Commentary Magazine


The Road to Naybikhov

After a while, it went away. For a day or two, though, driving the long, straight roads on which we were often the only car for miles, it kept coming back, far down the road, like a mirage or a defect in my retina: a wagon with a Jew in it.

Horse-drawn wagons are plentiful; Jews are rare. This is the paradox of the modish pursuit of Jewish roots in what were once the shtetls, the towns and villages, of the Pale of Settlement of the Russian empire. Nowhere else in Europe can one see so unchanged the physical world in which Jews lived 100 years ago. The Jews alone are gone from it.

I had been to Russia and Ukraine once before, as a correspondent, in 1995, spending a week in Moscow and a week in Kiev: long enough to glimpse from close up the utter destruction of Russian Jewry’s own roots (to glimpse, too, the devastation wreaked on Russia by 70 years of Soviet rule). I had wanted to get to the countryside, especially to the little village in White Russia—Belarus, as it now is called—in which my father lived until he was twelve; but there had not been time.

Late last spring I went.

Naybikhov, the place was called in Yiddish; Novibychov in Russian; and it had taken me a long time to get there, because already as a child I was prepared to set out. Not so much because of anything my father told me. The youngest of seven brothers and sisters, he did not like to talk about his childhood, the mere mention of which made him melancholy—a curious response, I thought, considering that the poverty he was raised in was never dire and that my aunts and uncles claimed he was the family pet. Nor, when it came to their family, did the Holocaust throw a dark shadow, practically all of their close relatives having, like them, left for America before World War I.

It was my aunts and uncles who told me most of the little I knew about Naybikhov, and although they never spoke of it nostalgically, something in me stirred to what I heard. No doubt this was a result of growing up on a fifth floor in Manhattan, from the parqueted heights of which I yearned precociously for the country. Anything smelling in my imagination of dirt, soil, rotting leaves, manure, cows, horses, toolsheds, woodpiles, the smoke of fireplaces, excited me, the son of a college professor who could not swim but had lived in a log cabin overlooking the Dnieper, with a wood-burning stove, and a yard, and a cow that was milked every day, and a vegetable garden on top of the hill that sloped steeply down to the river, and water fetched from there in buckets, and the boats heading downstream from Mogilev to Gomel, or even all the way to Kiev, and sometimes tying up to take on passengers. I loved rivers, lakes. High and dry between one summer vacation and the next, I would have traded my childhood for my father’s. I would have made better use of his than he did.

So I had dreamed of Naybikhov. But children do not travel to the lands of their dreams; and as I grew older there were other places to visit. Besides which, one could not tour freely under the Soviets. Nor was I even sure that Naybikhov still existed, having been informed by a Jew I met in Israel that it was leveled during the war. By the time it was possible to reach it unchaperoned, and I found a map establishing that it was there (some 25 miles from Bychov, on the road to Rogachov, the rogachove gas my aunts and uncles remembered), along came the meltdown at Chernobyl. Naybikhov was less than 200 kilometers to the north. Better not, I was warned.

In any case, long before then I had begun traveling to the shtetl in other ways. With no conscious connection to Naybikhov, I had drifted, at first quite inadvertently, into being a translator of Hebrew literature; and the Hebrew literature I loved most, and was (on the rare occasions when a publisher could be found for it) happiest translating, was of the early modern period—the literature produced in Eastern Europe from 1880 to 1914 by writers like Mendele Mokher Seforim, M. Z. Feierberg, Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, Yosef Hayyim Brenner, Uri Nisan Gnessin, and Hayyim Nahman Bialik. Born and raised in the Pale of Settlement, all of these men wrote extensively about its towns and villages—many of whose names I knew as well from another Hebrew genre, 19th-century collections of hasidic tales like The Praises of the Baal Shem Tov and The Life of Our Master Nahman of Bratslav.

Eventually, I began to translate from Yiddish, too: Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, Mendele once again—and once again, the shtetl was the venue. And so when I flew last May with a friend to Kiev, where we were met by a car with a driver and an interpreter and driven off into rural Ukraine and Belarus, I was not stepping into an entirely unknown world. I had lived in it, on and off, for a long time.

