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


NN Theatre

A Tale of Two Towns

The phone call from Moscow caught me by surprise. In the midst of the Revolution of Dignity, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the Kremlin anti-Ukrainian hysteria, the subject of the unfolding phone conversation seemed macabre. A certain Svetlana, documentary film director of the Lavr Film Studios in Moscow, called to make me a proposal to appear in a movie series tentatively entitled “Hollywood and the Jews.” The episodes would be filmed in Ukraine. I hardly know anything about American popular culture and the Jewish role in it and was ready to give her a polite no—but somehow the movie director pressed the right button and I agreed instead.

Zhovkva, Сentral Square
Zhovkva, Сentral Square (Author: Zagreba, Viktor)

We decided that in August, 2014, I would appear in several episodes of the movie. My modest task of invited scholar was to provide a brief foray into the history and phenomenon of the shtetl with a longer commentary on the Great Jewish Migrations of the turn of the nineteenth century. I was scheduled to teach that month in Lviv, so I suggested shooting the shtetl part in Zolkiew and the migrations part in Brody, both towns in the Lviv environs. “Will we be able to do that?” Svetlana worried. The Lavr Studios were Moscow-based and Russian propaganda at that time had brainwashed the Russian TV audience with scary segments about an alleged upsurge of viral anti-Semitism and anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, particularly in and around Lviv. “How will people there react to Russians filming a Jewish story in Ukraine?”

I reassured Svetlana that she and her colleagues would not be BBQ-ed for speaking Russian in the streets of Lviv and that they would be able to film whatever they needed. On the other hand, I asked for an explanation—why did they need the story of the shtetl and of migrations for the purpose of the documentary? And why did Svetlana choose me to be the anchor for those episodes? This was particularly intriguing since the studios producers had negotiated with Ben Affleck as a potential anchor for the entire movie series.

Let me step back here and explain how this all happened and why.


At the turn of the nineteenth century, as legend has it, the Voronov (Wonskolaser) brothers left Krasnosielc, a Polish shtetl then in the Russian empire, and embarked on a journey that brought hundreds of thousands of émigré Jews to the United States. The Voronovs started with a low-key movie-theater business, then bought a film-projector and showed films to working-class audiences in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and eventually invested the modest money they put aside into a new entertainment industry known as cinematography. In a couple of years, the Voronovs were crossing California in their new specially designed limousine. They were now known as the founders and owners of the movie company, the Warner Brothers.

A transformation similar to that of the Voronovs into the Warners also occurred with Marcus Loew, whose impoverished parents had come to New York from a Polish shtetl. The son of Polish-Jewish émigrés, Marcus started as a blue collar worker, invested his small savings into a rapidly growing penny arcade gambling business, and eventually purchased several movie companies, merging them into what came to be known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

To solve the riddle of those exceptionally successful entrepreneurial Jews of east European origin, the producer of the documentary “Hollywood and the Jews” decided to reconstruct the world from which they or their parents came—the world of the east European shtetl. The Lavr Studios people made inquiries: a certain Aleksei, the chief historian and archivist of the Gorbachev Foundation told them that in the Moscow archives he had befriended a certain Yohanan working on shtetl history and culture. And then the Lavr movie director called me on the phone.

By that time, I had combed dozens of archival and manuscript collections in Israel, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, seeking to amass what scholars call “thick evidence” and reconstruct the shtetl as it was. I became enchanted with the everyday reality and cultural, religious, financial, and economic life of the shtetls just after the annexation of Polish western lands by the Russian empire in the late eighteenth century. Jewish diasporic received wisdom thought of the shtetl—due to the popular book Life is with People and the show “Fiddler on the Roof”—as a ramshackle Jewish village in the middle of nowhere, where nothing happened but pogroms. I was ready to question those assumptions.

