Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

 

Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

 

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Bolekhiv - guidebook

Ukr. Болехів, Yid. באָלעכעוו

Bolekhiv - guidebook

Salt from the Solomon Hill

Bolekhiv is a small town located south of Lviv in the Skole Beskids on the Sukil River at the foot of the picturesque Ukrainian Carpathians. On the Solomon Hill near Bolekhiv, archaeologists discovered the remains of an Old Rus fortified settlement of the 11th–12th century, yet whether the later town of Bolechiv was somehow geographically or administratively related to this medieval fortress, remains unclear. Bolekhiv was first mentioned in the 1371 act of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, who granted the lands of and around the village of Bolekhiv to Daniel Dażbohowicz for his services to the crown. Later, the emerging town absorbed two neighbouring villages, Ruthenian Bolekhiv (Bolechów Ruski) and Wallachian Bolekhiv (Bolechów Wołoski).

 

Bolekhiv was established as a Polish private town near a salt refinery in the mid16th century by Mikołaj Giedziński, a Polish nobleman. This salt refinery had been established in 1546 by Amalia Grosowska, a Polish landlady, although salt had been mined there much earlier. Salt became one of the major raw materials exported from Bolekhiv: in the late 16th–17th centuries, Bolekhiv became part of what was known as the “salt route” running from Dolina, through Bolekhiv and Stryj (now Stryi), Przemyśl, Toruń, and Gdańsk. In 1603, King Sigismund III Vasa granted the town Magdeburg rights. In the 17th century, the Giedziński family built in Bolekhiv a wooden fortress that withstood numerous Tatar raids. In the 18th century, the fortress became a heavily fortified castle on the Sukil River. Today, only remnants of its foundations can be found at the local military base. In 1710, the Giedziński family sold Bolekhiv to the Lubomirskis, after 1750, the town changed hands again – first to the Poniatowskis, later to the Potockis. In 1772, together with the rest of Galicia, Bolekhiv became part of the Habsburg monarchy.

Bolekhiv often fell victim to attacks by Carpathian raiders; one of these attacking groups was led by Ivan Dovbush, brother of the famous Oleksa Dovbush, the leader of the rebellious rural opryshky (outcasts), the Ukrainian Robin Hood. The town suffered the most in 1759, at the hands of Ivan Boichuk’s gang, which set the town on fire, an event so devastating that Count Potocki exempted Bolekhiv from all taxes for three years to enable its dwellers to rebuilt the economy. 

 In the 19th century, the salt refinery in Bolekhiv was one of the most profitable businesses in Galicia, employing 49 workers and 10 clerks and producing from 50,000 to 70,000 cwt of salt per year. Three leather factories and a textile factory were established in town in the 19th century, yet salt remained the most important trading commodity. In the late 19th century, Bolekhiv also became a medical spa due to its therapeutic water, rich in minerals and iodine. 

 Between November 1918 and May 1919, Bolekhiv administration reported to the shortlived government of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, while in the interwar period, to the sejm of the Independent Poland.

On Friday afternoon, a siren wailed. People finished their work, went to the steam bath, put on clean underwear, and refreshed themselves. During the Sabbath, the street was dominated by Jews rushing to the synagogue with prayer shawls on their shoulders. Whoever met the rabbi stepped aside and let him pass, and when a rabbi’s son was getting married, the whole town joined in the celebration. During Yom Kippur, the faithful fasted, all trade came to a standstill, and even non-Jewish residents respected the importance of this holiday. 

 Anatol Regnier, Damals in Bolechów: Eine jüdische Odyssee, Munich 1997

 

The Jews of Bolekhiv

In the last quarter of the 16th century, Mikołaj Giedziński, who supported the development of the salt trade and industry in town, invited Jews settled in Bolekhiv. Jewish merchants were encouraged to settle around the market square. They obtained privileges to establish trade and open stores. To boost the Jewish economic impact on town, the town’s owner exempted all Jewish communal buildings from czynsz (real estate) taxes. In 1612, Mikołaj Giedziński granted the Jewish community a special privilege to establish a cemetery, a yeshiva (Talmudic academy), and a synagogue. He also exempted Jews from the jurisdiction of the municipal court, allowing them to file complaints directly to him, the owner of the town, who acted as a local supreme judge – exactly as it happend in dozens of other Polish private towns.

 

 The Jewish district was located in the southeastern part of Bolekhiv, where the first wooden synagogue was built. After the synagogue and the nearby houses were burnt down as a result of the 1670 fire, Bishop Jerzy of Lwów (now Lviv) lent funds to the Jewish communal leaders Lejba Ickowicz and Lipman Łazarewicz for the reconstruction of the Jewish quarter. 

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Jewish community 260 in Bolekhiv boasted about 1,000 people, outnumbering Polish Catholics and Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholics. Due to its significance and the presence of several outstanding communal leaders, Bolekhiv kahal sent its representatives in the Council of the Four Lands, the central body of Jewish self-government to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 18th century, most Jews in Bolekhiv worked in the salt and wine trade. They were also active in money exchange services and lending. These details appear in the contemporary memoir of Dov Ber Birkenthal (1723–1805), a wine merchant, Jewish communal leader and a trustworthy chronicler of the Jewish life in Bolekhiv and Galicia.

