Snapshot of a shtetl

Seventy years later, Leyb Rashkin’s Yiddish stories have been translated into English.

JEWS LIVING in a shtetl in Poland (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
JEWS LIVING in a shtetl in Poland
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shimen Shifris was one of 11 children living in Godlbozhits, a fictionalized shtetl in Poland.
During World War I, his father was hanged by the Cossacks while his mother was giving birth to his 10th sibling. When his mother, Henele, found out later what had happened to her husband “she accepted this misfortune almost with indifference. She said nothing; she neither cried, nor lamented, nor tore the hair from her head. She began to pray a lot, reciting her women’s prayers with a dry voice.”
Then, one day, when no one was home, Shimen Shifris’s mother Henele threw herself off the balcony of their house and died. The newborn infant was given to a peasant woman in the village and the other children were distributed among relatives near and far. Shimen and his brother Nosn were taken in by their Aunt Mitshe, their mother’s sister.
Shimen is one of a large cast of characters that populate The People of Godlbozhits, a more than 500-page volume translated from the Yiddish by Jordan Finkin. The original was 600 pages long and was written by Leyb Rashkin, the pen name of author Shol Fridman (1903/4-1939). It was published in Warsaw in 1936, and won a literary prize from the Polish Jewish PEN Club. Tragically, Rashkin was murdered in the early days of the Holocaust in 1939.
The People of Godlbozhits does not have one plot, but is rather is a series of interwoven anecdotes about the colorful Jewish personalities living in Godlbozhits in the period following World War I, sometime in the 1920s. Shimen, an intelligent youth and ostensibly the main character, eventually becomes a bookkeeper in a cooperative bank. He was raised by relatives, went from a religious background to a secular education, was exposed to the social and political turmoil of the times (a major theme in the novel), and has several romantic relationships along the way.
However, there are so many other characters in The People of Godlbozhits that Shimen disappears for pages at a time and the narrative is taken over by an assortment of other interesting characters – Isadore, the pharmacist who almost converted to Christianity; Moyshe Sofer, the teacher; Yoyne Roytmen (“a giant of a man and a Cohen”); Khaykl, the sexton’s son (“the eater of unkosher foods, who once ate kishke in the Polish pubs”); and Oyzer Fisher, who was a prisoner of war.
ACCORDING TO David Rechter of the University of Oxford, who wrote the introduction to the English version, Godlobozhits is based on Rashkin’s hometown, Kazimier Dolny (Kuzmir in Yiddish).
Some real events appear in the story, such as the advance of the Austrian army (which occupied the town from the middle of 1915 until the end of World War I in 1918), when “the Russians expel the Jews from the town and the characters talk of Cossacks, hangings and pogroms.”
The People of Godlbozhits is a literary visit to a Polish shtetl in the period between the two world wars. While the trauma of World War II later overshadowed that of World War I, the first war was still a huge trama that shook the Jewish community to its core. The novel is set during a time when Jewish life was changing, fewer Jews were keeping Jewish tradition and the tensions between the social classes were intensifying.
Much of the focus of the novel is on the conflicts between different groups of Jews, such as the bourgeoisie and the proletarians, the employers and the workers, with a clear difference between those who have and those who do not. The relationships between the Jewish characters are often filled with malice and sarcasm, and the Jews can be nasty to each other just as much as the Christians in town are nasty to them.
The novel is like a walk down the street of a long-gone shtetl, eavesdropping on the residents to learn about their relationships, their challenges and struggles, their joys and many sorrows during this tumultuous period in history.
Leyb Rashkin was the manager of a cooperative bank and several hardware stores and wrote stories on the side. His tragic death at the age of 35 or 36 brought his literary career to an end and we will never know, of course, what he might have written had he survived. With everything that was lost in the Second World War, the fact that The People of Godlbozhits survived is in itself a miracle, and that Finkin, a talented and diligent translator, decided to translate it to English more than 70 years later is quite remarkable.
It is the legacy that Rashkin left behind, and for this reason alone it is worth reading.
That being said, the book is lengthy and at times can be tedious to read; the story line can be confusing and often requires checking back to earlier chapters to keep the long list of characters straight.
Nevertheless, for anyone interested in history and specifically Jewish life in Europe between the two world wars, this book is an important achievement and reading it is a worthwhile endeavor.