The Shtetl

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Think!

The buildings are brightly coloured which makes the houses appear child-like and friendly. It almost feels as though we are witnessing a childhood memory.

  • What other techniques does the artist use to convey the impression of ‘dreams’ or ‘memory’ ?
  • Given the biography of the artist, why might she have chosen to depict the Stetl scene in this way?
  • What evidence of the traditional shtetl way of life can we see in the painting?

The telegraph pole and the street lamp show the influence of the modern world.

  • Is there any other evidence of the modern world in the painting?

Biography

Chana Kowalska was born in 1904 in Wlockawek, Poland and was the daughter of a rabbi. She started drawing at the age of 16 and became a school teacher at the age of 18.

In 1922, she moved to Berlin and later to Paris. She worked as a journalist and wrote articles about painting for Jewish newspapers.

During the Second World War she worked for the French Resistance. Arrested by the Gestapo, she was first imprisoned with her husband, then deported and shot by the Nazis in 1941.

For more information about the art resources of the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning click here.

The painting shows a traditional village ‘Shtetl’ in Eastern Europe during the 1930s.

A Shtetl is the Yiddish word used to describe the small towns or villages of Jewish communities which were commonly found in Russia or Poland during the 19th and 20th centuries. The village’s population consisted mainly of Jewish residents although non-Jewish residents also resided within some of these communities.

The Shtetl was typically seen as a rural market town, with the residents living a simple life centred on religion, community, family and tradition. All of these activities focused on living the life of a ‘good Jew’.

Life in the Shtetl however began to change with the economic and political upheavals of the 1900s across Europe and Russia.

As in all industrial countries of the age, the rural population began moving into the rapidly expanding industrial cities. This was particularly prevalent in Soviet Russia where the ruling Bolshevik or Communist party placed great emphasis on industrialisation and production targets through measures such as Stalin’s Five Year Plans. As a result of these changes many Jews and non-Jews alike moved out of the countryside and away from rural life.

In Kowalska’s painting we see a view of everyday life in these communities. The old way of life continues, here the residents are seen fetching their own water from the communal well, but it is being encroached upon by the new industrial world. The telegraph wires and street lamps show the arrival of modern amenities. 

Entire villages rounded up

In 1941, less than 10 years after this painting was produced, the Nazis breached their pact with Stalin and invaded Russia. In the months that followed over 500,000 Soviet Jews were killed by Nazi soldiers.

By 1942 Nazi leaders were looking for more organised and faster methods of killing, in January of that year they met to discuss the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish problem. In many cases entire villages were rounded up and deported to labour or concentration camps. The Holocaust physically wiped out any semblance of these villages from Eastern Europe.

Today this distinct folk/traditional way of life is often remembered and celebrated by the descendants of those villagers who emigrated before the war began, many of whom settled in areas as far afield as America.