Alternate names and spellings: Sokal' (Russian, Ukranian), Sokal (Polish), Sikal (Yiddish), Skol (German), SkulAlternate names: Region: Lwow
Sokal is a little town in what was formerly known as Eastern Galicia.
After the Treaty of Versailles, and by the time Toni was born, it had become part of the newly reborn Poland. During WWII, it was annexed to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic, then was invaded by Germany in 1941. It was finally liberated by the Russian army in July 1944. Today, it is part of Ukraine.
Map of Eastern Galicia, 1895.
The town is 75 km from Lvov (Lemberg in German, Lviv in Ukrainian) and is located on the banks of the river Bug, a shallow little river which marked the border between the Russian and German sectors of Poland during WWII.
Jewish populations in Sokal
The earliest known Jewish community dates back to the 16th century.
As in many other towns in Poland’s eastern borderlands during the 16th and 17th centuries, a fortified synagogue was erected in the Jewish quarter, to help contribute to the town’s defensive system.
Jews settling in the early 17th century apparently arrived from neighboring Belz, whose Hasidic court set the tone of Jewish life in Sokal from early 19th century.
According to Isaak Babel's “1920 diary”, the town had a 300 year-old Hasidic synagogue, and another synagogue, 200 years old.
Jews constituted an urban class trading mainly in farm produce.
During the period of Austrian rule, from 1772 to 1918, the Jews were mainly occupied in small commerce, crafts, and transportation.
In the early 20th century, 5 of the 6 brickyards in Sokal were owned by Jews, as well as plywood, soap and candle factories, saw mills and printing presses.
Hasidism had considerable influence within the community. Later, between the two world wars, Zionism played an important role in community life.
In the 19th and 20th century, Jews represented over 40% of population.
In 1921, the population of Sokal was 10,183, with 43% Jews - Jewishgen.com gives an even higher estimate of the Jewish population at the time, approximately 50% of the total population. In 1931, the Jewish population was estimated to be 5,450.
The Jewish population was exterminated or deported to the death camp of Belzec between September 17, 1942 and July 1943.
Today, there are fewer than 10 Jews for a total population of over 25,000 people.
Sokal and WWI
“In one of the first engagements on the Eastern Front, 300,000 Austrian troops advanced from Lemberg (L’vov) in preparation for the invasion of Russia. Russia had mobilized two armies - over 700,000 Russian troops attacked on August 13th, 1914, defeating the Austrians and forcing them to retreat back to Lemberg”
On August 1914, ten days after Germany declared war on France, the Russian cavalry entered Galicia at Sokal on the Bug and defeated the Austrians, who retreated in the direction of Lemberg.
During the war, the region seems to have seen frequent fighting between the Austro-Hungarian troops and the Russian army, which left it devastated. The Jewish population in particular was the frequent target of pogroms from both armies.
S.Ansky, the Jewish playright and journalist, spent the war following the Russian army throughout the Pale of Settlement, organizing relief for the Jewish populations, who often became refugees running away from the battlefields. He documented what he saw in "The Enemy at this pleasure". Here are a few excerpts that describe the effects of the war on Sokal and its region.
Galicia is one of the poorest regions of Central Europe, if not the poorest. The soil is not particularly fertile, the farming methods are primitive and the harvests meager. Industry, manufacture, and commerce are also underdeveloped...
The Galician Jews numbered between 900 thousand and one million before the war (WW1).
Even though Jews in the Austrian Empire enjoy equal rights, with equal access to all the professions and government jobs, those in Galicia are very poor and unsophisticated.... Galicia has the highest death rate among jews and the highest rate of immigration to America.
Galician Jews clearly lag behind other communities in cultural terms as well... Galicia's Hasidism degenerated into blind faith in wonder rabbis, while Orthodoxy waged an especially savage and relentless war against the Enlightment, and assimilation here has been a poor joke...
Right after the outbreak of the hostilities (WWI), the Russian army overran Galicia... There were .. reports that the Russians, especially the Cossacks, were savaging the Jewish population in these occupied areas.
In Brody, the troops ... burned down a huge portion of the city, pillaged homes, and massacred several Jews. They also razed Husiatyn and Belz.