_____________

 

Spread out on my knees, the road map, despite its strange spellings, confirmed this: Berdi?ev, Polonoje, Braclav, Vinnica, Mežibož, Skvira, Nemirov, Satanov, Šargorod—I had been to them all. In Bojarka, alias Boiberik, I had spent four months with Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the dairyman; Zitomir was the site of Bialik’s mischievous and mournful adolescence; on a frozen winter day in Kamen-ka the Baal Shem Tov had warmed his disciples by lighting a tree with a touch of his finger; Uman was where Nahman of Bratslav went to die, and more mysteriously, to befriend heretics; in the company of the narrator of Sholem Aleichem’s Railroad Stories, I had passed through Žmerinka, Gajsin, Teplik, Tul?in, Beršad, Obodovka.

One of our first stops was Zhitomir. Bialik’s low, one-story house, looking like all the others on its block, was for sale. The owners wanted $7,000. Yes, they knew a famous Jew had lived in it. Two or three tourists had been there before us.

We were not invited inside, and I did not get to see the kitchen and bedroom that were probably all there was of it. But it would not have surprised me to hear a cricket shrilling there like the one that had moved in when Bialik was a boy,

A retiring fellow; he kept out of sight
And fretted in chinks of the gloom-
     blackened night,
A poet who had only one song to sing
And sang it, and sang it, and sang it.

It would not have surprised me because of the backyard. It was the exact same yard as the one described in Bialik’s story, “Beyond the Fence,” written in Odessa in 1909. Nothing—the rotting timbers, the collapsing sheds, the piles of junk—had been removed. No one had bothered to fix the hole in the fence through which Noyekh, the teenage son of Hanina-Lipa and Tsipa-Leah, crept for his trysts with Marinka, who lived next door with her Jew-hating stepmother Shkuripinshchtikha.

It was that way everywhere. I recognized it all: the pine forests and the birch forests, the enormous fields of pale green wheat, the vast, flat distances, the sandy dirt roads, the tin roofs of the houses, the picket fences, the chickens pecking by the roadside, the lilac bushes tall as trees, the high fur hats of the storks’ nests, the kerchiefed women on the benches. “I know that goat!” I cried as we passed through Chmelnik. It had a white beard and was reaching, its head between two pickets, for the neighbor’s cabbages. “It’s just a goat,” said my friend, who had thought the chickens were just chickens. But it wasn’t. It was Mendele’s.

On a hilltop in Medzhibozh, where the Baal Shem Tov lived and is buried, I stood looking down at the Bug River; on its far bank, in the village of Trebikhabtsi, rose a white Orthodox church. Once the Baal Shem Tov was asked by a Gentile why the Jews shake back and forth in prayer. “Do you see that man swimming?” he asked, pointing to the river. “If you didn’t know what he was doing, you would think he was just waving his arms, but unless he waved them he would drown. We pray to keep our souls from drowning.”

I knew the river, then, too.

It was the first generations of Hasidim with their peripatetic rabbis and disciples who sacralized the geography of Eastern Europe. Until then, apart from the land of Israel, Jews had their holy places—tombs and synagogues, for the most part—but not their holy regions; the road from the grave of one tsaddik to the next, the street between two houses of prayer, were an ordinary road and street. Except for historical chronicles and the titles of rabbis—Meir of Regensburg, the Maharal of Prague, etc.—places had little importance in Jewish literature. A people in exile, the Jews lived where they lived and made little of it.

Beginning in the 18th century, Hasidism changed that:

Once the Baal Shem Tov was traveling from the village of Chertri, and when he came to a forest where several Jews had been murdered he stopped for the night to banish the evil spirit of murder from the place. “I mean to sleep,” he told his disciples, “but you stay awake and say Psalms, because my Christian servant plans to kill us here.” . . . And again, before Nemirov, his servant sought to kill him and confessed. “What made you think such a thing?” asked the Baal Shem Tov. “Don’t you know I can’t be outwitted?”

The road from Chertri to Nemirov now marked a religious drama. Every Jew who knew this story felt a tremor as he passed the forest in which the Baal Shem Tov had slept—and if he did not know which exact forest it was, every woods along the way shone darkly with numinous possibility.

