Watching the Loss of a World

Watching the Loss of a World


Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

During the last few weeks, the magazine Forward, (as it is known in its English publication), presented two major articles about the world and works of Shalom Aleichem.

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One of these articles was devoted to the universal success achieved by “Fiddler on the Roof,”  the musical based Shalom Aleichem’s short stories. We know the great success this musical achieved in the U.S., but it has been equally loved in Japan, Australia, South America, and most European countries.

It seems that the nostalgic story of life in Anatevka, a shtetl in the Pale of Russia, together with its wonderful music is universally loved – except by me.

Let me clarify my statement. I love its music and the story. In fact, I could not help becoming teary eyed as Topol sang, “If I were a Rich man.”

How could I restrain the aches in my heart from the “licht benshen? I even laughed and cheered watching the “Bottle Dance”?

Then, in the second half of the movie, I was confronted with the tragedy of the gezeyrot tach? How could I sit and enjoy the story and music that depicts a tragic period in Jewish history – the 1908 Russian pogroms that killed the shtetl life and its culture. How could I, a Holocaust survivor, sit a movie that depicts the destruction of Jewish life?

In addition to Shalom Aleichem, there were others like Mendeleh Mocher S’Farim, Yaakov Fichman, and Yehudah Leib Peretz who also provided us with nostalgic memories of Jewish life in the East European shtetls that was a part of most American Jews’ family history.

I looked at the faces of Jews who sat with smiles on their faces quelleing nachas as the scene of welcoming the Shabbat Queen – the lecht benshen. I was born into a shtetl life. From 1925 through 1943, I lived in Munkacs a shtetl which at that time was in its decline.

In 1974, I had the great pleasure and privilege to be on a two-person panel with Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Nobel Laureate, discussing shtetl life.

He, like the authors mentioned earlier, were purveyors of nostalgia. They emphasized the funny and pleasant communal life, rather than the hardships and the constant threat of the Cossacks.

So, in spite of Hitler and modernity, the stories of shtetl life will not disappear. “Fiddler on the Roof” will keep it alive.

For most Jews, this play represents a part of their heritage. And “Fiddler” presents it in a humorous and nostalgic way that people in every culture can understand, and hence the universal appeal. Many American Jews sitting and watching the movie or the play obtain great pleasure, as they see it reflecting the life of their grandparents or great-grandparents.

In an idealized form, the play presents the archetypical characters in the shtetl. It seems that most of the Jews in the shtetl had a common denominator – they all had dreams and similar personality attributes. Like Tevyeh the milkman, most argued with G-d, a trait very characteristic among Chassidic Jews.

For example, there is a tale about Yaakov, a tailor, who during the Yom Kippur silent devotion seemed to be very agitated as though he is arguing with someone. The rabbi noticed it and asked Yaakov after the services what caused his agitation during the amidah.

“Nothing much,” replied Yaakov “I merely had an argument with G-d.”

“What about?” inquired the Rabbi.

“Well,” said Yaakov “I told G-d if he will forgive my little sins, I’ll forgive Him his big sins.” And so he told the rabbi: “I told G-d, when someone brings me a bolt of cloth for a suit I may keep the remnants though by rights I should return them to the owner.”

This, Yaakov confessed to G-d, are his little sins:

“But you G-d, commit far greater sins when you take children away from their parents, and parents from young children,” he continued, “I’ll make a deal with you – if today, on Yom Kippur, you forgive me my little sins, I’ll forgive your big ones.”

Such arguments were common in the Chassidic shtetls.

Tevyeh and most of the characters in the play indulged in dreaming and wishing. “If I were a rich man,” sighs Tevyeh, a sentiment characteristic of poor people’s dreams that Freud called “shnorer treume” or beggars dreams.

Few Jews today live in dire poverty that would justify seeking to escape through the fantasy of dreams. (Although, I must confess, many people will indulge in a form of shenorer treume when they buy lottery tickets.)

Most shtetl people, including my mother, dreamt and sighed – “Oy! Oy Gotenyu when will the mashiach come?”

Tevyeh wanted social status and to sit at the Eastern Wall and study all the time. In contrast, his future son-in-law had lesser dreams of having his own sewing machine.

Tevyeh’s daughters also dreamt. They dreamt about good shidduchim, about good marriages with handsome and rich men. Oy!

Like them, I too, had my shtetl dreams – I wanted to be free from the dictatorial forces of the community that held us too tight to its bosom.

There were of course the good aspects to life in a shtetl – but these are the memories of a very young boy who could eat shaboss dinners in any of our neighbors’ homes just because I wanted to.

I even have better memories of life in the small village in the dorf where my grandparents lived. The relationship among the Jews there was based on a genuine concern for each other’s welfare and even unabashed love –although it was always disguised.

As marvelous as the play is, I do not wish to see it again. How can I sit back and enjoy the death of my culture?

How can I sit and watch a girl’s betrayal of the foundation of her family’s and community’s life and make her parents sit shivah for marrying a non-Jew in a Russian Orthodox Church – the church that was the very epicenter of the belief and teaching that led to the tragedies of the pogroms?

How can I sit through the exodus from Anatevka and remember the lines of Jews, myself included, who were taken captive as slaves and stood  in line to be judged by Mengele? How can I sit through the scenes that remind me of how my family became the fodder for the gas chambers?

Not even the beauty and heartwarming melody associated with the depiction of the Friday night lecht benshen, and the joyful bottle dances and the kozatchkas can overcome the heart tearing images of the destruction of a beautiful Jewish community.

“Fiddler” brings to my mind images of my mother during the bad times, even before we were taken to Birkenau, when she would sigh, “Oy Gotenyu! Wen wilt der Meshiach shoyn kumen?

This Holocaust survivor does not wish to be reminded of a vanished world, and although it was not necessarily a good world, oy mamele, it was a sweet world.



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