Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner. Review of Yehuda Bauer's The Death of the Shtetl (Yale University Press, 2009)

Jan 31, 2010 11:18 am

Murray Polner. Review of Yehuda Bauer's The Death of the Shtetl (Yale University Press, 2009)

So what was a shtetl? The heartbreaking and exhilarating play “Fiddler on the Roof”? Not according to Yehuda Bauer, who calls the play a “distorted bowderlized” version of a story by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. “[I]n this sickeningly sweet, made-up world of Eastern Jewry, all Jews were deeply religious, naïve and clever, and the shtetl was a place where goodness and ethical uprightness ruled”

This fake nostalgia – so warm and fuzzy to the children and grandchildren whose ancestors long ago fled East European shtetlach (plural in Yiddish)--was more realistically portrayed by writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch and Y.L. Peretz and later, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Their writings depicted the joys of course but also the poverty, misery, superstition, religious fanaticism, as well as sharp class distinctions of Jews and non-Jews alike. Lording over them were malevolent governments and pervasive anti-Semitism.

According to Bauer, one of the preeminent scholars of the mass murder of Polish, Byelorussian and Ukrainian Jews during WWII, professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University and author of “Rethinking the Holocaust” (2001), shtetlach were small townships with 1,000-15,000 Jews, where the Jewish calendar and customs “derived from a traditional interpretation” of Judaism. From these hamlets, villages and small towns sprang the joyous faith of Hasidism and its anti-Orthodox opponents, followers of left and right Zionism and communists, socialists, and secularism, most of whom would die not in German concentration camps but instead were executed by the Germans and their very willing Polish, Baltic. Byelorussian and Ukrainian partners. The fact is, one-third of the three million Jews living in Poland on the eve of the German invasion in 1939 were killed by them.

What Bauer attempts to do and then does exceedingly well, is to try to explain and understand how these Jews in eastern Poland, and western Belorussia and the Ukraine lived before the mass slaughterers arrived and how they reacted in the face of such unprecedented sadism From available documents including Polish and Soviet archives and unpublished Yad Vashem material he examines nine representative shtetlach, where, in 1941-42, about twenty-five percent of all victims of the Holocaust lived and died.

Before the German invasion, Poland’s economy was in a near-ruinous state and its political life dominated by extreme nationalists and a traditionally anti-Semitic Catholic Church—though there was always a minority that rejected the accepted anti-Semitism. Indeed, the Church’s prewar primate and archbishop of Cracow approved the government’s anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist, pro-fascist policies. So extreme were the nationalists in their views that, coupled with a long-established Polish Catholic Church’s loathing of Jews and Judaism, they came close to mirroring the racism of neighboring Germany, whose Nazis couldn’t abide the Poles. Jews were unable to escape the Eastern European world of ethnic and religious hatreds by acculturating because the overwhelming number of their fellow Poles rejected them. It was no surprise then that soon after the start of WWII, Poles encouraged by the local Catholic clergy, carried out a pogrom in a shtetl called Jedwabne. And after the German armies arrived, it was no different in the Baltic states, Belorussia and the Ukraine, where the local collaborators and executioners thrived.

What sealed their fate and was a central factor in the mass murders, as Bauer writes, was “the attitude of the host populations.” While there were always non-Jews who would not participate in the killings—“there were rescuers even in Jedwabne,” write Bauer. Still, saviors were few and far between. The Baltic nations, so beloved by postwar American cold warriors and their politicized “Captive Nations Week,” generally welcomed the Germans and became fervent collaborators. Ukrainians, many of whom worked with the Nazis, provided huge numbers of police and concentration camp guards and helped carry out the murders.

There were always rescuers, some of whom have been honored by Yad Vashem, the memorial museum in Jerusalem as “truly heroic figures.” Bauer mentions Old Believers and assorted individuals who for many reasons risked their lives and that of their families to shelter Jews, some for money, political beliefs or religious convictions. Bauer, however, offers a caveat: “Lest I give the wrong impression of a multitude of rescuers, let me note that that the number of [shtetl] survivors from Zborow was thirty-three” --of an original several thousand.” And Zborow was no different from other shtetlachs.

