After the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the First World War, Buczacz first came under the control of the short-lived Western Ukrainian republic (1918-19). Under this regime, a Jewish National Committee was set up in Buczacz, and was headed by members of Tseirai Zion. A cell of the radical left Zionist organization Shomer Hatzair was established in the town. After the newly independent Poland recaptured Buczacz, members of Shomer Hatzair were accused of collaboration with the Ukrainians, and several were put on trial.
The outbreak of war in 1920 between Poland and the new Russian Bolshevik regime saw the militants freed. The Red Army occupied Buczacz for about a month, and installed a Jewish youth from Tarnopol as local commissar. In his efforts to suppress the "bourgeoisie" compulsory levies were imposed and their sons and daughters were conscripted for street-cleaning duties. As the Red Army retreated, roving gangs of Ukrainian nationalists under Petlura, raided the defenceless town, murdering, pillaging and raping. The devastation was accompanied by a typhus epidemic that took a high toll especially among children.
The population of Buczacz was anyway much reduced, since few of those Jews who had fled westward (or who had emigrated) now returned. By 1931, the Jewish population of Buczacz had declined to 4440, a fall of over 36% compared to population levels of the late 19th century.
When the writer Sh. Y. Agnon, later a Nobel laureate, revisited this "City of the Dead" in 1930, he was struck by the hopelessness and despair afflicting Buczacz Jewry. His literary descriptions portrayed a grotesque nightmare of desolation and emptiness, a moribund community, a shattered people, empty synagogues, a sullen, morose outlook on life.
The regional economy of Eastern Galicia suffered from policies of neglect and discrimination on the part of the newly independent Poland. Influenced by an ethnic and economic nationalism, the Polish government sought to promote industrialization by creating a class of entrepreneurial ethnic Poles to rival and displace the Jews. Disregarding commitments made under the minorities treaty, the government used its regulatory and fiscal powers to marginalize Jews economically and socially. Government regulations were introduced to exclude Jews from certain industries and occupations which they, historically, had originally developed. Thus, licensing requirements served, in effect, to exclude Jewish artisans from specific crafts and trades. Jewish enterprises were subject to boycotts and harassment, Jewish commercial neighbourhoods to intimidation and progroms. Government fiscal measures magnified the economic burden on Jewish business, as Jews ended up paying some 40% of all direct taxes.
A network of Polish cooperative stores was set up across Western Galicia in order to benefit ethnic rural Poles, while bypassing Jewish shopkeepers. Although the cooperative movement did not as yet extend to Eastern Galicia (where the rural population was predominantly Ukrainian, and therefore did not attract the same concern on the part of the Polish authorities), it nevertheless represented a latent, looming threat to the numerous small and vulnerable Jewish shopkeepers and traders who so characterised the subsistence economy of Galician Jewry. The threat was made explicit, and was conveyed in the semi-official newspaper Gazeta Polska:
The development of the co-operative movement is a healthy and satisfying phenomenon [editorialized Gazeta Polska on 16 January 1937] and we should support it notwithstanding the fact that it spells disaster to Jewish trade. I like the Danes very much but if there were three million of them in Poland I would pray to God to take them away. Maybe we should like the Jews very much if there were only 50,000 of them in Poland.
Polish industrial policy tended to neglect Eastern Galicia, with its largely minority populations of Ukrainian peasants and Jews. Buczacz and its environs remained underdeveloped economically, and were severely deficient in roads and other elements of modern infrastructure.
The status of Poland's Jews improved for a time following the military coup d'etat of 1926 by Marshal Pilsudski, who personally opposed anti-Semitism. In 1927 the military government accorded legal status to Jewish communal organizations, the kehilot, and these became the channel for funding Jewish institutions and social services. Nevertheless, after the death of the Marshal in 1935, Polish politics became increasingly ethnic-nationalist. Heightened political stridency in that context implied the marginalization of Jews. While some Polish political leaders attempted to avert, or at least mitigate, acts against Jews, officially-sponsored anti-Semitism took on a more virulent and exclusionary character.
Polish anti-Semitism even received religious legitimacy from the Roman Catholic Catholic hierarchy. In 1936, Cardinal August Hlond, newly appointed primate of Poland, expressed church's prescriptions against Jews in a widely disseminated pastoral letter.
It is an actual fact that the Jews fight against the Catholic church, they are free-thinkers, and constitute the vanguard of atheism, bolshevism and revolution... It is also true that in the schools the Jewish youth is having an evil influence, from an ethical and religious point of view, on the Catholic youth... One does well to avoid Jewish shops and Jewish stalls in the markets, but it is not permitted to demolish Jewish businesses. One should protect oneself against the influence of Jewish morals...but it is inadmissible to assault, hit or injure Jews.
As a result of this pattern of official discrimination and ethnic marginalization, the economic wellbeing of the Jewish community of Buczacz had deteriorated greatly during the inter-war period. By 1938, out of 1453 Jewish households in Buczacz only 383 earned sufficiently to pay taxes to the kehila. A large component of the populations subsisted on welfare and remittances. Many social services were viable thanks only to the assistance offered by philanthropic organizations, most notably the American Joint Distribution Committee.
Marked by pervasive poverty and underdevelopment, the economic structure of Buczacz Jewry remained stagnant and moribund. As before the war, commercial activities comprised the core of the Jewish economy. The second most important economic sector in terms of employment were the artisan and skilled occupations (367 individuals: 230 employers and 132 employees), followed by transport (waggoners) and the free professions. Among the skilled occupations, the most important were clothing (tailoring), food processing, woodworking, and construction. The main professions included law, medicine, teaching in the local Gymnasia (secondary school).
