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History of Galician Jews 1770-1920

Galicia is an Eastern European province, north of the Carpathian Mountains, belonging to various nations at various times in its history. The first Jews settled there in the eleventh century, but the part of their history with which we are concerned here began in 1772. Before that the Jews of this area led the normally harried lives of Jews in most Europe an countries, and the partition of Poland in 1772 merely began a new, not unusual, series of troubles. Poland was divi ded among Prussia, Austria, and Russia, and Galicia went to Austria, a circumstance which caused some Galician Jews to decide to emigrate to Slovakia. The Hapsburgs had the prob lem of contending with a number of nationalities within their empire, and they made strong efforts to assimilate these various groups of people; the Jews resisted this attempt at assimilation and were continually harassed because of this.

On October 13, 1780, Joseph II issued his Edict of Tole ration; although he was no champion of the Jews, he did not favor pogroms, which, he believed, were a threat to the political security of the state. He was an educated man, versed in liberal philosophy, and the Edict was supposedly a reflection of this, but in reality there was no improve ment in the Jewish situation - they were supposedly allowed to travel and live anywhere, but since they were not allowed to own houses, and since Christians were forbidden to rent to Jews, this was an empty promise. Jews were free to en

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gage in any of the arts, but they were forbidden to Join guilds. The situation was further worsened in 1782, when more laws were enacted; community government was dissolved, the rabbinical court was disbanded, marriages were controlled, bookkeeping in Hebrew and Yiddish was forbidden, government-sponsored education was made compulsory, a tax was levied on kosher meat, and young men were made eligible for the draft. The most serious restriction was the educational one. Herz Homberg, a “progressive” Jew, influenced by the ideas of Moses Mendelssohn, was appointed the inspector in charge of “Germanizing” the Jewish schools, but he was violently resisted by the Jews and eventually removed by the government. This, however, was an isolated and unusual victory, and it was plain that the Edict of Toleration was less a gesture of acceptance than an attempt at reforming the Jews and making them useful to the state whose “harmony” they were hindering. The Galician Jews, mostly shopkeepers, traders, and craftsmen, lived among both Poles and Ruthenians, peasants and landlords (who owned the towns they lived in and occasionally illegaly allowed them to be innkeepers), and the at best tenuous situation was only aggravated by the anti-Jewish laws, which forced many Jews into deviousness and illegal professions, poverty and immigration to Vienna, where things were not much better, and to America. After Joseph II's death, even nominal toleration was abandoned.

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With the advent of Napoleon, taxes were increased, books censored, and new petty laws were enacted to pressure the Jews into converting, as it was thought that Napoleon's Sanhedrin would attract the Jews to France, and the Austrian government, which expected the Jews to revolt, wanted to make sure that they knew exactly how welcome they were.

For a few generations, Austrian Jews lived in relative peace. There was more assimilation than before, specially among the upper classes, not because of harsh laws but rather because of the Haskala which was then spreading. There were even imperial-sponsored Jewish presses that provided literature for the Jews of Europe, the Balkans, and Russia, and deeply affected Jewish culture.

The Congress of Vienna (in 1814-1815), however, changed this. It limited the rights of the Jews to whatever countries were there at the time of the Congress, which, in effect, could mean that the Jews would have no rights at all-all rights formerly guaranteed could be revoked.[1] This was done by surreptitiously changing “rights heretofore accorded to them in the several states” to “ by the several states”. In addition, the “Holy Alliance” among Russia, Austria, Prussia, and later France, formed for the stated purpose of creating a European community of Christian nations, did not concern itself with giving rights to Jews, and in fact removed some of the few already in existence.

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The 1848 revolution, a war between rulers and ruled, involved both Jews and Christians and was led by Adolf Fischhoff, a Jew. Jews were also in the new Parliament, which enacted liberal reforms and succeeded in removing trade, political, and land-owning restrictions and ensured full civic equality to the Jews. Franz Joseph, who was considered a benefactor, granted full citizenship to the Jews in l867. The lives of all Austrian Jews were much improved, Vienna was opened to Jews, many of whom settled there, and they became a vital force in politics and culture.

