A World Apart, part 5: Relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Galicia

My reading this time related largely to the relationships between the Jews and non-Jews in Galicia, socially, politically and otherwise.  Margoshes began this section by claiming that at least in the region where he lived near Radomishla, the Jews were economically and politically often more powerful than most of the non-Jewish population.   I would never have expected that at all; I assumed that the Jews were oppressed politically and economically.  Instead, Margoshes asserted that in area from Rzeslow to Tarnow to Krakow, the peasants lived under the dominance of the Jewish estate holders.  He wrote, “During the period between the 1880s and [World War I], this part of Galicia was a true paradise for Jews in some respects.” (p. 99; emphasis added)

According to Margoshes, in this region, anti-Jewish persecution and acts were unknown, and Jews and gentiles lived peacefully together.  If a peasant struck or even just insulted a Jew, the courts would punish the peasant by placing him in jail for at least two days.  Peasants would tip their hats to Jewish estate-holders when they were driving (oxen or horses, I assume) on the road and when they entered their homes.  (There is no mention of how the peasants treated and were treated by poor Jews, just the wealthier Jews, who in many instances were the employers of these peasants.)

Margoshes explains the political context for this by pointing out that in 1846 there had been a widespread revolt of the peasants against the wealthy Polish lords and landholders and that even forty years later, the politically powerful Polish aristocracy which controlled the government had not forgiven the peasants for the violence, deaths and damages caused by that uprising.  Thus, in a dispute between a peasant and a Jew, the government would generally side with the Jew.

Margoshes also attributed much of the peacefulness of the region to the Austro-Hungarian gendarmes who were responsible for keeping law and order in the Empire as part of the imperial army.  These soldiers lived in the area in barracks and frequently visited the estates to insure that all animals were registered and that everything was being managed according to the requirements of the Empire.

That did not mean that there were no disputes or problems between the peasants and their Jewish employers.  Margoshes described a number of incidents of theft by the peasants who worked at his father-in-law’s estate.  He wrote, “A Jewish estate-holder and his household had to have eyes in the back of their heads in order to make sure that the workers were not stealing from him….” (p. 127).  He also made the offensive generalization that it was part of the “inborn nature” of the peasants to steal: “he had to steal whenever the opportunity presented itself, especially from the Jewish estate-holder.  For a peasant, the smallest stolen article was an asset.”

In one story about the workers at his father-in-law’s estate in Zgursk, moreoever, Margoshes also revealed that the relationships between the Polish peasants who worked on the estate and their Jewish employers were not always quite so amicable.  There were at times hundreds of workers on the estate, and many of them boarded there.  Margoshes himself admits that their living conditions were substandard: “everyone found a place to sleep in one of the three stables atop hay and straw and that was it.  No pillows or sleepwear were provided and…a blanket used to cover horses served as a cover.” (p. 96) The estate did provide three meals a day that Margoshes described as generous.   Margoshes’ mother-in-law and father-in-law were the task masters who oversaw all the work on the estate, and his father-in-law was known to be rather cold and strict.

Margoshes described one time that his father-in-law lost his temper with some of the workers who in his view were not working hard enough and began beating them with a paddle.  In response, these workers and a number of others went on strike and refused to return to the fields. It took an intervention from the mother of the father-in-law to persuade the workers to return to work the next day.  Margoshes described this as if it were a one-time incident, and perhaps it was, but it does reveal that there was some abuse of the peasants by at least this powerful Jew, his own father-in-law.

Thus, although Margoshes initially described the relationship between the gentile peasants and the Jews as peaceful and amicable, these incidents of theft and abusiveness suggest that there was in fact a great deal of resentment and anger among the peasants towards the Jews. Perhaps he was deluding himself when he wrote that it was a “true paradise” for Jews in this region during that time.

