From the Town's Life

(From the end of the 19th century)

Dr. David Pohorile, Translated by Adam Prager

The Town's Representatives

Buczacz was basically a Jewish town and its center was completely Jewish; the Christian population lived in the suburbs. The Jews even inhabited the area where the churches stood. Jewish Buczacz was mainly a mitnagdim town, the mitnagdim being the most influential force in it. The municipal administration and community [kehilla] cultural-educational policies were predominantly in the hands of the mitnagdim. The hasidim were a minority though there were a number of prominent figures such as Zeidman and others among them. Thanks to the high cultural level of the Buczacz Jews, this did not lead to conflict between the two factions and the minority adapted itself to the situation. The general attitude was anti-hasidic. Nonetheless, due to the respect for renowned hasidic figures, the hasidim were allotted representation in the community council. The town's leadership – municipal and communal was in the hands of the Shtern family. This is why an opposition to this family arose. However, it was very hard to oppose them seriously, because every one of the important people concentrated on his vocation, leaving no candidates for public office – in the same sense that "the olive tree said unto them, should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" [Judges 9:9] In other cities and towns of eastern Galicia there were usually two families who contended against one another, but not so in Buczacz.

Officially the community was only founded around 1890. The reason for this late date is unknown – either the authorities objected earlier or the Jews themselves were not interested till then.

Following the death of the tsadik, Rabbi Israel Leib Wahrman, no one in Buczacz was given the title "Rabbi" and no one was found worthy of this title till the beginning of the 20thcentury when R' Meir Arak, the rabbi of Yazlovits, was appointed as Buczacz's rabbi. During this long interim the Jews made do with the title “Preceptor" [moreh hora'a]. Though a Tshortkov hasid, R' Arak was forbidden to pray in their chapel [kloyz].

The Economic Situation

of approximately 60,000 inhabitants. The material situation was usually bad, the town becoming more and more impoverished. The reason for the decline originated from the town's inability to keep up with the general advancement throughout the modern world. Many Galician towns were lagging behind, Buczacz among them. In contrast, however, there were towns that progressed. Buczacz's problem was the nearby town of Tshortkov, which was in a much better financial situation for two main reasons: a) Tshortkov had a large infantry and cavalry barracks. b) the court of a tsadik of the family of the tsadik of Ruzhin. The tsadik's court was an important economic factor. Members of his family and court lived in luxury. Hasidim from all parts of Galicia, Bukovina and even the Ukraine would frequent the "rebbe's" house, improving Tshortkov's finances considerably.

The town's leaders tried, of course, to obtain from the authorities a military installation, a district court house, railroad lines (for the Buczacz-Horodenka and Buczacz-Podheytse routes), but to no avail. Tshortkov received the district court house and the above railroads were not built. Buczacz was awarded a magnificent high-school [gymnasium] building, the most beautiful high-school building in all Galicia.

Buczacz had no industry. There was only a carpet “factory” that was actually a workshop. Buczazc and its vicinity were agrarian, characterized by large estates. Their owners employed many agricultural workers who received minimum wages that covered only their basic needs. Buczacz, whose main income was from commerce, suffered from this situation. It traded in grains, spirits, textile; in several other areas there was even a certain amount of transit trade, as in agricultural machinery. In addition, there was export of poultry, eggs and butter. Some merchants employed Christian workers, especially female (in the selecting of beans and other kinds of pulses). The young lower-class Jewish women, mainly from the area, worked as underwear seamstresses, cheap-confection makers, cooks etc. Buczacz buckwheat was of fine quality and its buckwheat groats were renowned near and far. In Bukovina, they would say: a Jew of Buczacz on his return from synagogue on Saturday morning recites the blessing over wine and has buckwheat groats for dessert.

A source of income for Buczacz's small and large merchants was the fairs, of which there were three:

  1. the weekly fair, held on Thursdays. On that day peasants of the vicinity would gather in town to bring their goods to the three markets: the horse market, the pig market by the Strypa river, and the general market surrounding the town hall (Ratusz). In this market chickens, geese, ducks, eggs, vegetables, fruits etc. were sold. The peasants would buy and sell. They mostly bought salt and sugar.
  2. A group of small traders known as antloznikes(Entlassene) ”the released” (from jail) would journey to the second fair in the market of Tlusta Ves' (Tovtse). These were shrewd and crafty people, well known for their cunning and thievish ways. There were even cases when they cheated each other. Many tales of their slyness and swindling were common. In order to avoid being caught, they would adopt different nicknames and call each other by them at the fairs.
  3. An important source of income was the annual fair held in the town of Lashkovits. This was a large fair that lasted 2-3 weeks. Merchants from many towns thronged to this fair, some even from abroad. Of course, it had its share of thieves. When someone appeared suspicious because of his external appearance, people would say, “He has the face of a Lashkovits thief.”

