All quiet in the Eastern front

“The Jews carrying the holy Torah in front of Archduke Friedrich in P… / 1915-1916”

It is not that easy to read the place name, you see? This is why I got this postcard from Andrea Deák, and she from a collector friend, to try to ascertain where the unusual event took place.

Archduke Friedrich, the third and last Duke of the Teschen branch of the Habsburgs was appointed on 11 July 1914 the supreme commander of the Monarchy’s forces by Franz Joseph, in place of himself. Friedrich, while leaving the actual operational decisions to the Chief of Staff, General Hötzendorf, considered his own main task to encourage the soldiers by his personal presence, thus he almost all the time visited the front lines. In the above period of 1915-16 mainly the Eastern front, where the German and Austrian army was just rolling back the Russian forces from the territory of Galicia. It is thus somewhere here that we have to look for the above place, which cannot be but Podhajce – in the spelling of the postcard, Podhajcze –, west of Tarnopol, now Підгайці in the Ukraine.

“Archduke Friedrich in the war-torn areas. The commander in chief of the Austro-Hungarian Army (×) has recently visited those localities in the Carpathians, which had suffered the most from the war. On his way, the poor population everywhere received the commander in chief with love and confidence. In our picture Archduke Friedrich is receiving a Ruthenian delegation and talking to its leader, the village teacher. Behind the Archduke, Lieutenant-General Benigni.” Tolnai Világlapja, 1915. november 11.

Cadastral map of Podhajce, 1846, detail. The full, zoomable map see here

This is supported by the fact that Podhajce was a really important Jewish settlement. Its history is summarized in the Memorial Book of Podhajce, published in 1972. Its rabbi is first mentioned in 1602, thus the community was established probably in the late 16th century, the period of the great Ashkenazi immigration into Galicia and Podolia. As this region of Southern Podolia, with Kamenets-Podolsk as its center, was part of the Ottoman Empire between 1667 and 1699, its Jewish population was strongly influenced through the Sephardic Jews settling here at that time by the pseudo-Messiah of Smyrna, Sabbatai Zevi, whose movement lived its heyday just then, between 1665 and 1676. Podhajce became the Galician center of Sabbateanism, so much, that its traces survived until the Holocaust. Then, in the late 1700s it also became an important center of the movement of Jakob Frank, a reviver of Sabbateanism. In the early 18th century two great Baal Shem’s, that is, Kabbalist physicians and miracle workers, Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Falk and Rabbi Moshe David worked in the town, but because of the suspicion of Sabbatean sympathies both had to flee to London, where they continued their profession for several decades. At the same time in this region lived the greatest Baal Shem, the founder of Hasidism and a sworn enemy of the Frankists, thus both Hasidism, and the opposing trend, the Misnagdim found fervent supporters in the city: it seems that the Jews of Podhajce did everything fervently. No wonder that many great rabbis and Talmud scholars were born and worked here. Before the Second World War more than 40% of the town, about 3000 residents were Jews. Their impressive fortress synagogue, built in 1640, and their beautiful cemetery founded in the 17th century has survived until now; the Hasidic community of Podhajce lives on in New York and Jerusalem.

When was this photo taken? The period of 1915-16, indicated in the inscription, can be probably narrowed down by half. The German-Austrian counter-attack pushed back the Russian front to the Riga-Pinsk-Tarnopol line by September 1915, but the Brusilov offensive, launched in June 1916, pushed it back within a a couple of months over the town again. It is most likely that the Archduke visited the recently recaptured areas in the autumn of 1915, and it was then that the superiors of the Jewish community of Podhajce went out before him. If you know a more accurate date on the basis of The Great War in writing and picture, or any other source, tell it to us!

Update: Tamás Deák calculated that, according to Steffner Tábori Újság, on 4 November, Archduke Friedrich was still in the Italian front (and in October in Belgrade), while on 13 November he already traveled further to the occupied Russian territories. In the 11 November edition of Tolnai Világlapja – see the illustration above – he “recently” visited the recaptured territories. If we exclude the possibility of a Saturday, then the most likely date of the event is 9 November 1915.

Postcards sent/drawn by Hungarian soldiers from Podhajce, between April-July 1916 (From auction sites)

A found postcard about Podhajce with the synagogue. Drawing of the great Hungarian avant-garde painter of Jewish origin, Bertalan Pór, who worked as a front drawer in the First World War

And why did they went out with the Torah roll in front of the army’s commander in chief? What was the symbolic significance of this? Was it a common practice in the period? What is certain is that Erwin A. Schmiedl’s Juden in der K. (u.) K. Armee, 1788-1918 (Kismarton: Österreisches Jüdisches Museum, 1989) publishes two additional similar photos from the Galician front. We are waiting for the savvy additions of our readers.

“The Jewish population welcomed the I&R troops and dignitaries with special respect. This photograph from the War Archives, Vienna, shows the reception of the highest military chaplain in the I&R forces, the (Roman-Catholic) Feldvikar Emmerich Bjelik, by a Jewish community somewhere on the Eastern Front, in the operational area of the Corps Hofmann (later XXVth Corps).”

“The relationship between the Austro-Hungarian soldiers and the Jewish population in the East was generally good; the Habsburgs were often regarded as “protectors” of the Jews. Above: Emperor Charles visiting a Jewish community in the East, ca. 1917.”

Update: The Yiddish Florilège published a new photo on the visit of Charles on the Eastern front. On this, the Jews of Kolomea greet him with the Torah. Tamás Deák has pointed out on the basis of Streffleur Katonai Lapja, that the visit took place on 4 August 1917. This may also date the above picture.

Update: Tamás Deák has sent some more contemporary photos from the Tolnai Világlapja about the encounter of the armies of the central powers with the Jews of Galicia. Even if we discount the obligatorily propagandistic tone of the captions, the Russian occupation was really a great blow to the local Jewish population also according to contemporary Jewish sources, and as we know from the writings of Joseph Roth, the Galician Jews, threatened by the awakening nationalisms, really saw the guarantee of their equality in the multinational Austrian Empire.

“Towards the abandoned home. A Polish Jewish family returning to Neu-Sandec. Poor Polish Jews, they suffer the most from the war. At the news of the Russians’ approaching, they ran to escape, since they know that the Cossacks give mercy the least to them. But as soon as they hear that our troops drove back the Russians, they hastily load their poor belongings on the cart, the whole family sits on top of it, and they hopefully and happily rush back to the abandoned nest. Their fate is certainly not enviable.” Tolnai Világlapja, 21 January 1915

“German officers at the head of their troops marching into a conquered city in Russian Poland. In our picture the German soldiers march along the Jewish street. The Russian Jews stand in front of their miserable houses and happily welcome the victorious troops. The Jews are particularly glad when the Russians, of whom they had to suffer a lot, leave their towns. It is a veritable salvation for them when the Germans occupy the city.” Tolnai Világlapja, 3 June 1915

“Among ruins in Russian Poland. After our soldiers marched triumphantly in the [Volhynian] town, thoroughly destroyed by the retreating Russians, our officers used their rest time to visit the destroyed city. The Polish Jews surrounded with love the officers, and they guided them about the ruined town.” Tolnai Világlapja, 9 December 1915

2 comentarios:

Paul dijo...

A very minor point about the following caption - "Drawing of the great Hungarian avant-garde painter of Jewish origin, Bertalan Pór, who worked as a front drawer in the First World War".

"Front drawer" is more correctly expressed in English as "war artist".

Anónimo dijo...

Where in NY and Jerusalem is there still a Podhaycer community? My family was from there, and i would like to visit the Synagogue