Jan 31, 2020
When we came to New York after the war in 1955, my parents joined the Buczacz-American Benevolent Sick and Aid Society. Landsmanshaftn — hometown societies — such as this one were a vital part of Jewish immigrant social life and mutual assistance, supplementing the support provided by synagogues, labor organizations, and political parties. They also maintained contact with their landslayt in the old country. The correspondence was voluminous and included photos, wedding and bar mitzvah announcements, newspaper clippings, New Year’s greetings, and appeals for charitable donations.
My father was Secretary of the Buczacz-American Benevolent Sick and Aid Society for several years. In that time, he received a shoebox of old letters and other materials from Buczacz from the adult children of Mr. Abram Sommer, who had been Secretary years earlier. The appeal pictured above was in that box. Twenty years earlier, the Society had received this appeal—in Yiddish and Polish—which had been issued by the Jewish Relief Committee in Buczacz on January 6, 1935 and sent to the Society in New York. One of the signatories was my grandfather, Moses Wolfthal.
The restoration of an independent Poland at the end of WWI had held out the hope of a democratic, inclusive society. The Second Polish Republic established the Sejm with a Constitution. Political parties were organized. Elections were held. But ethnic Poles constituted only about 67 percent of the population of the new Poland. The largest minority groups were Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belorussians, Germans, and Jews. The new Poland saw physical attacks on Jews both by individual Christians and by units of General Jozef Haller’s Polish Army.
Still, hundreds of thousands of Jewish children attended public schools, high schools, and universities in the 1920s. Most Jews spoke Polish in addition to Yiddish. Jews were employed in most of the trades and professions, although discrimination was rampant. Jews served in the Polish Army, and they had fought in the uprisings against Russia of 1794, 1830, and 1863. Marshal Josef Piłsudski, the military hero who headed the government after the war, was imbued with a civic vision of Poland as a modern, tolerant nation, not one based on ethnicity or religion. Most of his supporters and most of the Polish Socialist Party shared his vision.
Others held an ethnocentric conception of Poland that rejected the minorities’ claims to equal citizenship. Indeed, antisemitism was the driving force of the political party Narodowa Demokracja [National Democracy], known as the Endecja, which called not only for discriminatory laws against Jews, but also for their expulsion from the country. When Gabriel Narutowicz was elected the first president of the Second Polish Republic in 1922 with the broad support of Polish Jews and the Minorities Bloc, Endeks rioted in the streets against the “Jewish president.” A week later, an Endek assasinated Narutowicz.
Piłsudski returned to power in a coup in 1926, but the wave of antisemitism continued to grow, no doubt encouraged by similar racist movements in Germany, Hungary, and Rumania. Members of the Sejm, churchmen, newspapers, and radio figures openly spewed antisemitic slanders and stereotypes. There were calls to boycott Jewish shops and businesses, to stop hiring Jews, to limit Jews in the universities and the professions, and, again, to send them all to Palestine. Opposition to antisemitism by Piłsudski’s followers and the Polish Socialist Party became muted. When Pilsudski died in 1935, violence against Jews erupted.
WWI and the Depression had taken their toll on Poland. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were living on a subsistence level. The boycotts led to bankruptcies and soaring unemployment. The numerus clausus shattered the hopes of thousands. Jewish community councils and a wide array of community organizations struggled to feed the needy, house the homeless, and keep up morale in the face of official antisemitism.
The withering of the Jewish community in Buczacz between the world wars is described in the Sefer Buczacz Memorial Book and in Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. 1 1 Omer Bartov, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018). Buczacz [English translation of the Memorial Sefer Buczacz, ed. Yisrael Cohen 1956] (New York: JewishGen, 2013). For further information, see also Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University, 1989); Antony Polonsky, Jews in Independent Poland 1918-1939 (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004); Paul Brykczynski, Primed for Violence: Murder, Antisemitism, and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2018). Jews had lived there since the sixteenth century alongside ethnic Poles and Ukrainians. They had served on the city council under Austrian rule, and Bernard Stern was its mayor for forty years. By the twentieth century, the community had built several synagogues, a hospital, an orphanage, and an old-age home. It offered newspapers in Yiddish and Hebrew. It sent Jewish deputies, first to the Austrian Parliament, then to the Polish Sejm.But by the time this appeal was distributed in 1935, Jewish Buczacz was a pale shadow of its former self. Reeling economically and facing antisemitic taunts and violence from their neighbors, the community would be totally destroyed less than ten years later. The Soviets occupied the town in 1939. The Germans and their collaborators murdered roughly 12,000 Jews between 1941 and 1944. About 500 survived.
The ranks of the despondent, unemployed local Jewish population with no income are growing day by day. A bitter winter has added to the misery of those unfortunates in our town already suffering from the prevailing economic crisis. Four hundred Jewish families—among them a large number of people who were considered well off until recently and who themselves donated to others—are now suffering from hunger and cold. The hearts of Jews must not be indifferent to the desperate cry for help of hundreds of people. We must launch a campaign to help them immediately. Not a single one of us who can still help should refuse to contribute. We, the undersigned, have undertaken the humanitarian duty to launch this campaign for our brothers who are starving and suffering. We are therefore vigorously appealing to the Jewish community:
Help those who are suffering! Don’t let them die from hunger and cold!
We are very well aware that the economic situation is bad for everyone today. Nevertheless we are sure that Jewish feelings of compassion cannot and will not allow hundreds of people, including the elderly and the sick and little children, to die in misery.
In the next few days representatives of this Committee—which is undersigned—will be asking you to contribute for this purpose. We are certain that no one will refuse to help.
Buczacz, January 6, 1935.