Ukrainians and Jews had a positive experience of coexistence during the Ukrainian–Polish War: Historian

The Polish army parading through Lviv (from the archive of the Centre for the Study of the Liberation Movement).

The continuation of a conversation with Petro Chorniy, a historian, social anthropologist, Candidate of Historical Sciences, and Research Fellow of the Institute of Ethnology at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.  

Vasyl Shandro: During the interwar period in Galicia, when it was part of Poland, could Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans take part in political life?

Petro Chorniy: If we are talking about the interwar period and the experience of politics of Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans, once the status quo was established and Galicia was transferred to interwar Poland and recognized on the international level, there came the realization that it was necessary to coexist somehow with this state. There were two levels to this coexistence. On the one hand, ethnic groups organized local self-rule; here, it must be understood that it was not politically recognized. Nevertheless, interwar Poland did not fulfill those obligations vis-à-vis the Ukrainians, as it had promised: the granting of national-territorial autonomy to Galicia and Western Volyn.

As regards the Jews, the issue was national-cultural autonomy, which they sought in interwar Poland. At the time, they invoked Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, the rights that had been enshrined by the League of Nations by the so-called Little Treaty of Versailles. This was a separate document regulating the life of "national minorities." This was a legal term that was introduced into international law. The Little Treaty of Versailles obliged states to support the cultural traditions and religious rights of national minorities. Interwar Poland did not fulfill a single one of these obligations. Consequently, those autonomous entities were quasi-autonomous.

Each community had its own so-called gminy (administrative self-ruling units  —  Ed.). The Jewish community had almost 250 in the 1920s. They were organized in large cities, towns, and other territorial entities. This was a network of organizations that nurtured cultural and educational development. Consequently, every ethnic group, such as Ukrainian and German, had a similar organization. In this way, they sought to safeguard themselves and their identity and culture, insofar as this was possible.

As regards political activities, there were attempts at some. Beginning in 1922, these national minorities united in a so-called national minorities bloc and, accordingly, sought to champion their rights by participating in the elections to the Polish Sejm. Here it is worth mentioning that at the time, Galicians [Ukrainians] were boycotting them, convinced that the Council comprised of delegates from the Allied countries would return Galicia to the Ukrainians and the ZUNR [Western Ukrainian National Republic] would be restored. However, Ukrainians from the Kholm, Pidliashia, and Volyn regions did take part in the elections. These were predominantly left- and center-left parties that had united with similar ideological and political Jewish, German, and Belarusian parties and formed their own Bloc of National Minorities. They even succeeded in capturing 22 percent of the parliamentary seats. Within five years, the Ukrainians of Galicia began participating in the elections, having joined this bloc. They had realized that there was no chance of restoring the ZUNR, and they participated in the elections. These were the Ukrainian Agrarian Party and the Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance. During this period, they failed to repeat the success of the 1922 elections, when they won nearly one-quarter of the seats in parliament, quite a significant representation at the time. This time around, they gained significantly fewer seats. Nevertheless, this was a very successful attempt at political cooperation. Consensus was achieved, and a representative bloc was created. They even agreed on lists of candidates that would be put forward to parliament. This was a great success.

As for the work of the administrative organs of power, there was a more complicated process here. The Polish authorities required the swearing of an oath. It was difficult for the Ukrainians who had taken part in the state-building processes in the ZUNR to swear such an oath publicly. In fact, during the interwar period, we do not see a single case of a Ukrainian or a Jew heading some administrative unit, let alone a voivodeship.

Vasyl Shandro: Where everyday coexistence is concerned, can we talk about interethnic marriages, for example, mixing in such a fashion? How did everything take place on the quotidian level?

Petro Chorniy: Interethnic marriages are always typical in territories where various cultures coexist. They are contracted for the most part by members of ethnic groups that are close in terms of religious world perception or enjoy the same social status. Where interwar Galicia is concerned, the largest number of interethnic marriages was between Ukrainians and Poles. A saying even appeared: "The border between them ran through the marriage bed."

There were also marriages with Jews. We even have statistics based on archival documents, which were hard to find. Between 1921 and 1926 in Lviv, 389 Jewish people converted to Christianity, 265 of them to Roman Catholicism. This happened as a result of interethnic marriages. The Jewish community frowned on any of their members marrying outside the community. They usually ostracized such an individual, and s/he then converted to the religious tradition of his or her partner. This is clearly seen in the case of interwar Galicia. I did not find a single example of a Ukrainian or Pole converting to Judaism. In contrast, such examples are widespread among Jews.

