A study of the Jewish Shtetl in nineteenth century Poland

Academic Advisor: Prof. Julian Beinart, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


“Floods, fires and the physical damage of war have had surprisingly little effect on the course of human social history. A long series of shocks may exert a more telling influence if they sap the basic resources of man and land or call up new social organizations to cope with their continued occurrence.” (Lynch p. 215)

The persecution of religious minority communities is a historical phenomenon. Often persecuted under imperial stronghold, these communities have either been confined to or have enclosed themselves within certain geographical locations in the city. The formation and identification of ghettos based on race, ethnicity or religion has persisted throughout urban history and even within secular democratic frameworks. What is it about religious minority communities that have historically affected such extreme responses from the state? And how does political persecution in turn affect the collective social structure of these communities?

This paper investigates these affects through a case of anti-Semitic violence and imposed legislation in Russian-occupied Poland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the banishment of Jews from the major cities/towns in Eastern Europe to a created ‘Pale of Jewish Settlement’ in Russian Poland, the Jewish shtetl (Yiddish for small town) assumed importance as a community engendering a new way of life. By studying the shtetl in Poland as a formal response to constant political ‘threat’, I attempt to analyze structurally the nature of minority group formations in towns or cities, and the impact of political violence and repressive legislation associated with their formation and sustenance.

The region

Shtetls in the landscape

A Shtetl


One can argue that human societies in similar socio-political conditions are related structurally and thus affect similar patterns of behavior which transcend time and space. This study of the Jewish shtetl too, must be understood within this larger temporal and spatial context in the trope of what Stanley Diamond calls “problematically human” (Diamond p. 74). In this respect, our understanding of the shtetl can be extended to and be informed by the urban ghetto, neighborhoods in small towns occupied by religious minorities or small towns built exclusively by and for them.

Anti-Semitic violence has been studied extensively for the past few decades. However, in most recent research on Poland and pre-holocaust Europe, Jews have been studied for their minority status or diasporic conditions to the extent that they are being defined exclusively within that context. In this respect a structural approach to understanding trauma within persecuted communities promises to disengage these deterministic claims about ‘Jewishness’ providing a comparative framework for a critical understanding of minority status as manifest in architecture. The study proceeds to analyze the form of the shtetl through an account of the changing relationships of the Russian state and Eastern European Jewry as played out in aspects of community life in the settlement; applying where relevant from other minority communities around the world to assimilate the social dynamics and mechanisms of sustenance arising out of similar situations.

Stanley Diamond in his article Kibbutz and Shtetl: The History of an Idea argues the emergence of the kibbutz community as a ‘counter-shtetl’. This is an important idea for this study. The shtetl is proposed as the ur-form of the Kibbutz. Diamond explains the egalitarian society of the kibbutz as an ‘over-reaction’ to the class struggle in the shtetl; and of greater significance to this study, the dissolution of the Kibbutz family unit as a radical opposition to the over-possessiveness of the highly ritualized family of the shtetl. He provides valuable insights into the family as a social unit and the class divisions within the shtetl community.

Diamond provides a methodology to investigate psychoanalytically the stimulus for self-organization that becomes characteristic of the individual and collective conscience within religious minorities. First, he contends that a captive community isolated in every respect tends towards uniformity akin to a “caste”. The political and economic immobility impresses a moderation of status in individuals with respect to the community. However, within this apparent uniformity, economic class becomes extremely significant and competition for status and money becomes a mode of behaviour. And since class cannot be understood as a stable condition for minority communities having no guarantee of status; this caused what Diamond calls “circular mobility” between the members of the community. What he means by this is that in times of individual prosperity, Jews were charitable and felt obliged to cooperate with others in adverse conditions as they were conscious that their better condition was dependent wholly on the whims of outside political agents and could easily be lost. Their incapacity to affect change made them visualize their problems as Jewish problems, personal societal problems that were insoluble irrespective of political conditions. Secondly, Diamond contends that there was a loss of patriarchal pride due to this heightened sense of insecurity and impotency within the community;

“Indeed, the Jewish father, limited in occupational choice, socially and geographically immobile, ultimately at the mercy of the gentile world, was provided with very few building blocks with which to construct his dignity and integrity.” (Diamond p. 80)

As a result, in a Freudian substitutive process, the traditional authority of the patriarch was reasserted by highly ritualizing domestic and communal life. This had a significant impact on the position and role of women in the community. The Jews in the Pale were basically a community of petty traders and women played a significant part in ‘earning bread’ for the family. So while Diamond explains in great detail, the woman’s role in stabilizing the family emotionally, he simultaneously elucidates the ritualistic imposition of the traditional role of women within the household. There are two important methodological ideas that become relevant to this paper. First, the psychoanalytic approach to the study of minority communities provides structural ideas that inform the overarching argument of ‘social patterns’. Second, it alludes to an approach where the Kibbutz can be used as a spatial model to analyze the shtetl, with due attention to specific characteristics of the shtetl as a Jewish community-settlement in Poland within the larger imperial domain of Russia. Both methods will be adopted to investigate the form of minority religious settlements as well as the socio-religious institutions that organize both on the scale of an individual as well as that of the community.

