The Undying Spark

Table of Contents






By: Jacob Auerbach
Copyright @ 1992- Jacob Auerbach, Long Beach, N.Y.



When two Jews from Eastern Europe meet for the first time, the following exchange almost invariably takes place:

"Where are you from?"

"Oh, you wouldn't know--a little town, a shtetl."
              "Whereabouts, Poland ?--Galicia?--Roumania?"

"Well, its on the border between Russia and Poland; used to be Russia under the Tsars, then belonged to Poland, now  under Russia again--the Soviets."

"I am also from Russian Poland--Vilner Gubernia. You know?" 

"Sure, who doesn't know Vilna? The 'Jerusalem of Lithuania'! I myself am from Grodner Gubernia, not far from Bialystok."

"Really? I know some people from Bialystok--Mandelstein. Zalman Mandel­stein.
Maybe you know him?"

"Well, I am not from Bialystok, but from a small shtetl nearby --Bolotna, not far from Malybrod. Have you ever heard of them?"

"Bolotna? Malybrod? No, doesn't sound familiar. Maybe you know Hradovka?
That's where I come from."

"Hradovka?--No, never heard of it."

 Hundreds of little towns, some no bigger than hamlets, scattered throughout Eastern Europe, were the home of three or four million Jews prior to World War I I . An additional three million or so inhabited the large cities in the same region. The small  town was called shtetl--the Yiddish diminutive of shtot, meaning city. Though most of them were hundreds of years old, going back to the 14th century or even earlier, few can be found on regional maps, and only those located on important crossroads, railway junctions or river crossings ware known beyond their immediate vicinity.  

Up to the time of my childhood, during the first decade of this century, there was little intercourse between these communities. Transportation was by horse and wagon, over wretched sandy or muddy roads; railroads and paved highways connected only the large cities; telephones were nonexistent; and mail was delivered at most once a week. The general poverty precluded travel except for urgent reasons, such as im­portant business deals; undergoing an operation in the nearest city which had compe­tent doctors or a hospital; meeting a prospective bride or groom and their parents; and similar weighty matters. Such a trip, when undertaken, was planned for weeks in ad­vance, the whole town knew about it, and the traveler was encumbered with commissions, letters and messages to be executed and delivered to relatives and friends at the destination. Conversely, on the rare occasion that a stranger appeared in town, he found himself besieged with inquiries about people in his own town who were known to local residents, and he too was given letters and messages to be delivered upon his return home. These tasks were accepted as a matter of course, and were usually executed faithfully--first, because it was a mitzva, a good deed; and second because one never knew when he himself might need such a favor. In the main, the town's residents never ventured beyond its precincts, and spent their lives there from birth to death, just as their parents and grandparents had done before them. Their dwellings might have been crowded, but there was no shortage of room at the cemetery just outside of town.

Though largely isolated from one another, these small communities were never the less alike in their general setup, since they had all developed according to the same pattern, dictated by restrictions imposed by the governments under which they lived. But in the course of time each area evolved its own unique attributes--in dress, social customs, dialect, and even religious practice. Mile all East European Jews spoke Yiddish, an admixture of words from the prevalent local languages enriched and diver­sified the Yiddish of each region, in addition to a liberal sprinkling of Hebrew words and phrases, often badly garbled in the process.

The economy of the shtetl was based on the peasantry of the neighboring villages. Constrained by government fiat to live in the congested small towns, forbidden to own land outside of their boundaries, barred from service in the extensive bureaucracy and from most of the professions, Jews were perforce reduced to earn a living by commerce or manual trades. They became the middlemen who bought the peasants' surplus pro­ducts for resale to the cities, and the purveyors of goods and services that the peasants needed. Except for the few prosperous individuals who operated taverns, small indus­tries or wholesale businesses, most Jews eked out a living as storekeepers, shoemakers, tailors or other such manual artisans.

Throughout the centuries, despite discrimination, persecution and occasional pogroms, these Jewish communities stubbornly held on to the faith of their fathers, passing on the old customs and traditions from generation to generation. Study of the Hebrew Scriptures was a must for every boy, and learning was held in the highest re­spect. There was hardly any illiteracy among Jew;, most of whom knew at least one other language--that of the people among whom they lived. But secular education was held to a minimum by government limitation of the number of Jewish children who could be admitted to official schools, and to some extent also by the attitude of ultra-orthodox Jews who feared, not unreasonably, that young people might be led astray from the righteous path and learn the ways of the Goyim. And why drink from strange wells when all wisdom can be found in the Talmud?

However, toward the last quarter of the nineteenth century fresh winds began to penetrate the shtetl. A number of thinkers among the more emancipated West European, primarily German, Jews started a movement to draw their coreligionists into the mainstream of modern life, to eradicate the lingering ghetto mentality, to lift them out of the morass into which they had been pushed by ages of discrimination and persecution. Secular education was seen as the imperative first step toward this end. As this movement, known as Haskala--Enlightenment--gradually spread to the then Russian provinces of Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine, a number of private Jewish schools, endowed by wealthy Jews and supported by public contributions, were established in the larger cities. These schools were patterned after the government Gymnasiums, and produced a new generation with a basic grounding in social and natural sciences, eager to learn more about the wide world beyond the horizon. The spirit of Haskala engendered a new Yiddish literature and a rich culture, unique in its amalgam of old folklore and modern thought.

These new trends brought about a restlessness among the youth, a thirst for education, an urge to break out of the confines of the shtetl. Emigration to the newly discovered by them Western World, especially America, with its freedom and promise o f a better life, seemed to be the best way out. The rash of pogroms which erupted in the 1880s provided an additional impetus, and the great migration to America began, to continue in ever increasing volume until it was interrupted in 1914 by the First World War. Large-scale emigration resumed after the war's end, but was greatly curtailed by the First Quota Act of 1921, and then abruptly brought to a trickle by the severely restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which practically shut the "Golden Door" pre­sided over by the "Mother of Exiles" the Statue of Liberty.

Despite the loss of population through emigration and the ravages of the First World War the shtetl continued to exist and even thrive during the next twenty years, now under Polish suzerainty. Then, in September 1939, came the German onslaught and occupation of Poland. The Nazi's proclaimed "Solution of the Jewish Question" began to be implemented at once. Within three years the total Jewish population, men, women and children, after degradation and torture, was exterminated. The local gentiles, some of whom participated in the atrocities, were at first stunned by the massacres, but after the initial shock wore off they gradually appropriated the Jewish houses, stores, and whatever other property, accumulated by generations of toil, was left behind. The shtetl was wiped off the face of the earth. It exists only in memory.

| Shereshov Page | Next |