First, I need to explain that this is not your typical historical novel. In fact, it’s not a novel at all. It consists of the text of a VERY LONG letter one Jewish woman wrote in Yiddish to her children, back in the 1920s. You might wonder why such a letter would be worthy of translation and publication? Here’s why.
The author, Feiga Mirel Shamis, was a widow living in the Russian controlled area of the Pale of Settlement (a geographic area in Europe where Jews were confined during the 19th and 20th centuries). Feiga had 12 children in all. Two had been sent to America while her husband was still alive. Two more she sent to South Africa to be adopted. The text of this book is the letter she wrote to those two children sent to South Africa, explaining what life was like living as a persecuted Jew in one of the thousands of small villages or shtetls that would eventually be erased by the Nazis.
This letter was likely Feiga’s attempt to explain to her children why she sent them away. Though it focuses almost exclusively on her own experiences facing all the “troubles”. Like extreme poverty and the difficulties of finding enough food to feed her large family. Or continually having to move following attacks by various anti-Semitic groups. The discrimination faced when trying to find even meager housing. Family, neighbors and friends routinely murdered. Arsonists regularly burning down homes. Non-stop threats and torture by soldiers, Poles, Russians, police, Cossacks, and other marauding gangs. In fact, the non-stop brutality Feiga describes shows there was really no difference between her day-to-day life living on the Eastern front during World War I or during the subsequent Russian Civil War, and even after that war ended. For Jews, in this area, at this time, continual threats and violence were simply the norm.
Although it’s a very short read (about 50 pages), this book has probably come closest to explaining to me what life was actually like for persecuted Jews during this period. And remember, this is all in the years BEFORE the coming Nazi Holocaust.
While I did not like Feiga, who struck me as a remarkably self-centered person, her letter was able to convey an image of this era, better than several others I’ve read. No wonder millions of Jews emigrated from this area between the 1880s and 1920s. I recommend this book particularly to those with an interest in either Jewish or European history, or in the Holocaust. You will likely ONLY find the book at this Web site, explained below.
This is not a well-known book. It was published in connection with an independent documentary film made recently, based on the story of Feiga and the two children she sent to South Africa (these children went with 170 other orphans). You can find more information about the book and the film, including upcoming showings (some on local PBS stations) of the documentary HERE. I was able to see the film and it helped me understand, for the first time, how the pervasive anti-semitic climate in Europe helped make the coming Nazi Holocaust possible.