“The shtetl was a Jewish Atlantis,” says Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

The American historian Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern discusses the Golden Age of the Jewish town, Polish magnates, and fragments of shtetl culture.

Iryna Slavinska:  We met through the lecture “Shtetl: The Jewish Town Phenomenon,” which was held in connection with the publication of the book The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe. We are talking about the shtetl as a phenomenon and a populated area. But first, please explain what a shtetl is to those who are unfamiliar with this term.

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  In order to respond to the question with a double answer, let us formulate it this way: What is a shtetl and when?  First and foremost, the shtetl is understood in broad terms, in a metaphorical sense. In this case, it is associated with the Ashkenazi—the entire Central and Eastern European Jewish civilization. In other words, everything that happens in the lands of Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and later in the Russian Empire within the framework of Jewish life in small towns outside, say, Kyiv and Odesa and perhaps even Minsk and Wilno. All this Jewish life is termed “shtetl.” Then it turns out that the shtetl is a metaphor for the Ashkenazi Jewish civilization that perished. To a certain degree, it was a Jewish Atlantis. And someone who studies shtetls intends to reconstruct this Atlantis that existed approximately from the fourteenth century to the end of the nineteenth–early twentieth century.

There is a more precise sense of the word “shtetl”: a private Polish town, thanks to which a semi-rural and semi-urban Jewish civilization develops. Unlike the magnates of Central and Western Europe who owned villages, the magnate in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth owns cities. Who turned these villages into towns and cities? This is where we begin the conversation about the Jewish presence and function in the transformation of these private, urban-type settlements into what we call a “small private Polish town,” what the Poles called “miasteczko,” the Russians — “mestechko,” and the Ukrainians—“mistechko.”

Iryna Slavinska:  When did the shtetl emerge?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  It emerges at the very moment when the Polish magnates—the Radziwiłłs, the Potockis, the Hanskis, the Poniatowskis, and the Czackis—decide that they ought to settle the eastern lands of the Polish Crown. The king distributes land. He does not have gold, like a king of Spain, or oil, like a king in the Russian Federation. But he has lands that he distributes among the magnates who took part in the expansion of the Polish Crown, which in the late fourteenth–early fifteenth century occupies an area equal to five Frances. In other words, this is the largest state in Europe.

And a magnate doesn’t simply want to own some kind of home and an estate. He would like there to be commerce on this estate, which will bring in cash that no one has at this time because everything takes place according to the barter system. And, of course, to create around a village some kind of town that I would jokingly call an “urban-type settlement,” he needs a most dynamic populace that can look after this. And Jewish migrants, who are invited to move from royal cities of Poland and settle in private towns, appear at this point.

Iryna Slavinska:  I have a simple question. They are invited to migrate because the Pale of Settlement appears at this very time, or is this some other story about the internal mobility of the population?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  This is a completely different story. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth there are generally no restrictions on Jewish settlement anywhere outside the limits of royal cities. You have to understand that there were two types of urban settlements in that state: royal cities, for example, Gniezno, Szydłów, later Cracow, then Warsaw. Sometime around the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century a process takes place, mostly in these royal cities, thanks to which the local burgher population seeks to rid itself of an active economic competitor and, using religious language and the “Privilegium de non tolerandis Judaeis”—the privilege of non-tolerance of Jews—the Jews are expelled outside the bounds of the royal city. And we know there are Cracow and Kazimierz. So, the latter is an individual town that is located outside the limits of Cracow. And this takes place precisely in the early part of the fifteenth century.

But Jews were never expelled from towns that belonged to Polish magnates. They never had any kinds of restrictions, and the magnates encouraged them to move from the cities from which they were being expelled to Berdychiv, Haisyn, Sharhorod, Tulchyn, and Nemyriv; all those small towns that Jewish national memory calls “shtetls.”

