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Copyright © Martin Rudner, 1993


A Capital in Extremis

Kuty, in the autumn of 1939, was a small town situated on the Czeremosz River, which then constituted the border between Poland and Rumania. At this place in the extreme south of Poland, at the foot of the Carpathian mountains, a two-lane steel-and-concrete bridge spanned the river. On each end of the bridge there was a hut for customs and frontier police. The river itself was narrow, merely about twenty meters across. But during the spring thaw, when snows melted upstream in the Carpathians, the river would double in width and depth, and woodcutters floated logs down from the mountains. The rest of the year, and particularly in the scorchingly dry September of 1939, the Czeremosz was little more than a sluggish brook.

Though hitherto a town of no great distinction, on 17 September 1939 Kuty suddenly became a very important place during a brief interlude of time. For a few grievous hours it served as the temporary seat of the government of the Republic of Poland, now in desperate flight. Germany invaded Poland on 1 September; now, on the 17th, at four in the morning, the Soviet Union attacked from the east in keeping with the secret protocol to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. The Soviet border was only 100 kilometers away, and no organized Polish force was left to block the Soviet advance. By mid-day the bridge at Kuty was the last border crossing point remaining between the rapidly collapsing territory under Polish control and the outside world.

All day long the town was congested with vehicles, automobiles, trucks and horse drawn carts wending their way slowly down the road to river crossing. The bulk of the traffic consisted of fleeing government officials, diplomats and wealthy Poles and foreigners possessing automobiles, joining a routed army in disarray and other refugees seeking to escape the conquest of Poland. Retreating soldiers flung their rifles over the parapet of the bridge, rather than surrender them to the Rumanians; soon, thousands of Polish rifles choked the shallow Czeremosz. Overhead, Polish aircraft lumbered across the town and river at low altitude on their way to internment at the Rumanian airfield at Cernauti.

At four that afternoon the Polish government held its first and only meeting in Kuty, the last act of governance of an independent Poland for the next half-century and more. A proclamation was issued, declaring that the government must flee the German and Soviet onslaught in order to protect "the source of constitutional power from this temporary deluge." During the evening hours the President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, other members of the Cabinet, and the commander of the Polish Army, all crossed from Kuty into Rumania. None would ever return to Poland.

That night the Red Army arrived in Kuty, and Polish independence was extinguished. The Jewish presence in Kuty would disappear, never again to be reconstituted.

Historical Vicissitudes

Kuty was founded in 1715 by a Polish noble belonging to the Pototzky family. From the outset, the municipal charter of Kuty accorded Jews the full freedom of the town. As a result, from these early days onwards Jews comprised a majority of the Kuty population. The rapid development of Jewish settlement and economic activity was accompanied by the emergence of an autonomous and self-governing kehila. As elsewhere in the Kingdom of Poland during the Middle Ages, the Kuty kehila was administered by a committee composed by notables elected by the local well-to-do. A synagogue was built, and provision was made for a Jewish cemetery.

Following the partition of Poland in 1772, Kuty came under Austrian rule along with the other settlements of Eastern Galicia. This transfer of authority had a detrimental impact on Kitever Jewry. At first, the former kehila committee system of governance was terminated, and was replaced by a Jewish administrator. Under this administration, special communal taxes were levied, and tax collections increased steadily from year to year. It was only after the Jews of Galicia were granted civil equality in 1868 that conditions in Kuty began to improve. The kehila council was restored, and the taxes levied exclusively on the Jews were annulled.

Of Rabbis and Scholars

Kuty acquired a measure of renown in the Galicianer Jewish world by virtue of its prominent progeny. Among the most celebrated of Kitever Jews was Rabbi Avraham-Gerson Kitever, son-in-law of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the charismatic founder of Hassidism. According to Hassidic legend, the Ba'al Shem Tov himself lived near Kuty during his "hidden" years, and subsisted on quarrying clay which his wife sold in Kosov and Kuty. The legend tells how the Ba'al Shem Tov once encountered the notorious outlaw Dovosh, and persuaded him to refrain from victimizing the Jews.

