by Yitzchak Shechter
Translated by Sara Mages
Chortkov was considered in the region as a city with a prosperous economy due to its many sources of income. There were many government offices in the city like the office of the regional governor, the treasury office, the regional court house, two army barracks and the most important of all, the Rabbi Court. Most of the people who lived in the part of town known as "Old Chortkov" [Starry Chortkov] earned their living working there.
The city was known for its export principally of grain crops, calves, and pigs. For some unknown reasons, the region was considered by the rulers in the capital city of Vienna as a "Colony". They had their own economy policy whose main purpose was to serve the interest of the Austrians and of the government in Vienna. Their intention was to get high prices for the industrial products exported from Vienna to the Galician market, but pay very little for the agriculture products exported from the region. In addition, the banks in Vienna not only did not help in the development of the industry in Chortkov they also prevented any attempt to develop it.
The year 1908 was very rainy in eastern Galicia and most of the crops rotted the in the fields and the grain merchants lost a lot of money. This year was also the beginning of the riots against the Jewish population in Chortkov.
At the same year, due to lack of grazing grounds, the farmers and the owners of the large farm houses were forced to sell all their livestock. At the same time, good news arrived in Chortkov. The Jewish people found out that very soon the district court house will be built in their town. Suddenly the Jewish community was caught in a panic of speculation. All the building plots around the location chosen for the court house building started to change hands and the prices were rising without any logical reason. The speculation on the value of the land, caused a building boom that the city never experienced before. Homes, villas and multi-story buildings [at that time, a five story building was considered a huge building] were build around the location of the court house and also in the city center. This building boom was financed mostly with large credits given by the banks in Vienna.
Meanwhile, the mood changed in Vienna. Everyone was talking openly about the approaching war. As a result, the banks in Vienna froze all the credit given to the Galician region. Suddenly the increasing riches turned into a major crisis. The buildings that were already built were sold for any price and yesterday rich became poor overnight.
There were many clever people among our town folk. Educated people who had no understanding of politics if the region. None of them understood why Vienna refused to invest money in the region. None of the builders thought of transferring money to Western Europe or thought about emigrating, to get far away from a place known for riots. This exaggerated optimism is in our veins and it blinds us and causes us not to understand the reality of social and political conditions.
The poor people in Chortkov, that work very hard to earn a meager living, dreamt only for one way out: how to obtain a boat ticket for the "Golden Land", the United States of North America. From the time that a family member arrived to the shores of America, his first mission was to earn enough money to buy boat tickets and bring the family that was left behind. That way, thousands of people were saved from the misery pit called "Chortkov". Only few, mostly singles emigrated to "Eretz Israel". Those were the only ones that were strong enough to cope with the harsh conditions and the hard work in the settlements. Among the first was a young religious man by the nameof Ben-Zion Lacher, and also Lystnar, Schwartz, Brenner, Aharon -Kan Scheter, Yosi Bracher and many more.
Meanwhile, life in the city were in order. Most of the Jews had a hard time earning their livelihood. In "Old Chortkov" the Hasidic tourism to the Rabbi Court continued, providing a source of income to number of families.
In August 1914, the first world war broke out. The Russian Czar's army invaded Galicia and reached the Carpathian Mountains. On the first day, looting spread through out the city but after a few days order was restored and the authorities reacted strongly against the looters. The same authorities paid very little for merchandise and put a high value on the Czar's currency the Ruble. All this turned into legalized robbery. There was no work, no raw materials, no buyers and no credit. The first three years of the war were years of economic decline in our city. In the summer of 1917, after the Kerensky revolution, before the Austrians enter Chortkov again, the authors S. Anskie with his friend Dr. Landoie stayed in our city. Dressed in officers uniform, one of then shot and killed a Russian soldier who was caught stealing.
