The story of the Jewish shtetl is well known. These once vibrant communities that were so widespread across Eastern Europe until the 20th century were destroyed, first by pogroms and resulting waves of emigration, and later by the anti-religion policies of the Soviet Union, with their final remnants wiped off the face of the earth by the Holocaust.
But not so, it seems. A new documentary from the Russian filmmaker Katya Ustinova explores the existence of shtetls in Ukraine and Moldova right up until the 1970s and even beyond. Shtetlers premiered last year and was available to view during Russian Film Week USA in January. Unfortunately, is not yet available in Europe, so I am still awaiting an opportunity to watch it.
As the film’s website says, “In those small and remote towns of the Soviet interior, hidden from the world outside of the Iron Curtain, the traditional Jewish life continued for decades after it disappeared everywhere else. The tight-knit communities supported themselves by providing goods and services to their non-Jewish neighbours. The ancient religion, Yiddish language and folklore, ritualised cooking and elaborate craftsmanship were practised, treasured and passed through the generations until very recently.”
Ustinova is a Russian-born documentary maker living in New York who previously worked as a producer, host and reporter for a Russian broadcasting company in Moscow. Shtetlers is her first feature-length film. Ustinova’s grandfather was a Jewish playwright, but her family did not identify as Jewish until her father, a businessman and art collector, founded the Moscow-based Museum of Jewish History in Russia in 2012.
On discovering modern artifacts from shtetls in the former Soviet Union, Ustinova and her father came to realise that some Jewish communities had continued to exist for far longer than they had thought.
Shtetlers tells the stories of Jews in these forgotten shtetls by means of nine first-hand accounts of people who lived in them. In 2015, Ustinova visited several former shtetl residents, who have since scattered around the world.
Many of the stories in Shtetlers help break down the myth that only enmity existed between Ukrainians and Jews. Without distracting from the fact that many Ukrainians committed atrocities against the Jewish population before and after – as well as during – the war, the film reminds us of those gentiles who loved and cared for their Jewish friends and neighbours.
Meet Vladimir. He was not born Jewish, but converted after his mother – who is honoured at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre – sheltered dozens of Jews during the war. Growing up among Jewish neighbours, their culture imbued itself into gentile homes, and he remembers his mother baking challah during his childhood. Vladimir emigrated to Israel and now lives in the West Bank as part of an Orthodox Jewish family.
And Volodya and Nadya, Ukrainian farm workers still resident in a former shtetl in Ukraine, who remembered their Jewish neighbours so fondly that they decided to adopt Jewish customs, like making matzo brei and kissing the mezuzah attached to the doorway of their house – which once belonged to Jews – when they enter.
Emily, a Jewish shtetler who survived the war, escaped from a concentration camp and was saved by a gentile friend – the sister of a Ukrainian police chief – who brought her family food while they were in hiding. And then there’s the queue of Russian Orthodox Christians coming to Rabbi Noah Kafmansky to solve their problems and obtain his blessing, because “the Jewish God helps better”.
In the five years since Ustinova filmed Shtetlers, many of the people she met have passed away. “Their memories are a farewell to the vanished world of the shtetl, a melting pot of cultures that many nations once called their home,” the website says.
The trailer is available on the Shtetlers website: shtetlers.com/
And numerous extracts from the film, as well as some gorgeous animated clips, can be found on the Shtetlers Instagram page: www.instagram.com/shtetlers/
I recently watched a film adaptation of French author Irène Némirovsky’s marvellous World War Two novel Suite Française. It’s a fabulous book and I have written about it before, here.
The novel was written in 1941-42, while Némirovsky was living in the village of Issy-l’Eveque, having fled Paris when war broke out. The author envisaged a book of five parts, a mammoth work of a thousand pages constructed like a symphony, taking Beethoven’s Fifth as her model. She wanted it to convey the magnitude of what she was living through, not in terms of battles and politicians, but by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. The five stories would be separate but linked, with a handful of characters weaving in and out of the narrative.
She completed only the first two sections before her arrest. The first depicts a disparate collection of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion and make their way through the chaos of wartime France, while the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community living under Nazi occupation.
Némirovsky’s parents had been wealthy, assimilated Russian Jews who fled the St Petersburg high life in December 1917 – having lost their fortune following the Bolshevik revolution – and settled in Paris, a city that was already home to many Russian emigrees who opposed the new regime. A lonely, solitary child whose mother showed her not the slightest sign of love, Irène grew up to despise and disdain her parents’ prosperous Jewish milieu.
