The Last Place In the World – Husiatyn, Ukraine: Lost In Time

A few days ago I spent time scrutinizing a turn of the 20th century map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My attention turned to the frontiers of the easternmost province of Galicia, where it bordered on Russia. I was looking for the town or village that came closest to straddling this now vanished border. After close study I found a little place called Husiatyn. It was hard to even read the town’s name despite using the map’s zoom feature. Husiatyn looked to me like it was the last place in the world.  I wondered if there was anything of interest to be discovered there. I hoped that the town would be worth studying because of its frontier situation, a place where east and west collided. As I was soon to discover Husiatyn had a fascinating and troubled history.

Husiatyn in the 1880s by Napoleon Orda

Husiatyn in the 1880s by Napoleon Orda (Credit: Muzeum Narodowe W Karkowie)

Eastern Limits – Husiatyn, Austria-Hungary: A Town Too Far
Trying to locate the last place in Europe before its far eastern reaches give way to Asia is not easy. Where that place happens to be has always been open to debate. There are many geographic and geopolitical considerations that go into finding the answer, but these vary greatly. One of the possible candidates from centuries past is no longer a candidate at all. This is the small town of Husiatyn (population 2,500) on the eastern fringes of western Ukraine. For a century and a half it was on the Austro-Hungarian side of that empire’s border with Russia. Then following the First World War, it was on the Poland side of that reconstituted nation’s border with the Soviet Union. Later it was sucked into the fathomless land mass of the Soviet Union. Today it is little more than a provincial town in Ukraine. Husiatyn still stands along the border, but this is the one between Ternopil and Khmelnitskyi Oblasts.  Its current status is quite a step down from the time when the town was either the first or last place in Europe depending upon a traveler’s direction.

In the history of a nation, city or town, geography is said to be destiny. In the case of Husiatyn not only is this true, but even more to the point hydrology (the movement of rivers) has defined and confined its destiny. Husiatyn sits on the left bank of the Zbruch River. A languid, watery ribbon that flows for 244 kilometers through the Podolian Upland before it debouches into the mighty Dneister River. The river was the boundary between dueling empires in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. On one side stood Husiatyn, final outpost of Europe, the farthest eastern extent that Austrian rule would ever reach. A stone’s throw away was mighty Russia, half-European, half-Asian, stretching from the right bank of Zbruch all the way to the Pacific Ocean, over ten thousand kilometers away. The town was a crossroads of trade and cultural exchange. A closer look at Husiatyn’s history reveals that eastern influences were just as pervasive as western ones in the town for centuries. These came not so much from Russia, but from Judaism and the Jewish people who dominated the town’s life for centuries. There is still a building standing in the town, a half ruin that evokes five hundred years of Jewish history in Husiatyn, it stands as an abandoned half-ruin today.

Husiatyn Fortress Synagogue

Husiatyn Fortress Synagogue – historic photo

A Fortified Synagogue & The Hasidic Movement
Husiatyn is the setting for a unique abandoned synagogue. This otherworldly architectural artifact from the 16th century looks as though it was the product of a vanished civilization. Tragically that is close to the truth. The structure is a rare example of a “fortified synagogue” constructed in Renaissance style with Mauritian-Gothic decorative elements that were added after a fire damaged the original building in 1742. Fortress synagogues were built in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, constructed to defend against attacks from Tatar and Russian invaders from the east. The synagogue brings together elements of near eastern and western architecture, a fusion of the Renaissance with Orientalism. Judaism was synonymous with Husiatyn for centuries, with its heyday in the 19th century. Most famously, the Hasidic movement thrived in the town.