I discovered that Russian travelers, Polish landlords and European diplomats, by default no great lovers of the Jews, had crossed the Pale of Jewish Settlement on their trips between Vienna and St. Petersburg and saw the bourgeoning market towns with thousands of entrepreneurial Jews, not impoverished villages with a few babushkas trading groceries from decaying wooden stalls. Furthermore, the Russian authorities in the early nineteenth century sought to undermine the Polish economy in the newly-established provinces of western Russia precisely because the market towns -–the shtetls—were strong competitors to the Russian economic interests in the western borderlands of the empire. If one puts aside the pre-1940s photographs by Roman Vishniac and considers other visual documents from the shtetls displaying the shtetls’ material culture, one must explain how the Jews managed to establish pompous and lavishly decorated synagogues in Berdichev, Dubno, Uman, Starokonstantinov and other towns. If they could not make both ends meet, how could they afford this kind of luxury?

The Lavr Studios called me to talk about Jewish emigration from the Russian empire and the culture of the shtetl that the migrants had left behind, while I was in process of submitting my book-long answer to these and other questions regarding the history of the shtetl. By that time, I had spent about twenty years teaching early modern, modern and east European Jewish history. Jewish migrations too were a significant part of my story. I was completely prepared to appear before the camera. Of course, I dreamed of a National Geographic, PBS or CNN historical or ethnographic series, but while those media venues were negotiating my honoraria, I had to make do with the Lavr Film Studio.


Svetlana, her husband—also a film director—their assistant and their cameraman had a cultural shock when the waiters in a centrally located Lviv restaurant switched to Russian on hearing their accent and in general displayed a genuinely friendly and welcoming demeanor toward the guests from Moscow. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s vociferous anti-Ukrainian propaganda was one thing; reality on the ground was another. Ukrainians were not fighting Russian language and culture, they were fighting the imperial madmen who denied the right of Ukrainians to have their own language, culture, and a polity. Svetlana and her team decided to leave their bias at home and were generously compensated for that. And not only at Lviv’s restaurants.

The next day we went to Żółkiew. The team requested a brief introduction to the history of the local Jewish community in order to figure out what should be part of the footage. The history of the Jews in Żółkiew (Ukr.: Zhovkva, Rus.: Zholkva) had of course been the focus of Natan Gelber, editor of the eight-hundred page Hebrew-language book Sefer Zolkiv (1969) and of Stefan Gąsiorowski, author of a solid archival-based Polish-language monograph Chrześcijanie i Żydzi w Żółkwi w XVII i XVIII wieku (2001). Much more important was to use Żółkiew as a point of departure and discuss the shtetl in general, with brief forays into the history of the town.

We arrived in Żółkiew around 11am. People looked askance at the fancy car parked near the town marketplace: foreign tourists were rare birds here. Soviet power had impoverished the center of the town, now filled with vagabond musicians, annoying beggars, idle senior citizens spending day after day on the same bench, and joyous drunkards deep in their element already before midday. The central street was dotted with small stores, modest monuments to encroaching capitalism. Yet a clumsy Soviet-style three-floored canteen still had a domineering presence. Over the last century, Żółkiew was slowly transforming from a town into a village, unmaking the process of urbanization the town had undergone from the fifteenth through the early twentieth centuries.

We unloaded the camera, placed the light-filters on their poles, and fixed the microphones. Two middle-aged men celebrating a nice summer day with their early morning beer made themselves comfortable on the bench next to us, making sure they would be on camera. A little orchestra in the corner of the marketplace was ostensibly out of pitch moving from one Russian popular waltz to another and presented another obstacle: we could not film with that type of music in the background. While the assistant powdered my face to make sure it wasn’t shiny, the courageous Svetlana managed to convince the band to take a break (whether she bribed the musicians with some beer money or not went undeclared). In the meantime, my black yarmulke and yeshiva boy garb—black pants, white shirt--scared the men on the bench away. They realized that they did not want to be in such a Jewish movie and peacefully withdrew.

Filming began. The camera stood right in the center of the Żółkiew marketplace. I looked around. Elegant marketplace galleries with massive acrades circumvented the town square, designed by an Italian architect in Renaissance style. The early seventeenth-century St. Lawrence Cathedral, built by the Italian Paolo the Happy presided over one of the corners of the market square. The cathedral hosted the graves of the founding fathers of the Żółkiewskis and Sobieskis and radiated the bygone might of the Rzecz Pospolita. The Basilian Monastery—known also as the Church of the Nativity—stood next to it as if signaling that the Greek-Catholic Church was no less important for the town than the ruling Catholic one.

