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Jewish Families from Tovste, Ukraine

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Profiles

This project seeks to collect all of the Jewish families from the town of Tovste, Ukraine, also known as Tolstoye, Tłuste, Toist, Tlusta, Tłuste Miasto, Tłuste Myasto, Toyst, Tolstoya.

Gesher Galicia - Tovste

Urban Type Settlement

Jewish History

Overview

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Tovste (Ukrainian: Товсте) is an urban-type settlement in the Zalischyky Raion (district) of Ternopil Oblast (province) in western Ukraine. Its population is 3,460 as of the 2001 Ukrainian Census. The town is located on the Ternopil—Chernivtsi automobile road in the historic region of Podolia, on the banks of the Tupa River, a tributary of the Seret.

Historians date the remains of human settlement in the area back to the 9th century, revealing evidence of the Chernyakhov culture and ancient Kievan Rus' civilizations, as well as the Roman Empire. Historic documents first mentioned the settlement in 1414 as the village of Tolste (Ukrainian: Толсте). In the 15th century, the settlement came under control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and was renamed to the Polish variant Tłuste (Ukrainian: Тлусте). In 1548, Tłuste was granted Magdeburg rights, which it kept until 1944 when its status was downgraded to that of an urban-type settlement.

The settlement was renamed two years later from its Polish name to its current Ukrainian equivalent Tovste. On December 4, 1996, Tovste was admitted into the League of Historic Cities of Ukraine.

In the town there are numerous architectural monuments: the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Anne, built in late 19th-early 20th century, whose reconstruction is being funded by former Polish residents of Tovste; the Greek Catholic Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, built from 1913-1939; as well as a modern Ukrainian Orthodox Church, built from 1991-1995. The town also housed a Jewish synagogue, which was destroyed during World War II, the remains of which are no longer to be found.

Tłuste is included in the Suchostaw Region Research Group (SRRG). Shtetlach were interwoven together like a tapestry and the Jewish people of neighboring shtetlach linked by marriages, trade and marketing. They shared schools, cemeteries, kosher butchers, bakers and more. Smaller shtetlach registered their birth, marriages and death in a nearby larger shtetl. To search for family links and learn more about neighboring shtetlach, please visit the Suchostaw Region Research Group (SRRG).

From a Jewish Perspective

The Jewish perspective is one of three principal ethnic groups that co-existed in the town. ‘Tluste - Life and Times’ attempts to give an overall impression of what the town was like between 1880 and 1930.

  • Although the groups lived side-by-side for many centuries, persistent tensions among these communities ensured that they maintained distinct identities and separate affiliations throughout their long co-existence. While no claim is made that the information presented here is comprehensive, it should nonetheless give a fairly good sense of the social interactions, over time, among these three communities.

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The Polish Era

From the 14th to 18th centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth expanded to cover a huge territory in northern Europe. During this period, Tluste was part of the fertile province of Podilia (also written as Podole in Polish, Podillia in Ukrainian). Ruthenian (Ukrainian) peasantry made up the vast majority of the populous.

Jews settled in newly created towns and were heavily involved in the administration of large tracts of land granted to noblemen. These formed the basis for the latifundia, vast estates characterised by primitive agriculture and indentured labour and can be documented at least as far back as the early part of the eighteenth century, and probably much earlier.

Though few, if any, Jews live in Tovste today, this belies the fact that from at least the middle of the nineteenth century until well into the first few decades of the twentieth century, Tluste was predominantly a Jewish town. https://s3.amazonaws.com/photos.geni.com/p13/4f/76/91/4d/5344483f43cee06c/tovste_2_original.jpg Sporadic anti-Jewish violence however fostered an undercurrent of insecurity. This was manifested most dramatically in the peasant uprising of 1648, led by the Cossack Bohdan Khmelnytsky, which had profound effects for Podolia and its Jewish population by a widespread campaign of violence against anyone identified with the “establishment”, particularly Jews who lived in urban areas. Some estimates put the number of Jewish victims in the whole of Ukrainian territory at up to fifty percent of the total population of 40,000.

Magnate latifundia owners solicited Jews and other townspeople to re-establish life in towns; and a modified Jewish-dominated leasing system was revived.

As it happens, the birth of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer at the turn of the century coincided with a period of recolonisation and revitalisation of Podolia, whereas the Commonwealth as a whole continued its economic decline.