Hasidism was a spiritual revival movement that arose in western Ukraine. It was characterized by religious conservatism, social seclusion and extreme devotion. The followers, known as Hasidim, were organized into “courts” led by a spiritual authority known as a “Rebbe”. Adherents formed a close relationship with the Rebbe in order to get close to God. In 1861 a famous Hasidic court was formed in Husiatyn. Many followers moved to Husiatyn so they could be close to the courts founder, Rabbi Mordecai Shraga-Bar. This set off a mini economic boom in the town as the population expanded. The movement was social as well as religious, with hospitals, bath houses and homes for the elderly constructed. Since the inception of Austro-Hungarian rule in 1772 the rights of Jews had continually expanded. As such, Jews from Russia flocked to the area escaping persecution. By 1900 the population of Husiatyn had expanded fivefold. Of the 6,060 citizens of the town, two-thirds were Jewish.

Interior of Fortress Synagogue at Husiatyn

Interior of Fortress Synagogue at Husiatyn (Credit: Wikipedia)

A Fire That Burned Forever – War On The Fringes
There was one major problem though, Husiatyn’s position on the border made it extremely vulnerable in the event of war between Russia and Austria-Hungary. As tensions flared between the two empires in the years prior to World War One the population began to drop. Many of the townspeople saw dark portents of the future. Husiatyn’s Rebbe relocated to Vienna. Such a move showed uncanny foresight. In the summer of 1914 Husiatyn was caught in the crosshairs of an all-consuming conflagration. The town barely survived what would turn out to be a several years long baptism of fire. The Jewish population of Husiatyn suffered grave and irreparable damage. There is the belief that the Holocaust was a World War II phenomenon, but a lesser holocaust took place in the First World War fomented by Russian anti-Semitism.

On August 9, 1914, the Russian Army crossed the Zbruch River. Husiatyn was one of the first places to feel the heavy hand of invasion.  The glory days of Judaism in Husiatyn came to an abrupt end. Less than a year later the entire Jewish population was forced to leave the town. War plagued the town for years. Husiatyn lost at least 600 buildings due to World War, Civil War and the Polish-Soviet war.  By 1921 less than four hundred Jews were left in the town. The town was now part of Poland, but not for long. The Nazi invasion in 1941 and resulting Holocaust would add a final and murderous footnote to the history of the Jews in Husiatyn. Half a millennium of Judaism in the town was extinguished in a matter of days.

Fortress Synagogue at Husiatyn

Fortress Synagogue at Husiatyn (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

The Final, Few Traces – Civilization Lost
Present day Husiatyn is totally disconnected from its pre-World War I past. Austria-Hungary is a mere afterthought as is the Second Republic of Poland. The Zbruch River still acts a border, but a provincial rather than an international one. The eastern limits of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were consumed by nationalism and communism. Husiatyn is now just an inconsequential town, in a remote area of a troubled nation. Still just a dot on a map, it is scarcely noticeable within the wider area of Ukraine. There are few physical remnants of Husiatyn’s former importance. The most poignant reminder is the vacant shell of the Fortified Synagogue. Its roof has collapsed and the building is derelict, an odd site, in a strange place, lost in time. This remnant of a lost civilization looks as though it could be the last place in the world. Maybe it is.

26 thoughts on “The Last Place In the World – Husiatyn, Ukraine: Lost In Time

  1. Great article. I hadn’t seen the picture by Napoleon Orda before. My great grandfather came from Husiatyn. It’s a rather long and interesting story how I came to visit there in 2000. We visited the Catholic Church there where my great grandfather was baptized. You have a rather long article in Polish from Polskie Radio on the town’s history (I have also translated it to English) and another from a Polish language newspaper in Lviv on Adam Gołuchowski, who was the son of Agenor Gołuchowski and brother of Agenor Maria Gołuchowski, who were prominent Polish statesmen and landowners in the area. All fascinating stuff.

    • Greetings from South Africa. My fathers family lived in Husiatyn for many generations. The earliest family reference I can find is to the early 1800’s. On the 10th February 1940 my father and his family together with many local innocent Poles were deported by Russia to the gulags in Siberia. Long story short, my father and my mother, who is also a survivor of the gulags of Siberia, are two of the 500 Polish Children who also survived the Russian deportations to Siberia and who all found refuge in the small South African town of Oudtshoorn.

