Books: Harmonies from the fiddler on the roof

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