The Jewish Trail: Galicia 2003

by Kenneth Zucker

Tuesday June 10th.

Ruth eyed the two propellers on the small plane that was to take us between Warsaw and Lviv with some alarm. I explained that aeroplanes have been using propellers for nearly one hundred years. I suspect that I failed to reassure her as she kept a watchful eye on the propellers throughout the hour long flight.

Lviv has a tiny airport. Arrival there makes you feel that you are traveling rather than packaged. The road into the city in an ancient vehicle passing for a taxi was almost empty. Only when you reached the centre did the roads become crowded.

Lviv, formerly Lvov when it was Polish and Lemberg when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remains a gracious city thanks to its Hapsburg era buildings when it was the capital of the province of Galicia. Its centre is Svobody Prospekt which has a long and broad central promenade with roads running on either side. At all hours the benches along the promenade are occupied by chess players with encouraging crowds around them.

Wednesday June 11th.

As arranged by e-mail Alex Dunai, our guide, is in the hotel lobby at 9.00 am. Broad and cheerful we are going to like him. Today we are going to Brody. Three of my grand parents (in order to simplify our travels) came from roughly the same area of Eastern Galicia. Brody was the city of Natan Nata Hacohen Gottlieb. His descendants including my maternal grandmother left it for Vienna, Paris and London.

Jews began to settle in Brody in the sixteenth century. At one time in the late eighteenth century only Amsterdam had a larger Jewish population. It was a centre not only of orthodoxy but of Hassidism and Haskalah. Such was its renown for Jewish learning that like Vilna it was regarded as one of the mother cities of Israel, "the Jerusalem of Austria". Rabbi Yehezkel Landau, the "Noda Beyehuda" went to study there at the age of thirteen. He wrote that "it was a town of ethereal beauty, full of scholars and authors". The Baal Shem Tov was born nearby, married a girl from Brody and lived there for a time. Five miles from the border, it was the first port of call for Jews fleeing from the pogroms in Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881. It appears in stories by Sholem Aleichem and S. Y. Agnon.

Brody is now a small, pleasant and bustling provincial town. Most of the external walls of the famous synagogue, built like a fortress, still stand. But we could see that the roof had collapsed and the interior was criss-crossed with scaffolding. Money donated to repair the interior has been embezzled.

Some way out of town between the fields and the forest lies the Jewish cemetery. To our surprise it stands in its entirety. It covers a vast area - some three hundred yards long with massive finely carved stones. The inscriptions were clear and could be easily read. The grass was long and saplings and bushes were beginning to assert their mastery over the stones.

A short way from the cemetery raised on a high mound stands the Memorial to the Jews of Brody killed by the Germans. They were either shot in the forests - equal in terror and evil to the crematoria - or murdered in the concentration camps. Silently we said Kaddish, placed stones on a few of the tombs and left..

That evening we went to the magnificent opera house in Lviv. By chance it was a performance of Verdi's Nabucco. Little could be more incongruous. In a city where extensive green spaces mark the sites of the city's synagogues blown up by the Germans, the curtain rose on the Temple in Jerusalem, the scene dominated by two huge tablets of the Law, a Menorah and the High Priest in mitre and breastplate.

The opera house was only half full. The Jews who would have provided the rest of the audience were gone. Did the Ukrainians who watched this opera, whose highpoint is the conversion of the heroine to Judaism, appreciate the irony? Or did they merely enjoy the music and the spectacle? I am not sure that I would like to know the answer to that question.

Thursday June 12th.

Our second day's journey into the countryside. The Ukraine, though now independent of Russia, is in the grip of a Communist style dictator. The KGB has gone, life is freer but there are still many constraints. As always communism keeps a country poor and backward. The Ukraine has a preponderantly rural economy dependant to a large extent on horse and human power and ancient and battered vehicles. Horses still pull the ploughs and the fields were full of men and women bent over their tasks. The countryside is unspoiled and beautiful with vast green fields rolling away to the horizon and from time to time to a backdrop of low hills.

