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

Wielkie Oczy - guide book

Ukr. Велькі Очи, Rus. Вельке-Очи, Yid. ויילקה אוצ'י, צ'י

Wielkie Oczy - guide book
Postcard showing a fragment of the town square on a market day, 1911, published by Jakub Just, collection of Krzysztof Dawid Majus -

The settlement of Wielkie Oczy, which is located at two large ponds giving it its name, was founded in 1520s. Soon, it became the property of Piotr Mohyła, the future Orthodox Metropolitan of Kyiv, founder of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and of his brother Mojżesz, a candidate for the throne of Moldova. In 1671, the next town owner Andrzej Modrzejowski obtained the Magdeburg rights for Wielkie Oczy and it was probably then that Jews started to settle in the town.

Jewish people inhabited the majority of houses listed in the 1752 census. Among them was Gdal Szymonowicz, who resided in the town hall building and was a leaseholder of two mills, a winery and an inn in the town hall. Other Jewish residents of Wielkie Oczy included: Moszko Szawłowic – a baker, Szymon Gierszunowicz – a tailor, Mendel Berkowicz – a shopkeeper, Judka Erszkowicz – a salt-trader, and Majer Rzeźnik.


Rabbi Mordechai ben Shmuel of Kutno

Mordechai of Kutno (born about 1715 – died after 1772), Shmuel's son, was the first known by name and the most prominent rabbi of Wielkie Oczy. As a young man, he distinguished himself with his acuity, godliness and love for studying the Scriptures. He came to Wielkie Oczy in about 1735, invited by the local kahal to take the post of a rabbi. Known as an ardent follower of the strict instructions of the Law of Moses, he defined and introduced many religious rules in the Jewish community. He wrote, among others, Dower shalom (Heb. ‘Bard of peace’) and comments on the Book of Psalms and Book of Prophets. These, however, have not survived to our times. Rabbi Mordechai’s renown rests on his theological treatise Shaar-Melech (Heb. ‘The Royal Gate’), which is a collection of 13 theological and moral essays connected with the dates and holidays in the Jewish calendar. The first edition of this treatise was published in Żółkiew in 1762, and the last – so far – in Canada in 1997.



A house of prayer must have already existed at the beginning of the 18th century, its existence being recorded in the documents of 1735 and 1763, which note that even the oldest inhabitants no longer remembered when it had been built. In the mid 19th century, there were two masonry prayer houses in Wielkie Oczy: an “old” Beit Hamidrash and a synagogue, both of which burnt down during World War I. The synagogue was built anew in 1910. The prayer houses in Wielkie Oczy were seriously damaged during the town fire and then rebuilt in 1927 according to the project of Jan Sas Zubrzycki, who was famous for designing many churches and public buildings, and with the money received from an American immigrant Eliyahu Gottfried. The Beit Hamidrash was pulled down during World War II, while the surviving synagogue building served as a warehouse of the commune cooperative after the war. Abandoned in the 1990s, it was entered into the register of monuments in 2009. Between 2011 and 2013, the Wielkie Oczy Commune Office renovated the former synagogue, and now the building houses the Commune Public Library and the Memorial Exhibition Room.

Projekt synagogi w Wielkich Oczach z 1917 roku, rys. Jan Sas Zubrzycki, zbiory Krzysztofa Dawida Majusa -
The synagogue in Wielkie Oczy, now the Commune Public Library, 2015. Photo by Wioletta Wejman, digital collection of the “Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre” Centre -
Synagoga w Wielkich Oczach, obecnie Gminna Biblioteka Publiczna, 2015, fot. Wioletta Wejman, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" -
The 1917 design of a synagogue in Wielkie Oczy. Drawing by Jan Sas Zubrzycki, collection of Krzysztof Dawid Majus -


