LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 47, No. 1 - Spring 2001
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2001 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Yaffa Eliach. There Once Was a World: A 900-year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok.
Back Bay Books: Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1999. Paperback, 822 pages; $25.00.
„During the massacre of the men on September 25,1941, and of the women and children on September 26, only Jews were murdered—not a single Russian or Lithuanian or Pole—And there were about 5,000 victims, not 3,446" (p. 7-8). Sixty years ago the shtetl (Yiddish for small town) of Eyshyshok (the Yiddish name for Polish Ejszyszki, Lithuanian Eiđiđkës) was virtually taken off the map. The majority of the town population were Jews who became victims of the Holocaust. It took Yaffa Eliach, a native of Eyshyshok, nineteen years to put it back on the map in the form of a book, first published in hardcover in 1998.
The author was a member of President Carter's Holocaust Commission, which was charged with making recommendations for a US memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Her travels took her to her native town, which—according to her—is the site of one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe. During the trip, she decided that she would create a memorial to life, not to death. "Rather than focusing on the forces of destruction as most memorials do, mine would be an attempt at reconstruction. I wanted to recreate for readers the vanished Jewish market town I had once called home" (p. 4). She also wanted to create a photographic exhibit of the people of Eishyshok. "The 1,500 photographs that line the walls of the Tower of Life in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC were the ultimate results of that decision" (p. 5).
By the time the paperback edition came out, the book had received numerous praises which now are cited at the very front of the paperback edition. Here are a few "headlines": A massive compendium...," "An endlessly fascinating work...," "Exhaustedly researched and well-written...," "Heartbreaking and gripping...," "A textured, many-hued portrait of shtetl life and history..." Hillel Halkin's quotation from Commentary sums it all up: "Eliach has written a compendious work, the equivalent of a one-volume encyclopedia that makes massive use of archives and historical documents no less than oral sources and deals with every aspect of the shtetl's life."
The book consists of six parts. In Part One—called Beginnings and Endings—the origins and history of Eishyshok (1065-1941) are described. The history of the town begins in 1065, when the legendary Lithuanian military commander Eiđys, serving under the Samogitian duke Erdvilas, helped recapture some of the territories that had been seized by the Russians. Some of the tombstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Eishyshok are almost as old as the military post founded by Eiđys.
The author notes that a part of Eishyshok's original vitality may be attributed to the tolerance with which the Lithuanians treated the Jews. 'The Lithuanians prided themselves on being the last pagan people in Europe, which was one of the factors in their tradition of religious tolerance—a tradition that made the Jews feel relatively secure at a time when blood libels, expulsions, and worse were the lot of the Jews in much of the rest of Europe. In fact, the Jews seem to have been not just tolerated but welcomed..." (p. 22). The tradition of tolerance for the Jews continued as long as Lithuania remained pagan.
The author feels that the nineteenth century was a golden age for Eishyshok. World War I was the principal catalyst in this town's transition to modern life. Most of the war years (1915-18) were spent under German rule. The Germans provided a relatively benevolent occupying force. They helped the victims of hunger and typhus, and improved many physical aspects of the town. A cultural renaissance blossomed even in the midst of war. "German support for the arts, in the form of money, patronage, and even participation, helped contribute to the new explosion of interest in musical events, theater performances, secular libraries, co-ed education, and so forth" (p. 57). By 1921, Eishyshok was under Polish rule. "The years of Polish rule were marked by anti-Semitism in both government policy and public sentiment, with Jews being expelled from one area after another of economic and professional endeavor" (p. 57-58). Following the outbreak of World War II, Lithuanian and Soviet rule alternated until the Nazi occupation in June, 1941.
Part Two: The Shufhoyf. The synagogue and the house of study were the soul of shtetl life, the very essence of its existence. In this part, we find a detailed description of the synagogue, the rabbis and other members of the clergy, the Heder education and Yeshivah, the bathhouse, mutual aid societies, and cemeteries.
Part Three deals with the Shtetl Economy. There are sections on agriculture, commerce, handicrafts, transportation and market days.
Part Four pertains to Family and Community Life. Here we find vivid descriptions of the household, rites of passage, holidays and medical care. There is also a section on dealing with deviations from the norm: divorce, out-of-wedlock births, the mentally ill, transients, and apostates (converts from Judaism).