Once in Paris, she enrolled at the Sorbonne and soon became an acclaimed writer, publishing her first novella in 1927. Titled L’Enfant Genial, it told the story of a Jewish boy from the slums of Odessa who seduces an aristocrat with his poetry. In 1939, in light of the increasing likelihood of war and violent anti-Semitism across Europe, she and her children converted to Catholicism. But this was not enough to save her. She was first taken to the concentration camp at Pithiviers, in the Loiret region south of Paris on 13 July 1942, then deported to Auschwitz the following day, where she died on 17 August.
That Némirovsky’s children survived the war was nothing short of a miracle, and all the more so that they kept what they thought was their mother’s wartime diary – written in tiny handwriting to save ink and paper – as a memento, guarding it carefully as they fled from one hiding place to another. The two girls did not read their mother’s work, finding it too painful to look at, until decades later when they discovered not notes or a diary, but a literary masterpiece.
Suite Française was finally published in French in 2004 and in English two years later. The film, from British director Saul Dibb and starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Michelle Williams, was released in 2015. It deals only with the second story in the book, set in the fictional village of Bussy, where the affluent middle-class Angelliers are forced to play host to a German officer during the occupation.
Tim Robey, reviewing the film in The Daily Telegraph, described Scott Thomas – playing the senior of the two Angellier ladies – as “more terrifying than the Nazis”. Némirovsky’s description of her character is more impressive even than Scott Thomas’ portrayal:
“This older woman had such a transparent, pale face that she seemed to have not a drop of blood beneath her skin; her hair was pure white, her mouth like the blade of a knife, her lips almost purple. An old-fashioned high collar made of mauve cotton, held rigid by stays, covered but didn’t hide her sharp, bony neck which pulsated with emotion like a lizard. When she heard a German soldier’s footsteps or voice near the window, she would tremble from the tips of her small pointy little boots to the top of her impressively coiffed head.”
Ma Angellier’s son Gaston is a prisoner of war and she holds each and every German personally responsible for his fate. Imagine her horror, then, when her daughter-in-law falls in love with the officer billeted in Gaston’s study.
Robey in his review describes the film as a “jarringly sweet Second World War romance… It is thoroughly easy to sit through, when it should probably have been harder”. He is absolutely right, the film is entertaining enough to watch, but it fails to show any of the cynicism, ambiguity and complexity of Némirovsky’s novel – and it changes the ending in such a way that pushes it far beyond the realms of realism or possibility. The upshot – read the book, and watch the film if you like, but don’t accept it as an accurate representation of the author’s intentions.
Antony Blinken is on the cusp of being appointed Secretary of State in the new administration of President Joe Biden. One thing many people may not know about Blinken is that his great-grandfather was a Yiddish writer of some repute.
Meir Blinken was born in 1879 in Pereyaslav, Ukraine – coincidentally the same shtetl as Yiddish literature’s most famous name, Sholem Aleichem. Blinken gained a Jewish education at a Talmud Torah, before attending the secular Kiev commercial college, part of a joint educational project founded by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. He worked as an apprentice cabinet-maker and carpenter, before switching to become a massage therapist. Indeed, he is listed in the Lexicon of Modern Yiddish Literature with the trade of masseur. His son Moritz, Tony Blinken’s grandfather, who became an American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kiev.
Blinken Senior emigrated to the US in 1904. His first story, written under the pen-name B Mayer, was published a year earlier, in 1903. Once in America, his sketches and stories appeared in a range of literary, progressive socialist and labour Zionist publications, including the satirical magazine Der Kibetzer (Collection) and Idishe Arbeter Velt (Jewish Workers’ World) in Chicago. In all, he published around 50 works of fiction and non-fiction.
Blinken’s books include Weiber (Women), described in the lexicon as a prose poem, Der Sod (The Secret) and Kortnshpil (Card Game). A collection of his short stories published in 1984 and translated by Max Rosenfeld, is still available. His writing dealt with thorny topics including the effects of poverty, poor living conditions, religious strictures, inadequate education and the lack of understanding that immigrants feel about their new country.
Most controversially, he was one of the few male Yiddish writers to address the subject of women’s sexuality, writing about marital infidelity and sexual desire and hinting at the sense of boredom felt by housewives. Another subject he tackled remains controversial to this day: showing empathy towards abortion.