Zhovkva, City Hall
Zhovkva, City Hall

A solemn Żółkiewski sixteenth century castle stood behind us. The castle was skillfully inscribed into the internal square of the geometrically impeccable marketplace and into the external town wall—still intact five centuries later. A three minute walk from the marketplace would bring us to a fortress synagogue, one of only four renaissance-style sixteenth-seventeenth century fortress synagogues remaining in Ukraine—together with those of Husyatyn, Sharhorod, and Satanov—and the biggest and most ornamented among them. At the entrance of the town we had already seen the Trinity Church, a marvel of eighteenth century wooden architecture, one of sixteen wooden churches in the entire Carpathian area that had survived military campaigns, wars, and revolutions devastating that part of the world.

The market square in Zhovkva, the Basilian Monks Orthodox Church in the background
The market square in Zhovkva, the Basilian Monks Orthodox Church in the background

The Moscow film crew was quite impressed, and even the 1960s-style trucks and minibuses crowded at the entrances to the town center could not spoil the impression. What had turned Winniki, a small rural settlement in the possession of the Polish magnate Żółkiewski, into the site of one of the most developed seventeenth-century marketplaces? The desire to turn a village into a town, characteristic of any Polish magnate of substance. Before the Żółkiewskis sold the town to the Sobieskis and Jan III Sobieski eventually inherited the town, Żółkiew had emerged out of nothing, imitating Kraków with its Wawel, Lwów with its solid artisan guilds, and Italian towns such as Siena or Padua with their spacious town plazas governed by mercantilism and secular power with some cornered presence of religious institutions.

“Who are you? What TV channel do you represent?” A man of about sixty standing next to Svetlana for about a half hour listening to her questions in Russian (behind the camera) and my answers in English, grew nervous and then interrupted us right in the middle of a shot. Svetlana took him aside and tried to explain that we were not a TV channel, we were a film crew—but the man grew even more upset hearing her sharp Moscow accent. “So what are you filming here?” The tension rose, the cameraman grew nervous, I stepped in and switched to Ukrainian. The best thing in these situations is to tell the truth. “We are making a movie about Hollywood and the Jews,” I said. “There are no more Jews here,” the man retorted with a mixed sense of disbelief and amazement. “How about Hollywood?” I asked. The man realized he was talking to a dummy, turned his back on me and left without another word. Now we could talk Jewish.

Most of the stalls and stores of the gallery circumventing the central square had been leased to Jews, who in the early modern times were responsible for creating a robust infrastructure and competitive town economy. Żółkiew—as any historical shtetl--was a private Polish town. Its burgers, unlike in Krakow, did not obtain a privilege De non tolerandi Judeos which used religious enforcement to remove Jewish competition. On the contrary, the Żółkiewskis invited Jews to settle here and in the late 1590s legalized their presence by a special charter. As in any other private Polish town, Jews were responsible for annual fairs and market days, eventually becoming monopolists of the market square—and of wine brewing which allowed them to turn barter transactions into Polish złoty. Seventeenth-century Żółkiew—the town at its height—had more than a hundred Jewish artisans, among them privileged furriers, saddle-makers, silversmiths, tanners and of course tailors. There were several dozen lease-holders, who also received special privileges and with them responsibility for the regional customs house, tax farming, liquor brewing, tavern-keeping, fish-ponding, wood-cutting and wood-freighting and other quite lucrative lease-holding positions.

I was talking to the camera not realizing that for the last five minutes I had been closely watched by a tall and tan young man and probably his girlfriend with sharp Turkish facial features. The moment I stopped and took a deep breath, the young man asked me—in Hebrew--as if I were a tour guide and we were somewhere in Haifa or Beer-Sheba and there was nothing strange in the form and content of the question: “Do you know if they have any synagogue services here?”

 I was probably more astonished than my Ukrainian interloper, interested neither in Jews nor in Hollywood. I would have been less surprised had the guy asked me where he could get his MacBook Pro laptop computer repaired. I patiently explained to him, in Hebrew, that the synagogue was being restored, that the restoration was very costly, that there was no Jewish community in town, and that the synagogue was surrounded at present by a protective fence. If they could find a hole in the fence, they could get inside and walk through the synagogue but watch your head, folks.

