A Brief History of Wielkie Oczy
Some popular works claim—without citing sources—that the history of Wielkie Oczy reaches back to the 14th century and that the story of the village is associated with the Krakowiec land estate. More serious works inform us that the beginnings of Wielkie Oczy date from the turn of the 16th century, when the village was established on the lands of the neighboring villages of Swidnica and Zmijowiska by the owners of these villages, the Miekiski family.
In the first quarter of the 17th century, Wielkie Oczy became the property of the Ruthenian Mohila family, descendants of Walachian princes.
Foundation of the Town
In the middle of 17th century the hamlet of Wielkie Oczy became the hereditary property of the Polish nobleman captain Andrzej Modrzewski, cup-bearer of Sieradz. As mentioned in the memoirs of the French traveler Ulrich Verdum, who traveled in the area during the period 1670-1672, there existed in Wielkie Oczy at that time a fortified manor house, surrounded by a rampart with four towers.
On May 11, 1671 the Polish king Michal Korybut Wisniowiecki at the request of Andrzej Modrzewski granted Wielkie Oczy a charter that turned Wielkie Oczy into a private town under the Magdeburg Law. The newly created townsmen were thus exempted for couple of years from taxes and had the right to hold three fairs each year and one weekly market every Thursday. In 1667 Andrzej Modrzewski founded Dominican convent in Wielkie Oczy and in 1684 built brick church in baroque style.
From the Modrzewski family Wielkie Oczy passed into hands of the aristocratic family of Laszcz. In the first half of 18th Wielkie Oczy became the property of Anna Potocki, daughter of Marianna née Laszcz and Stanislaus Potocki. In the year 1741 she married her cousin, a powerful magnate Franciszek Salezy Potocki. Their son, Szczesny Potocki married beneath his class when he wed the much poorer Gertruda Komorowski in secret. The Potocki family was outraged and ordered that Gertruda be put to death. Gertruda's death and the famous trial that followed resulted in Wielkie Oczy passing as an indemnity into the hands of Jakub Komorowski.
With the first partition of Poland in 1772 among Russia, Prussia and Austria, Wielkie Oczy fell under Austrian rule and was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire as part of the province of Galicia. Around 1786 Wielkie Oczy passed into hands of another magnate family, the Lubomirskis and in the middle of 19th century the town became property of the German barons Hagen. In the 19th century numerous trade factories, two tanneries, two brick-kilns, a steam-mill and four alcohol distilleries were active in the town. Additionally, there were almost 50 craftsmen. Most of these were established and conducted by Jews.
In 1900 in Wielkie Oczy established an agriculture co-operative, and in 1909 a fire-brigade and later a savings bank were also established. In 1908 estate Wielkie Oczy was bought from barons Hagen by Karol Czerny.
The granting of the town charter under the Magdeburg Law was led to an influx of Jewish families settling in Wielkie Oczy. In the year 1717 Jewish citizens of the town were already tax payers. In 1765 Wielkie Oczy was considered an important Jewish community and the rabbi of Wielkie Oczy, Mordechai, son of Shmuel, from Kutno, became widely known in the Jewish world as an author of religious treatise King's Gate. There were 402 Jews in Wielkie Oczy at the end of the 18th century (1799).
In time, when Galician Jews were allowed to acquire land, several individual families from Wielkie Oczy purchased holdings and became farmers, but the majority of the Jews of Wielkie Oczy made an arduous living as small merchants, peddlers and conveyors of goods on horse-drawn wagons. When, toward the end of the 19th century the New World opened up for immigration, the more daring and more desperate of them ventured overseas, and once there did not forget the native town.
Relations between the Jews of Wielkie Oczy and the surrounding Ukrainian population, at least at the turn of the 19th century, had been tense and extremely circumspect. Occasionally, there was pogrom-like violence. Thus, for instance, when a fire broke out in 1866 destroying 15 Jewish houses, Gentile neighbors engaged in general plunder of Jewish property. In 1910, peasants incited by a Ukrainian priest came out en masse, maiming a number of Jewish residents and destroying Jewish property. Only the timely intervention by the Galician police, who had great difficulty in restoring order, brought an uneasy standstill between Jew and Gentile.
The Zionist Organization of Wielkie Oczy was established around the year 1925. The general elections to the Zionist Congress indicated that the local people, if at all Zionist, preferred the religious Mizrachi movement with a few modern individuals proclaiming allegiance to the General Zionists or the leftist United Zionists.
Wielkie Oczy had two synagogues, the old one called Beit HaMidrash, which was destroyed during the Nazi occupation in 1943, and the new one, built in the end of 19th century, destroyed in WWI, and rebuilt in 1927 chiefly with financial contributions of Jewish emigrants from Wielkie Oczy in United States. This synagogue stands till today, although in a state of disrepair.
