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Copyright © Martin Rudner, 1993


Polish Nationalism and Jewish Marginalization

The Jews presented a quandary for independent Poland. Polish nationalism emphasized ethnic exclusivity, and provided little if any sense of belonging for minority populations. Although some prompted the League of Nations to require Poland to sign a minorities treaty, guaranteeing the rights of minority ethnic communities, this did not prevent successive governments embarking on policies that tended to slight or discriminate against the Jewish population.

To be sure, the status of the Jews improved for a time following the military coup d'etat of 1926 by Marshal Pilsudski, who personally opposed anti-Semitism. In 1927 the military government accorded legal status to Jewish communal organizations, the kehilot, and these became the channel for funding Jewish institutions and social services. Nevertheless, after the death of the Marshal in 1935, Polish politics became increasingly ethnic-nationalist. Heightened political stridency in that context implied the marginalization of Jews.

While some Polish political leaders attempted to avert, or at least mitigate, acts against Jews, officially-sponsored anti-Semitism took on a more virulent and exclusionary character.

Economic Development Reaches Kuty

As compared to other places in Eastern Galicia, Kuty experienced a broad economic uplift following Poland's independence. Due in part to its strategic location on the southernmost tip of Poland, astride the border with Rumania and close to the frontier with the Soviet Union, Kuty benefitted from government attention to the development of its basic infrastructure. Thus, during the 1930s Kuty was connected to the national railway system, to the electricity grid, and to the road network. The availability of modern infrastructure had a significant impact on the economy of Kuty, and on the occupational structure of Kitever Jewry. As yet another expression of Poland's presence, a cultural centre was opened in Kuty, including a cinema, and Jewish individuals and groups were given access to these facilities, at cost.

The economy of Kitever Jewry was based mainly on saw milling, tanning, flour milling, local commerce and artisans. With the introduction of modern road and rail services, most of Kuty's Jewish waggoners and carters shifted over to truck driving. Two new areas of economic activity opened up during the 1920s and '30s: domestic tourism and carpet weaving. Kuty and its environs became a vacation resort for numerous Jewish visitors. Carpet production was primarily a cottage industry. Weavers typically had to work some 15 hours a day in order to subsist. As the range of manufactures expanded, there arose a new occupation of travelling commercial representatives crossing Poland selling Kuty-made products.

At the same time, certain traditional Jewish occupations were threatened by the economic nationalist policies pursued by the Polish government. During the late 1930s an increasingly strident ethnocentric nationalism led to the introduction of regulatory and fiscal measures designed to marginalize Jews economically and socially. Government regulations were introduced to exclude Jews from certain industries and occupations which they, historically, had originally developed. Thus, licensing requirements served, in effect, to exclude Jewish artisans from specific crafts and trades. Jewish enterprises were subject to boycotts and harassment, Jewish commercial neighbourhoods to intimidation and pogroms. Government fiscal measures magnified the economic burden on Jewish business, as Jews ended up paying some 40% of all direct taxes.

Whereas the government-promoted cooperative movement did not as yet extend to Eastern Galicia, whose rural population was predominantly Ukrainian, and therefore did not attract the same concern on the part of the Polish authorities, it nevertheless presented a latent, looming threat to the numerous small and vulnerable Jewish shopkeepers and traders who so characterised the subsistence economy of Galicianer Jewry. The threat was made explicit, and was even conveyed in the semi-official newspaper Gazeta Polska:

The development of the co-operative movement is a healthy and satisfying phenomenon and we should support it notwithstanding the fact that it spells disaster to Jewish trade. I like the Danes very much but if there were three million of them in Poland I would pray to God to take them away. Maybe we should like the Jews very much if there were only 50,000 of them in Poland.

[editorial in Gazeta Polska, 16 January 1937]

Polish anti-Semitism even received religious legitimacy from the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In 1936, Cardinal August Hlond, newly appointed primate of Poland, expressed the church's prescriptions against Jews in a widely disseminated pastoral letter.

It is an actual fact that the Jews fight against the Catholic church, they are free-thinkers, and constitute the vanguard of atheism, bolshevism and revolution... It is also true that in the schools the Jewish youth is having an evil influence, from an ethical and religious point of view, on the Catholic youth... One does well to avoid Jewish shops and Jewish stalls in the markets, but it is not permitted to demolish Jewish businesses. One should protect oneself against the influence of Jewish morals...but it is inadmissible to assault, hit or injure Jews.

Kehila Politics

Under Polish law, the organized kehila was responsible for the maintenance of buildings and facilities serving the religious needs of the Jewish population, the administration of communal property and funds, the provision of kosher meat, the supervision of religious instruction, and the dispensing of charities. The executive committee of the Kuty kehila was composed mostly of representatives of the orthodox religious community. However, the chairmanship was in the hands of an assimilated, secular Jew, Sabrin Hornstein. After R. Chaim Gelernter passed away, R. Leib Yeteschet was appointed to the office of town rabbi. He was later a victim of the Holocaust.

The Jews of Kuty played a comparatively limited role in municipal politics, even though they constituted approximately half the town's population of 5500. In the 1934 municipal elections only 5 Jews were elected to a municipal council of 16 members.

Most of the leading Jewish political parties active in inter-war Poland possessed branches in Kuty. Among the Zionist parties, the General Zionists were the longest established, and the Poalei Zion ("Zionist Workers") were by far the most active and broadly based. Other parties enjoying a basis of support in Kuty included the Hitachdut labour Zionists, the Mizrachi religious Zionists, and after 1930, the Zionist Revisionists. Following their split, the Revisionist-nationalist State Party also established a presence in the town.

