Jewish communities have lived in the territory of Ukraine for centuries and developed many of modern Judaism’s most distinctive theological and cultural traditions. While at times they flourished, at other times they faced periods of intense antisemitic discriminatory policies and persecutions. Jewish settlements in Ukraine can be traced back to the 8th century. Jewish refugees from the Byzantine Empire, Persia, and Mesopotamia, fleeing from persecution by Christians throughout Europe, settled in the Khazar Khaganate. The 11th century Byzantine Jews of Constantinople had familial, cultural, and theological ties with the Jews of Kiev. For instance, some 11th-century Jews from Kievan Rus participated in an anti-Karaite assembly held in either Thessalonica or Constantinople.
In Halychyna, the westernmost area of Ukraine, the Jews were mentioned for the first time in 1030. From the second part of the 14th century, they were under the patronage of the Polish kings and magnates. The Jewish population of Halychyna and Bukovyna, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was extremely large; it made up 5% of the world Jewish population.
From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in the 10th century through the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, Poland was one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. It became home to one of the world’s largest and most vibrant Jewish communities. The Jewish community in the territory of Ukraine during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest and most important ethnic groups in Ukraine.
Pale of Settlement Map - Ukraine/Russia
The Ukrainian Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky incited the Cossacks to revolt by telling them that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews.” At that time it is estimated that the Jewish population in Ukraine was 51,325. In the name of Orthodox Christianity the Cossacks killed a large number of Jews, Roman Catholics and Uniates during the years 1648–1649. A significant number of them were taken into captivity by the Crimean Tatars.The precise number of dead may never be known, but estimates range from fifteen thousand to thirty thousand Jews killed or taken captive: 300 Jewish communities were totally destroyed. The Cossack Uprising and the following the Swedish war (1648–1658) left a deep and lasting impression on the Jewish social and spiritual life.
In this time of mysticism and overly formal rabbinism came the teachings of Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, or BeShT, (1698–1760), which had a profound effect on the Jews of Eastern Europe. His disciples taught and encouraged a new fervent brand of Judaism, related to Kabbalah, known as Hasidism. The rise of Hasidic Judaism had a great influence on the rise of Haredi Judaism, with a continuous influence through its many Hasidic dynasties.
The traditional measures of keeping Imperial Russia free of Jews failed when the main territory of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was annexed during the partitions of Poland. During the second (1793) and the third (1795) partitions, large populations of Jews were taken over by Russia, and Catherine II of Russia established the Pale of Settlement that included Congress Poland and Crimea.
During the 1821 anti-Jewish riots in Odessa after the death of the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople, 14 Jews were killed. Some sources claim this episode as the first pogrom, while according to others say the first pogrom was the 1859 riots in Odessa. The term became common after a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish violence swept southern Imperial Russia, including Ukraine, in 1881-1884, after Jews were wrongly blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.
In May 1882, Alexander III of Russia introduced temporary regulations called May Laws that stayed in effect for more than thirty years, until 1917. Systematic policies of discrimination, strict quotas on the number of Jews allowed to obtain education and professions caused widespread poverty and mass emigration. In 1886, an Edict of Expulsion was applied to Jews of Kiev. In 1893-1894, some areas of the Crimean peninsula were cut out of the Pale.
When Alexander III died in Crimea on October 20, 1894, according to Simon Dubnow: “as the body of the deceased was carried by railway to St. Petersburg, the same rails were carrying the Jewish exiles from Yalta to the Pale. The reign of Alexander III ended symbolically. It began with pogroms and concluded with expulsions.”
The Odessa became the home of a large Jewish community during the 19th century, and by 1897 Jews were estimated to comprise some 37% of the population.
Counterrevolutionary groups, including the Black Hundreds, opposed the Revolution with violent attacks on socialists and pogroms against Jews. The concessions came hand-in-hand with renewed, and brutal, action against the unrest. There was also a backlash from the conservative elements of society, notably in spasmodic anti-Jewish attacks — around five hundred were killed in a single day in Odessa. Nicholas II of Russia himself claimed that 90% of revolutionaries were Jews. Persons of Jewish origin were over-represented in the Russian revolutionary leadership. However, most of them were hostile to traditional Jewish culture and Jewish political parties, and were eager to prove their loyalty to the Communist Party’s atheism and proletarian internationalism, and committed to stamp out any sign of “Jewish cultural particularism”.
