Ann Rabinowitz <annrab@...>
Shtetls were units of economic activity on land owned by the nobles,
magnates or the church of the country. They drew skilled artisans,
merchants, and others who were able to manage the fiscal life of the area
for the nobles, magnates or the church.
The shtetls were populated by the ethnic groups of the area who lived
alongside each other. Jews came to play a prominent role in the life of the
shtetls as they developed the commercial activity usually around a central
square. Places developed in areas such as crossroads and around taverns or
hostels, near waterways and major highways, close to borders, and later
nearby to trains and other forms of modern transportation.
At first, there was enough work for everyone in the burgeoning new shtetls,
but as time passed and people married and had numerous children and the
authorities began to limit what Jews could work at, their opportunities grew
slimmer and the Jews had to move about to different locales to find work,
even over ever-changing country borders.
Shtetls changed over time >from being tiny places to getting larger and
others went >from being prominent to becoming small due to natural disasters,
war, and pestilence. Others matured into administrative centers and drew
their economic strength >from this. The shtetls usually had a church and, if
large enough, a synagogue or prayer house, a mill and a tavern or two.
There was much commerical competition between the Jews and the native ethnic
groups of the shtetls, some of which overflowed into the anti-semitism which
flourished after WWI in places such as Lithuania. This was partly due to
the economic advantage the Lithuanians gained during the War when the Jews
were sent into Russia. When the Jews returned after the War, the
Lithuanians did not wish to relinguish this advantage and restrictive laws
went into effect to prevent this.
This interwar period saw a tremendous outflow of Jews >from Lithuania to
other places overseas where they would not be restricted as to occupation or
business enterprise. This outpouring was to save a portion of the
Lithuanian Jewish population >from the total annihilation which later befell
their relatives who remained in Lithuania during WWII.
Today, the shtetls of Lithuania are, for the most part, empty of the Jewish
influence which founded and nourished them. The businesses, the houses, the
central squares, the cemeteries, the synagogues, are there just as the Jews
left them, but they are hollow shells of places, where the names of those
who were killed are never mentioned and barely remembered by the present
The shtetl is like a lost dream, a wonderful dream, tinged with bitterness,
that contains the roots of our Jewish heritage.