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Jewish Life in Chortkov under the Independent Polish Rule
By Tzvi Cohen
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
19241926 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
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,
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
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
(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
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
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.
District's Governor is closing bakery after bakery
He is killing, as
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
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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