Author Eva Hoffman explores the relationships created by the longtime proximity of Jews and Catholic Poles in Bransk, Poland, near Brest on the Nurzek River in SHTETL: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A SMALL TOWN AND THE WORLD OF POLISH JEWS. She aims to “complicate and historicize” this unique “multicultural experiment,” developing different images of Polish anti-Semitism.
In the eleventh century Jews fled German and Saxon lands and entered Poland. Because of the traditional emphasis placed on education and learning, Jewish immigrants were hired before the local people to manage the estates and financial matters of wealthy Polish nobles. Much of Polish Catholic anti-Semitism can be traced to this preferential employment pattern.
Hoffman also examines the complex class divisions that arose among Jews themselves: those who worked for the aristocracy; “the early Jewish bourgeoisie” of merchants and traders; and a lower artisan class of “cobblers, carpenters, and blacksmiths.” These divisions could lead to fierce struggles over such matters as the taxes levied by the “kahal,” the supervisory group made up of wealthy elders. In this context, religion served as a crucial unifying force.
With the partitioning of Poland in 1815, Bransk became part of Russia. During World War I, internal divisions increased as some Jews sided with the Russians, approving of the international socialist platform, while others cheered the Germans. This attitude changed dramatically on the eve of World War II, when even the Polish citizens feared the German army.
The last section of Hoffman’s book explores the motives and influences of Poles in their cooperation with—or disobedience of—Nazi orders in the extermination project. She also pleads for a renewed conversation about the troubled “marital” history of Poles and Jews, a marriage which persistently showed both sides to be deficient in envisioning a positive domain of commonality.