There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok

There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok

by Yaffa Eliach, Yaffa Eliach

For 900 years the Polish shtetl was a home to generations of Jewish families. In 1944 almost every Jew was murdered and with them died a way of life that had survived for centuries. Yaffa Eliach has written a landmark history of the shtetl.


For 900 years the Polish shtetl was a home to generations of Jewish families. In 1944 almost every Jew was murdered and with them died a way of life that had survived for centuries. Yaffa Eliach has written a landmark history of the shtetl.

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Hachette Book Group
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There Once Was a World

By Yaffa Eliach

Back Bay Books

Copyright © 1998 Yaffa Eliach
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-23239-4



Perhaps the easiest way of making a town's acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love and how they die. -Albert Camus The Plague

In August 1979 I was on my way to Russia, in the midst of a fact-finding mission to Eastern Europe. As a member of President Carter's Holocaust Commission, which was charged with making a recommendation for an appropriate United States memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, I had spent several days traveling to the various capitals of the Holocaust Kingdom-Warsaw, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Plaszow among them. Now, flying south of Vilna (Vilnius), on a plane from Warsaw to Kiev, I became aware that somewhere beneath the clouds lay the town of Eishyshok, home to the early years of my brief, interrupted childhood.

Eishyshok (the Yiddish name for Ejszyszki, as it is known in Polish, and Eisiskes in Lithuanian) had been home not just to my family and to several thousand other Jews just before the Holocaust, but home to generation upon generation of Jews, going back to the eleventh century. In fact, Eishyshok is the site of one of the oldest Jewish settlements in that part of the world. My paternal ancestors had been among the first five Jewish families to settle there in that long-ago time, and their descendants had lived on its soil for all the centuries since then, under all the various governments that had fought for control of it: Lithuanian, Polish, German, Russian, and Soviet. But now, in the post-Holocaust era, it was for the first time in all those hundreds of years a town without Jews.'

Nine hundred years of Jewish history in Eishyshok had been wiped out. In Eishyshok, as elsewhere in Poland and Lithuania, nearly a millennium of vibrant Jewish life had been reduced to stark images of victimization and death. During my travels I had been struck by the fact that, insofar as the world knew anything about the Jews of Eastern Europe, it knew them as skeletal concentration camp survivors and huge piles of corpses, ashes in crematorium ovens, pitiful targets of history's most astonishing epidemic of mass genocide. What kind of memorial could possibly transcend those images of death and do justice to the full, rich lives those people had lived, I wondered. At the time, the question seemed merely rhetorical to me, a question that could never find a satisfactory answer.

Thinking these grim thoughts as I flew over my former home, while remembering what I could of the colorful, intricately detailed tapestry of my own family life before that tapestry was so brutally shredded, I suddenly saw that there was a possible answer, and that I might be able to play a role in providing it. With great clarity my mission began to unfold before me: Regardless what kind of memorial my distinguished colleagues recommended to the president, I decided, I would set out on a path of my own, to create a memorial to life, not to death. Rather than focusing on the forces of destruction as most memorials do, mine would be an attempt at reconstruction. I wanted to re-create for readers the vanished Jewish market town I had once called home. I would chronicle its history, from its earliest years as a place of Jewish settlement to the tragic, premature end of that settlement.

There and then on the plane, with little understanding of the implications of my decision, I committed myself to a course of action that would completely dominate and consume the next seventeen years of my life (not to mention the effect it would have on my husband, my two children and their spouses, and my ever-expanding brood of grandchildren). The financial burden of doing the research would be enormous, as would the demands on my time. For all those seventeen years I would have to struggle to balance family, an academic career as professor of history and literature at Brooklyn College, and Eishyshok (with Eishyshok tipping the balance heavily in its own favor, my family often felt, particularly during the final stages of the research). There were to be no vacations during these years, but my travels in search of source material would require me to circle the globe many times, taking me to six continents and hundreds of cities, towns, and villages. The speaking engagements that helped finance this research took me to even more. In sum, every minute and every mile of these travels were devoted to either my research or its financing.

