by Gabriel Weinstein
My grandfather always chuckled when we spoke about the Galicia region of northwestern Ukraine and southeastern Poland. He’d cackle, “Galicia! We used to make fun of people from there in Rovno [his Ukrainian hometown].” His depiction was a bit skewed. He failed to mention Galicia was a cultural incubator that produced Hasidic dynasties, the writer Shai Agnon and modern Yiddish music.
My grandfather is not the only person to neglect Galicia’s rich Jewish heritage. According to Yaroslav Hrystak, director of graduate studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, Ukraine’s Jewish history is “ …like a whole subject that [has] disappeared ”. Galicia’s once-majestic synagogues and sprawling Jewish cemeteries are now decaying shacks and unkempt meadows.
Although Galicia was home to a diverse Jewish culture, the region’s traditional religious leaning was one of its most distinguishing characteristics. Galician Jews were seen as more religiously observant than their other Eastern European peers. Hayim ben Shelomoh Tyrer, author of the major Hasidic work Sh’ar ha-tefilah and Galician native, helped spread Hasidism throughout Ukraine and Romania. The cities of Belz, Ruzhin and Sandz were all strongholds of major Hasidic factions during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
The Galician cities of Brody, Lviv and Ternopil were also hubs of the nineteenth century Jewish enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah. The Haskalah was similar to the eighteenth century European Enlightenment in its embrace of literature, philosophy, mathematics, nature and astronomy. The movement, comprised mostly of writers, doctors and civil servants known as maskilim, promoted integration of the Jewish population into mainstream secular society while simultaneously maintaining firm Jewish identities.
As Galicia established itself as a center of religious life, it also nurtured a nascent Jewish artistic community. Beginning in the 1850s the Broder Singers of Brody, regarded as the originators of Yiddish music, began crooning tunes to traveling Jewish merchants. They would soon be playing to international audiences. The Broders dressed in Hasidic garb during performances and were known for their songs mimicking Hasidic practices.
Galicia’s vibrant Jewish atmosphere quickly vanished during the Holocaust. Around one million Jews lived in Ukraine and 700,000 in Galicia at the beginning of the Holocaust. At the Holocaust’s conclusion, the figures plummeted as the Nazis doused the region in Jewish blood.
Galicia’s Jewish past and bloody Holocaust horrors quickly evaporated from the minds of the current citizens in the region after the Holocaust. When the region fell under Soviet rule following the Holocaust, Soviet leaders shut down many Ukrainian synagogues and Jewish institutions. But over the last few years a cadre of American, Israeli and Ukrainian scholars has led a resurgence of interest in Galicia.
Brown University professor Omer Bartov, author of Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, is at the forefront of the charge of renewed interest in Galicia. Bartov explained in a 2007 interview with The Forward that the main reason Galicia has lost its once-distinct Jewish flavor is because of Galician Ukrainian’s virulent anti-Semitism and staunch nationalism. Ukrainian and Jewish authorities’ contrasting versions of Holocaust history have also contributed to the disappearance of Galicia’s Jewish past. Ukrainian texts rarely mentioned Jews as victims of Nazi oppression, and when they did, often underestimated the number of Jews murdered. Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi authorities is hardly mentioned.
Bartov is not the only scholar with an interest in Galicia’s Jewish past. Over the past two years, Hebrew University’s Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina project has sent teams of professors to Galicia to visit the region’s dilapidated synagogues and cemeteries with colleagues from Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). In October, Hebrew University announced it is establishing with UCU the first Judaic studies graduate program in Ukraine.
For years, Galicia’s sprawling Jewish structures rotted into oblivion and Hitler’s goal of eradicating Jewish culture and life appeared to have been accomplished in the region. But the Jewish world’s belief in Am Yisrael Chai and pride in Jewish culture has prevented a celebrated and integral former Jewish community from becoming a forgotten reality.