In advance of a trip I’m planning to Warsaw this summer for the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, I’ve been dipping into some books, starting with Anatomy of a Genocide by Omer Bartov, which is on the Jewish community of the Galician town of Buczacz.
The author’s mother left Buczacz for Palestine in 1935, but not until her old age did she tell her son what life had been like in her hometown. Bartov traveled extensively throughout the region, unearthing documents and gathering first-person Holocaust testimonies from victims, perpetrators, collaborators and rescuers. Like the various other Holocaust-themed books he has written, Anatomy of a Genocide explores the social dynamics of mass killing and the nature of the Holocaust as a whole.
Bartov describes the town’s long history when Poles, Ukrainians and Jews all lived side-by-side in relative harmony. He attempts to document the slow and often unnoticed accumulation of pent-up slights, grudges, indignities and resentments that ultimately led to the Nazis destroying the Jewish community.
Although the words “life” and “death” both appear in its title, this book is really focused on the death throes of Buczacz Jews, so it may not be the best choice for readers wanting to know more about the generations of Jewish life in Poland that came before. Indeed, it is impossible to be in Poland without encountering Jewish death sites, but finding evidence of the vibrant Jewish life that took place in the centuries before is a much more difficult task.
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Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, by Eva Hoffman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Shtetl – Eva Hoffman’s fine historic portrait of the town of Bransk, in the Grodno region of eastern Poland – is not a new book (it’s 20 years old), but I would highly recommend it to those planning a trip to Poland.
The opening chapter, “Historical Background,” provides an intriguing, multi-dimensional discussion of Polish-Jewish relations over more than a millennia of co-existence. In the medieval Jewish world view, Europe was divided into three primary divisions: Ashkenaz, which consisted of present-day Germany and France; Sephard, which included the Iberian peninsula, Italy and north Africa; and Rus, the Slavic-language lands east of the German territories. Before the emergence of Yiddish, Jews in Ashkenaz spoke Laaz, while eastern European Jews spoke Knaanim, a language based on Slavic dialects. These historic details may make some of us realize how little we know about the world our ancestors inhabited.
Shtetl orchestrates the high, as well as the low, points of Jewish history. The very enlightened Statute of Kalisz, dating from 1264, was one such high point. It set a tone of equality and tolerance between Jews and Poles, going so far as to attempt to neutralize the poison of blood-libel accusations. A mutually beneficial relationship arose between the Polish nobles and Jewish businessmen, so much so that the colourful formal Jewish costumes of this era were actually derived from Polish nobility. But there were also dramatic low points, such as the pogrom that erupted in Krakow in 1407.
Like Bartov, Hoffman describes a society where anti-Semitic attitudes simmered beneath the surface for decades, before erupting into violence. In 1648, the Ukrainian nationalist Bohdan Kmelnytsky and the Cossacks committed a wave of anti-Semitic massacres across the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, forcing whole communities to flee for their lives. The destructive rampages went on for years.
Besides conveying the bitter taste of death, Hoffman seems to capture the flavour of everyday Jewish life, as well. The opening section is a thoughtful, nuanced account of the history of the Jews in Poland that presciently touches on enduring themes that still seem relevant. Even though she was writing decades ago, she offers a perceptive explanation for the Polish government’s recent retrogressive legislation forbidding any discussion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
Most of Shtetl focuses on the 500-year history of the Jews of Bransk, chronicling its utter destruction. It offers a sort of counterpoint to Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which blames all Germans, Ukrainians and Poles. Hoffman observes that many Poles have grown defencive over the phrase “Polish death camps” and points out that the death camps were entirely of German conception and construction. Most were on Polish soil because that is where the Jews were, and the Nazis were nothing if not efficient.
“The shadow of the Holocaust is long, and it extends backward as well as forward,” Hoffman writes, perceptively. “Our readings of the prewar Polish-Jewish past have been burdened retroactively by our knowledge of what came at the end. For some descendants of eastern European Jews, the lost world of their parents and grandparents has been idealized, sequestered in the imagination as a quaint realm of ‘before.’ For others, the whole Polish past is seen in darkening hues, as nothing but a prelude and a prefiguration of the catastrophe.”
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Konin: A Quest, by Theo Richmond (Pantheon)
Beginning with very little knowledge of the place, author Theo Richmond conducted hundreds of interviews and immersed himself in historical documents, finally recreating the lost world of his parent’s shtetl, Konin, which is situated some 220 kilometres west of Warsaw. In Konin, which was also published around 20 years ago, Richmond relates many details about how the town’s Jews played, prayed, worked, celebrated holidays, married and buried their dead. “How they got their water from the wells, and how a milkman had revolutionary newspapers in a milk churn. It’s also about the small heders, or religious schools, the grand onion-domed synagogue and the numerous shtiebls, or little congregations, that accommodated all shadings of religious belief. It’s about how tailors struggled night and day to eke out a living.”
Konin was also one of my ancestral shtetls – my great-grandfather was born there in 1872 – so reading this excellent book again is a must for me. I feel lucky that Richmond wrote it, even if he did find that modern Konin was a town “of supreme ugliness,” from which every trace of Jewish life had been expunged.