The Long Life and Swift Death of Jew­ish Rechit­sa: A Com­mu­ni­ty in Belarus, 1625 – 2000

Albert Kaganovitch
  • Review
By – October 27, 2014

Thou­sands of pre­dom­i­nant­ly Jew­ish mar­ket towns, called shtetlekh in Yid­dish, once lay scat­tered across East­ern Europe. This book is a thor­ough, per­cep­tive, and lov­ing his­to­ry of one such town, Rechit­sa in south­east­ern Be­larus. It is a com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of a small town’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, from its begin­nings in the ear­ly 1600s until its decline in the final decades of Sovi­et Com­mu­nist rule and the first decades of post-Com­mu­nism, when so many Jews left the for­mer Sovi­et Union. 

This book demon­strates that the oft-heard state­ment that there is noth­ing left of such Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties after the Holo­caust is sim­ply wrong. Now acces­si­ble offi­cial archives, news­pa­per col­lec­tions, mem­oirs, immi­grant tes­ti­monies, let­ters, diaries, and many sec­ondary works were all used by this book’s author as the raw mate­r­i­al for a mon­u­men­tal com­mu­nal his­to­ry. That his­to­ry embraces the arrival of the first Jew­ish immi­grants, as well as schol­ars and rab­bis, who estab­lished a com­munity in the ear­ly sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry and then worked to build it up as they sup­port­ed their families. 

A remark­able char­ac­ter­is­tic of this book is the extent it is con­struct­ed on the vast and grow­ing library of Russ­ian-lan­guage Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal works pub­lished since the fall of the Sovi­et Union, espe­cial­ly in Israel and Rus­sia, respond­ing to the per­ceived mar­ket among Russ­ian-speak­ing Jew­ish immi­grants. Yet, odd­ly, the book is short on ref­er­ences to Yid­dish and Hebrew works, per­haps reflect­ing the author’s rel­a­tive access to those Jew­ish languages. 

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Russ­ian in Jerusalem in 2007, this book has been trans­lat­ed and sub­stan­tial­ly reworked for pub­li­ca­tion by a uni­ver­si­ty press. One regret­ful­ly notes the fail­ure to catch and cor­rect many typo­graph­ic, gram­mat­i­cal, and syn­tac­ti­cal errors, as well as errors in tran­scrip­tions from Hebrew and Yid­dish, along with some errors of fact. For exam­ple, on p. 258 there is ref­er­ence to evac­u­a­tions from Rechit­sa between June 3 and 11, 1941, in reac­tion to the Ger­man inva­sion that start­ed only on June 22, 1941. Since the author is not a native Eng­lish speak­er, it behooved the copy­ed­i­tors to per­form their job more diligently. 

Nev­er­the­less, in many ways, this is a mod­el work, point­ing to the kinds of local his­to­ry that care­ful researchers can pro­duce about many once vibrant Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. This book demon­strates that there are trea­sure troves of data wait­ing to be found, sift­ed, and woven togeth­er into many his­tor­i­cal works of indi­vid­ual and com­mu­nal life and death. 

Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, maps, notes, photographs.

Relat­ed content:

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Discussion Questions