Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Shtetlers, Documenting Jewish Communities

They were surrounded by a healthy spirit of community and crushed by sinister ideologies. The Jewish villages known as Shtetls that were once spread throughout Russia and former Captive Nations like Ukraine and Moldova hardly exist anymore, but they are still remembered. Documentarian Katia Ustinova records the memories of former shtetl residents and their Orthodox neighbors in Shtetlers, which releases this Friday on VOD.

In many cases, the modest homes are still there, or at least their remnants. Ustinova talks to several remaining neighbors, like the haberdasher, who apprenticed under a Jewish craftsman, whom he still reveres. Watching
Shtetlers somewhat contradicts the notion that Shtetl residents faced constant, unremitting antagonism from their gentile neighbors.

This is particularly true of Vladimir Gorbulsky, whose Orthodox mother saved dozens of Jewish neighbors during WWII. Now a convert to Judaism, his visit to Yad Vashem, where his mother is memorialized, is one of the film’s emotional highpoints.

Of course, there were indeed plenty of informers among their Orthodox neighbors. Throughout
Shtetlers, Ustinova and her interview subjects make it clear how Soviet Jewry suffered from the one-two-three punch of living under Soviet rule, German occupation, and then back to Soviet domination. One survivor remembers his uncle refused to evacuate ahead of the German army’s arrival, because he hated the Soviets so much. Tragically, you can easily guess his fate. Regardless, throughout the film, survivors and witness refer back to the orchestrated anti-Semitic campaigns conducted by the Communist regimes, during the Stalinist era and afterward.

Somehow, Ustinova keeps the tone relatively optimistic and uplifting. Those who survived went on to live long, rich lives. The reunions she witnesses are heartfelt and meaningful.
 Plus, the evocative animated title sequences are surprisingly charming.Shtetlers is relatively modest in scope, but it is still an important film, especially now, when anti-Semitism and ideological extremism are on the rise. Recommended for its history and its messages, Shtetlers releases this Friday (3/2) on VOD.