The young man and his girlfriend left. They seemed unique, but I remembered there had also been some quite unique Jews in the Żółkiew community. Take, for example, Uri Phoebus (also known as Feivush) ha-Levy. In the 1690s, Jan III Sobieski, already the elected king of Poland, invited the Amsterdam-based Uri Faivush (Phoebus) ha-Levi to establish a new printing-press in Żółkiew, the Sobieski’s residence. Before Uri Phoebus moved to Żółkiew, he had been one of the leading Amsterdam printers, a supporter of the Sabbatian pseudo-messianic movement, and a publisher of several bilingual Hebrew-German books commissioned by various protestant missionaries. Another unusual Jewish character, to say the least.

In Żółkiew, Uri Feivush became the founding father of the Letteris family of printers, in charge of the business (here and in Lemberg/Lwow/Lviv) for more than two hundred years. Once Uri Phoebus moved to Żółkiew, Sobieski gave him a personal privilege, sponsored the purchase of new printing-machines and the transfer to the town of his high-quality type known as otiot Amsterdam (Amsterdam letters), lavishly praised by Jewish readers and Jewish leaders in Poland.

Although the privilege of Jan III Sobieski protected his printing press, the Council of Four Lands—the sui generis parliament of the Polish Jews—sought to make sure that nobody violated the book monopoly of the presses in Lublin and Krakόw. The Council needed to decree that Krakόw and Lublin would print the same amount of books as Zόłkiew. Still, even the protectionist laws could not save the first two from the highly competitive Uri Feivush. Because of his quality type and paper, Zόłkiew’s printing-press eventually suppressed the two other Polish presses and, for half a century starting in the early 1700s, had a monopoly over the Polish book market, with pioneering publications of Kabbalistic and later Hasidic books.

The printing press of Uri Feivush was located at the Zόłkiew marketplace, house no. 10, and there it still stands. In the late 17th century, a Jewish pharmacist named Daniel lived in that house—and he was the one who leased the premises for what eventually became the famous Jewish printing press. In my own scholarly work, I was looking for an answer—and could not figure out—why that particular printing press of Uri Feivush and his grandsons had launched the publication of almost all the practical Kabbalah books based on the pharmaceutical innovations of the seventeenth century, and whether this endeavor had something to do with the location of the printing press…

I had been to Żółkiew several times, brought my Northwestern students and donors to the town—and always wanted to come back. There is something mystical about the place. It is completely off the tourist path—and at the same time so much a part of European, Polish, and Jewish history. “What about synagogue services that Israeli boy asked you about,” Svetlana asked. “If a rabbi was there, could they hear a sermon?” Exhausted, we were on our way back to Lviv after a long work day exacerbated by the fact that sun was shining inclemently and I was keeping my obligatory religious dry fast. However, the question deserved special attention, particularly since many believe that the shtetl rabbi was the head of the community, a preacher, the top authority, and the most influential person.

That was not the case in the 16th-mid-19th centuries. The Jewish community was governed by the Jewish financial oligarchs—wealthy merchants, magnate court purveyors, and lease-holders, who elected their most influential representatives to the kahal, a Jewish communal umbrella organization. The kahal hired a rabbi and got him to implement their own secular decisions with the authority of a religiously-binding regulation. The Żółkiew Jewish community boasted a number of illustrious rabbinic figures, but all of them were famous for their rabbinic writings (usually homiletic Derush) and rulings on specific legal issues known as the responsa (Heb.: She’elot u-teshuvot). The rabbi in a shtetl community was a legal authority, not a spiritual one. And according to his contract with the kahal, he only had to give two, albeit lengthy, sermons per year—on the Sabbath before Passover (known as Shabbat ha-gadol) and on the Sabbath between the New Year and Yom Kippur (known as Shabbat Shuvah). Who was giving sermons on a weekly basis? Who was responsible for bringing the weekly Torah portion closer to the hearts and minds of shtetl Jews?

