In his first book, Andrew Zalewski traced his mother’s family from the 18th century to the mid-20th. Now, in Galician Portraits, he discovers his father’s side, who also lived in Galicia, but whose experiences were very different simply because they were Jewish. Yet Galician Portraits is much more than a record of one family. The story is anchored in Austrian Galicia (1772–1918), which once spanned parts of today’s Poland and Ukraine; but it also covers centuries of Jewish history there, before and after Austrian Galicia existed. Large cities, small towns, and tiny farming villages are the tale’s backdrop. In them, people from a variety of ethnic groups live alongside a large community of Israelites.
In these pages, Galicia’s Jewish community emerges as far more diverse than one could ever imagine. The laws and trends of the day were hotly debated within it. A perpetual tension between old and new sometimes brought dramatic consequences, even breakaway factions. Passionate arguments about language, customs, and loyalties easily erupted. But even in difficult times, there were brave voices which spoke loudly against prejudice.
Tracing Jewish heritage anywhere in Europe is complicated; and certainly, the long shadow of WWII broke any continuity between past and present in the place that was called Galicia. Yet the author has discovered many voices that had long been forgotten, as well as surprising details about his own family.