Alternate names and spellings: Sokal (Polish), Sokal' (Ukranian), Сокаль (Russian), Sikal (Yiddish), Skol (German), Skul

Sokal, where the Katz branch of my family originally came from, including my mother, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Background

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 with Sokal, 1895

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.

Sokal scenery

Sokal Scenery

The river Bug in Sokal, 1910

The river Bug in Sokal, hand colored postcard, 1910

Sokal Town Hall

Sokal Town Hall, 1916

Sokal - Towarzystwo Zaliczkowe

Sokal: Towarzystwo Zaliczkowe (lending company/credit union?), 1915

Sokal - Teachers Seminary

Teachers Seminary in Sokal

www.encyclopediaofukraine.com

Sokal - Teachers Seminary

Teachers Seminary in Sokal

Sokal - Gymnasium

Sokal High School

Sokal train station, 1914

Sokal Train Station, 1914

wikimedia.org

Jewish presence in Sokal

The earliest known Jewish community dates back to the 16th century. Jews settling in the early 17th century likely 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. 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.

Sokal Synagogue - 1930

The Fortress Synagogue - 1930

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, five of the six brickyards in Sokal were owned by Jews, as well as plywood, soap and candle factories, sawmills and printing presses.

Sokal Jewish Quarter

Sokal Jewish Quarter

Postcard, ca 1916/1917. Courtesy of František Bányai at judaica.cz. Please do not copy; contact the owner for any use.

Sokal Synagogue

Rare pre-war photo of the Sokal Synagogue.

"Two synagogues were located on one land property; the door on the very right of the photo is to the second synagogue." (Alex Den)

Postcard courtesy of ‎Fran Fay Letzter Malkin‎.

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 Sokal's population. In 1921, the total population was 10,183, with 43% Jews - Jewishgen.com gives an even higher estimate of approximately 50% of the total population. In 1931, the Jewish population was estimated to be 5,450.

Sokal Street Scene

Sokal Street Scene *

From myshtetl.org

*Note: the same photo is posted on www.sokal.lviv.ua with the following caption: "We are not sure that this is Sokal, maybe V.Mosta, Belz or Zhovkva"

Sokal Street Scene

Sokal Street Scene *

From myshtetl.org

Sokal Market

Sokal Market

from Jewishgen

Sokal Street Scene

Sokal Street Scene

from Jewishgen

Sokal market, 1906

Sokal market, 1906

Source photo-lviv.in.ua

Sokal during WWI

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.

“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”

During the war, the region saw 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...

A pogrom took place 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, as the Russians retreated 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 and wrote:

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 was staying told S.Ansky:

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.

A little later, 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.

Austro-Hungarian troops crossing the Bug River near the city of Sokal on July 18, 1915.

Austro-Hungarian troops crossing the Bug River near the city of Sokal on July 18, 1915.

@ThisDayInWWI
Karl Friedrich Gsur, painting of machine gun battle in Sokal, July 20, 1915.

Karl Friedrich Gsur, painting of machine gun battle for Gora Sokal, July 20, 1915.

wikimedia

Later, the Russian troops were back again 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 December 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

The Polish-Russian War (1919-1921)

Soon after the end of WWI, which had brought widespread destruction to Galicia, a new armed conflict took place again in the region: 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 to spread communism to the West.

Galicia once again became the theater for battles, its Jewish population suffering the violent pogroms from both armies.

Isaac Babel, a Jewish writer who followed the Red Army during the Polish-Russian war described what he witnessed in Galicia in “1920 Diary”. He wrote about 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.

At the time of the events described by Babel, Toni was about 11 months old, 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 Belz 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 Belz, 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...

The Interwar Period

From Yad Vashem:

In the 1930s, about 5,200 Jews lived in Sokal, about half of its population. Along with merchants and craftsmen, the Jews of Sokal also owned factories for light industry and professionals. A commercial bank and several welfare societies operated there. The Jewish educational institutions in the city included traditional classrooms, the Beit Yaakov school and the Hebrew school of the Tarbut network (secular Zionist).