In 1878 the Congress of Berlin met to decide the fate of Turkey and the Balkans. Bulgaria, Serbia, and Rumania were already independent and were trying to persuade the European powers to recognize this. The Jews saw this as an opportunity to get England, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia to give Jews equality in the new states, especially in Rumania, which was notorious for harsh treatment of its Jews. The new states were compelled to promise equality but, as might be expected, they did not keep their promises.

The situation in Austria-Hungary at this time was especially turbulent. The Poles in Galicia, the Czechs in Bohemia, the Magyars in Hungary, and the Germans in Austria all wanted to control the people in their provinces, and all blamed the Jews for their inability to do so. The Jews had little choice; usually they fought on the side of whatever group

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was most numerous and powerful. The only exception was Slovakia; the Jews there refused to take sides and as a result felt the least repercussions. The situation was especially bad in Vienna, where Jews were harassed constantly by Germans, although it was the Germans whom they had traditionally supported. Franz Joseph was against this and insisted on equality in the universities and in the army, but he was ineffectual. Some anti-Anti-Semitic leagues were formed, but they were not much more effective.

In spite of this, Jews continued to leave the poverty of the countryside to try to improve their living conditions in Vienna. As emigration to America increased, emigration to Vienna for economic reasons decreased, but Galician Jews still came to study. They joined cultural and Zionist organizations, sometimes forming their own when they rejected the popular practice of dueling and focusing mainly on Zionist and cultural activities. While Galician Jews were emigrating, Russian Jews were fleeing to Eastern Europe after massacres in 1881-1882 and again in the 1890's after the enactment of the May Laws.

During World War I, the Jews of Lithuania, Poland, Galicia, and Rumania found themselves in the middle of the battlefield. Some Galician Jews fled to Vienna, but most of them stayed in their towns. As areas were captured and recaptured, each new victor in turn accused the Jews of siding with its

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enemy, and much violence resulted, both physical and verbal. Usually the truth was that the Jews sided with the country in which they lived, but they were routinely accused of disloyalty in cases of military defeat. In this case the situation was further complicated by the fact that Galicia was a Polish-nationality province under Austrian control, and its Jews were evacuated by the Russians because of their supposed support of the Germans. In spite of this, on their return they were accused of disloyalty both in Austria and in Germany, their supposed countrymen taking no notice of the alleged reason for their evacuation. The hardest hit by these shifting fortunes were the Jews in the border areas of Galicia and nearby Bukovina, where evacuations and accusations were always accompanied by atrocities coming from both the Russian conquerors and Polish neighbors.

The Peace Conference at Versailles was seen by some Jewish leaders as a place to settle the question of Jewish status. They organized a separate conference in Paris, with delegations from the United States, England, France, and several Eastern European countries. This Comite des Delegations Juives met to decide on a minorities platform. The Eastern European delegation presented a plan of minority rights – that Jews should be organized as communities with separate cultures from the countries they inhabited but being nonetheless part of each country. The Western delegations

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objected to this on the grounds that it would cause charges of disloyalty to be leveled at these culturally autonomous Jewish communities; the Eastern Jews answered that they would be charged with disloyalty whether they adopted this policy or not, arguing further that within a stated system of minority rights, Jews could run their own schools and speak their own languages freely but be part of their countries at the same time. This was duly agreed upon and officially proposed to the Conference, which resulted in its being agreed to by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, independent Ukraine and Germany, with added provisions for complete citizenship and cultural aid. Besides this, the League of Nations provided a place for hearings of minority complaints. Obviously, none of this was carried out.