  2. Thanks for this article. It was interesting to learn about Husiatyn. My mother’s family (Schotter) left Husiatyn in 1906 and 1907.. They were all musicians. GGFather was a conductor and was 51 when he emigrated to the US in 1906. He came with most of his adult children who were also musicians. One played flute studying under the well-known Barrere. My mom is the only relative left (born in NY 1918) and just recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Unfortunately, she was only 10 when her mother died and with the break up of the family never got the chance to find out too much of the family’s history and hometown.

      • I e-mailed a travel company tonight to see about visiting. The description on this page seems pretty bleak although I feel compelled to touch the soil.

      • Marc, I hope you get there. Please let me know if you do. I am sure it is rather bleak, but many places in that part of the world had a rough time of it in the 20th century. I have a feeling it has always been rather bleak there. There is a reason so many people left, but that makes them no less fascinating. On the contrary they actually may be more fascinating because of there history. CJW

  3. My wife and I spent three nights in Husiatyn in mid-June. There’s one guest house in town where you can rent a room [about $20 US/night]: Elegans Guest House. Nice people.

    My ethnically Polish great-grandparents and their two children [at the time] came from Husiatyn to the U.S. around 1900. My grandfather was their third born, and first in the U.S.

    Yes, it is a bit bleak, but I just had to get it out of my system to actually spend some time there. I have pics. Nice to visit St. Anthony of Padua church, where they would have attended. There’s an active YouTube channel that posts occasional updates on the restoration being done [it was practically destroyed by the Soviets]: Husiatyn Ofm

    I’ve posted links to this article multiple times. Thank you!

      • Hi Chris,
        We flew into Lviv after spending two weeks on a group tour of Turkey/Historic Armenia [part of my wife’s heritage]. I had seen a video on the Husiatyn Ofm YouTube channel that showed the condition of the roads outside of town, so I decided I would try to rent some sort of SUV, which I was able to do via Sixt at the Lviv airport. So glad I did. The diesel VW Tiguan was just right for our needs.
        I’ll upload some of my pics to my Google drive and make a link available.
        Bill

  4. Chris, many thanks for this excellent article – what a surprise to find it! – and the photographs as well. Husiatyn as the ‘last stop’ as it were – fascinating. ‘

    My great grandfather and grandfather left Husiatyn for the New York in 1905 – Shlomo Neugeboren and his son Jakob Neugeboren. Shlomo (born in the 1860s) was actually named Rabinowitz, and was ‘smuggled’ across the Russian Empire border and into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in order to avoid the Czarist draft (I presume). To disguise his identity, he took the name of the woman he married. So my actual paternal line became my ‘maternal’ line.

    My grandfather married a cousin, Feigl Mondschein from a nearby village, Zielena, (The Neugeborens and Mondscheins intermarried like Jewish hillbillies. Its very hard to figure things out.) I can trace the Mondschein line as well was the Neugeboren. I also have documents – birth certificates etc, – indicating who my grandfather’s Hebamme (midwife) and mohel (ritual circumsizer) were, as well as the name of the presiding Rabbi. The Fortress synagogue was so impressive! And sadly derelict now, as you show.

    My grandfather became the Comptroller for the Husiatyn Landsmannschaft – the H. Young Men’s Sickness and Benevolence Society – purchased grave plots at Mt Moriah Cemetery in NJ when it was probably very bucolic. (Now a pain to get to!)

    There was a Neugeboren Family Circle that was particularly active in the early 1950s – loads of people attended.

    I’d love to visit the town. I wish also that my great grandfather’s family and history weren’t lost.

    With thanks – Jud Newborn, Founding Historian/Co-Creator, NY’s Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (1986 – 2000). Dramatic multimedia lecturer/performer.

    P.S. I worked undercover briefly for Poland’s “Solidarity” freedom movement 6 months into the Communist Declaration of Martial Rule in May 1982, during my fieldwork in Europe. Sadly, it was impossible to also visit my forebear’s towns, and Husiatyn wss over the border in Ukraine.