WW2 - The Russian Occupation

Note: most of the content below from Yad Vashem

From September 1939 until June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), Sokal was occupied by the Soviet Union. During the Soviet rule, factories were nationalized, commerce was greatly reduced, and Jewish parties were abolished. In the summer of 1940 several bourgeois families were deported to the rest of the Soviet Union, as were some refugees who refused to accept Soviet citizenship.

WW2 - The German Occupation

On June 23, 1941, the Germans occupied Sokal. A few days later, the Germans, with the help of Ukrainian nationalists rounded up 400 Jews, and after a selection, murdered most of them near the brickyard outside the town.

In July 1941, the Germans appointed a Judenrat which was tasked with supplying hundreds of Jews daily for forced labor. In November 1941, all the Jewish men between the ages of 14 and 60 were registered in the German Labor Office. Forced labor followed with starvation claimed many lives in the winter of 41/42.

On September 17, 1942, the first mass Aktion took place in Sokal. German and Ukrainian police blocked the outskirts of the city, combed the Jewish houses and took their inhabitants to the market square; Some 2,000 Jews were deported to the Belzec death camp, while about 160 were murdered on the town square.

A month later, 0n October 15, a ghetto was set up for remaining Sokal Jews, with an additional 3,000 Jews rounded up from surrounding settlements such as Radziechow, bringing the total population of the overcrowded ghetto to over 5,000.

On October 28, about two weeks after the establishment of the ghetto, a second "Aktion" took place, and 2,500 Jews were deported to the death camp of Belzec. Many attempted to escape but were killed by the Germans with the help of the hostile local population, including roaming gangs of Ukrainian nationalists.

After the two Aktions, an increasing number of Jews attempted to escape from the ghetto to the forests or to Christian acquaintances, but the hostile environment, including bands of Ukrainian nationalists, and the Germans' search, made rescue efforts very difficult. In the ghetto itself, the difficult sanitary conditions continued to cause many casualties - the number of people who died in the ghetto in the winter of 1942/43 was estimated to be about 1,500.

In the spring of 1943, groups of Jews who wandered through the forests began to leave their hiding places and returned to the ghetto in Sokal, following news that the Germans had distributed them to vital factories.

The Aktion for the final liquidation of the ghetto began on May 27, 1943. During the Aktion, attempts were made to organize a mass escape, but most of the escapees were shot on the spot and buried in the local cemetery. The remaining ghetto residents were taken to pits about three kilometers outside of the city and executed there.

Save for some thirty Jews who had managed to survive in hideouts and in the nearby forests, Sokal was "Judenrein", its entire Jewish population, which had numbered about 6,000 before the war, having been killed, or deported to the death camp of Belzec. Of the survivors, fifteen Jews lived through the war thanks to two extraordinary women, Francisca and Hela Halamajowa, who hid them for 20 months in their home. See the documentary No. 4 Street of Our Lady about their story.

See also the story of Ralph Israel Charak who survived by hiding in the forest.

The Soviet army re-captured the town in July 1944.

Today

Today, there are fewer than 10 Jews out of a total population of over 25,000 people. What was once the center of the Jewish community of Sokal is now a park, the ancient fortress synagogue is in ruins, while the former Jewish cemetery is a residential zone with no signs or markers (source: jewishheritage.org.ua (pdf)).

The old Fortress Synagogue

The Fortress Synagogue in Sokal was built in 1762 and is reputedly one of the oldest ones in Galicia. It is now falling apart and beyond repair.

Sokal Synagogue

Sokal Synagogue, 2014

Photo courtesy of Christian Herrmann. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sokal Synagogue
Sokal Synagogue
Sokal, Synagogue

Sokal Synagogue
Sokal, Synagogue

Color photos above originally retrieved from www.geocities.com/prysjan/ind_10_sokal.html and www.zapala.pl/eb/ukra2002/zdj-21.htm (dead links as of 2017)

Jewish tombstones and former Jewish quarter.

The Jewish cemetery in Sokal is no more - in its place is a residential area with no signs or markers.

Sokal Synagogue

Sokal Tombstones, 2015

Photo courtesy of Christian Herrmann. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sokal Synagogue

Sokal Tombstones, 2015

Photo courtesy of Christian Herrmann. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sokal, Synagogue

Tombstones from the ruined Jewish cemetery dumped in the partly ruined Polish cemetery, Sokal, Ukraine, 2014

Photo courtesy of Jason Francisco.

