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Book Review: ‘Nach Galizien’, by Martin Pollack

by Edward Goldstein

This book is available only in German (Nach Galizien) and Polish (Po Galicji). If you read either of these languages, I suggest you do as I do and ask your local library to obtain it for you via their Inter-Library Loan system. My German is somewhat rusty, as you will no doubt be able to deduce from the quality of the translations that follow, but the effort was well worth it for me. I did wish, how- ever, that the author had included an index.

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.

The following passage quoted in the book, excerpted from a description of an emigrant from Dobromil to the USA, puts it as follows:

Gewen is das schtetl, in a tol, arumgeringlt mit schene hojche grine berg, mit fruchtn un blumen gertner, a schmekende gute frische luft. Nor ejn sach hot gefelt: parnose.

(If your knowledge of Yiddish isn’t quite up to translating from a transcription into German, here is what this says: “There was a shtetl, in a valley, surrounded by beautiful high green mountains, with fruit and flower gardens, delicious good fresh air. Only one thing was missing: a way to make a living.”)


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But the author does not shrink from presenting some of the less pleasant aspects of Galicia, including accounts of the grinding poverty of its inhabitants and the squalid circumstances in which many of them lived.

The description of the Drohobycz oil fields and the conditions in which its workers, most of them Jewish, lived is appalling. Here is an excerpt from Among Jewish Proletarians, by Saul Raphael Landau, cited in the book:

Among the 9,000 workers from Boryslaw more than 6,000 are [Jewish]: men, girls and children—children as workers. Some live in nearby Drohobycz, from where they arrive on Monday mornings, to return on Thursday nights; others have made themselves at home in the village of Dzwiniaz, the rest in Boryslaw, where they work all day and partly during the night. Boryslaw is, like no other place in the entire world, the classic seat of Jewish industrial laborers; their most typical representative is that old, broken Jew who for 35 years in one and the same place turns a crank for 12 hours each day—for a daily wage of 48 Kreuzers … Jewish industrial laborers also exist by the thousands in England and America, but nowhere are the wages so low, and therefore living so miserable, for such heavy, health afflicting, yes life- threatening work; nowhere, nowhere carries a whole production process the stamp of laborious Jewish manual labor as here in Boryslaw.

(I tried to get an idea of what 48 Kreuzers would buy. The best I could come up with is that in 1856 the first class postage for a letter within Austria was 9 Kreuzers.)

There is also humor, mostly somewhat grim. For example, here is a quote from the author Karl Emil Franzos on the subject of a meal in the restaurant at the Przemysl railroad station:

…I, myself, have eaten the most peculiar veal cutlet of my life in Przemysl. It was a stuffed veal cutlet and I found in it: one nail, strongly rusted, one steel pen nib and a bunch of hair. When I held the corpora delicti under the restaurateur’s nose, he responded with the greatest equanimity: “I don’t know why you are getting so excited. Did I tell you you were supposed to eat the old iron? You’re supposed to eat the meat!”

The account goes on to tell about the law suit filed and won by the restaurateur.

But Pollack also describes the occasional bright spot. Here is an excerpt from a description of Stanislau, the town where I was born:

Stanislau was the next largest town after Lemberg. There electric trains served the suburbs, there was the garrison of the 58th Infantry Regiment … The town looked like a doll house. There were beautiful multi-story white houses and parks and gardens and flowers and tree-lined streets, a clean, large marketplace and rich business establishments; and in the evening there burned the electric lights, and it was bright as day, only much merrier. … [On the main street] the young folk met. Well dressed pretty girls walked up and down with students and sharp officers, chattering and laughing. There were coffee houses with music and a shopping arcade where people met, and restaurants. There was wealth and merriment and laughing enthusiasm. There were dance halls and entertainment facilities…

Such was the impression of a baker’s apprentice, Alexander Granach, when he first came to Stanislau from the backwaters. But, as Pollack points out, his enthusiastic description covered only a small part of the town. In the outlying districts, in the suburb of Halicz,

“there burned no electric lights and there were no paved sidewalks, there the filth reached above the ankles and garbage was just thrown from the doors of houses, into the gutters, where the often raging sewage had drowned many a careless chicken. In October of the year 1911 an eight year old girl living in the suburb of Halicz fell into the wide gutter in front of her parents’ house and drowned miserably in the murky flood. The local Polish weekly newspaper wrote that it bordered on a miracle that someone would drown in a street in the middle of the town. In Stanislau such wonders were possible.”

A few Jews tried to make a living by tilling the soil. Here is Pollack:

“Five kilometers south of Stanislau, on the road to Nadworna, there existed a small colony of Jewish peasants: Czerniejow. Smallholdings of two, three Hectares, a couple of animals, fruit gardens and a few vegetables, on which the whole family labored in order to squeeze out the necessities of life. The Jewish peasants lived no better than their Ruthenian neighbors, the children were illiterate because they had no time to go to school, and the fields so small that one could barely turn the plow without the oxen trampling the neighbor’s field. So one lived. But dogs live too, as the poor Jews used to say with resignation.”

One could go on quoting from this rich and varied volume, but the foregoing should give you an idea of its contents.

(“Nach Galizien” by Martin Pollack, published by Edition Christian Brandstätter, Vienna and Munich, 1984. Apparently, only 3,000 copies were printed and the book is now out of print. According to a communication from the author, a new edition is in preparation.)


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