Shtetl Stories of Danger and Suspense

April 14, 2021 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

Tevye the Dairyman would fit right in among the rabbis, matchmakers, candlemakers, tailors, and other shtetl types who populate two recent prize-winning novels: The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross and The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits.  But if Tevye were living in these novels, he’d need anti-anxiety medication. Not that Tevye didn’t have plenty of tsores in Anatevka, but at least his woes did not encompass the mysterious disappearances, bandits, murders, and revenge plots that dominate the Gross and Iczkovits shtetl tales. For readers safely at home, however, these stories are grand romps, full of suspenseful twists and turns, humor, and pathos.

The Lost Shtetl

Life in Yiddish-speaking Kreskol has remained unchanged for as long as anyone there can remember. Surrounded by a deep forest and far from Polish urban centers, the village is a self-contained, traditional Jewish world. But when a young woman named Pesha runs away and is pursued by her angry former husband Ishmael, the rabbi is sufficiently concerned to send a third Kreskolite, a young baker’s apprentice named Yankel, to search for Pesha and alert public authorities about the potentially dangerous Ishmael. A crazy cascade of events ensues, landing Yankel in the psychiatric ward of a city hospital. There, incredulous doctors probe his ignorance of modern technology and history – cars, TV, phones, indoor plumbing, and World Wars I and II. They gently break awful news to a disbelieving Yankel. He learns that Kreskol’s Jews are nearly the only Jews left in Poland; the others were wiped out by the Holocaust that the isolated Kreskol miraculously escaped.

Yankel makes a dramatic return to Kreskol, accompanied by government officials eager to welcome the lost shtetl into 21st century Poland. The villagers are dumbfounded by announcements of plans for postal service and electricity. Tourists arrive in busloads, fueling an economic boom, until an accusation that the villagers are faking their remarkable lost-in-history narrative puts Kreskol’s new prosperity at risk. Meanwhile, Yankel moves to Warsaw, and the missing Pesha and Ishmael unexpectedly resurface. The lives of these three characters intertwine in peril-filled adventures of captivity, escape, arson, and death.

The Slaughterman’s Daughter

The Slaughterman’s Daughter opens in 1894, in a shtetl within the Russian Empire. We meet Mende, a struggling young mother abandoned by her husband, Zvi-Meir. Mende’s loyal sister, Fanny, impulsively resolves to find her faithless brother-in-law and sets off for Minsk, his last known location. Her plan is to force Zvi-Meir to grant Mende a divorce, thereby freeing Mende from a miserable existence as an agunah (“chained woman”).

Travel in czarist Russia is hazardous, but Fanny has two sources of protection. One is Zizek, the silent, enigmatic ferryman who inexplicably chooses to accompany Fanny on her mission. The other is the knife that Fanny keeps strapped to her leg, hidden beneath her skirts. Trained as a shohet (kosher slaughterer) by her father, Fanny is renowned for her proficiency in dispatching chickens and lambs. This know-how equips her to expertly slit the throats of murderous bandits and others who threaten Fanny and Zizek as they journey towards Minsk.

With the Czar’s secret police in pursuit, Fanny and Zizek join forces with Zizek’s old army comrade, as well as a ne’er-do-well cantor who sings off-key. This odd quartet finds refuge at a military campsite where Fanny learns about Zizek’s soldier past and the systemic brutality and idiocy of the Russian army. Despite the blood and gore, this is a rollicking, madcap tale, as well as a fine historical novel.