In a Debut Novel, a Shtetl Frozen in Time Meets the 21st Century

April 29, 2021 | Michal Leibowitz
About the author: Michal Leibowitz is a Krauthammer fellow at the Jewish Review of Books.

Located so deep in the Polish forests that its Jews were spared the Holocaust, the town of Kreskol somehow survived to the present day completely cut off from the outside world. Such is the fanciful premise of Max Gross’s The Lost Shtetl, whose plot is driven by the sudden end of these Jews’ isolation. Michal Leibowitz writes in her review:

You’d think this sort of third- or fourth-generation, oh-so-clever riff on shtetl nostalgia wouldn’t work, let alone be sometimes rib-crackingly funny, but Gross pulls it off with the kind of flair that Seth Rogen—whose recent turn as an Ashkenazi Rip Van Winkle in An American Pickle showed just how unfunny such a premise could be—should envy. In part, it’s a matter of commitment. Gross’s novel is well thought out (especially when it comes to explaining what bizarre agglomeration of events might have led to the town’s isolation in the first place), and he’s willing to dive deep into all the possible effects of his alternate-history premise.

But it’s not all just silliness. Consider what happens when, after the world has already begun to doubt the authenticity of Kreskol, a swastika appears on one house in the village. The vandalism seems like the beginning of a dreadful decline in Kreskol’s relationship with its Gentile neighbors (and indeed, it is). But in a darkly comedic moment, the villagers, having missed World War II, need to have the insult explained to them.

Poland’s failure to grapple with the Holocaust drives The Lost Shtetl to its disquieting conclusion, which I won’t reveal. However, I will note that this is where Gross’s fantastical premise is at its most effective. For it’s the very fact of the book’s fantasy that makes many of its other elements both so funny and so heartbreaking, as though even in this wild, improbable alternate reality, some truths cannot be changed.

Read more on Jewish Review of Books:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now