Eventually the Eishyshok project assumed a whole new dimension. During another trip to Europe, in August 1987, when a Guggenheim fellowship enabled me to do further field research, I returned to Eishyshok itself for the first time. I had not been there since 1945, when my brother and I visited our father, Moshe Sonenson, in the jail cell where he was being held by the Soviet authorities.

As part of my tour of the town, I went to one of the mass graves, which had been both killing field and burial ground to thousands of Jewish women and children from Eishyshok, Olkenik, and the surrounding villages, who had all been murdered on September 26, 1941. The place was marked only by a drab concrete plaque bearing the misleading dedication: to "The Victims of Fascism, 1941-1944."

Standing on the grass-covered grave, with yellow buttercups dotting the ground everywhere I looked, I found myself riveted to the spot. I could feel my beloved grandmothers Hayya Sonenson and Alte Katz holding on to me, my aunts, cousins, friends, and neighbors pulling at me. And I could hear the voices of those buried beneath my feet. By this stage of my research I had read many of their diaries and letters, collected their birth and marriage certificates, pored over their photographs. They surrounded me now, my family, my parents' friends, and my own little friends, asking with new urgency to be remembered, not as heaps of skulls and bones but as the vibrant, dynamic people I'd known. They wanted the world to see them as they had looked at their weddings, on their picnics, in their social clubs, and during the course of their daily lives.

My husband, David Eliach, who was standing a short distance away, later told me he seemed to see me sinking into the mass grave, aging before his eyes. But I was brought back to life by the mental image of one of my little grandchildren, whose face appeared out of nowhere, smiling up at me, giving me strength to leave the grave.

During my long vigil at the killing field, Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones had assumed new meaning for me. "Behold," he heard the Lord say to the bones, "I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live ..."

When I left Eishyshok that time, I had a new mission-or at least a new component to my original mission. In addition to the book I was writing, I wanted to create a photographic exhibit depicting every man, woman, and child of twentieth-century Eishyshok, bringing them all back to life, and all together in one place: "Beloved and cherished, never parted in life or in death" (II Samuel, 1:23). The 1,500 photographs that line the walls of the Tower of Life in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., were the ultimate result of that decision. Like this book, they are part of my commemoration of my lost home. Thus my own vision of a memorial found a place in the official memorial that President Carter and the U.S. Congress had commissioned to be built on the banks of the Potomac.

For both personal and historical reasons, Eishyshok seemed to me to be an ideal candidate for the kind of memorial-or memorials-I had in mind. Given my family's ancient roots in Eishyshok and my own early years there, the personal reasons are obvious. But my instincts as a historian were also at work in the decision to document the long life of this particular community.

First of all, from the practical point of view of a researcher (and this may have been the only "practical" aspect of my decision), the size of Eishyshok's Jewish population, which ranged in its last five hundred years between 1,000 and 3,500, made it seem like a manageable subject. This factor was particularly important to me since I was determined to find some kind of authentic documentation, visual or written, archival or anecdotal, on every Jewish person who had lived in the shtetl in the twentieth century, including those who had emigrated from it, those who had been privileged to die a natural death in it, those who had perished there or nearby during the Holocaust, and the handful of Holocaust survivors who had somehow lived to tell the tale.

Eishyshok, insignificant and obscure as it may at first appear, seemed to me to be not just a manageable subject but a very important one, particularly in the context of Jewish history. The fact that it had been in existence since about 1061; its geographical position at the crossroads of Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, the three countries that for hundreds of years were home to the largest concentration of Jews in the world; its proximity (forty miles) to Vilna, a major intellectual and cultural center of Jewish life; the world-renowned yeshivah it supported during the nineteenth century, which made it a wellspring of Jewish intellectual life itself-all these factors and more allowed me to see in Eishyshok the very paradigm of the small Jewish market town-the shtetl, as such towns were called, using the Yiddish diminutive of shtot or stadt, the Yiddish and German words for "town."

The shtetl, typically a town ranging in size from about one thousand to twenty thousand people, was a uniquely Eastern European phenomenon, the product of a very specific time and place. We can trace its origins to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when Jews from Babylonia, Germany, and Bohemia began trickling into Eastern Europe. Many of them settled in large urban centers, and a few lived in isolated rural areas, but most would eventually make their homes in one of the thousands of shtetlekh that came to serve as trading centers for both country and city folk in the vicinity.

