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Lakhva in 1926 (then Łachwa, Poland), ulica Lubaczyńska (Lubaczynska Street)

Shtetls (Yiddish: שטעטל‎, shtetl (singular), שטעטלעך, shtetlekh (plural))[1] were small towns with large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Shtetls were mainly found in the areas which constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Galicia and Romania. In Yiddish, a larger city, like Lwów (Lviv) or Czernowice (Chernivtsi), was called a shtot (Yiddish: שטאָט‎, German: Stadt); a village was called a dorf (דאָרף‎).[2]


  • Overview 1
  • History 2
  • Shtetl culture 3
  • Artistic depictions of shtetl 4
    • Literary references 4.1
    • Shtetl in painting 4.2
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Map showing percentage of Jews in the Pale of Settlement and Congress Poland, c. 1905

The concept of shtetl culture describes the traditional way of life of Eastern European Jews. Shtetls are portrayed as pious communities following Orthodox Judaism, socially stable and unchanging despite outside influence or attacks. The Holocaust resulted in the disappearance of shtetls, through both extermination under Nazi occupation and exodus to the United States and Palestine — as well as to the main cities of Russia, open to Jewish habitation since the fall of the Russian Empire. The primary cause for disappearance of shtetls was destruction by the Nazis during WWII. It was not uncommon for the entire population of a village to be rounded up and murdered in a nearby forest. Sometimes shtetl inhabitants were forced to dig a pit which was to serve as their own grave. Sometimes a few escaped and joined partisans. Some survivors did eventually emigrate to Israel and the U.S., where some of the traditions were carried on, but shtetls as a phenomenon of Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe were eradicated by the Nazis.


The history of the oldest Eastern European shtetls began about the year 1200 and saw long periods of relative tolerance and prosperity as well as times of extreme poverty, hardships, including pogroms in the 19th century Russian Empire.

The attitudes and thought habits characteristic of the learning tradition are as evident in the street and market place as the yeshiva. The popular picture of the Jew in Eastern Europe, held by Jew and Gentile alike, is true to the Talmudic tradition. The picture includes the tendency to examine, analyze and re-analyze, to seek meanings behind meanings and for implications and secondary consequences. It includes also a dependence on deductive logic as a basis for practical conclusions and actions. In life, as in the Torah, it is assumed that everything has deeper and secondary meanings, which must be probed. All subjects have implications and ramifications. Moreover, the person who makes a statement must have a reason, and this too must be probed. Often a comment will evoke an answer to the assumed reason behind it or to the meaning believed to lie beneath it, or to the remote consequences to which it leads. The process that produces such a response—often with lightning speed—is a modest reproduction of the pilpul process.[3]

The May Laws introduced by Tsar Alexander III of Russia in 1882 banned Jews from rural areas and towns of fewer than ten thousand people. In the 20th century revolutions, civil wars, industrialization and the Holocaust destroyed traditional shtetl existence.

However, Hasidic Jews have founded new communities in the United States, such as Kiryas Joel and New Square.

Shtetl culture

Old Jewish cemetery in the shtetl of Medzhybizh, Ukraine

Not only did the Jews of the shtetl speak a unique language (Yiddish), but they also had a unique rhetorical style, rooted in traditions of Talmudic learning:

In keeping with his own conception of contradictory reality, the man of the shtetl is noted both for volubility and for laconic, allusive speech. Both pictures are true, and both are characteristic of the yeshiva as well as the market places. When the scholar converses with his intellectual peers, incomplete sentences, a hint, a gesture, may replace a whole paragraph. The listener is expected to understand the full meaning on the basis of a word or even a sound... Such a conversation, prolonged and animated, may be as incomprehensible to the uninitiated as if the excited discussants were talking in tongues. The same verbal economy may be found in domestic or business circles.[3]

The shtetl operates on a communal spirit where giving to the needy is not only admired, but expected and essential:

The problems of those who need help are accepted as a responsibility both of the community and of the individual. They will be met either by the community acting as a group, or by the community acting through an individual who identifies the collective responsibility as his own... The rewards for benefaction are manifold and are to be reaped both in this life and in the life to come. On earth, the prestige value of good deeds is second only to that of learning. It is chiefly through the benefactions it makes possible that money can "buy" status and esteem.[3]

This approach to good deeds finds its roots in Jewish religious views, summarized in Pirkei Avot by Shimon Hatzaddik's "three pillars":

On three things the world stands. On Torah, On service [of God], And on acts of human kindness.[4]

Tzedaka (charity) is a key element of Jewish culture, both secular and religious, to this day. It exists not only as a material tradition (e.g. tzedaka boxes), but also immaterially, as an ethos of compassion and activism for those in need.

