Shetl: The History of A Small Town and an Extinguished World

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9780099274827: Shetl: The History of A Small Town and an Extinguished World

The shtetl was a unique micro-society with its own customs, beliefs and rituals, its own social distinctions, organisation and civic structures. It was also a long and fascinating experiment in multiculturalism, cut short by the Holocaust. Before World War II, Bransk, in eastern Poland, was a shtetl whose population was equally divided between Poles and Jews. Today there are no Jews left in Bransk. In SHTETL, Eva Hoffman explores the culture and institutions of Polish Jews, and by probing the deep ambivalence that coloured relations between Poles and Jews on the eve of World War II, SHTETL throws new light on motives which influenced Christian villagers' descisions to rescue or betray their Jewish neighbours when the Nazis invaded. Hoffman brings a penetrating intelligence and compassionate eye to a history that is fraught with intensely private emotions and profound implications for humanity.

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Most of the German extermination camps were built on Polish soil, and there has been a tendency on the part of historians of the Holocaust to assume a simple model whereby traditional Polish anti-Semitism led to Polish complicity. As Eva Hoffman's parents, Polish Jews who survived, found out, it took the help of many benevolent gentiles for a Jew to survive; you only needed one betrayer to die. This account of the complex relationship between Poles and Jews and in particular of the typical small mixed town of Bransk, stresses the fact that for most of its history, Poland was the least anti-Semitic of European states; in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Jewish refugees flocked there and prospered--and if their relationship with their neighbours was distant and prickly, it was no worse than that. Jews and Poles suffered equally when Poland was partitioned by its ruthless neighbours; it took 20th- century nationalism and elements within Catholicism to institutionalise anti-Semitism in a newly independent Poland. Eva Hoffmann's Shtetl account pulls no punches, but is the book of a woman as proud of her Polish roots as of her Jewish ones; this is a useful history and a tribute to the role of memory.-- Roz Kaveney

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Hoffman, Eva
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