Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jewsby Eva Hoffman
Today the word "shtetl" (Yiddish for "small town") summons only hazy associations: images of Chagall-like crooked streets and glowing Sabbath dinners on one hand, of pogroms and brutal Cossacks on the other. In the artful hands of Eva Hoffman, Shtetl brings this lost world back to life, mining the deep rifts in Polish-Jewish relations in the… See more details below
Today the word "shtetl" (Yiddish for "small town") summons only hazy associations: images of Chagall-like crooked streets and glowing Sabbath dinners on one hand, of pogroms and brutal Cossacks on the other. In the artful hands of Eva Hoffman, Shtetl brings this lost world back to life, mining the deep rifts in Polish-Jewish relations in the small town of Bransk. With penetrating intelligence and a compassionate eye, Hoffman describes the culture and conflicts that influenced Christian villagers' decisions to conceal or betray Jewish neighbors when the Nazis invaded.
Hoffman, author of the much-admired memoir Lost in Translation (1989), here returns to her dual roots, Jewish and Polishand her history of the intertwined fates of the two peoples shows that they can indeed be complementary, not oppositional.
Hoffman's goal is larger than her distillation of historyacute and pointed, but a bit too schematiccan fully support. But her thesis is a fascinating one: that Poland, with historically large populations of Germans, Ukrainians, Jews, and other ethnic groups, was truly a multicultural society that can serve as an object lesson in how to achieve (or not achieve) a balance between minority group identity and "a sense of mutual belonging." Where she does succeed fully is in her attempt to "complicate and historicize the picture" of Jewish-Polish relations in order to get beyond stereotyped views of Poles as congenitally anti-Semitic and of Jews as economic exploiters. Hoffman offers a nuanced view that excuses no act of hatred or violence yet considers, for instance, the difference between peasants' superstitious belief that Jews were lucky and genuine anti-Semitism, or how the endless conquering and division of Poland increased tensions and mistrust between Poles and Jews. Hoffman traces the history of Jews in Poland back to its origins in medieval times, before fervent Polish nationalism was born and the country was a beneficent refuge for Jews. She then focuses in on one shtetl, or village, Brask, as a microcosm of the waxing and waning of relations between the two peoples. In Brask, Polish peasants and Jewish craftsmen and merchants lived side by side: Poles attended cantorial concerts, and Jewish musicians played at Polish weddings; Poles incorporated Yiddish phrases into their speech, and Jews adopted the dress of Polish gentry. And yet, Hoffman concludes, each was seen as fundamentally "Other."
But Hoffman is optimistic that the gulf can beand is beingcrossed. This insightful overview points out how we can begin to understand a complex past and apply those lessons in the future.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.76(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.03(d)
Meet the Author
Eva Hoffman was born in Cracow, Poland. She has written two critically acclaimed books, Lost in Translation and Exit into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe, and is a former editor of the New York Times Book Review. Hoffman currently lives in London.
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