Historical Background

The history of Galicia and Volhynia, like that of much of Ukraine is complicated and marked by numerous political upheavals. The following historical overview aims to provide a brief overview the west Ukrainian lands up to 1939.


The lands now known as the Ukrainian regions of Galicia and Volhynia were in the 12th century two principalities within Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic state. What became Ukrainian Galicia fell to Poland over the course of the 14th century, while most of Volhynia was absorbed by Lithuania. In 1569, all of Volhynia came under Polish rule. When Prussia, Austria, and Russia annexed parts of Poland in 1772, Galicia – both the western and eastern halves – passed to Vienna in 1772. By the terms of the second and third partitions of Poland, Volhynia became a part of Russia in the 1790s. This situation remained unchanged until the end of the First World War.

Jewish presence in these lands dates back to Kievan Rus, for example, to the 12th century in the case of Volodymyr-Volynskyi and the 13th century in the case of Lviv. Jewish settlement in these lands expanded in the early 16th century. The Ukrainian uprising against Polish rule in the mid-17th centuries led to the death of thousands of Jews in Volhynia and eastern Galicia. By contrast, the 18th- and 19th-century peasant rebellions that broke out in central Ukraine and parts of Volhynia left Galician Jewry unscathed. Similarly, the pogroms that swept Ukraine during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century were contained to the tsarist empire.
In the course of the 146 years of separation from the 1772 to 1918, eastern Galicia developed along the lines of the Austrian Empire, while Volhynia evolved along the lines of the Russian Empire. As contiguous frontier regions belonging to rival powers, both eastern Galicia and western Volhynia remained underdeveloped, rural economies. By the late 19th century, Volhynian Jews had shed their Polishness and come to identify increasingly with Russian culture, while Galician Jews tended more to Polish culture, in part a consequence of Austrian efforts to devolve greater authority to the Poles under Vienna’s rule.


When the Ukrainian People’s Republic declared independence from Russia in January 1918, Volhynia became a part of the new Ukrainian state. There followed Austrian and German occupation, then civil war as the Bolsheviks tried to extend their rule into Ukraine. Amid the hostilities, a wave of pogroms swept Ukraine, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews. Over 200 such acts of violence against Jews took place in Volhynia between 1917and 1921, with approximately half in western Volhynia. The perpetrators were from all of the parties to the conflict, but most came from the army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

The collapse of Austro-Hungary in November 1918 prompted Ukrainians in eastern Galicia to declare independence as the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. War between the region’s Polish and Ukrainian populations ensued. Jewish leaders officially embraced neutrality. Nonetheless, Jews fought in both armies. The greater identification with Polish culture among Galician Jewry suggests Jews were more numerous among Polish forces. However, most documented pogroms in this region at the time were instigated by Poles.

Poland triumphed in the Polish-Ukrainian War as well as the Polish-Soviet War that followed. When the fighting ceased in early 1921, Poland controlled western Volhynia and eastern Galicia. Jews could at last begin to rebuild and regroup – but this reconstruction took place against the backdrop of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict that had merely exhausted itself for the time being, but had hardly been resolved.

The 1930s

Until 1939, the Jews of Poland made up the largest Jewish community in Europe – just over 3 million people. As a minority within Poland, they were second in size only to the Ukrainians. About a quarter of Poland’s Jews lived in the territories populated by Ukrainians. Poles and Jews dominated the towns, Ukrainians the countryside.
Jews worked mostly in commerce as well as the crafts, but there was also a growing working class in the larger towns of Volhynia and Galicia where industry existed. Most factories and mills were Jewish-owned. Jewish merchants were especially important in moving livestock and produce to central Poland and beyond. Given the preferential treatment of ethnic Poles in state jobs, Jewish lawyers and physicians were concentrated in private practice. Journalism provided a source of employment for thousands. More than 1,700 Yiddish periodicals were published in interwar Poland. In addition, there was a Hebrew-language and a Jewish Polish-language press. Most Jewish communities remained comparatively poor, like the region they lived in, and were forced to rely on their members or aid from abroad to support themselves. The economic situation was exacerbated by the Great Depression in the first half of the 1930s as well as by boycotts of Jewish businesses and the exclusion of Jews from professional associations in the years before the Second World War.
Jews took part in Polish political life through the national parliament and municipal councils, especially the latter. In the first years of the Polish state, elections to the municipal council were democratic. After 1926, municipal elections were fixed to ensure Polish majorities in municipal councils, even where Jews made up an absolute majority of a town’s population. This marginalization in official politics was offset to some extent by the granting of greater autonomy to the Jewish communities. Elections to the community executive boards were largely democratic and often fiercely contested.
Jewish politics in Polish Volhynia and Galicia split roughly along the lines of Zionists and non-Zionists. On each side of the divide, numerous legal parties promoted programs left and right, religious and secular. Among the Zionists were the rightwing Revisionist Zionists, the center-right General Zionists, the religious Mizrachi, and various labor parties. Chief among the non-Zionists were the Orthodox political movement Agudas Yisroel and the socialist Bund. The non-Zionists also included representatives of interest groups, such as retailers, artisans, or even Hasidic dynasties, who ran for office on their own lists. The illegal Communist Party of Western Ukraine enjoyed popularity in towns where a working class existed. The established political parties often maintained libraries, theater troupes, and youth movements and were often behind one or the other Jewish school networks that provided an alternative to state education.
For much of the interwar era, mass anti-Jewish violence within Poland belonged to the past.

Between 1935 and 1937, however, at least 14 Jews were killed and approximately 2,000 wounded in a wave of pogroms. Most of this violence took place in central Poland. Only one incident is recorded in the Lviv voivodeship, one in the Stanislaviv voivodeship. The lack of mass violence against Jews in the Ukrainian-populated voivodeships did not mean absence of anti-Jewish violence. In June 1938, a Polish military report claimed that during 1937 the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – a Galicia-based rightwing, authoritarian, anti-democratic underground movement – was behind 830 violent incidents aimed at persons or property in Poland. Most of the attacks were classified as anti-Polish. Over 240 were classified as anti-Jewish. The overwhelming share of the latter was recorded in eastern Galicia.
The situation for Jews deteriorated on other fronts, as the Polish state became more authoritarian in the late 1930s. In addition to the boycotts against Jewish businesses and expulsions of Jews from professional associations, restrictions were placed on kosher slaughtering. Universities and technical schools enacted the numerus clausus to limit the number of Jewish students. “Ghetto benches” were provided for the students who remained.
Jews faced an uncertain future in Poland even in times of peace. But as the situation for Jews in Poland deteriorated so did relations between Poland and Germany.