Shtetl CL: Avail in Paperback

Eva Hoffman, Author
Eva Hoffman, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-395-82295-1
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-395-92487-7
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Anticipating controversy like that engendered by Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, Hoffman sets out to determine Poland's complicity in the Holocaust. Although her Jewish parents had been harbored for two years during the war by a Polish peasant, and she herself was born in Cracow, Hoffman proves to be objectively tough-minded in weighing both documented and anecdotal evidence, observing that the country is the embattled terrain of three competing sets of memory: Jewish, Polish and Western. Historicizing her well-researched study, Hoffman (Lost in Translation) reviews the relationship between the two cultures going back to the Renaissance and finds that Poles were more tolerant of certain classes of Jews, especially the szlachta, or nobility, who entered into economic alliances with them. However, the burgher class considered Jews competitors, and at the lower rungs of Polish society, Jews were thought of as alien, as ""Others."" Jews on their part viewed Polish Christians as blasphemous. Yet pluralism in the country prevailed, not as ideology but in ordinary life. Hoffman pinpoints 1648 as a turning point in Polish-Jewish relations that prefigured WWII, when for nine years the Cossacks rampaged across the land, and the Poles, although not indifferent to the Jews, looked primarily to their own defense. Hoffman also follows politics in Poland during the partitions from the end of the 18th century to WWI with Poles and Jews alike clinging to their individual collective identities. With independence in 1918, a complementary relationship prevailed: Poles as farmers, Jews as merchants. Ultimately focusing on the shtetl (town) of Bransk as emblematic of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust, Hoffman relies on a collective book of memory gathered in 1947, the Yizkor Book, which makes clear that the two cultures were, as Hoffman notes, ""familiar to each other but unknown to each other."" When the Nazis criminalized acts of compassion, the Poles who were in a position to help the Jews had to overcome the strong sense of division, for traditionally, ""Poles and Jews did not include each other within the sphere of mutual and natural obligations."" With gut-wrenching poignancy, Hoffman concludes that had the two groups been more integrated, more Poles would have felt the imperative to help Jews. (Oct.)
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