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Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews Hardcover – October 2, 1997

4.2 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Relations between Jews and Poles were troubled even before World War II began, writes Eva Hoffman in this powerful memoir of life under Nazi occupation. Dealings between the groups were no easier with the arrival of a common enemy, who exploited longstanding anti-Semitism to destroy the inhabitants of both city and shtetl, the rural Eastern European small town that stood as "the site of the Jewish soul." This extraordinary account of cultures in conflict has led to much discussion--even controversy--in Europe. Hoffman's vigorously defended view of Poland's role in the Holocaust will doubtless generate debate elsewhere.

From Kirkus Reviews

Hoffman, author of the much-admired memoir Lost in Translation (1989), here returns to her dual roots, Jewish and Polish--and her history of the intertwined fates of the two peoples shows that they can indeed be complementary, not oppositional. Hoffman's goal is larger than her distillation of history- -acute and pointed, but a bit too schematic--can fully support. But her thesis is a fascinating one: that Poland, with historically large populations of Germans, Ukrainians, Jews, and other ethnic groups, was truly a multicultural society that can serve as an object lesson in how to achieve (or not achieve) a balance between minority group identity and ``a sense of mutual belonging.'' Where she does succeed fully is in her attempt to ``complicate and historicize the picture'' of Jewish-Polish relations in order to get beyond stereotyped views of Poles as congenitally anti-Semitic and of Jews as economic exploiters. Hoffman offers a nuanced view that excuses no act of hatred or violence yet considers, for instance, the difference between peasants' superstitious belief that Jews were lucky and genuine anti-Semitism, or how the endless conquering and division of Poland increased tensions and mistrust between Poles and Jews. Hoffman traces the history of Jews in Poland back to its origins in medieval times, before fervent Polish nationalism was born and the country was a beneficent refuge for Jews. She then focuses in on one shtetl, or village, Brask, as a microcosm of the waxing and waning of relations between the two peoples. In Brask, Polish peasants and Jewish craftsmen and merchants lived side by side: Poles attended cantorial concerts, and Jewish musicians played at Polish weddings; Poles incorporated Yiddish phrases into their speech, and Jews adopted the dress of Polish gentry. And yet, Hoffman concludes, each was seen as fundamentally ``Other.'' But Hoffman is optimistic that the gulf can be--and is being- -crossed. This insightful overview points out how we can begin to understand a complex past and apply those lessons in the future. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin; 1st edition (October 2, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395822955
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395822951
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #768,975 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I give this book 5 stars. The author has rejected myths, generalizations, and prejudiced thinking to give a fascinating history of Polish Christians and Polish Jews. She is careful to give the viewpoints of both groups, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing to the present. When she quotes a source, she reminds us that this is that person's opinion, not necessarily a universal truth. She cites to references in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. She does not condemn or defend either group, and realistically argues that neither was right or wrong; some people helped each other, some people harmed each other. She gives a detailed account of the history of Poland that is not widely available in this country. The author is both Polish and Jewish, and grew up in Poland. Her ability to abjectively at her subject is convincing and admirable.
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Format: Paperback
Shtetl is an excellent work of social history, although it is also a good outline of Polish history at the political level over the 8 centuries it covers. It is well written and an easy read.
The author has a clear agenda, which is to be more balanced in her treatment of Poles than Jewish writers have usuually been and to be more balanced in her treatment of Jews than Poles have been. The book digs deeply into the sources of Polish perceptions of Jews and vice versa. It gives a deep feel for what life was like in Jewish communities in Poland. The chapter on the period between World Wars I and II is particularly good for showing the political, cultural and economic vibrancy that had come even to the rural shtetls. It must be one of the most "objective" books written about the historical relationship between Jews and Poles. A sympathetic portrait of both peoples that celebrates their virtues and describes their shortcomings as perceived by the other.
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By A Customer on September 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book filled me with hope, despair, joy, sorrow and finally, at the end, a disquieting and lingering sadness. Though not always complete in itstelling of political events, I strongly recommend this to anyone interested in learning about his Polish Jewish past. A good first look.
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Format: Paperback
Both my mother's parents came to the United States from Poland as children, sent alone on the boat with relatives' addresses in New York City pinned to their coats. Once here, they successfully assimilated, raised families, and bought homes. Family history and the effects of the holocaust erased the stories from the old country that could be handed down to future generations, including me. Ms. Hoffman's book recreates the socio-political history of Poland, and allows me to piece together various snippets of family history and attitudes and culture. I am sharing this with my family, as there were many "ah-ha's" of recognition for me in reading this work. While dry and more scholarly than I expected in some spots, this book was a gift to read. Thank you Ms. Hoffman.
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Format: Paperback
This book paints a complicated portrait of almost a thousand years of relations between Jews and Gentiles in Poland as they played out in a small town or shtetl. Without ignoring the horror of events such as the Holocaust, the author seldom describes this history as black and white; favoring shades of gray and multiple perspectives instead.

I appreciated the author's attempts at balance and her non-vindictive tone especially considering her own background. Focussing on how events played out in one particular town, grounds the account in the lives of real people and makes the subject more accessible. This is a good book for general readers but it suffers from overly academic language and a tendency to repeat itself in some places. I also thought the author's thesis about multiculturalism was underdeveloped.
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Format: Hardcover
This serious, well-researched, and ultimately frustrating book is full of information and analysis.But it is definitely not the companion text to, say, the photography of Roman Vishniac, as the title might lead one to assume. In fact, it's historiography, and the title and subtitle are a bit misleading. It's as much about Poland as about the shtetl, and is -- incomprehensibly -- lacking an index. Hoffman grew up in Poland, emigrating as a teenager, and brings a compassionate mind to the historic problems of that country. Definitely worth reading.
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The superiority of this book over many of the other books out there on Jewish history can be summed up in one word - objectivity. In fact, having read this book, Eva Hoffman will go down in my estimation as one of the most fair and impartial writers known to human kind. Just when she had convinced me of one side of an issue, she would essentially counteract it with an equally compelling argument supporting the other side.

Shtetl is essentially a history of the complex and often tangled relationship between Poles and Jewish Poles. Hoffman tells the history of a small village in Poland named Bransk which, at one time, had a demographic that was significantly influenced by its sizeable minority Jewish population. She uses the story of Bransk as a case study and places her findings about this town into a greater historical context with several chapters of in depth research on the history of Poland in relation to the Jewish question.

I suspect that, like me, many of the reviewers gave this book four, rather than five stars because of Hoffman's exacting, yet sometimes tedious history of Jewish-Polish relations. In all fairness, although Hoffman is no David McCullough (in the sense of breathing life into monotonous historical facts through superior story telling capabilities), she does masters the English language in her own style (I had a dictionary close by the entire time I was reading). Fortunately, she interrupts the history lessons with meaningful and relevant first-hand accounts from her interviews with individual Jews and Poles who lived in Bransk when the Jewish community was still intact there.

If you are looking for a book on Jewish history with strong entertainment value, you've come to the wrong place. However, if you would like to read a refreshingly objective historical account of Jewish-Polish relations, I highly recommend Hoffman's Shtetl.
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