- There Once Was a World, A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok
If one were to have walked the streets of the shtetl Eishyshok on a summer day in the first decades of the twentieth century, one would have been accompanied by the steady hum of Singer sewing machines. By the 1920s, most of the town’s tailors and seamstress workshops—and, indeed, nearly all young Jewish women—had come to rely on the machines. And if one were to have walked along the streets of this town, one might happen by the garden of Hayya Sonenson, rare among Jewish gardens in that it boasted a colorful array of flowers as well as the vegetables upon which the town’s Jewish residents relied. If one were to have wandered into the town’s bathhouse (located near a tributary of the river Kantil on Bod Gessl, Bathhouse Lane), to be bled by leeches, perhaps, or to receive a massage, one would undoubtedly have encountered the Jewish barber Alter der Sherer and his assistants, themselves Muslim Tatars and Christians.
One can, of course, still walk the streets of Eishyshok (Eisiskes, as it is known in Lithuanian), but in the wake of the Holocaust, its Jewish corners must be reconstructed and remembered rather than witnessed. At least until recently. For with the publication of Yaffa Eliach’s extraordinary There Once Was a World, one can—borrowing from the Eishyshkian Yiddish proverb—become “farkrokhn in Eishyshok” (lost in Eishyshok) once again. This work, the product of seventeen years of exhaustive, indeed obsessive research, succeeds in reconstructing Jewish Eishyshok with staggering detail and grace. In it, the sounds, smells, and richness of Jewish Eishyshok are remarkably palpable: one perceives a town that was very much alive and entirely unaware that it could be extinguished.
As Eliach attests her in introduction, this project was born of a single goal, to “re- create for readers the vanished Jewish market town I had once called home.” To this end, Eliach meticulously reconstructs the 900-year history of this town, paying particular attention to its vibrancy in the first decades of the twentieth century and to the gruesome fate of Eishyshok’s Jewish residents during the Holocaust. “I was deter mined,” Eliach writes, “to find some kind of authentic documentation, visual or written, archival or anecdotal, on every Jewish person who had lived in the shtetl in the [End Page 141] twentieth century, including those who had emigrated from it, those who had been privileged to die a natural death in it, those who perished there or nearby during the Holocaust, and the handful of Holocaust survivors who had somehow lived to tell the tale.” The results can be found not only in There Once Was a World, but also in the 1,500 photographs of Eishyshkians and Eishyshok life that line the walls of the Tower of Life in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., an exhibit that Eliach created.
These extraordinary artistic and scholarly endeavors were imagined not only because Eliach herself is an Eishyshkian, but because she saw in the town “a paradigm of Eastern European shtetl life.” In many ways Eishyshok was a typical shtetl, and one can read in this volume of those institutions, practices, and personalities that defined Jewish Eastern Europe: the shulhoyf, the Bathhouse and the cemetery, the rabbis and rebbetzins, coachmen, shoemakers, and beggars, the weekly Sabbath meals and annual Elul services, the radicals, educators, and children, the mud, rows of poplars, and sunflowers. But Eishyshok was also unique: a town at the crossroads of Poland, Lithuania, and Russia and at the junction of roads linking Warsaw, Bialystok, Grodno, Vilna, and Lida; a town that had been in existence since 1061; a town with a world- renowned Yeshivah; a town only forty miles from the cultural center of Vilna; and a town that was filled with individuals. There Once Was A World is impressive as a chronicle of Jewish Eastern Europe, well researched...