Writing in a review of Blinken’s work in the 1980s, the journalist and author Richard Elman pointed out that among Yiddish authors writing for the largely female audience of Yiddish fiction, Blinken “was one of the few who chose to show with empathy the woman’s point of view in the act of love or sin”. Elman and others believed that the greatest legacy of the author’s work was that it vividly evoked the atmosphere and characters of the very early Jewish diaspora in New York.
According to a 1965 article by the journalist David Shub in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex. In the same article, he wrote that Blinken was also an editor’s nightmare!
By the time of his death in 1915 at the age of just 37, Blinken had opened an independent massage office on East Broadway, in the heart of what was at that time the city’s Yiddish arts and letters district. While his writing was very popular among Yiddish-speaking Americans of his own generation, Blinken’s star quickly waned after his death.
Photo credit: Ukrainian Jewish Encounter
I wish I could begin my first article of 2021 with a Happy New Year, but unfortunately everything feels very bleak out there. The UK has headed deeper into lockdown and the US is reeling from an unprecedented attack on its democracy. So perhaps we could all do with a little humour. The articles in my blog often tell terrible tales of suffering and loss, so by way of contrast, here’s something funny and uplifting to help take our minds off all the doom and gloom in these cold, dark days.
Talking to God is a 2019 film written and directed by Maya Batash, who also stars in the lead role as Rebecca, an insomniac New Yorker who will try anything to find happiness – and to help her get to sleep. Nothing works until she joins a bunch of equally desperate women on a trip to Uman, the town in Ukraine where the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) has become a pilgrimage site for religious Jews. The picture was partly filmed on location in Uman.
But don’t worry, this isn’t a moralistic tale to convert the viewer to Orthodox Judaism. Surrounded by praying pilgrims at the Rabbi’s tomb, Rebecca remains utterly unmoved. But after a while she realises she’s sleeping better, in spite of the stiflingly hot dorm room she’s sharing with a dozen other women, one of whom crunches crisps (potato chips) noisily in the middle of the night.
In search of the answer to the universal question, “What makes us happy?” she discovers The Fixer, a cheery fiddle player who lives in a tiny shack in the forest and looks like he belongs in a Sholem Aleichem adaptation. The Fixer’s narrative is a modern a take on a short story written by Rabbi Nachman himself, A Tale of Faith. In the original, a king goes on a quest to find out if his subjects are truly happy and discovers that the happiest man in his kingdom is completely destitute.
“I wanted to connect the two stories,” Batash told the Jewish Press in December 2020. “I tried to modernise Rabbi Nachman’s story and connect it to this modern-day one-woman journey. Since we don’t live in an age with little villages with a king, I turned the character into the king of Hollywood. The basic story premise and message is still there.”
The movie mogul is a thoroughly nasty – and unhappy – character, while the Fixer, played by Australian Zebedee Row, is imbued with such an innate joyousness that you just want to bottle it up and take a drop when you need something to cheer you up. “I think people in the world need to laugh more. The world can be a serious place,” Batash says.
The moral of the story is that “A person must enlist all his strength to be joyful at all times. It is human nature to be drawn to depression and sadness because of life’s daily events.” And I’m sure that’s good advice to all of us struggling through these dark, depressing times.
When I first began writing my grandmother’s story and turning her recollections into what would eventually become a book, the title I originally had in mind was The Breadbasket. To me, this encompassed much what the people and places in the book were about. Ukraine was known as the Breadbasket of Europe because of its huge grain production.
My great-great-grandfather Berl was a grain trader. And bread, or lack of it, played a big role in the family story, from the mill my family owned in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th, to the prosperity Berl built through his thriving business, to his wife Pessy’s ability to make a ball of dough dance as she kneaded and shaped it in mid-air, and the challah on the Sabbath table.
And later, there were the Bolshevik grain requisitions, the great hunger that followed the revolution when there was no bread to be had and my grandmother travelled the land with a basket on her back, bartering food to keep her family alive.
But a literary editor who guided my early manuscript advised me to ditch the title. You need something more evocative and compelling, he said. Several weeks later, I finally settled on A Forgotten Land. This was a success and I was pleased with the change. The new title evoked the terrible loss suffered by towns and villages across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, along with the people who lived there and their way of life.
In the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, pogroms, war, famine, disease and emigration had torn Jewish families apart from the 1880s onward and seared the heart out of Jewish communities. The Nazis, of course, would do the rest, not just there but across Europe. The Pale did indeed become a forgotten land, a network of once vibrant communities whose people had all emigrated or died.