The Rise of East-European Jewry

Jews in Poland date back to the late-thirteenth century when the Polish Crown took possession of salt mines initially monopolized by the Hapsburgs. The operation of these mines was leased out to Jewish and Christian Poles who took over production, transport and wholesale trade. However, it was only in the late-fourteenth century that the Polish king Casimir III invited Jews to settle in the Polish-controlled areas of Eastern Europe, making this phase significant in the historical demography of East European Jewry. The Jews provided commercial, middlemen services to a predominantly agricultural society by managing estates, collecting taxes and tolls from the gentile and also lending money out on interest (since the church prohibited money lending on interest the Jews quickly filled in). Their presence was recognized by law and protected by the monarchy (Israel p. 18), who in turn levied heavy taxes on them. The legal basis of their existence was the ‘privilegium’ granted by the Polish king in the second half of the fourteenth century. This document basically assured the Jews of the king’s protection and defined their duties towards his royal treasury. This mutuality of interests benefited the royal treasury as much as the Jews who prospered during this time owing to political security alongside religious and administrative autonomy under the king;

“The Jewish community was organized along the lines of an oligarchy. A small group of families that held all the political and economic power within the self-ruling autonomy usually occupied the key positions in the community’s leadership.” (Israel p. 18)

This group of elites or kahal as they were called possessed sizeable ancestral property and legacy that ensured their community status. They became the mediators between the king and his Jewish subjects. Taxes levied by the king were paid cumulatively by the kahal, who in turn sub-divided and collected taxes from the community. Apart from this they also provided other services that involved supervision of religious, social and economic activity as well as enforcing regulations and Jewish Law. The working of this group was insulated from even the Jewish populace going as far as conducting elections in a secretive manner. This group then known as the ‘Council of Four Lands’ was officially founded in 1580 as a central body of Jewish authority.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century the favourable status of the Polish Jews caused considerable demographic changes in the region. Poland was a kingdom bordering the expanding empires of Russia and Germany in the East and West, and the Islamic caliphates in the South. Poland, as a region, with its independent kingdom assured the Jews of political security. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Jews from distant regions like Spain and the Middle East as well as neighbouring regions like Austria and Ukraine migrated to Poland as an escape from communal violence or legislative restrictions under imperial rule. Poland also became a center for religious scholarship and attracted young Jews from surrounding regions. A large number of Jews settled in the cities and towns, to the extent of establishing new towns in agricultural areas, integrating themselves completely into the economy by processing, marketing and selling agricultural and natural products.

The Pale of Jewish Settlement

In the early seventeenth century more than three quarters of the world Jewry was in the Polish kingdom. These Jews had grown stronger and more prominent; and were even granted autonomous self-rule. They constituted a complex network of religious, social and cultural institutions that were insulated from the gentile and other religious groups (Israel p. 20). Russian occupation of Poland began in the early eighteenth century as a gradual process with the dissolution of the Polish crown. These changes, instead of weakening the position of the Polish nobility, further strengthened it as a result of now complete autonomy. The Jews, as a result, maintained their social and political position within the transitioning status of the nation. But with the first partition of Poland in 1772, Russian imperialism brought about severe changes in the status of Eastern European Jewry.[i] The official doctrine in Imperial Russia was openly anti-Semitic triggering extended waves of civilian initiated riots in successive years. The inflated position of the Jews even posed a threat to the central power in Russia as well. Israel Bartal, in his book The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772 – 1881 explains the position taken by the Russian monarchs;

“Two problems engaged the attention of the authorities: how to integrate the Jewish population into the administrative systems; and how to direct their economic activity so that it would be of benefit to the state and at the same time not harm the economic interests of other groups in the population.” (Israel p. 59)

