|Reprinted||Some of the Best from Tor.com, 2011|
The story is set in the mid 21st century of a world where Nazi Germany won the "War of Retribution", and came to dominate the world. The Jews have been exterminated. However, the German Reich has permitted mock shtetls modelled on the villages of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and populated by actors who pretend to be Jews as tourist attractions.
The protagonist of the story is Veit Harlan, a German actor who plays the role of "Jakub Shlayfer" in the shtetl of Wawolnice. His wife, Kristi Söderbaum, performs with him. Like their colleagues, the Harlans are so fully committed to their method-acting that they continue to maintain certain of the tenets of Judaism even after their work day is done. Soon, Veit, Kristi, and other members of the "troupe" begin to think of themselves as Jews first.
As the story focuses on Wawolnice, the actual Point of Divergence is vague, as is the scope of the German Empire. Turtledove indicates that Germany physically controls what was once Poland and the Soviet Union, and that it asserts great influence over the larger world, enough that it could oversee the genocide of all Jews everywhere. It is also in power through some sort of arrangement in places as far-flung as Siberia, Canada, and Peru, though these three, at least, are not entirely pacified. Japan and Brazil maintain independence but are second-rate powers compared with Germany. The details of how Germany won the War of Retribution are never discussed.
While Turtledove has set another novel, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, in a timeline where the Third Reich rules the world in the 21st century, it does not appear to be the same timeline. Indeed, the themes of the two works seem to run in counterpoint, with Presence revolving around three families of Jews who live their lives "playing the role" of Aryans for survival.
Two other Turtledove stories, "The Last Article" and "The Phantom Tolbukhin", deal with the immediate aftermath of German victory in WWII. Throughout the Crosstime Traffic Series, we are told of numerous alternates where the Germans won WWII, without any specific detail. It is unclear as to whether any of these scenarios might be connected to "Shtetl Days".
Three main characters - Veit Harlan, Ferdinand Marian, and Kristi Söderbaum - are named for the director and two lead actors of Suss the Jew, an infamous "hate film" produced by the Third Reich in 1940, where Marian played a loathsome Jewish character. Harlan in the story is married to Söderbaum, just as their namesakes were. Another character is named Wolf Albach-Retty, after another actor from the Third Reich, however the historical Albach was not in that particular film.