The political orientation of the Kitever Zionist electorate is best revealed by party standings resulting from the elections to Zionist Congresses:

As in other Jewish communities in Galicia and elsewhere in Poland, Zionist youth movements were actively involved in Kuty in mobilizing young people, fostering career training and aliyah (emigration to Eretz Israel), and political consciousness-raising. A Shomer Ha'tzair (socialist "Young Guard") cell had been established as early as 1921, and continued to function until 1939. Gordonia, a labour Zionist youth movement, established itself in Kuty in 1926, but ceased discontinued by the early 1930s. The Zionist Revisionist Beitar ("Covenant of [Josef] Trumpeldor") youth movement began operating in Kuty in 1930 and seems have been active up to 1939.

It is clear that most Kuty Zionists consistently favoured the labour Zionist movement, notably the Poalei Zion and to a lesser extent the radical Zionist parties. The more conservative General Zionists and the right-wing nationalist Revisionists garnered considerably lower levels of support. The religious Mizrachi movement won least. This electoral pattern reflected the broadly secular outlook prevailing among Kitever Zionists, and the intense ideological and class polarization of the community's body politic as between the large and increasingly assertive labour movement and the more conservative employer interests.

The more traditionalist religious elements opposed the Zionist movement as well as the centrist and socialist political parties, and instead supported the Agudas Yisroel. Under the combined leadership of the Hassidic and Mitnagdic rabbinate, guided by the Mo'etzes G'doilei Ha-Toirah (Council of Torah Sages), the Aguda strove to maintain intact the communal framework of Orthodox Jewry in inter-war Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe against the cross-currents of secularism and assimilation. At the heart of their struggle to maintain the influence and standards of Orthodox Jewry was the desire to live their traditional lifestyle and practice their religion undisturbed. By gaining political representation in the Polish Sjem (parliament), the Aguda managed to acquire a fair measure of control over the delivery of social and religious services to the Jewish community. Yet, by encouraging stasis and fostering aversion to emigration, Hassidim and Mitnagdim caused many if not most of their coreligionists to remain cloistered in their traditional areas of settlement in Galicia and elsewhere in Poland, including Kuty. The events of history were to overtake this rigid traditionalism, leaving large numbers of Jews immobilized socially and culturally before the cataclysm of the Holocaust. On the stand taken by the Orthodox rabbinate in Poland in opposition to emigration, and its consequences for the Holocaust, see Samuel Heilman, Defenders of the Faith. Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry New York: Schoken Books, 1992, pp. 30-33; Menachem Friedman, "The Haridim and the Holocaust," Jerusalem Quarterly, Vol. 53 (Winter, 1990).

Some of the more radical Jewish youth adhered to the illegal Communist Party, or counted themselves among its informal supporters. A Kitever Jewess, Nechama Melzer ("Vorah") was arrested in 1936 and accused of being the regional Communist leader. She was sentenced to six year's imprisonment. Another Jewish Party worker, Michael Grau, was also arrested that year. In 1938, a further 13 Jewish Communists were tried and convicted, among them nine women workers from Kuty's carpet-weaving industry.

Community Institutions and Social Services

Most Jewish boys in Kuty studied in the "Talmud Torah" school which combined religious with general studies. By way of contract, most Jewish girls, as hitherto, attended the secular public school in Kuty also during the inter-war period. The supplemental Hebrew school was re-opened by the early 1920s, along with a kindergarten facility. A "B'not Ya'acov" school for girls was established by Agudas Yisroel in 1930, and provided a somewhat modernized education within the Orthodox framework.

Two Jewish public libraries operated in Kuty. The larger, with about 600 volumes, was operated by the Shomer Ha'Tsair (socialist "Young Guard") youth movement. The other was maintained by Gordonia, the labour Zionist youth movement.

In 1925 a Jewish sports club, Maccabee, was organized in Kuty. The club was active periodically up to the end of the inter-war period.

Like elsewhere in Galicia, the Kuty community supported a range of social welfare services for a generally poor and vulnerable population. In 1918 a local doctor, Marcus Olsker, established an orphanage which provided facilities for 16 out of the estimated 100 orphans in the town. The remainder were cared for in private homes. As well as providing regular schooling, the orphanage also offered vocational training in spinning and weaving. The orphans were afterwards employed in the carpet-making industry. In 1930 the municipality made a grant of land at Dr Olsker's behest for a new building, completed in 1936, which also served as a dormitory and premises for a vocational training program. A carpet weaving workshop was set up alongside, and its earnings were utilized to defray the facility's operating expenses.

The Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) had a membership of approximately 100 in Kuty, and was active in the delivery of social assistance.

Each year, when the summer holiday season commenced at the vacation facilities in Kuty, there was always a risk that unruly Polish holiday-makers would assault local Jews. In order to stave off rowdiness and violence, Jewish youth banded together in a self-protection organization. Nonetheless, there was an incident in which visiting Polish rowdies smashed windows of Jewish homes on the outskirts of the town.

The disintegration of Polish governmental authority in the wake of the German invasion in September, 1939, precipitated a collapse of local administration in Kuty. The town was left virtually bereft of governance. Confronted by a threat of violence by Ukrainian gangs from the town and surrounding areas, Jewish youth organized a self-defence effort to preserve security and safeguard the community. Some of these self-defence groups acquired weapons abandoned by the Polish police, and proceeded to mount defensive patrols to protect those Jews living scattered among the neighbouring villages.

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