Galician Jewish History on Display at the Burton Sperber Library

October 17, 2018

Earlier this month, the Burton Sperber Library on American Jewish University’s campus was abuzz with chatter about Galicia, the historic Central European kingdom that straddled the border of modern-day Poland and Ukraine for centuries until World War I. 

Around 30 assembled guests perused a peninsula-shaped arrangement of tables featuring books on the subject. Some picked up copies of a quarterly research journal —“The Galitzianer,” published since 1993 — featuring old maps, and then Andrew Zalewski, a bespectacled Philadelphia-based cardiologist, arrived at the podium. 

“Show of hands. Who here has Galician roots?” Zalewski asked. The vast majority of hands shot into the air. “And who here is a Gesher Galicia member?” This was met with far less enthusiasm.  

“So I’ve got work to do,” he retorted before firing up a PowerPoint presentation. 

Zalewski is a board member of Gesher Galicia, a nonprofit carrying out Jewish genealogical and historical research on Galicia. He’s also the editor of the organization’s research journal, the aforementioned “Galitzianer.” 

An expert on the subject who frequently lectures, Zalewski also has written two books on the topic, focusing on the Jewish community that lived in the region from the late 18th century until the early 20th century. 

“The Jews of Galicia are often viewed in black-and-white terms, as a monochromatic entity, only Chassidic,” he said. “But I’ll show you tonight that this was a vibrant, colorful, paradoxical community.”

Zalewski told the Journal he relishes each opportunity to educate on the topic of Galician Jewry and hopes his efforts continue to help shed light on the past for others.

“My father, who survived the Holocaust, never spoke about the family and I was too young to ask probing questions,” he said. “And yet when I became interested in learning more about my Jewish roots, I was surprised to find so many details. The richness of Jewish history of Galicia has to be retold today in many venues and formats to help others to better understand their ancestry.”

“The Jews of Galicia are often viewed in black-and-white terms, as a monochromatic entity, only Chassidic. But I’ll show you tonight that this was a vibrant, colorful, paradoxical community.” ­ — Andrew Zalewski

The Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles (JGSLA) hosted Zalewski on Oct. 8 for the event dubbed “Jewish Galicia: Vibrant Past Rediscovered.” Founded in 1979, JGSLA is a nonprofit with more than 500 members dedicated to sharing information, techniques and research practices with those interested in Jewish genealogy and family history. 

During the presentation, Zalewski, a product of Galician lineage, outlined the “roller coaster” of Galician Jewry: times of peace and unrest for Jews in the region, tolerant and intolerant monarchs, gender roles, anti-Semitic legislation, the effect of nearby Russian pogroms and the roots of progressive Judaism. He also showed a variety of old maps, census documents detailing Jewish demographics (which hovered around 10 percent) and renderings of city life throughout the region, including traditional garb, ornate synagogues and Jewish town centers. 

“As we traversed in an hour from 1772 to 1918, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the road traveled by our ancestors, which is not often a straight line, but rather with many detours and zigzags,” he said in closing. 

JSGLA member Rebecca Stanley, 29, a genealogy student and museum educator, came to learn more about her paternal Galician roots.  

“As someone whose family is from Tarnopol, I got a bigger understanding of what their life was like in the late 1800s, which is when my great-grandparents were around,” she said. “I was part of the Gesher Galicia mailing list before, but I changed my email. Now I want to get back on it.”

Henny Smoller, 64, attended to find out more about her maternal Galician heritage. A Sherman Oaks resident and member of Adat Ari El, Smoller’s mother’s side of the family hails from a world away — the town of Gwoździec (modern-day Poland). 

“The images of the synagogues [Zalewski] showed evoked memories of the synagogue in my mother’s town,” Smoller said, speaking of the Gwoździec synagogue featured in “Raising the Roof,” a 2015 PBS documentary detailing the reconstruction of the 18th-century structure eventually destroyed by the Nazis. “I found the talk very interesting, and it only makes me want to learn more and piece together the bits I don’t know about from before the Holocaust.” 

She then turned to her 25-year-old son, Evan Smoller, her “chauffeur” she joked. “I told him this is your family history so it’s important to learn about.” 

Evan told the Journal he was glad he caved and joined his mother for the evening. “I’ve heard some stories about my grandmother’s shtetl and stories specific to life there, but this gave a broader picture going further back and detailing the different laws, the push-and-pull between traditional and secular Judaism, and how Jewish life looked across Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” he said. “I’m really glad I came along for this.”

After Zalewski’s talk, audience members peppered him with questions. Others talked to one another, exchanging family stories concerning shared Galician roots. 

“It was hard to get people to leave,” JGSLA President Sandy Malek said after finally managing to do just that. But that’s fine by her. “We don’t want people to just listen and leave,” she said, “but rather find some common ground, to discuss and question. And every single question leads to 15 or 30 more in genealogy. It’s practically never ending.”

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