Film Review: ‘Shtetlers’ is a Layered Look at the Past and Present of Once-Thriving Jewish Communities

Courtesy of Film Movement

Millions of lives were lost during the Holocaust, and along with them, a culture that cannot truly be replaced. Many Jews had already left Europe in search of a stabler and safer life in America or elsewhere, and those who survived the Holocaust emigrated there and to the ancient homeland of Israel. What exists now of the shtetl communities that used to be prominent throughout Eastern Europe lives mainly in the memories of those few who are still alive and their descendants, who have heard and passed down stories. Shtetlers looks at a number of people in very different places who consider their shtetl experiences to be highly influential in their lives. 

Among those interviewed in Katya Ustinova are Emily, a nonagenarian now living in New York City, and Isaac, a former Soviet soldier. They are some of the only Jews featured in the film, emblematic of how elements of Jewish culture remain in many places where there are no Jews left. Volodya and Nadya are a married couple in Shargorod, Ukraine, where they keep up many traditionally Jewish crafts and rituals taught to them or observed among their departed Jewish neighbors. They understand the meanings behind the elements that are explicitly religious, but they have also come to assign their own nostalgic significance and purpose to much of what they do.

There is an eerie sense of appropriation that pervades this film, which is not the fault of its filmmaker but instead the course of history. Those who once lived in shtetls likely assimilated to a degree upon their arrival to a new home, eager to fit in and not appear different from the locals or any other immigrants. What they left behind may been discarded, misused, or entirely repurposed by those who remain. It need not be nefarious, but there is a disheartening sense of a culture lost and then turned into something else by those without the same connection to it. Many Jews far removed from their relatives who used to live in shtetls will surely recognize things that these non-Jews cite as reminiscent of the now-absent Jews, even if they’re presented in an almost unrecognizable way. 

There is also an interesting focus on those who are Jewish but live a different life than they surely had expected. Vladimir was not born Jewish, but was influenced by his mother’s act of hiding and saving Jews during the Holocaust to convert along with his family. They know reside in the West Bank, where some question his true Judaism. Noah is a rabbi who still lives in Chernovitz but serves an exclusively non-Jewish clientele, Christians who pay for spiritual advice. It’s a practice that some find distasteful and sacrilegious, but those who come to him admire him as an authority figure who has become a pillar of their community.

Shtetlers is not a comprehensive overview of the shtetl experience or a definitive history of the Jewish community in Eastern Europe before and after the Holocaust. But it couldn’t possibly be, since, by nature, each shtetl had its own particular facets and defining characteristics, many of which have been forgotten or lost. Ustinova, who herself has a complex relationship with Judaism, collects the fragments she is able to find. The film’s greatest success is in locating people who both can and want to talk, who remember pieces of a long-gone era and don’t find it too painful to discuss. The experience of watching this film is sure to bring up complicated feelings for anyone with Jewish ancestry in Eastern Europe, which encompasses a large percentage of American Jews. For those with no prior knowledge or connection, this should be viewed as a jumping-off point for further historical research rather than a conclusive chronicle of a way of life that no longer exists in this form.

SCORE: ★★★

Shtetlers premieres on VOD and digital on February 3rd.


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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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