In Lwow, a pogrom claimed a large number of victims. Similar rumors were heard about dozens of other towns, and in the conquered regions, the Jews, economically ruined and cut off from both Austria and Russia, were starving to death.
(Belz is a town next to Sokal, and Lwow was the district center to which Sokal belonged)
…When the Russian army pased through many towns and villages, especially when there were cossacks, bloody pogroms took place...
There was a pogrom in Sokal:
During the pogrom in Sokal, Jewish soldiers (from the Russian army) either joined the cossacks in taking merchandise from stores or asked them for a portion of the loot, which they then returned to the owners.
In June 1915, the Russians were retreating from Galicia. S.Ansky followed a Russian mobile medical unit set up in Sokal. On his way there, in Kovel, he saw several dozens of Jewish refugees from Sokal sitting on the ground in the station courtyard and asked:
What happened in Sokal?
They beat up the Jews and ransacked their stores. The Commander ordered his men to take the merchandise. No one else (no Christian) was bothered
A little later, he entered Sokal:
Sokal is a large town and was apparently once rich and beautiful.
... There was a deadly hush, the stores were all closed, and I couldn't tell whether that was because of the Sabbath or the recent pogrom. On closer inspection, I saw the battered doors, the smashed windows, the twisted, ripped-out metal doors. The interiors were all in shambles-torn, gutted, riddled with bullets.
I couldn't find any Jews... no troops to be seen, just poor Jewish homes. A bit farther, a huge, ancient synagogue from the seventeenth century-one of the most beautiful I had seen.
Women, children, and old people were sitting all around it, with drooping heads, as if they were mourning the temple.
He learned that a pogrom had taken place in Sokal, all the stores had been looted, many were injured and one person had been killed. The synagogue was left undamaged.
The elderly Jewish owner of the hotel where he is staying tells S.Ansky that:
They destroyed Sokal. They spent the whole week looting, smashing, beating. They didn't leave one home or store untouched.
Maybe a few hundred Jews were slaughtered or mutilated... There are orphans in the woods, and no one knows what happened to their mothers...
They began by rounding up all the Jewish men in the square, about a thousand, and they said they would shoot them all. Then they said they would send them to Russia...
The Jews collected a few thousand rubles and brought the money to the commander. So he took just seventy-five men and packed them off to Russia, and the rest he let go.
Now, all the men are scared and in hiding. Then, with the news that Belz was taken by the Austrians
... Sokal was evacuated (by the Russian army). At night, Sokal was encircled by the fire of towns and villages burning nearby. Throughout the next day, Sokal was surrounded by pillars of smoke from the burning towns and villages.
Later, the Russian troops were back in Sokal.
The town itself was still the dismal wreck it had been a few days earlier. Not a shop was open. However, there were two or three small tables with bread set up in the street. Troops clustered there, buying up the bread. Others, wandering around, were angry because they could find nothing to buy. So of course they blamed the Jews.
I went back to the hotel where I had stayed before. The proprietor told me the pogrom had kept raging these past few days.
S.Ansky travelled to Galicia again between Dec 1916 and early March 1917, and noted that the situation of the Jewish population had improved somewhat, mainly due to the Russia's defeats which
... brought an end to the mass expulsions of Jews from the front line. Soon the Pale of Settlement would be abolished altogether. The government itself was now doling out funds to aid the deportees.
... people learned the truth about Russia's cruelties and atrocities in Galicia... This move gradually brought an end to the systematic error of the population, especially the Jews.
... In several places they relaxed or even rescinded the travel ban, which had afflicted Jews almost exlusively. Some refugees returned to Sokal...
... The civil autority often took its own measures to supply medical aid and food, and enable people to rebuild their homes. Officially, this was motivated by the fear of epidemics, which could spread to the army. Of course, the situation was still far from ideal. Jews were still being dragged off to forced labor, bribes were still extorted, and hatred was openly displayed...
Finally, some refugees returned to Sokal, and in in February 1917, S.Ansky in charge of relief work for Jews who had suffered because of the war, declared that they should be
... focussing on reviving the shtetls to which the Jews were returning. Assistance could be stopped altogether in places like Sokal, where a few inhabitants had come back and set themselves up with no outside help
Soon after the end of WWI which had brought destruction to the Galicia, started another war, this time a limited, regional conflict - the Polish-Soviet War (February 1919 - March 1921.)
