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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Wielkie Oczy - Cultural Heritage Card

Wielkie Oczy is a small township of about 800 residents. Before the war the town was in the Lviv voivodeship, after the war it had been first in the Rzeszów and then in Przemyśl voivodeships. Currently it is a village (since 1935) in the Podkarpackie voivodeship, lubaczowski powiat, near the Ukrainian border (about 2 kilometres away). Geographically Wielkie Oczy lies on Garb Jaworowski, which in turn is a part of the Tarnnogród Plateau.

Wielkie Oczy, Synagogue
Wielkie Oczy, Synagogue (Author: Tarajko, Monika)

HistoryDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

Wielkie Oczy was founded probably in the late 16th century by Miękiccy of the Trąby coat of arms, as one of the last townships to be founded in lubaczowski powiat in the Bełsk voivodeship. Even before Miękiccy had owned several nearby villages, which, in time, became incorporated into the fee tail alongside Wielkie Oczy. In the late 1620s the village passed into the hands of Mohyłowie, descending from the family of Moldavian hospodars. In 1621 it was purchased by Piotr Mohyła – the member of the family that is the best known in Polish history – a supporter of Eastern Orthodox church, and a later metropolitan of Kiev (since 1633), the founder of the Mohyla Academy in Kiev. After Piotr's death in 1647 Wielkie Oczy passed to his older brother Mojżesz, who had already settled there back in 1635. He built a court with defensive structures, founded an Eastern Orthodox parish (in 1648), and built a wooden church for it. During Khmelnytsky's uprising the Cossac forces, acting against the Uniate church as well, did not destroy Wielkie Oczy – a village belonging to the Eastern Orthodox house of Mohyłowie. Mojżesz's relative – Anna Potocka of house Mohyłowie – received the village after his death near 1644. Her husband – Stanisław Rewera Potocki, the great Crown Hetman – offered the lands to Andrzej Modrzewski of the Grzymała coat of arms as token of thanks for him twice saving Potocki's life: during the wars against Cossacs, and Swedes. Modrzewski ensured that Wielkie Oczy would receive town rights from king Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki. He died in the battle of Vienna and buried in a local Dominican church, the monks having been brought by him in 1667. He founded the monastery and brick church for them. Presumably in the late 17th century Jews appeared in town, initially dependent on the Przemyśl lands, but as soon as the second quarter of the 18th century they had an independent qahal with a synagogue, cemetery and their won rabbi.

Later town owners changed relatively frequently. In the late 17th century the lands ended up in the hands of ‎Łaszczowie of the Prawdzic coat of arms. Between 1720–1748 the town belonged to Józef ‎Łaszcz – a Chełm bishop, who finalised the construction of a Dominican monastery complex, and consecrated the church in 1740. After him the owners were Potoccy of the Pilawa coat of arms – Franciszek Salezy Potocki, a Kiev voivode – one of the greatest magnates of his time. His son Szczęsny Stanisław Potocki owned the town after him. During his days the lands first were ransacked during the Bar Confederation, then the plague hit it, and in 1772 they ended up in an Austrian partition, in a part called Galicia, in a Przemyśl circuit. During that time there were 179 houses in town, and 1086 residents, including 401 Jews (about 40% of total population). In 1781 Szczęsny Potocki who resided in a faraway Tulczyn in the Russian partition gave the key to the Wielkie Oczy lands to Adam Pomiński of the Łodzia coat of arms, a Marshall of the post–partition Sejm, who in the following year gave the key to Lubomirscy of the Szreniawa coat of arms. Joanna Lubomirska split the lands in two parts, one  belonged to her son Franciszek, the other to Fabian and Franciszek Romanie of the Ślepowron coat of arms, and later on: to Andrzej Jordan of the Trąby coat of arms. The divided lands were purchased between 1804–1807 by Józef Wielopolski of the Starykoń coat of arms, and in 1816 they passed to the hands of his son Alexander – the later head of Congress Poland's Civil Administration (1862–1863) and one of the most important people in the country. In 1830 the key was purchased on an auction by Ludwik Skarbek Borowski. From his grandson's hands the lands passed to Hagens (around 1855), from whom they were bought in 1908 by a Lviv lawyer Stanisław Czerni, who owned them for almost 40 years: over the World War I, the interwar period in the independent Poland, and they remained in his hands during World War II until autumn 1944 when he had to abandon them.

