TST, Vol. 7, Issue No. 20-21/2000
"Shtetl, the life and death of a small town and the world of the Polish Jews"
by Eva Hoffman
Houghton Mifflin, 269 pages


Eva Hoffman, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, was born in Cracow, Poland, immigrated to Canada, and then moved to the United States. Her two earlier books, Lost in Translation and Exit Into History, revealed remarkable objective insights into the complexities of Polish history and identity, Christian and Jewish alike. It is no surprise, then, that new book, "Shtetl," should show the same balance and contextual accuracy.

Venturing into the embattled world of Polish and Jewish memory, she notes that while it has become "increasingly unfashionable to talk about German anti-Semitism, as if it were a national trait, or to confuse the German nation with the Nazi phenomenon, it remained quite possible to speak about Polish anti-Semitism, as if that were an essential and unchangeable feature of Polish character."

Going against this reductive tendency, Hoffman puts the shtetl (the Yiddish word for village) in its Polish context, describing both the life and the world of the Polish Jews - the largest and most distinctive Jewish community in the pre-war Europe (and world) - and the culture and history of their Christian Polish neighbors.

Jews are present in the earliest records of Polandšs history. By 1264, their rights were guaranteed by the Statute of Kalisz, protecting life, property, religion and equality before the law, including the right to take the oath on the Torah. This she describes as "an exemplary document of minority rights."

The dramatic growth of the Jewish community and its cultural development were directly linked to the distinctive culture of Poland, a multicultural state with an elected king responsible to his electors, a class called the szlachta. Comprising some 12 per cent of the population, these early democrats were distinguished by their "complete freedom from constraints, their ability to ignore conventions, and their right to follow the dictates of their whim or their conscienceŠ[with] a deeply ingrained libertarianism and high-handed self-confidence [they] had no need to tame or subdue the Jewish mode of living."
Though the burghers and peasantry may not have fully shared this ethos, rights enshrined in law and the attitudes of the dominant class influenced the behavior, if not always the feeling, of the lower classes.

Jews enjoyed cultural autonomy first with self-regulating bodies known as the kahals, and later through a "parliament" known as the Council of Four Lands. "It is not widely known," writes Hoffman "that a legitimately elected assembly existed in Europe for about 200 years, long before Israel was born. Even today, in out multicultural societies, it is hard to imagine a state that would permit an ethnic minority to form a legislative body of its own."

In times of peace, the parallel lives of these distinct societies were relatively untroubled, and often complementary; under the pressures of war and partition, their interests diverged. From 1798 until 1918, when Poland was partitioned and neither Poles nor Jews had a country of their own, the overriding preoccupation of the Poles was the struggle for liberation, while minority rights, a priority for the Jews, became marginal for the Poles. By the time Poland regained its independence, a part of the population accused the Jews of divided loyalties, and some even insisted that the two communities did not share enough common interests to co-exist, a feeling shared by some Zionists.

But co-exist they did, with Poles and Jews holding a great variety of social and political opinions. Jews were a significant and highly visible minority, active in politics, journalism, education and all professions, literature, theater and films - in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew.

The Second World War and its aftermath, bringing on Poland the full horror of the two most brutal totalitarian systems in history, destroyed the Polish Jewish civilization and ended a 1,000-year co-existence. Traumatized by the experience, Polish-Jewish dialogue is now marked by mutual accusations and too often by contempt, a stinging reminder of the contempt of their former tormentors.

"Shtetl" is a fascinating story of majority-minority relations and the dangers of "identity politicsŠ without a sense of solidarity." For readers not locket into impenetrable prejudice and curious about the past, "Shtetl" is a journey into one of the most interesting histories - and the most tragic - in Europe.

Irene Tomaszewski
Related Reading:
"I Am First a Human Being: The Prison Letters of Krystyna Wituska", by Irene Tomaszewski.
"Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust", by Michael C. Steinlauf (Syracuse University Press, 1996).
"A Jump for Life: A Survivoršs Journal from Nazi-Occupied Poland", by Ruth Altbeker Cyprus (Continuum, 1997).
"Zegota: The Rescue of Jews in Occupied Poland", by Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski (Price Patterson, 1994).
"My Brotheršs Keeper?" edited by Antony Polonsky (Routledge, 1990).

TST, Vol. 7, Issue No. 20-21/2000

The Summit Times

Š Copyright 2000 by Andrzej M. Salski