Anti-Jewish pogroms continued to occur during the Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing Russian Civil War. An estimated 70,000 to 250,000 civilian Jews were killed in the atrocities throughout the former Russian Empire in this period. During the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1919-20), pogroms continued to be perpetrated on Ukrainian ethnic territory. In Ukraine itself, the number of civilian Jews killed during the period was estimated to be between 35 and 50 thousand. Archives declassified after 1991 provide evidence of a higher number; in the period from 1918 to 1921, “according to incomplete data, at least 100,000 Jews were killed in Ukraine in the pogroms.”
In 1921 Crimea became an autonomous republic. In 1923 the All-Union Central Committee passed a motion to resettle a large number of the Jewish population from Ukrainian and Belorusian cities to Crimea. 50400 families were moved. The plan to further resettle Jewish families was again confirmed by the Central Committee of the USSR on July 15, 1926 assigning 124 million roubles to the task and also receiving 67 million from foreign sources.The Soviet initiative of Jewish colonisation of Crimea was opposed by Symon Petlura which he regarded as a provocation. This train of thought was supported by Arnold Margolin who stated that it would be dangerous to set up Jewish colonies there. The actions of the Soviet government for the supported colonization of Crimea with Jewish families by 1927 led to a growing anti-semitism in the area. In 1944 it was suggested to Stalin to form a Jewish Soviet Socialist Republic in Crimea however the idea was not materialised.
In 1905 a series of pogroms erupted at the same time as the 1905 Revolution against the government of Tsar Nicholas II. The chief organizers of the pogroms were the members of the League of the Russian People (commonly known as the “Black Hundreds”).In June 1906 a pogrom in Bialystok, in which eighty people were killed, marked the end of three years of sporadic anti-Jewish violence.
From 1911-1913 the anti-Semitic tenor of the period was characterized by a number of blood libel cases (accusations of Jews murdering Christians for ritual purposes). One of the most famous was the two-year trial of Mendel Beilis, who was charged with the murder of a Christian boy (Lowe 1993, 284-90). The trial was showcased by the authorities to illustrate the perfidy of the Jewish population.
From March-May 1915, in the face of the German army, the government expelled thousands of Jews from the Empire’s border areas, which coincide with the Pale of Settlement.
The February 1917 revolution brought a liberal Provisional Government to power in the Russian Empire. On 21 March/3 April, the government removed all “discrimination based upon ethnic religious or social grounds”. The Pale was officially abolished. The removal of the restrictions on Jews’ geographical mobility and educational opportunities led to a migration to the country’s major cities.
One week after the 25 October/7 November 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the new government proclaimed the “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples [Nations] of Russia,” promising all nationalities the rights of equality, self-determination and secession. Jews were not specifically mentioned in the declaration, reflecting Lenin’s view that Jews did not constitute a nation.
In 1918 the RSFSR Council of Ministers issued a decree “On the Separation of Church from State and School from Church”, depriving religious communities of the status of juridical persons, the right to own property and the right to enter into contracts; nationalized their property; banning their assessment of religious tuition. As a result, religion could be taught or studied only in private.
1 February, 1918: The Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs is established as a subsection of the [Commissariat for Nationality Affairs]]. It is mandated to establish the “dictatorship of the proletariat in the Jewish streets” and attract the Jewish masses to the regime while advising local and central institutions on Jewish issues. The Commissariat is also expected to fight the influence of Zionist and Jewish-Socialist Parties.
27 July 1918: The Council of People’s Commissars issues a decree stating that anti-Semitism is “fatal to the cause of the … revolution”. Pogroms are officially outlawed.
20 October 1918: The Jewish section of the CPSU (Yevsektsia) is established for the Party’s Jewish members; its goals are similar to those of the Jewish Commissariat. The Yevsektsia is at the forefront of the anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s that lead to the closing of religious institutions, the break-up of religious communities and the further restriction of access to religious education. To that end a series of “community trials” against the Jewish religion are held. The last known such trial, on the subject of circumcision, was held in 1928 in Kharkiv. At the same time, the body also works to establish a secular identity for the Jewish community.
