Buczacz - A Geographical Account

by M. Y. Braver

Translated by Adam Prager

Web www.buchach.org

General view from the West

1. The Name

Buchach in Ukrainian, Buczacz in Polish, according to which it was named in Western European languages, and the Jews called it B'tshuetsh (bet with shva na and the mlupim long [/u/], followed by a short segol [/e/] as in Buenos in the name Buenos-Aires). In Hebrew imprints, as in the names of subscribers or patrons (in Yiddish called prenumerantn [those who subscribe to a book prior to its publication – see the classic work, Sefer HaPrenumeranten, by Berl Kagan] – A.P.), the name in most cases is pronounced Buczacz. The origin of this name may be in the name of the forest buk (the beech tree.) If you look at a map of the distribution of this tree, you will find its eastern border near the town. Likewise, Bukovina was named after this tree. However, there is no sufficient explanation as to why the town was not named Bukacz. It is possible that the name originates from a non-Slavic ancient tongue. We know that in this area there existed a settlement dating back to the Neolithic period, long before the arrival of the Slavs. Perhaps the Slavs incorporated the name into their own language. The name of the Dnestr River, which is situated 21 km. from Buczacz, is without doubt of Celtic origin. (This view is supported by the fact that on the Siret River of Moldavia, about 169km. southeast of Buczacz, there is a town named Bucecea. In Poland and Russia no similar name is to be found. In the Czech Republic there is a Bucica).

2. The Geographic Situation

Buczacz is situated above the western bank of the Strypa River, 49 degrees 6' latitude north of the equator and 25 degrees 25' longitude east of Greenwich. It is 55 km. as the bird flies from Tarnopol (today Ternopil) the district capital today, and about 130 km. from Lvov, which was Galicia's capital in the time of the Austrians, and the capital of Red Russia in the Polish period prior to the first partition (1772). During the restored Austrian and Polish period, Buczacz was 62 km. from the Russian border, which for the Galician Jews was like an iron curtain. Buczacz is a typical bridge town, i.e. a settlement that developed into a town because it was on a river at a convenient point for crossing over on a bridge. It is one of twelve towns built in this fashion in the area north of the Dnestr.

There are several strategic advantages to Buczacz's geographical structure that helped in defending the town against the Tatars and the Turks, as well as during World War One. The Strypa River defends the town's eastern and southern borders. A forward line of defense is created by small lakes, pools and swamps through which the Olchowiec River streams. This river runs parallel to the Strypa 6 km. to the East. There was a fortress (Zamek) in the town and a small one (Podzameczek) in the north. To understand the town and its origins, one must study the structure of the southwestern area of the Podolian plateau on which Buczacz is situated.

3. The Geology of the Town and Vicinity

Podolia lies on a high plateau ranging from 350 to 400 meters in height. It slopes slightly towards the Dnestr River Valley situated approximately 200 meters below the plateau. Next to the plateau's northern border runs the watershed of the river networks descending southward to the Dnestr, the network of the Wisla tributaries heading northwest and the rivers of the Dnepr heading northeast. The road leading from Lvov to Brody is near that watershed. Due to the fact that the plateau slopes southward in a uniform manner, all its rivers and streams flow south. They are almost parallel to each other, creating a striped landscape between the streams and river valleys of western Podolia. Since the Dnestr, the largest and chief river, receives water in plentitude from the eastern Carpathian Mountains, it has created a deep valley at the southern edge of the plateau. Also, its rivulets have deepened the valleys beneath the plateau. The deepening of the rivulets grew as they neared the Dnestr, the main river's estuary. The plateau above Buczacz is approximately 375 meters above sea level on both sides, whereas the town's Strypa River channel is no more than 260 meters above sea level. One must therefore descend 115 meters in which not only the railroad track but also the road lengthens its route in order to lessen the incline. From the south of Buczacz all the way to the Dnestr the slope is steeper and the channel is not suitable for a bridge. The Strypa River starts out southeast of Zolochev, about 78 km straight from northern Buczacz. Its estuary is about 21 km south of the town. The river winds the most at its lower end. Due to narrowness of the valley, there is no connecting road with the other settlements. The connection is at the plateau above and not in the valley. Between Buczacz and the town of Zborov (birthplace of R' Benyamin), situated at the beginning of the Strypa, there is but an indirect connection. Traffic in Bucacz is principally east to west and vice versa, and not north to south.

The top layers of the Podolian plateau consist of rock sediment of the Triassic Period. Beneath them are Mesozoic layers (intermediate geological age) and Paleozoic layers (ancient). All the layers are almost evenly balanced and parallel to one another. In the river valleys the layers that are beneath the Triassic are revealed and as one gets closer to the Dnestr one finds earlier layers. In the Strypa Valley where Buczacz lies, Devonian layers (a period in the Paleozoic Age) were discovered which consist of hard chalk and hard sandstone. According to one tradition, sand with gold deposits was found in the Strypa Valley. Gold veins dating back to the Devonian Period were found in other places in the world, and it is plausible that gold was found here as well. Above the Triassic layers lies a thick layer of black earth, the Podolian and Ukrainian chernozem, known for its fertility throughout the world by its Russian name.

