“‘Fiddler on the Roof’ re-created musical theater,” says Tony-winning set designer Robin Wagner. “Until ‘Fiddler,’ musicals spoke only to the immediate generation. ‘Fiddler’ showed how a musical could speak to all generations and cultures.”
Fiddler on the Roof is the story of life in a small Russian shtetl in 1905, when Russia was still an empire, ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, head of the dictatorial Romanov dynasty. While much of Western Europe was becoming more free and democratic, Russia was still rooted in traditional ideas of absolute monarchy. Nicholas was determined to hold on to, in his words, “absolute autocracy.” This, coupled with his seeming lack of common sense as his country stumbled through crisis after crisis, would eventually lead to the downfall and destruction of the Romanovs.
Along with other abuses of human rights, Nicholas’ administration was instrumental in releasing a great deal of anti-Jewish propaganda. This propaganda incited fear and hatred of Jews among many non-Jewish citizens, and often led to violence. The three-year period from 1903 to 1906 was a particularly terrifying time for Russian Jews, as one pogrom after another raged in Western Russia. (A pogrom is defined as the “organized killing of a minority.” Some dictionaries actually include a reference to tsarist Russia in their definition.)
There had been many pogroms in Russia in the second half of the 19th century, including 166 in the year 1881 alone. In 1905, the year in which Fiddler on the Roof begins, there were at least six pogroms in Imperial Russia, occurring in such major cities as Kishinev (capital of present-day Moldova), Odessa (in present-day Ukraine and the site of a catastrophically huge massacre of Jews in WWII), and Minsk (capital of present-day Belarus). In all, these pogroms claimed the lives of no less than 1,500 Jewish citizens, a total of four for each day of that year.
Most of these pogroms occurred within an area referred to as the Pale of Settlement, the area of Russia in which Jews could legally settle. Shtetls such as Anatevka, the fictitious village in Fiddler on the Roof, began to disappear as discriminatory laws against Jewish citizens forbade them from living in rural areas, or in towns of less than 10,000 people. Indeed, as Fiddler begins, the people of Anatevka have just received word of the Tsar’s edict, which will shortly evict them from their homes. By the musical’s end, the people of Anatevka are packed up, some moving to America, many others to Krakow (in modern-day Poland), for what they hope will be a new and better life.
More than a century later, we know what became of those who immigrated to America, and to those who immigrated to Poland. This knowledge only adds to the sadness and poignancy of this tremendous musical, which is steeped in so much true and tragic history.