The following is an abridged version of Moshe Kagan’s “Reminiscences” feature in the Autumn 2007 issue of ISRAEL HORIZONS:
In American- Jewish lore, the shtetl (small town) evokes much nostalgia. Whether it’s the writings of Sholom Aleichem [or] family reminiscences, … the shtetl symbolized a place of joy and delight. The reality was considerably different. …
My shtetl was Keidan, in Lithuania. Its total pre-World War II population was about 9,000 — of whom 6,000 were Jews. After the war started, many of the Jews fled eastward. When the Germans conquered Lithuania, they found 2,700 Jews in Keidan. All were slaughtered one night by the indigenous population and are now buried in a common grave not far from the old Jewish cemetery. Some of the murderers were my schoolmates in gymnasium (high school). …
Most Eastern European Jews lived in shtetls. They came in different sizes. The larger ones had their own educational system, and while most were secular, it was traditional to have a rabbi. Jews living in nearby villages saw themselves as part of the shtetl community. Usually these towns or villages were surrounded by farms owned by non-Jews who outnumbered the Jews and had very little contact with [them].
Characteristically ubiquitous in the shtetl were the poverty and the miserable living conditions of most inhabitants and the constant anti-Semitism, usually bred by clergy in the churches.
A small proportion of the Jewish population were merchants and professionals. By the standards of those days, they were middle class. Many more were working people trying to eke out a living, not too successfully. Most lived in decrepit buildings, without any sanitary facilities. …
During winter, it snowed incessantly. There was no snow removal and the accumulation turned into ice, sometimes five or six feet high. The lucky ones wore snowshoes made of felt that kept the feet warm, a luxury not everybody could afford. In the spring, the ice melted and the roads turned into rivers of mud. The trek to school was not pleasant.
Although the Orthodox maintained an old-fashioned kheder in our town, our school was a Tarbut school. This meant that it was secular, run in Hebrew with a “modern” curriculum. School consisted of four elementary grades and another four years of middle school. Anybody who wanted to pursue an academic career had a choice of trying to get into the town gymnasium (pronounced with a hard g), which had a heavy Catholic bent or, means permitting, to continue in one of the two Tarbut high schools located in the larger city, 40 miles away.
Our community was highly organized, mostly Zionist. While the synagogues were full during the holidays, they were used more as community centers than religious institutions. They also served as welfare centers for those who needed help.
Among the bright spots were the youth movements, mostly Zionist. … The dominant youth organization in my town was Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist “Young Guard” movement. We had our own moadon (club house), with a library of several thousand books in Hebrew and Yiddish.
Hashomer Hatzair was heavily infused with the scouting tradition. … During the summer there was camp, organized at a nearby farm. … The hay shed served as the place to sleep. A narrow circular trench, about a foot and a half wide, served as both table and chairs, with campers sitting on one bank with their food resting on the other. A nearby “stove” consisted of a pit with poles suspending pots over firewood.
Even as I write these lines I realize how difficult it is to convey the complexity of life in the shtetl and what drove so many to leave it. I can also understand why, in spite of all the hardships, it generated so much nostalgia.