shape in these stories—perhaps a shape that can help us better understand places like Rwanda or Cambodia—or Bosnia." —New York Review of Books

Anna Shternshis

"This is a great book; very well written, entertaining, powerful, at times funny, at times sad, and enjoyable." —Anna Shternshis, author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939

Jonathan Dekel-Chen

"This magnificent work merges cutting-edge, archivally based history of the Soviet Union with the richness of original oral history interviews.... Through the recollections of these elderly interviewees come forth the bittersweet realities of life and death among Soviet shtetl Jews." —Jonathan Dekel-Chen, editor of Anti-Jewish Violence: Rethinking the Pogrom in East European Jewish History

Antony Polonsky

"That significant numbers of Yiddish-speaking Jews are still living in the small towns (the proverbial shtetlakh of Jewish collective memory) in the Podolian region of Ukraine will come as a great surprise to many. This vivid and well-documented study gives a moving and fascinating account of how these Jews survived the catastrophes of the 20th century and how some of them live today. It is essential reading for all those interested in the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe." —Antony Polonsky, author of The Jews in Poland and Russia

Steven J. Zipperstein

"A deeply-informed, humane portrait, part-travelogue, but also an invaluable history of a mostly forgotten slice of contemporary Jewish life, this book is beautifully wrought, and singularly interesting. Jeffrey Veidlinger is a first rate observer of topography, language, and politics, an historian whose appreciation of the humanity of his subject-material is acute, and arresting." —Steven J. Zipperstein, author of Roosenfeld's Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing

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In the Shadow of the Shtetl

Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine

By Jeffrey Veidlinger

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey Veidlinger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01152-7


The Shtetl


Reading Yiddish literature as a child, I used to imagine the shtetl as a Smurf village, an oasis fantasyland populated with peaceful, joyous, and simple Jews, singing Yiddish songs and humming Hasidic tunes. This blissful flow of life would only be interrupted sporadically by the marauding Cossacks, who, I imagined, lived in the outskirts of the village, plotting like the Smurf's nemesis Gargamel against the Jews. My images were probably influenced by the likes of Maurice Samuel, who did much to bring the idea of the shtetl to American audiences in the 1960s, although I only encountered his writings much later. In 1963, he described the shtetl as an "impregnable citadel of Jewishness." "The Shtetlach!" he continued, "Those forlorn little settlements in a vast and hostile wilderness, isolated alike from Jewish and non-Jewish centers of civilization, their tenure precarious, their structure ramshackle, their spirit squalid." In one of the first academic articles published on the shtetl as a sociological phenomenon, Natalie Joffe referred to the shtetl as "a culture island." To Elie Wiesel, the Shtetl (spelled occasionally in his rendition with a capital S) is a "small colorful Jewish kingdom so rich in memories." In Wiesel's imagination, "No matter where it is located on the map, the shtetl has few geographical frontiers.... In its broad outlines, the shtetl is one and same everywhere." It has become customary to write about the shtetl as an ur-space located outside of any particular time or place. Countless "composite-collective" portraits of "the Shtetl" have emerged in the Jewish imagination, as though no further geographic distinction is necessary. Some refrain from naming individual shtetls and instead write of an imagined "Shtetlland." Wiesel's portrait purposefully exemplifies the duality of this tragic and nostalgic image:

Such was the fate of hundreds of communities. The enemy would suddenly emerge with sword in hand, and in a frenzy of hatred, he would behead men, women, and children in the streets, in poorly barricaded homes, caves, and attics. The murderers would leave only when they thought the last Jew was dead. Then as if out of nowhere, a man, a woman, or adolescent would appear ... life would once again begin flowing, binding the abandoned survivors into a community. They would rebuild their homes, open schools, arrange weddings and circumcisions, celebrate holidays, fast on Tisha b'Av and Yom Kippur, dance on Simhat Torah, and make their children study Talmud: all that, while waiting for the next catastrophe. That was life in the shtetl.

In Wiesel's colorful rendition, the shtetl lurches from tranquility to catastrophe.

Today when most people think of a shtetl they think of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman, or, more accurately, of Norman Jewison's adaptation of that story cycle as Fiddler on the Roof. Sholem Aleichem's Tevye, though, lives not in a shtetl, but in a dorf, a village. It was the non-Jewish Jewison who relocated him to a shtetl, as the small town had become by the 1960s a synecdoche for Eastern European Jewish life. For American audiences in the 1960s, it was difficult to conceive of Eastern European Jews living anywhere other than a shtetl.

