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Jewish Life in Chortkov under the Independent Polish Rule

By Tzvi Cohen

Translated by Sara Mages



The Polish Government, during the 1920s, was far from treating the Jewish population in a democratic way. Oppressions against the Polish Jews in Congressional Poland were extremely hard. Much worst treatment was aimed against the Jewish population who lived in the Eastern provinces including those who lived in the Chortkov's district.

At the beginning of the 1920s, during the first days of the establishment of Independent Poland, Chortkov's Jews relaxed and hoped that the bad times were over and better times are waiting for them. They were hoping, that once the new government reorganize its economy and stabilize it, their situation would improve. But, to their great disappointment, their situation did not improve. After a period of extreme oppressions, during the times of Grabskei, the Polish Treasury Minister, ironically, the Forth Immigration to Israel during 1924–1926 was named after him – ”The Grabskei Immigration”. Prosecutions, sufferings, economic and social oppression were at their worst.

There were thousands of faces to the policy of cruelty and depravation that the Polish government practiced against the Jewish population. The Jews did not have a foothold in government's jobs and were not allowed admission to universities, technical or trade schools. A Jew could not get a job in government's enterprises or factories. With many excuses, they tried to prevent Jews from working in their traditional professions like trade, craft and small industry. In addition, the local Polish authorities interfered with internal Jewish social life by refusing to provide the Jewish organizations with the proper permissions.

Many wrote about that period. Economists, scientist and Jewish leaders who lived and experienced the social deprivations and the politics of Independent Poland from 1920 to 1930. All their writings and statistics about the economic distress of the Jews in Eastern Galicia, especially in the Chortkov's region, were destroyed during the horrible holocaust. It is hard today to find statistical information about the situation in our district. Thanks to the generosity of  Dr. Tzvi Heler, director of the “Polish Immigrants Society”, who gave us permission to use his personal archive, we are able today with the help of accurate documentation to write about the economic distress of our people.

I choose a few typical incidents in order to describe the situation.

The cigarette factory in Yaglanitza was own by the Polish government. Among the hundreds of workers who were employed in that factory, there was only one Jew. He was a metalworker by profession. In 1927 another Jew tried to get a job at the same factory (his name was B. A.). His request was denied. That Jew agreed to work in the worst job available and for the lowest salary of two “Zehovim” (about a quarter of a dollar) per day. Even though, he was one of the few Jews that took part in Marshal Pilsodskei legion, who at that time was the head of the Polish government. And even though, that Jew was awarded the “Cross of Heroism” for his actions in battle, the factory's manager refused to hire him because he was a Jew. (These details are taken from a letter written by Dr. Heler to the government in Warsaw on April 2, 1927).

From this incident, we learn that even those Jews, who were permitted to work in government owned factories, had great difficulties obtaining a job. The rest of Poland's Jews were in much worst situation. The number of Jews who held secretarial government jobs was minimal to zero. If a Jew wanted to get a job as a teacher he needed a lot of connections up high in the government.

The doctors and the lawyers were in a better and higher economical situation. But among the hundreds of railroad workers in the Chortkov's district, there were only a few Jews. The number of Jews who were employed by the local authorities was insignificant.

The Polish authorities discriminated against the Jewish population in all ways of life. Discrimination started at the high school. Chortkov's high school was well known for its hate of the Jewish students. If a young Jewish boy was able to cope all the difficulties and finish his studies, the gates to higher education were closed to him by a policy of  “quotas”. Those who could not afford to study in universities outside Poland had to join the poor camp of unemployed “golden youth” who were supported by their parents.

A typical example of the Polish attitude against the Jews was the arrogant answer written by the principal of an engineering school in Lvov, to a letter written to him by Dr. Heler. In his letter Dr. Heler begged the principal to accept a young Jewish student from Chortkov to his school. In his reply, the principle wrote… the reason for the small percentage of Jews in our institution, result from the fact that so far the Jewish society sent us only “imbeciles” who were not able to cope with their studies in other institutions… (the date on the letter: 6 August 1926).

The situation for the Jewish tradesmen was not better. They suffered the most from the cruel economic policies enforced by the central authorities. They were being hunted and hanged by the neck by the local authorities. Those authorities used their power to enforce many cruel rules and regulations upon them. A good example for the cruelty against the tradesmen was… “the unhealthy conditions that their workers had to cope with in their workshops”… Because of the high rent in the center of the city, the tradesmen located their workshops in basements and half basements. The authorities closed many of those workshops with the excuse, that hygiene conditions were very poor. At that time, one forth of the apartment buildings in Chortkov was without running water or central sewage. In many streets, apartment buildings did not have their own bathrooms and the residents had to use the public bathrooms. Only the rich were able to provide their workers with good working conditions. As a result, many workshops had to close, especially those owned by poorest tradesmen.

Many letters survived from that period. They were written by depressed tradesmen who lost their livelihood. Here is a quotation from a letter written by a baker “ … In our town Chortkov, there are many unemployed bakers. The District's Governor is closing bakery after bakery… He is killing, as simple as that, the Jewish population because he is taking from the people - women and young children, their bread. For more then eighteen years I have lived and worked in the same apartment, and now close to my old age, I was force to turn off my oven. The only thing left for me to do is, to beg for money in the streets or to kill myself… ”( a letter from 30 May 1929).

