History shows that Jews have lived in this part of eastern
Europe since the ninth century. Conditions fluctuated considerably,
depending on the local and national ruler and the general economy.
Jews settled in villages and towns but always remained a small
percentage of the population. Still, they developed their own
culture, religious and social institutions, and means of earning
a (sometimes subsistence) living. The number of Jewish settlements
increased substantially beginning in the 14th century, and Jews
were among the founders of many new towns owned by the Polish
nobility. The first town of Suchostaw was founded in the second
half of the 16th century but destroyed in the 17th century war
between Sweden and the Cossacks. Other villages in the area suffered
a similar fate.
Jewish population continued to increase in this region which became known as Galicia (named after the principality of Vladimir Halicz). Jews came to play important functions as leasers of breweries and flour mills from Polish nobles, as property managers, as tax collectors, and as innkeepers. They continued to maintain a separate religious and cultural identity from the Catholic Poles and the Greek-Catholic Ruthenian peasantry. They managed to survive the Cossack wars, pogroms, and deteriorating economic conditions. S.Y. Agnon, born in Buczacz (one of the larger towns of SRRG) writes about the Jewish recovery in Buczacz where Jews rebuilt their shops and homes and shuls.
Galicia came under Austrian rule at the end of the 18th century, and it remained a province of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until 1918. Lemberg served as its capital city. The village of Suchostaw was reestablished in 1765 and recorded 218 inhabitants, 57 of whom were Jewish. These 57 included Jewish inhabitants of surrounding villages. Husiatyn, a larger town in the area, became a major commercial center. Businessmen, particularly Jews, came to Husiatyn's markets and fairs from all around the district and as far away as Salonika and Turkey. The population of Husiatyn in 1882 was recorded as 5514, with 3780 of those listed as Jews. Kupitchintza (Kopychintsy), another neighboring town, also saw significant growth.
The fate of the Jews of Galicia fluctuated from the difficult days under the rule of the anti-Semitic Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and the later Emperor Josef II to their improved condition in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution. Galician Jews also felt the winds of modernization coming from western Europe while they participated in the customs and mysticism of the Hasidic movement. While they were required to become part of a centralized state, they managed to continue to live Jewish lives in accordance with tradition and halacha. Jews were ordered to acquire family names, sometimes having to be purchased and sometimes given to them by Austrian officials.
When the young Prince Franz Josef ascended to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, times improved for his Jewish subjects. He ushered in a semi-constitutional era with full political rights for Jews granted in 1867. Franz Josef was known to visit Jewish towns in Galicia and to be open to Jewish petitioners at his court. Most Jews in the small shtetlach in our region adhered to their traditional way of life, but some were drawn to the imperial culture offered in Vienna or more modern schools in Lemberg. The years after the 1848 revolution also saw new literary activity with Hebrew and Yiddish weekly and monthly publications created. Jewish nationalism grew alongside the spread of Polish anti-Semitism.
Economic distress, epidemics, anti-Semitism, and a desire for
a better, safer life led many Jews to emigrate from Galicia in
the last years of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century.
Over 250,000 Jews left Galicia and emigrated to the United States
between 1890 and the outbreak of World War I. Only 40 Jewish families
remained in Suchostaw, continuing their occupations as craftsmen,
small businessmen, and peddlers.
This region became one of hundreds of battlefields during WWI. Tens of thousands of Jews left their homes, while the ones who remained suffered at the hands of Russian troops. Austrian Husiatyn was occupied by the Russians who destroyed 670 of the 700 buildings and plundered Jewish businesses. Families who could escaped to Chortkov and Kopychintsy.
After the War, the Jews remaining in the region found themselves
in a much changed position. Instead of the considerable civil
rights they had held in the mutinational Austro-Hungarian Empire,
they now found themselves a minority in a devastated area of newly
independent Poland. Here political and economic power resided
with the Polish minority who were none too interested in sharing
it with the resident Jewish population. Neither were the local
and dominant population of Ukrainian peasants any less hostile
to Jews. Soon Polish authorities banned Jews from government posts,
boycotted Jewish businesses, imposed new taxes, and restricted
Jewish entry into high schools and universities. A sense of despair
was felt in shtetlach throughout the region.
The Jewish response was varied: labor organizations were created,
Zionist groups took hold, mutual aid and economic support associations
were created. Although so changed from the days under Austrian
rule, some customs continued. Husiatyn continued to hold weekly
markets and the large, annual, summer market continued to attract
thousands of people from all the surrounding villages. Jewish
occupations tended to fall in the scope of small business, such
as agricultural buying and selling, ownership of small groceries,
blacksmiths, mills; the occcasional Jew was a professional or
a craftsman. The larger shtetls had more than one rabbi, a few
doctors, and many scholars. Well regarded and famous Hassidic
dynasties maintained their presences in Husiatyn, Chortkov, and
There were nearly 600,000 Jews in eastern Galicia at the onset
of WW II. Almost this entire population was wiped out by the Germans
who occupied the area in the summer of 1941. In the first days
of the Nazi occupations, Jews were murdered by the local Ukrainians.
Mass executions of Jews by the Germans followed shortly. Construction
of a ghetto in Lvov (formerly Lemberg) was begun in November 1941,
and Jews from our region were interred here or deported to the
Belzec death camp northwest of Lvov for extermination. Those waiting
in the Lvov ghetto died in droves from starvation, cold, and disease.
When WWII ended and the Soviet army occupied the region, less
than 2% of the Jews of eastern Galicia had survived. Homes, synagogues,
cemeteries, businesses had all been destroyed. Few remnants of
Jewish life survive to this day.
The above history is based on information from several sources including