    • Jud,

      Thank you for the kind remarks and all the extremely fascinating information. Strangely enough for such a remote place – I have been contacted by multiple people, such as yourself, about the post on Husiatyn. Someone should write a book about the place – integrating present and past. Strange how borders change and leave places stranded. Without the old border I would have overlooked it as well. – Chris

    • Curious, Jud. What was the name of your grandfather’s midwife? My GGmother was a midwife from Husiatyn and was there until 1906.

      • Hi EL – From my grandfather’s Jacob’s official Austro-Hungarian birth certificate, in German and Polish: b.1887 to Salomon and Chawe Neugeboren. Midwife (Hebame): Zwetel Wassermann. (Also: Circumciser (Beschneider): Lazar Schachter. Rabbi: Moses Horowitz. And for good measure, they lived in House 744.) Hope it is the same midwife. COuld you let me know what kinds of documents and photographs you might have? I’m always interested to learn anything more I can about the town and its people in that period. Cheers – Jud

      • Hi Jud. Sadly, I have no documents or pictures at all. Once my grandmother died (my mom was 10 years old at the time) people and “things” scattered. The fact that my mother’s grandmother was a midwife must have been a thing of pride because that is one of the few things my mom was told and remembered and repeated to me. Anyway, my ggmother was not the midwife that delivered your grandfather. My ggmother’s name was Ester Schotter. When I googled her name (with the word “midwife”) I found a picture of someone’s birth certificate that had her name on it. I didn’t know the person but was excited because its existence indicated that the information that my mom had was true. I’ve included the link although it will have no connection to your family. It does show the same mohel and presiding rabbi, FWIW. https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/suchostaw/sl_husiatyn_birth_cert_singer.htm

      • Hi EL – Thanks for sharing this, and how lucky to find it online! I guess the information on both of these certificates was filled in years after the actually births. They differ in that my grandfather’s was issued in 1906, when Husiatyn was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (so he’d have papers for emigrating); therefore it is in Polish and German. The one you’ve found was issued in 1920, when Poland became independent, so the print is all in Polish. But the handwriting is in German. Exciting – the same Moses Horowitz – listed as “Rabbi” on mine, as “Sandek/Witness” on the one you’ve found. – and they both had the same Mohel. I’m sure Ester Schotter and Zwetel Wassermann knew each other. Terrific!

    • Hi Bill – Thanks so much for sharing these photos! Any details about the painted monument? Is one side a tribute to resistance fighters during WWII? And thanks for the pix of the old ‘fortress’ synagogue.

      • We couldn’t quite figure out that painted monument. It’s in the park that’s adjacent to the synagogue. It seemed a bit out of place, but maybe because we didn’t understand it. I could ask son of the owner of the guest house. He’s a college student and speaks English pretty well.

    • If I were wealthy, I’d pay to have the streets repaired all around town. There was actually a utility pole lying across a street near the St. Anthony church. No one was attending to it; people would just walk around it. You couldn’t drive down that street because of it.
      And I’d also ask why traffic from the other side of the Zbruch River is routed away from the commercial center of town. I suppose that’s great for being a pedestrian in the center of town, but it’s not helping the commercial establishments in town. The traffic pattern makes the town feel like it’s at the end of a dead end street — as if it truly is “The Last Place In the World”.
      There seems to be an air of sadness there. Or maybe that’s a Ukrainian thing. The son of the guest house said that my wife and I stood out, not just because we were the only two tourists in town, but also because we smiled and laughed too much.

      • Hi Bill. The Catholic Church obviously is in need of repairs, which seem to be happening. (The interior is lovely.) Given conditions in Ukraine, I presume many small towns are in the same predicament. (My grandmother’s family comes from Kremenets, to the north.) Interesting that such a neglected town did create that interesting colored ‘monument’ or memorial….

  5. Yes, if you get a chance, I’d like to know about the monument. Curious it is near the old synagogue. I specialize in resistance during WWII…but never looked into anything regarding Husiatyn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s