[Yiddish; plural: shtetlekh] - A town, hamlet; a
Jewish community having a particular social structure and customs.
Shtetlekh perpetuated the traditions of the pre-partition Communities
and constituted closed units. The Community's board had to give its
approval in order for anyone to settle within the Community, open a
workshop there, or marry someone who had come from outside it. The
shtetlekh had their own cultural and intellectual elite, who served as
local authorities and were not necessarily wealthy individuals. Events
like births, marriages and deaths affected the group as a whole. Beggars
and the poor were cared for.
Although this provided a sense of security, it also meant that each
resident's life was under the community's watchful eye, and a need for
privacy was considered to be something suspicious. According to the
Krakow Community's statute of 1595, "If someone comes to a [room] and
knocks, and people are inside and do not want to open the door, they
should be punished." Various punishments were meted out to those who did
not want to live according to the community's rules, or who were not
able to do so: they were banned from entering the synagogue, the pillory
and whipping. The worst of these was cherem, which meant exclusion from
In the second half of the nineteenth century,
traditional shtetlekh began to change, primarily as the result of
reforms carried out by the partitioning powers, but also in the wake of
emancipation and modern trends in society. Because the Jews were driven
out of the countryside, they became very highly urbanized, particularly
in the Russian partition. This situation persisted after Poland regained
its independence. Examples of this were in Luck, in the Volhynia
voivodship, where of a total population of 21,000, there were 15,000
Jews (over 70%); in Orla (Bialystok region), there were 1,167 Jews
(almost 77% of the population); in Przytyk (Kielce region) - 1,852
(80.5%); and in Wysokie Litewskie (Polesie) - 1,902 (90.6%). The Jewish
residents were united by a strong sense of local identity, and the very
word "shtetl" took on an emotional connotation, much as the expression
"small fatherland" (mala ojczyzna) has today.
Although during the interwar period cities like
Warsaw or Krakow became the centers of Jewish cultural life, both for
Orthodox and secular Jews, the shtetlekh were anything but provincial.
Political parties were active there, and there were libraries, theaters,
cinemas, newspapers, and popular science lectures-some even had sports
clubs. In the small shtetl of Baranowicze, on the border, there were two
Yiddish dailies, and in Kolomyja, Jews published ten Polish or
bilingual titles; Jews also owned the cinema and theater there.