_____________

 

It has been claimed by searchers for Jewish continuity that the earliest modern Hebrew and Yiddish fiction grew out of the genre of the hasidic tale. This may be, although such fiction would have developed under the impact of Russian and Western culture in any event. The first Hebrew novel ever written, Joseph Perl’s whackily brilliant Revealer of Secrets (1819), was in fact an anti-hasidic tale, a wild parody of hasidic writings. But what Hasidism certainly did do for the Jews of Eastern Europe was to invest the everyday with a significance even greater than Judaism—a religion notorious for its attention to life’s minutiae—had given it until then. A Jew had always had a blessing to say for washing his hands, for whatever he ate or drank, for a rainbow or a thunderclap. He did not have one for tying his shoelaces; but who did not know the story of the hasidic disciple who never took his eyes off his rabbi because even the way the rabbi tied his shoes conveyed profound and holy mysteries?

The belief that all things are pregnant with meaning underpins modern European realism, too; and if today we know more about the daily life of the shtetl’s Jews than we do about any other Jews before them, this is not only because it is closer to us in time, or because we have photographic and other documentary evidence of it, but because it fully engaged the imagination of the literature that it engendered. When Mendele, in his early Hebrew story, “The Place of Secret Thunder,” describes with Breughelesque comedy a Sabbath afternoon in the shtetl, its old men and women sitting on their stoops, “sneezing, belching, yawning, and trumpeting their noses, or else munching on chickpeas and beans”; its children, “their faces covered with slime,” splashing “in the moldy water running out of a broken pipe”; its “nursing mother [who] bares a breast for her bawling baby and wipes the juices running from its nose while venting her aches, pains, and peeves on all her enemies,” and so on, he is doing what no Jewish writer did before him: painting a broad canvas of a community from which nothing, as it were, is left out. His reported boast that, were the shtetl to vanish, it could be reconstructed in its entirety from his books, was not entirely bravado.

There was something unique about this. Prior to post-World War II America, no other Jewish society in the Diaspora took this kind of interest in itself. It did not happen in Germany, or in England, or in Italy, or in France, let alone among Ladinospeaking Jews in Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans, or among Arabic-speaking Jews in the Middle East. And with it came a degree of self-awareness that was unprecedented, too. Unlike our perceptions of other historical Jewish communities, which are often quite different from the ways they viewed themselves, our perceptions of the shtetl, however inconsistent or contradictory, tend to be the shtetl’s own. Whether we think of it as a place of great material poverty and spiritual riches; or as a hopeless quagmire of pettiness, zealotry, squalor, and ennui; or as the scene of a mighty struggle for the Jewish soul among religion, revolution, and Zionism; or as the home of a vital secular Yiddish culture tragically nipped in the bud by Hitler and Stalin; or, on the contrary, as an exhausted form of life that had no future anyway, we are saying nothing about it that it did not say volubly about itself.

When we talk about the specialness of the East European Jewish experience, it is this, then, that we are talking about. Other Jewish communities knew extremes of poverty and piety; others experienced the conflict of tradition and modernity; others fought over the same responses to this conflict, had their Orthodox, their Zionists, and their Communists, and were at most a generation or two behind. The Jewish Baghdad of 1940 was in many ways remarkably like the Jewish Warsaw of 1900. It did not, however, have a literature. Today we can read the fiction of Israeli writers like Sami Mikha’el and Eli Amir and learn a great deal about it. Yet retrospective literature about a society, even by those who grew up in it, is not the same as the literature of a society. The Baghdad of the 1940’s is mute. It will always need our interpretation. The shtetl preempts it.

_____________

 

Before it can be rediscovered, the past must be lost. Once, most people could safely assume that the world they grew up in closely resembled their great-grandfathers’. Today we are into roots.

But there are other reasons for the increased interest of Jews in the shtetl and for the growing number of books about it—books that, happily, have joined Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s saccharine Life Is With People (1952), for years the subject’s standard and practically only text, on the library shelves.

One reason has been mentioned: the fact that, starting with the liberalization of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the 1980’s, the rural regions of western Russia and Poland have become increasingly accessible. Not that tourism there does not frequently still run to the bizarre. In Kamanetsk-Podolsk—a middle-sized Ukrainian city with a shambles of an old acropolis that, properly restored, could vie in charm with any Italian hill town—I stayed for a pittance in a three-room suite in the best hotel, with fancy carpets, mirrored walls, armoires full of old porcelain, no hot water, and no elevator to take me and my luggage to the fourth floor. But with many more Jewish travelers visiting and writing about the places from which most American Jews descend, there has developed not only an acquaintance with them, but an entire genre—the shtetlogue—complete with its stock scenes and situations. The successful or disappointed hunt for the family house and graves—the forlornly untended Jewish cemetery—the old synagogue turned into a pizzeria or discotheque—the elderly Gentile recalling Jewish neighbors—the visit to the field, ravine, or ditch in which the town’s Jews were shot—the last Jew of Dobroslavka or Podorosk: when so little is left, it cannot but repeat itself.

