Shtetl Life Reexamined

By Symi Rom-Rymer

A picture is worth a thousand words, so goes the old cliché.  But as Alana Newhouse’s recently published New York Times article on Roman Vishniac demonstrates, what that picture is actually saying is often more complicated than it seems.

Her piece focuses on Vishniac’s “A Vanished World,” a pictorial representation of pre-World War II Jewish life in Eastern Europe.  Or at least, that’s how it was marketed and sold.  But through Newhouse’s piece, we come to learn that the photos used in the book showed only one part (the poor and the religious) of that world.  They did not, as Vishniac claimed, represent the totality of shtetl life.  Instead, these photos were taken so that the Joint Distribution Committee–a committee that worked on behalf of impoverished and persecuted Jews around the world–could fund-raise.

The reality, Newhouse points out, was vastly different.

“Jewish life in Eastern Europe, especially in the interwar years, was roiling and diverse. All kinds of people — secular and religious, urban and rural, wealthy and poor — consorted freely with one another in all aspects of what many of us would consider the pillars of a modern society: a lively and contentious political culture, a theater scene that rivaled those of most major European cities, a literary tradition comprising not only Yiddish and Hebrew work but also European fiction and a thriving economic trade that successfully linked cities and countrysides (one of Vishniac’s unpublished pictures shows a store in a tiny Eastern European town selling oranges imported from Palestine). Even Hasidic life, so easily caricatured as provincial and isolated, was nothing of the sort: yeshivas, like today’s universities, often attracted students from all over Eastern and Central Europe.”

It should be no surprise that shtetl life was richer and more diverse than it has become in our fictionalized vision of the old country.  Real life usually is.  But what I find even more interesting, is why American Jews were—and perhaps still are– so eager to embrace this simplistic vision.  As almost any Jew of Eastern European descent knows, life in rural Poland or Russia or Lithuania was no picnic.  There was much poverty, persecution, and upheaval.  But there were also many positive aspects as Newhouse lays out above.  So, why is it the religiosity that we mainly remember?  Or the poverty?

The article suggests it is because those who immigrated to the United States had a complicated relationship with their home countries.  While they still cared about the communities they left behind, they felt they had moved up in the world—economically, socially, and culturally.  What they remembered was colored by their current successes.  After the Holocaust, there was no longer room for nuance.  Looking back, it only “deserved all the mournful appreciation that could be mustered.” But that doesn’t explain why the vision chosen was one that presented such a limited view.  Doesn’t a vibrant and rich life also deserve mournful appreciation?

While I agree, I wonder if there is also an additional explanation.   Perhaps it is easier for post-war Jews to comprehend how a closed community, shut off from the greater world, poor and homogenous—such as the one described in “A Vanished World”– could not have been able to foresee the cataclysm that was the Holocaust versus as one that was open and cosmopolitan.    Perhaps the Nazi attack on this innocent world is, in some ways, a more comforting narrative than one that adds these communities to the already significant group of urban Jews who—through connections or street savvy–could have theoretically saved themselves, but did not.

Articles like these are essential because they challenge and add complexity to pat understandings of our past.  We do ourselves no favors if our only education about Jewish life in pre-World War II Eastern Europe is Fiddler on the Roof or highly selective photographic records.  If shtetl life was truly as lively and invigorating as Newhouse suggests, then we should celebrate it and be proud of what our ancestors accomplished.   It is tragic that that world no longer exists, but would be doubly tragic if we allowed its true history to die along with it.

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.

One response to “Shtetl Life Reexamined

  1. There are other factors we need to consider to understand our limited imaginations of our ancestors’ shtetls. My paternal grandparents grew up in different shtetls in what is now Lithuania. My grandfather emigrated in 1904, leaving behind his wife and small child. They came to the US in 1907, and in those three years witnessed a pogrom. Have we ever taken stock of the effect on our grandparents, and through them, on our parents, of surviving pogroms? Even before the Holocaust, many Jewish-American families lived with the consequences of trauma. And key among those is the suppression of memories.

    Add to that (or because of that) the desire to assimilate- which in many homes, including my father’s, led to the children being forbidden to speak Yiddish. My father kept nothing and spoke nothing of his family’s history until a history course I took in college required me to obtain family history. A three page letter is all I know.

    Between the pogroms and the Holocaust, we Jews of eastern European descent have had our collective memories traumatized. And so we have had to rely on the few photographs available. I am deeply grateful to the work of Maya Benton for helping us restore more of our memory.

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