The emotional impact that the Yiddish language and the shtetl continue to have on American Jewish culture is remarkable. Nowhere has this impact been more evident than in the literary marketplace: modern novelists and nonfiction writers have continued to play with the sentimentality of the shtetl, reworking these worn nostalgic themes toward new ends. They often portray the shtetl in epic terms as the focus of a journey, a quest that will forever remain unfulfilled. In his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer imagines a fictional character aptly named Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels through Ukraine in search of the elusive Trachimbrod, a shtetl that turns out to exist only in memory and ephemera. Similarly, Nicole Kraus—the spouse of the real Jonathan Safran Foer—writes, in her History of Love, of longing for an Eastern European past that can no longer be recovered. Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million is, in many ways, a real-life version of Safran-Foer's novel. Like Safran-Foer's protagonist, the real Daniel Mendelsohn travels to Ukraine in search of his grandfather's world, to uncover the lost life of his great uncle known to the family only as "Shmiel. Killed by the Nazis." In the midst of all this searching for the lost, vanished, and erased, the real-life experiences of Jews who remained are often forgotten.

The Shtetl as an imagined space has trumped shtetls as real lived spaces. Part of the blame can go to Mark Zborowski, a one-time Soviet spy and native of the city of Uman, who co-wrote the book Life Is With People in 1952, a pseudo-sociological study of "the Shtetl" that was produced in conjunction with a Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures project headed by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. As Steven Zipperstein puts it, "Life Is with People examines shtetls not in their considerable variety but as instances of a single ideal type presented in the present tense, as if it still existed." Zborowski and his co-author Elizabeth Herzog imagined a lost home in the midst of the Diaspora: "The small-town Jewish community of Eastern Europe—the shtetl—traces its line of march directly back to Creation," they wrote in the prologue, before speaking of "the road from Mount Sinai to the shtetl." The shtetl for Zborowski and Herzog was one big happy family: "For the shtetl, the community is an extended family," they crooned.

The shtetl also loomed large in the Soviet Jewish imagination, but with less bombast than in the West. For Soviet writers, the shtetl landscape was more than an imagined past; it was a sociological reality, rife with economic and political challenges. The Soviet passion for the industrial factory left the shtetl a spurned bride; small-town life was portrayed as exploitative, superstitious, and backwards. Although most Jews with roots in the shtetls of Ukraine had abandoned the region by the postwar period, and lived in the larger metropolitan cities—Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg—tens of thousands of others continued to reside in the shtetls of Ukraine. Soviet writers, as well, could still, on occasion, visit the shtetl and write about their travels through the region. Others used fictional and autobiographical genres to imagine their hometowns, sometimes doing so from abroad. Among them, Shire Gorshman, Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Shmuel Gordon, Itsik Kipnis, Hershl Polyanker and Elye Shekhtman all turned their gaze toward the shtetl, nostalgically lamenting the destruction of Jewish life. Gordon, for instance, began publishing his story cycle Shtetlekh: rayze bilder (Shtetls: Travel Portraits) in 1966 in the Soviet Yiddish journal Sovetish heymland (Soviet Homeland). Like many American and Israeli writers, he grounded the shtetl in the literary imagination, associating the names of the Podolian towns with the writers who made them famous: Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Moykher Sforim, Dovid Hofshteyn, Avrom Goldfadn and Nahman of Bratslav. He wrote apologetically of traveling by bus instead of by horse-drawn carriage, as in the old days when travel was so slow that "you could count the branches on the trees."

Most scholars now recognize that the shtetl has entered public consciousness not as a historical or sociological entity, but rather, in Arnold Band's terms, as "an imagined construct based on literary descriptions." Historian Israel Bartal agrees, noting that "the literary image of the shtetl obliterated the historical facts and distorted the geographical maps." Bartal notes the exclusion of non-Jews from the literary landscape of the shtetl, which, he argues, eviscerated the "complex ethnic mosaic" from the historical shtetl. Ben-Cion Pinchuk largely concurs, writing that the shtetl "became in the narrative of the Jewish people one of the more lasting symbols of life in the Diaspora," and that "the place of the shtetl in the dominant Jewish narrative was determined principally by those who left it, and frequently turned the small town into cliché stereotype, and symbol." But Pinchuk is unwilling to see the shtetl solely as an invented landscape: "the shtetl was a real Jewish town, not a mythical Jewish world. There was nothing mythical about its portrayal as such in literature and in Jewish cultural and political discourse."