Concurrently, over 50 years after the Holocaust, the number of Jews who were actually raised in shtetls and remember them is dwindling rapidly; soon the last of them will be gone. This has led to a last-minute rush to record what can still be gotten down, a collective effort ranging from mammoth undertakings like Steven Spielberg’s oral-interview project at Yale to individual attempts to document the memories and knowledge of the survivors of specific communities.

Nor has the Holocaust itself, as might perhaps have been expected, gradually receded with time to the peripheries of American Jewish consciousness. Rather, it seems to become more central every year. One can only speculate why. The extremely slow wearing-off of the protective numbness of the postwar years? The still-festering wound of guilt in an American Jewish community that might have brought more pressure to bear on its leaders to try mitigating or obstructing Hitler’s genocide? A liberal identification with the earth’s oppressed that, discomfited by American Jewish affluence and Israel’s long rule over the Palestinians, has turned to the Holocaust to reclaim a Jewish place, as it were, out of the sun? The shtetl, in any case, accounted for over two-thirds of the Nazis’ Jewish victims.

Not unrelatedly, the shtetl is also much on the minds of those assertive proponents of a new Diasporism who have become steadily more vocal on the American Jewish scene. Their disillusion with both Israel and suburban synagogue Judaism has caused them to regard the shtetl—its material simplicity; its religious passion; its human solidarity and strong labor movement; its rich folklore; its humor; even (as demonstrated by the current popularity of klezmer bands and Yiddish clubs) its music and its language—as an alternative model of Jewishness. What cannot be brought back to life can, or so it is claimed, be emulated.

_____________

 

Different reasons, different books.

It was for the new Jewish seeker of roots that Chester G. Cohen published his Shtetl Finder back in 1989. A gazetteer skimpy in information, it nevertheless provides a helpful list of over 2,000 once heavily Jewish localities in Eastern Europe. Naybikhov, I noticed in planning my trip, was not on it. Dovsk, some twenty miles farther south, the village my father was born in and his family left when he was a year old, was. The Sbtetl Finder said of it:

Located east of Rogatchov. 1894—Volf Braginski was local deputy for the Eretz Israel farmers and workers support association. Birthplace of Simon Halkin, born 1899, who moved to the United States in 1914 and was a Hebrew poet and author.

This was curious because my Uncle Simon once wrote some semi-light verse about Dovsk that described it as a tiny hamlet compared to Naybikhov:

Twelve houses and a half—all this
Was yours, Dovsk, and a station, too:
A child’s isle in an endless blue
Of sky and of hushed, murmured bliss.

Dovsk, though, turned out to have developed into a sizable town, possessing, besides what looked like its original twelve-and-a-half houses along the Naybikhov road, extensive clumps of Soviet apartment blocks further on. But where was the station? “The nearest railroad runs through Gomel,” an old woman told me. But an older one knew. “It’s gone now. Yekaterina slept there.” Of course. My aunts and uncles had told me Dovsk stood at the crossroads of the Moscow-Warsaw and Odessa-Petersburg carriage ways. Catherine the Great’s horses must have been changed at the relay post.

_____________

 

So it goes with the voyager to the shtetl: equipped with a map that may contain no more than a single street, house, or landmark, the contribution of a lone photograph or memory salvaged from parents or relatives asked too late or too little, or, assembled with the help of numerous informants, a detailed grid of a place that existed 60 or 90 years ago, he matches it against a reality to which it may bear great or small resemblance. He has traveled thousands of miles to somewhere that few or no foreigners ever get to in the hope of seeing not, like the adventurous tourist, what could never have been imagined but what has always been imagined; so that, drawing near at last, he cannot help feeling, like the South-African-born English writer Dan Jacobson upon visiting his grandfather’s native Lithuanian town of Varniai in his fine family memoir Heshel’s Kingdom (1998), “a strange nervousness,” soon to be “replaced by a misgiving in nature. What threatened me now was anticlimax merely.”1

Theo Richmond, also an English Jew and the author of Konin: One Man’s Quest for a Vanished Jewish Community (1996), had similar forebodings. On the train from Warsaw to his mother’s shtetl in Poland, his “temples began throbbing insistently. The pressure had been there since breakfast, a tremulous apprehension, a fear knotting my stomach. And now, getting closer to Konin by the minute, I felt the knot tighten.” Suppose he were to discover, as Jacobson feared, “that I had come here for nothing”?

