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In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine

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The story of how the Holocaust decimated Jewish life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe is well known. Still, thousands of Jews in these small towns survived the war and returned afterward to rebuild their communities. The recollections of some 400 returnees in Ukraine provide the basis for Jeffrey Veidlinger’s reappraisal of the traditional narrative of 20th-century Jewish history. These elderly Yiddish speakers relate their memories of Jewish life in the prewar shtetl, their stories of survival during the Holocaust, and their experiences living as Jews under Communism. Despite Stalinist repressions, the Holocaust, and official antisemitism, their individual remembrances of family life, religious observance, education, and work testify to the survival of Jewish life in the shadow of the shtetl to this day.

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1 The Shtetl: A Historical Landscape

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Reading Yiddish literature as a child, I used to imagine the shtetl as a Smurf village, an oasis fantasyland populated with peaceful, joyous, and simple Jews, singing Yiddish songs and humming Hasidic tunes. This blissful flow of life would only be interrupted sporadically by the marauding Cossacks, who, I imagined, lived in the outskirts of the village, plotting like the Smurf’s nemesis Gargamel against the Jews. My images were probably influenced by the likes of Maurice Samuel, who did much to bring the idea of the shtetl to American audiences in the 1960s, although I only encountered his writings much later. In 1963, he described the shtetl as an “impregnable citadel of Jewishness.” “The Shtetlach!” he continued, “Those forlorn little settlements in a vast and hostile wilderness, isolated alike from Jewish and non-Jewish centers of civilization, their tenure precarious, their structure ramshackle, their spirit squalid.”1 In one of the first academic articles published on the shtetl as a sociological phenomenon, Natalie Joffe referred to the shtetl as “a culture island.”2 To Elie Wiesel, the Shtetl (spelled occasionally in his rendition with a capital S) is a “small colorful Jewish kingdom so rich in memories.”3 In Wiesel’s imagination, “No matter where it is located on the map, the shtetl has few geographical frontiers. . . . In its broad outlines, the shtetl is one and same everywhere.”4 It has become customary to write about the shtetl as an ur-space located outside of any particular time or place. Countless “composite-collective” portraits of “the Shtetl” have emerged in the Jewish imagination, as though no further geographic distinction is necessary. Some refrain from naming individual shtetls and instead write of an imagined “Shtetlland.”5 Wiesel’s portrait purposefully exemplifies the duality of this tragic and nostalgic image:

 

2 The Scars of Revolution

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When we met Nisen Yurkovetsky in 2009, he was ninety-one years old—still too young to remember the violence of the revolutionary years. But the physical and metaphorical scars of that violence were still very much with him when we sat down with him in his home in Tulchyn, ninety years after his parents, aunt, and grandfather were murdered by a crowd of Ukrainian nationalist fighters—the Lyakhovich gang—in his town. He broke down in tears as he rolled up the sleeve of his navy plaid lumberjack shirt to show us the long scar across his forearm that marks the path of the bullet that killed his mother, as it ricocheted off her and grazed his arm. Only a baby at the time, he was being carried in his mother’s embrace as the bullet felled her. “They killed my mother and father. The bandit shot and the bullet went up my arm—you can see the scar [simen]—a Pole, a priest took me in and saved me. . . . They killed my father—he was a barber—and my mother, and my grandfather—a tailor. . . . I didn’t know my mother. I didn’t know my father.” Later he added, “I was only one year and three months old. . . . When they shot them the bullet went off me and I fell into the grave. My mother was holding me.” Nisen was left an orphan with his two older brothers, Shumi and Zoye. The Polish priest who found him lying among the corpses brought him to an orphanage in neighboring Nestervarka. Nisen’s grandmother eventually took him in, and raised him, back in Tulchyn.