About the Pale of Settlement: It emerges at a time when the Russian Empire captures 66 percent of Polish territory. Catherine II called it “territories recently annexed from Poland.” And when this area, representing nearly two-thirds of the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, becomes part of the empire, it also encounters a very important question that it was supposed to resolve. Before 1772 there are no Jews in the empire, and they are not tolerated there in general. After 1772 and until 1795—the end of the partitions of Poland—Russia inherited approximately a 1.1 million-strong Jewish population. What is to be done with them? Catherine legalizes Jews on the territory of the empire but allows them to live within the limits in which they had lived in Poland. The Pale of Jewish Settlement consists of fifteen new gubernias of the empire in the western part of the imperial territory; this is the territory of former Poland where this Jewish population is permitted to reside. On the one hand, this is ghettoization, as historians called it subsequently; on the other, there is no ghettoization here because this is absolutely the customary territory for that Jewish population. Furthermore, on this territory they are permitted to live wherever they wish. This is how the Pale of Jewish Settlement arose in the late eighteenth–early nineteenth century.

Iryna Slavinska:  Right now, we are acquainting ourselves with the definition of the word shtetl. Here is another simple question. Which does it resemble more: a city or a village? Because even in the joke known as the “large, urban-type village” there are two poles. Which is closer?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  The shtetl is a phenomenon that does not generally exist in the Russian Empire outside the Pale of Settlement. The Russian provincial city is not a town because it belongs to the state, and there is practically no Jewish population there until the 1860s. It has no strong economic importance, it does not fulfill a significant social and economic function like the shtetl.  Because the shtetl is the center of economic life and trade, the estate of a Polish magnate, and a Polish garrison prior to the partitions of Poland. The shtetl as a private Polish small town is surrounded by settlements of Ukrainian peasants, who have been emancipated from serfdom. The shtetl is home to Jewish, Polish Catholic, and predominantly Ukrainian Orthodox populations.

Iryna Slavinska:  Your book is called The Golden Age Shtetl. When was the Golden Age?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  I call the period between the partitions of Poland and approximately the 1860s the “Golden Age of the Jewish town.” I call it this for one very interesting reason. Until the 1770s it is mostly Polish Jews who live in these private Polish towns that Jewish national memory calls shtetl—from the Yiddish word “shtot,” meaning city. After the 1860s mostly Russian Jews live in these towns. And I call the period when there are Poles, Jews, and Russians there the Golden Age. Why? At this time we observe a very interesting phenomenon. The small town belongs formally to a Polish magnate. We thought that it was like this until the partitions of Poland and that subsequently it changed. It turns out that there is a certain continuity in small-town ownership all the way to the 1850s. There is a palace in which a Radziwiłł or a Potocki lives in Bila Tserkva or Berdychiv. There is a constant Polish presence. If this is a magnate’s palace, then the entire service personnel and everything that they need…[is there]. The town formally belongs to the magnate.

But there is also a Russian presence. The shtetl is formally situated on Russian territory. The imperial government tries to do everything in order to imperialize the small town and turn it into a part of imperial institutions. There they establish what in the nineteenth century is called “public places,” the post office and a court; the Russian administration. And all this is part of the Russian imperial presence. In other words, there is a second set of authorities—the Russian administrative. Now in the shtetl there is an incredibly powerful market, where the entire economic life of the shtetl takes place; where you can buy absolutely anything. Russian landowners traveling from St. Petersburg to the Crimea or Italian diplomats traveling through Vienna to St. Petersburg are absolutely baffled by what they see in shtetls. Because at the marketplace in Berdychiv, Tulchyn, or Nermyriv you can buy everything that you can acquire in Venice at the finest markets and, perhaps, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but which are not available anywhere in Warsaw or Nizhny Novgorod. The shtetl is a powerful Jewish economic force.

It turns out that there is a shtetl that belongs to the magnate, to the empire, and is still not a possession but the functioning of Jewish power in the marketplace. The collision between these three components of the small town marks the unique period between the 1770s and the 1860s. Because afterwards, the Russian Empire simply confiscated via raiding everything that could be confiscated in these territories, especially after the Polish revolution of 1863–1864. Polish rule thus disappears from the shtetl. And the Russian government tries to undermine the economy of the shtetl because it is not feeding the Russian treasury but the magnate. And the latter will be feeding any kind of Polish uprising: Kościuszko in 1794, the 1830 uprising, the Cracow uprising of 1848, the Polish revolution of 1864. Russia tries to do everything possible to ensure that the magnates do not have this economic lever which they can use in order to cause a rebellion in the Russian Empire.