Poland’s goal was to secure territories which she had lost at the time of partitions; the Soviet’s aim was to control those same territories, which had been part of Imperial Russia and spread communism to the west.
Galicia once again became the theater for battles, its Jewish population suffering the violent pogroms from both armies.
Map Sokal - Polish advance 1920
Map of Sokal and Galicia, showing the farthest advance of Polish Troops ( June 1920) during the Polish-Russian war
To get an idea of what Sokal was like around the time Toni and Yitzhack were born, here are a few excerpts from the book “1920 Diary” by Isaac Babel, a Jewish writer who followed the Red Army during the Polish-Russian war.
In his book, he describes the misery and violence he witnessed everywhere in the Jewish towns and villages of Galicia. A few pages are devoted to Sokal, where the Red Army came in the summer 1920.
Toni was about 11 months old at that time, Yitzhack would be born a year later.
The region was just emerging from a devastating period of pogroms and wartime occupation when the Polish-Soviet fighting began.
25 - 26 August 1920. Sokal ... it rains, excruciating Galician rain, it pours and pours, endlessly, hopelessly.
...The infantry has been in Sokal, but the city is untouched...
…the center of town... clean, handsome buildings, everything messed up by war, but vestiges of cleanliness and a character of its own...
... the Jewish quarter, indescriptable poverty, filth, the seclusion of the ghetto... little shops, all open... soldiers rummaging, cursing the Yids... walking into people's quarters... organized looting of the stationer's shop... they tear up everything... When night comes, the whole town will be looted - everybody knows it.
... Sokal is brokers and artisans...communism, they tell him, isn't likely to catch on there... Some young zionists, some feel the pull of Vienna, Berlin, want to go to University... Some who had been looking forward to the arrival of the Soviets, now realize that what they saw instead are Jew-baiters and looters...
...Hasidic synagogue, 300 years old, another synagogue 200 years old ...The moderate's synagogue: beautiful altar, splendor of the greensih chandeliers, the worm-eaten tables... The Be?z party's synagogue is a vision of times long gone...
...In the synagogues, pale boys in gaberdines with peyes, swaying, waving their arms, wailing...
...The orthodox party supports the Rabbi of Be?z, the moderates support the Husiatyn rabbi...
...The jews ask (Isaac Babel) to use his influence to save them from ruin, they are being robbed of food and goods...
Sokal under Nazi rule
After the Germans occupied Sokal on June 23, 1941, the Ukrainian police rounded up 400 Jews, and after a selection, murdered most of them near the brickyard outside the town. Forced labor and extortion followed with starvation claiming many lives in the winter of 41/42.
During the mass "Aktion" of Sept 17, 1942, 2000 Jews were deported to Belzec.
On October 15, a ghetto was set up for the refugee-swelled population of over 5,000.
A second "aktion" took place on Oct 28, with 2500 Jews sent to Belzec.
Many attempted to escape but were hunted down by the Germans with the help of the hostile local population, including roaming gangs of Ukrainian nationalists who killed on sight.
Sporadic killing continued though the winter and spring of 43.
In the final "Aktion" of May 27, 1943, the ghetto was liquidated, the remaining Jews were executed outside of the town and the town was declared Judenrein. Some thirty persons survived in forests and hideouts.
See the story of one of those who survived: Ralph Israel Charak.
Synagogue, as it was
Sokal Synagogue, 2006
Old Sokal - postcards
The river Bug, 1910
The river Bug
Sokal on the river Bug
The river Bug
Sokal by the river Bug
Mentions Sokal during the Polish-Russian war, at a time when Frida and Toni were most likely still in town. Gives an idea of what the Jews experienced then (August 25 and 26, 1920)
The Enemy at this pleasure
Several descriptions of Sokal during WWI, with mentions of pogrom, and refugees.
Also some more general descriptions of the effect of war, most notably the terror from the Cossacks, on the Jewish population of Galicia
Sefer Sokal, Tartakow, ... ve-ha-Seviva.
Memorial book of Sokal, Tartakow... and surroundings
1968, 576 pp
A. Chomel, Ed., Tel Aviv: For. Res. of Sokal and Surroundings
In Hebrew & Yiddish.
Available in the Library of Bar Ilan University: Memorial book of Sokal