In 1869 in Wielkie Oczy there were 264 houses and 1744 residents, including 490 Roman Catholics (27,6% of total population), 309 Greek Catholics (17,4%), 969 Jews (54,6%) and 6 Evangelicals. By 1900 the number of houses had grown to 334, and the population to 2119 people – including 824 (38,9% of total population) Roman Catholics, 386 (18,2%) Greek Catholics, 11 Evangelicals (0,5%), while the number of Jews decreased a bit, to 898 people (42.4%). In the late 19th and early 10th century several dozen people of various confessions travelled from there to the USA in search of better life. In the second half of the 19th century post office, police department, and fire department were established in town. There was also a school and an asylum, both managed by nuns, and several Jewish cheders. The town fell victim to fire several times – the biggest ones happened in 1866, 1873, and 1882, during which several to about a dozen buildings were burned down. Much larger destruction was brought about by World War I, especially during the offensive of German-Austrian forces nearby Wielkie Oczy on 14 June 1915. The retreating Russians set fire to the town, which resulted in almost half the buildings being destroyed, including the Orthodox church, and synagogues, while the Roman Catholic church was heavily damaged. Late in the war, during the autumn of 1918 when Ukraine and Poland started to argue over the Eastern Galicia. The fights over Wielkie Oczy lasted until 1919, when the town was captured by Polish forces. As a result of wartime events Józefów population dropped to 1668. After Poland regained independence the town started to slowly rebuild, the synagogue, and orthodox church having been included in the efforts. The Dominican convention was discontinued, and the parish became disassociated from the monastery. The police and fire departments came back, as well as the post office, and school. In 1935 Wielkie Oczy lost their town rights.

Soon after the outbreak of World War II the German forces (in the late September 1939) relinquished most of the lands East of the San river to the Soviet Union. The Red Army entered Wielkie Oczy on 28 September. In November 1939 these lands were incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which soon after that was in turn incorporated into the Soviet Union. During nearly two years of their presence in town, Soviets introduced Communist rules – including a dominant presence of the party and the NKVD, as well as the deportations of residents connected to it, which had begun on 10 February 1940.

Two days after the initiation of armed action against the Soviet Union, German forces entered the town (23 June 1941). Quickly new authorities and police force were instated, formed by Ukrainians. Fairly quickly German occupant initiated actions against Jewish population, and they used the Ukrainian police's help. In June 1942 Jews of Wielkie Oczy were relocated into the ghetto in Jaworowo, from where a majority was taken to the extermination camp in Bełżec in November of the same year. The liquidation of Jaworowo ghetto was conducted in April 1943. Jews gathered there were shot near the town. In the late 1943 Ukrainians started to murder Polish population in the area. Poles of nearby villages started to move to Wielkie Oczy. In July 1944 the forces of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army attacked the town defended by a small unit of the Home Army and several dozen residents. The majority of Polish population survived, having hidden in the church, but several dozen houses burned down. As a result of this strike the majority of Polish residents left the town. Several days later the forces of Red Army reached Wielkie Oczy. During the autumn of 1944, after the border had been set, the relocations of Ukrainian population started, which the Ukrainian Insurgent Army wanted to prevent. Their actions were aimed against Polish militia, military, Border Protection Corps, and civilian population and they lasted almost until the end of 1947. In time some of the Polish population that had left returned to their hometown. After the wartime actions, the extermination of Jewish population, relocations of Ukrainians, and the "Vistula" operation the population dropped to about 30% of its pre–War numbers. It wasn't until 1966 that electricity came here. Currently Wielkie Oczy is a village, the seat of municipality, and has a population of about 800 residents.

History of Jews in Wielkie OczyDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

Jews appeared in Wielkie Oczy, a private town, maybe even in the late 17th century, and were initially dependent on Przemyśl lands. As far back as 1717 local Jews paid their taxes, and in 1735 there had already been an organised qahal, with its own rabbi, synagogue, and probably also a cemetery, which surely had already existed in the second half of the 18th century. In 1765 the tax was paid by 386 local Jews, at the time it was one of the smaller qahals of Bełsk voivodeship. After the reforms of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, the local municipality in 1789 was one of 141 Jewish communities in Galicia. Among things introduced were mandatory surnames, state Jewish education, and Civil Registers, the management of which was one of the rabbi's duties. In the last quarter of the 18th century Jews constituted about 40% of the town's population, and a hundred years later it was almost 55%.

Krzysztof Dawid Janus – the author of contemporary monograph on Wielkie Oczy – thanks to in–depth and broad inquiry into the archives and bibliography managed to determine the identities of many local rabbis. The first rabbi noted in the sources was Mordechaj Ben Samuel (since about 1735 until around 1772), the author of "Brama Królewska" [The Royal Gate]. The next known rabbi was a member of the Teomimowie family – Mordechaj Herc (until 1821), after whom came Meir Teomim (after 1821). The next known rabbi was Mordechaj Hercig (since the half of the 19th until about 1860), after whom the position was taken by another member of Teomimowie – Jaakow (since about 1860 until around 1868). Later on the rabbi's position was taken by member of another line of Teomimowie – Naftali Herc (1879–1916), the author of "Brama Naftalego" [Naftali's Gate], and his son Jona – the last rabbi of Wielkie Oczy (1916–1943), who was murdered by Germans. Jona was connected to Hassids from Bełż.

