A glimpse into the structure of the Jewish community of Uscie Biskupie in the second half of the Nineteenth Century

By Ervin Spinner


Uscie Biskupie is a small farming village located at the point where the large and scenic Dniester River is joined by the much smaller Nieczlawa River, which runs down from the north, by way of Borszczów. The village lies on a hillside that slopes down to the Dniester, at a place where the river makes a large oxbow loop. The “main” road is higher than the town, and looking down towards the village it is hard to see that there is anything much there, because the canopy of trees is so thick. More impressive is the view past the village of the wide and curving Dniester, the high cliffs on the other side, and the neatly laid out fields.

The JRI Poland database provides us scanned images of the actual register of vital records. This gives some insight into the demographics and population growth of shtetls like Uscie Biskupie. It is obvious from the data that from about the first quarter of the 1800’s to the last twenty years of that century there was an almost exponential increase in the Jewish population. The handful of established families in the 1830 timeframe grew to large clans towards the end of the century in spite of the extremely large cases of early childhood mortality. It is also clear that the number of new families moving in was steadily increasing. Death data begin in about 1831. To me this is a good indication of the number of established families. In the twenty years from 1831 to 1851 there were some 35 deaths recorded, anywhere between zero to 4 annually. Of these 35, seven were Geller’s. Furthermore, of these 35, 13 were adults, male and female, likely heads of families at least 35 years old and older. 4 were Scharfsteins, 2 Geller, 1 Rosenblatt. Indeed, for the rest of the Century these three families constituted the largest clans and probably intermarried extensively among themselves.

I have recently purchased the list of property owners of Uscie for 1827. I have also acquired a copy of the cadastral map for the 1860 timeframe. We know that the lower numbered houses are older and in the center of town, the market square, but as houses are added in later years in the center they have much higher numbers. We note the heads of three families that became prominent over the century and which naturally intermarried. In 1827 there are hardly any Jewish property owners. Josel Geller owns house #15 of 59 square meters, Abraham Rosenblatt (1769-1832) owns house #9, 43 sq. meters. Both of these gentlemen are in the database. The third head of a family is Moyses Scharfstein, house #3, 84 sq. meters. He is not in the vital records database but that large house remained in the Scharfstein family for the rest of the Century. It included a schenk, tavern as well as a grocery store. Moyses was obviously born sometime in the 1760’s and had a few children.

Uscie is one of several border towns in the Austrian empire on the Dniester River on the border with the Russian empire. Poverty in Galicia was uniformly high, but we know that the Jewish population as a whole grew by a factor of 8 in the 19th Century. It is probable that socio-economic conditions were relatively better here in eastern Galicia to account for the particular growth of Uscie.

The average global death rate for the Century was 40 deaths for a population of 1000. Hence, a death rate of less than 2 averaged over the 20 year period mentioned above would suggest as a first approximation, an Uscie population of at most 50 Jews, maybe 10 families, in the 1840’s. According to JewishGen the Jewish population in 1880 was 860 and I will focus on the situation around that time.

To get an idea of what people did for a living it is useful to look at birth records because the Austrian form required listing the baby, the name and occupation of the father as well as the name of the mother, her parents and their occupation. Thus with one birth we can capture the occupation of two families one generation apart. While this information is not always provided, in the majority of cases we see fairly complete information.

I looked at a five year period around 1880 and while this does not cover every family, it probably covers more than half and is statistically valid for the remainder. My source is the raw data on JRI Poland. Another source of general information is the map room of Gesher Galicia.

