‘The past is a foreign country’ – this proverb is obviously false. Time distance cannot be translated into a geographical distance, as it was commonly practiced by 19th-century evolutionists, who saw their encounters with cultures outside of European as a journey in time back to earlier stages of culture and the evolution of civilization. This outlook, backed by social Darwinism, legitimized European colonial policy. The theme of this essay, however, is not a history of European imperialism but the relation between experiencing geographical space (from the perspective of both individuals and national narratives) and feeling culture and history. In this context, we can talk about practicing space and even architecture, and giving them a symbolical meaning. Therefore, no matter what we think about our own rationality, our journeys etch some maps in our minds. This article is an attempt to reflect upon relations that bind Poland and Belarus; to ponder how undertaking various activities under the Virtual Shtetl project influences our perception of the role and place of Jewish heritage in the context of historical relations between Poland and Belarus. This essay is a result of a ten-day research and educational trip to Belarus which was organized as part of the project titled ‘The protection of cultural heritage and memory of Belarusian Jews’, which was carried out in May this year. Virtual Shtetl, a project of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, incorporates the two dimensions mentioned above. On the one hand, the project’s focus on Jewish heritage obviously entails a temporal dimension, where memory (understood as remembrance but also oblivion and denial) and testimony, as well as solidification and protection against disappearance are the most important categories. On the other hand, a transnational trait of ‘Virtual Shtetl’ forms a dimension of a geographical distance and, more importantly, of a cultural distance. Therefore, we have formed an international Virtual Shtetl community, as a group of portal users all over the world and as a community of Central and Eastern European countries (Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania). The countries for which the so-called settling zones, and consequently the heritage of the Jewish Diaspora, make a significant part of their national heritage. ‘Virtual Shtetl’ expressively proves that we cannot talk about two impenetrable and parallel cultural realities. The Virtual Shtetl proves that the heritage of local cultures is part of global transnational processes. Usually, the memory of a local culture is stored in another country, or sometimes even in another continent. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Iron Curtain, the identity and social memory, frozen for decades, has been starting to revive. The processes of reconstructing and defining anew the identity of former USSR countries (such as Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine), and also that of Poland, take place in the context of regaining lost experience, which is often made real through pilgrimages and the return of descendants of those who had been forced to leave their local homeland in dramatic circumstances. Local culture has to be prepared for an influx of alternative narratives or even criticism. The question is whether it can succeed and avail of this opportunity to bring productive results.

Mestechki were the crossroads of town and village/ Mastechki were borderlands of different ethnicities, religions, languages and culture/ Mestechki were centers of Jewish history and culture, main settlements on mental map of the lost Jewish world of the Eastern Europe/ Mestechki were keepers of local traditions of self-government which were based on the principles of religions tolerance and constructive multiethnicity/ Mestechki were the model of economic, social and cultural organization for a population of small urban settlements in the conditions of political and economic transformation

Ina Sorokina


Phenomenology of the shtetl

A shtetl is a state of mind. In the preface to ‘Life is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl’, an undoubtedly fundamental publication, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett stresses that the definition of a shtetl, as a material cultural phenomenon, is insufficient (‘not as a place but as a state of mind,’ she writes). She also points to the source of contemporary interest in history and culture of the town, which is something more than merely a subject of research of a detached historian, a cultural expert or an urban planner. In this article, I will take one step further, trying to explain why, in my opinion, the shtetl still continues to influence our emotions and imagination. The research trip to Belarus made me realize once again the vitality of symbolical thinking and projections which, stored in us, are released by nothing more than the phenomenon of the shtetl or what has remained of it. The shtetl/town itself, as a form of an economic and social organization, was created in a defined historical time in the so-called settling zone (Hebr./Yid. tkhum-hamoyshev) and may be characterized as an area which is every inch heterogeneous), where rural and urban cultures intertwined. Similarly various ethnic groups (with an obvious position of Jews) as well as religious and economic systems mixed. The multiple aspect of the shtetl is also illustrated by a dramatic degradation of small towns in our part of Europe: the annihilation of the Jewish community, the fading economic significance and the degradation to the rank of a village. Although we often tend to think that the heyday of the shtetl fell before World War II, the shtetl was gradually losing its significance much earlier. Therefore, our state of mind, the way we looked at Belarusian towns, was filled with melancholy. While conducting ethnographic research in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century, Szymon Anski perceived the shtetl in a similar manner. Like us, the author of ‘Dybuk’ was enthusiastic about the idea of recording and documenting Jewish culture. Of course, his research was done in completely different historical circumstances on entirely different grounds. (It was all about the role of Jewish culture/Diaspora in the context of growing national culture in Eastern Europe, which fit in with an anatomy doctrine created by Szymon Dubnow.) However, the way I see it, a heuristic value of the reference to Anski’s research boils down to the question of what is the place of contemporary shtetls’ heritage nowadays?