This task was that of the maggid, preacher, part of the so-called secondary intelligentsia of the Jewish community. The latter included a shokhet (butcher), mokhiakh (rebuke, a type of a preacher), sofer (Torah scroll and scribe of other Jewish artifacts), mohel (who performed circumcisions), and of course a maggid. Members of the secondary intelligentsia were usually very well educated but did not receive rabbinic ordination. The maggid was hired by the kahal, received anywhere from 0.5 to 2.5 zloty per sermon, and if the community liked him, he was hired for a lengthier period and became the resident preacher. Only in the nineteenth century did rabbinic scholars start to give regular sermons instead of a preacher—first, because the communities could no longer sponsor multiple communal functionaries and second, because of the Hasidic movement. It turned out that preachers were among the most important carriers of the Hasidic message to the Jews—and eventually dozens of communities followed Hasidim. But there were non-Hasidic preachers too. Żółkiew had one of them: Wolf Krantz.

Better known as the Maggid of Dubno, Wolf Kratz was perhaps the most famous Jewish preacher of all time. He spent his tenure in Zόłkiew in the 1770s as a communally-sponsored maggid, giving his sermons, of course, in Yiddish. Once, the Gaon of Vilna, undoubtedly the most influential legal authority among eighteenth-century Jews, asked him: why was he so keen on parables and fables? Would it not be better to make a direct ethical statement in a sermon? Tell Jews the truth—directly, to their face! Well, said the Maggid of Dubno, let me answer this question with a parable. Once the naked Truth was walking through the streets of the shtetl seeking alms. Nobody wanted to greet her, nobody let her in, and nobody wanted to recognize her. She was desperate and depressed and her life was miserable. Once a Parable met her and asked: why, what’s going on with you, sister? The Truth complained and cried bitterly. Well, said the Parable, let’s do this: I will lend you my clothes and you will walk around in them seeking support and exposure—deal? The Truth agreed. Once she put on the Parable’s clothes, everybody began turning to her, everybody was seeking her, welcoming her and rejoiced in and was uplifted by her presence.

I was envious that the Zόłkiew Jews in their formidable synagogue had enjoyed the parables of the Maggid of Dubno: after all, these parables had survived through dozens of editions and become an intrinsic part of Jewish folklore. Following the example of the Maggid of Dubno, I also decided that the story of Zόłkiew—its statistics, demography, the rise and demise of its Jewish community--would best be told as a parable, a parable based on the stories of individual Zόłkiew Jews. After all, the towns we were visiting were much more about the people who lived there—and the people we encountered on our way—than just about the historical sites and architectural monuments.


The next morning found us on our way from Lviv to Brody. The weather worsened, we prepared to cover the camera with an umbrella. Svetlana would be holding an umbrella over my head and behind the camera—something that made both of us feel quite uncomfortable. Brody welcomed us with drizzling rain and light summer wind.

Unwelcoming weather was fitting for our sad story: Jewish emigration from eastern Europe. None of us had been in Brody before, but we all agreed that we needed footage of three places: the central trading street in Brody through which dozens of thousands of Jews had passed from 1881 to 1914, and at least 12,000 from April to June, 1882 alone; the Great Brody Synagogue, not as well preserved as the one in Żółkiew , but also an early seventeenth-century pompous edifice in the fortress style; and finally, the railways station, through which the happy owners of foreign passports and train tickets left for Bremen and Hamburg, the point of steamship departure for the New World.

We just managed to set up the camera near the Big Synagogue with its war-damaged second floor and its thick walls and narrow Gothic windows. As it turned out, we were standing right at the intersection of several park lanes connecting stores and houses of the neighborhood. People were constantly walking behind my back and behind the camera. We certainly made their passage less convenient, yet none of the Brody town dwellers addressed us with grudging comment or curse, something one would expect in that situation. On the contrary, the passersby saw us filming the synagogue and cheered us on with pro-Jewish and pro-Israel slogans. “Long live Israel,” “We love the Jews,” and “Jews and Ukrainians are brothers forever.” The whole crew was Russian, except me, but everybody in Brody seemed convinced that movies were about Hollywood, Hollywood was Jewish, ergo we were all Jews. That was as ridiculous as it was moving and funny. 

