Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Jews in Drohobych

Drohobych is a city located at the confluence of the Tysmenytsia River and Seret, a tributary of the former, in the Lviv Oblast, in western Ukraine. The current estimated population is nearly 78 thousand.

Jews had lived in or near Drohobycz  as early as the fifteenth century. However an officially recognized community was not established there until the end of the seventeenth century. From then on, the Jewish community grew rapidly. By 1765 it had reached nearly two thousand.

In this period, Jews were involved prominently in the extraction, distribution, and sale of salt that was mined in the Drohobycz region.

By 1869, the city’s more than 8,000 Jews made up 47 percent of city’s population, and constituted the largest single ethnic–religious group in this tri-ethnic town. The Jews were mostly lower-middle and working class, religiously Orthodox, and Yiddish-speaking.

What made Drohobycz unusual was the existence there, from the mid-nineteenth century, of an important oil industry, in which Jews played a major role.

The extraction of black gold in the region created a boom-town atmosphere. This made Drohobycz a more prosperous and cosmopolitan city than most Galician centers, at least until World War I.

Drohobych’s Jewish community was also unique in that it produced a number of outstanding Jewish artists. Maurycy Gottlieb, a founding father of “Jewish art,” was born there, as was his younger brother, the École de Paris painter Leopold Gottlieb.

So was Ephraim Moses Lilien, a friend of Theodor Herzl’s who is best remembered for creating a new Zionist iconography.

Drohobycz  was the hometown of Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer and artist. Schulz taught art in the local high school during the interwar years, and was killed by the Nazis in the Drohobycz ghetto in 1942.

After World War I, the Jewish community of Drohobycz found itself once again under the rule of Poland, whose nationalist policy and antisemitic inclinations compared unfavorably to the more liberal practices of the now defunct Habsburg Empire.

In 1910, the Jewish population had grown to 15,313 under the Habsburgs. By 1931 it had declined to 12,931.

In 1939, the region of eastern Galicia, to which Drohobycz  belonged, was occupied by the Soviet Union. Then in July 1941, the German army invaded.

A bloody pogrom followed on the heels of the German occupation. More than 300 Jews were killed. A year later, in 1942, thousands of Jews were sent to the death camp at Bełżec.

When Soviet troops arrived at the city in 1944, only 400 Jews remained alive. Today only a tiny remnant of this once thriving and vibrant community remains. The nineteenth-century choral synagogue is still standing.

This is Renata Hanynets in Lviv, Ukraine.

Until next time, Shalom!

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