Three-quarters of a century on from the Holocaust, many people are working hard to bring to light the remnants of the deserted shtetls, to remind us of these communities that have been forgotten for so long. I will highlight just two projects, but please feel free to add others to the comments at the end of this article.
The first is a blog called Vanished World, which documents Cologne-based photographer and writer Christian Herrmann’s travels around Eastern Europe and elsewhere in search of visual traces of the Jews who once lived there - destroyed or misappropriated synagogues, overgrown cemeteries, tombstones in the street paving, traces of home blessings on door jambs.
“Neglected Jewish cemeteries, ruins of synagogues and other remains of Jewish institutions [are like] stranded ships at the shores of time. The traces of Jewish life are still there, but they vanish day by day. It’s only a matter of time until they are gone forever,” he says. His articles and photographs are both a commemoration and an act of justice towards the men, women and children who died as innocent victims in the Holocaust, and an act of justice to those who survived as well.
Christian’s photographs are beautiful and his commentaries on his travels tell a repeated and all-too- depressing tale of crumbling synagogues that were later used as museums, offices or factories during the Soviet era, fragments of tombstones incorporated into buildings or unearthed during construction works, and long-forgotten Jewish cemeteries that are now parks or wastelands.
Another project is taking place in Ukraine, where Vitali Buryak, a software engineer from Kiev, has taken on the immense task of attempting to catalogue hundreds of shtetls. He began by creating lists of every settlement with a historical Jewish population of more than 1,000 for each gubernia (province) in central and eastern Ukraine. “My plan is very simple – to write at least a small article for each place on my list,” he says. His articles include old photographs and maps, archival documents, historical references and information about local families as well as numerous photographs of his own.
Vitali only recently learnt of his own Jewish roots, and decided to offer his services as a tour guide for Jewish visitors from abroad. One of his early tours brought him to the town of Priluki. “Priluki is the place where I was born, and my grandma is still living there. I contacted the head of the local Jewish community and he showed me places that I didn’t know about before! In my city, where I was born! My grandma didn’t show me the synagogues, she didn’t show me Jewish cemetery, she didn’t show me the Holocaust killing sites, or the sites of the ghetto. I’ve walked on this street, I’ve seen this building before. But I didn’t know it was a synagogue. And it was a shock for me,” he recounts.
“I decided to make this website in dedication to the Jews of Ukraine. The purpose of it is the gathering of information and resources from the remaining Jewish communities in Ukraine, as well as the ones that have been destroyed” Vitali says.
Vitali’s website can be found here http://jewua.org/
And the Vanished World blog can be found here https://vanishedworld.blog/
Moving forward in time from my last article, which showcased a short film set in the Pale of Settlement in the mid-19th century, this one is about a full-length feature where the action takes place on the Polish/Ukrainian border during World War II. My Name is Sara is the story of a 13-year-old Polish Jew who flees from the Nazis to a small rural settlement and finds refuge – although a cold and insecure one - with a Ukrainian farming family.
The film is an American/Polish co-production directed by Steven Oritt. It was filmed on location in Podlasie, Poland, strongly evoking a sense of the nature of the area, the sweeping, rural landscapes, the forests and country towns as they would have looked in the middle of the last century. Filming locations included Tykocin, Czerlonka, Białystok and Puchły.
At her parents’ insistence, Sara and her brother escape from the ghetto in Korzec, Poland, close to the Ukrainian border, before it is liquidated in 1942. They flee in the middle of the night through miles of forest, across a river where Sara would have drowned had her brother not been there to save her. They eventually make their way to the home of a Ukrainian woman whom Sara’s parents had paid to take in and care for their two oldest children. They stay for some days, but sense that the woman is nervous, and that they should move on. Sara makes the decision to continue alone.
Walking on towards Ukraine, Sara creates a false identity and life story for herself, using the name of a Catholic friend. Luckily, she is well versed in Catholic prayers and rituals, knowledge that without doubt saves her life on several occasions. Determined above all else to guard the secret of her true identity, she finds work on a small farm owned by a Ukrainian couple, and soon discovers that they harbour secrets of their own.
The role of Sara is powerfully played by a young actress by the name of Zuzanna Surowy. There are moments of horror and sacrifice, as one would expect from a film depicting events that took place during the Holocaust, but this is not a depressing film. It is beautifully shot, to the extent that many of the scenes look almost like paintings. The film was released in the US in 2019, and in the UK, where it was oddly renamed The Occupation, in 2020.