The maps of Galicia in the map room from the late 1700’s to 1848 tell a fairly consistent story. A little shtetl like Uscie Biskupie in a largely agrarian economy before it was touched by the industrial revolution lives off the small farmers around the shtetl where they come to sell their produce, to buy their basic necessities and, of course, to drink. Uscie is essentially surrounded by the Dniester River on three sides with no access to the farms and villages and with limited access to the area farms mainly to the north. What is worse is the fact that its entire east side is not only a river but the border of the Russian empire; hence limited geographic and political access. We therefore note on those maps a very narrow road running down from the much larger towns to the north and ending at Uscie. Uscie is in the sub district of Mielnica and is a very short distance from the town of Mielnica to the east. Not surprising, Uscie is small in the first half of the 1800’s. However, the recently published statistical map of 1878, a treasure of information, tells a different story. The geographic and political barriers are still there, but we now note better highways from the north into Uscie, a small two kilometer road to the west from Uscie crossing the river and running south into Bucovina, Czernowitz and beyond. This bridge joining two provinces of the Austrian empire (the next bridge is several kilometers up river to the west at Zaleszczyki) turns Uscie now into an important station on a trade route. The bridge was probably built in the 1860’s when the rapid increase in the Jewish population was on its way. There is a village called Samuszyn on the other shore of the Dniester on the Bucovina side some three kilometers from Uscie and a few Uscie families set up shop there predominantly a branch of the Geller clan.

The 1878 map is a gold mine of information. Uscie now has a sugar factory, distilleries, a steam mill, oil presses and a tobacco factory. Additionally, there is a telegraph office which attests to Uscie’ s role as a trade center. Generally, only the larger towns had this service.

The JRIP data shows a fairly complete range of occupations and services among the Jewish population. The town has at least one of the following: property owners, “propination pachter” or lease holders acquired from the manor giving them the right to produce liquor; tailors, shoemakers, furriers, carpenters, furniture producers, bakers, glaziers, butchers, smiths, copper smiths, laborers, tool sharpeners and even a “spikilant”, presumably a speculator. I will now attempt to quantify the main occupations. By far the largest occupation is trade. There are at least 37 general merchants including retail dealers, as well as leather merchants, horse dealers, fruit and flour dealers, salt merchants. There is one trade clerk. Altogether, in the sample that I looked at, there are more than 45 people engaged in some form of trade. Again we note that the Geller, Scharfstein and Rosenblatt families dominate the merchant class. Additionally, there are nine grocers, fourteen carters transporting merchandise as well as people.

We know that the one occupation where the Jews were an absolute majority over some three centuries is “szenker” or tavern keeper. In my sample, Uscie has no less than eleven szenkers. Some of the taverns were in or near the town square but we also know that throughout Eastern Europe some of the taverns were at roadside or near the surrounding villages. A tavern was frequently more than just a place to drink alcoholic beverages. It was a place where people went after life events like church weddings, funerals, births. The Jewish tavern owner would occasionally act as banker for destitute farmers; give advice and act as psychologist and social worker combined. Some taverns carried general merchandise beyond liquor. (The recently published book: Yankel’s Tavern is actually a well-researched scholarly work and is highly recommended).

We know that at that time, university trained doctors were practicing in the cities. The 1878 map shows that small to medium towns had no doctors but Uscie has a doctor. His name is Dr Elias Japke; he married the daughter of a property owner in Czernowitz. His family is not from Uscie and we don’t know how many years he lived there, but he had a daughter in 1880. Obviously, this growing community appealed to him.

We know that every community had a “royfeh”, a person who practiced folk medicine learned by being apprenticed to another such medic. I don’t know who filled this role in Uscie because usually such people have regular jobs as well, or are house wives. However, Uscie had an interesting fellow called Yankel Boruchowitz. He and his family came from Besserabia, the Russian empire on the other side of the Dniester River. He is clearly the coroner of record and has signed every death record for many years. Was he also a medic? We don’t know but in a birth record he is identified as a “schuldiener”, presumably gabbai or serving officer of a synagogue.

As regards other Jewish things, we note the following. A few people could perform a circumcision but the primary “moil” was Abraham Ira Schecher whose daytime job was being a “shoichet”, a ritual slaughterer. Clearly, so were his ancestors as suggested by his family name. At births, the primary witnesses or functionaries for registering the birth are Mordko Isak Schapia, a grocer and Litman Eisenberg, a merchant. The sandek was generally a grandfather of the baby.