Jews took advantage of the opportunities afforded by this newfound growth and prosperity; by 1764, their population in Podolia numbered some 40,000 – six percent of the total Jewish population of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer chose to settle in Tluste, around 1734, and to reveal himself there as the Ba'al Shem Tov. His connection to Tluste is confirmed by various sources: two of the rare surviving letters signed by the Besht indicate that Tluste was his home or place of origin; there are two references to Tluste in the tales of his life and deeds, depicted in Shivei Ha-Besht: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov ; and his mother is buried in Tluste’s Jewish cemetery, where her tombstone could be found until the time of World War II." https://s3.amazonaws.com/photos.geni.com/p13/3d/7d/42/a6/5344483f43cb0955/tovste_old_original.jpg One may speculate that there must already have been a modest Jewish population in Tluste for the young rabbi to have chosen to settle there. Indeed, a census conducted in 1764, three decades after the Besht’s revelation, indicated that there were then 355 Jewish residents of Tluste and surrounding villages.

Under Austrian Rule

In 1772, the vast territory that had been the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was subjected to the first of three partitions that would take place before the end of the century. The Austrian Empire absorbed Polish territory that would become the new province of “Galicia and Lodomeria”, more commonly known as “Galicia”, so-named after the historic Ukrainian appellation for the region, and its ancient capital of Galicz (Halicz). Tluste was thus included in this expanded Austrian Empire, and would remain so until 1918.

The reign of Empress Maria Theresa and her successors through to Emperor Ferdinand, who abdicated in 1848, was fraught with difficulties and ineffectual reforms – partly a consequence of having to deal with many divergent ethnic interests. Jews were said to have fared better under the 68-year reign – from 1848 to 1916 – of Franz Josef, who reformed the restrictive and harsh policies of his predecessors and sought Jewish allies in his efforts to retain control of Galicia.

Hasidism was preponderant in the town in the nineteenth century. The wealthy members of the community (estate owners, contractors and merchants of forest products and hides) were followers of the zaddik of Chortkov (a town 20 km to the north), whereas shopkeepers, grain merchants, brokers and scholars adhered to Viznitsa Hasidism, and the artisans were followers of the zaddik of Kopychintsy.

  • Between 1880 and 1930, the population of Tluste grew steadily from 3,285 individuals to a peak of about 4,000; while that of the town and the suburbs together grew from 6,000 to just over 8,000.
  • During this period, Tluste was predominantly a Jewish town. Jews consistently made up approximately two-thirds of the population, while Ukrainians constituted about 20-30% and Poles only 11-12%.
  • Contrasting the composition of Tluste proper, the smaller surrounding villages were made up primarily of Ukrainians (roughly three-quarters) and Poles (20-25%). Jews constituted less than five percentage of their population and virtually all of them were tradesmen, shopkeepers and their families.

The prominence that the Jewish community had attained in Tluste by the mid-nineteenth century is revealed in the earliest known map of the town, a precise Austrian document dating from 1858. The central market area of town – surrounding the Catholic church – was comprised mainly of Jewish-owned shops and businesses, selling food, fabric and other household goods.

The 1891 Galician Business Directory lists the occupations of about 70 individuals engaged in commercial activities in Tluste towards the end of the nineteenth century Most of the family names in the list appear to be of Jewish, Polish or German origin; the list contains few if any Ukrainian-sounding names. Members of the Jewish community were involved in all facets of the town’s livelihood. https://s3.amazonaws.com/photos.geni.com/p13/60/91/b0/b5/5344483f43cd9c6f/tovste_tombstone_original.jpg Despite their relative prosperity Tluste’s Jews took part in the wave of emigration from Ukraine to America that occurred around the turn of the century. In New York, in 1898-99, Jewish immigrants from Tluste established and incorporated a fraternal mutual aid society, known as a Landsmannshaft.

WW1

From the onset of war, Russian soldiers occupied Tluste in the second half of 1914.

  • Jews suffered at the hands of the Russians during the wartime occupation, many fearing cruelty and fleeing to Vienna. The occupiers forced Jews to work to maintain order and to keep the town clean but soon, through bribing, the Jews began to co-operate with them.
  • Tluste and surrounding areas changed hands a number of times during the war. Some time in the winter of 1914-15, the Austrians managed to drive out the Russian army.
  • The Austrian army used bacteriological weapons, which killed first the soldiers and then people in villages and towns along the river. Many soldiers sick with cholera were brought to Tluste hospital, which was located close to the railway station. Those sick soldiers usually died within several hours. They were buried in a separate “cholera cemetery”, which was established near the Jewish quarter.
  • Having been driven out of the area in the autumn of 1915, the Russians returned in June 1916 and remained in the Tluste through July 1917. The war ended in 1918 with the downfall of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
  • In Tluste, the Jewish population maintained itself, reaching a peak of 2,600 by 1930, the last year for which complete census data are available.