My name is Sara is based on the true story of Sara Góralnik, who was born in Korzec on May 10 1930. She was the second of four children, the only girl, and the only one of her family to survive the Holocaust.
Her hometown was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939, then by the Nazis in 1941. When Sara was just 12 years old, her family received word that all Jews living in the ghetto were to be murdered. “You and your brother will run away,” her mother said, according to Sara’s testimony to the Shoah Foundation in 2012. “And, I said ‘No. If they are going to kill you, let them kill me. I’m not going.’”
Sarah’s son Mickey Shapiro, who was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany in 1947, is one of the film’s executive producers. “I was curious and I knew bits and pieces of the story, but I didn’t get all of it and I wasn’t going to push her to tell the story,” says Mickey. “My mother never talked about it. She never really verbalised what happened.”
Sara began to talk a little more as she got older, then after a visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC with her grandchildren, she began to share her story in detail. “This is a strong movie about a strong woman who survives. It needs to be seen,” Mickey says. Sara died in 2018.
In recent webinar presentations I’ve given, one topic that tends to generate a lot of interest and provokes many questions and discussions is that of Jewish conscription to the Russian army in Tsarist times. One particularly brutal and terrifying experience for our forefathers was the arrival of happers to take the family's sons away.
In 1827, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, the government ordered a quota system of compulsory conscription of Jewish males aged 12 to 25 to the army (for Christians it was 18 to 35). The quota was higher for Jews – part of the Tsar’s effort to refashion and forcibly assimilate the Jewish population.
The kahal, or local administration, run by leading members of the Jewish and Rabbinical community in each locality, was responsible for selecting the recruits. The selection process was often arbitrary and influenced by bribery, turning Jews against their communal leaders. By the 1850s, the happers had taken to kidnapping Jewish boys, sometimes as young as eight if they couldn’t lay their hands on enough older boys, in order to meet the government’s quotas. The drafting of children lasted until 1856.
Once conscripted, the young Jewish recruits were pressured to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, with the result that around one-third were baptised. Their military service lasted 25 years. As described in my book, A Forgotten Land, the happers spread fear across the Pale of Settlement, and with very good reason:
“It took only days for the Jewishness to be squeezed out of the recruits like water from a sponge. They were barred from following the kosher laws or keeping the Sabbath, or even from speaking Yiddish. Anyone who insisted on holding fast to the dietary laws – refusing to eat pork or soup made with lard – was beaten with a rod or forbidden from drinking. But however firm their Jewish resolve, there was no way the boys could avoid marching or performing drills on the Sabbath. At the end of a ten-hour march, having eaten nothing but dry bread, the young recruits would arrive exhausted at their destination and be forced to kneel until they agreed to convert to Christianity. If they continued to refuse, they had to kneel all night.”
My great-great-great grandfather had all his teeth pulled out to avoid being taken by the happers during the Crimean War of 1853-56, as the army would not accept recruits who had any kind of deformity. He never had a pair of false teeth, so the extractions altered his appearance for life. Other young men turned to self-mutilation to avoid conscription, cutting off fingers or toes, or even blinding themselves or wielding a red-hot poker to the face.
I have just watched a beautiful and fascinating short film (just 18 minutes long) directed by Jacob Stillman depicting the role of the happers and the terror they spread among Jewish communities at this time. The film, released in 2013, is called simply The Pale of Settlement. It is set in 1853 in the Carpathian Mountains on the western reaches of the Russian Empire. The opening scene shows a young boy cutting wood in the snow near the forest hut where his family lives. He watches as happers approach on horseback, rounding up recruits for the Crimean War.
Ten-year old Moishe hides in the trees as the men, accompanied by a Cossack horseman, knock at the door of the family home. Moishe’s father tells them, “Let me talk to the kahal. They know me, they would never choose my son.” One of the men replies, “The kahal sent us.”
Moishe overhears the conversation, screams and runs deeper into the forest to hide, pursued by the happers. His initial effort at taking refuge with a neighbour has the most horrific consequences. I won’t give away any more plot spoilers, I simply urge you to watch the film for yourself. It gave me a much better sense of who the happers were and just how frightening their arrival would have been. This moving film is dedicated to the memory of all the child victims of the happers.
