A Brief History of the Jewish Community in Gusyatin, Ukraine

Written by George Aronson, Sharon, Massachusetts

Grandson of Leona Guttmann Sachs, b. Gusyatin, 1903,

Great grandson of Osias Guttmann, b. Gusyatin, 1860, and Tillie Bucharest, b. Satanov ( ca 1870)

The history of the Jewish community in Gusyatin spans more than 500 years from its early origins as a farm in the sixteenth century. The community reached its peak in the late 1800s, when Gusyatin was both a thriving commercial center and one of the most important Hassidic centers in Galicia. Sadly, the golden age did not last for long. Gusyatin was heavily damaged during World War I, then destroyed during World War II.

Jews were among the first to settle in Gusyatin after its incorporation as a town in 1559. There are records of a synagogue in Gusyatin by the start of the seventeenth century. The community was small and vulnerable, however, and suffered from anti-semitic activity. In 1623, three Jewish farmers, brothers, were accused of murdering Christian children; they were prosecuted, tortured and burnt at the stake. Cossacks conquered the town in 1648, although not much is known of the fate of the town's Jews at that time.

The Jewish community revived and began to prosper from 1680 through 1699, when Turkey conquered and ruled Galicia. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Jewish community had built a beautiful new synagogue. The building of the new synagogue was challenged in court by Bishop Sharkovski of Kamenetz-Podolski, who claimed that the synagogue should not have been built without his approval. In 1729, the local nobility, the Pototzki family, intervened to dismiss the court suit in order to protect the Jews that lived on their land. The Jewish community grew modestly under Polish rule in the first half of the eighteenth century, reaching 1,208 by 1765.

In 1772, Gusyatin was divided into two sections when Poland was partitioned between Austria and Russia. Most of the Jewish community lived in developed areas west of the Zabrotz River, ruled by Austria, although some Jews lived in the smaller portion of the town east of the river, ruled by Russia. As a border town, Gusyatin became an important path for trade between Austria and Russia, and merchants came from surrounding areas to trade in fairs in the town. At this time, most of the Jews in Husyatin were craftsmen or wholesale merchants. Many sold or shipped grain and lumber to Russia.

In the 1800s, Hassidim began to move to Gusyatin, including followers of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. The Hassidic population growth sharply after Rabbi Mordecai Shraga-Bar, son of Rabbi Israel of Rozhin, established a Hassidic Court in Gusyatin in 1861. Hundreds of Hassidim moved to Gusyatin to be near the rebbe, fueling the rise of a local hospitality industry. Rabbi Mordecai befriended the local nobility, the Marquis Golokhovski, and the whole area prospered. An elegant study house was built for the rebbe on the grounds of a partially ruined castle. New synagogues were built, as were ritual baths, hospitals and old age homes. The town supported new industries, including a Jewish-owned factory to make fountain pen nibs, print shops and paper merchants, as well as doctors, lawyers and other professionals. The town was hurt by a major cholera epidemic in 1870, but growth resumed with the opening of the railroad connection to Stanislavov in 1882 and the influx of refugees from Russia at that time.

The turn of the century was the golden age for Gusyatin, with Jews comprising 4197 of the town's 6060 residents in 1890. Hassidism thrived. Zionist groups were started, including Bnai Zion and a Theodore Herzl group. A Toynbee-Hala club was established to present popular lectures on Saturday evenings. An organization called Dorshei Sefat Yeshanim was founded to republish rare manuscripts. Modern services came to the town, including banks, electricity and a new sewage system.

The town's growth was haunted by the prospects of war between Austria and Russia. The flow of refugees increased, especially in 1903-1906. Crossing the border became more difficult. Fearing the war, Gusyatin residents also began to emigrate. By 1914, the Hassidic Rebbe of that time, Rabbi Israel, moved to Vienna and closed the Hassidic Court, putting an end to the golden age.

On August 9, 1914, the Russian Army crossed the Zabrotz River and attacked Austria through Gusyatin. Fires in the town destroyed more than 600 buildings. The Jews dispersed among neighboring towns and villages to avoid the oncoming armies. Many died from typhus as local conditions deteriorated. Jews were ordered out of Gusyatin in on June 13, 1915, but many made their way back into the town. When the Russian Army retreated in 1916, the remaining Jews were ordered into exile again, this time to the Kiev district of Russia. Raids from peasant gangs plagued the few Jews that returned to the town after the war in 1918 to 1919. Then the Bolsheviks came to power and confiscated property from Jewish-owned businesses. By 1921, the Jewish population had declined to 368, less than 10 percent of the peak population in 1890.

The Jewish community of Gusyatin never recovered from World War I. The town continued to be divided by an international border, this time between Poland and Russia. All commerce with Russia was stopped by travel restrictions. The Hassidim center was closed. The electric lighting system was not repaired. Yet, some Jewish life continued despite the decline. A rabbi was hired (Rabbi Jacob Ringel). A Hebrew school continued to operate. The ritual bath was repaired. Gusyatin was the home of several active Zionist groups, including Hitachdut (Labor Party), Mizrachi, and Revisionists. And although contact between the Polish and Russian portions of the community was prohibited, each Rosh Hashanah, the Jews of Polish Gusyatin and Russian Husiatyn would go to the banks of the Zabrotz River for the Tashlich prayer, the only time during the year when they were allowed to see and speak with each other.

On July 6, 1941, Gusyatin was conquered by the German Army. Immediately, the local Ukranians began to attack the local Jews. The community was burdened by forced labor and confiscation of property. Many died of hunger and disease. Finally, in March 1942, the remaining Jews of Gusyatin were rounded up by the Nazis and deported by train to Kofichintza and Provozna, never to return. So ended 500 years of Jewish life in Gusyatin.

Source: The main source of material for this history is Pinkas Hakehillot, the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Volume II, Eastern Galicia, pages 181 to 184, published by Yad Vashem in 1980. Home sources and internet information was also consulted. Thanks also to Eldad Ganin, who assisted in translation.