The crafts also did not do well. Tailors were mostly busy before the holidays, namely at the end of winter and the end of summer. This trade was solely in Jewish hands, as was the fur trade. The furriers' season was the end of summer. In the fall they mainly worked for the peasants, who wore simple fur caps and coats during the winter. Shoemaking was mostly in Christian hands, only a small percent of the shoemakers were Jews. Before the holidays the shoemakers were busy with orders from the Jews. During the rest of the year they would make boots for the peasants and sell them to shops or directly to the customers. In time the shoemakers were pushed aside by the shoe factories that eventually took over the market. Other craftsmen, such as carpenters, locksmiths etc. were both Jewish and Christian. Craftsmen were not well off, even though there were experts in fields such as furniture-making, carpentry, building, etc. All barbers and tinsmiths were Jews, as were the carriage (fiacre) drivers.

Buczacz had three large bakeries that supplied fresh bread and rolls three times a day. The small, domestic bakeries supplied backed goods only on Fridays – all kinds of knishes or kashe pastries and, in the summer, pastries with green onions and cheese in them, etc. For the Sabbath, top-quality khales were provided, mainly by special order. This was an extra source of income during 2-3 days of the week. These domestic bakeries also prepared pastries for the fairs, especially for the annual fair that was associated with the Christian “Shkapirna” pilgrimage.

Poverty and unemployment caused many to emigrate, especially to America and Canada.

Buczacz had an excess of intellectuals. Buczacz Jews sent their children to high school (gymnasium) and later to the university. This led to unemployment in the liberal professions, and in many towns these professions were taken over by former residents of Buczacz.

Leaving Buczacz did not solve the problem of poverty or improve the situation. Many depended on the community's charity.

  1. Some would beg from door to door and on the Sabbath poor women would go from house to house and collect slices of bread.
  2. There were street beggars.
  3. On Purim, people who did not beg from door to door did so now by hiding behind their costumes, for they were ashamed to be identified. Also Jewish policemen in civilian clothes (there were such policemen) would beg for charity.
  4. Before Passover, the town would hand out holiday provisions [meot khitim] to the poor.

During the winter, the poor would receive a hot lunch at the soup kitchen for a symbolic fee and, in the morning, bread and tea for almost nothing. There were also the “hidden” poor, people who became impoverished and were ashamed to beg. These people received charity, collected in various ways and sent to their homes. One way of gathering charity was through the “matan be-seter” [anonymous giving] fund – a collection box built into one of the pillars of the Great Synagogue. Bad housing conditions resulted from the deep poverty. The poor lived in decrepit houses at the side of the hill called baszty [tower; dungeon?], or in basements. No wonder that epidemics, quite common in Galicia, did not spare Buczacz – despite the fame of its excellent water. Best remembered is the cholera epidemic of 1894 or 1895 that wrought havoc throughout Galicia, including Buczacz. In order to pacify the angel of death, a wedding sponsored by the community was held for a poor couple. The wedding ceremony was held at the cemetery and, after the ceremony, a procession headed by the young couple went through the streets of the town accompanied by musicians.

Education and Culture

Education was varied: there was Jewish education and general education. In the competition between the two, Jewish education had the upper hand for many years. However, as in other places, general education grew stronger in time and finally overcame Jewish education. Most people were indecisive as to which to chose. Parents saw that there was no choice but to educate their sons and prepare them for the struggle for existence. This meant acquiring a broad knowledge of languages and secular subjects. The Jews may be divided thus: a) parents who did not send their children to general schools but to the kheder, and at home the children were tutored privately in general studies. b) parents who sent only their daughters to general schools. These girls would attend kheder in the afternoon to learn to read Hebrew and the Yiddish translations of sacred texts [ivre-taytsh]. Sometimes the teacher [melamed] would come to their homes during the day for a half-hour to give them reading lessons. The boys would study all day at the kheder, morning and afternoon, and a tutor [moreh] would come to their homes for an hour a day to teach them general subjects. c) parents who sent their sons and daughters to general schools and their sons to kheder as well. These were Torah-loving Jews who were compelled to send their children to general schools only because of the "yoke of exile" [ol hagalut]; however; they did not give up Torah studies. Their sons, of course, were the talented and diligent ones who also studied in the kheder; in the evening, after studies were over, 2-3 prize pupils would stay on from 8-9 to study the Talmud. These pupils were under great pressure because they studied from morning till night. d) parents who saw general education as the top priority and sent their children to kheder for a few hours of cursory ["al ketse hamazleg"] Torah study. For this reason the kheder, too, was highly varied. There were:

