The Shtetl

Figure 1.--Here we see the cobbled streets and wooden houses of Kaunas in Lithuania. This was one of thousands of shtetls scattered throughout Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. The shtetl became the economic anf cultural foundation of Jewish life. The boys look to be carrying loves of bread. One boy is carrying for a baby. The photograph was apparently taken in 1918 during World War I, but probably after the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty was signed between the Germans and Bolsheviks. Lithuania at the time was behind German lines. In sharp contrast to World War II, the Germans showed no animus to Jews.

The shtetl over 800 years of Jewish life in Eastern Europe (Poland, Lithuania, and Russia) became the economic foundation of the Jewish people. Shtetls began appearing first in Poland (11th century). The "Shtetl" was a small Jewish market town. Shetle is the Yiddish diminutive of shtot or stadt, the Yiddish and German words for 'town' meaning 'little town'. The typical shtetl was a town of from 1,000 to 20,000 people. Shtetls began appearing as Jewish fleeing increasing opression in Western Europe began fleeing East. Some of the first Jews were from Germany and Bohemia. There were also Mideastern Jews as well. There were eventually thousands of shtetlekh and they served as trading centers for the surrounding rural areas. The great majority of Eastern Eurioean Jews lived in the various Shtetls which became the primary institution of Jewish cultural life. The shtetls were populated almost entirely by Jews. There were also middle-sized towns where Jews constituted an important part of the population, The Jewish communities traditionally governed themselves according to halakha. They were controlled by the privileges granted them by local rulers. Jews in the shtetl were thus not assimilated into the larger eastern European societies. We have another shtetl page that needs to be combined here.


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Created: 2:37 AM 1/5/2008
Last updated: 12:17 AM 3/16/2017