Edmund Spencer – travel through Galicia, 1836 year – part II

Edmund Spencer – 19th century English writer, nobleman and captain. He traveled in Central Europe and the Middle East. In the years 1836-1867 published ten books of his visit in the Caucasus, the Ottoman Empire, Prussia, France and the Habsburg Empire. 

In one of them, he wrote a description of the journey through Galicia.

Source: Biblioteka Narodowa,            II 189.668


Journey to Lemberg — Halicz — Its antiquity — Arrival at Lemberg Description of that town — Claim advanced by Austria to Galicia — Soil and productions of that province Its inhabitants — Their language — Remarks on the Polish Jews — Their character — Theatre at Lemberg.

The only town worth mentioning between Stanislaw and Lemberg is Halicz, prettily situated on the Dniester, and interesting for having been at one time the capital of Galicia, and the residence of its ancient sovereigns, the remains of whose splendid castle still embellishes the landscape. Notwithstanding Halicz must be dear to the Poles, connected as it is with their ancient rulers and history, and that the fertile country in its vicinity abounds with the most beautiful prospects and appropriate sites for building, with the addition of being watered by a fine river, the country appears deserted, and the town is now so miserable in its aspect, and reduced in population, as to be little better than a village.

Lemberg, in the Polish language Lwow, the capital of Galicia, for beauty and elegance far surpassed my expectations; the wooden houses and narrow streets of the old town have entirely disappeared, being replaced by modern buildings, for the most part of massive freestone, whose style of architecture is really tasteful. The ramparts that formerly surrounded the town have also been converted into an agreeable promenade, and the stagnant marsh judiciously drained; when viewed ensemble, the broad well-paved streets, the well-built houses, and imposing public edifices, (especially the town-house, a structure at once chaste and splendid, and one of its greatest ornaments,) justly entitles it to the distinction of ranking among the finest towns in the Austrian empire.

It is much to be regretted, however, that the situation — a confined hollow, fenced in with hills — has not been more judiciously selected; this may be romantic and pleasing for a village, but it is ill-adapted for a large city, where a free circution of air is so necessary to the health of the inhabitants. The want of a deep rapid river is also sensibly felt, for having nothing else than a narrow rivulet, the Peltew (which is dry one half of the year and frozen the other) to carry away the pollutions incident to every large town, fever very frequently prevails; and when it is unfortunately visited by an epidemic, the ravages are fearful. Only a few years since, when the cholera made its appearance at Lemberg, the loss of life was perhaps not exceeded by that of any other town in Europe.

How necessary, then, is it that the site of a populous city should be selected with a view to the public health ; the free circulation of air, and a river calculated to carry away the filth which necessarily accumulates, are of the last importance. If we were to make an estimate of the relative healthiness and unhealthiness of the different cities in Europe, we should find the absence of these advantages to be among the most prolific causes of the sickness and mortality of the inhabitants.

I remained two days in Lemberg, at the pressing invitation of Count P —— , a patriotic Pole, whose brave but unfortunate relative now pines in Austria’s dark bastile, the Spielberg, in Moravia, for his gallant exertions in the cause of Poland during the late unhappy contest. This imprisonment, which is here considered illegal, the offence having been committed in a foreign country, is said to have been a boon granted by the emperor to Russian importunity. Be this as it may, it has excited the angry feelings of the people of Galicia against their German ruler ; while the late outrages committed by the emperor, in conjunction with his allies, on their brethren, the inhabitants of Cracow, have not contributed to allay the irritation.

Since the revolution in Poland, when so many of the inhabitants of Galicia became involved in the consequences of that ill-fated enterprise, and when the sympathy of the entire people was aroused in favour of their countrymen, the Polish language, which previous to that period was neglected by the nobility, is universally spoken in every society, public and private, throughout the country, in preference to the German, a cir­cumstance which has given great umbrage to the Austrian government.

When glancing over the statistical accounts of Galicia, in the language of the Poles, Ilaliczia, we find it to contain about four millions and a half of inhabitants, being an increase of a million and a half since Austria took possession of the country in 1772. That government, in order to exculpate itself from the ignominy of being a party to the atrocious spoliation of Poland, grounds its right of possession upon an old document, which is said to prove that Galicia at one time formed a part of the kingdom of Hungary.

The great increase of the population affords a strong presumptive proof that Galicia has derived some benefit from the rule of Austria, which is the fact. She has reared several towns, with their splendid edifices ; she has taught the people many of the arts of civilized life, many branches of useful knowledge ; and, as example ever pleads far more powerfully than precept, she has sent among them German colonists, a people every where characterized by industry, perseverance, cleanliness, and order. So that should any unforeseen event again elevate Poland to the rank of an independent kingdom, Galicia may feel thankful that she was at one time sheltered beneath the fostering wing of the eagle of Austria.