Indeed, apart from two Jewish women, one living alone and one married to a Gentile, nothing is what Jacobson found. A few hours after arriving in Varniai, he was ready to depart. “So, like the site of my grandfather’s grave,” he writes,

the whereabouts of his house and shut remain hidden from me. Should I hunt for them further? . . . To what end? I find a shrinking in myself from the prospect of hunting around the town and eventually gazing at a street of unplastered brick houses like all the others; or some little apartment block, or group of shops, or clinic, or set of school buildings.

Richmond, on the other hand, found a great deal, not only because Konin, unlike Varniai, was physically unharmed by the war, but because he had spent years interviewing its locatable survivors and meticulously plotting its geography. And yet after spending several days in it, he feels even emptier than Jacobson:

From the beginning I had known I would have to come here. Now the journey was done. Curiosity was satisfied, an ache assuaged. To say I felt regret leaving this place would be false and sentimental. I felt no emotion. Maybe it was spent. Or maybe the town was releasing me from its grip, for I knew now that it was not the place that held meaning for me but the people who once lived here. Their Konin would stay with me always, a persistent echo.

It was not the place that held meaning but the people: how many pilgrims to the shtetl must have made this ruefully enlightening discovery! A few days after my visit to Naybikhov I attended a conference of Russian Jewish intellectuals in Samara, an industrial city on the Volga. Invited to speak, I told them of my experience and asked, “How many of you have been to your family’s shtetl?” Not one of 30 people raised a hand.

At first this amazed me. Why, they could have gotten there and back in a weekend! But that was the point. Had my father grown up in Scranton or Des Moines, would I have taken a weekend to visit it? Probably not. What might I have expected to see there that I had not seen a thousand times before? Without its Jews, without its literature, their parents or grandparents’ shtetl was, for the conference’s participants, just another hick town in a landscape—as a survivor of Polish Bransk says to Eva Hoffman, author of Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (1997)—“soaked with blood.” In the final analysis, so it struck Jacobson and Richmond, too.

_____________

 

No, it is the Jewish life once lived in the shtetl that amazes—its intensity and its variety. Richmond, who laboriously constructs, piece by piece, a diorama of this life in the Konin of the 1920’s and 30’s, paints a vivid picture: Hasidim and Misnagdim; religious Jews and secular Jews; Yiddish-speaking Jews and Polish-speaking Jews; brainy Jews and tough Jews; Jews who were doctors, lawyers, teachers, tailors, porters, stonemasons, upholsterers, athletes, musicians, Bundists, Communists, Zionists of every stripe; Jews with names like Stein the Cossack, Simcha Schnorrer, Moishe Pot-of-Semolina, and the Red Rebbe; Jews who had Jewish soccer teams, Jewish ballroom dances, and Jewish theater groups performing Ibsen.

Richmond observes that Konin, in western Poland, was in some ways not a typical shtetl. One informant says of it: “We were more emancipated than many others in Poland because we were near Germany.” But no shtetl was entirely typical; every shtetl was nearer to or farther from somewhere; every shtetl was a place that had evolved in time and was changing. The Konin of 1910, had Richmond found anyone to remember it, was not the Konin of 1930. Nor would the Konin of 1950 or 1990, had the Holocaust not taken place, have been the Konin of 1939.

It is important to keep these obvious truths in mind because, in thinking and speaking about the shtetl, we sometimes treat it as a timeless essence located in an East European Everywhere. This pitfall is avoided by Richmond and Hoffman, as it is by Yaffa Eliach in her newly published There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok2 a book that follows the development of one community—the Lithuanian town of Eisiskes, some 50 miles south of Vilna, just across the Belorussian border—over nearly a millennium. A native of Eisiskes, Eliach, in her vast ambition to recreate “the vanished Jewish market town I had once called home,” has written a compendious work, the equivalent of a one-volume encyclopedia that makes massive use of archives and historical documents no less than oral sources and deals with every conceivable aspect of a shtetl’s life.