Tluste and the Holocaust

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When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the Jewish population of Tluste had already declined to less than 1200, fewer than half the number of residents recorded at its peak in 1930. (In his 1996 survey of the Jewish cemetery of Tovste, Hodorkovskiy Yuriy Isaakovich quotes a figure of 1,196 Jewish residents of the town in 1939; whereas Encyclopedia Judaica (1972) attributes this same figure, apparently incorrectly, to 1921.)

  • With the fall of Poland in September 1939, Soviet forces occupied Tluste and neighbouring towns.
  • They remained there until June 1941, when Nazi Germany commenced hostilities against the Soviet Union.
  • Tluste was captured by the Hungarian army, which was an ally of Germany.
  • Groups of Jewish youth attempted to escape to the USSR with the retreating Soviet army, but only a few succeeded.
  • Over the next three years, until Tluste was once again “liberated” by Soviet forces, unspeakable horrors were perpetrated on the Jewish community.

Sefter Tluste

In 1961, more than 50 former residents of Tluste participated in the publication of a memorial volume to commemorate their experiences. Published by the Tluste Organization in Israel and the "Landsmannschaft" in the United States, “Sefer Tluste” contains a unique collection of reminiscences of Jewish life and death in Tluste. The complete volume can be accessed online through the New York Public Library website. https://s3.amazonaws.com/photos.geni.com/p13/ae/d3/a1/91/5344483f43ce014d/tovste_-_sefer_original.jpg

“Tluste was the last city in Eastern Galicia to undergo the process of total extermination, so it contained those Jews who had survived earlier "Aktions" in the neighbouring towns. Out of the three thousand Jewish residents of Tluste and the thousands of refugees from the neighbouring towns, less than five hundred survived at the end of the Second World War."

Immediately following their arrival the Germans commenced their cruel and merciless oppression of the Jewish inhabitants. Decrees restricting Jewish freedom of movement and preventing the Jews from continuing their normal lives were enacted almost daily. They were followed by the murder of isolated Jews, and finally came the massacre of thousands of Jewish residents of Tluste and the vicinity.”

The following description of what happened in Tluste between 1941 and 1943 is derived largely from the account of a Jewish doctor, Baruch Milch, who survived the systematic extermination of Jews from the town. His compelling story is told through an edited diary that came to be published as a book, Can Heaven be Void? It was released in three different language versions (Hebrew, Polish and English) between 1999 and 2003. Where instructive, information to supplement that of Dr. Milch is provided from other sources.

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The Beginning of the End

In June 1941, in the face of the German advance, the Soviets pulled out of Tluste amidst incessant air raids. Pandemonium and uncertainty reigned, as a Ukrainian mayor was installed and a “settling of accounts” began. In Tluste and in other villages and towns, rioting mobs of vengeful Ukrainians looted houses and murdered Jews.

  • After some time, soldiers of the Hungarian army, allied with the Germans, arrived in town and continued the plunder.
  • Towards the end of June and beginning of July 1941, a German air and ground offensive hastened the Soviet retreat from Zalishchyky, 25 km south of Tluste.
  • The Germans eventually made their way to Tluste, passing through the town from two directions (Czortkow and Borszczow), en route to the north and east.
  • A small German force, including SS men, was installed in Tluste to engage the retreating Soviets. It is thought that the explosion, around that time, of a train full of arms at Tluste station was an act of sabotage by the retreating Soviet forces .
  • In July-August 1941, a German officer became military governor of Tluste; and the organised and systematic persecution of Jews by the Nazis began in concert with a local Ukrainian committee appointed by the occupying force.
  • Galicia would be an integral part of the German-occupied sector of Poland, the Generalgouvernement.

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A nightly curfew was imposed in Tluste and freedom of movement of Jews was curtailed. Around August 1941, the Germans set up a Judenrat (Jewish council) under chairmanship of a Dr. Aberman, together with a Jewish police force, in order to impose order, persecute the Jewish community and facilitate mass deportations. https://s3.amazonaws.com/photos.geni.com/p13/e5/19/39/46/5344483f43cff4df/tovste_judenrat_building_original.jpg The Judenrat was guarded at night by Jewish policemen bearing the Star of David on their uniform. Anti-Jewish edits were issued (imposing forced labour, wearing of the Star of David, restricting movement etc.) and periodic joint Gestapo-Ukrainian police raids begin, characterised by searches of houses, beatings, arrests, murders, and confiscation of property. Beginning around March 1942, a ghetto was established in Tluste to which the remnants of Jewish communities from neighbouring towns and villages were brought, prior to systematic deportations.

People were crowded into small houses assigned by the Judenrat, sometimes with as many as four or five families living in a single room.The sanitary conditions were appalling, and food was scarce. Stars were placed on the doors of houses where the Jews lived; this way the entire Jewish population was controlled. At some point during this period, the mostly Jewish-owned shops in the centre of Tluste were torn down and the wood used for scrap.

