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Book Notes: Polin (XVII), The Shtetl: Myth and Reality, Antony Polonski (ed.)

Lionel Kochan

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes Polin (XVII), The Shtetl: Myth and Reality, edited by Antony Polonsky (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford 2004). Hardback ISBN 1-874774-75-7, £29.95; paperback isbn 1-874774-76-5, 500 pp. £i9-95 This latest volume of Polin fully succeeds in maintaining the scholarly standards set by its predecessors. Within the setting of an introduction by the editor, the Polish-Jewish shtetl is the principle theme of a number of percipient analyses. The shtetl was by no means uniform or homogeneous, but by virtue of its role as the primary residential area of Polish Jews, at least since the late seventeenth century, it has acquired a unique centrality in their history. This has inevitably generated a modicum of myth, both demonizing and beautifying the reality. The contributors themselves do not underestimate the power of myth to acquire a certain reality of its own, and this is one of the most telling features of Polonsky's references to the shtetl in Yiddish literature. Basically, however, the contributors are concerned to distinguish the one from the other by way of examining, for example, the relationship between Jewish market traders and Polish peasants; the central Polish towns as the context for the rise of Hasidism; and the effect on the shtetl of Russian rule following the Polish partitions, and then the effect of postwar Soviet rule. In this frame work two of the most interesting pieces (by Rosa Lehmann and Annamaria Orla-Bukowska) discuss the extent and depth of Polish-Jewish social rela tionships in the shtetl. Each side had certain borders to maintain and others that might be transgressed; there were Jewish patrons and Polish clients. The complexity of these interchanges is vividly illuminated in these two articles. Apart from the section devoted to the shtetl, the volume covers a diverse range of topics. These include an account of a concentration camp estab lished in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto; and a fascinating selection of letters sent by Wolf Lewkowicz of Lodz to his American relatives in the interwar period. In their very artlessness these letters convey an authentic sense of the shifts and stratagems essential to survival in a hostile milieu. Also noteworthy in this general section is a searching enquiry by Brian Horowitz into the literary and political odyssey of the Russian-Jewish intel lectual and novelist Lev Levanda (1835-88) who spent much of his life in Vilna. He began as a Jewish Russifier, enthused by Alexander II's reforms of the 1860s. But in the 1870s, when it became clear that his hopes would not be fulfilled, Levanda turned to the Polish past in his search for ex amples of harmony between Jews and their environment. In the end it seems that Levanda succumbed to despair following the collapse of his political programme. 254</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes In the Review section of this volume a lengthy account by David Assaf of the life and work of the late Chone Shmeruk (1921-97) is combined with an analysis of his magisterial contribution to the study of Yiddish literature. Lionel Kochan</page></plain_text>