To assist Jewish small-scale enterprise, the Joint Distribution Committee set up the Jewish Bank which extended credit to merchants and artisans. There was, as well, a free loan society which provided minimal lending to needy entrepreneurs. A Jewish merchants organization was formed during this period, along with an association of Zionist craftsmen. The early 1930s saw the Jewish farmers in the districts around Buczacz form a "Jewish Agriculturalist Association." In 1930 a Jewish cooperative society was opened.
Virtually all the main Jewish political parties in inter-war Poland were active in Buczacz. Foremost among the parties were the General Zionists, whose members were active in the municipality, in the kehila, and in communal financial and welfare institutions. Second in popularity was the United Front, headed by Dr Zvi Heller, established by the Tseirai Zion (Young Zionists). Immediately prior to the First World War the Mizrachi movement (religious Zionists) set up a branch in Buczacz, and its influence now increased among the Mitnagdim in particular. Poalei Zion (Labour Zionists), which had split between left and right factions, was active especially among the trade unions and Yiddish cultural community.
During the 1920s the Zionist Revisionist Party established a minor presence in Buczacz. Similarly, the Bund (General Workers Alliance, the Polish Jewish social democratic labour movement) attempted to build a local bridgehead based on the former Z.P.S., with scant success. The Orthodox religious movement Agudas Yisroel had little representation in Buczacz. On the other hand, some numbers of Jewish youth joined the ranks of the illegal Polish Communist Party. One was killed in action with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
The leading Jewish youth movements in Buczacz was the Shomer Hatzair (socialist "Young Guard"). The movement weakened somewhat after its early leaders went on aliya, to become prominent among the founders of kibbutzim Beit Alfa and Tel Nof. Other active youth movements included HeHalutz (Pioneers), Beitar ("Covenant of [Josef] Trumpeldor" Revisionist Youth), Gordonia (labour Zionist youth), and Achvah (later, Zionist Youth).
The pre-World War One municipal government remained intact until 1921, when a new administration took office. For the elections of 1927, Jews put forward a single electoral list (apart from the Bund, which refused to enter into coalitions with bourgeois parties), and won nearly half the seats. The Bund received a mere 51 votes. In the 1933 elections the Jewish community joined in a common front with the other nationalities, Poles and Ukrainians, so that municipal voting did not take place.
The kehila, the organized Jewish community of Buczacz, was governed by a coalition of parties headed by the Zionists. For most of this period the kehila was headed by Dr Emanuel Merengel, who was by Dr Hecht Reich. The kehila was responsible for the maintenance of buildings and facilities serving the religious needs of the population, the administration of communal property and funds, the provision of kosher meat, the supervison of religious instruction, and the dispensing of charities. The rabbinical court was headed by the dayyan Feivel Shraga Wilig. In 1935 he was appointed town rabbi.
The kehila authorities rehabilitated many of the communal institutions that had been wasted by war. Welfare institutions were supported, including a health care committee that supplied basic personal hygienic products to the poor, with aid from the Joint. Food and dairy products were distributed to the needy, with support from the "TOZ" (Society for the Safeguarding of Heath, financed by the Joint and the OSE, an international Jewish health-care organization founded in Czarist Russia), as was firewood throughout the winter. The Women's International Zionist Organization, WIZO, established in the early 1930s, was active among the poor of Buczacz, especially in postnatal mother and child care. Some 100 needy children were clothed each winter as a result of its efforts.
The main social institutions of Buczacz Jewry included an orphanage, a hospital, and a senior resident's home. An orphanage was established in 1921 through local contributions grants from the kehila, and aid from the Joint. Many of its children were able to acquire education up to the secondary school level. The hospital was re-opened, at first with 15 beds, and was expanded in 1938 with the help of remittances from the United States to 40 beds, including an x-ray unit. The senior citizen's home provided accommodation for some 20 elderly people.
Most Jewish children were enrolled in public schools and in the municipal Gymnasia. A few studied in the Talmud Torah, an officially recognized school that combined secular and religious studies. The Safah Brurah Hebrew school joined the Tarbut education movement in the 1930s, and enrolled some 200 pupils. Some even proceeded to university. The Safah Brurah continued to operate a kindergarten, supported by the Zionist organizations. By the late 1930s, the Gymnasia had begun to impose a quota on Jews. The teachers seminary in Buczacz did not admit Jews at all. Some Jews considered the possibility of establishing a Jewish gymnasia in Buczacz, but financial constraints militated against the proposal.
In the cultural sphere, the combined efforts of the General Zionists, the Zionist Federation and the youth movements helped sustain the newly opened Leon Reich Library, along with a drama society and reading/lecture hall. Various Jewish sports clubs were also active under the aegis of various organizations like the ZKS, the Bund, and the Poalei Zion (both right and left factions). The illegal Communist Party also maintained a front facility, the Sh. Anski cultural club, which included a library, a reading room and a dramatic group.
Among the offspring of Buczacz Jewry who gained prominence during the first decades of the 20th century figured the historian Emanuel Ringelbloom; David Zvi (Heinrich) Miller, University of Vienna Professor of Semitic Epigraphy; the Hebrew writer Yitzhak Ferenhof, author of Mitnagdim; and the Hebrew author and Nobel laureate, Sh. Y. Agnon. Buczacz was, incidentally, the birthplace of the father of Zigmund Freud, who later relocated to Vienna.