Given that shtetl life was for hundreds of years the predominant mode of existence for the majority of East European Jewry, and that during that period Eastern Europe was the principal domain of the Jews, the shtetl had clearly played a central role in Jewish cultural history. Indeed, no history of Jews in the Diaspora would be complete without an understanding of the shtetl. And yet, as I discovered to my surprise when I began my preliminary researches, no serious, comprehensive, in-depth account of shtetl life had ever been done. For a historian whose areas of specialization are Eastern European intellectual history in general and the Eastern European Jewish community in particular, such a gap in the literature presented a unique opportunity. By studying Eishyshok, I felt, I could create a portrait that would reflect the various historical, social, cultural, economic, educational, and religious phases of shtetl life from the time of its origins until its destruction during the Holocaust.

It is true, of course, that each shtetl had its own distinctive character, its own folklore, which varied according to geographic location, political and economic conditions, level of scholarship, patterns of leadership, relations between Jews and Gentiles, and so forth. But the towns had enough in common with one another, and enough to set them apart from any other kind of settlement in history, to make the study of one relevant to the study of all. Eishyshok, I decided, would be that one.

And I came to realize as I did my research that Eishyshok was not just a paradigm of Eastern European shtetl life, but a veritable microcosm of Western civilization, and beyond that of the entire family of humankind. There is hardly any major trend in the last nine hundred years of history that did not manifest itself in Eishyshok. From the Crusades to World War I to the Holocaust, from the pagan worship of the early Lithuanians to the European Age of Enlightenment to the secularization that occurred throughout much of the Western world in the twentieth century, Eishyshok has seen and experienced it all.

And yet, even as it reflected events and trends from the world at large, Jewish Eishyshok remained true to itself. In this shtetl as in so many others, the Jews lived and thrived in the midst of pagan, Muslim, and Christian neighbors, managing to be both of that world and apart from it, for many centuries. By maintaining a strict adherence to their own customs, they created a Jewish homeland thousands of miles from the original homeland, a kind of Jerusalem of the spirit. Napoleon himself is said to have called nearby Vilna the Jerusalem of Lithuania on account of the strong ethnic identity of its Jewish population. Perhaps at no time since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 c.e., and at no other place in the Diaspora, had there been a more successfully autonomous and intact set of Jewish institutions than those preserved in the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe.

Every stage of life in the shtetl-birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage, divorce, death and burial-was observed according to ancient law and tradition. So complete was the immersion in pre-Diaspora Jewish culture that the children of Eishyshok perceived the very topography of their surroundings as being a replica of the ancient Land of Israel. In their lively imaginations, the local Kantil stream was the Jordan river, the plaza that was home to the synagogue and the two houses of study was Mount Moriah, the sacred grounds of the Temple in Jerusalem.

But even though Eishyshok was a place whose very heart and soul were dedicated to religion-with a bit of superstition thrown into the mix-its people, like Lithuanian shtetl-dwellers in general, were so intellectually rigorous and questioning that other Jews expressed doubts about their piety. Hence the popular Yiddish expression "Litvak zelem-kop," an almost untranslatable phrase meaning, literally, "Lithuanian cross-head." It conveys the notion that every Lithuanian Jew has a little Christian cross inside his head. (It also conveys, in even more untranslatable fashion, the extreme stubbornness of Lithuanian Jews, who are known for never yielding to another opinion.)

If they were sometimes stubborn and unyielding, they were also open-hearted. Eishyshok's Jews supported the yeshivah in their midst with a generosity so extraordinary that they were frequently invoked as models of devotion to Torah-learning.

But these generous people were also such aggressive traders that they were known as albe levones-half moons-because they would even try to buy the dark side of the moon.1 In short, Eishyshkians were complicated, contradictory, multifaceted, and fascinating, true representatives of the family of man in all its complexity and beauty.


Excerpted from There Once Was a World by Yaffa Eliach Copyright © 1998 by Yaffa Eliach. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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