Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A New View of Ancestors' Lives via "The Golden Age Shtetl"

Having read a recent review of The Golden Age Shtetl, I dove in for insights into my ancestors' lives in early 19th-century Eastern Europe.

Fiddler on the Roof is one way to look at shtetl life--but not the only way. This book shows the shtetl in its heyday, decades before pogroms drove many (including my ancestors) to leave for good. Although it focuses on shtetls in what is now central Ukraine, its observations apply to a great many shtetls that ultimately came under Russian dominance.

As other reviews and interviews have noted, I was surprised to learn that many shtetls were not impoverished, shabby, shanty towns. In the mid-1800s and earlier, they were often thriving settlements with the right to hold lucrative market days at regular intervals. Some shtetls were quite large, others rather small. The homes weren't dark and dingy--many were brightly colored, as suggested by the book jacket above (picture painted by the book's author).

For family and business reasons, marriages were planned between wealthy merchants when their children were quite young--sometimes only 11. Ordinary families, however, had few assets to consider and could afford to let love make the match. Because of tax consequences, such families might wait a long time to register their children, which of course complicates present-day searches for ancestors who were children in the early and mid-1800s.

The photos and sketches of shtetl homes and synagogues were eye-opening. The sketch on p. 245 is, in my mind, a smaller, wooden precursor of the larger, more solidly-built restaurant that our family long ago operated on the market road to Ungvar (a bustling city then part of Hungary, now Uzhorod, Ukraine). The main floor was where guests were served, the upper floor was for family use, and the lower levels and outbuildings were for supplies and storage. The family also had a mill and cows to supply the restaurant.

The Golden Age Shtetl goes into considerable detail (both a plus and a minus) but it also gave me several ideas for further research into the daily lives of my ancestors in Hungary, Lithuania, and Latvia.


  1. Marion, it looks like a good book to spend some time with.

    1. I learned a lot but the author assumes some prior knowledge of history and religion--and there were sections with too much detail for my purposes. Still, I found it a fascinating portrait of people and places that shaped my ancestors' past.