Tag Archives: Red Shtetl

Review of “The Red Shtetl”

In retrospect it may have been a bit wiser to choose a book slightly farther away from my heart. Note to the wise, reviewing a book written about one’s hometown by a non-local who may have had access to biased information about the said town and its inhibitants, is not a good one. I caught myself at least once outraged because the author mentioned something I patently knew to not be the truth. I ranted and raved about it to my long-suffering boyfriend. Who took it patiently like a lovely man he is and just gave me a bite of leftover pumpkin pie.

But anyway……..I AM DIGRESSING.  “The Red Shtetl” is a history of a Ukrainian shtetl and its Jews, from its early days in the late 16th century to Y2K. The town grew from a tiny merchant outpost mostly settled by Jews who were invited to the Polish territories by the magnates themselves. Here the town and its community grew and mattered, much more than I anticipated. Shargorod survived many things in its four hundred plus years: multiple Ottoman invasions (fun fact-it was known as “little Istanbul” between 1670s and 1690s), several Cossack uprisings (most detrimental being the Chmelnitski pogroms of 1648), the switchover in ownership from Poland to Russian Empire, and the advent of the USSR. To my shock, I also found Shargorod to be in the midst of both the Shabbatai Tzvi/Frank heresies (they were both false messiahs from mid 1600s) AND the  rise of Hasidism in the 1700s. Baal Shem Tov, the founding prophet of Hasidism himself, was reputed to have visited my humble little town.  Jewish life in Shargorod managed to flourish through the Civil War of 1917-1920 despite the pogroms in which many including my great aunt were murdered. It survived in the homes of the Jews even after the Great Synagogue built in 1589 was closed. It survived because Shargorod’s Jewry was spared during the war. Instead of the Einsatzgruppen killing thousands mere miles away, Shargorod survived because it was under Romanian control and the community closed in on itself to survive with the assistance of the local Ukrainian populace with whom the Jews relatively harmoniously. It is only now that Shargorod is at the end of its life as a Jewish town, mostly because we have all left in some shape or another.

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(The Great Synagogue)

I can’t say definitively that I loved the book. I found it immensely educating and written simply enough. It touched my heart to see the photos of the people I grew up knowing and to finally know some of their stories as an adult. I appreciated the care that the author took in finding as many authentic voices as possible. It taught me the history that I needed to know and made me understand where exactly my family came from. I couldn’t quite get passed my annoyance though. I guess some recent history felt too much like gossip that I knew to not be the whole truth. Overall, I would still recommend it because in the end Shargorod truly came alive in my mind as both my hometown and a typical shtetl for those seeking authenticity.

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(View of Shargorod from one of the hills.)

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As I read all these questions pop into my mind

I’ve now been in the Pale of Settlement and saw the Hasidim dance, I’ve lived through the October Revolution and its pogroms. I survived the Holocaust alongside Shargorod’s Jews that included my immediate paternal family and am now almost to the point where historical reality intersects with my own: the past joining my own life in Shargorod. I’m more than half way done through Red Shtetl and I have more questions than I anticipated and it’s hard to put them all down in words.

Are any of people described my ancestors that have faded out of the family lore? Or Is the village scholar/itinerant rebbe my paternal great grandfather who taught (term used loosely here) his own unofficial yeshiva students while his wife operated a goods store on her own and raised their children? Are the kids hidden during the Holocaust when the Germans were there before Shargorod was taken over by Romania my father and his sisters? Is my paternal great aunt a victim of Civil War pogroms in 1918-1921? The answer is yes, probably, and absolutely. The story of Shargorod is unique in a greater sense of things. It is just another Jewish shtetl but it did more than survive. It thrived when the Soviets were taking away Jewish communal rights like the synagogue and the heder. It thrived when Jews in the region were massacred and t kept its own people safe and welcomed deported families.

Reading this book has once again underlined how little I know where I come from. And yet, it is also full of possibility: of avenues to explore and stories to learn. Above is one of the many videos of Shargorod from Youtube. It combines both the historical visuals and the concrete structures of my memory.

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Red Shtetl. The survival of a Jewish town under Soviet Communism.

Red Shtetl

I began rereading Red Shtetl by Charles E Hoffman recently because I’ve been feeling nostalgic I guess. I am particularly biased when it comes to this book because it happens to be about my hometown, about the history of both the town and the Jews in it through the last half a millennium.  I’ve now lived outside my hometown for longer than I did live there but Shargorod is my childhood, it’s my family, and it’s the past of my people. What makes it special besides being my home? Perhaps, it’s the fact that a stone synagogue was built there before any other religious structure. And it still stands, almost 450 years later. Or perhaps it’s the fact that there are tzaddikim buried there. Or perhaps that Baal Shem Tov supposedly spent time there in 1700s. Or perhaps it is the fact that unlike most of the other shtetls in the region, Shargorod’s Jewry with my father and his family remained almost completely intact during Shoah while everyone else was slaughtered by the SS.

Perhaps I am just a sucker for anomalies.

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