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pod020.gif A drawing of the Great Synagogue of Podhajce [89 KB]
A drawing of the Great Synagogue of Podhajce
with decorations on the topic of the Holocaust
– produced by our fellow native the artist Chaim Buchwald

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Chapters of the Past


History of the Jews of Podhajce and the Region

by M. Sh. Geshuri

(An historical survey)

Translated by Jerrold Landau


A great merit fell upon the natives of Podhajce and its regions in Israel to perpetuate the memory of their city in a book. This was a city that was a center of its region, and in the merit of its people, rabbis and activists, its good name went out afar. This city, as any important Jewish city in Galicia and Poland, is deserving of a monument in our lives. Congratulations are due to those people who are able to donate to this precious task of granting eternal life to an important Jewish community, which was destroyed unto the earth by the hands of the enemy.

The city of Podhajce is not numbered among the fortunate communities that merited special descriptions by its residents in early generations or by eminent historians, as merited the principal cities of Galicia such as Krakow and Lvov, and even the cities of Zolochiv (the “exalted city” of Shlomo Buber) or Bolechow (the fruit of the pen of the activists Reb Dover Birkental). With the passage of generations, the rabbis of Podhajce indeed succeeded in publishing several books, but these books only deal with matters of Jewish law without providing the opportunity to peer into – not even in a general fashion – the lifestyle of one of the central communities of southern Poland of the 17th and 18th centuries. Nevertheless, several sources have been found that allow us to reconstruct and describe the life of the city during its various periods of existence – during the time of Turkish rule, during the time of the Council of the Four Lands, during the time of Shabtai Tzvi and Jacob Frank, during the time of Hassidism, and during recent times.

A. Podhajce in Upper Podolia

The population exchange in Podolia until the Slavic settlement. – From where did Jews come to Podolia? The Jewish settlement in Podol at the end of the 12th century. – Known cities in Podol with famous rabbis and known personalities. – The Sabbatean movement, Jacob Frank and his community, the Hassidic movement. – “The Berlin Haskalah” in Podol.

“Podhajce in Upper Podolia” – what does this mean? This title comes to teach us that there was not only one Podhajce in the Kingdom of Poland. If one looks into various encyclopedias, one will find more than ten settlements with this name in various regions, near Ludmir, Luck, Kremenice, and other places. However, here, we are dealing with the Podhajce that rose to the level of a regional city in eastern Galicia, and was situated on the banks of the Koropiec (Koropets) River. Aside from this, our Podhajce has its “letter of genealogy” as a daughter of the state of Greater Podolia that took on honorable place in the history of the Kingdom of Poland prior to the three partitions, and served as a place of residence for small and large Jewish communities throughout hundreds of years.[1]

The first settlement in Podolia took place in a very early period. According to the “Father of History”, Herodotus the Greek, various tribes lived in Podolia as early as 500 years before the Common (i.e. Christian) Era. After the Roman Caesar Hadrian conquered the lands of Germany and Romania (in the second century of the Common Era), this area of land also fell under his rule. From the era of “The Wandering Tribes” and onward, various strata of tribes settled in Podolia. They differed from each other in religion: Praboslavs (Greek Orthodox), Catholics, Lutherans and Jews. The latter formed the majority of the civic population.

From the 14th Century until the second partition of Poland between Russia and Prussia in the year 1793, a succession of countries ruled Podolia, including the states of Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Turkey. The name “Podol” appears from the beginning of the 14th century, and means “Lowlands” in Slavic languages. Podolia is located over a large area in the northwestern area of European Russia, bordered by Galicia and separated from it by the Zvoroce River. In 1793, the majority of this region, along with several other regions of the State of Poland, transferred to full Russian control. However, Upper Podolia remained affiliated with Eastern Galicia.

There are controversies regarding the origins of the Jews that settled in Podolia. Some historians believe that Jews arrived in Podolia from Russia and Poland, to where they migrated from Western Europe. However, there is another opinion that claims that the Jews came to Podolia from the land of the Khazars and the Crimean Peninsula; or from the Principality of Kiev from which they were expelled during the time of Vladimir Monomach in the year 1120. According to this opinion, a Jewish community existed in Podolia at the end of the 12th century, that was occupied in business, crafts, brokerage and leasing, and did very well. During the time of the

