For Poles it was Malopolska Wschodnia, Eastern Little Poland, or the kresy, the borderlands. It had been part of the Polish realm since 1386. Polish poets wrote odes to the kresy. This land was not—never would be—anything other than Polish. For Ukrainians it was Halychyna, but not Ostgalizien, Eastern Galicia, not a part of Poland. They had lived here for a thousand years; they had always constituted the majority of the population; their prince had founded the town of Halych for which the land was named. Its destiny was to be united with the “greater Ukraine” across the border. Jews had lived in Galicia for half a millennium; they had a religion and a language—in fact, two languages—of their own, but their relation to the land was more ambiguous, the choices more difficult.
The full title of the book is To Galicia: Of Chasidim, Huzules, Poles and Ruthenians: An imaginary journey through the vanished world of Eastern Galicia and Bukovina. (Ruthenians and Huzules are basically Ukrainians.) It describes an imagined trip, mainly by railroad, around the turn of the last century, from Tarnow to Lemberg (I’m using place names as they appear in the book) via Przemysl, Drohobycz, Stryj, Stanislau, Zabie, Kolomea, Czernowitz, Brody and places in between. A quick look at the map will show you that this is far from a linear journey, involving as it does various side trips. For each waypoint, the author draws on contemporaneous accounts for lyrical and (sometimes) not so lyrical descriptions of the lives of Jews, Poles and Ukrainians. The overall impression is of “a rich land of poor people” (in the words of the title of another book by the same author). Among the poorest of these poor people are the majority of its Jewish population.
If you were an ambitious, energetic young man in mid nineteenth century Galicia, you might go to Borysław to find work in the new wax and oil enterprises. If you had a little cash, you might purchase a piece of land from a peasant and dig your own shaft. That is exactly what Moses Hersch Erdheim did. In 1866, he left his poor family in the village of Sosnica between Jarosław and Przemysl and with the small dowry that his new wife Esther Hopfinger from Sambor brought to their marriage, bought a piece of land. At first, he worked in Borysław, traveling back to his wife and her family in Sambor each week for the Sabbath. By 1874, he was able to build a five-room house on Panska Street in Borysław. Moses Hersch also supplemented his business with retail trade in dry goods, wood and glass articles he brought in from larger towns. Esther managed the store, while bringing up their five sons.
Book review of The Earl of Petticoat Lane by Andrew Miller. The hero of this book, Henry Freedman, was born in 1906 and raised in London’s East End. His parents had immigrated from Nadworna and Solotwina in Galicia. The author, Moscow correspondent of The Economist, is Henry’s grandson. He has written a loving story about Henry’s remarkable progression from East End “barrow boy” to the world of West End high society. Along the way, Miller paints wonderfully detailed pictures of the lives of Jewish immigrants living in the East End, often in squalor and abject poverty, and how so many fought their way into the larger British society.
If it is axiomatic that you only experience your grandparents in their senior years, then how can you know who and what they were in their youth? For those with great family continuity, taking stock of them in their early years is comparatively easy—just look at your parents or your own early life and extrapolate back in time. But what could I do? My grandparents were immigrants from a place with strange traditions, different languages, and an opaque history. Comparisons rang hollow and my experience was worthless because there just wasn’t anything analogous between my youth in Vietnam-era America and Belle Epoque Imperial Austrian Galicia, where they spent their formative years.
More articles of this type from The Galitzianer will be added soon.