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Toronto, January 16, 1999

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A lament for the death of a shtetl

 THERE ONCE WAS A WORLD: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok

By Yaffa Eliach, Little, Brown, 818 pages, $68


    THERE IS renewed interest in the history and culture of Eastern European Jewry, and Yaffa Eliach's There Once was a World is the latest addition to a growing body of literature on the subject. Eliach is a professor of literature and history in the department of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College, and the creator of The Tower of Life, the three-storey gallery of photos from Eishyshok, the shtetl (now in Lithuania) where she was born, at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. In 1944, when Eliach was 4, she and her family and a handful of others escaped the slaughter of Eishyshok's inhabitants by the Nazis.

A 1998 U.S. National Book Award finalist, There Once was a World focuses on this shtetl, beginning its story with the first Jewish settlement there 1,000 years ago. She is a descendent of those first families, and writes about them with an intense love and pride. Eishyshok, she writes, was a renowned centre of Jewish scholarship, its people endowed with a love of learning and a devotion to their faith and their traditions. Their story, illustrated with dozens of photographs, reads like a collective oral history, their legends and anecdotes woven together in a tapestry of life -- religious, family, social and work.

As a history, it is narrow in scope, too narrow. Eliach concentrates on her own class, the shtetl's elite, and though she mentions in passing the various other classes -- artisans, the poor, the Jews who lived beyond the village or those in cities near and far -- There Once was a World does not give us a picture of the diversity of views, experiences, religious expressions or political differences. Socialists, Communists, the Hasidim, and reform and secular movements were all of little importance, alien thinking brought in from the outside. Only Zionism, starting at the turn of the century, had any bearing on the lives of the shtetl.

Even more striking is the exclusion of the gentile world. Some references to Russian or Polish officials, fond memories of the German occupiers during the First World War, and a rabble of "peasants" in the market constitute the non-Jewish presence. Poles are crude, drunken, sadistic, anti-Semitic and largely stupid. Eliach makes it quite clear that she holds Poland and the Polish people, especially the Polish underground, responsible for the Holocaust, as much as, if not more than, the Germans. This is a serious and irresponsible distortion of history. Given the trauma of Eliach's childhood, it is difficult to criticize her, but she is a historian and there she must be challenged.

Eliach does not recognize Germany's murderous policies toward Polish Christians. Believing a statement that "Hitler is searching for Jews to kill, not Poles," she ignores all documented history to show "the good fortune of the local Poles." I will assume that Hitler's policy toward Poland is too well known to spend more time on this.

There Once was a World is an unbearably sad book. If the shtetl is somewhat idealized, it is because this is, in many ways, an obituary. Our horror of war pales beside the horror of genocide, and we have to understand the bitterness. But we must try to understand history, too.

Irene Tomaszewski's latest book is I Am First a Human Being: The Prison Letters of Krystyna Wituska.

Related Reading

Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of the Polish Jew, by Eva Hoffman (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

Kokin: A Quest, by Theodore Richmond (Jonathan Cape, 1995).

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