Transformation of Isaac

In 1806, young Hasid Isaac Erter (1792-1851) got married to Chaja Sarah, a daughter of the respected family in Wielkie Oczy, and moved into his in-laws’ place. Soon, he befriended Joseph Tarler, who came to live in Wielkie Oczy. This well-educated erudite who could speak several languages introduced Isaac to the medieval Jewish philosophy and literature of the Jewish Enlightenment. As a result, young Isaac left the town to see the world. He became a doctor and a writer, as well as one of the leading representatives of the Haskalah movement in Galicia. He is the author of satires written in Hebrew. The most famous one, Gilgul Nefesh (Heb. ‘Transmigration of the Soul’), describes successive incarnations of: a Hasid, frog, cantor-drunkard, fish, tax collector, owl, Kabbalist, mole, corruptible gravedigger, dog, jealous rabbi, fox, a Hasidic tzaddik, donkey, doctor, turkey, and finally a well-connected and foolish rich man who tells the writer of his previous incarnations. Erter's collected works were published posthumously under the title of Ha-Tsofeh le-vet Yisra’el (Heb. ‘The Watchman of the House of Israel’, Vienna 1858) and reprinted many times. “My eyes did not lit up in this darkness” – Erter wrote later about his Hasidic upbringing but in fact, it is in the small traditional town of Wielkie Oczy that he underwent intellectual and spiritual transformation.



In 1842, Baruch Henner was born in Wielkie Oczy. In 1864, he opened a photographic studio in the market square in Przemyśl. As a young boy, Baruch went to a religious school but this did not prevent him from attending a secular school and from taking up photography and graphic arts, in which became an outstanding professional and artist. He learnt from the famous French photographer Louis Lumière, among others, and became well-known also in other countries. He held the prestigious title of Court Photographer at the Imperial Court in Vienna. His works won medals at the exhibitions in Vienna (1873), London (1874), and Lwów (1877). Baruch Henner died in Przemyśl, on 2 February 1926.

Znak firmowy zakładu fotograficznego B. Hennera umieszczony na rewersie zdjęcia, 1897, zbiory Biblioteki Narodowej -
The trademark of B. Henner's photographic studio placed on the back of a photo, 1897, the National Library collection -
Portret Michała Szczepańskiego. Fotografia wykonana przez urodzonego w Wielkich Oczach fotografa Barucha Hennera, 1987, zbiory Biblioteki Narodowej -
A portrait of Michał Szczepański. Photo taken by Baruch Henner - a photographer born in Wielkie Oczy, 1987, the National Library collection -


Industrialist and philanthropist

The mid 19th century saw the growth of trading activity in Wielkie Oczy, with most shops run by Jews. The town had also 2 tanneries, 2 brick factories, a steam mill, a slaughterhouse, 4 distilleries, and almost 50 craftsmen. Yet, the proverbial “Galician poverty” forced many inhabitants to emigrate. One of them was Eliyahu Gottfried, born in Wielkie Oczy on 21 February 1859 into the poor family of Baruch and Szajndel Gottfrieds. In 1890, he emigrated to the US in search of work and a better life, and settled in New York, together with his wife Rachel. He set up a small bakery, which has become one of the largest US baking companies, the Gottfried Baking Company. He was also a vice-president of the American Palestine Line Inc., a ship company providing passenger service between New York and Haifa. Eliyahu Gottfried was actively involved in the Zionist movement, spending considerable sums of money on this activity and travelling frequently to Palestine. Moreover, he was a well-known philanthropist, who financed, for example, the rebuilding of Wielkie Oczy synagogue, which had been destroyed during the war in 1915. Gottfried visited Wielkie Oczy on several occasions and helped poor Jewish families there. Having suffered from a serious heart disease, he died on 6 February 1932 and was buried in the New York cemetery of Mount Carmel. He had 7 children.

Sklepik - towary kolonialne w Wielkich Oczach, 1916, zbiory Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv
A small grocery shop in Wielkie Oczy, 1916, collection of Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv

In 1903, Jewish immigrants from Wielkie Oczy founded the Erste Wielkie Oczer Kranken Untershtitsn Varayn (Yid. ‘The first Wielkie Oczy Society for the Sick and Those in Need’) in New York. The Wielkie Oczy Foundation operates also today. This non-government organization was founded by Krzysztof Dawid Majus (son of Ryszard Majus from Wielkie Oczy, initiator of many activities connected with the town’s cultural heritage, author of the Wielkie Oczy monograph and of the unique memorial website )