One)    The kheder dardaki [yopung child's elementary school] for 3-5 year-old boys and girls together, with five levels. They would start with the first portion of Leviticus, and sometimes they would prepare the children to “interpret” [lidrosh] a portion, and would hold a feast [seuda] at the child-interpreter's home.
Two) The kheder irbuvia [jumble kheder], one level higher than the previous one. Here the children would study khumash [Pentateuch], a bit of Rashi and the Early Prophets. The name irbuvia did not change even though only boys studied in that kheder. Girls did not continue their studies after “graduating” the kheder dardaki. Nor did they study the Five Books of Moses [khumash]. For the girls, reading Hebrew and the stylized archaic Yiddish of sacred texts [ivre-taytsh] was sufficient. Winters in this kheder irbuvia and in the higher levels, the pupils studied until 8 PM in the evening by oil lamps or candlelight. Each child shared in the lighting expenses – 1-2 kreutzers a week. The boys would return home, torches in hand, singing songs. Evening studies would end a few days before Passover, and this event would be celebrated with a feast at the kheder. Each child participated in the expenses. Wine was bought and the rabbi's wife would prepare fritters [levivot] filled with potatoes or buckwheat groats.
Three) From the "jumble" [irbuvia] kheder, a 7-8 year old boy would proceed to the Talmud teacher. Talmud kheders were on two levels – from ages 7-8 till 12-13, and from 12-13 onwards. On the first level Talmud was mostly taught before noon. In the afternoon, for 4-5 hours, pupils were taught the Latter Prophets and Writings [Ktuvim]. In the winter after evening prayers, or in the summer just before evening, they would be taught Pentateuch with Rashi's commentary according to the portion of the week. Besides the above, they also studied (in the "jumble" kheder) seasonally appropriate texts: Sukkot they studied Ecclesiastes, before Purim the book of Esther, before Passover the Song of Songs and the Haggadah, before Shavuot the book of Ruth and Akdamut [Aramaic poem read on Shavuot], and before the Ninth of Ab the book of Lamentations.
Most of those who attended the general schools gave up Talmud studies and only the gifted few stayed on during the winter evenings between 8 and 9. In the summer they made do with a lesson at dusk after the rest of the pupils had left, but most of these talmud studies were held while the general schools were closed for holiday. A Talmud kheder [kheder gemara] of the second kind did not accept pupils from the general schools. It had two streams: the Talmudic – in which the Talmud (including the Mishnah) [Shas] and commentaries [Poskim (text has psukim 'Biblical passages' – apparently an error] were taught, and the maskilic in which maskilic "melamdim" ['progressive teachers'] taught their pupils Shas and Poskim, and in addition Bible, especially the Latter Prophets, grammar and letter-writing in Hebrew and in Yiddish. In both streams together in these kheders the number of pupils was small – usually no more than 7-8. Instruction here was indeed given individually. Most distinguished among the heads of the 1st stream was “Yaane-Melamed” (Yaakov Roykher) and among those of the 2nd stream was “Pessi-Melamed” (Pessakh Biller), a maskil knowledgeable in the Hebrew language and its grammar and translator of several poems from Yiddish to Hebrew.

In the young child's kheder [kheder dardaki] thereysh dukna [teacher's helper], familiarly known by the Yiddish term belfer[< bahelfer 'helper'], held an important role. The belfers were also of two kinds: a) reysh dukna, the melamed's assistant in teaching to read the Pentateuch, who held a special title: oyber-belfer ['head assistant']. b) the regular assistants, who actually helped the parents. They would go from house to house in the morning and wash the children's hands and faces; they would recite with them the “modeh ani” prayer and would escort them to the kheder (during the winter months on their shoulders). Then in the summer they would set out to collect the second breakfast (podvaremes) or in the winter varemes (lunch). In the afternoon they would bring the children their late afternoon meal. These assistants would watch over the children as they played in the yard during recess. They were adored by the children and in most cases by the parents. They were practically “family members,” compensated for their efforts with meals at the children's homes, each day with a different family [known in Yiddish as "esn teg"]. On Fridays they would shine the household's shoes and would receive payment for doing so. They also made toys for the children: flags for Simkhat Torah, lead tops for Khanuka, rattlers for Purim, bows and arrows for Lag BaOmer [33rd day of the Counting of the Omer], and "rifles" for the Ninth of Ab. Before sunset they would align all the children in the yard in a strict and orderly fashion, after which the rebbe or the reysh dukna would instruct them in the rules of proper behavior and good manners. The assistants would then take the children home. The assistants had an additional responsibility: when a boy was born to one of the pupils' parents they would take the pupils to the house of the woman who gave birth, read the shma prayer with the children, give each child a drop of wine, a small cake filled with honey and another in the shape of an 8. The children would leave the house cheerfully, happily bidding the mother and the newborn baby good night.