This was to be a long day. The first stop was Zloczów (Zolochev) which my father had left in 1899 at the age of four. My Hebrew name, Zvi Eliezer, descends from his grandfather.

There was a little Jewish settlement in Zloczów in the second half of the sixteenth century. They probably just missed the damage to the town by Tartar invasions. By the seventeenth century Jews were permitted to settle anywhere in the city and to trade in everything except Christian religious objects. Its famous Rabbis included Rabbi Elhanon Halperin and Rabbi Meir Ben Shmuel Shmelki Horowitz. Its principal adornment was Rabbi Yehiel Mechiel, the Maggid of Zloczów, who made the town a centre of Hassidism. As its Yizkor Book tells-

"The place where we were born and grew up was small and beautiful. Perhaps one of the most beautiful in Eastern Galicia. It was blessed with spiritual giants, poets, rabbis, writers, artists, devoted social workers, youth movements, schools, relief foundations, synagogues and houses of study."

Naftali Hertz Imber was born in Zloczów. At nineteen he wrote eight lines on a piece of paper and entitled them "Tikvosenu" (Our Hope). We know them as the "Hatikvah".

The 1870's saw remarkable economic development when it became a railroad centre and army camps were built in the vicinity. That would explain why my grandfather was a military outfitter. The great publishing house of Zuckerkandel was established in Zloczów. Half the population was Jewish. In 1939 their number was about 6,000

The synagogue has gone. A field robbed of its tombstones, fenced off but empty save for a memorial to the Jews of Zloczów, was the cemetery.

We move on. A long drive to the South through Tarnopol brought us to Kopyczynce (Kopychintsy). It was a small, poor shtetl but its Jewish roots also went back to the seventeenth century. It too had Rabbis of renown including Abraham Yehoshua Heschel who emigrated to the USA. Pinchas Lavon was born there. In 1939 it had a Jewish population of about 3,000.

The synagogue stands but it is used as a workshop. The cemetery has been built over for a cement factory and new houses. We were told that this in no longer permitted. Not far away in the forest is a memorial for the Jews of the three nearby shtetls - Kopyczynce, Suchostaw and Husiatyn. Their archives now available on the Internet show that Mehlberg, my maternal grandfather's name and an unusual one, was very common just in these three shtetls. How many bearing this name had been brought here in 1941?

Friday June 13th.

Alongside a church in Lviv is the equally mediaeval building housing the Central State Historical Archives of the Ukraine. Most of the records from Eastern Galicia are in Warsaw and now coming online on the Internet. Not so, unfortunately, those of Brody. We climb a narrow winding staircase to a long, dark, dusty corridor. A researcher in a small office is looking through a huge volume. Over her shoulder I can see that it contains columns of entries all ruled off. We cannot look ourselves but must fill in a form with names and dates. In a few months they will write to us.

Saturday June 14th.

We walked from our hotel, uphill through Ivano-Franko Park and down the other side. Two synagogues remain in Lviv - one the Chabad centre and the other to which we went is the functioning synagogue for the remaining Jews of Lviv. We were told that the two synagogues had fallen out. How this one survived the Germans we did not discover. It is large and must have been impressive. There are two tiers of galleries for women. It is now shabby with the paint on the ceilings and walls peeling. The Rabbi was away with the children of the community for the weekend. We may have received a misleading impression but inevitably with a sparse and elderly congregation melancholy pervaded the atmosphere. Still if the flame was low it was still burning.

Sunday June 15th.

It was a religious festival. Which one we did not discover. The streets and churches were thronged with worshippers. Somehow, perhaps unjustly, we felt uncomfortable.

So back to the airport and the plane with two propellers.

The Jewish Trail. Galicia 2003: Photos by Kenneth Zucker

This page is hosted at no cost to the public by JewishGen, Inc., a non-profit corporation. If you feel there is a benefit to you in accessing this site, your JewishGen-erosity is appreciated.

Jewish Gen Home Page

KehilaLinks Directory

Gesher Galicia

Last updated 12/12/06 by ELR
Copyright © 2003 SRRG