Iryna Slavinska:  What do the shtetl cultures comprise?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  Usually, it is more or less homogeneous; it has its territorial differences. There is the shtetl of mostly the northern part of the Pale of Settlement, in Wilno, Hrodno, and Minsk gubernias, and there is the one in the Polish Kingdom, which has some autonomy within the Russian Empire. If we look at what I discuss in the book, then this is the Kyiv, Podillia, and Volyn gubernias. There are territorial differences. The religious, reading, and family culture of the shtetl is homogeneous and based on Jewish values adapted to what nineteenth-century historians called “Slavic antiquities.”

Iryna Slavinska:  Are these the applied arts or are there also examples of painting?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  Secular literature appears outside the boundaries of the small town. If we are talking about Mendele Moykher-Sforim, the grandfather of Jewish literature, or about Sholom Aleichem, the father, this is the 1860s–1880s. During this period these authors, who were born and raised in small towns, go as far away as possible in order to look at it from a satirical distance, the distance of a person who has already read [Emile] Zola and [Mikhail] Saltykov-Shchedrin; when he can depict this small town as something that is not civilization and from where Jews must move to Kyiv, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Odesa, and Warsaw.

There is a traditional culture in the small town, but it is not just the culture of the synagogue and daily prayer, because Jews read books, they paint synagogues, and sing songs. Very intensive contacts between the Orthodox population and Jews take place, especially in synagogue construction.

Iryna Slavinska:  You have already said that the shtetl was the Jewish Atlantis. Apart from the connotation of loss and disappearance, Atlantis has the connotation of a certain heyday. Can one say that the culture which was created in shtetls is really a kind of acme of Jewish culture in contemporary Ukraine?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  If I had the distance that lies between us and Plato’s Atlantis—and the historians of myths situate it approximately in the eighth–ninth centuries BCE—if I had a distance of three thousand years, I would tell you that the shtetl is the acme of Jewish culture. But we don’t have this kind of distance, and Jewish culture is very dynamic. It evolves, it is not homogeneous. Shtetls are not the culture of the Jews of Venice, and not even the culture of Jerusalem Jews in the Early Modern period. But if we were to draw a chart of how Jewish culture develops in this “Atlantis,” in the Ashkenazi habitat of the Jewish diaspora from the late thirteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, then this is undoubtedly a high point of Jewish culture.

Although, of course, a person with Marxist views says: “No! The high point of this Jewish culture is the Jews who become Marxists in the 1910s or the encouragement to join the government in the late 1910s and the early 1920s.” Secular Jews say that the high point is Isaac Bashevis Singer, Marc Chagall; that which is happening in France or the U.S. Still others, who are more nationalistically oriented, will tell you that it is what is happening now in the State of Israel, which becomes independent after 1948. These are various cultures. To put it very specifically: [in] the Eastern European areas, the Jewish small town is a kind of acme for the milieu in these lands, for Ukrainian history.

Iryna Slavinska:  Has the culture of the shtetl as a phenomenon and a populated area remained in Ukraine’s collective memory today?  

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  There are people who study collective memory. I have a number of colleagues in the U.S. who travel throughout small towns in Belarus and Ukraine. They talk with people who remember what the shtetl was like before the Holocaust. Furthermore, the last Jews who were still living in former Polish private small towns were still there and spoke Yiddish, baked matzoh, and sang songs in the Aramaic or Hebrew language set to Ukrainian melodies.

I don’t study the culture of memory, but in every chapter of my book about the shtetl I devote around five pages to the question of how the phenomenon that I am describing was reflected in Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, and Jewish national memory. For this I use literary sources and language. Unbelievably many details of this small-town life entered the phraseology that we use, which is rooted in the Golden Age shtetl. With the help of sociolinguistics, I use these linguistic elements as a kind of memory machine in order to travel to the late eighteenth century. And with the aid of these phraseological units, to reconstruct certain phenomena that were reflected in our memory, which are these fragments of shtetl culture.

Iryna Slavinska:  I can’t help but ask for an example of this phraseology.

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern:  Well, we say “small town,” “you have a small-town accent”; the word mistechkove, which became a synonym of something provincial, second-rate, something semi-cultured. This is reflected in language and behavior, how a person dresses or walks. This is what is associated with the perception of the shtetl, which was germane to Yiddish writers in the late nineteenth century. Why it became this is another matter. This is one example.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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