Books: Harmonies from the fiddler on the roof

Before the Nazis, Poland enjoyed a lost history of tolerance. Lisa Appignanesi rediscovers it

Shtetl: the history of a small town and an extinguished world

by Eva Hoffman

Secker & Warburg, pounds 16.99

The title of this book is misleading. This is no nostalgic evocation of the Chagallesque towns of an Eastern Europe of memory - all crooked roofs, merry fiddlers and warm, pious Jewish life. Eva Hoffman's project is far more rigorous. She challenges us to put aside the blinkers of received post-Holocaust wisdom and examine the history of Polish-Jewish relations since the 11th century not under the category of anti-Semitism, but as an experiment in multiculturalism avant la lettre.

What emerges is a luminous and deeply engrossing social history. Ends have a way of determining the meanings of what came before. For years, the Holocaust has cast a long shadow over preceding relations between Jews and their host nations, or, to put it more familiarly, their Christian neighbours. And, as the site of the major killing camps, Poland has too often been confused with the Nazis who ran them. The statistics abetted this confusion. Of Poland's 3 million pre-Second World War Jews, only 300,000 survived.

Hoffman's contention is hardly that anti-Semitism never existed in Poland, nor that a proportion of Poles weren't implicated in the Holocaust, but simply that the Polish record on helping Jews was rather better than elsewhere; and that 900 years of Polish-Jewish history didn't gallop in a straight line towards genocide. Visitors to medieval Poland were startled to see how integrated Jews were in daily Polish life. The Statute of Kalisz of 1264 guaranteed full protection of life and property to new Jewish settlers. It provided the Jews with freedom to practise their religion, as well as the professions, and forbade discrimination in court. Over the years, Poland's relative hospitality to Jews was in large part responsible for turning it into a populous centre of Jewish life. By the Renaissance, a Statute of General Toleration was passed and in 1581 the Jewish Parliament of Four Lands came into being, a remarkable institution which lasted until 1764.

The Jews provided Poland's large estates with a useful class of managers and traders, as well as artisans and innkeepers. It was with the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, its occupation by Russia, Prussia and Austria, that intolerance was buoyed up either by energetic assimilationist policies or legal discrimination. But the Poles, too, suffered at the hands of the occupiers: in the work of the great poet of Polish Romanticism, Adam Mickiewicz, Jews become the trope of Poland's own suffering and longing for independence.

These bare bones hardly do justice to Hoffman's textured history. Through careful examination of the records and the Yizkor (or Jewish memory book) of one small town in Eastern Poland, Bransk, she vividly evokes daily life in the distant and near past. For the recent past, she has her guides: a Christian who has made it his life's work to record the history of these lost Jews; and a Holocaust survivor, whose wartime story is a moving narrative both of barbarism and heroic kindness. Hoffman gives us a telling analysis of two sides of that sometimes fatal equation of belonging: how it feels to live "other", and to be inhabited by a sizeable minority of "others" - aliens, and neighbours.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

    £13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

    £18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

    Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before