If they were rich men

After the war life in the small Jewish enclaves, or shtetls, were remembered with a saccharine nostalgia that wasn’t always warranted.

Destroyed torah scrolls (photo credit: Beit Hatfusot)
Destroyed torah scrolls
(photo credit: Beit Hatfusot)
Yehuda Bauer – an academic adviser at Yad Vashem and professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University who has authored many books on the Holocaust in general and on the shtetl in particular – begins his research with a convincing description of the agonizing life in the pre- World War II shtetls.
Seen from the historical perspective, the shtetls of Eastern Europe existed as long as their inhabitants were needed by the local landlords and population. All this ended long before Hitler came to power and Poles sought to take over the local commerce. Jews were once invited to settle in Poland by huge landowners, too proud to engage in trade or commerce. Jews provided capital, connections and services, and even collected taxes. They were exploited as the middlemen and were squeezed between the always money-hungry Polish princes and the exploited peasants. This led to perpetual trouble: frequent pogroms, robberies and murders during the bloody, angry peasants’ uprisings.
It was inevitable that a single Jewish household that originally served a local nobleman would eventually develop into a whole quarter. In some small towns, Jews became a majority to the chagrin of the local clergy and the gentile population. Jews controlled most of the Polish trade in grain, meat, poultry, cattle, sugar and wood products. They were good artisans, shoemakers, dressmakers and even musicians. The landlords preferred them to the German colonists since they found them humble, hard-working and grateful. But Jews, except for some individuals, were almost always regarded as strangers, who were not trusted.
Jews created their own social and welfare institutions. They took care of their children’s education and didn’t go looking for trouble. They knew how to organize themselves and how to take care of their own affairs. The shtetl became the center of trade and commerce across the vast plains of the Polish eastern territories, including what is today Western Ukraine and Belarus.
All this came to an end when Poles, ruined financially by the three armed uprisings against the Russian Empire, abandoned their former attitudes and developed an appetite for commerce and trade. The changed social set-up and an increased competition for markets helped the Polish anti-Semites to identify with Nazi Germany and to attempt to turn Jews into practical outcasts.
Jews were charged with being a burden to Polish development and were told to emigrate.
During the late 1930s, the situation in the Jewish shtetls was already desperate: There was a government-sanctioned economic boycott. No Jew was accepted into the police, the regular army, civil service, education, the postal service and all other government and semi-government services and institutions. Jews, despite the minority rights guaranteed at Versailles, became second-class citizens and, while the prospects for emigration were getting more and more unattainable, they faced no future in their current locations.
Bauer reminds us that, beginning in the early 1940s and following World War II, an unrealistic saccharine nostalgia for the shtetl life took over and offered the world’s audiences a sweet, made-up world of Eastern Jewry where all Jews were deeply religious, naïve and clever, and the shtetl was a place where goodness and ethical uprightness reigned supreme. The truth was dramatically different.
Nevertheless, though life in the shtetl up until September 1939 was becoming gradually more and more difficult, it was still quite orderly. Eventually, however, both the German and the Soviet Union invaders eliminated the small Jewish enclaves from the map, as if they had never existed.
Bauer presents us with an accurate description of the shock of the early German and Soviet occupation, at which point each individual Jew had to decide under which rule he wished to remain. The Soviet occupation – which lasted from September 17, 1939, to June 22, 1941 – had a single purpose: to turn the Western Ukraine and Belarus (then Byelorussia) into an integral part of the Soviet Union. It offered Jews jobs and the prospect of an education they never had before, but it stifled all individual freedom. It is amazing how fast the Jewish organizations disappeared under the threat of the Soviet secret police and their army of informers.
The Sovietization was fast and complete, and yet Jews had quickly learned that eventually the Ukrainians, Byelorussians and even Poles were the new regime’s preferred people.
The Nazis, to facilitate their plans of genocide, turned shtetls first into ghettos, and then deported the inhabitants to concentration and death camps.
Bauer widens our perspective by presenting us with an intimate knowledge of a large number of the abandoned sites and their communities and the comparison of one shtetl’s fate with the next. He presents us with innumerable biographies and written testimonies of both victims and survivors. Thus, he succeeds in presenting to us the true story of the Holocaust – the murder and destruction of over a thousand Jewish communities that had been first humiliated and robbed before finally being totally destroyed.
Bauer’s experience at Yad Vashem serves him well in the choice of the most moving testimonies of the Jewish victims and their Polish, Ukrainian and Byelorussian neighbors. Jewish survival depended on both good luck and circumstances. Ghettos might have been only 50 kilometers away from another, the attitudes of both the German authorities and the Jews’ neighbors might have been similar, and yet the history of each particular site was different. The tragic end, however, was inevitable, even if this meant that the German beast suffered the loss of much-needed skill and manpower.
There are no Jewish shtetls in Eastern Europe any more. Bauer’s well-written, well-edited book preserves, accurately and with great emotion, the sacred memory of these unfortunate places and their inhabitants.