After the “liberation” of Galicia and the withdrawal of Russian troops, many Galician Jews returned to their homes from Vienna, but a number of them stayed, many attaching themselves to the Social Democratic Party. It enacted some reforms which were regarded with disfavor by the land-holding church officials, who tried to offset land reforms by Anti-Semitic propaganda which resulted finally in the expulsion of its Jewish members by the Social Democratic Party they had supported. Many emigrated to Israel.

In 1919 the border areas of Austria had been partitioned, and Galicia was attached to Poland, being officially recognized as such again in 1923. This was of no benefit to the

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Jews in Galicia; accusations of loyalty to Austria and persecutions, both spontaneous and organized, were the result. The main opponents to this were members of the Social Democratic Party, which apparently was represented in Galicia even after its annexation by Poland, but ultimately the expulsion of Jews from the party put an end to any efforts on their behalf. Western Galicia remained a part of Poland after World War II; the eastern portion was kept by the Soviet Army.


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History of Hasidism
“Man cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human; he can approach Him through becoming human. To become human is what he, this individual man, has been created for. This, so it seems to me, is the eternal core of Hasidic life and of Hasidic teaching.”

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It is not my desire or my purpose here to present a full history either of Jewish mysticism or of the Hasidic movement that was part of it, but while I am placing the stories in a historical perspective, it might be well to examine the part of their people in the more specific scheme of Eastern European Hasidic history.

Hasidism is rooted in the mystical tradition of Judaism, from the “Book of Creation” of the seventh to ninth centuries, from which the Kabbala later developed, continuing with the “Zohar” of the late 13th century, but being precipitated, according to Buber, with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, where they had attempted perhaps most ambitiously to set up a real Jewish community in the Diaspora. Their expulsion from Spain provided some of the proper despair necessary for any sort of Messianic movement, and their treatment in the countries of their exile, together with numerous and frequent Messianic movements, intensified this.

One of the most important forerunners of the Hasidic movement was Isaac Luria, himself the center of some Messianic speculations. He emphasized personal ecstasy as a way for man to work with God to achieve redemption, rather than the number-and-word deciphering used by many Kabbalists. Based to a great extent on older Gnostic beliefs, his ideas used the Kabbalistic concept of a world emanating from God to say that man could influence God in his own life through

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ecstatic meditation and love of all. The movement around Shabbatai Zvi was a manifestation of this, stressing this ecstasy over reason and normal earthly life. This was offset somewhat by an exaggerated version of this ecstasy, an ascetic attempt to influence God by a kind of mystical ascetic atonement for the sins of the world, emphasizing heaven-and-hell fear rather than ecstatic love and climaxing in 1700 with a march of some 1500 people, especially Polish Jews, who went into voluntary exile in atonement. It was as a reaction to this tendency, among others, that Hasidism arose in the 18th century.

Hasidism seems to have been both a natural outgrowth of certain elements in Jewish tradition and a reaction to others. One reaction was against both false Messianic movements and the miserable and despairing conditions, both physical and spiritual, that preceded them. Another was a response to the increased formalization in the Jewish tradition resulting from the isolation of Jewish communities rather than from the current reaction to the limited access of Jewish learning to the richer and higher social classes among the Jews. “Pshutei ha-am,” the simple ones of the nation, the shopkeepers and waggoners, had almost no access to most Jewish learning, and they felt themselves isolated and comfortless in a hostile world that threatened them from the outside, while their inside hold on their culture became more and more uncertain.

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The Hasidic movement was begun by Israel from Mesbisz (Miedjyborz), who lived from 1700 to 1760 and was called the Baal Shem Tov, the master of God's name, who himself had a good name among the people. He taught that God was the essence of all things, that the way to God was through living one's life towards God, through joy and not asceticism, ecstasy and fulfillment and not self-denial, living hasidut (piety) and not ceremony. This message of joy was very attractive to the Jews of Poland, who had a recent history of massacres to contend with and who needed a focus for their sorely taxed faith. The Besht began his work in Galicia, and after his death in 1760 his movement was carried by his disciples to Poland, the Ukraine, Hungary, and Slovakia. The only place where Hasidism did not become popular was Lithuania, which was the center of Rabbinic Jews. Elsewhere its group of followers grew in spite of constant opposition and harassment by the Mitnagdim, the opponents of Hasidism, firmly entrenched in a rationalist Rabbinic tradition. In 1772 the Rabbinic authorities put a Cherem, a ban of excommunication, on the Hasidim, possibly as a political reaction to the partition of Poland (marriage with Hasidim was considered in some areas to be intermarriage), but in spite of this the movement flourished, especially after the partition of Poland.