But the literature of the shtetl is something else. It is not even what we find in Luboml: The Memorial Book of a Vanished Shtetl (1997), one of a moving genre of “Yizkor books,” memorial volumes put out in Israel by survivors of individual shtetls, and the first to be translated into English. Here is a passage from Eliach’s chapter on Eisyshok’s heders or schoolrooms:

With or without the aid of their teachers, the little children who sat in the heder from dawn to dusk looked to their imaginations for help in memorizing their lessons, seeking to associate the letters of the aleph bet with all the sights and sounds of the world that was just outside their windows, yet ever far away.

And here, in a story written in 1897, is Mordecai Ze’ev Feierberg’s description of a young boy looking out one such window as evening descends in late autumn:

The mud in the streets seemed neck-high. Beneath an overcast sky, the wind whipped thin drops of rain that beat furiously against the passersby, who walked bent beneath the sufferance of their torn, ragged cloaks, which were soaked through with rain and grime . . . . I, Hofni, loved to stand at such times on a bench by the window of the heder and look out; I loved to watch the spray and the pockmarks that formed on the surface of the puddles when the rain spattered down on them; I loved to look at the doleful faces of the people as they fought their best with the flagstones and planks of wood that had been strewn about to make footpaths. . . . Mire and muck, figures in silhouette, houses like sepulchers, wet stone, bits of broken glass, snow and rain mixed together . . . all were engraved on my heart in a grim and terrible hand.

In Feierberg’s story, we are in the shtetl as we are not in Eliach’s book; there is no way her writing could convey as does his the chill, damp feel of a poor Ukrainian town pelted at dusk by a November sleet. But we are not just there; we are also in the consciousness of a boy; and it is a particular consciousness, already gloomy and fearful at a young age and taking what pleasure it can in its gloom. In a word, it is profoundly melancholic.

Hofni’s melancholy, however, is not his alone, or even just Feierberg’s. It is the dominant tone in the Hebrew and Yiddish literature of the age. This melancholy, pervasive even in works ostensibly comic or defiant, is largely ignored by today’s writers on the shtetl, who take a more sanguine view of its life than did its own writers. Their need to mourn if, or to mobilize it as a model; or to respect it as an ancestral past; or simply their unawareness of the literary evidence, has caused them to overlook the latter.

Although Eliach’s chapter on the heder, for instance, is a first-rate summation of a shtetl education, one would never guess, despite its section on “Punishment,” its mention of the heder’s onerously long hours and months of study, and its statement that “the method of teaching was monotonous and boring,” how many unforgivingly bitter accounts of such an education were written by men who felt that their childhoods were stolen or destroyed by it. In hundreds of additional stories, poems, memoirs, and essays, these same men portrayed the shtetl as an asphyxiatingly dreary and provincial place, in which the sheer struggle to keep body and soul alive ground its inhabitants brutally down. Considering that some 2.5 million of these inhabitants fled to the United States and other countries between the early 1880’s and the outbreak of World War I, we must take the literary evidence at face value.

_____________

 

We must also, of course, heed our warning against generalizing across time. It may well be that this period was a particularly bad one for the shtetl’s Jews, one in which overpopulation caused by a soaring birth rate and falling death rate that had tripled their numbers in the 19th century, and the steady growth of the official and popular anti-Semitism nourished by this demographic explosion, created an unprecedentedly grim reality.

Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, life in the shtetl changed for the better—at least once the Ukrainian massacres of 1920-21 were over. (It forms a strange lacuna in contemporary Jewish historical awareness that accounts of anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe tend to go straight from czarist pogroms to the Holocaust, skipping over the murder of 100,000 Ukrainian Jews during the Russian civil war.) To take the case of education again: by the early 1920’s, a boy in independent Poland or Lithuania, or even in Soviet Russia, could pick from a wide range of excellent secular Jewish schools that were open to girls as well. The temporary cessation of government anti-Semitism; the introduction of the radio, the cinema, and motor transport; the decline of religious observance and authority; and the growth of movements like Zionism and Bundism with their many social organizations and activities—all this made shtetl life more open, less isolated, and less oppressive, especially for young people who did not have to support a family. That is why Richmond and Hoffman, whose informants grew up in these years, can paint a credible picture of the shtetl as a not unattractive place. Born 30 years later, Feierberg’s Hofni might have felt the same way.