The legislation carried out in the following years played a pivotal role in determining the socio-political status of the Jews in partitioned Poland. In 1764, the Council of Four Lands was dissolved by the State authorities in an attempt to directly administer the Jewish subjects. Taxes collected by the new officials exceeded that of the poll tax that had been instituted under the Polish kings. A census was carried out to locate the populace in Poland in order to organize tax collection on that basis. The state was aware that many Jews from towns and villages evaded the census so as to avoid tax payments. The question of the place of Jews in the new political order was crucial for state authorities, especially with respect to appeasing the majority Christian population in towns and villages. Jewish autonomy in political and religious matters gave them special privileges as citizens, those that weren’t given to the rest of the populace. This posed as a problem to the state. On May 3, 1791 Catherine II proclaimed a new constitution that waived Jewish citizenship and their privileges as townspeople while also reinforcing the status of Polish aristocracy. This entailed reduced rights and freedom for the Jews in cities and towns, with respect to ‘other groups’ in Poland. Jews from the cities were expelled and confined by law into a part of occupied Poland that came to be known as the Pale of Jewish Settlement. The Pale gets its name from an English district in Ireland. This geographical region was separated from the rest of Ireland by a ditch. Basically, the ‘pale’ was a bounded area within which local laws were valid. Within the Pale, Jewish communities were granted religious freedom and political security, in lieu of their contribution to the royal treasury. A notice on the door of the synagogues of cities and towns reassured the Jews that Catherine II had granted them ‘religious freedom’ and ‘retention of property and assets’ but only a few categories of Jews were allowed to live outside the pale; they were drafted in accordance with the Recruit charter of 1810 that safeguarded their status by law. But these conditions did not remain for long.

With the next regime, the legislation of the Pale was tightened and more Jews were expelled from the towns and cities. Further restrictions of varying severity were instituted; Jews were prohibited from leasing land and from entering villages or towns with a population greater than 20,000, even within the pale. Furthermore there were restrictions on their professional and economic activity. The autonomous kahal became a system of supervision and control within the framework of the apparatus of the centralized state. The Pale contained close to 40% of the world Jewry at the time. There was a constant threat from state-initiated proselytization processes begun in 1817, to convert Jews to Christianity and conscript them into the military for a minimum quota of twenty five years. Furthermore, the ‘re-education’ programs imposed under the enlightenment ideals of Czar Nicholas in the 1840’s sought to disengage the Jews from their religious orthodoxy so as to incorporate them into the Russian state. Jewish autonomy was withdrawn completely in 1844 and taxes were doubled. The repressive measures of the state coupled with another wave of large scale anti-Semitic civilian riots, (responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in cities and towns throughout the nineteenth century) had lasting effects on the individual and communal attitudes of the Jews. The constancy of threat to life as well as religious and social structures, under the stigmatizing imperialism of the Czar, determined the new status of Jews in nineteenth century Poland. Inspite of the persecution, internal immigration of thousands of Jews continued throughout the nineteenth century, and their population in towns and villages within the Pale grew rapidly. The small towns (Shtetls) comprised Jewish majorities often more than 80% of the population. These compact sizeable Jewish communities were located within the rural landscape that had an absolute majority of non-Jewish population. In contrast, Jews comprised only 10-14% of total population in cities and towns.

The shtetl, as a (little) town within this poitico-economic context, manifested a mode of survival in its form.

The shtetl

The Jews were a mobile population motivated by economic incentives. They settled in rural Poland in the seventeenth century, leased land from Polish nobility to run mills and distilleries, lent money out on interest, and also provided a large share of the demand of non-Jewish village and town populations like tanning, fur making, watch-making and tailoring. But with the institution of the Pale of settlement in 1791 and its re-institution on numerous occasions thereafter, mobility was restricted within its borders. With further restrictions on economic activity as well as land ownership, the Jews of the Pale turned toward petty trade. But their banishment from cities and towns to rural Poland created different problems. The rural market was limited and in 1897 over four million Jews lived in the Pale constituting 14% of the Polish population. In effect, this rural Jewish population adopted highly specific trades and services catering to the Christian farmers as well as themselves. A few Jewish entrepreneurs found special niches in the economic system that led them to unusual enterprises in wine selling, banking and business but the majority of the Jews earned their living as tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, clerks, bakers, bath attendants, letter-carriers, entertainers, galanterie traders, earthen pot vendors, fur pelt merchants, coachmen, cap vendors, candle dippers, carpenters, iron dealers, egg dealers and other similar petty trades and services.

