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The Study of a Man.how the Polish Jew Saw His World

The Study of a Man.how the Polish Jew Saw His World

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Published by levinas

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Published by: levinas on Jan 14, 2010
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08/29/2010

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Commentary Online
The Study of Man: 
How the PolishJew Saw His World
Celia Stopnicka Rosenthal
From issue:
July 1954
 
This sociological picture of the culture and values of a typical East European small-townJewish community has had in large part to be reconstructed, now that the long chapter of Jewish history which it recalls has come to a tragic close. Celia Stopnicka Rosenthal, thoughborn in Stryj, Poland (in 1922), lived in Stoczek herself from 1925 to 1938, and draws on herown memories, but she also bases her study (which she hopes to expand into a book) onintensive interviews of ten survivors of that shtetl, and on the autobiographies of sevenformer residents who now live in Israel. Thus the generalizations she offers are not drawnfrom direct observation
as, ideally, they should be
but from recollection, which can oftenbe treacherous. But fate has, alas, left the student of the
shtetl
no other method.
 _____________ Fifty-five miles from Warsaw in central Poland, the town of Stoczek numbered around 4,000inhabitants in the period between the two world wars. It had a public school, a sawmill, twoflour mills, and an electric power plant, but its only direct communication with the outsideworld was a rickety bus-line to Warsaw. Without large industries, the town served mainly as atrade and service center for the peasants around it.Every Tuesday
which was market day
the main square, with its adjoining streets, waspacked with the stands of merchants and crafts-men, and with the horse-drawn carts of peasants who brought their produce to town. On Friday nights, however, the streets would bealmost completely deserted, and through the windows of the one-story houses one could see
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Commentary Online
candles twinkling over Sabbath suppers. For 2,500 of Stoczek's inhabitants
over half 
wereJews.Despite their numbers, the Jews of Stoczek were always aware of their position as adisfavored, and often a persecuted, minority. The awareness of belonging to a group that hadto maintain itself amid a sea of enemies shaped the entire outlook of every Jew in Stoczek.Anti-Jewish feeling was very strong among the Poles, many of whom still believed that Jewspracticed the ritual murder of Gentile children. Such sentiments, rooted in ignorance andresentment, were exploited by an outspokenly fascist and anti-Semitic political party callingitself the
 “
Camp of National Unity,
” 
whose agitation bore fruit in bloody pogroms, inuniversity
 “
ghettos
” 
where Jewish students sat apart from others at lectures, in incidents thatsaw Gentile students pushing Jewish students out of the windows of school buildings, in aboycott of Jewish stores
in short, in a general atmosphere of hatred. Though Jews were inthe numerical majority in Stoczek, they suffered under anti-Semitism just as much as Jewselsewhere in Poland did. Gangs of Gentile adolescents would attack Jewish children bodily,throw stones at Jewish grown-ups, and set dogs on Jews in general. No pogrom actually tookplace in Stoczek, but once one was only narrowly, and by luck, averted. _____________ No wonder the Jews of Stoczek felt the present as grim and hopeless. Robert S. Lynd said in
Middletown in Transition
,
 “
One of the most sensitive approaches to the values and
 ‘
spirit
’ 
of aculture is through scrutiny of the way in which the culture . . . orients itself with regard to theconcept of the
 ‘
future
’ 
as over the
 ‘
past
’ 
and
 ‘
present
’ 
. . . .
” 
But the Jews of Stoczek alsoconceived of the present as a transition period that would eventuate in a glorious future
afuture that would see their return to Israel and be a continuation of the proud past. Just asthe past itself was not too distant, and such of its fruits as the Torah were still enjoyed, sothe great future, too, was not too far off. The Messiah might come any day.Optimism and confidence as to the future were mixed with pessimism as to the present. Thatthe Jews in Stoczek regarded the present as long-drawn-out and oppressive is reflected intheir sayings. An object hard to move because of its weight was characterized as being
 “
asheavy as Jewish misfortunes.
” 
If something that people disliked persisted for long, they said
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Commentary Online
that
 “
It is as long as the Jewish exile.
” 
Yet the present did afford some joys and satisfactions
the joy of learning and thesatisfaction of rearing one's children. It is significant that the joy which the Jew of Stoczekhad in the present was closely tied to the past, and that his hope lay in a less than immediatefuture. He lived on, sure in the conviction that the Jewish people, though persecuted, wouldcontinue to exist. The words of the Haggadah recited at Seder
—” 
More than one man hasrisen up against us, and in every generation there rise up against us those who seek todestroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers us from their hand
”—
expressed theaverage Jew's vivid belief.Thus the Stoczek Jew had two conceptions of the present: one with regard to life in theGentile world outside, and one with regard to life among his own. While the first
 “
present
” 
 was sharply dissociated from the proud past and glorious future, the latter was regarded asan integral link in time's chain. _____________ Individual life, like time
 “
among one's own
” 
generally, was looked upon as a steady flowingstream with no sharp breaks in it. The age of freedom was not differentiated distinctly fromthat of responsibility, for responsibility began with childhood and continued after death. Aman who had failed to discharge his obligations while alive was believed to do so after death.No particular stage of human life was idealized or glorified; each was thought to have itscompensations. In childhood one was considered to have freedom from anxiety; in maturity,the joys of building a household; in old age, the respect of others. People looked back with acertain nostalgia on their childhoods, but no one tried to prolong his or her youth, or lingerwith it. Just as there was no sharp break between youth and maturity, so there was no suchbreak between this world and the next, it being believed that the dead could return, and did.This notion of life as a continuous process was reflected in many aspects of the Jewish cultureof Stoczek. Learning was thought of, not as a process stopping at a given time or point, butas continuing to the end of life.
 “
The Torah has no bottom
” 
went the saying. The conceptionof learning as an unending process is reflected in the terms applied to a scholar. He was notreferred to as a
 “
learned man
”—
rather,
 “
He knows how to study,
” 
or
 “
He is a great learner.
” 
 
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