In reality, a shtetl is simply the Yiddish word for town. It is a diminutive for shtot, or city. In other words, it is a little city. A town. A shtetl is sometimes defined as a market town, and indeed it was the presence of a market that most often distinguished a shtetl from its smaller cousin, a dorf, or a village. The definition of a shtetl, though, was always in the eyes of the beholder. Historian Samuel D. Kassow defines it as a settlement "big enough to support the basic network of institutions that was essential to Jewish communal life" and yet small enough to be "a face-to-face community." Historian Adam Teller, looking for a definition of the eighteenth-century shtetl, settled upon "a small settlement of less than 300 houses, which dealt mostly in agricultural produce, and at least 40 per cent of whose total urban population was Jewish." Neither the tsarist government nor the Soviet government ever defined a shtetl, or a mestechko, to use the Russian-language equivalent. The 1926 Soviet census, for instance, distinguished between urban cities and rural villages, but invented no terminology to account for the difference between a major metropolis like Kiev and a small town like Teplyk, both of which were deemed to be urban. The shtetl did not exist as an administrative category in the Soviet Union, even though mestechko became a common Russian equivalent for the Eastern European shtetl. Nevertheless, official reports and publications discussed the shtetl extensively, even obsessively, and always recognized it as a distinct entity. They knew it when they saw it. The leading Party intellectual, Motl Kiper (1869–1938), for instance, after whom the Jewish colony Kiperovke was named before Kiper fell out of favor and was himself arrested, had estimated that in 1926 there were about 525,000 Ukrainian Jews living in shtetls, constituting about a third of the Jewish population of Ukraine. The defining elements of a shtetl remained a small urban settlement with a large Jewish population, with both "large" and "small" to be determined by the expediency of the moment.

A shtetl is sometimes described as a Jewish town, and, in fact, many towns in Eastern Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were largely Jewish. Using data from the 1897 census of the Russian Empire, Ben-Cion Pinchuk identifies 462 shtetls with Jewish majorities, and 116 in which Jews constituted more than 80 percent of the total population. "The single most important feature or characteristic of that settlement, the one that made it distinctive and unique," he argues, "was its being a Jewish town, a Jewish island and enclave, a world of its own. This basic fact, true for hundreds of towns, has to be emphasized, because while obvious to contemporaries who were familiar with life in the shtetl, it was treated as a literary concoction by later generations." The fact of Jewish majorities in many shtetls was a significant attribute of the town. Gershon Hundert has even questioned whether Jews of eighteenth-century Poland should be considered a minority, since they tended to constitute a majority within their own communities and lived primarily among other Jews. But despite the genuinely Jewish character of these towns, it would be an overstatement to insist that they constituted a world of their own. When he writes that the Jews were living in a "sheltered environment" or that they were "living in isolation from the surrounding societies," Pinchuk neglects the constant interaction with the outside Jewish and non-Jewish world that characterized most Jewish communities in small towns. In fact, there was constant interaction between the Jewish community of the shtetl and Christian peasants as well as Christian officials. The church that lurks in the background of most photographs and paintings of the shtetl has a purpose beyond providing linear perspective to frame the central scene. In recognition of the complex networks linking Jewish and non-Jewish communities around the shtetl, John Klier proposed that "the shtetl might better be envisioned as the centre of an economic-cultural zone, linking Jews to Christians and Jews to Jews."

