Renewing Galicia

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.

2 responses to “Renewing Galicia

  1. Great post! My father was from Galicia, but from Southeastern Poland. This post dealt more with the Ukrainian Galician experience. I wonder if there is as much interest and work being conducted in the Polish areas. I’d be more curious to read of that. A heads-up to articles and posts of that nature would be much appreciated.

  2. If your grandfather is from Rovno, I find it interesting he would make fun of Galician Jewry, as Rovno is in the neighboring region of Volhynia in Western Ukraine. East Galicia and Volhynia were both principalities of Kiev-Rus, both were on the Ukrainian frontier of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and were the south-eastern bordering portion of inter-war Poland. The only difference is that Volhynia was part of Czarist Russia for many years while Galicia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In the small towns and villages, not much was different between the Jews of the 2 regions. The dialects of Yiddish were very similar and for much of the outer fringes of East Galicia that bordered Russian Podolia & Volynia, it was pretty much the same.
    What’s funny is that I know of some Jews from either Lutsk or Rovno(I don’t remember which) in Volhynia who referred to themselves as ‘Galitzianers’ so go figure! Usually the deprecation of Galician Jews was reserved to “Litvaks”(Jews from present day Lithuania, Belarus and NE Poland) and “Poylishers(Jews from central Poland)”, but the fact of the matter is that Jews from every region and town made fun of Jews from other places. For instance, much fun was poked at the Jews of Chelm(a town in eastern poland that was on the fringes of Ukrainian Volhynia) from as nearby by the Jews of Lublin. Chelmer Jews were often portrayed as slow, naive and clumsy(The First Schliemiel). While Galician Jews were not seen as such, they were condemned by many for having a rogue, sly character or maintaining a backward, overzealous and eccentric Hasidic way of life.
    The rogue and sly stereotype can be seen through having an image of Galician Jews as being dishonest, cunning tradesmen with a lack of desire and patience in persevering to attain a high level of Torah scholarship. Interestingly enough, this low, unsettling image was confirmed by a stereotype that Galician Jews were horse-thieves. It becomes clear that these generalizations may have originally, partially or fully, stemmed from feelings of jealousy, given that many oppressed Jews in the Russian Empire had envied the higher civil status that the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed for it’s Jews, where Jews could live without worry of pogroms and could own land as being equal citizens in part with their gentile neighbors, and could establish for themselves successful trades in horse-breeding.

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