On the Sabbath all rested in the young child's kheder – the rebbe, his assistants and the pupils. Not so in the other kheders. On Sabbath afternoons pupils would come to those kheders for 2-3 hours. They would play outside till the rebbe would awake from his nap and call them inside in order to teach them Borkhi Nafshi ['bless God, o my soul!'; Psalms 103-4 were recited before minkha on the Sabbath] in the winter and Pirkey Avot ['Ethics of the Fathers', a tractate in the Mishna] during the summer. On Shabbat Khazon [the Sabbath before Tisha B'av] the rebbe would read the story of Kamtsa and Bar-Kamtsa [according to the Talmudic legend in Giten 55] and other legends of the Destruction of the Temple [khurban]. Pupils were also examined on the Sabbath. In the winter before noon and in the summer before sunset, the rebbe would come to the parents' homes (each Sabbath to one or two houses) or to the pupil's relatives, test the pupil and receive refreshments. Outstanding pupils did not require the presence of the rebbe and would be tested by their father or by relatives.

During Lag BaOmer the official excursion for all the kheders was held. The pupils would receive several kinds of pastries, especially cakes dipped in honey ("krafen") [fritters] and, instructors leading the way, set out for the country and its fresh air. They would visit the Pedor, the Bashtim or the fortress. There were also instructors who would prepare a big flag and the prize student was given the honor of carrying it behind the musicians who lead the procession. Some instructors would take the pupils for a dip in the river and it should be noted in their praise that not a single case of drowning occurred.

We should also mention the negative side of this educational system: the punishments. In the lower grades, the rebbe would sit at the head of the table, kantshik [cat-of-nine-tails] in hand, and at times would wield it (this depended on the teacher's nature and the pupil's character). Also known in the young child's kheder was the "kuneh" (not the genuine article). In this method of punishment, a shabby turban with feathers was put on the “sinner's” head, after which he had to stand on top of a table and be made a fool of in front of the other children.

The religious education of poor pupils was funded by the public. Householders would donate to the Talmud Torah fund that for many years was headed by Avrahamtsi Ginsburg. These poor pupils attended various kheders and their teachers would be payed from the above fund.

General Schools

Pupils whose parents wished to give their children a general and systematic education studied in two schools. a) The school named after Baron Hirsch, which most of the Jews attended. This was a primary school with four grades. For the most part it was a good school. The children studied 6 hours a day: 4 hours before noon and 2 in the afternoon. The workload of the pupils was considerable, but the teaching (in three languages: Polish, German and Ukrainian) was thorough. Torah and some grammar were also taught. Those who taught Hebrew and religious studies were maskilim "who had peeped [into secular studies?] and been stricken" [hetsitsu ve-nifge'u]. These were Moshe Khayim Tauber and Mordechai Kanfer. Following primary school the pupils proceeded either to high school (gymnasium) or to commerce and crafts. Poor pupils would also receive winter and summer clothing from the “HaKeren” fund and, in winter, a hot meal. Those who chose crafts became craftsmen's apprentices for a period of three years in order to learn the trade. A few were sent to Germany to study at the agricultural school founded by Baron Hirsch. There was a Polish general school but few Jews attended it. Many of our high school teachers admitted that the graduates of the Baron Hirsch School were better educated than those of the Catholic school.

The kheder was not the final stage in Jewish education. Many continued with their studies. A considerable number frequented the study houses [batey midrash], especially the Old Study House. But many turned to commerce and crafts, studying Talmud and Midrash in the synagogues in spare moments ["between minkha and maariv," i.e. briefly]; and, more leisurely, on Saturdays and holidays. Some studied alone while others studied under one of the instructors. There were also societies for the study of Talmud and Poskim. These were mainly in the study houses of the mitnagdim and operated voluntarily.

Characters and Customs

Buczacz had various customs, most of them like those in other Galician towns; however, a few were unique. There were general public customs connected with religious duties and practices and there were playful and amusing ones as well.

On Sabbath eve, the town's sexton [shamash] would herald the start of the Sabbath: "In shul arayn!" ['To the synagogue!'] Every morning at dawn he would walk through the streets waking up everyone with the tapping of his cane, three taps at each gate (two taps if someone had passed away during the night). During the penitential days [slikhot], the sexton would wake up the townspeople at 3 AM. He would loudly declare in a melodious fashion: “Awake, awake Israel, holy people, awake to worship the Lord.” [kumu, kumu yisrael am kedoshim, kumu la-avodat habore'.]