Everyday life

Judaika na wystawie w synagodze w Wielkich Oczach, 2014, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" -
Judaica exhibition in the Wielkie Oczy synagogue, 2014. Photo by Monika Tarajko, digital collection of the “Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre” Centre -

According to the 1921 census, the population of Wielkie Oczy was over 20% smaller than at the beginning of the 20th century, this being a result of the devastation brought about by World War I. 274 houses and 1,668 residents were recorded in the census, including 806 Poles (48.3%), 547 Jews (32.8%), and 314 Ukrainians (32.8%). The town’s rebuilding was slow and as a result, it lost its position of regional commercial centre in favour of the nearby town of Krakowiec. The Jewish residents of Wielkie Oczy joined organisations in Krakowiec, such as a credit cooperative of the Central Union of Credit Cooperatives. In 1935, Wielkie Oczy lost its status of a town. The late 1930s saw a growth of anti-Semitic sentiments and national tensions that were commonplace all over the Republic of Poland. One such anti-Semitic incident is described in Mieczysław Dobrzański's book, Gehenna of Poles in the Rzeszów Land 1938-1948 (Wrocław 2002): “On a high fence that surrounded the property of a Jewish baker in Wielkie Oczy, one night in 1938 someone wrote a slogan in large metre-high black letters that read »Jews to Palestine«. We saw it in the morning as we were going to school. A group of Jews was standing in front of it and they were very moved.”


Jewish cemetery

The cemetery was established about 300 metres away from the synagogue, at the street that went south from the town square towards Krakowiec. It had been in existence since at least the second half of the 18th century. Today, around 100 gravestones can be found at the cemetery, but its size suggests that it was a burial place of up to 3,000 people.

Macewa na cmentarzu żydowskim w Wielkich Oczach, 2014, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" -
A Matzeva at the Jewish cemetery in Wielkie Oczy, 2014. Photo by Monika Tarajko, digital collection of the “Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre” Centre -

In September 1914, after the Russian army had invaded Wielkie Oczy, the only Russian soldier killed during the town’s invasion, was buried at the Jewish cemetery. He was a religious Jew, and the tsarist army officer asked Rabbi Naftali Hertz Teomim to bury him at the Jewish cemetery and organize a religious funeral.

During World War II, Jews that had been hiding to escape the April 1942 deportation, were executed at the cemetery and then buried in mass graves. The cemetery was devastated by the Germans and after the war, local residents took away the Matzevot to use them for different purposes. In 1978, an obelisk was erected on the edge of the cemetery near Krakowska St. This was the site of the mass grave of 41 Jews from Wielkie Oczy that had been shot here during World War II. In 2000-2001, the works were started to clear the cemetery from wild growing plants, put up a fence around it, gather the Matzevot found throughout Wielkie Oczy, and erect a monument commemorating the local Jewish community.


The last rabbi

Jon Teomim was born in Wielkie Oczy in 1885, as one of the seven sons of long-time town’s rabbi Naftali Hertz Teomim. After his father's death in 1916, he took over his position and served as a rabbi in the inter-war period. He was a supporter of the Tzadik of Belz. He held the honorary title of Gabbay of Eretz Yistrael, i.e. the one responsible for collecting donations to aid Jewish settlement in what was then Palestine. In 1943, he was murdered by the Germans, together with other town Jews.


World War II and extermination of Jews        

The German troops invaded Wielkie Oczy on 12 September 1939. After two weeks, they gave up most of the land east of the San River, to the Soviet Union. The Red Army entered the town on 28 September 1939 and in November 1939, the area was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, its inhabitants becoming the USSR citizens. The administration and economy were organised on the Soviet model, which meant the dominant role of the party, the NKVD presence and deportations of inhabitants (since 10 February 1940).

The German-Soviet war began on the night of 21 June 1941, with an attack of the German forces along the German-Soviet border. The Germans entered Wielkie Oczy on the next day, destroying and looting the place, forcing Jews to work, and killing them in individual and mass executions. In August 1941, the Judenrat was established. In June 1942, the Jews of Wielkie Oczy were deported to ghettos in Jaworów (274) and Krakowiec (168). In December 1942, those from the Krakowiec ghetto were relocated to Jaworów and on 16 April 1943, all of them were murdered by the Nazis.