Jews lived mostly near the town square and in the southern part of the town, where a Jewish quarter, two synagogues, and a bit further on a cemetery were all located. They were mostly merchants, and tenants of various businesses from their owners, mostly in brewing trade. They were also craftsmen of various sorts – tailors, shoemaking, tanning. Among the town's residents leaving for America in the late 19th and the early 20th century, Jews were the majority.

Joseph's reform of Jewish education did not bring about the expected results, the basic form of education until the interwar period were cheders. In the 1920s a co–educational school was founded, which Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish children attended.

During World War I the majority of the town was destroyed, including two synagogues. Their reconstruction, as well as that of several residential houses, was a result of the efforts of an immigrant from America, Eliahu Gottfried. Right after Poland regained independence the relations between Poles, Ukrainians and Jews were decent, but they started to degrade in the second half of the 1930s.

After World War I, the three nationalities constituting the town's population continued to create their organisations social, political, cultural, and sport–related. Among the Jewish population there was a "Organizacja Syjonistyczna" [Zionist Organisation], but more popular was the Zionist–religious party "Mizrachi".

Wielkie Oczy, exhibition in the synagogue
Wielkie Oczy, exhibition in the synagogue

At the beginning of World War II, after Soviets entered Poland, a part of Jewish youth believed the Communist and atheist propaganda and joined "Konsomol". In 1940 a family of Jewish doctors came to Wielkie Oczy, the Sztrassers. They survived the war and later described their experiences. Soviet deportations affected Jews as well, especially the ones of June 1940 (a transport to northern Russia), and from the break of 1940 and 1941 (to Bessarabia).

After the German incursion in June 1941 the persecution of population started quickly, mostly against Jews. Forfeitures, contributions, beating, a ban on wearing bands, forced labour, executions. In time, the persecutions intensified. Germans were aided in them by the Ukrainian police. The Judenrat was ordered to choose men for heavy labour nearby and further. The men transported to the job sites were often shot after they did was they were told to do. In June 1942 all Jews from Wielkie Oczy were deported – some to Krakowiec, others to Jaworowo. When caught, the escapees were usually shot where they stood or on the Jewish cemetery. In November 1942 most Jews from Krakowiec and Jaworowo were transported to the extermination camp in Bełżec. The last Jews of Wielkie Oczy were shot during the liquidation of Jaworowo ghetto in April 1943. Only some sparse exceptions survived World War II.

UrbanismDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

The urban arrangement of Wielkie Oczy is typical of the townships founded on the Magdeburg Law. The town's centre was a town square, from the corners of which spread a network of streets. The one from the north–eastern corner went towards the nearby court complex and further on to Wólka Żmijowska. The street reaching from the north–western corner went to Lubaczów, from the south–eastern corner went South–East, to Radymno and to the South towards Krakowiec. The street from the south–western corner: to Żmijowiska. There was town hall on the square, and behind the buildings of the western frontage (in its northern part) there was a Dominican monastery complex built. Beyond the eastern frontage there was the Orthodox church and a cemetery, while behind the frontage enclosing the town square from the South there was a synagogue complex. In time near the road to Krakowiec a Jewish cemetery was founded, while near the road to Radymno – a Christian one. The events of World War II and years after that changed this arrangemen, formed in the 17th century. The town square remains a clear area in the town's centre, but the southern frontage is gone, while the others survived only partially.

Architecture and building monumentsDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

1) The church, as suspected by Kazimierz Dawid Majus, had already been there during the time of Mękiccy, on the break of 16th and 17th century. On its place in 1667 Andrzej Modrzewski founded Dominican church and monastery. First the construction of brick monastery was initiated, and then of the church of The Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary and of Saint Andrew, which was finalised thanks to the efforts of Chełm bishop Józef Łaszcz and consecrated in 1740. It wasn't until 1784 that a parish was founded, by separating area from the Krakowiec parish. The temple was renovated after the destruction from 1915, after the discontinuation of local Dominican monastery in the interwar period, the church served only as a parish. There is a famously blessed painting in the church, a 17th century copy of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

Wielkie Oczy, Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Wielkie Oczy, Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

2) The Roman Catholic cemetery initially existed near the church, but in accordance with the ruling of partition Austrian authorities in the late 18th century a new Christian cemetery was founded outside the city, near the road to Radymno. It can be seen on a town plan from the 1793.