The sexton would also announce the funerals in the town, calling out "met mitsva" [Megila 3: "talmud tora umet mitsva – met mitsva adif" 'honoring the dead at a funeral takes precedence over studying the Torah'].

The penitential days were days of prayers and pleas, but also days of fun and mischief for the youth. The boys would wake up together with or before their parents. On their way to the synagogue they would pass by the Strypa River and float wooden boards covered with lit candles – at that moment the river was a truly magnificent sight. It is no wonder that the youth sought relief in such a way. Playgrounds in Buczacz as well as in other towns were scarce. The Strypa River thus became a place for recreation: during the summer, bathing or rowing; in the winter. skating over the ice that covered the river during most of the winter. The summer supplied the town with occasional attractions such as a wandering circus, a zoo, and a panorama [primitive cinema] that would stay in Buczacz for a few weeks. Sometimes a professional athlete would arrive and run around the town hall or display his rope-walking skills. Or a gramophone player, a magician and juggler would come by. Gimpel's Jewish Theater from Lvov would also visit Buczacz for a few weeks during the summer and erect its stage in a barn by the bank of the Strypa River.

Before Passover the young male hasidim would be busy in their chapel [kloyz] baking matsa shmura [unleavened bread prepared in the strictest manner]. It was a pleasant task albeit a serious one. In contrast to them, the idle youth and pranksters would get ready for Shabat haGadol ['the great Sabbath', the Sabbath before Passover].

The ordinary young people arranged processions on the Great Sabbath. At the head walked a boy carrying a stuffed image (pants and a coat stuffed with straw), while several others beat on tin drums and everyone sang:

Halelu, halelu min ha-shamayim
Kol ha-parkhes le-mitsrayim!
Praise, praise! The Heavens will drive
All the scurfs to Egypt!
When they arrived at the house of someone with scabies [Yiddish parkhes], they came to a standstill and sang "their song" [see the ten plagues of the haggada].

Relationships between people were graced by lovely customs. For a circumcision people would send sugar, conserves, etc.

At the synagogue when a bridegroom read from the Torah, women from the women's section [ezrat nashim] threw raisins, almonds and candy at him. On Simkhat Torah the khatan-tora [the person honored to read the last portion of the Torah] and the khatan-bereyshit [the person honored to read the first portion of the Torah] treated the congregation to cake and brandy in the synagogues and in the homes of the elders.

Buczacz had many characters and it is impossible to write about them all. I will mention a few that were especially strange in their ways:

Yankl Grosfeld. An educated man, he was always in a good mood. He was very poor and no one knew “what this vegetable lived on.” Most hours of the day he would spend with Avrahamtsi Fisher (owner of a shoe store), both of them seated playing chess, competing with each other in telling jokes day in and day out.

Among the musicians, Elazar the Cripple (Leyzer der kalike) stood out, not for his musical talent – he played the cymbals, but for his merriment and for the Yiddish songs he sang on various occasions – especially on days before army conscription when potential conscripts (plogers) ['sufferers' ?] "tortured themselves" in order to be disqualified from service.

Ayzik Volf Yurman was a man of several crafts, but the saying “many crafts but few blessings” [Yiddish: a sakh melokhes un vintsik brokhes] did not apply to him. On the contrary, he was a wealthy homeowner. Throughout the year he worked with a carding machine, and at the end of summer he prepared shofars, He had two additional year-round occupations: during the day he traded in rags and junk, while during the night he was a wedding jester [Yiddish: batkhn]. At weddings he wore two guises: a serious man before the canopy, and one who would turn with his rhyming to the groom or bride, causing weeping and tears among the women (especially when one of the newlyweds was an orphan). But after the wedding meal, he would grow merry and comical and would call out the gifts from the guests on the bride's side and the groom's side respectively (droshe geshenk) ['wedding gifts']. At weddings of wealthy people he would receive extra pay for reciting in Hebrew and translating into Yiddish songs such as “ish khasid haya” [He Was a Hasid] and others.

Lastly, let us favorably remember the old vinegar-maker (esikmakher) who used to talk Hebrew to his mare on the Sabbath. He would lead her to the well to drink, urging her on with phrases like "holekh lamayim" ['going to the water']. Since many people were somewhat tipsy on the night of Purim and thus liable to forget to attend the evening prayer service [aravit], he would go through the streets on Purim night and call out: "Don't forget evening prayers!"

Dr. David Pohorile