The Lost Shtetl: Fiddler on the Roof Meets Harry Potter
The Lost Shtetl
By Max Gross (HarperVia)
Judging by The Lost Shtetl, his brilliant debut novel, author Max Gross is the metaphysical love child of Sholem Aleichem and J.K. Rowling.
Gross’s lost shtetl is Kreskol, a tiny Polish village straight out of Fiddler on the Roof. It is a magical place that has remained unchanged for a century, avoiding detection by the rest of Poland—and the rest of the world.
An undiscovered village in the 21st century? Preposterous. But part of what makes Gross’s book so—excuse the pun—engrossing is that the author, with warmth and wry humor, makes this questionable premise believable.
Once upon a time, Kreskol was a typical Polish village. When a priest dies in the middle of his anti-Semitic sermon, the local Christians come to believe Jews are wizards, capable of cursing and killing their enemies.
The Christians abandon the village, spreading rumors of Jewish magic to neighboring communities that soon fear trading with Kreskol’s now all-Jewish population. With no commercial traffic in or out, the surrounding forest takes over and obscures the one road leading to the outside world.
Untouched by the Holocaust, the Cold War and the internet, the Jews of Kreskol live their lives the way their grandparents did, as matchmakers and farmers, gossips and rabbis.
But then a chain of events changes everything. Newlywed Pasha runs away from the village and her abusive husband, who disappears, too. Yankel, a baker’s apprentice, is sent after them by the rabbi to alert the authorities outside the town about possible foul play.
In a classic fish-out-of-water bit, Yankel is mystified by what he sees—carts that move by themselves, lights that turn from red to green and back without assistance. The Poles, in turn, are mystified by him, with his strange dress and archaic language, and they don’t believe him when he describes his home.
Institutionalized in a psychiatric ward, it takes months for Yankel to convince the authorities that he isn’t crazy or lying. But once he does, the government decides to return him and help the shtetl—if only for public relations. “This little village had the potential to become a big media story—a modern-day Brigadoon, if you will—and everyone should be prepared,” notes one official.
News of the discovery brings tourists, forcing Kreskol’s Jews into the modern world. And the village becomes divided between those who embrace change, and tourist money, and those who prefer their old-world ways. Are Kreskol and its inhabitants better off being “lost”? Or is change inevitable, even preferred?
Curt Schleier, a freelance writer, teaches business writing to corporate executives.
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