Molczdz, one of few brick Jewish houses located near the town center, is surrounded by uniform wooden buildings. The brick architecture, which flourished in western governments of the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was a folk variation of modernization and urbanity.

The moving and romantic image of a small town culture, which is rooted in Poland, is rather a relic of Communist times and masks the true meaning of cultural layers which developed at the intersection of urbanity and ruralism, looking for their way somewhere between modernity and tradition. For many years, the true small town culture was downgraded as an enclave of self-interest (craftsmen!) of free trade and profiteering. There is no doubt about the fact that the shtetl, as a form of economic organization, could not survive the time when a new socialist order was being built. In Belarus, cooperatives, communal cooperatives and other forms of collective labor implemented in Poland, were replaced by collectivization. Thus, if we look at the shtetl as an organism which combined various social groups (and layers), the destruction of cultural potential of the shtetl entailed, in addition to the annihilation of the Jewish community, a destruction of the culture of the farmer and the noble. Additionally, the ethnic composition of towns located in the vicinity of the contemporary Polish-Belarusian border, was modified by postwar displacement actions, so-called repatriation and emigration. Obviously, there are reasons for asking whether we can still talk about a shtetl after the end of World War II, if at all.

The shtetl as a small urban space has a real specific structure, and, more precisely, it has several structures which superimpose, just like a palimpsest. Of course, these are not autonomic structures and they do intermingle. Therefore, if we have a look at the space from the cultural point of view – as space practise – we will notice much more than only architecture. I think that, amidst the multitude of many narrative structures, the main objective of the Virtual Shtetl portal is to discover the structure of a prewar town with regard to the Jewish heritage. As an archetype, the shtetl/town is a symbol for our ‘structural nostalgia’, our longing for authentic, unmediated social relations, which have the nature of face to face meetings. Shtetl, due to its little geographic size, forms a strictly defined social space, which has its own center, outskirts and periphery and which is described by the local toponymy. It also seems that the small size of the shtetl intensifies the phenomenology of the shtetl space, which divides the space in the interweaving of the sacred and the profane.