According to Margoshes, the wealthy Jews also had good relationships with the wealthy Polish lords and landowners, called pritsim or porits in the singular.  He described his relationship with a neighboring porits  as “very friendly, although from a distance.” (p. 103) They would help each other out with favors, but were not social friends.  Margoshes did not think that this relationship was unusual.  He said that he “never heard of a case in the entire region of a porits who had negative relations with a Jew or where he insulted a Jew or harmed him in any way,” (p. 104) although he did then go on to mention one polits who refused to trade with Jews.

There was also, according to Margoshes, peaceful co-existence between the Catholic priests and the Jewish population.  Although he commented that “[p]riests, especially Catholic priests, cannot ever really be friends of the Jews” because “it is almost against [their]religion to love people of another faith,” (p.111), he reported that nevertheless for the most part there was little conflict between the priests and the Jewish estate holders.  He described a church law that prohibited Catholics from working as servants in Jewish homes, but pointed out that it was rarely enforced since the peasants needed employment and often worked in Jewish homes. Margoshes even developed a friendship with one of the local priests, but he severed that relationship when the priest tried to persuade Margoshes to come and see his church—not to convert, but just to go inside the church.  Obviously, this “friendship” was a superficial one based on necessity, and feelings of distrust and difference outweighed any sense of real connection.  Margoshes made it clear that it would not have been acceptable for him, as a Jew, to be seen in a Catholic church.

By the time I finished reading this section, I realized that Margoshes had had a very unrealistic view of the relationships between the Jews and non-Jews in Galicia during the late 19th century.  First, his viewpoint is entirely based on the experiences of the wealthy Jewish estate-holders.  The non-Jewish peasants may have seemed respectful and accepting of their Jewish employers, but beneath the surface there was likely a great deal of resentment and anger.  The priests and non-Jewish estate-holders also may have been willing to live peacefully side-by-side with the wealthy Jews, but there certainly was not a true acceptance or friendship in these relationships.  The gendarmes may have been keeping the peace, but beneath the surface the Jews were still the outsiders who were not integrated into the gentile world.

Moreover, Margoshes does not at all provide a picture of what life was like for the Jews who were not wealthy estate-holders.  Were their relationships with the peasants, priests, and wealthy Polish landowners as “peaceful”?  Or were they the targets of all the repressed resentment and anger that the gentiles felt towards the wealthy Jews?

It occurred to me after reading these chapters that Margoshes was writing in 1936.  He had no idea what was going to happen in Poland during the Holocaust. I wonder whether his naiveté about how the gentiles felt about the Jews was widespread in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s.  If only they had been more realistic, perhaps more of them would have left sooner.

Which brings me to another question: if things were so great in the 1880s and 1890s for wealthy Jews in Poland, why did Margoshes and so many others, including Joseph and Bessie, leave?

7 thoughts on “A World Apart, part 5: Relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Galicia

  1. Pingback: Galicia Mon Amour: A Conversation « brotmanblog

  2. I’m almost finished reading this book, Amy. I’m glad I took you up on the recommendation. What is also interesting is that the relationships between members of the Jewish community also had elements of friction and deception, along with litigation. I’m thinking of the chapters about the Shtsutsin Meadows. Margoshes may have waxed nostalgic for earlier times but I’m finding many helpful directions from the details he provides about the towns and businesses. Much can be gained from reading this memoir more than once. For someone without any knowledge of Galicia or the situation at the time it can serve as an introduction to the events going on like the Reform Movement. It also offers non-Jews a chance to understand the differences in the sects and the customs.

    What I enjoyed most during this first read was watching Mr. Margoshes come into his voice as he describes the life with his wife’s family. We learn that many women didn’t just keep house and have children. They managed the estates or forests while their husbands had other areas of business or study. Since this is a memoir I allow more latitude since the author is working from memory and memory is never perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Emily—sorry I somehow missed this comment yesterday. I am so glad you enjoyed the book. I read it quite a while ago, so many of the details are lost in my brain somewhere. I think you are right—it merits re-reading. As for divisions among the Jews, isn’t that always a thing?? 🙂


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