An absolutely fascinating picture of Ukrainian-Polish marriages emerged, especially of the daily practices of cohabitation, particularly where the baptizing of children was concerned. For example, if the husband was Ukrainian and the wife was Polish, then the baby boy was baptized in the Ukrainian church, and the girl in a Roman Catholic church. This was arranged beforehand. I discovered dozens of such accounts by old-timers who focused on these memories from the interwar period. This is truly how they organized their lives.

An excellent example is when people celebrated Christmas, Easter, and other religious holidays. People, including Jews, tried to avoid offending the religious feelings of those with whom they shared the same space in cities or villages by refraining from heavy work in public, for example. Where Ukrainians and Poles are concerned, they celebrated and visited each other's homes. In villages and small towns, everything was much simpler because the children attended the same state school. They knew each other as classmates and could be seated at a desk — a Ukrainian next to a Jew, a Pole next to a Ukrainian. There were also private schools that were established according to the ethnic principle and thus existed within the bounds of a single community.

Vasyl Shandro: In other words, exclusively Jewish, Ukrainian, and German schools could exist?

Petro Chorniy: Yes, they existed. The Habsburg tradition continued, whereby all ethnic groups had their own private schools. The state could not meet the demand for school education, so Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews had to organize their own school system. Consequently, after the First World War, the situation became significantly more complicated for them because assimilation via language in schools was one of the main instruments for creating a single Polish homogeneous space that was supposed to encompass Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, and the members of other ethnic groups.

A special law was passed for this purpose, which went down in history as the Lex Grabski, or the "Law of Grabski," after the then minister of education Stanisław Grabski, which was adopted on 31 July 1924. The aim of this law was to culturally assimilate the representatives of all national minorities. This gave rise to the concept of utrakwistyczne szkoły, that is, de jure bilingual schools but de facto Polish ones. The regulation about Polish-language instruction was introduced even in non-state schools. Initially, this took place as a result of various manipulations. For example, when school inspectors asked Ukrainians, "In which language do you want your children to be taught?", instead of using the phrase "Ukrainian language," they deliberately used the [now archaic] term "Ruthenian language" (Rusyn) to refer to the Ukrainian language. During this period, Ukrainians were quite nationally formed, and they now understood the [old] term Rusyn to mean "Russian." Of course, no signatures were collected, and more than ten were required. This kind of manipulation led to the circumstance whereby a certain number of signatures of parents who wanted the language of instruction to be in the "Ruthenian language" was not collected, and the school became, in essence, a Polish-language one. Ukrainian was an optional subject taught at certain times.

If we are talking about networks, the Jewish community offers a very good example. The Jewish community was quite divided. Four separately organized networks can be singled out. One of the largest was the Central Yiddish School Organization (TSYSHO). This was a Yiddish-language network of secular schools organized by Jewish socialists. Its ideological inspirers were the Jewish Workers' Bund as well as Jewish autonomists. They did not strive for something extraordinary, some degree of national autonomy; they simply wanted their children to know Yiddish, to know this language and culture, which in fact encompassed a large segment of the Jewish community.

There was the Tarbut network, which means "culture" in Hebrew. This was an autonomous Zionist network founded in 1922. It also had a decentralized management structure consisting of district committees that directed the educational process in every region of Poland. In the case of Galicia, there was one such committee in Lviv. The language of instruction and everyday communication in the Tarbut milieu was Hebrew, of course. Often, it was studied right from scratch. You have to understand that the Jewish community of interwar Galicia, and generally Eastern Europe, had practically forgotten the Hebrew language. Rabbis and highly educated members of the community remembered and knew this language, but there were only a few such individuals. Instead, there was the Jewish culture. It is no wonder that it is called Yiddishland because the language of everyday life was Yiddish. Jewish nationalists sought to revive this [Hebrew] language, and for this purpose, they created an entire separate network and organized a fully-fledged education process for it. It covered all large towns, and there were even representative offices in villages.

Another very interesting network was Jawne, a bilingual Polish-Hebrew school network that was founded in the early 1920s by the Mizraḥi organization. This was a religious Zionist movement that combined the Orthodox Jewish tradition with Jewish nationalism. Even on this level, the organization of the school system was important to them; they did not team up with the Zionists, for whom the traditional Orthodox Jewish aspect was not important. They organized their own network, and by the beginning of the 1930s, there are 61 elementary schools and four secondary schools. This network served 20,000 children.

Vasyl Shandro: Could you mention some positive constructive stories, situations, or events that took place between Ukrainians and Jews during this period? Could multiethnic sports teams take part in competitions? Could they cooperate in business? Did that stereotypical image of the Jewish usurer and tavern keeper not disappear by chance from the canon and literary studies even during the Soviet period? What was this coexistence like in other aspects?