From the early 18th century the religious and cultural fabric of Galician Jewry was buffeted and torn by the rival beliefs and doctrines of Hassidism (Jewish charismatic pietism), Mitnagdim (traditionalist Talmudism, in opposition to Hassidism) and the Haskalah (secular Jewish Enlightenment). Hassidism swept into Galicia from Podolia and Volhynia, winning over large numbers - perhaps a majority - of the region's Jews. Exhibiting the characteristics of a pious folk religion, Hassidism tapped the profound religiosity of a populace subjugated by rabbinic legalism and poverty. Each centre of Hassidism evolved around its rebbe, a charismatic and mystical rabbinical intermediary to God, who defined and shaped the spiritual traits, customs and behavioral attributes of his particular sect. Many Kitever Jews adhered to the Hassidic traditions of the Torne (Tarnopol) rebbe.

Opposing Hassidism were those Jews rooted in the traditional scolasticism and legalism associated with religious orthodoxy. For Mitnagdim, literally "opponents (of Hassidism)", authentic Judaism demanded strict adherence to rabbinic authority manifested through Talmudic scholarship. To these Mitnagdim, Hassidim were heretics. Religious and communal conflicts between Hassidism and Mitnagdim were heated and intense. Nevertheless, despite differences over doctrine and rabbinic leadership, Hassidim and mitnagdim alike remained unalterably committed to a punctilious observance of orthodox beliefs, values, rituals and identity. Acculturation into the secular, inherently Gentile culture surrounding them was firmly rejected.

In fact, the inward-oriented world of Galician Jewry was being swept by social changes and intellectual ferment accompanying the onset of the Age of Reason. Jews inspired by the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, broke with the hitherto exclusivist, theocratic value system dominating Jewish society in Galicia. Early maskilim, disciples of the Haskalah, were outward oriented in their social pursuits, attending schools and even universities, and pursuing professions not confined exclusively to the Jewish community. They promoted cultural contact with the outside world, and subscribed to the pluralistic values and ethos of an emerging secular society. The Galician maskil, Joseph Perl (1774-1839), satirized and criticized Hassidism and its rabbinical leadership. Other maskilim joined in the attack on religious obscurantism and the anti-modern stance of the rabbinate. In 1834 the Austrian government decreed that "no rabbi should be appointed who had not taken an academic course" in an effort to modernize and secularize Galician Jewish society. By way of reaction, the rabbinical authorities remained adamant in their opposition to the Haskalah, and strenuously resisted the inroads of secular culture and educational development.

Like other Jewish settlements in Galicia, the Jews of 19th century Kuty were divided as between Hassidim, the dominant influence on religious affairs, Mitnagdim, and Maskilim, who emerged to prominence in secular education, in the labour movement and especially in the Zionist organizations.

According to available records the first rabbi of Kuty was R. Moshe b'ar Menachem-Mendel Kitever. At first Rabbi Moshe opposed the Ba'al Shem Tov, but afterwards reconciled himself to Hassidism. He died in 1738 and was buried in Kuty. With R. Moshe originated the custom that was followed in Kuty, Kosov and Wiznitz (Bukovina) of burying the dead in their funeral shrouds, without being wrapped in a Talit. During the 1840s R. Ya'acov Epstein served as rabbi of Kuty. His successor was R. Tsvi b'ar Avraham Landsman.

Afterwards R. Yosef Shmuel Gelernter served as rabbi of Kuty for several decades. Renown as a rabbinical authority, he wrote Harei BaShamayim ("Mountains in the Heavens") and Roshei BaShamayim ("Heads in the Heavens"). He was succeeded in 1893 by his son R. Chaim Gelernter, the celebrated author of Oneg Chaim LaShabbat ("Delights of Living for Shabbat"), Simchat Ha-Chag ("Joys of the Holiday"), and Pre Eitz Chaim ("Fruits of the Tree of Life"). It so happened that R. Chaim Gelernter was the Rabbi who officiated at the marriage of my grandparents, Menashe Hohenstein (sic) Weiner and Tova Genser in 1907 in Kuty.