How did the shtetl/town space change upon the Shoah and the new communist order? In postwar years, small towns in the Hrodna Voblast (which is also the case of other towns in Western Belarus) were subject to the brutal ‘naturalization’ policy, i.e. immersion in the new socialist cultural and economic system of the USSR. Their location near the border, their history, ethnic composition, which was broken upon the outbreak of World War II, and, last but not least, their connections with foreigners (‘inostraniec’) proved their ideological ‘ambiguity’ and gave reason for local dwellers to mistrust them. On this occasion, it is noteworthy to mention cultural differences which divide Eastern and Western Belarus. These differences influence inner relations among the members of Jewish communities in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic after the end of the war. When it was still possible to leave the USSR and go the West, sham marriages between Jews from eastern and western Belarus were quite common. The latter, prewar citizens of the Second Polish Republic, were allowed to leave the USSR under the repatriation law. The emptiness left by them in western Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (analogically to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), the territory which had formed part of Poland before the outbreak of World War II, was filled with the displaced from the East, above all, those who were oftentimes evacuees during the war. The problem which is still up-to-date is the lack of understanding in the newcomers’ perception of local customs, tradition and history of their new surroundings. It is also the case of the Jewish community. Paradoxically, postwar exchanges of people from the Polish People’s Republic and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic only intensified these relations, which, in turn, in the following years, made it easier to cross the border. For the locals, the border was not so much an ‘iron curtain’ but rather a strainer (a very telling term used by Jurij Andruchowycz). Therefore, if we look at the shtetl space as a heterogeneous network of meanings, the effect of social valuation of the space, we will come to understand that the postwar ‘mushrooming’ of monuments (of Lenin, Stalin, other partisan activists and mystic figures) and of ‘official’ memorial sites (in the form of monuments to the Red Army heroes, to ‘mirni grazdanie’ etc.) was related to discovering a sacred space which already existed by then. Thus, it seems explicable to talk about a ‘socialist redemption economy’, a Marxist ideology interpreted as an eschatological vision. Additionally, what is once again a paradox, Marxism-Leninism gave a spiritual and moral aspect to materialism. And so, on the one hand, a new economic model, implemented by the process of collectivization and based on class conflict, created a shapeless space where economy merged with morality. On the other hand, the new urban space was to model a ‘Soviet man’. Not surprisingly, community actors, i.e. town dwellers, were engaged in building the new postwar order. This is why the postwar period seems to be critical and, as far as researchers are concerned, it was the most interesting time. Regardless of the social and ethnic origin, town dwellers had a deeply internalized symbolic town topography, polarized into the sacred and the profane. We experienced it in Belarus in an intuitional way. If there is a monument erected under the Soviet rule, one can blindly assume that it is a former place of a synagogue (or other place of cult) or a cemetery. Therefore, is it really all about desecration? If we admit that the sthetl space included sacral sites, shared by the community and recognized even by Soviet rule, it is possible that it may be desecration. However, the question is not so obvious. Desecration as such entails a manipulation of the sacred, and its practical use, to be more precise. It means shifting the sacred to the area of profane human activities. Temples and graveyards are the places where we can most intensely experience hierophany. Still, a cemetery, by definition, combines human lives with religion. It is the site of social remembrance and transcendence. A good illustration of this are matzevot, on which, through symbols, the role of the dead in society is depicted, and, at the same time, the form of a tombstone has its religious meaning related to a given vision of redemption. The cemetery space hangs between the poles of the sacred and the profane.

Lunna, is a municipal park building at the site of the former Jewish cemetery. There are monuments to Red Army heroes in the park. Local interpretations and explanations of the origins of this park reveal a kind of ambiguity in the assessment of the behavior code of local actors after the end of World War II. The first interpretation maintains the purposefulness of such behavior as a protection of the sacredness of this place. The second one portrays this initiative as an attempt to prove the loyalty towards the new Soviet power (an author of this idea was supposedly of Jewish descent.)

Desecration is wiping away the sacredness, stripping a place of a higher transcendental sense, such as using matzevot as building material. By the same token, building a monument or other extremely symbolical (and ideological!) object does not ‘uproot’ a given site from the sacred but rather confirms its own place. Georgio Agamben suggests naming this process ‘a secularization’, pointing out that looking at the world in the categories of symbols and experiencing numinosum is not reserved only for practices which are generally known as religion. Let us take, for instance, the Soviet policy of atheization, which, according to some researchers, was rather a transfer of sacredness and religious experience to areas that were acceptable by the authorities. Experiencing holiness was defined long ago by Jacek Olędzki, who described it as a miraculous consciousness, which is by definition sensitized to all manifestations of sacredness and transcendence. I could quote here tens of examples (in narratives of my interlocutors – residents of towns and villages) of ‘divine interventions’, experienced by people who violated the sacred either by using cemetery matzevot, or by trying to tear down a synagogue, building a house in a Jewish cemetery or other desecrating practices. People were ill and died, machines broke down. What seems important here is the fact that these narratives belong to Christians. Obviously, the narratives alone and the accompanying worldview are more important than the fact of whether we really have to deal with divine punishment. Consequently, the miraculous consciousness is also connected with the local theodicy, i.e. the way of understanding the local justice and the genesis of injustice and suffering.

