On the far eastern border of the Hapsburg Empire a small town flourished along the banks of the Zbruch River, across from the vast steppe of Imperial Russia. The river and its lucrative trade fueled the emergence of the town of Husiatyn in the sixteenth century, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. With the partition of the Commonwealth in 1772, Husiatyn became the last outpost of the Hapsburg lands, ever keeping watch along a border flush as much with activity as with uncertainty.
The Jews of Husiatyn, who arrived here as early as 1577, eventually constituted two-thirds of the population. Many found success as merchants and craftspeople. The community faced hardship in the 1620’s and 1648’s during blood libel pogroms and the brutal Cossack uprising, respectively. When raids were launched, the Jews of Husiatyn would take shelter in their imposing fortress-synagogue on a steep hill along the river’s edge. In the nineteenth century, the founding of Rebbe Mordechai Shraga-Bar’s court and yeshiva brought hundreds of Hasidim to Husaityn and elevated it to a place of renown in Hasidic Judaism. By the turn of the twentieth century, the town’s Jewish population surpassed 4,200 out of more than 6,000 residents, among them the Auerbachs, who made their living in the trade of staples such as wheat, eggs, and produce.
The community’s sudden destruction came earlier than most. At the outbreak of the First World War, Husaityn’s position on the border, which had attracted prosperity in past centuries, now brought violence and devastation. Not even the old fortress-synagogue’s solid walls and observant parapets could protect the community. During the interwar years, the Jewish population dropped to fewer than 400, most of the former residents, including their beloved Rebbe, having fled between 1914-1921. Among them were Osias and Fani Auerbach, with their six-year-old daughter Jenny, who left with her family for Vienna in 1914. When Nazi death squads arrived in July 1941, approximately 200 remaining Husiatyn Jews were shot. In one final stroke, half a millennium of Jewish life in Husiatyn came to an end.
Today, Husiatyn is a sleepy river town of about 3,000, lost in the countryside of western Ukraine. Not a single Jew remains. Like other former shtetls across the region, even the Jewish cemetery with its centuries of history has been destroyed, its grave markers uprooted and recycled by locals to build stone walls. The sixteenth-century fortress-synagogue still stands today, one of the last of its kind, though its roof is crumbling.
However, the Jewish heritage of Husiatyn lives on in the memory of those who still hold it in their hearts. Jenny Auerbach survived the Shoah and came to the United States, where she became “Oma Jenny” to her grandchildren. Today, her granddaughter Toby Kaminsky lives in the Washington area and serves on the 3GDC Leadership Committee, working to keep her “Oma Jenny’s” memory alive and the legacy of her ancestors’ lost Jewish communities, like Husiatyn.
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Toby Kaminsky, with her mother Fran Bulloff