Dov Ber Birkental Bolechower (1723–1805) – a Jewish wine merchant who was also a writer, chronicler, and community leader. His father was born in Międzyrzec but moved to Bolekhiv during the Cossack wars in the mid 17th century. Dov Ber, a reliable connoisseur of highquality wines, purchased wine wholesale in Hungary and sold it to distinguished noblemen and clergy in Galicia. He also ran a shop in the centre of Bolekhiv and had a comparatively significant private library at home. In 1772, when Galicia was incorporated into Austria, he assumed the family name Birkenthal. He received a traditional Jewish education, but his father, who also traded in wine and had many acquaintances among Polish and Hungarian noblemen, hired a non Jewish teacher to teach his son Polish, German, French, and Latin. In 1759, the multilingual Dov Ber served as an interpreter during the Lviv disputation between the rabbinic Jewish authorities such as Rabbi Haim Rapaport and Jewish anti Talmudic sectarians led by Jacob Frank. Dov Ber authored a religious treatise Divre Binah (Heb.: Words of Reason), in the preface to which he portrayed religious aspects of Jewish life in the second half of the 18 th century, including the rising Hasidic movement. In his memoirs written as a mixture of a spiritual will, a merchant’s leger and autobiography, he described social, cultural, religious, and political life of the 18th century Galician Jewish communities with an amazing sense of economic details. Dov Ber had a passion for history: he translated several historical works from German and Polish into Hebrew. His grave at the Jewish cemetery in Bolekhiv is adorned by a matzevah which has the image of a bear (alluding to the meaning of Dov’s name, “bear” in Hebrew) and a bunch of grapes, alluding to his role as a wine merchant.

In the 1760s, approx. 1,300 Jews lived in Bolekhiv. One of the most famous local 18th century rabbis was Rabbi Ya’akov ha-Levi Horowitz (1679–1754), who later moved to Brody and was replaced in Bolekhiv by his son, Rabbi Mordke Horowitz.

 

Synagogues

The stone building of the synagogue was established in 1789 on the site of the old wooden one and has survived to this day. It is located across from the town hall building, and next to a Greek Catholic Church. The synagogue was completely rebuilt in 1808. In Soviet times, it served as a cultural centre and a club of local Jewish tanners. Another former synagogue (at 9 Sichovykh Striltsiv St.) was used in the Soviet times as a school; today it houses a museum dedicated to Natalya Kobrynska, a prominent Ukrainian writer, social activist, and one of the first Ukrainian feminists. A progressive (Reform) synagogue and a Hasidic kloyz that also existed in Bolekhiv before World War II have not survived.

 

 

Hasidim,  Maskilim, and Zionists

In the second half of the 18th century, the first groups of Hasidim, pietists and religious enthusiasts, appeared in Bolekhiv. Among the most important Hasidic masters of the later period were Yehoshua Heschel Padua and his son-in-law Shlomo Chaim Perlow. Another Hasidic group active here was represented by Yaakov Joel Horowitz (1824–1832), his son Menachem Mendel (1832–1864), and Menachem Mendel’s son, Levi (1879–1902). The presence of several generations of Hasidic masters transformed Bolekhiv in one of the Galician centres of Hasidism. 

 With the spread of the Haskalah movement in the ate 18th century and the new reformist policies of the enlightened Austrian government, Bolekhiv became one of the first in East Galicia to establish a secular Jewish school for boys (1781). The enlightened Rabbi Hirsch Goldenberg was among the first maskilim in Bolekhiv, his sons, Shmuel Leib, Yaakov, and Zelig Tzvi Mandschein also continued their father’s tradition and became enlightened rabbinic leaders. In 1830, Shmuel Leib published a book about Haskalah and maskilim. From 1833 to 1843, the journal Kerem Hemed (Heb.: Vineyard of Delight), a platform for the debates about the Haskalah movement, was issued locally, while Zelig Tzvi Mandschein published the magazine Ha-Shahar (Heb.: The Dawn), in which he attacked Hasidic Jews and advanced the reform of Jewish education. 

 In 1845, a Jewish hospital, managed by the kahal, was established in Bolekhiv, and in 1856, a secular Jewish school was opened. In it, children received education in three languages, Hebrew, Polish, and German. In 1902, a Zionist-oriented school for girls was opened, with Hebrew as the main language of instruction, and a similar school for boys opened its doors six years later. 

 Once the Tikvat Israel (Heb.: The Hope of Israel) organisation was established in 1894 and the weekly Zionist magazine Die Welt (Ger.: The World) was launched, the Zionist movement gained popularity in Bolekhiv. From 1911 to 1913, a Zionistoriented women’s organisation Banot Zion (Heb.: Daughters of Zion) launched a Hebrew language program. Zionist youth organisations were active in Bolekhiv, too, for example, Tseirei Zion (Youth of Zion) and He-Halutz ([Agricultural] Pioneers). In the 1920s, Jewish agricultural settlers from Bolekhiv established in Palestine two kibbutzim, Heftsi-Bah and Bet Alfa .