Among the noteworthy rabbis (successors of Mordechai from Kutno) who served the Vilkutch community in the past hundred and fifty years was Rabbi Yacov Teomim (b.1833-d.1908), son of Rabbi Ephraim, who was widely respected as a rabbi of Wielkie Oczy (1860-63), and who later became the rabbi of Tarnogrod and finally of Kolomyja. In the years 1879-1918 Vilkutch took great pride in its Rabbi Naftali-Herz (b.1851-d.1943), author of Naftali's Gate, son of Rabbi Moshe Teomim of Delatyn, who was followed by his son Rabbi Yona Teomim (b.1870-d.1943), the last rabbi of Vilkutch in the years 1918-1943.
After outbreak of WWI and declaration of war on Russia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (August 6, 1914) Wielkie Oczy, being situated in the area of the frontier, in the first few weeks of the war found itself within the area of military operations. In September 1914 the town was captured by Russian Army. The Russians held Wielkie Oczy for nine months and withdrew under brave attack of Xth Hanover Corps. During battle of 1915, a large part of town was burned to the ground, especially all the buildings adjacent to the town-market. As a result of the destruction of war and epidemic disease, the town deteriorated.
After WWI, there began a series of Polish-Ukrainian battles to gain domination over this area. The battles ended in December, 1918 with the triumph of the Polish forces. Wielkie Oczy was then incorporated administratively into the district of Jaworów in the province of Lwów. With help of the central government, the reconstruction of the town was planned. Between WWI and WWII a number of businesses were established in Wielkie Oczy, including an alcohol distillery, where spirits were produced from potatoes and barley, two brick-kilns, two mills, one of them diesel driven and the second benzene driven. The distillery, one brick-kiln and diesel-mill were the property of the local squire Karol Czerny. The second brick-kiln belonged to Ludwik Czech, and the benzene-mill belonged to Brenner Mendel & Co. The Association of Craftsmen and the Association of Traders were active in the town. Every Tuesday was a weekly market day and eight times a year, until 1927, there were fairs. In 1935 Wielkie Oczy lost its town charter and rights.
In Wielkie Oczy there were one Catholic church (Polish), one Eastern Catholic church (Ukrainian) and two synagogues: the old Beit HaMidrash and the new synagogue, rebuilt in 1927 after its destruction during the First World War. There was one government compulsory elementary school with seven grades for Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian children and a few cheders for Jewish children.
In the period between the WWI and WWII the relations between Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian population were correct. There were times when a tzaddik or a Bishop came to Wielkie Oczy. To honor the tzaddik, besides being received by the Jewish community, he was also received by the mayor and the local priest, accompanied by distinguished farm owners. The Catholic bishop was also received in a similar way when he came to visit the town. The bells rang in the Catholic and Eastern Catholic churches. Jews went out to the outskirts of the town with Torah scrolls. The bishop used to come out from the canopy and kiss the Torah. On Jewish holidays, during prayers at the synagogue, the mayor used to come for a short visit, especially when a prayer was said for the Polish President, Ignacy Moscicki, or Marshal Pilsudski.
After 1933, when anti-Jewish propaganda and activities in fascist Germany began, nationalist parties and groups in Poland also adopted fascist ideologies and conducted anti-Jewish pursuits.
Soon after outbreak of Second World War, German troops entered Wielkie Oczy (September 12,1939). The Germans stayed in the town for two weeks, until September 26,1939, when by the terms of secret protocols to the Nazi-soviet Non-Aggression Pact they were replaced by the Soviet Army.
On November 1, 1939, Wielkie Oczy and the surrounding area occupied by Russians were incorporated into Ukrainian Soviet Republic. On the force of the special decree of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union the entire population of the annexed area became Soviet citizens.
After outbreak of the war, Jews from the immediate surrounding area gathered in Wielkie Oczy. The refugees from western parts of Poland occupied by the Germans increased the number of Jews in the town to about 700. During the short-lived Soviet occupation (1939-1941) a number of Jews found employment in municipal agencies and some alert individuals and groups succeeded in reaching the Soviet hinterland, particularly in the first day after outbreak of the German-Soviet war on June 22, 1941 when Germans entered the town. Some of them were the only survivors of the Jewish community of Wielkie Oczy.
Pinkas Hakehillot [The Encyclopedia of Communities] , Vol. 2, Eastern Galicia; Yad Vashem, Martyrs and Heroes Authority; Jerusalem, 1980
Bronislaw Chlebowski; Slownik geograficzny krolestwa polskiego i innych krajow slowianskich [Geographic Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries], Vol. 13; Publishing house "Wiek"; Warsaw 1893
Stanislaw Klos; Lubaczow i okolice [Lubaczow and the Region]; Publishing house "Roksana"; Krosno 1998
Ryszard Majus; Historia osobista [Personal History]; MS, Tel Aviv 1992
Meir Wunder; Meorei Galicia [Encyclopedia of Galician Rabbis and Scholars], Vol. 5; Institute for Commemoration of Galican Jewry; Jerusalem 1997
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