In the autumn of 1918, the German army collapsed and the Austrians and the Ukrainians under the leadership of Ptrosvitz invaded our city. The Ukrainians officers, who were born in Eastern Galicia, asked the Jews for their political support against the Polish minority. Even though they promised the Jews full culture autonomy, they robbed the population and took everything they could put their hands on. The Jews were their main target. Boots were taken off from the feet of Jews walking in the street leaving them barefooted. The army also printed useless paper money. A year later the Ukrainian army left leaving behind total destruction of the economy.
In place of the Ukrainians the Polish army entered and after a short period of time the Bolsheviks invaded our city. The situation did not improved after they entered Chortkov. What was left fell to the hands of the new invaders. On the first days of occupation hundreds of men and women were arrested and left without food or water for days. Later on they were released, never to be told why the were arrested and why they were released. The Bolshevik administration did not give the small craftsmen any work but their contribution was given in a different way. Suddenly they felt "superior" and since most of the Jews were very poor it is understandable why over night they became great admirers of the Bolsheviks.
After three months, the Red Army retreated and the Polish army together with the survivors of the Ptlori army entered Chortkov. The savage Ukrainian army, after they slaughtered more then a quarter of a million Jews in Ukrainian Russia, moved to Poland and formed a treaty with the Polish army to fight the Red Army. They conquered Chortkov and the area.
On those days, on top of legalized robbery the Polish authorities were determined to insult the Jews. They used the Jews for the most humiliating jobs. The Jews were forced to walk around the city shouting in a loud voice "Long live Poland. The soldiers kidnapped Jews and cut their beards with swords sometimes taking the skin off from their faces.
The Polish like the Russians before them, dealt in legalized robbery by setting cheap prices for merchandise far less from their realistic value. Kerkovski, the army commander of Chortkov ordered a pair of boots from a Jewish shoemaker (Alter) after the commander offered him a very low price for the boots, the shoemaker refused to sell them. Under order from the commander his soldiers dragged the shoemaker to the city center and wipped him 30 times. After that, the Polish army took whatever they wanted and paid whatever they wished.
In those days hundreds of Jews arrived to Chortkov from Russia. They escaped from the cruelty of civil war that was raging there. Those Jews were looking for ways to contact their families in the United States. At the beginning they got help from the "Rescue Committee" led by the honorable Dr. Svrin Kimelman. After they were successful in contacting their families, it was like a stream of gold flowed through the poorest part of the city. Some Jews got thousands of dollars some hundreds and some just tens. At the same time, Jews living in Chortkov helped their own family members. The windfall of dollars was not enough to save the city but overnight Jews became high interest money lenders. The interest sometimes reached the fantastic rate of 8 percent a month in dollars. The dollars that arrive from the Golden Land were not enough to save the poor economy of the Jewish citizens in Chortkov.
We are not going to exaggerate when we say that during the years the Jews got used to living without an income. The Polish government had done its best to destroy the Jewish economy by confiscating Jewish property. For example : The tailor Verner was forced to pay 30.000[!] gold coins for a license to work and when he did not have the money to pay they confiscated all his belongings. They demanded enormous sums of money as taxes from the Jewish population and when the money was not paid their confiscated household furniture; tables, chairs and dishes. From the craftsmen they took not only their tools but also their broken benches. The farmers did not have to pay taxes but the Jews were forced to pay and when they did not, they lost their homes, their stores and their merchandise. It was an act of camoflaged robbery and the main purpose was to take away from the Jews not only their livelihood but also the possessions. The man that was a respected rich merchant found himself overnight in great poverty. Homeless and penniless.
So it is not a wonder why the young people understood that there was not a way out from bitter poverty in Poland. Some believed that salvation will come from the east. From the revolution in the Soviet Union. The other half believed in the idea of "Return to Zion" and the dream of Dr. Benjamin Zev Hartzel, that materialized after the "Balfour Declaration". This idealism was the foundation of the "Pioneer Movement" in Chortkov that was, without exaggeration, the most serious and the strongest in all of Poland.
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