Gross, Max. “The Lost Shtetl: A Novel, Harper Via, 2020.
A Small Jewish Village
In “The Lost Shtetl”, Max Gross takes us to a small Jewish village in the Polish forest that is so secluded no one knows it exists . . . until now.“ For decades, the tiny Jewish shtetl of Kreskol existed in happy isolation, virtually untouched and unchanged.” Kreskol had been spared by the Holocaust and the Cold War and those that lived there enjoyed remarkable peace. There were no cars, no electricity, no internet and no indoor plumbing. When a marriage dispute goes out of control, the whole town comes into the twenty-first century.
Pesha Lindauer, who has just gone through an ugly divorce, suddenly disappears. A day later, her husband goes looking for her and thus begins a panic among the town elders who send out an unprepared outcast named Yankel Lewinkopf into the wider world to alert the Polish authorities.
As Yankel goes beyond the remote safety of Kreskol, Yankel faces the beauty and the dangers of the modern-day outside world> He begins to experience disbelief, condescension, and unexpected kindness. When the truth finally comes out, his story and the existence of Kreskol hits headlines nationwide.
The Polish government returns Yankel to Kreskol with plans to reintegrate the town to the modern world. As this begins to happen, the origins of its disappearance are discovered. What has become of the mystery of Pesha and her former husband? Kreskol is divided between those want change and those who want the shtetl to retain its old world ways. The people of Kreskol will have to find a way to come together or lose their village forever.
There is wonderful humor here but more than that there is in-depth insight into “human foolishness, resilience, and faith.” Here is a tale about “the costs of living in one’s own time as opposed to the benefits and disadvantages of living in a world that has been overlooked by the contemporary world.”
The characters become our friends as we follow then through the narrative. Through the coming together ofthe new world and the old one. We have the concept of being “other” and that anti-Semitism has always existed and what is means to be treated cruelly because of one’s religion.The older citizens of rural Poland are seen as very anti-Semitic. Yankel learns about the Holocaust but doesn’t believe it. He can’t understand the size of the tragedy and sees it as a story that is meant to trick him.
There is a lot to think about here especially about societal developments. We read ofthe traditions and simple life of the isolated villagers and how modern life affects them economically, socially, and culturally.
Everything about the modern world passed Kreskol by, and the people live in isolation until Pesha and Ishmael Lindauer’s marriage explodes and, they end up separately leaving town. Yankel is sent to the nearest town to report the disappearance (and possible murder?) to the police.Once he reaches the outside world for the first time, things spin out of control, both for him and Kreskol, which is finally discovered. We see everything from the viewpoint of Yankel and other shtetl residents while, at the same time, we see the outside world’s reaction to the discovery of such a community.
Theunnamed narrator is a resident of Kreskol, who knows quite a bit of its history. He knows about the pogroms of the past and the Christian neighbors that led to Kreskol’s isolation and their voluntarily cutting themselves off completely from the outside world. He also knows about the residents of Kreskol and their foibles.
While the story is very funny it is also heartbreakingly as we read about antisemitism, past and present.