Petro Chorniy: During the interwar period, competition among all ethnic groups was extraordinarily high. I like the mention of sporting events. Each community had its own network of sports and outdoor associations. I believe that many listeners are familiar with the Ukrainian networks, the Sich and Sokil. During the interwar decades, they encompassed all of Galicia. Jews, too, had these kinds of organizations. The famous Maccabi organization had representative offices in every large city and town. They frequently organized football competitions in which German and Polish teams took part, competing against each other. People who recall the interwar period have a lot to say about this.

You mentioned the stereotype of the Jewish usurer. It should be kept in mind that during the late Austrian period and the interwar years, the Jewish community was quite poor. Over one-third of Jews often survived thanks to the funds collected for them by the Jewish religious community. There are many recorded cases of Jewish families being unable to buy all the necessary foods for the Sabbath and having to purchase them with funds provided by the community. This type of mutual aid was extraordinarily well developed in the community. I can give you an example dating to the period after the First World War when there were very many widows and orphans. Each community organized charitable foundations, carried out fundraising campaigns, and helped one another.

The first postwar years were extraordinarily dismal. There were major conflicts that were instigated by the Polish authorities, who blamed the Jews for the fact that the Polish state was experiencing an economic decline. It must be understood that the newly created Polish state was formed out of three large chunks of territory. One part had belonged to the former Russian Empire, another to the Prussian state, and the third to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the new state was established, it was necessary to create a new state apparatus and introduce a new currency. Up to 1924, the currencies of those empires were still in circulation. The złoty began to be introduced in parallel, and there was hyperinflation.

Jews discussed the statements of Jewish politicians, who said that the government was governing totally ineffectively because it was ignorant of finance and trade, and it would be better if they appointed someone from the Jewish community, whose members had a tremendous amount of experience in trade. Such a person would quickly set up those communication processes on the international level. But no, they kept these processes for themselves and did not trust Jews or members of the non-Polish community.

On the political level, the processes became acute, but at the grassroots level — in villages and small towns, people continued to live their lives. There is an account of a Ukrainian priest, a Polish Roman Catholic priest, and a rabbi assembling at a square. They met, chatted, said goodbye, and went their separate ways. When we were doing oral history research, we were fascinated to read numerous accounts of how people lived in such a small milieu. Later, as a result of people's awareness, the press and literature are working actively, people often do not realize what has come to them from personal communication or what they may have read somewhere, and they relate it to their own experience. This boundary is blurred sometimes.

Vasyl Shandro: Were there some sympathizers of the Ukrainian idea among the Jewish populace during the interwar period or none at all?

Petro Chorniy: Ukrainians and Jews had a very positive experience of coexistence during the Ukrainian–Polish War. By the time the ZUNR was proclaimed, the Ukrainian National Council had been created in Lviv on 19 October 1918. The Ukrainian state was proclaimed two weeks later. That day, 19 October, the Ukrainian National Rada recognized the Jews as a nation and guaranteed them national-cultural autonomy in Galicia. Meanwhile, the Poles, despite all their declarations, never did this — not once. Arguments in favor of assimilation and displacement were heard, but statements to the effect that we will build our state and grant you the right to national-cultural autonomy were never heard from the Polish side. The Jews were very encouraged by the Ukrainians' goodwill and guarantees. In fact, during the Ukrainian–Polish War, the Jews proclaimed their neutrality. Without delving into details, one can interpret this as meaning that they did not support one side or the other. In reality, this was not quite so: They supported the Ukrainian side more.

There are excellent examples of administrations being set up by Ukrainians. At the same time, battles for Lviv were taking place, followed by the displacement of Ukrainians from Lviv. They go to Ternopil and Stanyslaviv, where they establish the capital of the ZUNR. The Jews took an active part in the work of Ukrainian administrations, especially in all small towns, because the Ukrainians did not have sufficient cadres and, therefore, often relied on Jews. At first, it was proposed that they serve as delegates on the international level and participate in negotiations. The Ukrainians were unfortunately quite isolated, unlike the Polish community. The Poles also had a representative office in the Entente and a tremendous lobby in the US. The Ukrainians sought to break out of their isolation and even tried to do this through the Jewish community, but they did not succeed. The Zionists believed that this would not be very beneficial for them; they had their own political interests to lobby. However, they fully contributed by helping the Ukrainians manage on the ordinary, everyday level. It was necessary to organize the work of public utilities, as they are known today, and Jewish engineers had a hand in this. This was in late 1918 and all of 1919.

Read the first part of the conversation here 

For the complete program, listen to the audio file.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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