By Max Gross



407pp/$27.99/November 2020

The Lost Shtetl
Cover by Stephen Brayda

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

There is a long tradition of lost world novels. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Professor Challenger's visit to a lost world in 1912 and Edgar Rice Burroughs describes Tarzan's visit to a lost Roman outpost in 1928. What separates Max Gross's debut novel, The Lost Shtetl from most of these lost world novels is that Gross focuses his attention on the community that is isolated from the rest of the world rather than the reaction the world, or a group of explorers, has to the discovery of the enclave.

Gross begins his story in the village of Kreskol in Poland. Long cut off from the rest of the country by a thick forest, Kreskol was populated entirely of Jews who lived a simple life indistinguishable for the way people lived in the nineteenth century, the last time they had any real dealings with outsiders. Unaware of the two world wars, the use of electricity, or other modern conveniences, it was a own untouched by time. When Pesha Landauer decided to divorce her husband, Ishmael, however, the repercussions would be felt throughout the village and country.

Although Ishmael and Pesha's failed marriage sparks the events that Gross covers, both of them disappear for a significant part of the novel. The focus, instead, is on Yankel Lewinkopf, a bastard and a schlemiel who is sent forth from Kreskol to reach out to the secular authorities concerning Pesha's disappearance, for the villagers are convinced that she has been killed by Ishmael, who then fled the town. Yankel's fish-out-of-water adventure to the nearby town of Smolskie does not go as expected for him and eventually results in the world discovering Kreskol and Kreskol discovering the twenty-first century.

Gross's style is light and engaging. In a few deft strokes, he is able to bring to life the characters of Kreskol from Yankel to Reb Sokolow and Reb Katznelson in his modern day Anatevka. Just as in the village created by Sholom Aleichem and made famous in Fiddler on the Roof, the citizens of Kreskol mostly get along with each other, separated as they are from outsiders, at least until they don't, a situation exacerbated, but certainly not introduced by the opening up of the village to the entire world.

The novel does take some turns that are unexpected, revealing secrets of Kreskol's history to the reader just as the history of the world outside the village are revealed to the citizens of Kreskol. Separated from Poland and safe from the Holocaust that happened in the previous century, the opening of the road also opens the village to the casual anti-Semitism that managed to survive the worst excesses of World War II. Briefly viewed as a hidden wonder, the village's mere existence draws the attention of those who would destroy anything Jewish in the world, although there is always a veneer of rationalism and logic to hide the anti-Semitism that underlies it.

While The Lost Shtetl is the story of Kreskol, what really makes the story work is Gross's depicture of his characters and, although he appears and disappears from the narrative, the hapless Yankel is the driving force for much of the story of Kreskol and one of the few citizens who is shown interacting with both the village and villagers and the citizens of greater Poland. A bastard in Kreskol who was unwanted by his relatives, Yankel is just as much an outcast in Sokolow, Lodz, and Warsaw, but he expects to be an outcast in those places and it is there that he learns who he is.

Gross's debut novel shows that he understands the elements of his story and he is able to present the village of Kreskol and its inhabitants in a quirky, yet realistic light. He has created a small Brigadoonesque village that is enticing for its separation from the rest of the world. Although the defining moment that it was separated was the Holocaust, the rest of the century in seclusion is just as important in creating the mindset of those who live in Kreskol and, eventually, those Poles he discover the hidden shtetl in the middle of a dense forest.

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