Can a synagogue be desecrated? Obviously yes, through a change in her function, which makes the object more ‘practical’ (I have written it in quotes since any religious function is also a practical function.) The synagogues which we have visited on our trip served or have served for the following purposes: in Indura it was a kolkhoz storehouse, in Swisłocz there was a cinema, in Izabelin – a village club, in Porozów – a warehouse, in Słonim there were a warehouse and a sports school, in Iwa –a sports school and a bar, in Oszmiany – a warehouse and a henhouse, in Nowy Dwór – a store and in Ostrina there was a cultural center.

However, we  should not necessarily perceive a synagogue as a temple in is strict sense (this term is reserved for the Temple of Jerusalem.) Therefore, the sacredness of the synagogue should not be interpreted the way  the Christians do. The question of the synagogue sacredness is worthy of a separate comprehensive essay.

Shtetl representations and reconstructions

Continuing our deliberations about experiencing the world, let us now turn to the meta level related to the world depiction. In this sense, we talk about a ‘representation’, i.e. creating images and narratives of various types, including accounts, written sources, symbols (such as a monument and memorial places), paintings and photographs. For our European culture, the notion of a representation plays a key role, also due to the fact that it is related to a religious sphere. And so, the ban on creating images (imitations), which has been preserved in Judaism, also exists (in a slightly modified version) in Orthodox Christianity. Most Christian denominations rejected this radical ban, finding justification in a dogma of a double nature of Christ and giving thereby a green light (from the Renaissance times) for the realistic and mimetic European art to flourish. Perils entailed by any image boil down to its inner diversity called from Greek eidolon and eicon. Eidolon is an autonomic representation which may be separated from the reality it depicts (religious ideol/deity, realism in terms of art.) Eicon, on the other hand, contains an image which may not exist without reality which it presents (for example, an Orthodox icon, symbolism in terms of art.) A tension between representations and the reality it portrays involves, therefore, negotiating superiority. According to the most extreme view on this issue, mimetic representation is defined as an annihilation/nonexistence of what it presents. Let us be more specific: how do we create representations of a shtetl/town? This is a fascinating question, indeed. How do we experience and present this cultural reality? Obviously, it is all about Jewish culture in two contexts. The first one is a fact that we talk about the past reality which, to simplify a bit, no longer exists. The second context is related to the Holocaust and an inability to depict (the so-called aporia of the impossibility to the present). Both contexts, once again, direct us to memory and nostalgia, mentioned at the beginning of this essay, as an imagination space. To sum up, Virtual Shtetl is a documentation work and, on the other hand, an effort to reconstruct, which gives a phenomenological, or hermeneutic, hint to our work. This reconstruction is based on us ourselves, i.e. our interpretations, figures of thought and our symbolic imagination. Therefore, to be in line with a concept of representation which is often based on a religious belief that the image must not be superior to the reality, any reconstruction is simply a blasphemy. Creating fiction, which is an empty sign, does not refer us to any reality (which is what Jean Badurillard called simulacrum and Umberto Eco used the term ‘hyperrealism’) However, what happens when this reality actually does not exist? On the other hand, negating ‘artificiality’ of any representation is absurd. The same happens with art, which is by definition ‘inauthentic’. Still, our work does not go in pair with these two areas of art and religion since looking for the specific reality is the sine qua non of reconstruction and documentation. Consequently, our work will be a ‘fighting sphere in the middle’ between these two poles. It comprises the possibility and impossibility to represent an ethnic flavor, which is quite essential as far as documentaries and testimonies are concerned. It can be said that the history of the shtetl perceived from the perspective of the Shoah eliminated the opposition between reality and fiction. Last but not least, it is worth mentioning about the epiphanic character of documenting works in a contemporary Belarusian town, which usually boils down to the local community deciphering meanings of a material testimony. An epiphanic character of such work makes us see some objects (such as matzevot, inscriptions, photographs or a given space) as carriers of a certain reality. Their biography is a source of knowledge and of lost experience for us.

Text and photographs by Józef Markiewicz

Warsaw, May 2011

English translation by Wanda Józwikowska