The Austrian government demanded that Jews must also have a civil marriage. However, this procedure was expensive and it meant nothing to Jews all of whom had had a chupa and a wedding conforming to Jewish law and practice. As a consequence we find very few weddings performed at city hall until quite late in the Century. The price was that the children were formally registered as “illegitimate”! Again, the two gentlemen mentioned above are functionaries and witnesses at several civil weddings. Interestingly, I have found no reference to a rabbi in this time frame. The larger shtetl, Mielnica was a few kilometers to the east and I suppose that a rabbi was brought over from there when needed.

The maps do not show any synagogues although we know that there were a few, possibly in private homes. In my sample, Uscie has five teachers of Jewish subjects, “judenkinderlehrer”. Itzig Leistner, Motie Weisman, Szimszon Rosenthal, Srul Herlik and Leib Treiner. They probably taught in their own homes.

We know that social stratification was strong in Jewish communities throughout history and it certainly existed in Uscie. Merchants married girls from merchant families and tailors married girls from tailor families. We see some of this in our data base but certainly not exclusively. There were simply many more merchant families than any other group so many intermarried. The carters, or “ba’alegulehs”, who, in Jewish folklore, are at the bottom of the social scale seemed to have done reasonably well in marriage. They probably had good income.

Uscie people married spouses from their own town but also from the surrounding small towns and villages. Occasionally, we find a spouse from the larger towns to the north. A case in point is Aron Burych Feldtenstein; he is a tailor who married Genender Klesmer whose father is Moses Ruben Klesmer, a professional musician from Skala some 30 kilometer to the north. Judging by her name, she comes from a line of musicians. It seems that her sister also married an Uscie boy. What can be more Jewish than a klezmer and a rabbi, but clearly Uscie was not large enough to support either in this time frame.

However, there is a legend that I am particularly fond of that I received from one of the descendants and who claimed that it was known among some of the Scharfsteins in New York City.

“The Russian Czar Nicolai issued a proclamation (1827) conscripting all Jewish male children from ten years old and up into military services. Simcha Binim and a friend, both ten years old, decided to flee the Czar’s tyranny across the Dniester river into Austria. While the friend drowned in the attempt, Simcha Binem arrived safely and found refuge in the home of the rabbi of the town of Uscie Biskupie. Binem later married the rabbi’s daughter, a Scharfstein, and became chief rabbi of several neighboring towns. The couple had two children, Mordechai and Frima. Frima married Leibele (Yehidi Leib) Treiner, a Torah teacher. Born to them were a son and three daughters….” Much as I like the story, I have found no reference to a rabbi called Binim Scharfstein in any data base including Chochmei Galicia. However, there is a Binyamin Scharfstern who died in Skala in 1862. Since this family name does not exist, I assume that it is Scharfstein. The age give is 74 but this is very likely to be wrong too; very few people lived that long. Is this Uscie’s prominent son who took a position in the larger town as rabbi/dayan? Possibly. We note the death of Rifka Beila 36 years old in 1848, in house #253. She is preceded by a Scharfstein on the very short list of death records and the clerk simply did not repeat the family name. She is probably Binim’s wife. Leib Treiner and his wife Frima lived in the same house, #253, where all their children were born and raised. Krentsie Scharfstein (1794-1870) also lived and died in this house; three generations of Scharfstein ladies, Krentsie, Rifka anf Frima. We also note that all four children of Leib and Frima name one of their own children, Binem, presumably for their eminent grandfather.

The Jews had a relationship with the local Polish nobility, as merchants, liquor license holders, estate administrators and so on. This would require scholarship research on site and I am not a scholar. We do note, however, in the 1891 business directory that Graf Gustav Blucher owned oil factories in Uscie and in the 1907 directory Graf Borkowski owned an estate while Graf Bawaroski owned steam mills and oil factories.

Whatever happened to Uscie Biskupie? A person who visited the town a few years ago wrote some notes and my introductory paragraph comes from his notes. Apparently Uscie was severely damaged by bombardments in WW I. To-day, the Jews are long gone and so is the vitality of the town. I don’t know how many hundreds of Landsmanshaftn, Jewish benevolent societies existed in New York, but the “Erste Uscie Biskupier Unt. Verein” was established at the end of the 1800’s and may have survived to 1990. Their cemetery sections are in Mt Hebron and a smaller section in Cedar Park cemetery. YIVO in New York may have some records from this society.

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