The Pale of Settlement is available to watch free on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/70219384
Many readers have told me how much they have enjoyed my book reviews in recent weeks, so here is another tome for you to keep an eye out for. Eternal Calendar is the debut novel by celebrated Ukrainian poet and essayist Vasyl Makhno and recently won the inaugural Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize, run by Canadian non-profit organisation Ukrainian Jewish Encounter and Ukrainian NGO Publishers Forum.
Unfortunately, the book, published in 2019 in Ukrainian as Вічний календар, is not yet available in translation but this no doubt will be rectified soon – although translating a work of such depth and complexity would be no easy task. The book is a panoramic narrative about the lives of Ukrainians, Poles, Jews and Armenians from the 17th century to the present day.
In an interview after the publication of this novel, Vasyl Makhno – who has lived in New York for the last two decades – said that he had wanted to write an epic work about small places and to depict the particular “dirt of life”.
According to a review in The Ukrainian Weekly, the book, on a macro level, is a family saga, while on a micro level, it contains a number of stories within the stories and dramatised narratives. The novel follows the family histories of several generations, all coming from one area in western Ukraine, or eastern Galicia, centring on the village of Yazlivets and cities of Buchach and Chortkiv, where the author grew up.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first is set during the Polish-Ottoman war of 1672-1676 and its aftermath, intertwining events in both local and world history of the time. The second part takes place during World War One, specifically the Brusilov offensive of 1916, and features the rise of Chortkiv as a centre of European Hasidism. The third part brings the story almost up to date, covering the period from the end of the Second World War to the decline of the 1970s and 1980s.
In the final chapter, the protagonist travels back to Ukraine from his home in New York, where he has lived since the 1990s, to visit the places where he grew up. He is looking for the remains of the Armenian cemetery, and finds the location with the help of an elderly resident. He learns that no one else remembers the Armenian community anymore, and there is nothing left of the cemetery.
This sounds profoundly sad and reminds me of my trip to Ukraine in 2005 to visit the locations where my family had lived, and died. My grandmother had talked of the Armenian quarter in her home shtetl of Pavolitch, but no sign of it remained, and the Armenians who had once lived there appeared to have been completely forgotten.
And in most of the villages I visited, nothing at all was left of the much larger Jewish communities that had lived there for generations. In the village of Khodarkov we met a 95-year old lady who remembered the pogrom that members of my family had fled. But none of the towns and villages we visited were still home to any of the Jewish families that had lived there before the World War Two. The small numbers of resident Jews arrived after the war. Often not even the Jewish cemetery remained – the Nazis used Jewish gravestones for road building.
“Vasyl Makhno’s novel Eternal Calendar still encompasses me. The novel is great and majestic, like both the whole planet and the separate Tower of Babel, in which people who have lost a common language try to understand each other with their eyes and deeds,” says internationally best-selling writer Andrey Kurkov, who headed the prize’s international jury.
Incidentally, if you’re not familiar with Andrey Kurkov’s own writing, I can wholeheartedly recommend Death and the Penguin, widely available in English and one of my all-time top ten novels. Although set in Ukraine, it doesn’t contain a Jewish element so has no place in my blog, but I urge you to read it anyway.
The other shortlisted books for the 2020 Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize were My Grandfather Was the Best Dancer of Them All by Kateryna Babkina; Teacher of German by Iryna Vlasenko; A Story Worth a Whole Apple Orchard by Maksym Dupeshko; and Babyn Yar: In Voices by Marianna Kiyanovska.
If you have read any of the books that have featured in my blog this year, please do post your comments and let me know what you thought of them.
Having written recently about The Slaughterman’s Daughter, a unique novel set in the shtetls of Imperial Russia, I set out to find more stories of Russian Jewish life before the Bolshevik Revolution. Happily, an article in Russia Beyond came to my aid, listing five important novels about that lost era. An abridged version follows.
Russian literature has benefited from the creative minds of the country’s many different national groups. It was enriched by Jewish authors, some writing in Russian, others in Yiddish.
“Many believe that the language determines the national literature, and in most cases that’s true,” says Moscow-born Jewish author Semyon Reznik, now a US citizen who still writes in Russian. “Pasternak was a Jew, but he considered himself a Russian writer. The same for Mandelstam and many others.”
At the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire acquired most of the world’s Jewish population with the annexation of Polish lands. While the Jews simultaneously prospered and faced persecution in 19th century Russia, few were active as Russian language writers. Prominent Tsarist-era Jewish authors, such as Sholem Aleichem, usually wrote in their native Yiddish. Later, in the Soviet period, Jewish writers almost exclusively wrote in Russian.
