I recently came across some information about the town of Skvira, close to my grandmother’s ancestral home in Pavolitch, on a Ukrainian website that is documenting the region’s old shtetls. Skvira is around 20 miles from Pavolitch, and when my father and I visited the area in 2005, we were given a tour of the shiny new synagogue there, built the previous year.
The ancient town of Skvira was destroyed at the end of the 16th century, but was gradually rebuilt and by the mid-18th century, it was documented as a village, leased to a Jewish tenant. According to a census of 1765, there were 124 houses in Skvira, 51 of which belonged to Jews. By 1897, just before my grandmother was born, almost 9,000 Jews lived in the town – half the population. By this time, Skvira had seven synagogues, seven Jewish prayer houses, a parish school and a hospital.
Skvira was home to the court of a branch of the famous Twersky Hassidic dynasty, founded by Rabbi Yitzchak of Skvira (1812-1885). The Twersky court gathered thousands of Hassidim for high holidays and its dynasty still exists today, most notably in New Square (Novy Skvir), in Rockland County, New York. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many of its followers returned to Skvira to rebuild the synagogue and the Tzaddik’s court.
The court housed a yeshiva, or Rabbinical school, where my great-uncle Naftula was a student. My family were followers of another branch of the Twersky dynasty, in Makarov. My great-grandfather grew up at the Rabbinical court there, his own grandfather having been an advisor to the famous Reb Dovidl Twersky of Talna.
Skvira suffered a wave of pogroms during the civil war (1917-20), during which more than 600 Jews were killed and a further 400 injured. The pogroms were led by different ‘banda’ (as my grandmother called the groups of armed thugs roaming the area, each with allegiance to a different leader). Three of the pogroms, in February 1919 and two in September the same year, were organised by Ukrainian independence fighters under Symon Petlyura. Others were led by the Red Army, the White Army under General Denikin, and Ukrainian People’s Army troops. Hundreds of women were raped, houses burnt to the ground, Jewish property seized and destroyed or sold. The town was left in ruins. The pogroms were followed by a typhus epidemic, which killed up to 30 people a day. Naftula had been in Skvira at the time of some of the worst pogroms, but thankfully was unharmed.
The town’s Jewish population numbered some 15,000 before the pogroms, and just 10,000 afterwards. Many then fled to Kiev, Odessa or nearby Belaya Tserkov, or emigrated. By the start of World War II, the Jewish population had been whittled down to 2,243, although this still made it one of the biggest Jewish communities in Ukraine at the time.
Like everywhere else in the region, Skvira suffered terrible atrocities during World War II. In September 1941, around 850 Jews were gathered and shot in three pits in the Jewish cemetery. Two further mass killings (or ‘actions’) took place, in October and November of the same year. The total number of Jewish deaths in the town during the Nazi occupation was 1,230. Skvira was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in December 1943. The post-war Jewish population numbered about 1,000, many of whom had escaped to the Urals or Central Asia during the war years. In 2009, shortly after my visit, only around 120 Jews remained.
See http://jewua.org/skvira/ for more information
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.