“Going by the alphabet, Dobromil should have been a very busily employed shtetl. Of every trade there were only one or two, at most three, entrepreneurs, and all of them had a bare subsistence.” (Miller pp. 8-9)

Here were Jews of similar capability subject to similar moderation of economic capacity, over-populating a limited area within the Pale. What this paper argues, based on the above, is that the network of shtetls as spread over the rural landscape was related directly to an internal (communal) consistency of economic opportunity. The capacity of each shtetl to accommodate a certain trade was limited, beyond which, even bare subsistence was impossible. Each shtetl community was constituted in direct relation to others dispersed over the Polish rural landscape causing an over-specialization of trades. How many shoemakers could each shtetl accommodate? How distanced would the shtetl need to be from another, to be able to trade with the proximate villages, without infringing on the others’ businesses? The effective optimal consistency is expressed through the compelling image of the region with ‘shtetls in disposition to each other’. With the dissolution of the kahal these shtetls were organized by voluntary organizations that in a sense administered the social network between towns. These organizations enforced traditional law within communities (shtetls) that maintained mutual relationships. It is possible to imagine this large community of Jews diagrammatically; as shtetls containing a population of anything between 5000 and 25,000 petty traders depending wholly on the availability of resources, proximity to major cities and towns, size of the rural market and the mutual distance from each other.

“It was the largest empire in the history of Europe and lasted almost a thousand years. And all without a king or parliament, an army or civil service. In fact, it only existed in the minds and mouths of its speakers, and they kept it secret from everyone else. It was a language kingdom made up only of words.” (Roskies p. 33)

The Market square and the Synagogue

The shtetl (Figure 3) functioned as a market place on only one day of the week when the neighboring villager-farmers would visit to make purchases or trade in live-stock for wares. This brought a sense of de-terretorialization to the shtetl whose sole economic function was served by this exchange. The shtetl was sustained by trade and the location of the market found a central position in its hierarchies. The entries to the shtetl lead through to the market which in effect becomes an extension of outside space. The heart of the shtetl is an outside space. The boundaries of the shtetl are dissolved and made permeable. Its outer profile is no longer clearly discernible. The shtetl and the countryside are seemingly continuous. However, notional peripheries of the shtetl are marked by mythical objects and by folklore about lurking dangers on the outside.[ii] The boundaries are implicit. In contrast to the Kibbutz (Figure 4) where extreme attention is given to controlling and limiting the population to a group of insiders, the shtetl in its economic function was inherently public. Following Diamond’s argument of the Kibbutz as an over-reaction to the shtetl, the market as the central feature of the shtetl becomes a place for outsiders. The central communal dining space and common facilities in the Kibbutz are not open to the public and thus maintain a sense of privacy and territorial occupation, as compared to the de-territorialized market square. So as a public space, the market square became symbolic, of the simultaneous presence of the state, that of Jewish religious freedom, and of a de-territorialized zone for transacting business. These symbols were required to be visually explicit and accessible to the public so as to facilitate the economic function of the shtetl.

“Six days a week the market is nothing but an empty unpaved area surrounded on all sides by stores.” (Roskies p. 25)

As mentioned earlier, the market or town square was activated once a week, when peasantry from around the region came to buy weekly household items or to exchange geese, ducks, horses, calves, hogs. Usually associated with this square were a series of institutional buildings including the town clock tower, the City hall of the municipal administration, office of the burgomaster or mayor, the police department and the jail. There was also the military commission sent by the Polish government, a fire-douser brigade run by the town itself, a Post Office, a Court house and a village inn. When municipal lighting (gas lamps) arrived in the shtetl towards the end of the twentieth century, a single gas lamp was installed in the market square at Dobromil (in Galicia) in front of the city hall. A policeman was responsible for lowering the lamp each night to fill it with gas and to hoist it up again.

The shtetl was a small town within a larger imperial state. The boundaries of the Pale were absolute with regard to Jewish population, and every point within the Pale resonated with the same presence of the state. It was this symbolic and physical presence of the state at every point that reassured the safety and freedom of the Jews. The shtetls located themselves at these points, whose presence instilled communal security, within an otherwise hostile environment. Owing to the mutuality of interests between the Jews and the state in commercial matters, this presence became associated with the market square. In order that this study be applied structurally to other communities it becomes necessary to understand the shtetl as a conceptual model. The shtetl formed a de-terretorialized network of mutually dispositional points within a continuous imperial domain. Fragments of the imperial state were transferred and synthesized at these points. Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari on the definitions of city-state, the shtetl can then be understood as a simultaneous presence of the city (town) function (as part of a de-terretorialized horizontal network) and the state function (an isolated zone of recurrence).

The daily hoisting of the lamp in front of the city hall by a policeman, actualized the presence of the state as a physical and performative agent, in the survival of the community. The market square, with its institutional presence, was never used communally apart from its purpose as a market place. One can imagine that the water-carrier filled water from the municipal pump in the center of the square to provide for the houses, because the journey would involve transgressing from private to public space. The square was public and could not support communal activities in the shtetl. These required a completely different set of institutions.

