A World Apart, Part 1: Life in Galicia in the late 19th Century

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I ordered a book on what life was like in Galicia in the late 19th century.  The book is A World Apart: A Memoir of Jewish Life in Nineteenth Century Galicia by Joseph Margoshes. (The book was written in Yiddish in 1936, but translated into English in 2010 by Rebecca Margolis and Ira Robinson.)  Margoshes was born in 1866 in Lemberg (Lvov/Lviv), which is now part of Ukraine.  According to the introduction to the book, he was born into a family with a “distinguished rabbinical ancestry” and “received a traditional Jewish education in Bible and Talmud, as well as grounding in the German language and European culture.” (p.vii)  As an adult, he spent several years administering agricultural estates in western Galicia, the region where our family most likely lived.  He emigrated to America at the turn of the century and became a well-known writer for the Yiddish press in New York City.

He wrote A World Apart as a memoir not only of his life, but of the culture and world he left behind.  The book is considered to be an important documentation of what life was like in Galicia during that time period.  As Margoshes himself wrote in his forward to the book, “I have lived in a different generation and under completely different circumstances from my own children and many of my friends and acquaintances.  I thus hope that it might interest them to read the memoirs of my past.” (p.3)

Since the author lived in Galicia and left Galicia during the years that Joseph and Bessie, Abraham, Max, Hyman and Tillie lived in and left Galicia, I hope to be able to get a better picture of what their world was like.  I’ve only read the first thirty-five pages or so, but can already report some sense of that world.  What struck me most about the first segment of the book was its portrayal of a diverse Jewish society.  In my mind I had an image of Fiddler on the Roof where everyone was relatively indifferent to secular education and the secular world and completely immersed in Jewish life.  Margoshes immediately breaks down that image.

In fact, Jewish society in Galicia was not unlike Jewish society in Israel or the US today with a wide range of subgroups with varying degrees of religious observance— from the Hasidim to what we might now call Modern Orthodox to very assimilated or what Margoshes refers to as “German” Jews.  By that he does not mean that they were from Germany, but rather that they had abandoned traditional Hasidic garb, wore modern clothes, did not keep kosher, and spoke German more than Yiddish.  Margoshes family itself had representatives across the spectrum.  His father was descended from a long line of scholarly rabbis and considered themselves “maskils” or members of the Haskalah or Enlightenment Movement, which promoted not only Jewish education but also secular education, much as the Modern Orthodox movement does today in the US.  They were deeply observant, but not cut off from the outside world, unlike the Hasidim who lived much more insular lives and were not interested at all in secular education.  On the other hand, Margoshes’ maternal grandfather was a highly educated cloth merchant who traveled to Vienna for business and raised thirteen children, only two of whom were religious.  His sons were all “Germans,” and his daughters were well-educated and read the German classics.

Margoshes’ mother, however, was one of the two children who were religious, although she was well-educated.  Her first marriage ended when her husband began to dress and act “German-style.”  She then married Margoshes’ father, who was himself a maskil —religious, but not Hasidic.  (Interestingly, Margoshes’ father was a widower whose first wife was his niece, an indication of how liberally families allowed marriage among close relatives, as Joseph and Bessie reputedly were.)

After providing this family background, Margoshes describes events surrounding a major rift in the Galician Jewish society.  His father had originally belonged to an association of educated but religious Jews (maskilim) called the Shomer Yisrael Society.  In the late 1860s, however, his father left the Shomer Yisrael Society because it had become far too assimilationist.  For example, the Society submitted a proposal to the Imperial Ministry in Vienna that would restrict who could be a rabbi recognized by the state to those with more “German” tendencies and that would also impose reforms to the education provided in the Jewish schools, such as requiring German language classes and limiting Talmud classes to those twelve or older.  The Ministry was in favor of these proposals, as it favored modernization of the Jewish society.  Margoshes’ father and others were vehemently opposed and aligned themselves with the Hasidim to fight the proposal.  They formed an opposition group called Machzikei Hadas to organize their opposition to the Shomer Yisrael Society.

Margoshes wrote in detail about the long political battle between these two groups and how the maskilim and Hasidim worked together to fight the assimilationist Shomer Yisrael Society.  He also describes the overall status of Jewish society in the Galician world:  “In that era, the leaders of the province of Galicia were adopting a more liberal outlook.  Jews were granted full rights as citizens and they were allowed to vote as well as to be elected to the Galician Landtag and the Austrian Reichsrat.” (p. 18) The battle between the two groups became therefore also a battle for political representation of the Jewish citizens in the secular governments, not just a battle over religious practice and education.