But there is a catch to all this that American Jews are only too familiar with. For the freer the atmosphere of the shtetl grew, and the more Jewish creativity was released, the more Russianized, Polonized, or Lithuanianized the shtetl’s residents became. Although comprehensive figures are unavailable, the statistics show that throughout Eastern Europe, the percentage of Jews speaking Yiddish as a first language or at all declined sharply in the interwar years, while the rate of intermarriage, though low by current American standards, steadily rose—two highly accurate gauges of social and cultural assimilation.

It is impossible to know exactly what would have happened to places like Konin and Eisyshok had Polish and Lithuanian Jewry not been destroyed; had they been shielded from the blight of Communism as well, they certainly would have remained more Jewish than the shtetls of the Soviet Union, which by the late 1930’s had practically no public Jewish life left. But today, after six more decades of accelerated assimilation, such life would not necessarily have been more intense or ethnically distinctive, let alone characterized by a vigorous Yiddish culture, than small-town Jewish life in contemporary America.

Moreover, not only was there mass overseas emigration from the shtetl in the years before 1914, and not only did this resume (albeit, due to new immigration restrictions, more slowly) after 1918, when it also turned to Palestine, but there was also a population drain to the large cities of Eastern Europe—places like Warsaw, Vilna, Kovno, Lodz, Lvov, Minsk, and (after the Bolshevik Revolution) Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad—where Jewish communal structures were less encompassing and assimilation greater.

Richmond’s statistics for a middle-sized town like Konin show that its Jewish population peaked at about 3,400 in 1883 and declined to some 2,700 on the eve of the Holocaust. (Some of these people, moreover, must have moved to Konin from small villages in the area that were emptying of their Jews even faster.) More dramatically, since the town itself was growing all this time, the proportion of Jews in it dropped from 52 percent to 2 3 percent. Everything we know about Jewish demography in the modern age tells us that, left to take its course, this trend would have continued.

The new Diasporists have it backward, then, when they urge us not to be misled by the finality of the Holocaust into thinking that the shtetl was historically doomed, since it was after all in its prime at the time of the German invasion. Rather, as an integral, tightly-knit world of secular Yiddishkeit, it was doomed by the very forces of modernization that created it in the first place, and that were changing and diminishing it well before the Holocaust. Only the Holocaust’s blinding glare permits the illusion that, in its absence, we would see this world still intact before us. What most likely we would have seen in Jewish communities like Konin, Bransk, Eisyshok, Varniai, and Luboml had they survived to this day would be an East-European version of Scranton or Des Moines.

_____________

 

The road from Bychov ran parallel to the Dnieper, which was hidden from sight. At times it was possible to make out far away the low bluffs across the river. We passed fields and forests and an occasional car or wagon but no dwellings.

“My God, it must have been lonely here,” said my friend.

Sheep were grazing by a pylon at the entrance to Naybikhov. The village ran along the main road in two rows of painted wood houses, each with one story and two windows facing the street, a triangular attic beneath a gabled tin roof, a picket fence.

I asked Sergei, our driver, to continue to the village’s end. When we reached it we drove slowly back, looking for a bench with women on it. In front of every house in rural Ukraine and Belarus is a bench, and on it sometimes sit kerchiefed women, and it was these women we had learned to ask whatever it was we wanted to know.

We found three of them. Although they asked no questions, their scrutiny was intense. Halkin? Galkin? They pronounced the name in both its Belorussian and Russian fashions. No, they had never heard it. Nor did I have any chance of finding my father’s house. The village was destroyed in heavy fighting in the war and rebuilt. The Russians were pushed across the river by the first German attack, then counterattacked, then were driven across the river again.

So the man I had met in Israel had been right. Still, Naybikhov did not look rebuilt. It looked old. Its rebuilders had rebuilt it the only way they knew, the way their fathers and grandfathers had built, trimming the wood in the same patterns, painting it the same colors. That was a comfort.

