The First World War was a tragic time for most of the one million Jews of Galitzia, as it was for much of Eastern European Jewry. Fonder recollections of life for Galitzian Jewry under the Austrian monarch, Franz Josef, soon faded under the brutality of the Russian army which invaded Galitzia, and soon faced the German Kaiser’s forces which came to the aid of their Austro-Hungarian ally. Destructive pogroms were perpetrated by Russian allied Cossacks and some Russian troops. Mass expulsions of Jews from their homes by Russian forces resulted in migrations, the horrors of starvation, homelessness, epidemics, and a breakdown of Jewish communal life.
Jewish author and dramatist, Shlomo Zanvel Rappaport, also known as Shalom Anski, accompanied Russian forces into Galitzia on behalf of Jewish relief agencies with the purpose of distributing aid to Jews ravaged by the war. During those years, Anski penned an account of his travels and the horrors he witnessed throughout Galitzia. He described the travails of Galitzian Jewry as “one of the darkest periods in Jewish history.” These accounts are contained in his multi-volume, Churban Galitzia (The Destruction of Galitzia).
Anski related the following incident reported from a Jewish resident of the town of Gora:
When Russian troops arrived, the town locals began leveling bogus charges against the Jews of spying for the Germans, with the intention of instigating a pogrom. This was a common practice during the war. Among the agitators were two Polish engineers who supervised the digging of trenches around the town.
The local Jewish resident reported that he approached the community rabbi, and sought his advice on how to avert the imminent disaster. He also informed the rabbi that he was an old friend of one of the local Russian commandants, named Yefremov. In the spirit of the events of Purim, the rabbi advised him to “Throw a large banquet for a king. Invite the commandant and all his officers, as well as the two engineers. And during the feast, kneel before the commander as Esther did before the king, and describe all the injustices and persecutions, point to the two engineers, tell him they are brutalizing the Jews—and Hashem will help you.”
The man followed the rabbi’s advice, and arranged the feast. Although the two Polish engineers declined the invitation, the other invitees arrived. They merrily dined and drank. When the guests were in high spirits, the local Jew addressed the commandant pouring out his heart. He related how the local Poles and the two engineers were plotting against the Jews by spreading lies. The guests all listened attentively. Yefremov and the others were visibly moved by the pleas. While deliberating on what could be done to protect the Jews of Gora, Yefremov’s aid offered a plan. He exclaimed, “During the (upcoming) Jewish High Holidays, the town will be off limits to our soldiers. And we will issue very strict orders that the Jews are not to be disturbed!” The commandant agreed. He kept his promise and the holidays passed without incident.
On that day, the Jews of Gora were relieved of a dire threat. It was a brief respite during the ghastly mayhem of a chaotic era. Yefremov would eventually leave Gora and troubles would return, but the town was to be spared during those crucial moments.
Such was the will of Israel’s Rock and Savior who protected the Jews in ancient Persia and has assured their miraculous survival throughout history.
By Larry Domnitch