Ruins of the Great Synagogue of Brody which was founded in 1742
Ruins of the Great Synagogue of Brody which was founded in 1742

Brody’s Big Synagogue manifested the might and importance of the town’s Jewish community that in the mid-seventeenth century declared itself separate from that of Lviv. Brody’s Jewish community was exceptionally famous, I told the future audience of the would-be movie. The community could afford to invite and sponsor the top east European rabbis, since it was governed and sponsored by several generations of the richest Jewish international merchants and bankers of Galicia—the Heilperins, the Horowitzes, and the Katzennelenbogens. For centuries, Brody was a key trading post on the main trading route connecting Paris, Leipzig, Krakow, and Berdichev, to Astrakhan, Moscow, and Nizhnii Novgorod. Without exaggeration, all trade between East and central Europe went through Brody, triggering the rise of quantitatively small but qualitatively high-level Jewish elites.

Daughters of well-to-do families were an asset in the Jewish world: Berdichev guild merchants looked for matches for their sons nowhere but in Brody. When Odessa eclipsed all other trading centers in the Russian empire in importance, the Galician Jewish elites moved there and built a beautiful mudejar (Moorish) style synagogue known for two hundred years as the Brodsky. Brodskys of all walks of life—from the Kyiv-based sugar-plant tycoon Brodskys to the famous painter Isaac Brodsky, known for his expressive portraits of Lenin; the Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky and the violinist Adolf Brodsky, to whom Piotr Tchaikovsky dedicated his first violin concerto -- all were descendants of the Brody Jews.

Brody was severely bombed during World War II. The Nazis murdered about five thousand Brody Jews locally and deported the remiaining six thousand to Bełżec or Maidanek. Without Jewish artisans, financial agents and merchants, the town went into a sharp economic decline. What Poles were building for centuries, starting with the Żółkiewskis and the Sobieskis, already familiar to us, transforming small settlements into urban, bourgeoning private towns, Soviet power quickly unmade. Take Jews out of town and it will become a village. The Nazis tried but could not blow up the synagogue, and the central trading street of the town still has three-floored Modern-style merchant houses lining both sides. And the railway station—rebuilt entirely in 1950 as the pre-war station that had been destroyed in the war. But the town did preserve the vague memory of significance—particularly in its twenty or more railway tracks, a reminder of the great migration.

Jews had already begun emigrating from the Russian empire in the late 1860s, but in the early 1880s the huge north European wave of migration reached the Lithuanian lands, spread to the Byelorussian ones and in the 1890s reached Ukraine. Inspiring letters from relatives overseas and worsening economic opportunities in the now rapidly industrialized Late Imperial Russia shaped the emigration predisposition, while mass violence against Jews and their property in the early 1880s (the first wave of Russian pogroms) began pushing Jews out of Russia for real. Alfred Ballin, the German shipping magnate of Jewish origin, had not yet redesigned his freight steamships to accommodate thousands of Jewish travelers eager to move to America; German, British and French social relief committees had not raised funds to help migrants financially—and the Russian authorities were in no rush to issue a 25-ruble-worth passport to the migrants, but Jews nevertheless rushed to the border town of Brody, separating Russia from Austria, seeking to get out of the country. There were 3,000 in 1881 and 20,000 in 1882. By 1914, the number of Jews who passed through Brody on their way to Bremen and Hamburg had grown to 1,250,000.

To tell this story, we moved to the railway tracks. We carried the camera and the filter pads and the bags along the railway tracks and planted ourselves on the opposite side of the railway station. The sky cleared up. I could sit on the railway embankment. Random trains were passing behind my back slowly moving westward. I was ready to tell the story of the Brody Jewish community, trying to accommodate the thousands of refugees who had come from the east – without passports and with little pocket money – when we saw the blue shirt of a railway official approaching.

In these lands, a railway station or a bridge was strategically important. One had to secure special permission from the authorities to be able to get a bridge or a station as a film backdrop. Otherwise we were in violation of state security. “Do you have permission to film here?” I cautiously asked Svetlana. “We don’t.” We watched the stocky, robust man jump over the rails and slowly approach us. “We are in trouble,” we all thought.

