Shtetlekh (Yiddish: שטעטל, shtetl (singular), שטעטלעך,
shtetlekh (plural)) were small towns with large Jewish populations,
which existed in Central and
Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
Shtetlekh were mainly found in the areas that constituted the 19th
Pale of Settlement
Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Congress Kingdom
of Poland, Galicia (Ukraine) and Romania. In Yiddish, a larger city,
Lviv or Chernivtsi, was called a shtot (Yiddish: שטאָט,
German: Stadt); a village was called a dorf (דאָרף). In
official parlance the shtetl was referred to as "(Jewish) miasteczko"
(Ukrainian: мiстечко, Polish: miasteczko, Belarusian:
мястэчка, Russian: местечко).
2.1 Modern usage
4 Artistic depictions of shtetlekh
4.1 Literary references
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Map showing percentage of Jews in the
Pale of Settlement
Pale of Settlement and Congress
Poland, c. 1905
Shtetl is defined by
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern as "an East European
market town in private possession of a Polish magnate, inhabited
mostly but not exclusively by Jews" and from the 1790s onward and
until 1915 the
Shtetl was also "subject to Russian bureaucracy"
Russian Empire had annexed, and was administering, the
area of Jewish settlement). The concept of shtetl culture describes
the traditional way of life of Eastern European Jews. Shtetls are
portrayed as pious communities following Orthodox Judaism, socially
stable and unchanging despite outside influence or attacks.
The decline of the shtetl started from about the 1840s. Contributing
factors included poverty as a result of changes in economic climate
(including industrialisation which hurt the traditional Jewish artisan
and the movement of trade to the larger towns), repeated fires that
destroyed wooden homes, and overpopulation. Also the anti-Semitism
of the Russian Imperial administrators and the Polish landlords, and
later, from the 1880s Russian pogroms made life difficult for Jews in
the shtetl. From the 1880s until 1915 up to 2 million Jews left
Eastern Europe. At the time about three quarters of its Jewish
population lived in a shtetl.
The Holocaust resulted in the total
extermination of shtetls. It was not uncommon for the
entire Jewish population of a shtetl to be rounded up and murdered in
a nearby forest or taken to the various concentration camps.[citation
needed] Some shtetl inhabitants did emigrate before and after the
Holocaust, mostly to Israel and the United States, where some of the
traditions were carried on. But, the shtetl as a phenomenon of
Ashkenazi Jews in
Eastern Europe was eradicated by the Nazis.[citation
The history of the oldest Eastern European shtetls began about the
year 1200 and saw long periods of relative tolerance
and prosperity as well as times of extreme poverty, hardships,
including pogroms in the 19th-century Russian Empire.
The attitudes and thought habits characteristic of the learning
tradition are as evident in the street and market place as the
yeshiva. The popular picture of the Jew in Eastern Europe, held by Jew
Gentile alike, is true to the Talmudic tradition. The picture
includes the tendency to examine, analyze and re-analyze, to seek
meanings behind meanings and for implications and secondary
consequences. It includes also a dependence on deductive logic as a
basis for practical conclusions and actions. In life, as in the Torah,
it is assumed that everything has deeper and secondary meanings, which
must be probed. All subjects have implications and ramifications.
Moreover, the person who makes a statement must have a reason, and
this too must be probed. Often a comment will evoke an answer to the
assumed reason behind it or to the meaning believed to lie beneath it,
or to the remote consequences to which it leads. The process that
produces such a response—often with lightning speed—is a modest
reproduction of the pilpul process.
May Laws introduced by Tsar
Alexander III of Russia
Alexander III of Russia in 1882 banned
Jews from rural areas and towns of fewer than ten thousand people. In
the 20th century revolutions, civil wars, industrialisation and the
Holocaust destroyed traditional shtetl existence.