 

3 Social Structure of the Soviet Shtetl

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In 1924, the Soviet ethnographer Vladimir Bogoraz, better known by his pseudonym V. G. Tan, led an ethnographic expedition to some of the shtetls of Ukraine. Bogoraz’s report on the expedition, published in 1926 as The Jewish Shtetl in Revolution, jubilantly celebrated the victory of socialism during the first decade of the Revolution: “Socialist construction has taken off completely among the Jews,” who, he continued, were working as “stonemasons, coachmen, carpenters, bathhouse attendants, street beggars, ex-convicts, prostitutes, pimps, an entire mass of petty and even pettier traders and, as if to make up for it, two or three wealthy people.” Bogoraz contrasted this situation with the prerevolutionary shtetl, where there lived “Jewish holy people, prophets, and soothsayers; women walked around in wigs; men in long caftans. Elderly people spent the last years of their lives in synagogues in prayer and Bible reading.”1 Bogoraz was, in many ways, returning home—he had left his hometown of Ovruch, where he was born the son of a Jewish schoolteacher in 1865, in order to attend a gymnasium in Taganrog. There, he had become a revolutionary activist in the People’s Will Party, a crime for which he was imprisoned and exiled to Siberia. In Siberia, he became interested in the Chukchi peoples, studying their folklore and anthropology, and eventually emerging as one of the most prominent ethnographers of his era—beginning in 1897 he collaborated with Franz Boas on the Jesup North Pacific Expedition across the Bering Strait, for five years. After the Revolution, Bogoraz returned to St. Petersburg, where he became a professor of ethnology at the Leningrad Geographical Institute. It was in this capacity that he led his 1924 expedition to the region in which he was born. His optimistic impressions of the pace of revolutionary change, though, were tempered by ambivalence about the social costs of change, as he observed stonemasons and carpenters coexisting with pimps and beggars. Indeed, despite the impetus to celebrate the achievements wrought by a decade of communist rule, Bogoraz and his team could not but note the sorry economic state of the contemporary Soviet shtetl.

 

4 Growing Up in Yiddish

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Naftoli Shor was born in Bershad in 1922. His father, Pinhas, was a leather worker—“he sewed pelts,” Shor told us. Pinhas was also one of the core members of a Hasidic group of pietists in town that met secretly in the 1920s and 1930s in a private house near the synagogue. We interviewed Naftoli on Tishah b’Av, the Jewish holy day that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Temple, in 2002 in his living room in a Soviet apartment complex on Lenin Street in Bershad. He had an endearing toothless smile and a face full of expression. Newspapers, books, photographs and other ephemera cluttered the apartment, pouring out of bookcases and cabinets. Naftoli would pace around as we spoke with him, picking up books or photos and idly examining them. We occasionally had to ask him to return to the interview chair. His mind was sharp and his demeanor welcoming; his patience, though, was short. We began the interview by asking Naftoli about his education. He told us he had attended the local state Yiddish-language school for four years, and then finished his education in a Ukrainian-language school. “But I can read and write in Yiddish well,” he insisted. The Yiddish school, he boasted, was located in the central square, right next to the Regional Executive Committee’s building. Its placement in the center of town was a visible manifestation of the Jewish presence in Bershad and a proud public statement of the importance the Communist Party initially ascribed to Yiddish-language schooling.

 

5 The Sanctuary of the Synagogue

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The Jewish women’s choir of Vinnytsya meets regularly in the Jewish community center not far from the center of town. In 2002, Liudmila Shor invited us to the community center where this group of fifteen elderly and energetic ladies sings together. We were served a brunch of black bread and cheese, after which Shor began to gather the women together for a special performance just for us. As they rose from their tables, an elderly woman with large round turtle-shell glasses approached the camera. Speaking directly into the lens, a bit too close to the camera, she announced: “I was in the war. I am an invalid of the second group. I received the order of bravery.” Ignoring Shor’s calls to assemble in the auditorium, she continued her monologue in clipped sentences: “I go to synagogue. Every Sabbath I go to synagogue. My last name is Katz, Nesye Sulimanovna. I was born in Brailiv. I was left an orphan without any parents. And my uncle raised me. We sing Yiddish songs. We gather together, we sing, we dance, and we are joyous. My parents were all killed here by the Germans.”

 

6 Religion of the Home: Food and Faith

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When Mendl Osherowitch visited a Ukrainian shtetl in 1932, he lamented that the Sabbath was barely distinguishable from any other day:

In the street . . . it does not feel like Sabbath. Rarely does a Jew do anything different on this day than any other day of the week. There is simply nothing to do. And in the home, there is also no sign of Sabbath food or white challah. People have already forgotten the taste of challah.

The synagogue, the old synagogue, which is locked for almost the entire week, is opened on this day. It is opened by the caretaker, an elderly, beaten-down Jew, in whose heart beats not a single shard of hope. And people say that every time he takes down the lock of the synagogue, tears flow. When he closes the synagogue up again, he cries even more.