Marek Wizenblit from the town of Bychawa in the Lublin region, stayed in Wielkie Oczy during the war. First, he worked as a technician at a local farm, and then was hiding in the area. After the war, he kept the name of Urban received from a man at whose place he had found shelter. He became a professor at the Agricultural University of Wrocław and described his experiences in the collection of memories Poland, Poland, published by the Jewish Historical Institute in 1992.


Present day

Today, Wielkie Oczy is a village with a population of about 800, located a few kilometres from the Krakowiec border-crossing with Ukraine. A few agritourism farms operate in the area, and the bicycle trail Green Velo runs through the village.

Authors: Paweł Sygowski, Emil Majuk


Sites to see

  • Synagogue, 14 Rynek St.
  • Jewish cemetery, Krakowiecka St.
  • Sanctuary of St Mary Comforter of the Afflicted, church and monastery complex, Krzywa St.
  • St Nicholas the Wonderworker Orthodox Church, Rynek St.
  • Fortified manor house (now housing the Commune Office), 2 Leśna St.

The vicinity

Lubaczów (16 km) - historic urban arrangement with many surviving wooden and brick houses dating back to the 19th and 20th c.; secular buildings (19th c. town hall, court building, mill, granary, and a former pharmacy); the remnants of 16/17th c. buildings on the castle hill; St Stanisław's Church (late 19th c.), St. Nicholas' Greek Catholic Church (1883), a cemetery (Kościuszki St.); collective graves of about 2,000 Jews executed by the Germans in 1943, located on the so-called parish field between Dachnowo and Mokrzyca

Oleszyce (21 km) - a Jewish cemetery (3 Maja St.), a quadrangular town hall with the courtyard (1727), a former Uniate church (1809), Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the remains of the Sieniawski Family palace complex(18th c.)

Chotyniec (25 km) - wooden Greek Catholic Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God (1615)

Cieszanów (27 km) - St Wojciech's Church (1800); a synagogue (1889), St. George's Greek Catholic Church (1910), now housing a cultural centre, as well as an exhibition and concert centre. At the cemetery there is the ohel of tzaddik Simcha Ezekiel ber Halberstam.

Stary Dzików (38 km) - St Dmitri's Neo-Bysantic Church(1904), where some scenes for the Katyń film by A. Wajda were shot; the Holy Trinity Church (1781). The ruins of the late 19th c. brick synagogue are no longer used. During the post-war renovation works, the windows in the main synagogue hall were walled up and the niche which used to hold the Aron ha-kodesh was breached to make an entrance. Icchok Bashevis Singer's father is buried at the cemetery, however no gravestones have survived.

Radruż (40 km) - St Paraskeva's Orthodox Church (16th c.); 2 graveyards with stone crosses from Brusno and with the Andruszewski Family crypt ; wooden St Nicholas’ Orthodox Church (1931), now used as a Catholic church

Medyka (47 km) – a brick synagogue dating back to the beginning of the 20th century (today no longer used), the Pawlikowski Family palace and park complex (18thc.), and a wooden church (1607-1608)

Przemyśl (56 km) - New Synagogue (1905), now a library; synagogue in the Zasanie neighbourhood(1890-1892); a Jewish nursing home at Rakoczego St.; the old Jewish cemetery’s gate and several memorials to the Holocaust victims; a new Jewish cemetery at Słowackiego St. with about 700 Matzevot; the Casimir Castle, the Lubomirski Family palace, the palace of Greek-Catholic bishops from the Museum of Przemyśl Land, a unique market square and clock tower from the Museum of Bells and Pipes, Art Nouveau buildings, church and monastery complexes of the Franciscans, Carmelites, Franciscan Reformers and of the Bernardine sisters, the Byzantine-Ukrainian cathedral, orthodox churches, a Jesuit college and forts of the Przemyśl Fortress.

Southern Roztocze Landscape Park - part of the eastern Roztocze featuring the irregular belt of limestone and sand hills that form large hummocks and plateaus, riven with dry ravines and the valleys of small rivers. Its noteworthy feature is the juniper forest, which is protected in the Sołokija reserve.