Part Five depicts Modern Times. Here are presentations on Haskalah—the Jewish equivalent of Enlightenment—Zionism, cultural life, and emigration to the United States. The European Enlightenment emphasized the universality of man and the rule of reason. "Initially this movement met with fierce resistance from many, if not most, sectors of Jewish shtetl society, both because of its anti-traditionalism and because many of its proponents, especially in Western Europe, believed in integrating the Jews into the surrounding society, even to the point of assimilation" (p. 451).
The chapter on Zionism is most informative. In the nineteenth century Maskilim began promoting a new nationalistic ideology, one that called for the fostering of the Hebrew language and loyalty to the Jewish nation. The Hebrew-language newspaper, Ha-Shahar (The Dawn) was its voice. The newspaper existed for sixteen years (1868-84). Earlier there was a Russian-language paper Rasvet (The Dawn), published from 1879 to 1883, that articulated Hibbat Zion's (Love of Zion) platform of emigration to Eretz Israel. It is interesting to note that, around the same time, a group of Lithuanian students at Moscow University started a small periodical, called Auđra (The Dawn). Later (1882-86) Auđra was published as a newspaper that is believed to have been responsible for the awakening of Lithuanian ethnic pride and identity.
Part Six, called The Bitter End, covers the time period of 1933-41. This section starts with references to increased anti-Semitism following the death of Marshall }ozef Pilsudská, President of Poland, in May 1935. At that time, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland. "Polish anti-Semitism was greatly reinforced by the momentum of the Nazis in Germany" (p. 562). However, older Jews were annoyed "with what they regarded as the alarmism of their sons and daughters" (p. 563). On September 1,1939, Germany invaded Poland. On September 17, Russian tanks and armored trucks entered Eishyshok. The Russian invasion had been agreed to in the secret non-aggression pact signed by Russia and Germany on August 23. 'The day the shtetl Communists had been waiting for had finally arrived... The Hebrew school was abolished and a Yiddish school for children of the proletariat was opened; the speaking of Hebrew was forbidden; and the young people were pressed to join Communist rather than Zionist organizations" (p. 565-66).
At the end of October 1939, Poland returned Vilnius and the surrounding region to Lithuania. "As the Russians retreated, most of the shtetl population breathed a sigh of relief" (p. 566). However, Lithuania was clearly in the Russian sphere of influence. "Lithuanian rule in Eishyshok was ushered in by a ceremony on the market square, during which the entire shtetl swore allegiance to the Lithuanian flag and the Lithuanian president, Antanas Smetona. So began eight months of Lithuanian government—a time when all the shtetl's strengths were tested and proved, the finest hour of Eishyshok's last days" (p. 567).
On June 15,1940, the Soviet army crossed the Lithuanian border. "This time around, during the second Soviet occupation, the local Jewish Communists—those who remained—had more of an opportunity to implement their Marxist ideology" (p. 571). On June 22, 1941, the Germans began a massive invasion of the USSR. The next day, the German troops were in Eishyshok. About three months later, most of the Jewish population of this town was slaughtered. The book's author points out that "...the killings took place at the hands of the Lithuanian shaulisti and the soldiers of German Strike Commando 3" (p. 591). However, about 720 Jews from Eishyshok and the vicinity managed to escape, "most of the women and children who fled did so with the help of Christian friends" (p. 595). A couple of chapters details life in hiding and in the forests. It is a sad story of blood, sweat and tears. By July 1944, the Red Army was back. The book refers to this event as "Liberation." A section on A Stalinist Realignment suggests that the liberation was short-lived. Repatriation and emigration were some of the options that became available.
The last 120 pages of the book are taken up by Notes, Glossary, and Index. The book is rich with historical photographs and maps.
The very last entry of the book is from The National Book Foundation, on the occasion of There Once Was a World receiving a Nonfiction Finalist for the 1998 National Book Award:
In an act of inspired resistance, Yaffa Eliach returns us the lived history of the shtetl of Eishyshok—nine hundred years that came to an end in just two days at the hands of Nazi death squads. A densely woven tapestry of history, memory, ethnography, and family autobiography; this chronicle celebrates, in spare and powerful prose, the triumph, human pageant, and moral sacredness of an extraordinarily rich, and now lost, civilization (p. 822).