Jews come into the synagogue, they pray quickly and leave for home quietly. And at home they catch a little rest from their hard work—and in the shtetl it is hard to find a Jew who doesn’t have to work hard: either they are in a kolkhoz [collective farm] or in an artel, and if they are not in an artel, they work so hard in order to earn a piece of bread. They rest a little from their hard work, and this they call observing the Sabbath.1

 

7 Life and Death in Reichskommissariat Ukraine

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On June 22, 1941, as the first light of the second longest day of the year appeared in the east, over three million German troops stormed across the Soviet border along a line that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Having ignored the German troops amassing on the border, the Red Army was taken largely by surprise; despite the paranoia that had led Stalin to order the murder of many of his top generals on the eve of the war, the Soviet leader had displayed an unwavering trust toward, of all people, Adolf Hitler. All references to the barbarism of fascist Germany had been purged from public discourse after the conclusion of the Soviet–German Nonaggression Pact of 1939, by which the two states had divided Poland between themselves, with the Soviet Union adding significantly to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic through its annexation of what had been eastern Poland. This pact provided the green light for Germany to invade Poland on September 1st, occupying the country up to a line roughly following the rivers Narva, Vistula, and San. Seventeen days later, the Soviet Union easily secured its half of Poland. As a result of the 1939 pact between the two states, when Germany launched its invasion in 1941, neither the military nor the citizens of the Soviet Union had sufficient warning of the coming cataclysm.

 

8 Life beyond the River: Transnistria

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An American immigrant originally from Tulchyn, Manya Ganiyevva, wrote down her recollection of her wartime experiences in Transnistria and deposited that memoir through the Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She begins her memoir with the lament that “after the war I often happened to read about the camps in the territories of Poland and Germany: Buchenwald, Maidanek, Ravensbruck, Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen and many others, where many thousands of Jews were exterminated and cremated. But in all these years, I have never read about those German concentration camps in which I was held, in which many thousands of Jews from all of Ukraine, Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina were detained.”1 Her memoir is remarkable in that in all the interviews we conducted with former inmates of camps and ghettos in Transnistria, we never heard such references made to the notorious extermination and concentration camps of Germany and Poland. When survivors relocate—usually to America, Israel or one of the larger cities of Ukraine or Russia—as Ganiyevva did, they come to understand their experiences within a wider context, and begin to compare their own fates with those from other regions. They come to understand their wartime memories in relation to a prevailing narrative of the Holocaust. They become aware that their own experiences in Transnistria do not fit comfortably into the Holocaust as it is commonly understood in the West. In the previous chapter I noted that many of the most recognized symbols of Holocaust experiences were largely absent from the Soviet experience. Instead, Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust tended to be killed closer to home, in ravines and cemeteries on the outskirts of their towns. However, the experiences of the local Jews in Transnistria also do not fit this model. With few exceptions—such as the murder of 150 Jews in Tomashpil on August 11, 1941—Jewish communities of Transnistria were spared such massacres. Even the “Holocaust by bullets” was largely foreign to the experiences of Transnistrian Jews.

 

9 A Kind of Victory

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Throughout March 1944, the Red Army slowly inched westward across Ukraine, liberating the lands of Vinnytsya Province from German occupation. In Transnistria, Soviet soldiers found pockets of surviving Jewish communities: they liberated 12,000 indigenous Jews and another 40,000 Romanian Jews who had been deported to the region from their homes.1 In the Reichskommissariat the Red Army found no intact Jewish communities; there were only individuals who had managed to survive the occupation in hiding, usually in isolation.

The occupation was over, but the war was not. Young men throughout the region were immediately drafted into the military, scooped up by the war machine, and joined the historic journey westward toward Berlin. They would end the war not as victims, but as victors. “As soon as the Red Army came, they took me. I was only seventeen years old,” recalled Yosl Kogan of his liberation. “They took me to the draft office and asked: ‘Were you under occupation?’ I answered, ‘Yes, I was under occupation.’ So they took me to the draft office and the Reds enlisted me in military training.” After a truncated training in Rzhev, some 1,200 kilometers to the east, Kogan was placed in the first reserve rifle regiment and sent into the bloodiest front in human history.

 

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