Russian-Jewish literature’s founder is Lev Nevakhovich (1778-1831), who in 1803 wrote a book, in Russian, titled The Cry of the Daughter of the Jews, which was intended as a defence of the Jews. Nevakhovich is considered one of the first Jewish writers to master the Russian language. A Jewish patriot, he wanted to show the Tsar that the Jews were upstanding and reliable citizens. The Cry of the Daughter of the Jews («Вопль дщери иудейской») was a sort of appeal to the Russian people, calling them to show tolerance and brotherly love toward Jews.
Nevakhovich wrote: “For centuries, the Jews have been accused by the peoples of the earth… accused of witchcraft, of irreligion, of superstition... All their actions were interpreted to their disadvantage and whenever they were discovered to be innocent, their accusers raised against them new accusations... I swear that the Jew who preserves his religion undefiled can be neither a bad man nor a bad citizen.”
The next books on the list is The Fixer by Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), published in English in the US in 1966. A fictional account of a Jewish man in Imperial Russia, it depicts how Jews lived in a highly anti-Semitic society. The book’s inspiration is the true-life story of Menahem Mendel Beilis, unjustly accused and jailed in what became known as the infamous Beilis trial of 1913.
Beilis, from Kiev, was accused in 1911 of murdering a Christian boy to use his blood in making Passover matzah. He was jailed for over two years awaiting trial, but resisted pressure to admit that he and other Jews were guilty. In 1913, an all-Christian jury acquitted Beilis.
Later, Beilis’ son David complained that Malamud plagiarised from his father’s memoir, a bold accusation considering that The Fixer had won a Pulitzer Prize for best novel, and that he had besmirched his father’s memory. Malamud’s main character, Yakov Bok, is “an angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, friendless, childless blasphemer”. The son countered that his father was “a dignified, respectful, well-liked, fairly religious family man with a faithful wife”. (Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis; editors Jay Beilis, Jeremy Garber and Mark Stein, 2011). While Malamud denied the accusations, historian Albert Lindemann lamented: “By the late twentieth century, memory of the Beilis case came to be inextricably fused (and confused) with... The Fixer.”
The only book on this list familiar to me is Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916). The most popular of all Yiddish writers, Aleichem was born in a Jewish village near Pereyaslav, Ukraine. He wrote with humour and warmth about the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the Russian Empire and is sometimes considered a ‘Jewish Mark Twain’. Tevye and His Daughters is set in Imperial Russia in the late 19th century, but it’s better known today as the American musical Fiddler on the Roof, and the cinema version gave the world such famous songs as ‘If I were a Rich Man’ and ‘Sunrise, Sunset’.
Tevye the dairyman is one of the most vivid characters in the Jewish literary tradition. In the novel, he’s baffled that God gave him seven daughters, but no sons. Tevye loves them all dearly, and the daughters love him back, but as they grow up in a rapidly changing world, the family is confronted by various generational dilemmas that are familiar even today. Anti-Semitism and pogroms eventually lead to a final dissolution of their world. Tevye, along with some of his family and neighbours, emigrates to the US, as did Aleichem himself, who is buried in New York.
The next book on the list is The Road Slips Away into the Distance by Aleksandra Brushtein (1884-1968), written in the Soviet Union in 1956, in Russian and later translated into Hebrew. This autobiographical trilogy set in Vilnius during the Russian Empire is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world. It is considered an adventurous coming-of-age story, as well as a historical and social tale.
“With biting humour, abundant self-irony and a deep appreciation of her past, Brushtein tells the story of her childhood and adolescence in Vilna at the turn of the 20th century,” wrote one reviewer in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in October 2019.
The story’s main hero, Sasha Yanovskaya, confronts the quota system limiting Jewish enrolment to educational institutions, but nevertheless, finds a way to get admitted to a prestigious school for girls. She encounters dozens of fascinating characters, including the family’s servant, Yozefa, a pious Polish woman, as well as Hannah, an elderly Jewish pretzel vendor. As a teenager in the second book, Sasha witnesses the anti-Semitic trial of Jewish peasants falsely accused of making human sacrifices.
“It is hard to overstate just how much Aleksandra Brushtein’s autobiographical novel about Aleksandra (Sasha) Yanovskaya, a young Jewish girl growing up in Vilna at the turn of the century, was beloved by generations of Soviet children,” according to critic Yelena Furman. “In the Soviet Union, where it ran through many editions of tens of thousands of copies each, the trilogy achieved cult status.”
