Shtetl : The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews

Shtetl : The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews

by Eva Hoffman
     
 

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An unforgettable evocation of the lost world of Polish Jewry, Shtetl is a "beautifully written" (Village Voice) mining of the deep rifts in Polish-Jewish relations in the small town of Bransk. With understanding and sensitivity, Shtetl limns the culture that influenced Christian villagers' decisions to conceal or betray Jewish neighbors when the Nazis invaded. A New

Overview

An unforgettable evocation of the lost world of Polish Jewry, Shtetl is a "beautifully written" (Village Voice) mining of the deep rifts in Polish-Jewish relations in the small town of Bransk. With understanding and sensitivity, Shtetl limns the culture that influenced Christian villagers' decisions to conceal or betray Jewish neighbors when the Nazis invaded. A New York Times Notable Book.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Anticipating controversy like that engendered by Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, Hoffman sets out to determine Poland's complicity in the Holocaust. Although her Jewish parents had been harbored for two years during the war by a Polish peasant, and she herself was born in Cracow, Hoffman proves to be objectively tough-minded in weighing both documented and anecdotal evidence, observing that the country is the embattled terrain of three competing sets of memory: Jewish, Polish and Western. Historicizing her well-researched study, Hoffman (Lost in Translation) reviews the relationship between the two cultures going back to the Renaissance and finds that Poles were more tolerant of certain classes of Jews, especially the szlachta, or nobility, who entered into economic alliances with them. However, the burgher class considered Jews competitors, and at the lower rungs of Polish society, Jews were thought of as alien, as "Others." Jews on their part viewed Polish Christians as blasphemous. Yet pluralism in the country prevailed, not as ideology but in ordinary life. Hoffman pinpoints 1648 as a turning point in Polish-Jewish relations that prefigured WWII, when for nine years the Cossacks rampaged across the land, and the Poles, although not indifferent to the Jews, looked primarily to their own defense. Hoffman also follows politics in Poland during the partitions from the end of the 18th century to WWI with Poles and Jews alike clinging to their individual collective identities. With independence in 1918, a complementary relationship prevailed: Poles as farmers, Jews as merchants. Ultimately focusing on the shtetl (town) of Bransk as emblematic of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust, Hoffman relies on a collective book of memory gathered in 1947, the Yizkor Book, which makes clear that the two cultures were, as Hoffman notes, "familiar to each other but unknown to each other." When the Nazis criminalized acts of compassion, the Poles who were in a position to help the Jews had to overcome the strong sense of division, for traditionally, "Poles and Jews did not include each other within the sphere of mutual and natural obligations." With gut-wrenching poignancy, Hoffman concludes that had the two groups been more integrated, more Poles would have felt the imperative to help Jews.
Booknews
In a history partly based on a 1996 PBS documentary, the Cracow-born author (former editor of the ) traces Polish- Jewish relationships over the centuries until the Holocaust through the microcosm of the Jewish shtetl. Meaning small town in Yiddish, shtetl bears connotations of idealized fiddlers on the roof on the one hand, and pogroms on the other. Includes b&w photos and maps; bibliography, but no index. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews

Hoffman, author of the much-admired memoir Lost in Translation (1989), here returns to her dual roots, Jewish and Polish—and 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 history—acute and pointed, but a bit too schematic—can 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 be—and is being—crossed. This insightful overview points out how we can begin to understand a complex past and apply those lessons in the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780395924877
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
10/02/1998
Pages:
269
Product dimensions:
5.58(w) x 8.23(h) x 0.76(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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