The shtetls were the small towns and extended villages of the Polish-Russian Pale of Settlement, which until the second world war was home to between a third and a half of the Jews of Europe. We can catch glimpses of what they were like in the paintings of Chagall and the writings of authors such as Sholem Aleichem, Peretz and the Singer brothers. From the start this literary world of learned rabbis, sturdy butchers and beautiful young women was something of a nostalgic never-never land, now preserved only in benign memory on the far and unreachable side of the century's great divide. A few churlish historians might try to enquire into the growing tensions that were splitting the shtetl from within and threatening it from without; but how could their dry and impersonal work compete with the lively and humorous human dramas served up by the story-tellers? Those who cared about the subject were more likely to be drawn instead to the dozens of remarkable postwar memorial books, in which survivors collected all the information they could find about their community, its institutions and its families and then published this in small privately printed editions in Yiddish or Hebrew.
Yaffa Sonenson was a little girl born into a large and prosperous Jewish family shortly before the second world war. They owned fields and a tannery and seem to have lived well. Despite the growing anti-Semitism of the Polish authorities, which caused so many Jews in the 1930s to despair of the impoverished shtetls of the region, the Sonensons' town of Eishyshok preserved a vibrant religious and cultural life. Then the war broke out, and this life was destroyed for ever.
During the first world war the German army had occupied the town and treated its Jews much better than the Poles and Russians had done before them. In the autumn of 1939, therefore, many people in Eishyshok had fond memories of German soldiers. Two years later, however, in September 1941, an SS death squad, assisted by Lithuanian auxiliaries, massacred the town's Jews. Over two days, nearly 5,000 men, women and children were held in the market square, from where they were marched to the town's outskirts, gunned down and buried in mass graves. Among the 720 Jews who managed to escape were members of the Sonenson family. Together with her parents, Yaffa Sonenson survived the next three years, hiding in ghettoes, farmyards and forests. Their lives depended on help from Poles and Lithuanians. The Germans and their collaborators would kill them if they ventured into the towns; in the woods they faced death at the hands of criminals or anti-Semitic members of the Polish resistance Home Army, which was organising its own "rabbit hunts". Somehow they survived until the liberation, returning to Eishyshok in July 1944.
The Red Army had pushed the Germans westward, but the danger was not over for the Sonensons. They found themselves in the middle of a vicious civil war - Home Army against pro-Russian forces, nationalist Lithuanian bands against both. In the town itself, many Poles were not very happy to see any Jews return. The few survivors banded together, reburied and mourned their dead and tried to reclaim their property and seek justice. Four couples married. Then, one night in October 1944, local Polish men and an associated Home Army unit mounted an attack on the surviving Jews of Eishyshok. Yaffa Sonenson's mother and baby sister were shot in the house where they had taken refuge. She, her brother and her father eventually crawled out from their hiding place covered in blood. Many such pogroms were occurring at this time and, in common with other Polish-Jewish survivors, the Sonensons decided to leave.
Today Yaffa Eliach is a New York university professor and a significant figure in the cultural struggle that over the past two decades has made what we now call the Holocaust into a central element in the American historical consciousness. She was a member of President Carter's Holocaust Commission and is the creator of an important exhibit devoted to her home town in the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Her book is an attempt to combine the scholarship of the trained researcher with the personal insight of the participant. That it does not succeed in this is hardly surprising - few books of this kind do. But it does raise valuable and troubling questions about eastern Europe this century and offers an enormous amount of information about Jewish shtetl life on the eve of its demise.
Once There Was a World is both history and memorial book, with more than a little flavouring of shtetl schmaltz for good measure. There are too many photographs of the author and her family to satisfy the impersonally minded academic, too many golden-voiced cantors, wise rabbis and gifted scholars to allay the suspicions of the cynical observer of contemporary life who knows that much of this comes from a world of make-believe. The yearning of memory often overwhelms the sense of scholarly detachment, and this makes Eliach's evocation of her own vanished past less, rather than more, interesting: it is all a little predictable. But if fully two-thirds of the book is taken up by this guide to the culture and traditions of the late shtetl world, then the last third - where time starts to move again and we are hurried into a world of change, political upheaval and war - is more gripping.
The final chapters on the 1940s have provoked much controversy in Poland, where there is still difficulty in accepting that the wartime Home Army did not only battle gallantly against the Nazis (and later against the Russians), but also killed many Jews. Still greater is the taboo against recognising the depth of anti-Semitism in Polish life and the way this coloured attitudes to the Nazis, to Jewish survivors and to those Poles who helped them. Today the question of Polish-Jewish relations is among the most hotly debated issues in modern European history. Once There Was a World, like other books on this subject, represents an intervention in this debate.
In this book, non-Jews have only walk-on parts: there are some heroes, a few faithful servants and repentant sinners, but many more are hostile, prejudiced and plain vicious. Eliach does not even attempt to chart the history of Jewish interactions with non-Jews, and we must read attentively to receive a sense of how and why - through conversion, business, the army, the courts and domestic service - the two groups met, occasionally sharing their food, money and beds.
By far the most detail is devoted to the fatal interaction of the 1940s. So is there, then, in reality no shared history of Jews and Poles beyond that of anti-Semitism and murder? It seems unlikely. Yet for Eliach the history of Eishyshok is synonymous with the history of its shtetl. If this was once a world, then there was another, Christian world just next door to and down the street from it. Until we have a clearer sense of how these worlds intermeshed, entangled and then broke apart, it will be harder for us to see our century for what it is.
Mark Mazower is the author of "Dark Continent: Europe's 20th century" (Allen Lane, £20)