3) The brick church of Saint Nicholas and the Eastern Orthodox parish were founded by Mojżesz Mohyła near the middle 17th century. It belonged to the Lubaczów deanery of the Przemyśl diocese, which in the late 17th century became Uniate. After the first partition in Poland the Uniate tradition was changed for Greek Catholic, later connected to the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement.

Wielkie Oczy, Greek-Catholic Church of the Saint Nicholas
Wielkie Oczy, Greek-Catholic Church of the Saint Nicholas

The next Eastern Orthodox church in Wielkie Oczy, built in 1820, burned down in 1915 during the fights of World War I. It was rebuilt in 1924, using a wattle and daub construction, not seen anywhere else in this kind of building. The Orthodox church was rebuilt in 1938, changing the shape to dome–based. The temple was active until the final deportation of Ukrainians in 1947. Later it served as a warehouse of Gminna Spółdzielnia [Municipality Cooperative] until 1989. The unused building underwent small renovations and protective procedures, but its state, despite it being included in the register of objects of cultural heritage, constantly worsens.

4) The area around the Orthodox church there was an Eastern Orthodox church, then an Uniate one, eventually liquidated in the late 18th century, when z Christian cemetery was founded near the road to Radruż, where Greek Catholics were probably buried as well.

5) The synagogue had already existed probably in the early 18th century, its presence confirmed in the documents from 1735 and 1763. In the middle 19th century in Wielkie Oczy there were two brick synagogues. During World War I both burned down – one "old" and the other raised anew in 1910. These buildings were rebuilt in 1927 out of the funds of an immigrant from America, Eliahu Gottfried, according to designs by Jan Sas–Zubrzycki. The old synagogue was deconstructed during World War II. The surviving newer one after World War II was used as a warehouse of the Gminna Spółdzielnia. The building, abandoned in the 1990s, caught interest of the Towarzystwo Opieki nad Zabytkami [Society for the Preservation of Historical Monuments], which made sure it would have an entry in the register of objects of cultural heritage. Then they ensured renovation works, conducted between 2011–2013. The renovated building nowadays houses the Gminna Biblioteka Publiczna [Commune Public Library].

Wielkie Oczy, Synagogue
Wielkie Oczy, Synagogue

6) The Jewish cemetery was founded about 300 metres from the synagogue, near the street going from the town square South towards Krakowiec. It certainly existed in the second half of the 18th century, and probably even earlier. The cemetery existed until 1944, when Jews hiding from deportations of April 1942 were caught by Germans or Ukrainian police, and shot to death and buried in mass graves. The cemetery was destroyed both during World War II and after, through taking the matzevahs from it, which were in turn used for various purposes. In time the area was overgrown with bushes. Between 2000–2001 started the works for cleaning the cemetery's area up from all the wild plant life, putting up a fence, gathering matzevahs found across Wielkie Oczy, and erecting a monument commemorating the local Jewish community.

Wielkie Oczy, Jewish cemetery
Wielkie Oczy, Jewish cemetery

7) The epidemiological cemetery from 1915, founded on the Kępa, near the road to ‎Łukawiec.

8) The court. The original one, wooden with towers, surrounded by earth fortifications of Dutch type was founded in the early 17th century, on a hill between two ponds. In the 19th century, when it was uninhabited, it was used for industrial purposes (for instance as a brewery). It was partially destroyed during an attack of the Ukraininan Insurgent Army in July 1944. In the 1970s it was rebuilt for the purposes of being the Commune Office, and serves this function to this day.

9) The urban complex – brick and wooden houses from the 19th and 20th century.

Historical parksDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

The park from the 19th century near the former court in the northern part of town, destroyed during the refitting of the building of the court complex for the holiday resort of "Gazownictwo".

Movable monumentsDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

The furnishing of the church of The Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary and of Saint Andrew, including the famously blessed painting of Virgin Mary with Infant Jesus

Intangible assetsDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

1) During the time of Aleksander Michał Łaszcz, the Bełsk castellan and voivode, in Wielkie Oczy there was a meeting of the Prince of Transylvania Francis II Rákóczi with Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

2) In the late 19th century Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph was present during the military exercises in the area near Wielkie Oczy and probably in the town itself as well.

SourcesDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw

Diocese Archive in Przemyśl

State Archive in Przemyśl

Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine in Lviv

The Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

BibliographyDirect link for this paragraphGo back to indexGo back to index

Krzysztof Dawid Majus, Wielkie Oczy. Studia z dziejów wieloetnicznego galicyjskiego


Author: Paweł Sygowski