Art by Kather­ine Messenger

Fresh home­made sour cream, hors­es and wag­ons, nice shoes for the Sab­bath, and how the Nazis came and mur­dered almost every­one. These are some of the frag­ment­ed mem­o­ries that Esther Safran Foer heard from her moth­er about life in the shtetl of Kol­ki, locat­ed in the north­west of present-day Ukraine. The hor­rors become famil­iar with time,” Foer writes in her mem­oir, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here, but the banal details can take on an almost mag­i­cal qual­i­ty, which might account for the instinct of artists to make the shtetl into a fairy tale.”

I won­der if this instinct to weave mag­ic into retellings of shtetl life stems not from the details them­selves, which ulti­mate­ly aren’t so dif­fer­ent from the details of life in small, poor towns in south­west­ern Ohio or Andhra Pradesh or any­where: gos­sip, hunger, com­mu­nal ten­sions, reli­gious super­sti­tions. Rather, the impulse to imbue the shtetl with mag­ic may stem pre­cise­ly from the hor­rors that even­tu­al­ly befell every shtetl in existence.

In a recent essay pub­lished in The Imma­nent Frame, A Wed­ding in a Ceme­tery: Judaism, Ter­ror, and Pan­dem­ic,” Susan­nah Hes­chel describes the prac­tice of the shvartze chasene, the black wed­ding” or plague wed­ding,” in which shtetl-dwellers would seek to ward off a plague by con­duct­ing a mar­riage, often between neglect­ed and social­ly mar­gin­al­ized orphans, in the heart of a ceme­tery. About this prac­tice, she writes, its weird­ness mir­rors the hor­ror of an epi­dem­ic.” This might speak to the essence of why so much shtetl lit­er­a­ture writ­ten after the Holo­caust employs some ver­sion of enchant­ed think­ing: an atroc­i­ty of that scale can­not real­ly be processed ratio­nal­ly. (Of the books that were cen­tral to my child­hood under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust, one fea­tured a young girl who trav­els back in time to Auschwitz after open­ing the door for Eli­jah at a seder in the 1980s; anoth­er depict­ed a world in which all the Jews are mice.) Art under­stands the pow­er of cat­a­stro­phe to obscure itself with its own mag­ni­tude: look direct­ly at the sun, and your expe­ri­ence will not be one of vision; the brighter the sun, and the more direct­ly you look, the less you will see. Mag­ic allows the read­er to instead glance at one of Isaac Bashe­vis Singer’s myr­i­ad dyb­buks, or hope that a shawl might have the pow­er to save a child’s life, as in Cyn­thia Ozick’s mas­ter­ful sto­ry. Mag­ic allows the read­er to ignore, if even just for a moment, the shad­ow of the sun of mass mur­der and geno­cide-yet-to-come that is cast on every aspect of Euro­pean Jew­ish his­to­ry. Per­haps it is through art that we can tru­ly expe­ri­ence all that exist­ed before cat­a­stro­phe — the time in which cat­a­stro­phe was only one of many pos­si­ble futures.

Authors of shtetl lit­er­a­ture, of course, are not the only ones to turn to the sur­re­al when grap­pling with human atroc­i­ties of incom­pre­hen­si­ble scope and sav­agery. From Toni Mor­ri­son in Beloved to Octavia E. But­ler in Kin­dred; from Col­son White­head in The Under­ground Rail­road to Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Water Dancer, authors have often engaged with the geno­ci­dal real­i­ty of Amer­i­can slav­ery by incor­po­rat­ing the fan­tas­ti­cal or the unre­al, in a nar­row sense of the term. (Toni Mor­ri­son was notably reluc­tant to apply the term mag­ic real­ism” to her work, pre­cise­ly for the way in which it can dilute or deny the real­i­ty of this literature.)

His­to­ri­an Michael André Bern­stein writes about back­shad­ow­ing” — the prac­tice of writ­ing apoc­a­lyp­tic his­to­ry as though what hap­pened was a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Speak­ing of a Holo­caust that had yet to come to every shtetl, as I did above, is a fla­grant exam­ple of such back­shad­ow­ing. Bernstein’s empha­sis on the dan­ger of the back­shad­ow res­onates on an eth­i­cal lev­el. (If the Nazis were des­tined to come to pow­er, should we see all efforts at resis­tance as futile?) Nev­er­the­less, when I read the word shtetl” in a work of his­to­ry or mem­oir, I think about the suf­fer­ing and mur­der that is yet to come for its res­i­dents. Mag­ic in some shtetl fic­tion writ­ten after the Holo­caust can pro­vide read­ers with a way to deflect the back­shad­ow, even tem­porar­i­ly; if you are uncer­tain of the para­me­ters of the world you are enter­ing, then per­haps cat­a­stro­phe is not the only pos­si­ble out­come for every char­ac­ter you encounter.