During R. Chaim's term of office, R. Ya'acov Shor served as dayyan in Kuty and achieved distinction as a talmid chacham (scholar-instructor).

The Kuty synagogue, dating from early in the history of the kehila, was the largest and most elegant edifice in town. Next to the synagogue there stood two smaller prayer houses, one for butchers and the other for tailors. There were, as well, three Batei Midrash (houses of study). Kitever Hassidim prayed in three kloizim, the Winitz, Kovov and the Chortkov. The old cemetery established at the time the town was founded had filled to capacity by the end of the 19th century, so that a new cemetery had to be consecrated. The Chevra Kadisha (burial society), which was composed of volunteers, utilized its income to organize a credit fund for tradesmen.

Education in Kuty

Modern education was first introduced to Kuty as a result of the initiatives taken during the Haskalah (Enlightenment) period at the end of the 18th century. A government decree requiring that Jewish children be taught in public schools or Jewish secular schools was given over for implementation to Naphtali Herz Homberg, a Czech Jew and a Maskil. Under his supervision a network of 107 secular Jewish schools offering instruction in the German language were set up in Jewish communities across Galicia, including Kuty. However, their secular orientation cut against the grain of a mainly traditionalist Galicianer society, so that enrolments dwindled. In 1806 the schools were finally closed down.

A modern school was established in Kuty by H. Homberg, and operated from 1785 to 1806, when it closed. From then until the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish children in Kuty, both male and female, received religious instruction in traditional cheder (religious classes). From round about the turn of the century, most Jewish girls and some boys began to attend the public school that was established in the town. A supplemental Hebrew school was run by the Safah Chaya ("Living Language") organization around the same time in order to offer Hebrew language and related studies to students attending the public school. Some 59 students enrolled in Safa Chaya in the early 1900s, 48 girls and 11 boys.

The Work of Kitever Jewry

The economy of Kitever Jewry was typical of the traditional occupational structure of Eastern Galicia. At the outset of Austrian rule the Jews of Kuty were employed mainly in commerce, notably in dried fruit, tanning, carting, waggoneering, and artisan crafts. By the 1870s, a credit society was established to provide financing for the development of local industry and vocational trades. This loan facility generated the capital required for the subsequent expansion of Kuty's tanneries and flour mills. Since Kuty was not connected to the railway system before the 1930s, local transport services were provided by numerous Jewish carters and waggoners. Although opportunities were limited, by the end of the Austrian period small numbers of Jews succeeded in achieving prominence in the municipality and government administration.

Zionism and Social Activism

Zionist organizations were formed in Kuty during the early 20th century. The Zionist Women's Association was organized in 1905, and in 1908 a branch of Poalei Zion ("Workers of Zion") was opened in Kuty. Poalei Zion activists initiated a strike among 50 tannery workers, which achieved some success. A "Jugend" youth organization was set up in affiliation with the Poalei Zion, and founded the only public library in town.

War and Emigration

The emigration of Jews from Kuty began to accelerate after the turn of the century, especially to the United States. Kuty's population peaked at 6700 in 1910 (3200 Jews), but had declined to 5500 (2600 Jews) by 1921. The First World War wrought a multiple cataclysm to Kuty: conquest - twice - by the Russians (in 1914 and again in 1916), a refugee exodus, the trepidations of the short-lived West Ukrainian Republic (November 1918 - March, 1919), a temporary capture by the Rumanians, and a renewal of independent Polish rule with effect from June, 1919.

During the Ukrainian inter-regnum the Poalei Zion established a "Jewish National Committee" to administer the Kuty community. During the Rumanian capture Jews resisted by force the harassment of the soldiery. In one instance a Jew even managed to arrest and detain a Rumanian soldier in a cellar for a couple of days.

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