Sokal, Synagogue

Recovered Jewish tombstones deposited in the town's abandoned Polish Catholic cemetery. The town's Jewish cemetery no longer exists, having been completely overbuilt with new housing.

Photo courtesy of Jason Francisco.

Sokal, Synagogue

Once the center of the ancient Jewish community of Sokal, later the heart of Nazi-made Jewish ghetto, completely razed and now a public park with no historical marker whatsoever.

Photo courtesy of Jason Francisco.

Sokal today

Sokal today

Sokal on the river Bug

Sokal today

The river Bug

Sokal
Sokal today

The river Bug

Sokal

Sokal by the river Bug

Special Thanks:
I am indebted to the photographers and collectors who are doing an extraordinary work documenting what remains of a vanished world and who graciously allowed me to use their photos of Sokal on this page:
Christian Herrmann: https://vanishedworld.blog/
Jason Francisco: http://jasonfrancisco.net/
František Bányai: judaica.cz for allowing me to use his photograph of the old Jewish Quarter.
Additional Special Thanks:
I am indebted to all the authors, researchers, translators and diarists who documented the story of Sokal. This page would not exist without their work.
Links
Jewishgen: all searches start here.
Photos on jewishgen.org
Pages about Pain and Death of the Jewish Settlement in Sokal, by Moshe Maltz
Yad Vashem article on Sokal (Hebrew)
Facebook group Jews from Sokal.
Bibliography and References, WW1:
1920 Diary Isaac Babel.
Includes descriptions of Sokal during the Polish-Russian war, at a time when Frida and Toni were most likely still living in Sokal. August 25 and 26, 1920.
The Enemy at this pleasure S. Ansky.
Several mentions of Sokal during WWI, including descriptions of pogroms and the flight of refugees. More generally, the book also describes the effect the war had on the Jewish population of Galicia, most notably the terror from the Cossacks.
The Good Soldier Švejk, Jaroslav Hašek.
Satirical novel, with references to the fighting in and around Sokal in WW1.
Zwischen Styr und Bug: Bunte Blätter aus Wolhynien, Publisher: Zentralstelle der Feldbuchhandlungen, 1917. (Photos of Sokal during WW1).
Bibliography and References, WW2:
Yizkor Book Sefer Sokal, Tartakow, ve-ha-Seviva. (Memorial Book of Sokal, Tartakow, and Surroundings)
Hebrew & Yiddish, with photos.
A. Chomel, Ed., Tel Aviv, 1968, 576 pp.
Partial translation: Memorial Book of Sokal, Tartakow and Surroundings
"Years of Horror - Glimpse of Hope", by Moshe Maltz, Shengold Publishers, Inc., New York, (1993).
Diary, with the description of the Maltz family’s life in hiding in Sokal during WW2.
No. 4 Street of Our Lady
No. 4 Street of Our Lady: Documentary about Francisca and Hela Halamajowa, two "Righteous Among the Nations" who hid 15 Jews from Sokal during WW2, directed by Judy Maltz, based on her grand-father's diary.
Watch it on Vimeo
Additional Reading about WW2:
Two articles on the fate of Jews in Sokal during WW2 by Judy Maltz.
A Mystery Uncovered, 60 Years After the War
A Twinkle in My Grandfather's Eye
The story of Fran Fay Letzter Malkin, who hid for 18 months in Mrs. Halamajowa's barn.
Sokal is also mentioned by Father Patrick Desbois in his book "The Holocaust By Bullets" several times. Pg.124-127. (Submitted by Fran Fay Letzter Malkin, daughter of Eli Letzter who was shot by the brick factory along with 400 victims.)
The extraordinary story of Ralph Israel Charak, who survived the liquidation of the ghetto and escaped into the forests where he hid until the end of the war, as written by his grand-daughter Sarah.

This family history project started September 2009.
All photos and documents belong to the author and are © Daniel Abraham, except for maps and where indicated.
This is a work in progress. Please contact me if you have any more information to contribute.

Last Modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2018