In order for Machzikei Hadas to function as a legitimate association and publish newsletters legally, it had to obtain state permission.  The Shomer Yisrael Society engaged in political maneuvering to prevent this, but ultimately Machzikei Hadas was able to obtain approval and publish a newspaper after some political maneuvering of its own. Their ultimate coup was in 1879 when they were able to elect the Krakow Rabbi, a Hasid, to the Austrian Reichsrat, the first rabbi to be elected to such a position. As Margoshes wrote, “The election of the Krakow Rabbi to the Austrian Reichsrat made a tremendous impression on the entire Jewish world, and Galician Jews anticipated salvation.  It gave them enormous pleasure to see even a single Rabbi achieve the major honor of sitting among so many great personages.” (p. 24)

As I read these pages, it raised several questions and thoughts for me.  First, I was struck by the fact that Jews even then (and before then) fought among themselves over issues of observance versus assimilation, rather than trying to unite against the non-Jewish majority who controlled the laws and the government.  I thought of that old joke about the Jew found after being stranded on a deserted island for several years.  His rescuers noticed he had built two structures and asked him what they were.  His response:  “This one is my shul, and that is the “other” shul.”  We always need some group of other Jews with whom to disagree and debate, don’t we?

Second, I was surprised by the fact that at least at that time, Jews were not necessarily poor or poorly treated by the Austrian people or government.  Perhaps more will be revealed as I read further, or perhaps Margoshes’ family were more elite and comfortable than most others.

Finally, his description of the various segments of the Jewish society made me wonder where on the spectrum our great-grandparents lived.  Were they Hasidic, maskilim, or “German” in the way they lived their lives? Were they educated in worldly matters? Did Joseph wear payes and a streimel or did he dress in modern clothes? My guess is that they were not Hasidic, not even very observant, but only because I know that my grandmother was not religious (though she did have a kosher home), but I really don’t know.  She was born here, and perhaps Joseph and Bessie changed and assimilated once they settled in America.

To be continued, as I continue to read….


9 thoughts on “A World Apart, Part 1: Life in Galicia in the late 19th Century

      • The book is exactly what I need! I’ve read the reviews at Amazon. I will use it as a starting point for the new blog’s first posting. I also will incorporate “Junia, Gentle Soul of the Holocaust”. Although that is a children’s book it is a good introduction for people like me who know nothing about this part of their heritage. Junia and her family lived in Boryslaw, Galicia. Thanks to your comments I’ve decided that my search to understand the lives of my Great and Great-Great Grandparents from Galicia will be best in a new blog. The other one will serve for reference to what was already explored and covered about their lives. It will remain read only so I can focus on the future. Thanks again!!

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      • My pleasure! And thanks for the book tip. I’m not familiar with the book, and perhaps I can get it for my grandsons (and me!). Let me know when you start your new blog!

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      • Sure. I’m putting a far off date out there because I’ve no idea when everything will click and I’ll have the confidence to dive in. But it’s starting. Your grandsons will love the book. The illustrations are beautiful and the writing is very sensitive. The only thing is the violence is not covered up. Some of the illustrations show the Germans with their guns and the victims of the pogroms lying dead. So it is a child’s book but at the same time the child will need the emotional preparation to deal with the intensity of the subject. Junia and her Mom went into hiding. The telling is similar to Ann Frank but a little distant in the sense you receive. This is because Ann was living it and transmitting it in her writing. Whereas Junia’s story is told by her cousin. I don’t know if the cousin was in Europe during WWII or was born here. If you keep that in mind the book will be very useful to the child who can handle it.

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      • Thanks for the heads-up. I will be sure to read it myself first. They’re both very young, so it may be a book I hold onto until they are much older.

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  1. P.S. I goofed on my description. I did not mean the illustrations of the murdered people are beautiful. I meant to say that the drawings themselves are well thought out in terms of what they communicate. The ones of Junia’s family at home and in the family synagogue are beautiful. Those are the ones I’m referring to. The scenes with the soldiers are not. The subject is ugly but through the way the drawings are done you can understand so much without the need for many words.

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