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Poetic Fables and Guarded Secrets in “The Lost Shtetl”

Poetic Fables and Guarded Secrets in “The Lost Shtetl”

Deep in the forests of eastern Poland, the town of Kreskol lies forgotten. Through an improbable combination of bureaucratic negligence, unfriendly relations with other Jewish towns, and favorable geography, the Jews of Kreskol — the world’s last shtetl — have escaped the great onslaughts of the twentieth century (the Great War; the Holocaust; Polish Communism; Shock Therapy) completely intact. And all this through no special effort of their own; isolated from Jews and gentiles alike for generations, Kreskol’s inhabitants have led their late-nineteenth-century lives unaware of the epochal events transpiring around them — that is, until one night, when Pesha Lindauer, a young divorcee, goes missing. 

Everyone in town presumes she’s fled to the nearby town of Smolskie, just beyond the forest, a place no Kreskolite has visited for over a century. When Pesha’s unstable ex-husband soon disappears after her rumors spread about a murder either already committed or in the works. As law-abiding subjects of the Czar, Kreskol’s leaders decide to file a police report, and Yankel Lewinkopf — baker-in-training and bastard, “an orphan whom nobody would miss ”— is given the task of traveling to Smolskie to alert the authorities. When, several months later, Yankel, long since believed to have died, returns home in a Polish government helicopter accompanied by a troop of officials and anthropologists, the spell is broken. History has finally caught up with Kreskol.

The story of Kreskol’s rediscovery forms the basis for The Lost Shtetl, the imaginative debut novel from journalist Max Gross. Beginning with a magical premise, Gross’s novel soon takes a realistic turn, depicting in vivid detail the ins and outs of Kreskol’s tortuous encounter with the modern world. After the shock of first contact wears off, the people of Kreskol must navigate a dizzying array of problems as they are brought into the Poland of (pre-COVID-19) 2020, including currency revaluations, postal systems, Israeli and American tourism, a construction boom, intramural factionalism, and finally a media circus fed by opportunistic members of Law and Justice, Poland’s far-right ruling party. But Kreskol’s encounter with modernity overlaps with a second, equally tortuous story: the romance that gradually develops between Yankel and Pesha. Though both stories are told with wit and warmth, neither ends happily. There is no place in the modern world for Kreskol, and no place anywhere for Yankel and Pesha.

While on the whole a well-executed first novel, The Lost Shtetl is not without its flaws. The dialogue lags at times, and there are a few scenes that would have benefited from substantial further emendation. For example: the novel concludes with Yankel saying the Jewish prayer Shema alone in the woods, following some off-topic musings about fathers and forefathers; it’s hokey, and no way to end a story. Happily, scenes like this are few and far between, and Gross deserves credit for bringing some novelty and nuance to a milieu where cliché is the order of the day. Though stuck in the 1890s, the provincial inhabitants of Gross’s Kreskol are neither rubes nor yokels and resist easy pigeonholing as Tevye or Motel Kamzoil lookalikes. Throughout the novel, Gross endows Kreskol’s residents with intelligence and an ability to make judgments based on interests rather than passions. This sets The Lost Shtetl apart from the many trope-ridden works in which the denizens of the shtetl — and Yiddish speakers more generally — are denied their rational faculties, whether as happy-go-lucky hicks or perpetual sufferers.

Not that Gross doesn’t make use of Kreskol’s characters and their situation for comic (or tragicomic) effect; the outdated ways of Kreskol’s provincial inhabitants and the absurdity of their general situation do make for some successful humorous sequences. But more often Gross’s characters are busy trying to figure out how to make their way in a world that has long since left them behind. Their triumphs and travails in the face of encroaching modernity are alternately amusing, affecting, and convincing.

But Kreskol’s halting accommodation with the modern world is not to last long. By the final scenes of The Lost Shtetl, the fate of Kreskol converges with that of Europe’s millions of murdered shtetl Jews, even if the town’s inhabitants are not actually killed; Kreskol and its inhabitants disappear from the timeline, exiting history just as quickly as they reentered it. When Yankel, his desperate attempts to recover Pesha having hit a dead end, finally tries to return home, he discovers the roads to Kreskol blocked and the forest impassable; the town has literally vanished into the woods.

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Even after Kreskol has survived the initial onslaught, true survival in modernity is impossible. Indeed, at several points in the novel, characters make the case — a kind of variation on Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis in the Dialectic of the Enlightenment — that the Holocaust was but a particular case in a general process of modernization. When one of the town’s anti-modern leaders, Rabbi Katznelson, is fighting for the rejection of the Polish government’s attempts to regularize Kreskol’s currency, he cites the Holocaust and other massacres in a rococo speech urging non-compliance. Another Kreskolite asks Katznelson, somewhat confused, “What does it [the Holocaust] have to do with the currency exchange?” To this Katznelson angrily replies, “It has everything to do with it!” Post office, currency exchange, Holocaust: modernity, if allowed to run its course, will destroy the shtetl one way or another. Towards the end of the novel, Gross drives this point home again somewhat more explicitly, this time through Yankel’s own musings. “The modern world,” Yankel reflects in resigned wonder, has an “insistence on obliterating life’s most poetic fables and closely guarded secrets.”

Indeed, modernity even obliterates the ability of the author to imagine an ending in which the shtetl survives; though free to develop his magical-realist timeline however he so wishes, Gross cannot bring himself to let Kreskol continue any further into the twenty-first century. This is perhaps disappointing. But we shouldn’t blame the author for the town’s second, final disappearance; we knew, on some level, what we were getting into. The book is called The Lost Shtetl for a reason.

The Lost Shtetl
By Max Gross
Published October 13, 2020

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