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Thirty Year War (1618-1648), they were joined by many German Jews from families that were well-known in Torah and wisdom. As long as Podolia was under the rule of the princes of Poland and Lithuania, the Jewish residents benefited from established rights, and their civic and economic situation was significantly better than that of their brethren in other areas. The study of Torah was also widespread among the people, and famous rabbis and scholars arose from there midst. However, this situation changed for the worse with the outbreak of the revolt of Ukrainian Cossacks in 1648. The revolt was directed against the Polish landowners, who oppressed the Ukrainian people. However, along with them, the Jewish residents of cities were greatly harmed. This era of oppression, tribulations, and fear of death by the sword of the enemy made the ground fertile for mystical delusions, and faith in miracles and supernatural salvation. These were the days of Shabtai Tzvi. Faith in his Messiahship spread throughout almost the entire Diaspora, including Podolia. This strong Messianic movement stirred up waves (primarily between the years of 1676-1700) and spread a spirit of hope in the hearts of the downtrodden masses. However, the bitter disappointment that came in the wake of this movement did not by-pass Podolia. It significantly shook up the lives of its Jewish residents. The situation became particularly bad when Jacob Frank, the heir to his Messianic movement, arrived with his followers. As a result of their being slandered by the Bishop of Kamenets Podolsk, a debate took place in that city between them and the rabbis who put them in exile. This debate ended with the imposition of a heavy penalty upon the Jews, the confiscation of volumes of Talmud from the entire region, and their public burning in the market square of Kamenets Podolsk (in the year 5518 – 1757).

Indeed, the Hassidic movement arose in the middle of the 18th century as a healing balm for the nation that was broken and desperate from the burden of its tribulations. It was founded and established by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (the Besht), a native of the Podolian town of Okop. This Torah, which was reared and nurtured on the soil of Podolia, especially by the simple folk, broadened and deepened within a short period of time until it became a complete philosophy of life that enveloped all strata of the Jewish nation, despite the chasms between the various Hassidic groups. In spite of the opposition of rabbis and Torah scholars, it paved a path to the scattered Jewish people as a national movement full of content and meaning, and with a wide branched literature.

On the other hand, the Haskala movement also struck roots in Podolia. It was founded by the Jews of Western Europe (“The Berlin Haskalah”), and spread during the 18th century. It destroyed the “Wall of China” that surrounded the Jewish street, which was closed and sealed off from outside influences, and brought the spirit of the new times into it. Near Podhajce, Yosef Perel and Reb Nachman Kruchmal were active along with all of the renowned Haskala scholars who conducted a strong struggle to instill the light of the Haskalah into the dwelling places of Israel.

Podolia Jewry was then as always a living and vibrant part of Polish and Russian Jewry, and often gave of its liveliness to the soul of the entire nation. This situation did not change after the partition of Poland to two parts, with the larger part going to Russia and the smaller part included in Austrian Galicia. Galician Podolia encompassed the entire area from the left bank of the Dneister River until the border of Russia, and included the regions of Brody, Buczacz, Borsczow, Berezhany, Husiatyn, Zaleszczyki, Zvaraz, Tarnopol, Trembowla, Czortkow, Skala and Podhajce – all of them regions that were settled by small and large Jewish communities, that played an important part in all realms of life of this area of land. When destruction came upon our people in the Diaspora, they were also destroyed, and completely wiped out from the earth.

B. The Beginning of the Foundation of Podhajce

Legends and theories about Jewish settlement. – Podhajce as a small scale ingathering of exiles of Jews from various lands. – Podhajce as a border town. – The Tatar invasion of the city and its area. – The first Praboslavic population of Podhajce.

When was the city called “Podhajce” founded? Who were its builders? How did it develop and establish roots in the ancient and recent recesses of the past? How and when did Jews take hold of it, and who were their first neighbors in the city and region?

These questions and many questions remain without an answer and explanation. This is due to a simple reason: only few of the natives of the city known anything about the distant past of the city in which they were born and raised, or about the history of its Jewish population. Under these conditions, the only thing we can do is to gather the few pieces of information that can be gathered from various sources and join them together into as complete a description as possible of life in the city during the various areas.

“Red Russia”, later to become Eastern Galicia, passed to the Poles in the year 1387, after it had been a source of contention for 200 years between local princes, and between Poland and Hungary. The Poles found a very sparse settlement there. In the east there were villages and towns that had been destroyed several times during the century, their residents having been killed by the Tatars and the Turks. For hundreds of years, a diversified population settled in this land, consisting of Poles who belong to the Roman Catholic church, Ukrainians who belonged to the Greek Catholic church, and Jews who established the civic foundation in all settlements of the region. Throughout all cities of the region, there was also a small Armenian minority who conducted business with the Armenians in Turkey, Kovkoz and Persia, as far as the large Armenian center in Isfahan. Biblical names were widespread among the Armenians of Galicia.

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