The local authorities, and first of all, the District's Governor, used every opportunity to sabotage the livelihood of the Jewish population. If they wanted to close, for no obvious reason, a small workshop or a small business, they found a cruel administrative reason to do so. But in order to shut off or sabotage an important enterprise or a large factory, they had to look for or invent a vicious reason, in order to “cover” their actions. The largest carpentry workshop in Chortkov was shut off by the authorities for no apparent reason.(a letter about the subject from the carpenter Y. R. is still in existence. (It was written on 7 May 1928)

The vicious actions of Chortkov's District Governor against Jewish business reached its peak when he gave an order to blow up the dam near the large mill owned by Vizer Vroichberg. His “excuses” for this action was, that the city was in danger of flooding. By doing so, he shut the mill for a very long time (a letter on the subject from 28 January 1926)

The cruelest and most useful way of putting the Jews out of business, was the extremely high taxes that were imposed on them. In a letter written by the “Jewish Merchants Association” in Chortkov, from 5 May 1928, to Dr. Heler, the Jewish representative in the Polish parliament. In it, the association begged him to intervene in their name and help them save their businesses. They also emphasized the fact, that even though, their income did not increase, the taxes on their business increased by three hundred percent (!) At the same time, similar letters arrived from all the merchants living in the district's towns and villages.

Small business owners, had to obtain special permits to stock merchandise, the same exact permits that were required from rich merchants. (a letter written by Y. L. V. dated 15 December 1928). Merchants who were late paying their taxes due to illness, lost their license to sell government's merchandises. A typical example is the story of a 72-year-old Jew, who because of illness was late paying his taxes and lost his license to sell hard liquor. This business was his only source of income for 20 years. All of his requests were not answered by the local authorities and at the end, he was force to ask for Parliamentarian help (a letter written buy the Parliament's representative, Dr. Heler from 17 December 1926)

If that was not enough, an organized statewide campaign was launched against the Jews. The authorities wanted to push the Jews out of all public councils and committees who controlled the way the government was operating. By doing so, they prevented the Jews from receiving help from their own government's representatives.

For many years, the children in our city have been denied religious education at school because of the vicious actions of the authorities who continuously refused to approve a salary for a Jewish religion teacher. These are the words of Dr. Heler, the representative to the Polish parliament, in a letter he had written to the leader of the Jewish community in Chortkov. In it he is evaluating the difficult situation. The letter is dated 26 December 1923:

....”From time to time, I receive complains from the Jewish population, that for many years now, their children do not receive religion's classes at the elementary schools in Chortkov”... in another section he is writing.....”It is time, that we think of hiring a Jewish religion teacher for our children. This is the only Jewish subject that our children should be taught as part of their education in government's elementary schools. Teaching religion is the only ray of light in the framework of the national education, and it might provide emotional support to the Jewish children who spend the days and months of the school year, in the company of hostile students, and teachers who hate them.

The local authority not only refused to approve a salary for a religion teacher for the Jewish children who were attending elementary schools in Chortkov, but they also actively interfered in matters concerning the management of the Jewish community. By refusing to provide a budget to the communities in the eastern district, they directly sabotaged the social life of the Jewish population. For example; the authorities refused to approve the budget of the Jewish community in Yaglanitza with the excuse that, paying a salary of forty Zehovim for a secretary and two hundred and fifty Zehovim for a Rabbi ,was an exaggerated sum (a complaint submitted by the representative Dr. Heler, dated 20 May 1929). Even getting a license for a theater production or for showing a movie in the new community center, was extremely difficult to obtain and only after long negotiations with high ranking officials.

The municipal laws, forced by the local Polish authorities, wrote new chapter in a series of plots against the Jewish population in Chortkov. In many buildings, homeowners were not allowed to do the necessary repairs. Repairing roofs using wood sheeting was forbidden and homeowners were forced to cover their roofs with sheet metal. New orders were given on daily basis. Doors and the windows had to be painted in the same color. Fences had to be built around the houses or the gardens, and many more. All those orders forced the Jewish population to spend money they did not have. All their complaints, that among Jewish population there was a high unemployment and many did not have money to buy food, fell on deaf ears.

This situation, both social and economical, was unbearable and encouraged the young people to leave the city. Those with long vision, left for Israel or for America but those with short vision, moved to another big city. This immigration lowered the number of Jewish people in our city during the crisis of the 1930s. We can read about the situation in this Yizkor book. Most of Chortkov's best young people, left for pioneer training centers in preparation for their immigrant to Israel. The young people hoped that the local Polish authorities would not interfere with their quest and cause unnecessary difficulties but all their hopes were crushed. By reading letters, requests and complains, we can clearly see the cruel and vicious treatment by the authorities against them. Many could not obtain certificates clearing them from military service. The few lucky ones, who were able to obtain military release certificates, were forced at the last moment, sometimes with a lot of help from Jewish representatives, to get their exit visas. Some, gave up and stayed in Chortkov and there, the horrible arm of the Nazis crushed them. From letters that they left behind and from some that somehow reached us, we can read about their longing for physical and spiritual salvation in Eretz Yisrael.

 

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