A Shtetl, as defined by Yehuda Bauer, was a small town where 1,000 to 15,000 Jews formed at least one-third of the population and whose life was regulated by the Jewish calendar and customs derived from a traditional interpretation of the Jewish religion. Shtetlach (the plural of Shtetl) were a widespread feature of Central and Eastern Europe before the Second World War, but none survived Nazi invasion and none were established or re-established afterwards.
For the purposes of this book, Bauer has looked closely at six representative Shtetlach in an area known as the Kresy. The Kresy was in Poland before 1939, but since 1945 different parts of it have been attached to Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. Bauer has looked at records relating to the Jewish populations of his chosen Shtetlach, and post-war testimonies from some of the perhaps 25,000 Jewish Kresy residents who survived the war, two per cent of the pre-war population of 1.25 million.
The history of some Shtetlach extended back to the Middle Ages, when many Jews moved into the area at the bidding of Polish, Lithuanian and other landowners, to serve as their agents with the peasantry and to work as craftsmen. The Jews, who were responsible for collecting taxes and were permitted to distil and sell spirits, were not popular with the peasantry, but the landlords provided protection against peasant uprisings, as the Jews in turn shielded the landlords. The lack of social interaction with the peasantry (there were of course exceptions) proved costly to the Jews during the Nazis' extermination campaign, for the countryside was just about the only safe place to hide. To survive there, Jews needed the active support of peasants (who, in hiding, feeding and refraining from betraying Jews placed themselves and their families in great danger). Some Jews hid in the forests, where they again needed the support of peasants living on the forest margins, and some joined forest-based partisan units. For young, fit Jewish men able to provide their own weapon, joining a Soviet partisan group offered a better survival rate than most alternatives (though was still a very hazardous existence), but that outlet was available to only a few, and the partisan movement did not gain momentum until the Red Army began to regain the territory, by which time the great majority of Jews were already dead. For the most part, Ukrainian Nationalist partisans (as distinct from the Soviet partisans, who mainly operated in Belarus) were not helpful to Jews, but were murderously hostile, themselves killing thousands of both Jews and Poles.
Bauer is successful in building a detailed picture of individuals and groups as they struggled to survive. Confronted by a monumental evil, they had no previous individual or communal experience of genocide, nor in most cases any concept of it, and were unable to form a coherent response to combat or escape it. Bauer is also successful in placing tentative numbers on many aspects of his study, and in identifying important differences between north and south Kresy that much affected survival rates, such as they were. If Bauer doesn't quite nail the way of life in a Shtetl, especially pre-20th century, perhaps that is for want of detailed written accounts; and if he similarly falls short on the horrors of ghetto life, the shootings, forced labour camps, the transports, the gas chambers, perhaps he shrank from that, or the survivors' tales he read did so.