4. Climate, Flora and Agriculture

Buczacz's annual average temperature is close to 9 degrees Celsius. In January it averages 4-5 degrees below zero; in July, 20-21 degrees above zero. The frost lasts 3 to 4 months. An average temperature of over 20 degrees lasts a little over a month. Rainfall reaches an annual 450 millimeters, most of it in the summer. However, there are no rainless seasons. The amount of rain is less than in Tel-Aviv, but due to the low temperature the evaporation rate is lower than the rain quantity. Thus, in the Buczacz district, forests of deciduous tress extend over several km. on both sides of the Strypa all the way to the Dnestr. On the plateau above are left only small stands of trees. Wide fields of grain replaced the forests. Buczacz belongs to a region where the trees suffice for its own use, with some left for export. Nearby to the south lies a large district with a shortage of trees. The agricultural land makes up almost three-quarters of its area. Wheat, barley, oats, potatoes and all kinds of pulses are the major produce and much is for export. Fruit trees are of poor quality, therefore apples, pears, plums and cherries are grown for local consumption only. Cattle raising came to the fore prior to World War Two, with almost one head of cattle for every two people; horses, pigs and sheep followed in importance. Poultry-raising was common, but the chickens were inferior, as were the geese and turkeys. However, Buczacz horses were famous for their excellence.

5. Industry, Crafts and Trade

As in all of eastern Galicia, Buczacz and vicinity did not have a developed industry except for the manufacture of liquor from potatoes on the large estates. This industry requires the rotation of sown land (one must not grow grain for three consecutive years in one specific field) and the by-products from potatoes that are used to make alcohol (which serve as feed both for dairy and meat herds). Scarcity of good roads made it easier to bring cattle and liquor, rather than grains, pulses and potatoes, to market. In town there were small food-processing and beverage plants, as well as workshops for clothing, footwear and furniture. Buczacz buckwheat groats were known throughout southern and eastern Galicia, and were even marketed in Bukovina. These groats, also known as kasha in Slavic and Yiddish, would be served in soup at the Jewish table, especially at the second meal of the Sabbath. The packing-paper industry that once existed disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century. An old cottage industry dealt in carpets for beds and sofas and tapestries for walls (in Polish makaty, kilimy). The excess agricultural produce of the surrounding villages was brought to the city, distributed to the urban population, to the rest of the country and exported abroad; goods for local use were imported from abroad, especially from the West. Exports, which were few in kind but large in quantity, were shipped directly to their final destination. Imports, however, were of many different kinds, each in small quantity, and thus were imported by small jobbers who in turn dealt with large wholesalers in Stanislav or Lvov.

6. The Economic and Social Role of the Jews

Podolia is part of Red Russia (Reisin in our sources). The Red Russians are part of the Malorussians (the people of Little Russia), Rusinim in Polish and Ruthenians in German. In the twentieth century people started to call the Malorussians Ukrainians.

Buczacz lies in a Ukrainian region. The owners of the large estates were Poles. The town, like most eastern Galician towns since the seventeenth century, was largely Jewish. Trade, except in pigs, was almost exclusively in Jewish hands and most of the craftsmen were Jewish. The Polish population grew in the days of the Austrians due to the bureaucratic apparatus that was introduced. Buczacz was not a royal town, but belonged to the landed nobility. Up to the sixteenth century, the town was owned by the Buczaczki family, followed by other families. In the seventeenth century it was owned by the Potockis, one of the great Polish families, whose power exceeded that of the monarch. Nobles preferred the Jews to the urban Christians, for they could exploit them more readily. Moreover, the urban Slavs (Poles and Ukrainians) were no competition for the Jews in financial matters, and they loved to drink no less than did the peasantry. The Armenians, who were the only competitors to the Jews, succeeded not only in gaining wealth, but bought land, joined the nobility and abandoned commerce. Potocki patronage proved expensive to the Jews; however, merchants who enjoyed such patronage could be assured of safe passage in transit and of security from the rapacity of the lesser nobility. In the first years of Austrian rule, which began in 1772, the town was in the hands of a cruel master, Michael Potocki; however, thanks to the Austrian sovereignty, the Jews were able to stand up to him and to prevent his interference in communal matters. The nobleman protested to the authorities and the dispute reached Vienna. Josef the Second's Vienna decided that the Jews, unlike the peasants, were not serfs of the estate owner. Vienna was interested in the Galician markets for its goods, and the Jews were favored dealers. The Jews, moreover, were the first to become accustomed to speaking German.