  • The first major, overt Aktion in Tluste took place in August 1942, apparently intended to make up the shortfall in a neighbouring town’s “quota” of Jews to be deported.
  • Smaller Aktionen followed repeatedly in the coming months, in which armed Gestapo men would surround the Jewish quarter and, helped by the Judenrat, rouse people from their homes.
  • People attempted to prepare hiding places in which to conceal themselves during the successive Gestapo raids. See, for example, 'The Spitzer Story'.
  • According to Baruch Milch, who had been forewarned about the impending raid, 1000 Jews were deported from Tluste and 120-200 or more were killed in town. It was said that the horrific scene of death and looting resembled the aftermath of a pogrom.

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The End

Amidst rumours of bloody Aktionen in nearby towns, the third major Aktion in Tluste began in the early hours of the morning of 27 May 1943. This horrific event would effectively bring to an end the centuries-long presence of Jews in Tluste.

The Germans, supported by Ukrainian and Jewish police, deployed around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. For the next 20 hours, a contingent of about 300 men went from house to house, rounding up Jews and slaughtering those who resisted. Ironically, some who hid in improvised hideouts survived, whereas those in more elaborate bunkers were discovered. Able-bodied men were taken to the Jewish cemetery to dig pits that would ultimately serve as mass graves for the victims.

In a 2004 interview, an elderly resident of Tovste, who would have been in her mid-teens at the time, described the massacre (as others who had witnessed it first-hand had recounted) to her. She said that the Jews were ordered to stand on planks of wood above the pits, into which they fell after being shot. Not all of them died instantaneously. It was said that the earth in which they were buried was seen to move, as though some poor souls had been buried alive.

The woman recalled the villagers being perplexed "as to why the Jews did not attempt to escape from the ghetto, as would have been possible, at least for some. She claimed that, in response, one old man said that they were resigned to their fate, being of God’s will, and that “our blood will be on you and on your children”.

When the shooting finally ended around 9:00 in the evening, it is estimated that from 2,000 to 3,000 Jews had been murdered. A Gestapo officer was reported to have directed the whole operation, and personally took part in the shootings at the cemetery. https://s3.amazonaws.com/photos.geni.com/p13/46/29/38/53/5344483f43cd5d8f/tovste_holocaust_memorial_original.jpg For Tluste, the last act of the ‘Final Solution’ played out around 6 June 1943. That morning, Gestapo men and Ukrainian surrounded the ghetto, and proceeded to shoot or bludgeon to death many of the Jews who had survived the Aktion ten days earlier.

The following day, the order came to purge Tluste of Jews and declare the town Judenrein within two days. It is reported that 1,000 Jews were killed or deported from Tluste at that time.

Jewish life was never reconstituted in Tluste after the war. A memorial to these tragic events can be found in what remains of the town’s Jewish cemetery. The Hebrew inscription, translated into English reads:

“In memory of the martyrs of Tluste and surroundings who were annihilated by the Nazis in the years 1942-1943 and to remember all the martyrs who are buried in this cemetery. Erected by the survivors from Tluste.”

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Notes

  1. Rosman, M.J. Founder of Hasidism: a quest for the historical Ba’al Shem Tov. Berkeley, 1996. p. 44
  2. Stampfer, S. “What actually happened to the Jews of Ukraine in 1648?” in Jewish History. 17: 207-227 (2003). p. 207.
  3. Ben-Amos, D. and J.R. Mintz (eds). In praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei ha-Besht). Northvale, N.J., 1993.
  4. Stampfer, S. “The 1764 Census of Polish Jewry” in Bar-Ilan / Annual of Bar Ilan University Vol. 24-25. p. 135.
  5. Encyclopedia Judaica. Jerusalem, 1972. Last accessed via the Museum of Tolerance Multimedia Learning Center, http://motlc.learningcenter.wiesenthal.org/text/x32/xr3263.html on 18 August 2005.
  6. The 1891 Galician Business Directory (Kaufmannisches Adressbuch für Industrie, Handel und Gewerbe, XIV. Galizien, published by L. Bergmann & Comp., Wien IX, Universitutmetr. 6): http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/Poland/galicia1891.htm; last accessed on 14 August 2005
  7. Pawlyk, J. History of Tovste. Chortkiv, 2000. p. 48-50.
  8. Encyclopedia Judaica. Jerusalem, 1972. Last accessed via the Museum of Tolerance Multimedia Learning Center, http://motlc.learningcenter.wiesenthal.org/text/x32/xr3263.html on 18 August 2005.
  9. International Jewish Cemetery Project: http://www.jewishgen.org/cemetery/e-europe/ukra-t.html; last accessed on 16 August 2005.

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