In the later part of the 20th century,
Hasidic Jews founded new
communities in the United States, such as Kiryas Joel and New Square,
and they often use the term "shtetl" to refer to these enclaves when
referring to them in Yiddish, particularly those with village
A reconstruction of a traditional Jewish shtetl in the South African
Jewish Museum in Cape Town as it would have appeared in Lithuania.
Interior of a wooden dwelling in a traditional Lithuanian shtetl,
reconstructed in the South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town.
Not only did the Jews of the shtetl speak a unique language (Yiddish),
but they also had a unique rhetorical style, rooted in traditions of
In keeping with his own conception of contradictory reality, the man
of the shtetl is noted both for volubility and for laconic, allusive
speech. Both pictures are true, and both are characteristic of the
yeshiva as well as the market places. When the scholar converses with
his intellectual peers, incomplete sentences, a hint, a gesture, may
replace a whole paragraph. The listener is expected to understand the
full meaning on the basis of a word or even a sound... Such a
conversation, prolonged and animated, may be as incomprehensible to
the uninitiated as if the excited discussants were talking in tongues.
The same verbal economy may be found in domestic or business
Shtetls provided a strong sense of community due to Jews carrying
faith in God. The shtetl “at its heart, it was a community of faith
built upon a deeply rooted religious culture.” A Jewish education
was most paramount in shtetls. Men and boys would spend up to 10 hours
a day dedicated to studying at yeshivas. Discouraged from extensive
study, women would perform the necessary tasks of a household. In
addition, shtetls offered communal institutions such as temples
(synagogues), ritual baths and ritual butchers.
This approach to good deeds finds its roots in Jewish religious views,
Pirkei Avot by Shimon Hatzaddik's "three pillars":
On three things the world stands. On Torah, On service [of God], And
on acts of human kindness.
Tzedaka (charity) is a key element of Jewish culture, both secular and
religious, to this day.
Tzedaka was essential for shtetl Jews, many of
whom lived in poverty. Acts of philanthropy aided social institutions
such as schools and orphanages. Jews viewed giving charity as an
opportunity to do a good deed (mitzvah).
Material things were neither disdained nor extremely praised in the
shtetl. Learning and education were the ultimate measures of worth in
the eyes of the community, while money was secondary to status. Menial
labor was generally looked down upon as prost, or prole. Even the
poorer classes in the shtetl tended to work in jobs that required the
use of skills, such as shoe-making or tailoring of clothes. The shtetl
had a consistent work ethic which valued hard work and frowned upon
laziness. Studying, of course, was considered the most valuable and
hardest work of all. Learned yeshiva men who did not provide bread and
relied on their wives for money were not frowned upon but praised as
There is a belief found in historical and literary writings that the
shtetl disintegrated before it was destroyed during World War II;
however, this alleged cultural break-up is never clearly
Artistic depictions of shtetlekh
Shtetl was "invented twice, once in the 18th century by
administrative decree, which gave it corporeal being, and again the
20th century, to serve as a consolation to American Jews." Chełm
figures prominently in the Jewish humor as the legendary town of
fools. Kasrilevke, the setting of many of Sholem Aleichem's stories,
and Anatevka, the setting of the musical
Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof (based on
other stories of Sholem Aleichem) are other notable fictional shtetls.
Devorah Baron emigrated to Palestine in 1910 after a pogrom destroyed
her shtetl near Minsk. But she continued writing about shtetl life
long after she had settled in Palestine.
Many of Joseph Roth's books are based on shtetls on the Eastern
fringes of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire and most notably on his
Many of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories and novels are set in
shtetls. Singer's mother was the daughter of the rabbi of Biłgoraj, a
town in south-eastern Poland. As a child, Singer lived in Biłgoraj
for periods with his family, and he wrote that life in the small town
made a deep impression on him.
The 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer,
tells a fictional story set in the Ukrainian shtetl Trachimbrod
The 1992 children's book Something from Nothing, written and
illustrated by Phoebe Gilman, is an adaptation of a traditional Jewish
folk tale set in a fictional shtetl.