The emancipation of the serfs on the estates in 1848 posed a great economic problem for the landed nobility. They found a way out of their difficulties by leasing their estates to Jews. Once Jews were allowed to buy agricultural land in the 1860s, Jewish leaseholders and other wealthy Jews began to purchase estates. Prior to World War One, most of the large estates were in Jewish hands, whether by ownership or leasehold. In the Buczacz region, approximately one-fifth of the owners of large estates were Jews. Up to 1907, estate owners elected representatives to the Parliament as a special bloc. A score or so of estate owners was held equal to 12,000 taxpayers.

The Jewish percentage of landowners was higher than their percentage in the general population. In the Tarnopol region, the Jews constituted thirty percent of the landowners. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Polish newspapers bemoaned the shrinking of the homeland, claiming the land was passing into Jewish hands.

Prior to 1915 Buczacz was surrounded by Jewish large-estate owners and leaseholders, and by gentile estate tavern leaseholders and rural dairymen who had contracts with both the Jewish and gentile estate owners. The six or seven thousand Jews in Buczacz owed their livelihood to their agricultural surroundings. The Jews were the catalyzers of productivity in the agricultural estates. Besides grain, alcohol and cattle, which were export products for generations, Jews encouraged cultivation of pulses, as well as poultry-raising for export (first of eggs and later of meat). In German newspapers a dozen years before World War One, Buczacz Jewish merchants advertized live fattened chickens, two or three in a cage, for sale to private buyers, with the health of the fowl guaranteed. When Ukrainian peasants joined the keen competition among these merchants, they undermined the Buczacz standards. They prevented the advertisers from keeping their word by shipping live "carcasses," thus tainting the name of Buczacz throughout western Germany. Butter purchased by the Jews from estate dairymen and, in small quantities, from peasants, was also exported. With the reunification of Poland, the farmers' cooperative took most of the trade away from the Jews. Just as export trade was in Jewish hands, so was import trade. Jews were agents for Austrian, Czech and German commercial and industrial firms. Thanks to connections with western countries, many emigrated to the West. Before 1915, craftsmen who lost their jobs, as well as bankrupt traders and storekeepers who could not reopen businesses under different names, emigrated to foreign lands. (A common trick before 1915 was for a bankrupt husband to reopen his business in his wife's name.) Competition between Jews and Poles and between Jews and Ukrainians was already in evidence under Austrian rule. At first the Christian craftsmen and tradesmen failed. Of one nobleman who opened a nail factory and a noodle factory, it was said that his noodles were as hard as nails and his nails were as soft as noodles. The Jews could overcome competition with private Christian entrepreneurs; however, a dangerous enemy of Jewish commerce arose in the guise of a Polish-Ukrainian cooperative movement. The nationalistic press preached severance from the dispensable Jewish middleman. This propaganda had an anti-Semitic coloring as early as the Austrian period. It was highly successful in the reunited Polish Republic, especially among the Ukrainians who were more closely bonded to the territory than were the fewer Poles. The Polish government settled peasants on the estates of large landholders, Jewish estates being the first to undergo agrarian reform. This land, the source for Jewish livelihoods for four centuries, was gradually pulled out from under their feet. Emigration to any country willing to accept Jews (including Erets-Yisrael) grew.

7. Buczacz Town Plan and Sites

Historic building in the town center (Ratusz)

Buczacz was surrounded by a wall, a rampart (waly) and a mote. When the threat of the Turks and Tatars passed, the town spread beyond these barriers, which eventually disappeared. However, the educated eye will recognize the nucleus of the town that was once surrounded, even if examining a small-scale map of the town. This nucleus was situated at the angle between the west-bending Strypa and a small stream that runs into the river in the northwest. There, at the point where the river valleys meet the stream, lies a plain part of which was used for the town market, known as Rynek in Polish, Ring in German and ringplats in Yiddish. Mikolai Potocki built the town hall here in the 1860s, one of the few distinguished edifices that Podolia can boast of. About one hundred years after it was built, the building burnt down and was later restored, but it lost its original splendor. The church that was built by the same nobleman is notable for its images of the Virgin Mary, regarded as works of art, and for its wood carvings. Besides the square area of the market, the old nucleus consists of only a few small streets. The new town and its suburbs spread into the valley on both sides of that same small stream named the Potok, to the west of the Strypa, and along the crossroads connecting to Buczacz: to the west the road and the railway lead to Monastrishtsh (Monasterzyska in Polish), to the east the same road leads to Chortkov, to the southwest the road leads to Podhayits (Podhajce in Polish) and to Berezhan (Brzezany in Polish), to the northeast it lead to Strusov, Mikolintsa and Tarnopol. Due to the narrowness of the river valleys and the stream, buildings in the town were constructed on the valley slopes. Houses were built close to each other and few had surrounding gardens, especially in the Jewish neighborhoods. This density is well mirrored in the Shbush (Buczacz) descriptions in the tales of S. Y. Agnon, the great son of this small town.

M. Y. Braver