Notwithstanding the brief duration of the summer in Galicia, and the severity of the winter, the soil produces abundance of excellent grain, and the cattle, especially the horses, are highly esteemed. In addition to the natural fertility of the country, it has the advantage of being irrigated in every direction by the Dniester, the Vistula, the Pruth, the Bug, the Sereth, and their numerous tributaries. The mountains abound with minerals, and nearly the whole of the Galician side of the Carpathian range is composed of fossil salt, and such is the extraordinary abundance of this mineral that in some districts the peasants build their houses of it. Splendid forests everywhere cover the high lands; and on the loftier heights of the Carpathians is found that rare tree, the pinus cembra, which, like the oak, attains the age of a thousand years, without shewing any symptoms of decay. It is said to excel every other in durability, from the circumstance that it is never attacked by worms or insects.

The inhabitants of Galicia, from among whom Austria is supplied with some of her bravest soldiers, are principally composed of the Polaken races, known under the various names of Goralin, Mazuraken, Rusniaken, &c. The language universally spoken by these people is the Polish, which bears a great affinity to the Russian; it is, however, less difficult to attain, and sounds quite as musical as the Italian: unlike the Russians, who adhere to the Greek, the Poles adopt the Latin character in writing and printing.

In addition to the Polaken (Poles), there are colonies of Germans, Moldavians, Wallachians, Bulgarians, and Hungarians, engaged in agriculture ; and great numbers of Jews and Armenians, who pursue their commercial speculations in the towns. Such has been the increase of the Jews of late years, that they now amount to half a million. They may be everywhere distinguished by their peculiar costume, which is the same as I described at Jassy, and from its resemblance to that of the Persians, it is highly probable that they came from that country to Poland and the adjoining countries after their captivity.

For the sake of the reputation of the sons of Israel in Galicia, I wish my account of them were to close here; but I do not think that any set of cheats can be found in Europe more accomplished in all the arts of knavery. No article, however trifling, which the traveller may possess, is secure from their pilfering propensities ; and as nearly the whole of the inns in Galicia are kept by Jews, or provided with Israelitish factors, answering to the French valet de place, they allow their pedler brethren free admission, under pretence of vending their wares, whereas the real object of too many is to transfer to their own bags any portable article that may happen to be in the way. I frequently detected them, during my short stay in the country, in their sleight-of-hand practice, and it required the most unslumbering vigilance to guard against their depredations. In truth, we must consider the great number of Jews in Galicia, and indeed throughout the whole of Poland, as a serious

hindrance to the welfare of the inhabitants, for being, as we well know, absolutely and entirely mercenary, they contribute most fearfully to demoralize the people by vending, which they do almost exclusively, that accursed liquor, the vodka. They also indirectly encourage every kind of theft, for the robber is certain to find in the uninquiring Jew a purchaser of every article, from a pocket handkerchief to a horse.

I am sorry to be obliged to draw so unfavourable a picture of the character of a people whom I had hitherto regarded with sympathy; but it is the duty of a traveller to record the truth, if for no other purpose than to warn future tourists, who may extend their excursions to this part of Europe, against their wholesale impositions and petty pilfering.

In a country like Galicia, where the Jews form so large a portion of the population, we are astonished that the Austrian government, with its really paternal solicitude for the welfare of its subjects, does not enforce some reformation in their habits, or at least oblige them to adopt some mode of industry to obtain their subsistence that might have the effect of rendering them useful, if not honest, members of the community. Instead of this, we cannot at present admit them to he anything else than leeches, imbibing nourishment from their fellow-subjects, cheating the simple peasant, and drawing from the industrious artisan the fruits of his daily labour. How easy would it be for a government despotically constituted like that of Austria to effect a reformation in this people, who are by no means deficient in talent, and possess a peculiar aptitude for excelling in the arts and manufactures! Their children might be taught trades and professions, rather than left to follow the example of their fathers. Neither would this militate against the ruling passion of a Jew — avarice, — as they would ultimately find it more to their advantage to depend for subsistence upon their own skill, than on the uncertain means of usury and petty traffic so universally resorted to by this people. It must, however, be confessed, their intolerant religion, like that of Islamism, overloaded with unmeaning ceremonies and prohibitory laws, — a religion so opposed to its members becoming blended in manners, customs, and social institutions, with those who differ from them in faith, —would interpose strong obstacles. To which we may add, their aversion to any other modes of life than those of usury and petty traffic, by which they obtain wealth without resorting to hard labour, would not be easily conquered; for very rarely in these countries do we find a Jew engaged in agricultural pursuits, or any mechanical employment that requires physical exertion; still, as we before observed, a despotic government like that of Austria, which is at the same time paternal in its acts and tendencies, might overcome every difficulty.