Followed at a distance by two clerks, the tall man finally reached us. We were ready to be kicked out, if not brought to the local police station for depositions. The man introduced himself as railway station chief and requested explanations. We were filming scenes about Jewish migration from the tsarist empire. Brody was the major railway center for all migrants. Seventy-five percent of all east European Jews arriving in Ellis Island in New York or Halifax in Canada in the late nineteenth century had crossed the border through Brody. And nearly a hundred percent of all Canadian Ukrainians.

The man looked at the four of us very suspiciously, glanced at the camera, at our massive tripod, and asked how we got here. We had carried the camera and all the equipment on us, along the rails—we pointed at our car on the other side, near the railway station. The tension grew. “You should not have done this,” said the man. “You should have told me and I would have provided you with my clerks who would have helped you carry everything here. Good luck!” He turned and walked away. None of us could believe our ears. Where were the Soviet-style bureaucrats with their idiosyncratic no? Where was the intimidated and intimidating homo Sovieticus? Where was the western-Ukrainian alleged antisemitism—and that well-known stereotypical suspicion of the Galicianer? Something had gone awry in Ukraine after 1991, for sure.

Now I could make myself comfortable on the sharp granite pebbles of the Brody railway embankment and tell the story. Although the trains stopped running for some time, I felt the pulse of the railway track accelerate as I went back in history.

Why had so many Jews rushed to Brody in 1881? What were their expectations and why?

The rapid industrialization of the Russian Empire contributed to the migrations more than any other factor, including mass violence against the Jews in the 1880s. The industrial enterprises made traditional Jewish manual occupations obsolete. A Jewish hat-maker, cobbler, smith, tailor, shoe-maker could not compete with the ready-made commodities that became increasingly more available with Russia entering the stage of skyrocketing industrialization. A self-employed artisan found himself impoverished and unemployed. The entrance of former serfs—now free peasants—into the market prevented any career opportunities in rural/urban trade, an unwritten Jewish monopoly for centuries.

Even worse, Russia’s introduction of a state monopoly on production and sale of alcoholic beverages ruined more than 100,000 Jewish families, who earned their living from this business, including the family of Mary Antin, whose memoir on emigration from Russia was a must-read for American schoolchildren from 1913 through 1948.

Most migrating Jews came to Brody from Lithuania, Belorussia and Poland—not from the territories where Jews suffered from the pogroms. Most migrating Jews sought to get to the United States; they had the impression that America was a goldene medine, a golden land, where the streets were paved with gold. Letters from successful relatives boasting of their economic prosperity, read aloud, added to the emerging myth. The enormous popularity of the Yiddish translation of The Discovery of America by Joachim Kampe, a German Romantic writer, also played a role.

Most Jews left because of economic hardship, not because of religious or political persecution. Most migrating Jews spoke Yiddish and belonged to the traditional, non-assimilated strata of the population. The only economic feature that characterized them was a transferrable profession. Seamstresses, tanners, woodcutters, tailors, cobblers and milliners, watchmakers and silversmiths were more prone to migrate. Acculturated intelligentsia, doctors and lawyers, as well as the impoverished petty traders usually stayed.

The religious outlook of the migrating Jews was not unimportant. Among those who left Poland, Russia or Austria, most were more or less traditional—but not acculturated and not ultra-Orthodox. Observant Jews from the shtetls in the Austrian or the Russian Empire treated their town as the kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, and considered the territory outside it as the erets gzerah, the wasteland, the land of calamity. The religious population and its servicemen—teachers, butchers, scribes, rabbis, preachers, Talmudic academy students—were less likely to take to the road than the Jewish artisans and denizens of the bigger towns and cities. They were afraid to find themselves far beyond the observant communal framework, which would make them unable to follow the precepts of Judaism. The rabbinic leadership, including Mitnagdim (Lithuanian Jews, Litvaks) and Hasidim did not support emigration and dissuaded Jews from their communities from moving, referring to a threat to their standards of observance and their Jewish identity. Rabbinic responsa of the late nineteenth century reflect the growing concern of the rabbis for the skyrocketing number of straw widows, abandoned wives, and broken families—the result of the migrations.

Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen Poupko, the Hafetz Haim (Chafetz Chayim, upper left), a paramount rabbinic authority, was the only rabbi to address the question directly. He claimed that emigrants still remained Jewish, they were not abandoned by God, they should not consider themselves theologically orphaned and exempt from the commandments, but should seek ways to stay observant, whatever the cost. He considered this perseverance in traditional observance in the “land of calamity” redemptive and self-sacrificial.

The pogroms in the southern par of the Pale of Jewish Settlement served as a pretext, not a cause, for migration. In June, 1881, in the wake of the first wave of the pogroms, about 3,000 Jews rushed to Brody, trying to get to the Austrian border. The two US envoys sent there to help solve the social relief problems arranged that 1,200 Jews would go to the US, 800 to Palestine, and the rest would go home. The next year, about 20,000 migrants went to Brody, with no foreign passports—and since then, emigration was constantly on the rise. Most Jews were trying to get anywhere out of Russia, but the European Jewish communities did not want to welcome the non-integrated, traditional-minded, non-civilized and Yiddish-speaking Ost Juden (Eastern Jews) to their countries and sought ways to move these migrating Jews elsewhere.

Emigration was a costly enterprise. The German and French Associations for the Relief of East European Jews established significant funds and made arrangements to help their East European brethren go to England, Canada and the Unites States. Migrants had to purchase tickets for a steamship from Bremen to New York, and an individual or a group ticket was about 35 USD; tickets for a train from Minsk or Berdichev or Vilna through Bremen and Hamburg had to be purchased separately. Social relief organizations in Western Europe could help with the former, but not with the latter. The Brody Jewish community now had people not only on the move, but also in need of immediate social relief. It was no wonder that the Brody Jewish communal organizations turned to the Austrian authorities for help.

On arrival to Bremen and Hamburg, the migrants had to spend about two weeks in quarantine in special barracks and undergo sanitary control, then ten days on board the ship before they arrived in Boston or New York. Steamships were rebuilt for that purpose from freight ships and designed mostly for first- to fourth- class passengers. The majority of East European Jewish travelers were on the upper deck or in the overcrowded cabins for third-class passengers, in horrible sanitary conditions. No wonder many of them crowded on the upper decks of the steamships to avoid the stench of the lower decks.

The ratio of East European Jews among migrants was constantly on the rise. From 1881—89, Jews represented 4.3 percent of all migrants crossing the Atlantic, 68 percent of them Jews from East Europe. From 1890 to 1914, Jews were 9.4 percent of total migrants, 76 percent of them Jews from East Europe. That is to say, in relative figures, the ratio of East European Jews to all migrants increased twofold in ten years.

It is fascinating to discover the role of Jewish family ties, that most consider a self-serving Jewish ethnic myth. Migrations showed that there was some deeper truth behind this myth. Consider this: 61 percent of all tickets purchased for Jews were paid for by Jewish relatives, whereas only 29 percent of all tickets purchased by non-Jews were purchased by their relatives.

Unlike most non-Jewish migrants, Jews crossed the ocean to settle for good. They were sending money back but not planning to go back. We know this for sure, not because traveling families arrived in Brody with all their belongings, but from the numbers, which are quite telling. 44 percent of all Jewish immigrants were female, 30 percent of all non-Jewish migrants were female. Jews were more likely to travel as families.

The four Voronov brothers and the parents of Marcus Loew went with their families—for good. Their entrepreneurial skills – necessitated by the desperate economic conditions of their parents that they were trying to overcome—and their desire to work as a group made the Warner Brothers and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer possible.


We spent seven hours shooting in English and in Russian. Nobody else disturbed us. On the way back from Brody to Lviv, Svetlana and her crew asked me about my “migration” from east Europe to America—and I told my story of a scholar of comparative literature focused on Spanish baroque and Latin American magic realism morphing into a Jewish historian. What was particularly fascinating in that transformation was that only by discovering his Jewish roots and leaving the land of his birth did the author of this text discover Lviv and Brody and Ukraine, with the help of Hollywood and the Jews.

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

Northwestern University