Chaim-and-Maria by Semyon Reznik (born 1938) is the final book on the list. Written in Russian in the 1970s and published in English this year, it is based on an anti-Jewish pogrom in the Russia Empire in the 1820s. The novel is full of wit and sarcasm, and even its title is a play of the name of the flower Ivan-da-Maria (Иван-да-Марья), which symbolises Love.
During the Soviet era, Reznik was better known as the author of several books on scientists, including the “ideologically harmful” biography of Soviet biologists, such as Nikolay Vavilov, who was murdered under the rule of Joseph Stalin. He emigrated to the US in 1982.
Like The Fixer, the novel has a blood libel trial as its subject. The Velizh case was one of the largest of nearly 200 blood libel cases against Jews in 19th century Europe. In April 1823, three-year-old Fedor, a Russian boy, was found murdered in a field outside Velizh, a small city in Vitebsk Province. More than 40 Jews were wrongly accused of the murder and arrested. Many died in prison; others survived, but their lives were destroyed.
“The prejudices and persecution of the Jews in Russia was not so much a Jewish problem, but rather a Russian problem. It damaged the Russian spirit, culture and statehood,” said Reznik. “It’s too trivial to demonstrate that the Jews are suffering when they are persecuted. But what about the persecutors? That is why I tried to represent all layers of Russian society, from top to bottom.”
The full article can be found here https://www.rbth.com/arts/332714-jewish-authors-imperial-russia
One of the most original and unusual books I’ve read in a long time is The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits, a recent release, translated from the Hebrew, from the always impressive MacLehose Press – a UK publisher that specialises in works in translation. Set in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia at the end of the 1800s, it tells the story of Fanny Keismann, the eponymous daughter of a kosher butcher, who goes in search of her brother-in-law, Zvi-Meir, after he abandons her sister and their two children.
Fanny’s journey to Minsk – now the capital of Belarus and recently in the news for mass protests against its tinpot dictator Alexander Lukashenko who refuses to give up power – is fraught with danger. Fanny’s talent with a butcher’s knife stands her in good stead to quell her foes, but it also sets in train a fantastical series of events that spiral out of control and, unsurprisingly, get her into trouble with the law.
Like the stories of Sholem Aleichem, this book and its cast of motley characters evokes a nostalgia for the shtetls of Belarus, Ukraine and elsewhere in the region before the Russian Revolution, and a way of life that was already beginning to unravel when this novel was set. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had begun to emigrate to the west (mostly the United States) in search of an escape from discrimination, anti-Semitic violence and economic hardship from the 1880s onwards. Later, of course, during the Nazi occupation of 1941-44, the shtetls were destroyed altogether, their inhabitants murdered or, in the case of a lucky few, forced to flee eastwards in a bid for survival.
It is impossible not to feel a deep regret for the disappearance of these vibrant communities where our ancestors lived for generations, settlements that were extinguished so brutally. I for one am fascinated by stories and images of the lost Jewish world of Eastern Europe. But the shtetls were home to a way of life that was tough and unenviable, as this novel demonstrates. They were generally poor, miserable places, where, “The Jews have huddled so close to each other that they have not left themselves any space to breathe”. And where Jew and Goy often distrust one another absolutely.
For most of us with origins in the kinds of places that Iczkovits writes about, when we think of this period of history what we remember are the pogroms – the brutal anti-Semitic violence that broke out periodically in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This book, filled with black humour and deep affection, but also gritty realism, provides a wonderful illustration that there was much more to this time and place.
The author describes a way of life where, outdoors, “The market is a-bustle with the clamour of man and beast, wooden houses quaking on either side of the parched street. The cattle are on edge and the geese stretch their necks, ready to snap at anyone who might come near them. An east wind regurgitates a stench of foul breath. The townsfolk add weight to their words with gestures and gesticulations. Deals are struck: one earns, another pays, while envy and resentment thrive on the seething tension. Such is the way of the world.” Meanwhile, indoors, mothers share a bed with their multiple children and face continual curses and criticism from their in-laws in the next room, who treat them like servants.
Yaniv Iczkovits is an Israeli born of Holocaust survivors. “What I wanted to do was to bring these forgotten memories of this lost world into 21st century Israel, and to present the richness of a culture that is now gone, but is still a major part of who we were and what we are,” he says.