Not enough of one, of course. And yet I had been prepared for this. Given the years since my father’s family left, finding any trace of it would have been miraculous. I wandered off to look for a view of the river.

The houses on the hill behind the main street were less brightly painted. Some were plain log cabins like the one my father grew up in. The Dnieper was below. Not the huge river I had seen in Kiev, to which it came swollen by tributaries, it was nonetheless wide, flowing softly between grassy banks.

When I returned to the street, my companions were talking to a heavyset man. He had the florid face of a drinker and smelled like one, although it was not yet noon. Anatoly. Halkin? Galkin? Anatoly had an idea. There was an old man—the oldest in the village—he was ninety-four years old, this old man—and he lived in that house over there—no, that one, the red one with the blue trim. He was the person to ask. If anyone would know, it was he.

It took some banging on his blue window frames to get Mikhail Yosifovich Skobov, who was a bit hard of hearing, to come to his front gate. Once there, however, he stood plumb-line straight, hardly leaning on the cane that he held with the proud, quiet bearing of a man who has shouldered his end of life squarely. A battalion commander in the war. Shaggy eyebrows and high cheekbones like my Uncle Simon’s. Halkin? Galkin? He remembered no such family. But in 1914 he was only ten.

Well, that was that, then.

And then I remembered something myself. One of the few things my father had told me about Naybikhov was that the family had a next-door neighbor, a man named Potap. Potap was their shabbes goy, the Christian who performed tasks forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath like lighting fires and shoveling snow. He was paid in vodka, and one Sabbath, having drunk more of his pay than usual, he pointed to the large knife that hung on the wall—my father’s father was a slaughterer—and said good-naturedly, “You zhidi are fine people. Some day I’ll take that knife and cut your throats.”

That should have been quite enough, it now struck me, to make any small boy melancholic.

“Potap?” said Mikhail Yosifovich. I had omitted the throat-cutting incident from my account. “A devil of a fellow! I’ll show you where his house was.”

He took us down a lane to a green hillside overlooking the river. There was no sign it had ever been lived on, no ruins or foundations. “Here.” He halted by a circular depression in the ground. “We called this Potap’s pond. It was a pool he made.”

The river flowed below and disappeared around a bend. Although I did not know if my father’s house had been to Potap’s left or Potap’s right, the scene was just as he had described it. No, not just: the slope to the river, down which two fishermen, a father and his son, were now descending with their poles, was not at all steep. It was gentle and inviting. But that was what a child’s memory would have made of it.

Wild flowers grew in the grass. Further on was a hedge of blossoming lilacs.

So this was it. This was where we had come from.

“I’ve never seen you look so happy,” said my friend.

Actually, it seemed to me I had been crying. There was a rusty tin can on the ground. “I’d like a shovel,” I said.

Sergei brought a shovel from somebody’s yard, and I dug up a bit of gray, sandy soil, roots and all, and filled the can with it. Then I walked to the river.

_____________

 

Tow goats were tied to a pole halfway down. They circled one way and then the other as I approached. Nearer the water, in the hushed bliss, a horse cropped grass on a knoll.

By the water’s edge, pulled up on the bank, was a rowboat.

I knew that boat. It was Gnessin’s.

Uri Nisan Gnessin. Born in Gomel, a rabbi’s son. Dead at thirty-two, in 1913, of heart disease. In a novella of his, a man lies at night by the Dnieper, on the hilltop above which some young people have been sitting around a campfire. Now, as they make their way down, one of their voices reminds him of an old love’s:

It was remarkable. What, suddenly, had happened—what had happened to make his heart ache, ache so hotly as once long ago in the frozen glitter of the moon? . . . No one was left on the hilltop; but from the gulley winding down to the water through the blackness between the hills on either side of the river, a murmur of voices reached him. Subdued, it drew near until he made out, assured and daintily affected, that of a woman. . . . There: already at the side of the empty boat that stood waiting on the bank, its crossed oars aslant, she sprang into it. Its sides splashed in the smooth water, splashed and splashed again, the oars knocking in the great silence of the night. Had his soul heard it all in a dream it had dreamed long ago?

_____________


Footnotes

1 An excerpt from this book was published under the title “Lithuanian Pastoral” in COMMENTARY, October 1997.

2 Little, Brown, 960 pp., $40.00. This is the town whose pictorial representation dominates a section of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C.

_____________


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.