Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


NN Theatre

Shtetl, shtetlekh, township...

Multicultural townships, the phenomenon of which emerged in Middle-Eastern Europe, were a typical part of the local cultural landscape until World War II. Co-existing churches – Catholic and Orthodox, synagogues, mosques, necropoleis – Christian, Jewish, and Muslim alike, all formed the space of townships and constituted a physical proof of the intermingling of cultures. One of the types of a multicultural township was a Jewish shtetl.

Shtetl, shtetlekh, township...

Shtetl (shtetlekh, jid. a small town) is a small, provincial Jewish gmina (commune, municipality). The name is used for Jewish communities inhabiting pre-war eastern Europe: Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and eastern parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having their own particular social order and distinctive customs, the shtetls were closed off structures, self governed and where one's functioning was strictly defined by a certain set of rules. All activities were subject to gmina authorities' decisions, and breaking the established social rules could result in various punishments: being prohibited from entering the synagogue, lashing, and in extreme situations – being excluded from the community. It is worth noting that the broadly interpreted community was the basis for existing in this social setting.

Jewish residents were bound by strong, local ties and the word "shtetl" started to have an emotional tint, corresponding to the contemporary term "small homeland". The image of a peaceful, multicultural township the residents of which take care of one another is present in the memories included in the Memorial Books. Pinkas zikkaron, sefer zakkaron (hebr.), or jizker buch (jid.) is a distinct literary movement, developed after the Holocaust by the initiative of Landsmanshafts. The books' authors were always the actual residents of described townships, but left them during the tragedy of the Shoah. It is likely that the dramatic circumstances of leaving the ancestral houses influenced the shape of the later memories, which created an idealised image of a shtetl – a site of peaceful atmosphere and serene co-existence. Such an image of a bulwark of Jewish tradition and piety is given by Icchok Lejb Perec (1851-1915) in his novel Miasta i Miasteczka [Towns and Townships] or by Szalom Asz(1880–1957) in Miasteczko [Township], the prototype for which, according to some theories, was Kazimierz Dolny. As if to counter these Utopian images, two years later, in 1906, Icie Meir Weissenberg (1881-1938) created a naturalistic novel under the same title, in which he described a township culturally conflicted, divided between goys and Jews who often met with anti–Semitic reactions.

Shtetl is definitely an interesting phenomenon from an ethnographic standpoint as well. It was noticed by Shelomoh Zanvil Rapaport, knows as Szymon An-Ski (1863-1920), a writer and columnist of Jewish descent, who in 1912 went on the first of three expeditions to study the traditional culture of Eastern-European Jews. An-Ski managed to acquire an enormous number of materials (among others: folk tales, songs, manuscripts, books) and gather a rich iconography – photos of people types, synagogues and matzevas. Basing on the data gathered at that time, Folklor un etnografye [Folklore and ethnography] was written, and experiencing the folk culture of Volhyna and Podole's townships served as an inspiration to create the famous play Dybuk, czyli Na pograniczu dwóch światów [The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds] described by the author itself as a dramatic legend.

The collection of various materials depicting the phenomenon of multicultural townships, created during the "Shtetl Routes. The objects of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism" project carried out by The "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre in Lublin in cooperation with partners from Ukraine and Belarus, is an attempt to illustrate the distinctive landscape of the bygone townships. Their space was created by the grand architecture of temples and monasteries, brick tenements, schools and town halls as well as, and maybe most importantly, by the less grand, often wooden, residential housing. All these objects and their users – because it was the human relationships that constituted the core of shtetls – were captured on postcards from the 20th century, invaluable during the work on reconstructing the space of a township, and often being the only data on its original shape. The picture of a pre-War township is completed thanks to: the press, titles aimed at tourists, authorial reports from travels, as well as documents of everyday life such as advertising leaflets, posters or things as mundane as bus timetables. One could not omit Kazimierz Dolny as captured by the lens of the Jewish photographer Jerzy Benedykt Dorys (1901-1990) either. The first instance of Polish photojournalism presents Kazimierz from behind the scenes, without a Renaissance filter that usually defined the presented substance of the town. During the vacation by the Vistula River, Dorys set in stone the image of multicultural reality – distant from idyllic visions of Perec or Asz, but not as brutal as Weissenberg's either. In creating an authentic portrait of one city, he managed to save at least a piece of the world that does not exist any more.


All iconographic materials come from the collections of Cyfrowa Biblioteka Narodowa Polona [National Digital Library "Polona"] (