 In the early 20th century, the Jewish community in Bolekhiv experienced a rapid population growth, with Jews making up 78 percent of the 4,000 residents, one of the highest Jewish/Gentile ratios in Galicia. At the beginning of World War I, many buildings in Bolekhiv were destroyed and the town’s Jewish population dwindled. According to the 1921 census, Bolekhiv had only 2,433 residents, Jews and non-Jews. In the early 1920s, the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped establish the first Jewish bank in Bolekhiv.

 

World War II and the Holocaust

In September 1939, the Red Army took control over the town. The Soviet authorities began suppressing and persecuting the members of various socio-political organisations and parties, including the socialist ones and the Jewish ones. Less then two years later, in July–August 1941, Bolekhiv was occupied by the Hungarian and Germa troops. On July 4, 1941, many Bolekhiv Jews died during a pogrom. In August 1941, the Nazi Germans introduced their racial laws in Bolekhiv. A forced labour camp for Jews and a Judenrat were established. The first large-scale operation to create a Judenrein (free of Jews) zone took place on October 28 and 29, 1941. The Nazis first gathered the Jews in the old Red Army barracks and then transported them to the execution site near the village of Taniawa (which became a memorial site after the war); 750 people were shot there, and those who remained in the town were confined in the ghetto. During the second Aktion in April 1942, another 450 Jews were shot at the Jewish cemetery in the nearby village of Dovzhky. 

 In June 1942, some 4,281 Jews were still staying in Bolekhiv and surrounding villages; 1,588 were engaged in forced labour. In August 1942, Jews from the surrounding villages were resettled to Bolekhiv. The third Aktion took place on September 3–5, 1942. After that, only about 2,500 Jews remained in the town. In October and November 1942, some Jews were transported to the ghetto in Stryj, while 1,748 Jews able to do work remained in Bolekhiv. In December 1942, the Jews working in Bolekhiv were transferred to the barracks, later shot and buried at the Jewish cemetery in Bolekhiv. All the Bolekhiv Jews transported to Stryj were also shot. On August 23, 1943, the ghetto in Bolekhiv was liquidated. 

During the Nazi rule in Bolekhiv, 3,800 Jews were killed in the pits around the town and 450 were transported to Bełżec extermination camp. Only 48 Jewish people who managed to hide in the surrounding forests survived the Holocaust. After the war, in 1945 and 1946, most of them left for Poland.

 

 

To me in particular he [my grandfather] loved to tell his stories about the town in which he was born, and where his family had lived “since,” he would say, clearing his throat wetly in the way that he did, his eyes huge and staring, like a baby’s, behind the lenses of his old-fashioned, black-plastic glasses, “there was a Bolechow.” BUH-leh-khuhv, he would pronounce it, keeping the “l” low in his throat, in the same place where he caressed the “kh,” the way that people will do who are from that place, BUHlehkhuhv, the pronunciation that, as I found out much later, is the old, the Yiddish pronunciation. 

Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, New York 2006

The cemetery

The Jewish cemetery in Bolekhiv is located on a hill near the town; with the entrance from Mandryka St., through a private yard. The cemetery has about 2,000–3,000 matzevot, the oldest one dating back to 1648. Many have beautiful, sophisticated, and elaborate carved ornaments. About 50 metres from the entrance is the grave of one of the most famous dwellers of Bolekhiv, Dov Ber Birkenthal. His matzevah contains an epitaph, which reads: “Here lies a famous, generous elder, Dov Ber, son of Yehuda Birkenthal. May his soul be bound in the bond of life.” Next to it, there is the grave of his wife Leah.

Authors: Bozhena Zakaliuzna, Volodymyr Bak

 

Worth seeing

  • Synagogue (18th century), Ivana Franky Square

  • Jewish cemetery (17th century), Mandryka

  • Museum of Bolekhiv History, Sichovyh Striylcyv 9

  • Museum of Natalya Kobrynska, Sichovyh Striylcyv 7

  • City Hall (1863), Ivana Franky Square

  • Church of the Dormition of the Holy Mary (1838)

  • Orthodox Church of the Holy Women Carrying Savour (17th century), wooden

  • Orthodox Church of St. Paraskevi (1939)

  • Orthodox Church of St. Anna (1870)

  • "Brükenstein" Hotel (1900–1905), now a maternity ward of the Central City Hospital, Jevhena Konovalcya

In the vicinity

Morshyn (10 km): health resort famous all over the Eastern Europe

Bubnyshche (13 km): a scenic reserve of Dovbush Rocks

Dolyna (15 km): old salt works; former synagogue (1897); Jewish cemetery (18th century, without surviving matzevahs); numerous churches and Orthodox churches; Museum of Local History "Boykivshchyna"

Kalush (49 km): Jewish cemetery (18th century); neo-Gothic Church of St. Valentine (1844); Orthodox Church of St. Michael (1910–1913); Folk House (1907)