Terra Incognita: History and memory in Galicia

There is a great need for investment in this essential history, and we are just beginning to uncover it.

April 19, 2015 21:09
4 minute read.
synagogue in Drohobych

The synagogue in Drohobych, the city where Polish writer Bruno Schulz was killed.. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

The Polish writer Bruno Shulz was shot and killed while walking home on November 19, 1942. Out of six million or more Jews exterminated during the Holocaust, and out of the hundreds of thousands of Galician Jews killed, the details of Shulz’s murder are very detailed. He had gone to the local office of the Judenrat, the office of Jewish collaborators who worked with the Nazi regime, in Drohobych (then Drohobycz), to get some bread. He has friends in the Nazi administration who had offered him protection on account of his reputation as a writer and artist. But on his way home to the ghetto a Nazi officer, Karl Günther, shoots him in the street. He dies on the sidewalk.

Today the town of Drohobych, with some 77,000 people, has only 150 Jews. A sad remnant of the once thriving Jewish population that made up half the population of the town. According to a local tour guide there were as many as 17 synagogues serving the town’s 19,000 Jews in 1939 on the eve of the Holocaust. The memory of Schulz, one of the town’s famous Jewish intellectuals, is held in some regard today. The spot where he was murdered is marked, as is a house he lived in, and two museums have rooms commemorating him.

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But even in memory, Schulz seems a complex character.

In the palace of art, a once stately building, now slightly deteriorated, the room the discusses Schulz looks mostly at his life under the Communist authorities.

Today the town is inside Ukraine and so is all of what was the historic Galicia region where some 800,000 Jews once lived; the largest concentration of Jews in Europe. But from 1918 to 1939 it was part of Poland, and Schulz wrote in Polish.

In 1939 the Soviets invaded Poland as part of their pact with Hitler. That’s not remembered as much now by those who see the Nazis as the embodiment of evil, but the fact is that the Soviets happily collaborated with Hitler to destroy independent Poland. The museum reminds us that Schulz was forced to work with the Communist authorities. In those days intellectuals and anyone suspected of “nationalist” sympathies, or any “parisitical capitalists,” were being packed off to Siberia. So the little museum asks, was this author a “Communist or Ukrainian nationalist?” Perhaps they forgot to ask if he was a Polish nationalist? In those days the towns in this area were often almost half Jewish, but the other major population was Polish-speakers. Ukrainians constituted a minority in many places.

The Soviets helped change all that. Schulz began working on Soviet propaganda, and applied to join an official trade union. But he felt deracinated. When the Nazis came, perhaps there was a respite from the Soviet restrictions. Some in Ukraine welcomed the Germans as liberators, and some Jews had a pleasant recollection of the Germans from the First World War. The Soviets had deported wealthy Jews and taken their property.

Everywhere they were ruined financially. The German extermination was the next step. By the end of the Holocaust, major cities like Lviv had only a thousand Jews left, where once there were 110,000, some 50% of the city.

The Soviet Union then went further to deracinate Jewish culture from this area. The Jewish graveyard in Lviv was turned into a market. In Drohobych the synagogue that survived the war, a towering, beautiful building, became a storage facility and then a furniture factory.

Today many Jews return to this region to find their roots. Galicia is about the size of Israel, and in terms of Jewish population concentration, as mentioned above, it is unparalleled in the pre-Holocaust period. So many Jewish families have relatives here, both in Israel and the United States.

These heritage tours are fascinating. Traveling here it seems that one of the things some of these tours miss is how mobile and diverse the Jewish community was.

One “Jewish” restaurant in Lviv offers “Jewish” food such as shakshuka and matza. But what did the Jews eat in the pre-war period? What language did they write in? Where was their cultural orientation? Toward Vienna, which once ruled Lviv, when it was called Lemberg? Toward Poland? Ukraine? When we think of people’s roots we need to imagine more than a sedentary environment, but rather an ever-changing environment.

Did Jews who left Odessa for America live in Odessa for generations or just pass through there? There is a great need for investment in this essential history, and we are just beginning to uncover it. Bruno Schulz’s story is fascinating, but there are another million stories like that just from Ukraine. It’s time to uncover them in greater detail.

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