“They had to be close to a shul, they needed their own courts of law, their own slaughterhouse, a ritual bath, and, when the time came, a Jewish cemetery…What Jews wanted in particular was, not isolation from the Christians, but insulation from Christianity.” (Roskies p. 34)

With reference to the dichotomous attitudes towards their context, I argue the simultaneity of the town and state functions in the communal use of the synagogue as a Jewish religious institution in the shtetl. The shul or main synagogue played a dual role for the shtetl community. Its presence at the market square alluded directly to the status of Jews within the state, while also serving its function as a place of prayer for an extremely orthodox community. Diamond’s suggestion that the community felt politically and economically impotent within the imperial state, had affected on the one hand an orthodoxy that highly ritualized domestic and communal life, but on the other, a reconciliation with the economic condition that secularized public life. The loss of patriarchal pride in the public domain was compensated by a re-assertion of the patriarch in the communal and domestic space. For the Jews of the shtetl, social-religious life was divorced from its economic-political influences. The synagogue of the shtetl is an interesting building to study this duality as it gets played out.

A synagogue was established in every shtetl as was the Christian orthodox church. Each represented symbolically the presence of communities within a larger imperial construct. At one level, the synagogue made a direct symbolic connection with the market square. This connection was with the exterior of the building which made itself recognizable even without any ostentation. At another level, the ostentatious interiors of the synagogue made a symbolic connection with the several side streets that led away from the market square along which the Jews lived. Both were mutually exclusive of each other. The exterior was related to the economic-political condition that allowed the Jews a freedom of religion and was kept plain either by law or for self-protection (Dorfman p. 3). The interior of the synagogue was replete with religious symbols and decorated in expensive materials. This was the domain of the traditional orthodox religious community. This duality can also be seen in the inclusion of women into the synagogue.

“…Jewish women were prohibited from broad study, excluded from most positions of communal religious leadership, and excused from a relatively small number of very visible rituals such as communal prayer and wearing tefillin.” (Fram p. 39)

Jewish women were traditionally, as in several other medieval religious formations, considered secondary to men. One would suppose that a loss of patriarchal pride would affect women directly. However, the changes expressed the dichotomous nature of the Jewish shtetl community. On the one hand women took part in ‘bread winning’ activities and managed the stores in the market square. Division of labor was not sharply divided along gender lines. The market place belonged to both sexes. Their acceptance as equals in public life however, was compensated by a stricter control within communal and domestic life. The synagogue incorporates the women’s space but in the form of galleries or additional rooms (to the main hall) which in their making express a ritualized separateness between the sexes. Susan A. Glenn explains the emergence of Jewish women as independent working individuals in America reinforcing Diamond’s explanation of sexual equality of the Kibbutz community as a reaction to traditionalized roles of the sexes in the shtetl. The market square and the synagogue then become significant spatial and formal manifestations of these dualities at the communal scale.

“The struggle of a “native” culture to maintain its existence in the face of an imperial culture, disseminated by the government with the help of local agents, elicited a new type of counterreaction: Orthodoxy.” (Israel p. 69)

To conclude, the above mentioned quote proves insufficient in providing a ‘model’ for a community under persecution. The choice between integration and acculturation set against traditionalism and radicalism in the economic, social and spiritual life of the Jews was dealt with in a peculiar way. On the one hand the economic function was isolated from the social and spiritual in creating amicable relationships with the state. The Jewish trader or shopkeeper was a secularized person maintaining a distinct public front. This process had a de-territorializing effect on communal behavior allowing the shtetl to become part of a network spread out across the Pale. On the other hand, following Israel Bartal’s argument, the social and spiritual life of the Jews tended towards greater orthodoxy owing to constant threat to the authority of its traditions. Intellectual re-examinations and re-interpretation led to a constructed orthodoxy that found compensation in the highly introverted institutions of the shtetl.


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[i] Russia annexed regions in the northeast, Austria took over a considerable part of the southeastern area (which became known as Galicia), and Prussia annexed areas in the northwest.

[ii] For example: The Polish shtetl Tishevits was approached through bridges on all sides. Each bridge had a story connected to it that forbade the Jews from venturing close to it. Some parts of the shtetl were lucky and some brought bad luck. In Dobromil, a Galician shtetl, a number of ruins were frequented by young Jews until a group of non-Jews ambushed them at the location. These ruins were then forbidden to the youth of Dobromil. (Miller, Roskies)

Note: The images included in this article are only impressions of the form of the shtetl and of the landscape they inhabit. The images do not illustrate any specific shtetl in the article.

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