SEARCHING FOR A JEWISH SHTETL IN POLAND

Poland was once the heartland of Yiddish culture. Its cities had large Jewish populations, and hundreds of rural villages, called shtetls, were home to thriving Jewish communities. Traces of shtetl life can still be found in Poland.

DAILY LIFE IN THE SHTETL

Jews had been living in Poland since the 16th century. By the turn of the 20th century, Yiddish speaking Jews accounted for at least thirty per cent of the population in many villages throughout Poland.

Life in the shtetl was quite diverse. Some made their living in the trades like tailor, baker, shoemaker, kosher butcher, or weaver. Many owned shops and traded at local markets. Others ran flour mills, distilleries, and small factories. Some were teachers, not just in the Jewish heders and yeshivas, but in Polish schools as well. Jews often sat on the town council alongside Poles.

Heder and yeshiva schools were supported by the community. They focused on a religious education based on the teachings of the Torah and Talmud. Schools were for boys only, but by the end of the 19th century, schools opened for girls and the curriculum became more secular.

There were numerous newspapers printed in Yiddish that drew readers from religious, political, and secular audiences. Shtetls had their own theater groups, libraries, and sports activities. They also had Zionist organizations that prepared young Polish Jews to settle in Palestine.

Shtetl groups sponsored charities to help the poor of the community. People had a feeling of belonging to their village, just like in rural Poland today. Trade unions also funded charitable works and co-operative societies.

The Jewish shtetl existed within a Polish town, and Jews and Poles had a complex relationship that was both integrated and separate. There were fundamental differences between the two societies, differences in religion,language, history, philosophy, education, and profession. Each side had their prejudices, and each looked at the other as "them".

Even though the Jews had been in Poland for centuries, they were not considered Polish. Nor did they consider themselves Polish. They were exiles who brought with them a long history of exile, a people apart, waiting for the Messiah to lead them back to their homeland.

Rural Polish life in the early 20th century
Rural Polish life in the early 20th century

Yet Pole and Jew had much in common. They lived in the same place, set among the vast farmlands of Poland, and each loved his village or shtetl. They shared a taste for the same foods, like borsht, potato pancakes, pickled herring, and smoked salmon. They lived in the same wooden houses and enured the same dark winters. they depended on each other for goods and services. A Polish farmer brought his grain to a mill owned by a Jew who, in turn, brought his wagon to a Polish wheelwright for repair.

REMNANTS OF THE SHTETL IN POLAND

 The rural villages of Poland still contain buildings that evoke the image of the vanished Jewish shtetl.

RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR JEWS

 By the late 19th century, many Jewish people in Poland had rejected the traditions of Judaism. The religious and secular lived side by side in the shtetl and were sometimes members of the same family.

Judaism is founded on a covenant between God and the Jewish people. If the people keep His laws, God will watch over them and protect them. For Orthodox Jews living in Poland, keeping God's laws meant a daily ritual of prayers, a kosher home, traditional dress, and most importantly, observing Shabbat from Friday night to Saturday night. The teachings of the Talmud guided spiritual and moral matters.

Orthodox life in the shtetl revolved around the synagogue and the local rebbe. There was also the Beit HaMidrash (the house of study), the yeshiva, and the mikvah (the bath house).

In the mid-19th century, a political movement for socialist reform swept across the Russian Empire. Both Jews and Poles in eastern Poland, then part of Russia, were caught up in the movement which promised better living conditions for for peasants and workers. Poland, at that time, was ruled by a nobility class similar to the one found in Russia.

Socialist doctrine called for the rejection of organized religion, claiming it was a tool used to govern and pacify the oppressed masses. Many in the Yiddish community became socialists and rejected Judaism. Other Jews, while not socialists, felt that the rituals of Orthodox Judaism did not meet their spiritual needs in an increasingly modern world.

Despite their rejection of traditional Judaism, secular Jews continued to identify with the Yiddish culture, which in the shtetl, was a complete way of life.

UP IN SMOKE

Shtetl life in Poland was overshadowed by anti-Semitism from the non-Jewish community that occaisionally spilled over into the violence of a pogrom. In 1936, Cardinal Hlond, the Catholic primate of Poland, issued a declaration condemning Jews for their religion and their immoral values. He called for a boycott of Jewish shops and businesses that was subsequently endorsed by the Polish prime minister. The boycott was enforced by a fascist youth organization called the Endeks who stood outside Jewish shops carrying signs and driving customers away. Pogroms erupted throughout the country.

The German army invaded Poland in 1939. This led to the systematic annihilation of the country's Jewish population, known as the Holocaust. Before the war, three million Jews lived in Poland. Now it is hard to find a Jew, although statistics list Polands Jewish population at five to ten thousand.

People of the Warsaw Ghetto.
People of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Today there is a noticeable silence in the towns and villages of Poland, a silence where there once was life. The vibrant society of the shtetl has been extinguished, and the Yiddish culture along with it.

Poland's tragic history has rendered it  a country filled with monuments. There are monuments to fallen Poles and monuments to fallen Jews. They share the peaceful countryside today, just as they shared life in the towns and shtetls in an era now passed.

HELPFUL WEBSITES

www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org lists towns where Jewish people lived throughout the world. They also track Jewish ancestry.

www.ibiblio.org/yiddish has information on Yiddish language and culture.

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