Interviewed: Vladimir Gorbulsky, Noikh Kafmansky, Emilia Kessler, Volodya Malishevsky and Isaac Vainshelboum
Director/Scrip/Cinematographer: Katya Ustinova
Composer: Amit May Cohen and Anna Drubich
Cinematography: Maksim Musiyan and Katya Ustinova
Not rated but could be PG 13
Running Length: 96 Minutes
Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish language with English subtitles

Small villages in parts of Russia were called “shtetls” (village) and people who lived there were Shtetlers.  A mix of Christianity and Judaism lived side by side in harmony. On Sunday morning, a Jewish woman may help her Christian neighbors by milking their family cow while that family was in church, and then on Saturday, the Christian woman would milk the Jewish family’s cow while they were at the synagogue. If one had a torn coat, the other had needle and thread and would mend it. Side by side without animosity as opposed to what is happening in Israel right now. This documentary by filmmaker Katya Ustinova details life in several shtetls as she accompanies people with their memories who used to live there.

The people in the shtetl’s were in fear of the Stalin regime during and after WWII, so when Stalin died, there was quite a celebration and a sense of somewhat freedom. People began to leave the area and live elsewhere so by 2020 and beyond, the buildings were falling apart.

Director Ustinova follows the lives of five Jewish/non-Jewish residents as they tell us their life in the past, where they live now and what they are going.  It is wonderful  to think of a small town that warmed its hearts toward neighbors of a different religion. So, we meet Vladimir, Noikh, Emilia, Volodya and Isaac as they tell their stories. All of this is accompanied by gentle music that adds to the closeness the people have to their past.  To earn money, one must have a trade so a Jewish man who made hats, taught a non-Jew how to do this and gave him an occupation for life. A non-Jewish person made cooking mats out of reeds  to use in cooking fish (gefelta fish) a certain way. Did you know you could take the wheel out of a large clock and use it to roll across dough in making matzo for Passover? The matzo has to have tiny air holes. However, you could never mention in public what you ate, during the Stalin regime. Spies everywhere.

Today, people who moved now live in places such as Brighton Beach (USA) and paint pictures of shtetls of the past to remember them. Another woman is now a famous musician in New York City, performing with violin and mandolin. Another non-Jew knew how to forge documents for people to escape. A name for a certain person who did this dangerous work secretly is now remembered in Israel as a “Righteous One.” And yet another, who remained in Russia, goes to the Jewish cemetery there and tends to the graves and gravestones. He says, “Mary and Joseph and Jesus were Jews, we breath the same air.”

“Shtetlers” is a warm film, filled with information about a former life in a quiet area of Russia. Neighbors were friends, taught each other trades, celebrated each other’s holidays and hoped for peace around them. Today, with the onset of the war currently in the Middle East, one wonders if history is repeating itself with war after war. One can only hope for peace and a quiet life as in a shtetl. This is a film for all to see.

Copyright 2023 Marie Asner