Some were saved by erstwhile German Communists who had hidden their party membership and were in the Wehrmacht. Many young Jews saved themselves by fleeing into the forests and joining Soviet partisans, not all of whom welcomed them but needed them, if only temporarily, to kill Germans and their allies. (Soviet anti-Semitism would flourish after the war) Some few managed to live to tell the tale but recognized that it was merely chance that allowed them to live. All came close to death. “Some of them thought it had been the work of God, but most knew better: the same God, if he existed, had failed to protect their loved ones.”

What we now refer to as the Holocaust consumed millions of people, mainly Jews but also gypsies (Roma people), homosexuals, political opponents, and one and a half million children. It is fair to ask why did Nazi racial theory and hatred of Jews lead to such unparalleled mass killings. And who were the responsible parties? The first query is impossible to answer definitively. Since then we have seen mass, directed killings in Cambodia, the Congo and Rwanda and elsewhere. After the war, denials of responsibility came from the enormous number of onetime Nazi loyalists in Austria, Romania,and East Europe. Then was it only Hitler and his inner circle? The fact is, Bauer rightly concludes, “the vast majority of Germans, both in Germany and in the German forces in the USSR, were in agreement with the policies of their government.” In Christopher Browning’s fine work, Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, “ordinary German working men, helped along by ordinary Ukrainians, Belorussians, Baltics and Poles” were the executioners,” --“willing executioners” (to borrow from Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s apt phrase) -- who shot 38,000 Jewish men, women and children and dispatched another 45,000 to Treblinka. Still, and worth remembering, is that “ordinary men” who refused to join Battalion 101 and carry out orders to kill were excused and allowed to return home. In somewhat parallel situations, Danes and Bulgarians who refused to allow the Germans to deport their fellow Jewish citizens to the death camps also went unpunished and are today hailed for their courage.

By July 1944, when the Soviet armies on their way to Berlin arrived, there were pitifully few Jews left alive. The shtetl was dead.

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Elliott Aron Green - 4/18/2010

The subject of the Holocaust is exceedingly complex. One of things that Bauer says by implication, in Polner's summary, is that the Jews were considered aliens, outsiders, non-Europeans, the Ultimate and Absolute Others. I agree. But this was not only true in Eastern Europe. Nor only in occupied countries. Nor only among the masses.

After all, the UK was not occupied but it had helped Hitler get the war started by foisting the Munich Pact on the world. It seems that Daladier was imposed to go along. Munich surrender was not his idea, as far as I know. But he should not be forgiven for giving in to British and German pressure. During the war, while the Holocaust, Britain refused to use military force to stop the mass murder process [as by bombing the gas chambers and the railroad lines to Auschwitz, etc]. Britain's 1939 White Paper drastically limited the number of Jews who could immigrate into the internationally designated Jewish National Home. British diplomats tried to stop Jewish refugees from leaving Europe, etc etc. Yet Britain gets little opprobrium for its acts of commission and omission in regard to the Holocaust. The UK upper crust that ruled the UK govt and armed forces was as deadly and as willing an enemy of the Jews as those Lithuanian and Croatian Nazi collaborators, as the Ustashi, the Iron Guard and Arrow Cross. But their role is overlooked.

So in Western Europe too, including the UK, Jews were the Ultimate and Absolute Other, aliens to be hated and loathed and exterminated when and where possible, preferably with non-Britishers doing the dirty work. Now this leads to contemporary political attacks on Israel. Today, the Judeophobes describe Israel, Jews and Zionists as perfect, quintessential Europeans, whiter than white, more Nordic than the Nordics, and therefore alien to the Middle East in general and the Land of Israel in particular. In fact, before the Holocaust, the Jews were seen as alien in Europe too [which is not to call all Europeans Judeophobes]. What the contemporary anti-Zionists --including the "Left"-- have done is merely to transpose the locus of the Jews' alien nature from Europe to the Middle East. But essentially, this is the same hatred and prejudice with a mere geographical change. I think that Polner and Bauer should both consider their "leftist" identification which --in the "Left's" nowadays typical form-- contains the old Judeophobic wine in new anti-Zionist bottles.

Mike Schoenberg - 4/5/2010

One reason that the Ukrainians welcomed the Nazi's so readely was the fact that Stalin had starved a third of the population in the 30's.