The impulse to imbue the shtetl with mag­ic may stem pre­cise­ly from the hor­rors that even­tu­al­ly befell every shtetl in existence.

Art by Kather­ine Messenger

Ramona Ausubel’s 2012 nov­el, No One Is Here Except All of Us, takes place in Zalis­chik, a vil­lage with only one hun­dred res­i­dents. (Although it is not explic­it­ly labeled as a shtetl in the nov­el, Ausubel explains in the author’s note that it resem­bles the real Roman­ian shtetl of the same name, from which parts of her fam­i­ly hailed.) Mag­ic, at least in the sense of the not-strict­ly-real, is present in this book from its ear­li­est chap­ters. The sto­ry starts with the res­i­dents of Zalis­chik gath­er­ing for a Sab­bath ser­vice in the healer’s” liv­ing room, but the ser­vice nev­er gets under­way: instead of pray­ing, the heal­er begins by read­ing to every­one from a weeks-old news­pa­per that announces the out­break of war, and then — as a mil­i­tary air­plane pass­es over­head and the vil­lagers descend into pan­ic — moves on to read from Gen­e­sis. Lat­er the same evening, along­side slap­ping fish … curled up like ques­tion marks,” a name­less stranger wash­es up on Zalischik’s shore. She is the sole sur­vivor of a mas­sacre some­where upriv­er, and the vil­lagers won­der if she is a prophet. Her strange arrival sparks them to col­lec­tive­ly decide to start over,” to pre­tend that there is no world around them, to retell their sto­ry such that it might not end with mass mur­der. No one exists but us and God?” says the nar­ra­tor, Lena, who is then eleven years old. Every­thing is still to come?”

The first half of the book delves into the phan­tas­magor­i­cal minu­ti­ae of Zalischik’s efforts to will the real world out of being — efforts that at first seem suc­cess­ful, or suc­cess­ful enough that life can con­tin­ue to flow through Zalischik’s own cur­rents of odd­ness and unpleas­ant­ness with­out the Nazis loom­ing around every cor­ner. In this new world, for exam­ple, Lena’s aunt and uncle, unable to have chil­dren of their own, ask Lena’s par­ents for one of theirs. Lena is giv­en to them, and they pre­tend, to deeply dis­turb­ing effect, that she is a baby, who turns a year or so old­er every few weeks. Still a child, but deemed grown” after some such months, Lena is mar­ried off to a boy a few years old­er than she, Igor. They have a son, Solomon, and then anoth­er son who is nev­er named. Igor takes to sleep­ing for most of the day, feel­ing that his pur­pose was to rest for all of us.” The world out­side seems to cease its turning.

But despite these sin­gu­lar­i­ties, there is such a sense of fore­bod­ing through­out the first half of the book — As the rest of the continent’s towns and vil­lages were emp­tied out, ours grew more and more peace­ful” — that there is almost a sense of relief when the spell breaks. The stranger finds and turns on a radio, and the real world, her­ald­ed by a Win­ston Churchill speech, comes rush­ing back into the frame. The sec­ond half of the nov­el fol­lows a more famil­iar Holo­caust tra­jec­to­ry (aside from a semi-enchant­ed sub­plot in which Igor is kid­napped by fair­ly friend­ly Ital­ians and kept as a pris­on­er in an oth­er­wise emp­ty jail on an idyl­lic island, dot­ed on by the jail­er, the jailer’s moth­er, and oth­ers). Almost every­one in Zalis­chik drowns, starves, or is tor­ment­ed or mur­dered. In the end, mag­ic does not stave off geno­cide or oth­er­wise alter his­to­ry. The ver­sion of shtetl life depict­ed in the book’s first half is obscured by the hor­ror that ulti­mate­ly strikes all of the char­ac­ters in the sec­ond half.


