SHTETL by Eva Hoffman


The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews
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 Hoffman, author of the much-admired memoir Lost in Translation (1989), here returns to her dual roots, Jewish and Polish--and her history of the intertwined fates of the two peoples shows that they can indeed be complementary, not oppositional. Hoffman's goal is larger than her distillation of history- -acute and pointed, but a bit too schematic--can fully support. But her thesis is a fascinating one: that Poland, with historically large populations of Germans, Ukrainians, Jews, and other ethnic groups, was truly a multicultural society that can serve as an object lesson in how to achieve (or not achieve) a balance between minority group identity and ``a sense of mutual belonging.'' Where she does succeed fully is in her attempt to ``complicate and historicize the picture'' of Jewish-Polish relations in order to get beyond stereotyped views of Poles as congenitally anti-Semitic and of Jews as economic exploiters. Hoffman offers a nuanced view that excuses no act of hatred or violence yet considers, for instance, the difference between peasants' superstitious belief that Jews were lucky and genuine anti-Semitism, or how the endless conquering and division of Poland increased tensions and mistrust between Poles and Jews. Hoffman traces the history of Jews in Poland back to its origins in medieval times, before fervent Polish nationalism was born and the country was a beneficent refuge for Jews. She then focuses in on one shtetl, or village, Brask, as a microcosm of the waxing and waning of relations between the two peoples. In Brask, Polish peasants and Jewish craftsmen and merchants lived side by side: Poles attended cantorial concerts, and Jewish musicians played at Polish weddings; Poles incorporated Yiddish phrases into their speech, and Jews adopted the dress of Polish gentry. And yet, Hoffman concludes, each was seen as fundamentally ``Other.'' But Hoffman is optimistic that the gulf can be--and is being- -crossed. This insightful overview points out how we can begin to understand a complex past and apply those lessons in the future.

Pub Date: Oct. 2nd, 1997
ISBN: 0-395-82295-5
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1997


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