Dr. Magdalena Waligórska at Humboldt University in Berlin leads a team of international scholars in a project aimed at investigating what happened in and to the former shtetls of eastern Europe after the Holocaust left them devoid of their Jewish residents.
In this essay, she describes the project – and, importantly, she also reflects on the inevitable, dramatic impact that the war in Ukraine will have not just on her project, but on the field of Holocaust studies – and memory — in general.
“With the new war, new atrocities against civilians and a new collective trauma, World War II will fade in collective memory, lose its central importance in memorial culture, become overwritten with the experience of the new generations of Ukrainians suffering in the current war,” she argues. “The new war will reconfigure the way WWII will be remembered, but also written about.”
(Cover photo: the Jewish cemetery in Biłgoraj, Poland.)
In Search of the Lost Shtetl (and the impact of the war in Ukraine on the field of Holocaust history)
By Magdalena Waligórska
April 10, 2022
Is the “history of the shtetl after 1944” an oxymoron? Can we even speak of the “shtetl” after the Holocaust, when all these small East European towns that were the locus of Jewish life for centuries lost the communities that defined them?
In 2020 the international team of historians and sociologists that I am leading at the Humboldt University set out to discover “the shtetl after the shtetl” and document the afterlives of the Jewish towns in post-World War II Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Then came the pandemic. And now the war.
What does the war mean for the vestiges of shtetl culture in the region? And what does a new war mean for the memory of World War Two and its significance for local communities? Finally, how does it war affect historical research on Jewish heritage and the Holocaust both short-term and in the long run?
The void left by the Holocaust in this part of Europe is ubiquitous. But nowhere is this loss more poignant, overwhelming, and intimate than in the former shtetls. Perhaps because nowhere else has the void left by murdered Jews (often a majority in town) been more efficiently filled, repopulated, and overwritten.
Although, after 1943, the shtetl as a pattern of Jewish settlement was irreversibly gone, the materiality of Jewish towns lived on. Non-Jews moved into Jewish houses, and continued using Jewish furniture and wearing clothes that belonged to murdered Jews. Children played with exposed human bones in the Jewish cemeteries, and went to schools located in former synagogues.
What brought me to research the post-war shtetl, in fact, was the realization how much of Jewish material heritage was still left in the Eastern European small towns.
For decades after WWII Jewish spaces were still marked as such, Jewish belongings possessed their Jewish “identity,” and the memory of murdered Jewish neighbors was still present in these communities, even if often willfully obscured, plastered over, or retold as a tale of past harmony.
What inspired my project was therefore the question: what happened to the shtetl when it got repopulated by non-Jews? How did they adopt and adapt the material vestiges of Jewish culture? And what happened to the memory of the Jewish shtetl, which migrated together with the survivors to all corners of the world?
If we paint the image of what happened to the shtetl in broad strokes, we end up with the familiar story of neglect and oblivion. To be sure, post-war communist authorities both in Poland and in the Soviet Union had little interest in preserving Jewish built heritage. Neither did the local communities, who quickly appropriated Jewish houses and their contents and found ways to “recycle” whatever other material Jewish heritage was left.
This story is well known. Some temples were just “put to a good use.” The three surviving synagogues in the town of Iŭje, Belarus, were thus converted into a cultural center, a bakery, and a power station, respectively. In Mir, synagogue buildings came to host a school, a student dormitory and a sewing room. The Great Synagogue in Brody was used as a storage space and cafeteria for fairs until, neglected and penetrated by locals in search of “Jewish gold,” it slowly decayed into a ruin. Others were completely wiped out right after the war, like in Berezne, Ukraine, where the synagogue was levelled to the ground in the 1950s. The same happened in the Polish Izbica, where the temple, which survived the war, was demolished and the plot of land where it stood was sold into private hands and built on.
Yet, in order to understand what agency stood behind the decisions to demolish, abandon, or repurpose Jewish sites, and how these attempts to eradicate Jewish material traces affected those who came to inhabit these towns, we need to zoom in and sharpen the lens.
Who decided to use the matzevot from the local cemetery to lay the foundations of the municipal administration building in Berezne? How did schoolchildren in Biłgoraj react when they discovered human bones on their new sports field, built atop of a levelled Jewish cemetery? What did a group of teenagers think, when they were photographing themselves among the gravestones of the Jewish cemetery in Brody? What legends of Jewish treasures circulate in today’s Mir? And what happened to those who desecrated the mass grave in Iŭje in search of valuables?
My team and I chose six case studies to focus on: Izbica and Biłgoraj in eastern Poland; Iŭje and Mir in western Belarus; and Berezne and Brody in western Ukraine. Concentrating on just a few towns, which all had an exceptionally high percentage of Jewish population as of 1939, we hope both to able to provide a more in-depth account of what happened in these localities after the war and compare these developments in a transnational perspective.
The pandemic, and the revolution in Belarus in 2020, already posed a huge challenge to our work. It was difficult to travel, ethically problematic to arrange interviews with elderly citizens, and often impossible to access the archives.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a true earthquake to historical research in situ. Sites we investigate in Western Ukraine, for example in Brody, have been affected by rocket attacks, and our local partners have been drafted into the military, fled the country, or live in constant fear of further attacks.
This war has, however, more far-reaching consequences for Holocaust-related research in Ukraine than the human loss and physical damage, for example, to Jewish heritage sites and archives.
With the new war, new atrocities against civilians and a new collective trauma, World War II will fade in collective memory, lose its central importance in memorial culture, become overwritten with the experience of the new generations of Ukrainians suffering in the current war. The new war will reconfigure the way WWII will be remembered, but also written about. There will be new priorities, but also new taboos and minefields, affecting critical research, for example on Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust or local collaboration with the Nazi occupying forces.
2022 is a rupture, a new caesura that will irrevocably change Europe. It will also deeply affect historical research in the region, possibly for long years to come. My team and I already know that we will never be able to continue our research as before. We believe, however that our work on how war-ravaged communities attempted to rebuild their lives and seek justice in the aftermath of 1944 will help to understand better what Ukraine will have to go through once this present war ends.
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Dr. Magdalena Waligorski is a cultural historian and sociologist at the Center for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, at Humboldt University in Berlin. Her team on this project, launched in 2020 with the support of the Gerda Henkel Foundation, includes historians Alexander Friedman, Ina Sorkina, and Yechiel Weizman as well as sociologist Marta Duch-Dyngosz.
Afterword — Callout to Survivors and Their Descendants
The lockdown also opened for the researchers some channels of inquiry they had not anticipated. As the world switched to the online modus, they were able to contact and interview a number of survivors and their descendants, mapping the global diasporas of the shtetls they investigate. Zooming into the living rooms from Argentina to Australia, they managed to reconstruct the moment of the first return of Holocaust survivors into the shtetl after the liberation, access a wealth of invaluable family documents, and record hundreds of hours of unique accounts.
They would like to therefore use this opportunity to reach out to survivors born in Berezne, Biłgoraj, Brody, Iŭje (Iwje), Izbica, and Mir as well as their descendants.
They are looking for testimonies, photographs, and objects that can shed more light on how Holocaust survivors experienced their first return to their home towns, what migration decisions they took and how, throughout their lives, they maintained a bond with their shtetls.
Contact: Magdalena Waligórska, firstname.lastname@example.org