The shtetl in Ukraine that made my family is still making history

The town where my grandparents were born and killed is now a major transit point for refugees fleeing westwards

February 16, 2023 11:54

A little place – you won’t have heard of it: that was invariably my father’s response whenever someone asked him where our family came from. It was his way of fending off questions about something he didn’t like to talk about. Naturally that made me all the more curious about Krakowiec (Krah-kov-yets) the place where my grandparents were born – and where they were killed. Throughout my youth I conjured up images of what it must have been like in the old days.

On the eve of the Second World War my grandfather, Bernhard, was suddenly arrested in Berlin. He was among thousands of Polish Jews resident in Germany who were deported to Poland. His home, property and business were all expropriated. Together with his wife, Czarna, and their teenage daughter Lotte, he was dispatched back to the place he had left more than two decades earlier.

I won’t call Krakowiec a “typical shtetl”; there was no such thing. Contrary to the impression left by fantasies like Fiddler on the Roof, shtetls were not necessarily happy places. Too much poverty, disease and insecurity for that.

Poles, Ukrainians and Jews lived side by side in Krakowiec and by the late 19th century Jews constituted half the population. Mainly traders, innkeepers, and craftsmen, they owned all the stores around the main square. Under the relatively relaxed rule of Austria between 1772 and 1918, they built a handsome synagogue and established cordial relations with successive landowning Polish noble families.

My ancestors in Krakowiec were bakers and egg merchants. On market days, my great-grandmother, Chane Gittel, used to buy eggs from peasants that would be sorted and exported to faraway places. Her husband, Chaim Yitzhak, meanwhile was occupied at home studying the Talmud. Like most Jews in the town they barely scraped a living. But that did not prevent many Christian townsfolk resenting what they regarded as exploitation by the Jews.

There were no pogroms in Krakowiec. But from the 1880s onwards many Jews left. Some moved to nearby cities such Lwów. Others, like my grandfather, sought opportunities further afield – in Vienna, Berlin, New York, or Johannesburg. Two of my forefathers settled in Eretz Yisrael, though like many others they went not to live but to die there.

When Bernhard, Czarna, and Lotte arrived in Krakowiec in the summer of 1939, they had little beyond the clothes on their backs. On 1 September Hitler invaded Poland and Krakowiec was occupied by the German army. On 17 September, even as the Nazis consolidated their hold on western Poland, the Red Army advanced from the east. Under secret protocols of their pre-war agreement, Hitler and Stalin extinguished Polish independence and divided the country in two. Krakowiec was incorporated into the Soviet Republic of Ukraine.

Soviet rule, though preferable to the Nazis, was a miserable business for Jews who were often treated with suspicion as members of the “exploiting class”. People joked that whereas the Nazis had condemned Jews to death, under the Soviets the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Bernhard might have moved to the east of the Soviet Union. But by the time the Nazis invaded the USSR in June 1941 it was too late. The new occupiers confined Jews to a small area of town. They were ordered to wear distinguishing signs on their sleeves, systematically robbed, and subjected to humiliating decrees. The German police chief, one Wolf, terrorised the town with his German shepherd attack dog, shooting Jews for sport.

In December 1942 all the Jews were ordered to gather in the main square. From there they were removed to a ghetto in Jaworów. Some went by horse and cart, others had to walk the 13 miles. Those who could not make it were shot on the way.

Conditions in the ghetto were appalling. Thousands were crammed into small spaces. Food was barely obtainable. Many died of starvation, spotted fever, or typhus. On 16 April 1943 those who still clung to life were taken to a nearby forest and massacred.

Berl, Czarna, and Lotte were not among them. They had managed to elude the transportation to Jaworów. For more than a year they were sheltered by a local Ukrainian in a hut near the edge of town. But in April 1944, three months before Krakowiec was liberated by Soviet forces, they were betrayed to the Nazis and shot dead. Their betrayer was the same man who had earlier protected them. His motives in each case are unknown.
Bernhard’s son, Addi (my father), was the only family member to survive. In August 1939, aged 17, he had managed to get away from Berlin to Rome. Italy at that time was neutral and Mussolini’s antisemitic laws were only lightly enforced. But in May 1940 Hitler attacked the Low Countries and France. Paris soon capitulated and Italian entry into the war seemed imminent.

Addi realized he had to get out of Italy fast. There were hardly any places willing to accept Jewish refugees but he hoped to get to neutral Turkey and from there to Palestine. He held a Polish passport but the Polish consulate in Rome refused to provide the endorsement necessary for him to travel. He was increasingly desperate until an almost miraculous occurrence supervened.

An acquaintance of Addi, a painter, was engaged in restoration work at the headquarters of the Jesuit Order and offered to introduce him to the “Superior General” of the order, a Pole. Perhaps he could help? Addi was ushered into the presence of the prelate to whom he spoke in German. The Jesuit inquired how it came about, if he was a Polish citizen, that he could not speak a word of Polish. Addi explained he had been born in Germany and lived there all his life but that his family came from Poland.

“Where in Poland?”

“A small town near Lwów.”

“What is the name of the place?”

“It’s a little place; you won’t have heard of it.”

“The name of the place!”, the Jesuit insisted.


The cleric motioned to his secretary, a young priest who immediately escorted Addi to the consulate. Instead of being thrown out as before, he was received, “as if I were a prince of the church.” His documents were stamped and a few days later he sailed for Istanbul, and from there to Palestine.

There was a reason, beyond Christian charity, why the Jesuit acted as he did. His name, it turned out, was Włodzimierz Ledóchowski and he was a member of the family who were landowners at Krakowiec. The name of the town conjured up for him distant memories of an earlier, sunnier time.

“Krakowiec” thus determined the fates of both my father and the rest of his family — in his case for the better, in theirs for the worse.

The town is still there but it has completely changed. The Jews were killed. The Poles were expelled after the war. The remaining population is now almost entirely Ukrainian. For long Krakovets (the Ukrainian name) slumbered as little more than a hamlet, hugging Ukraine’s Poland border.

But this past year it has sprung into the news as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, becoming a major transit point for streams of Ukrainians fleeing to the west. Once more this “little place you won’t have heard of” finds itself drawn into the vortex of history.

Bernard Wasserstein’s ‘A Small Town in Ukraine’ will be published by Penguin Books on February 23. He will be speaking about it at Jewish Book Week on February 28

February 16, 2023 11:54

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