Shtetls, therefore, have too often been studied as abstract entities—either as historical places or literary myths—rather than as individual urban units. In the aftermath of the Second World War, survivors and émigrés published hundreds of memorial books, yizker-bikher, to memorialize their individual towns. These books, although containing valuable data and otherwise unobtainable reminisces of daily life in the shtetl, were often published haphazardly and usually lack a structured argument or scholarly direction. Because of the small number of émigrés from shtetls that fell within the prewar Soviet Union, there are also precious few memorial books for towns within Vinnytsya Province. Only a few studies have looked at individual towns or discrete regions during specific periods of time in order to help more clearly understand the nature of the shtetl. While there are certainly commonalities within the shtetl experience across geographic borders, shtetl life also differed across regional expanses. Shtetls were profoundly impacted by their relationship to neighboring urban centers and rural settlements, their geographic setting, the political sovereignty under which they functioned, and a host of other factors. Sometimes, two shtetls across the river from each other would develop in radically different ways simply because political borders cut across the river. Never was this more true than during the Second World War, where one side of the Southern Bug River fell under Romanian control and the other under direct German control.

* * *

The socialist writer Moyshe Olgin (Moyshe-Yoysef Novomiski), who left his native shtetl, near Sokolvika, just north of Uman, in the first decade of the twentieth century, described his hometown as follows:

After a hill on the other side of the river you can see the shtetl in the valley. It seems as though someone playfully scattered around blue, red, green, white, and gray boxes. They are arranged in a beautiful pattern. They spread out from the river all the way to the edge of the hill. Perhaps they extend further still, but can't be seen because the sky begins. The boxes are the roofs of the houses. In my shtetl people cover their roofs with tin and they paint them, if they so desire. The shtetl shines with all types of colors.

Olgin's description of the town's haphazard layout echoes the image of the shtetl portrayed by the Yiddish writer Mendele Moykher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), who wrote, "The builders' art is despised there and its rules are never followed. Its houses do not stand upright, arrogantly challenging heaven, but are low. Some of them tilt precariously and their roofs are buried in the ground." Sholem Aleichem (Shalom Rabinovitz) described his fictional Kasrilevke similarly: "The houses themselves are small mud huts, low and rickety, and look like ancient gravestones in an ancient cemetery," and the streets, he continued, "are twisting and curving and wind about, running up hill and down dale, full of trenches and pits, cellars and caves, back lots and courtyards." The Argentinean Yiddish writer Valentin (Velvl) Tshernovetski wrote of the houses in his native Teplyk: "There are three types of houses in Teplyk: the majority are orderly. That is, they are made of clay brick and are covered with a roof of tin or slate. Another group of houses, mostly in the backstreets, were built of earth and mud and the roof is covered with straw. A third group very few in number, are actually called palaces and are soundly built, have many rooms, several trees in front of the door, and are surrounded by a fence and a garden with flowers." The same shtetl image persists across media: whenever the director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, Aleskandr Granovsky, put the shtetl on stage it was always portrayed with a Constructivist set of ladders and platforms protruding at odd angles. In his 1925 film Yidishe glikn (Jewish Luck), the shtetl houses dissolved into cemeteries, with gravestones lackadaisically strewn about. Similarly, Marc Chagall's famous images of slanted houses in colorful panoramas provide pictorial reinforcements of Olgin's description.

The market, Olgin continued, consists of:

two lines of stores that stand in the middle of the market. Opposite them are a few houses—Avrom Koretsky's inn, two other inns, and the big dry goods store. On the other side in a corner is the besmedresh [study house], surrounded by a picket fence. A little further is the church with its green spires. The non-Jews live on the mountain. There, past the pharmacy, one goes to the fields and vineyards. Along the way, on both sides, stand old high poplars.

Shtetls of the Podolian region are typically nestled in valleys or alongside rivers. Established on the private lands of the Polish nobility, many also include a Polish noble palace and a Catholic church in the highlands on the outskirts of the town. Usually, the synagogue is on the opposite side of the town from the church, two bookends holding up the town. Sometimes, as in Sharhorod, a sixteenth-century synagogue was built as a fortress, outside the confines of the original town fortifications. These old stone "fortress synagogues" were built in part to protect the Jewish community from Tatar and Cossack invaders. The Sharhorod synagogue is located in the extreme southeast of the town—exactly opposite the church that dominates the upper northwest quadrant. Since Jews were usually forbidden from building their synagogues higher than the church spire, these original stone synagogues often had sunken sanctuaries beneath ground level, designed to allow for a spacious interior without violating restrictions on the height of the building.


Excerpted from In the Shadow of the Shtetl by Jeffrey Veidlinger. Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey Veidlinger. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Veidlinger is Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. He is author of The Moscow State Yiddish Theater (IUP, 2006) and Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (IUP, 2009).

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