The decline of Hasidism in its early form had already begun, however, and this decline came from two primary factors:

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First, the nature of this monument demanded a strength and dedication too great for most people, and from this came the person of the Zadik, the “righteous one,” who lives both in the earthly world and the heavenly one and who is, for the simple folk, the mediator between the two. While it was a more secure thing for the Hasid to believe in a tangible and infallible Zadik, it meant also a lessening of the Besht's emphasis on the individual and his importance in God's world. This would have been a shift of emphasis rather than a force for decline had it not been for the decrease in quality, if one can use the word in this connection, of Zadikim, many of whom were motivated less by “righteousness” than by greed for material and honorable gain. The Ruzhyner Rabbi[2], the grandson of the Besht, said, “What can I do? It is not my choice. I am forced from above to take the road of glory and honor, and it is impossible to deviate from it.” By the end of the 18th century, the role of Zadik had become greatly commercialized, and dynasties of Zadikim were founded, the office passing from father to son - those of Belz (Galicia), Sadagora (Bukovina), Ger (Poland), and Lubovitsch (Russia) among them. There were among them many sincere, “righteous” men, but there were also a number of pretenders, and in some cases all one had to do to be called a Zadik was to claim to be a miracle worker.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Hasidism had been

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accepted by much of Eastern Europe, in spite of (or including) the false Zadiklm, but there were other elements that contributed to its decline. Elijah Gaon (Elijah the Genius), a Rabbinic leader of the second half of the 18th century, began it in reforming the Talmud and pilpul, the discussion of its meanings and intentions, which had degenerated in some degree to a pointlessly infinitesimal dissection. The disciples of the Besht dealt with this by a compromised “rational Hasidism”[3], eliminating many superstitions and encouraging learning; they were active well into the second quarter of the 18th century. The last internal Jewish threat to Hasidism was the Haskala, the Enlightenment. It was part of the greater movement including the French revolution and the German social enlightenment. The Jewish Haskala, especially in the person of Moses Mendelssohn, attempted to release Jews both physically and culturally from stagnation caused by their isolation. They did this by publishing books, opening “modern” schools, translating the Tanach into German with Hebrew and Yiddish texts parallel, so that Jews who knew Hebrew and Yiddish could learn German. This attempt at stimulation, instead of transforming Jewish culture, only succeeded in leading many to assimilation. Perhaps the isolation of the Jewish communities was the reason, or one of the reasons, for their survival.

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The Hasidim in these, Tmimei Derech, stories are not the passionate followers of the Besht; their Hasidism is much less evangelical and more of a tradition. They are simple people, “People Whose Way Is Innocent”, as the book's title Tmimei Derech is more accurately translated. They live simple lives, believe in the miraculous powers of their Rev Shloimele, and in countless superstitions which may seem naive to our supposedly sophisticated ears...but they are people like all others, and their struggle is the same as that of Jews anywhere. It is my hope that I have furthered the effort of my grandfather in insuring that their memory be kept alive.


  1. Howard Morley Sachar, The Course of Modern Jewish History (New York, 1963), p.101.
  2. Return
  3. Joseph Fraenkel, ed., The Jews of Austria (London, 1967), p.350 of the article by J. Heshel, "The History of Hassidism in Austria.
  4. Return
  5. op.cit., p. 79. All other quotations come from Martin Buber's Hasidism and Modern Man.
  6. Return

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