To the traveller in Galicia, and indeed throughout the whole of Poland, the Jews are a source of constant annoyance. In every town and village he finds himself surrounded by a host of these tormentors, — some clamorously offering their services as factors, others thrusting their wares into his face; while the circumstance of nearly every inn throughout the country being kept by these people often occasions him serious inconveniences, for as their religious code forbids them to transact any business on the sabbath, not even to light a fire, it frequently happens, if the inn is not provided with a waiter of a different faith, that not the slightest accommodation can be obtained.

Unfortunately, the Jews in Galicia are not favourably regarded by the Austrian government; a tax called tolerance is levied upon them, by which they purchase the privilege of living in that country. They are kept under the strictest surveillance by the police, detested by the people, who treat them with contumely, and subject them to vexations often wantonly oppressive, which only tends to increase their aversion towards their Christian brethren, whom they regard as tyrants, and no doubt prompts them to retaliate by practising upon them every art of knavery and fraud.

The Jew of these countries is indeed very different from his brethren in those lands in which they are better treated, and regarded with higher consideration. In Asia, for instance, where they are not only tolerated but respected by the Mussulman above every other people that differ from them in faith, they exhibit all the virtues incident to a generous disposition ; and however treacherous and deceitful in their dealings with Christians, they appeared to me to act faithfully towards each other, and displayed kindness and affection in their domestic relations. But here, degraded to the very base of the social column, the Jew is abjectly servile towards the Christian, and never hesitates debasing himself by every act, however mean, if he thinks it will lead to wealth, his only title to consideration.

The nobility of Galicia are also partly answer- able for the demoralized state of the Jews; and such is their avaricious spirit, whether they have inns to let, grain to sell, horses to dispose of, or trinkets and finery to buy for their wives and daughters, the Jew is certain to be preferred, for, owing to his miserable mode of living and few wants, he can afford to give a better price, and sell cheaper, than the Christian. Thus nearly the whole commerce of the country is in the hands of the Jews, while the indigent among them seek to better their condition as factors, pedlers, and pilferers, — always taking care to avoid committing any act that may compromise them in the eye of the law.

In the evening, I accompanied Count P —— and his family to the theatre, which in size and appearance is well suited to a town like Lemberg, which only numbers a population of about fifty thousand ; neither was there any thing to complain of in the decorations and dresses; the latter were really splendid and elegant. My principal object, however, was to see the far-famed Madame Schmidt Frieze, whose attractions, it appeared, were so very great as to occasion the death of a fine young man, allied to some of the noblest families in Galicia, only a few months previously.

The impetuous youth, finding the object of his affections preferred a more fortunate rival, in a moment of disappointment, or insanity, committed suicide. In these matters there is certainly no accounting for taste, but to me the lady appeared plain in her person, without exhibiting either grace or uncommon talent as an actress, and assuredly a less captivating Desdemona never drove Moor or Christian mad for jealousy, — for on this occasion she acted the heroine in Rossini’s opera of “Othello”

The fiery hero was played by a little meagre woman, Madame de la Roche, who, though a good actress, was but very ill calculated to fill this character. The orchestra was excellent, as is generally the case in the Austrian empire, where music is so industriously cultivated; and the singing far better than could be expected in a provincial town so distant from the capital.

I must here beg leave to say a few words respecting my servant Nathan, who was so fortunate, after an absence of ten years, to find his father alive and well at Lemberg. Their meeting was really affecting. The old man, with his flowing beard blanched with age, threw himself on the neck of his long lost child, and wept like an infant: thus realizing the parable of the return of the prodigal son to his father; and, like him, the old man invited the whole of his friends to a banquet to celebrate the event, for he was very rich, having become so by pursuing the usual avocations of his race in these countries. It appears he commenced life as a factor, then dealt in vodka, and kept an inn; after removing from Teschen to Tarnow, he finally settled in Lemberg, – where he trafficked in the more costly merchandize of gold, silver, and fur. At the time the cholera raged in that town he was bereft of his wife, son, and daughter, which left him in his old age a solitary being, without a single individual in the world to whom he was attached. Brokenhearted and disconsolate, he retired from business, to linger out a cheerless existence, unblessed by affection, uncheered by hope, when the return of a son he had long mourned as dead once more gilded his days with gladness, and will probably be the means of adding many years to his life.