Material things were neither disdained nor extremely praised in the shtetl. Learning and education were the ultimate measures of worth in the eyes of the community, while money was secondary to status. Menial labor was generally looked down upon as prost, or prole. Even the poorer classes in the shtetl tended to work in jobs that required the use of skills, such as shoe-making or tailoring of clothes. The shtetl had a consistent work ethic which valued hard work and frowned upon laziness. Studying, of course, was considered the most valuable and hardest work of all. Learned yeshiva men who did not provide bread and relied on their wives for money were not frowned upon but praised as ideal Jews.

There is a belief found in historical and literary writings that the shtetl disintegrated before it was destroyed during World War II; however, this alleged cultural break-up is never clearly defined.[5]

Artistic depictions of shtetl

Literary references

The Shtetl was "invented twice, once in the eighteenth century by administrative decree, which gave it corporeal being, and again the twentieth century, to serve as a consolation to American Jews."[6] Chełm figures prominently in the Jewish humor as the legendary town of fools. Kasrilevke, the setting of many of Sholem Aleichem's stories, and Anatevka, the setting of the musical Fiddler on the Roof (based on other stories of Sholem Aleichem) are other notable fictional shtetls.

Devorah Baron emigrated to Palestine in 1910 after a pogrom destroyed her shtetl near Minsk. But she continued writing about shtetl life long after she had settled in Palestine.

Many of Joseph Roth's books are based on shtetls on the Eastern fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and most notably on his hometown Brody.

The 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer, tells a fictional story set in the Ukrainian shtetl Trachimbrod (Trochenbrod).

The 1992 children's book Something from Nothing, written and illustrated by Phoebe Gilman, is an adaptation of a traditional Jewish folk tale set in a fictional shtetl.

In 1996 the Frontline programme Shtetl broadcast; it was about Polish Christian and Jewish relations.[7]

Shtetl in painting

Many Jewish artists in Eastern Europe, and Poland in particular dedicated much of their artistic careers to depictions of the shtetl. These include Marc Chagall, Chaim Goldberg, and Mane Katz. Their contribution is in making a permanent record in color of the life that is described in literature - the klezmers, the weddings, the marketplaces, and the religious aspects of the culture.

See also


  1. ^ Note: Shtetl Yiddish: שטעטל‎ is a diminutive form of Yiddish shtot שטאָט, "town", similar to the South German diminutive "Städtel/Städtle", "little town".
  2. ^ .
  3. ^ a b c Life is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog. 1962 edition.
  4. ^ Excerpt from Pirke Avot from
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ray 1984, p. 329.
  7. ^ "Reactions to Shtetl." PBS. Retrieved on 15 December 2009.

Further reading

External links

  • Boris Feldblyum Collection
  • JewishGen
    • The JewishGen Communities Database
    • The JewishGen Gazetteer (formerly: JewishGen ShtetlSeeker)
    • JewishGen KehilaLinks (formerly: ShtetLinks)
  • Galicia, Diaspora - Jewish Encyclopedia
  • Cities of Poland - Simon Wiesenthal Center Multimedia Learning Center Online
  • Virtual Shtetl
  • Jewish history of Radziłów
  • Remembering Luboml: images of a Jewish Community
  • Towns in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Life
  • Pre-1939 Kresy (now Ukraine) photo album --- Broken Link
  • Jewish Web Index - Polish Shtetls
  • The Lost Jewish Communities of Poland
  • History of the Jews in Poland
  • History of Berdychiv
  • Antopol Yizkor Book
  • The Journey to Trochenbrod and Lozisht aug 2006
  • Shtetl gallery. 80 paintings by Ilex Beller. In German and Russian languages
  • Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Virtual Shtetl
  • Jewish guide and genealogy in Poland. HISTORY OF SHTETL.
  • Shoshana Eden, paintings of her shtetl
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