I have just come across a fascinating document published last year by Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter – a private multinational initiative aimed at strengthening mutual comprehension and solidarity between Ukrainians and Jews – tracing the origins of Jews in Ukraine from antiquity to the 20th century. A Journey through the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter is based on an exhibition that toured Canada in 2015 and documents how the stories of these two often antagonistic peoples are intertwined and incomplete without one other.
Ukraine itself is a thoroughly modern concept. Prior to independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country had only experienced two very brief and chaotic wartime glimpses of independence – first in 1918 and again in 1941. The territory of modern-day Ukraine has for many centuries been the home of diverse peoples, including one of the oldest and most populous Jewish communities in the world.
This blog post is a brief and very distilled version of the first part of the Journey and I will continue the story in my next post. I thoroughly recommend following the link at the bottom of this page to read the full document. As well as fascinating historical information, it contains some wonderful photographs and illustrations.
The Jewish presence on Ukrainian lands dates all the way back to antiquity. Jews first came to the area as merchants more than 2,000 years ago and began to settle in the coastal towns of Crimea. These Jews became known as Krymchaks. They were later joined by a Jewish sect known as the Karaites that preserved its ancient Biblical faith while rejecting the Talmud and embracing the practices and the Turkic language of the local population.
Some centuries later, during the early medieval period, travelling Jewish traders and merchants settled in the territory that became Transcarpathia (later in Hungary before becoming part of Ukraine). And around the 9th century Jews fleeing persecution in the Byzantine Empire found safe haven in the Khazar Khaganate, which encompassed Kiev and much of the area to the south and east, where they were accepted as citizens.
The Khazar Khaganate came to an end in the 960s with the creation of Kyivan Rus' (960–1240), a conglomerate of principalities in central Ukraine that united several Slavic and other groups. In 988 Prince Volodymyr adopted the Byzantine Greek form of Christianity as the official religion of Kyivan Rus', and Eastern Orthodoxy has remained the dominant religion in Ukrainian lands ever since. Although Church writings in Kyivan Rus' included anti-Judaic themes, the Kyivan princes welcomed the role Jews played in trade and finance, and from the late eleventh century Kyivan Rus' became a refuge for Western European Jews fleeing persecution by the Crusaders.
After unifying the southwestern areas of Kyivan Rus', Prince Danylo of Galicia-Volhynia invited Armenians, Germans, Jews, and Poles to settle in the area, bringing with them artisanal and commercial skills. Interestingly, my grandmother talked about an Armenian quarter in the shtetl of Pavolitch, where she grew up. Although some miles east of Galicia-Volhynia, its origins may have dated from this era.
In the 13th and 14th centuries small Jewish communities developed in Galicia-Volhynia, and Jews helped establish Lviv as a centre for international trade between Central Europe and lands to the east. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania later assumed control over these regions, affording Jews royal protection, but not granting them the rights of citizens. Jews were subject to a raft of economic measures restricting them to work in jobs such as currency exchange and moneylending, breeding the stereotype of the miserly Jewish moneylender. Jews tended to reside in, and help develop, urban areas, making towns such as Lutsk important centres of Jewish life.
Around the same time, Polish princes offered protection to Jews, welcoming them to settle in Poland. This encouraged significant numbers of Jews fleeing persecution in Western Europe to migrate to Poland. In 1507 the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland granted the Jews a charter of protection that exempted them from the jurisdiction of municipal authorities, and offered security against physical attack and the right to practice their religion.
These protections prompted Yiddish-speaking Jews from Central Europe to migrate eastward in significant numbers, living among local Christian Ukrainians and other ethnic groups. Small communities of these Ashkenazi Jews could be found in several northern Ukrainian towns, in contrast to the earlier Jewish inhabitants there, whose primary language was probably Slavic.
Further east, the Crimean Khanate covered much of present-day central and eastern Ukraine from the 15th to 18th centuries. As elsewhere in the medieval Muslim world, Jews in the Crimean Khanate were considered a tolerated monotheistic minority and were allowed to engage in commerce and freely practise their religion, as long as they accepted a subordinate status and kept a low profile.
The largest migration of Jews eastward into Ukrainian lands came as a result of Poland’s territorial expansion and colonising efforts following the Union of Lublin in 1569, which united the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795).
In the Commonwealth, Polish nobles established around 200 private towns around their estates, which attracted considerable numbers of Jews. Jews often administered the nobles’ estates, managing the land, mills, taverns, distilleries, and wine-making operations. They also collected taxes for the Polish nobles and provided credit to both the landlords and peasants. Jewish merchants and artisans, driven out of several Polish cities by their economic competitors, also settled in these towns where they established regular markets and fairs. Jews often found themselves caught between the nobility, who expected them to maximise profit, and the peasants, who resented the economic burdens imposed on them.
Between 1569 and 1648 the number of Jews in the provinces of Volhynia, Podolia, Kyiv, and Bratslav increased from 4,000 to 52,000, encompassing 115 localities. Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gained significant autonomy with Jewish regional councils and a central body of Jewish self-government.
Each Jewish community (kehilah) had its own kahal, or administration, run by leading members of the Jewish and Rabbinical community. Each kahal sent representatives to meetings of a national Jewish council, the Va’ad (or Sejm in Polish) which represented the Jews of the Commonwealth before the king and the Polish parliament. The council also debated and legislated major religious and socio-cultural issues, organised responses to attacks on Jews, served as a high court of appeal for Jewish community courts and apportioned among the communities liability for the collective tax on Jews.
It was in the small market towns owned by the nobility of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that Jews created the shtetl culture mythologised in Jewish folklore. Shtetl is a Yiddish word of Germanic origin meaning ‘small town’ and commonly refers to a small market town with a large Yiddish-speaking Jewish population, which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It is distinct from a dorf (village) and from a shtot (large town, city). A shtetl would generally have between 1,000 and 15,000 Jewish inhabitants, comprising at least 40 percent of the town’s population.
The shtetl was home to all classes of Jewish society, from wealthy entrepreneurs to petty shopkeepers, innkeepers, shoemakers, tailors, water carriers, and beggars. Cultural life was regulated by the Jewish religious calendar and traditional customs, characterised by attitudes, habits of thought, and a unique rhetorical style of speech full of allusions rooted in Talmudic lore. Despite widespread poverty and episodes of anti-Semitic violence, the shtetl produced a vibrant folk culture and a remarkably expressive language, Yiddish.
The Polish lands where so many Jews had settled became part of the Russian Empire during the partitions of Poland under Catherine the Great in 1772–95. Since the late ﬁfteenth century, Jews had been forbidden to settle in Russia, but with the annexation of Polish territories, Catherine became the ruler of the largest Jewish population in the world. Influenced by Enlightenment thinkers and hoping to benefit economically from Jewish trade, Catherine resisted pressure from the Orthodox Church to expel the Jews and settled on a compromise. She created the Pale of Settlement.
Jews were barred from Russian cities and restricted to living in the formerly Polish lands, territory that falls within present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. Some assimilated Jews received special permission to live in the major imperial cities (including Kyiv), others took up residence in the cities illegally. The Pale lasted until the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917.
Click here to see the document on which this article is based
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.