The 2020 nov­el The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross also grap­ples with mag­ic and back­shad­ows, with real­i­ty and unre­al­i­ty and what lies between the two. But here it is not the shtetl that is tinged with mag­ic while the out­side world is afflict­ed with the grim bright­ness of the real.” Instead, it is the oppo­site. Kreskol, the shtetl at this novel’s core, is nes­tled — like Ausubel’s Zalis­chik — in a dense East­ern Euro­pean for­est. Through a series of bureau­crat­ic mis­steps and pet­ty grudges, Kreskol was lost” to the rest of Poland and, even­tu­al­ly, to the rest of the world — the Nazis did not find it, nor did the Sovi­ets after them. (If this sce­nario stretch­es the lim­its of some read­ers’ belief, those read­ers may find their skep­ti­cism reflect­ed in Gross’s char­ac­ter Pro­fes­sor Zbig­niew Berlin­sky, who appears halfway through the nov­el to cast doubt on Kreskol’s his­to­ry. His paper, read aloud at a con­fer­ence at Bar-Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty, inad­ver­tent­ly sets off a series of anti­semitism-drenched court pro­ceed­ings and media cam­paigns seek­ing to unmask” the schemers of Kreskol — who, many peo­ple begin to believe, must be car­ry­ing out an intri­cate plan to receive repa­ra­tions from the Pol­ish state.) How­ev­er, unlike the Zalis­chik vil­lagers, the res­i­dents of Kreskol haven’t inten­tion­al­ly been hid­ing; they have sim­ply been abid­ing by a cal­ci­fied tra­di­tion of not leav­ing. Most are entire­ly unaware of the Holo­caust from which they were spared, and of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry moder­ni­ty itself. And that is how we encounter this shtetl, cir­ca 2020. Kreskol’s spell is bro­ken ear­ly in the nov­el, when a mar­i­tal cri­sis leads both mem­bers of an unhap­py cou­ple to dis­ap­pear, sep­a­rate­ly, into the for­est. A mar­gin­al­ized orphan named Yankel Lewinkopf — per­haps of the type who would have been select­ed for a shvartze chasene—is sent to look for them in the near­est city, Smol­skie. What he begins to dis­cov­er on his jour­ney strikes him as utter­ly enchant­ed. See­ing a car for the first time, he exclaims, It’s being pushed along by mag­ic!” (Lat­er, when the rest of Kreskol is dis­cov­ered,” res­i­dents are con­vinced that the Pol­ish official’s off­hand com­ment about the next day’s weath­er is an indi­ca­tion that he is a sor­cer­er or wizard.)

The res­i­dents of Kreskol haven’t inten­tion­al­ly been hid­ing; they have sim­ply been abid­ing by a cal­ci­fied tra­di­tion of not leav­ing. Most are entire­ly unaware of the Holo­caust from which they were spared, and of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry moder­ni­ty itself.

There is no back­shad­ow for Yankel; he knows noth­ing of what has hap­pened in the world for the past hun­dred years. When he is insti­tu­tion­al­ized in a Pol­ish men­tal hos­pi­tal, it falls to a local pro­fes­sor, Johann Fish­bein, who speaks some Yid­dish, to tell Yankel about the Holo­caust. When the pro­fes­sor fin­ish­es his toned-down descrip­tion of that chap­ter of his­to­ry, explain­ing in gen­er­al terms that the major­i­ty of Jews not only in Smol­skie or Poland but in all of Europe were mur­dered, Yankel responds, Not to be dis­re­spect­ful, Dr. Fish­bein, but just how dumb do you think I am?” And so, when the Holo­caust final­ly does enter the book in more detail — through the sto­ry of a one-eyed Ara­ma­ic teacher named Leonid Spek­tor, who sur­vived the Nazis and found his way to Kreskol — the read­er is able to hear about it almost as if for the first time. It is recount­ed not as a sto­ry crowd­ed with back­shad­ows, a sto­ry that had to hap­pen, but rather sim­ply — and so hor­rif­i­cal­ly that it should strain belief — some­thing that did happen.

The mag­ic-adja­cent device of an alter­na­tive real­i­ty allows for the back­shad­ow to be lift­ed from the shtetl, for the char­ac­ters’ long­ings and lusts and ludi­crous­ness to be the cen­tral focus of the nov­el, with no geno­cide yet to come. In a sense, this book and oth­ers like it are not only por­traits of what could have been: they are also por­traits of what is. While the shtetl may no longer exist in phys­i­cal form, it con­tin­ues to sur­vive in the forests of the lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tions of Esther Safran Foer, Ramona Ausubel, Max Gross, and oth­er writ­ers in the twen­ty-first century.

Moriel Roth­man-Zech­er is the author of the nov­el Sad­ness Is a White Bird (Atria Books, 2018), which was a final­ist for the Day­ton Lit­er­ary Peace Prize and the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, among oth­er hon­ors. His sec­ond nov­el, which fol­lows two Yid­dish speak­ing immi­grants from a fic­tion­al shtetl to Philadel­phia of the 1930s, is forth­com­ing from Far­rar, Straus and Giroux. Moriel’s work has been pub­lished in The New York Times, the Paris Review’s Dai­ly, Zyzzy­va Mag­a­zine, and else­where, and he is the recip­i­ent of the Nation­al Book Foun­da­tion’s 5 Under 35’ Hon­or, two Mac­Dow­ell Colony Fel­low­ships for Lit­er­a­ture (2017 & 2020), and a Wal­lis Annen­berg Helix Project Fel­low­ship for Yid­dish Cul­tur­al Stud­ies (20182019). Moriel lives in Yel­low Springs, Ohio, with his family.

Moriel is the cre­ator of the fic­tion­al char­ac­ters Math­ew L. Cohn, Marky Miller, and M. Pin­sky-Appel­baum as part of the series, What We Talk About When We Talk About the Golem.