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Whatever Happened to the Shtetl?

April 22, 2010 By:
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Yehuda Bauer is acknowledged as one of the supreme Holocaust historians of our time, and the appearance from Yale University Press of The Death of the Shtetl only reaffirms that status, while deepening the scope of his accomplishment. The book tells an immensely complex tale with the clarity and simplicity of a master craftsman.

The work's intricacies stem from the terrain Bauer has chosen to focus upon: the shtetls, or small towns, where Jews resided in northeastern Poland and adjoining Russia; these were the communities destroyed by the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi's mobile killing squads, in the space of a year or so in the early 1940s.

The historian has had to untangle a particularly enmeshed environment: In these regions, various different peoples surrounded the Jews, and there was, of course, the natural profusion of languages that comes with such a situation.

Add to this the many groups -- nationalist (whether Russian, Polish or Jewish) or political (the Bund and the communists, for example) or religious (both Jewish and non) -- that were deeply embedded facets of daily life. They were sometimes the reason for unity between Jews and Christians, but more often proved the cause of intense discord, even in peacetime, to say nothing of when war threatened or erupted.

Bauer, who is the author of a string of fine titles, as well as being academic advisor at Yad Vashem and professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University, focuses on nine representative shtetlach, and many others in less depth, in the course of his analysis. Though the work covers only a little more than 200 pages -- and includes detailed maps, extensive footnotes, a bibliography and an index -- it is packed with a mass of information that has been synthesized into a miraculously fluid blend.

'The Victims Side of History'

The single drawback -- if that can be said of such a work -- is that the narrative considers one of the most tragic chapters in the systematic murder of the European Jews (and this is being said of an historic event where the competition for such an honor is great indeed).

As Bauer states right at the beginning, his book was written "as a contribution to the victims' side of Holocaust history." And as he also makes clear, it deals with "an under-researched aspect of the genocide ... . In effect, it deals with about one-fifth of all Holocaust victims and their communities. Because I believe that historians must analyze the factors and historical processes that may explain a given historical reality while also accepting history, as, in the end, the story of real people in real situations, the methodology I employ here combines analysis with testimonies. To deal with only stories or only historical analysis is unsatisfactory in the extreme. Real history combines both."

In the book's eight chapters, Bauer provides background material on the history of the shtetls, focuses on the 1930s as a crucial decade for what eventually happened during the war, describes the Soviet occupation of the eastern portion of Poland (by arrangement with the communists, the Nazis sat waiting for a time in western Poland), then moves on to the Nazi invasion of eastern Poland, Ukraine and Belorussia -- collectively known as the kresy -- and the murderous rampage that ensued.

The historian also looks in detail at how the shtetl leadership dealt with the onslaught, what part the Jews' neighbors played (or didn't), and the actions of partisan groups throughout the region.

Once the Nazis moved into eastern Poland and began what was, in essence, the first stage of their attack on the Soviet Union (officially known as "Operation Barbarossa"), they made certain the Einsatzgruppen were at the ready. The mobile killing squads were not, according to Bauer, given direct orders to kill Jews, but there had doubtless been lots of talk about getting rid of them. As the historian explains, Reinhard Heydrich -- who was Himmler's chief subordinate and commander, and thus, in essence, head of the entire Nazi terror machine -- did give an order to kill Communist Party officials and "others," which, says Bauer, probably meant Jews. All in all, the effort would be made to look, on the surface at least, like a battle against communism.

Writes Bauer: "Because in the Soviet Union all public functions, as well as trade and industrial or quasi-industrial production, were in the hands of the government and the party, killing party officials in fact meant killing anyone that the German authorities decided was in their way -- first and foremost the Jews. The idea behind this order was that the Bolshevik Soviet Union was controlled by Jews, so the major enemy of the Germans were the Jews, who ran that state (and all other countries opposed to Germany). Getting rid of Jewish males was a key way of destroying Bolshevism and ensuring German security. In the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, which began on June 22, the EGs murdered Jewish men wherever they could. We have here the primacy of ideological motivation: the German war against the Soviets was an ideological undertaking, and economic planning was embedded in the ideology. Within that context, the killing of Jews as the supposed mainstay of the Soviet regime became a primary aim."

Here Bauer is working on a purely theoretical basis but he shows he can quickly move on to the horrible human tragedy occurring on the ground. In most of the kresy, as he explains, there was a brief period of calm between the collapse of the Soviet regime and the invasion by German troops, and during this gap, some young Jews managed to flee ahead of the military.

"Testimonies suggest that people thought the Germans would endanger the lives of young men but probably not harm women, children and old people," writes Bauer. "However, the German advance in the kresy was so swift that the chance of escaping was very low. Escape was largely, too, a matter of luck. Thus, in Belorussia, during the first days of the invasion, whoever fled in the direction of Minsk was caught in the huge pincer movement that captured Minsk on June 28; people who fled in the direction of Mogilev had a better chance of escaping because the German advance in that direction was slower and the Soviet resistance stiffer. In the south, German forces advanced at a slower pace than in the north, and areas in eastern Volhynia were easier to flee from. But Soviet border guards on the former Polish-Soviet border prevented the mainly Jewish refugees from crossing into 'old' Soviet areas -- at least during the first few days of the war. The guards turned the refugees back, accusing them of anti-Soviet behavior, cowardice and spreading panic; the great Red Army, they said, would soon turn the Germans back, so the refugees should return home. Testimonies indicate that the old border was not open until after June 26, and then people could run for their lives. Shmuel Spector has calculated that about 5 percent (12,000-13,000 people) of the Jewish population of Volhynia managed to flee into the Soviet interior. In East Galicia and Belorussia the percentage was probably smaller. Those who fled, mostly young men, had a terrible decision to make: leaving their families behind. Sometimes their parents encouraged them to run, and sometimes the parents tried to prevent their escape, fearing what would happen to them in the Soviet interior and fearing, too, that they would be killed by the Germans along the way."

A terrible chapter in Jewish history has been caught for posterity here. Yet, despite all the accomplishment on display -- and Bauer is a master interpreter -- be forewarned: At times, the sadness is often too difficult to bear.

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