In 1996 the Frontline programme
Shtetl broadcast; it was about Polish
Christian and Jewish relations.
Harry Turtledove's 2011 short story "
Shtetl Days", which can be read
on-line, begins in a typical shtetl reminiscent of the works of
Alecheim, Roth, et al., but soon reveals a plot twist which subverts
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Many Jewish artists in
Eastern Europe (Poland in particular) dedicated
much of their artistic careers to depictions of the shtetl. These
include Marc Chagall, Chaim Goldberg, and Mane Katz. Their
contribution is in making a permanent record in color of the life that
is described in literature—the klezmers, the weddings, the
marketplaces and the religious aspects of the culture.
Fiddler on the Roof, 1971
Return to My
Shtetl Delatyn, 1992
Qırmızı Qəsəbə — the world's last surviving historical shtetl
History of the Jews in Bessarabia
History of the Jews in Carpathian Ruthenia
History of the Jews in Poland
History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union
List of Hasidic dynasties
List of shtetls and shtots
List of villages and towns depopulated of Jews during the Holocaust
Shtetl (Yiddish: שטעטל) is a diminutive form of
Yiddish shtot (שטאָט), "town", similar to the South German
diminutive "Städtel / Städtle", "little town".
^ "History of Shtetl", Jewish guide and genealogy in Poland .
^ a b Petrovsky-Shtern, Yohanan (2014). The Golden Age Shtetl.
Princeton University Press.
^ Miron, Dan (2000). The Image of the
Shtetl and Other Studies of
Modern Jewish Literary Imagination. Syracuse University Press.
^ a b Life is With People: The Culture of the
Shtetl by Mark Zborowski
and Elizabeth Herzog. 1962 edition.
^ "Kiryas Joel: A Hasidic
Shtetl in Suburban New York - Berman
^ a b Sorin, Gerald (1992). A Time For Building; The Third Migration.
Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 19.
^ Excerpt from Pirke Avot from aish.com.
^ Joshua Rothenberg (March 1981). "Demythologizing the Shtetl".
Midstream. pp. 25–31. Retrieved 15 September 2010.
^ Ray 1984, p. 329.
^ "Reactions to Shtetl." PBS. Retrieved on 15 December 2009.
Bauer, Yehuda (2010). The Death of the Shtetl. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-15209-8.
Gay, Ruth (1984). "Inventing the Shtetl". The American Scholar. 53
(3): 329–349. JSTOR 41211052.
Hoffmann, Eva (1997). Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and
the World of Polish Jews. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Petrovsky-Shtern, Yohanan (2014). The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History
of Jewish Life in East Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press. ISBN 978-0-691-16074-0.
Shandler, Jeffrey (2014). Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Look up shtetl or שטעטל in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Shtetl.
Education/Newsletter/March 2017/Wikishtetl: Commemorating Jewish
communities that perished in the Holocaust
Boris Feldblyum Collection
The JewishGen Communities Database
The JewishGen Gazetteer (formerly: JewishGen ShtetlSeeker)
JewishGen KehilaLinks (formerly: ShtetLinks)
Galicia, Diaspora - Jewish Encyclopedia
Cities of Poland -
Simon Wiesenthal Center
Simon Wiesenthal Center Multimedia Learning Center
Jewish history of Radziłów
Remembering Luboml: images of a Jewish Community
Towns in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Life
Pre-1939 Kresy (now Ukraine) photo album --- Broken Link
Jewish Web Index - Polish Shtetls
The Lost Jewish Communities of Poland
History of the Jews in Poland
History of Berdychiv
Antopol Yizkor Book
The Journey to
Trochenbrod and Lozisht aug 2006
Shtetl gallery. 80 paintings by fr:Ilex Beller. In German and Russian
Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Virtual Shtetl
Jewish guide and genealogy in Poland. HISTORY OF SHTETL.
Shoshana Eden, paintings of her shtetl