In July 1919 the Central Jewish Commissariat dissolves the kehilahs (Jewish Communal Councils). The kehilahs had provided a number of social services to the Jewish community. From 1919-1920 Jewish parties and Zionist organizations are driven underground as the Communist government seeks to abolish all potential opposition.
31 January 1924: The Constitution of the USSR is confirmed. The USSR consists of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), Ukrainian SSR, Belorussian SSR and Transcaucasian SSR. The Commissariat for Nationalities’ Affairs is disbanded.
29 August 1924: An official agency for Jewish resettlement, the Commission for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land (KOMZET), is established. KOMZET studies, manages and funds projects for Jewish resettlement in rural areas.
January 1925: A public organization, the Society for the Agricultural Organization of Working Class Jews in the USSR (OZET), is created to help recruit colonists and support the colonization work of KOMZET. For the first few years, the government encourages Jewish settlements, particularly in Ukraine. Support for the project dwindles throughout the next decade.
In 1928, in an effort to establish a Jewish territorial region, KOMZET sends a number of Jews to the confluence of the Bira and Bidzhan Rivers in the Far East. Colonization of this area will help to create a buffer between the Soviet Union and the Far Eastern countries, and to stimulate development in the remote region.
8 April 1929: The new Law on Religious Associations codifies all previous religious legislation. All meetings of religious associations are to have their agenda approved in advance; lists of members of religious associations must be provided to the authorities.
In 1930 the Yevsektsia is dissolved, and there is now no central Soviet-Jewish organization. Although the body had served to undermine Jewish religious life, its dissolution leads to the disintegration of Jewish secular life as well; Jewish cultural and educational organizations gradually disappear. When the Soviet government reintroduced the use of internal passports in 1933, “Jewish” is considered an ethnicity for these purposes.
7 May 1934: Birobidzhan Province, the Far Eastern area where Jews are being encouraged to settle, is granted the status of an Autonomous Region in an effort to revitalize the settlement program. Between 1928 and 1934, fewer than 20,000 Jews migrate there; approximately 60 per cent return in the same period. In 1938 OZET is disbanded, following years of declining activities.
The cities with the largest populations of Jews in 1926 were Odessa, 154,000 or 36.5% of the total population; Kyiv, 140,500 or 27.3%; Kharkiv, 81,500 or 19.5%; and Dnipropetrovsk, 62,000 or 26.7%. In 1931 Lviv’s Jewish population numbered 98,000 or 31.9%, and in Chernivtsi, 42,600 or 37.9%.
As the Soviet government annexes territory in Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, roughly two million Jews become Soviet citizens. Restrictions on Jews that had existed in the formerly independent countries are now lifted. The Baltic states had begun their brief period of independence as democracies.Policies of “Latvianization” and “Lithuanization” also caused friction with all minorities, although the Lithuanian government at the same time supported minority-language schooling. At the same time, Jewish organizations in the newly-acquired territories are shut down and their leaders arrested and exiled. Approximately 250,000 Jews escape or are evacuated from the annexed territories to the Soviet interior prior to the Nazi invasion.
During the Holocaust in Ukraine, Lviv Civilian Massacre (1941), Reichskommissariat Ukraine, Babi Yar, and Odessa massacre The total civilian losses during the war and German occupation in Ukraine are estimated at seven million, including over a million Jews shot and killed by the Einsatzgruppen and the local Ukranians supporters – the majority of the nation in the western part of Ukraine.
In 1989, a Soviet census counted 487,000 Jews living in Ukraine. At present Ukraine contains the third-largest Jewish community in Europe and the fifth-largest Jewish community in the world. The majority of Ukrainian Jews live in four large cities: Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa. The Ukrainian Jewish Committee was established in 2008 in Kiev with the aim to concentrate the efforts of Jewish leaders in Ukraine on resolving strategic problems of the community and addressing socially significant issues. The Committee declared its intention to become one of the world’s most influential organizations protecting the rights of Jews and “the most important and powerful structure protecting human rights in Ukraine”
Rabbis Yaakov Dov Bleich of Kiev and Shmuel Kaminetzky of Dnipropetrovsk are considered to be among the most powerful foreigners in the country. In November 2007, an estimated 700 Torah scrolls previously confiscated from Jewish communities during the Soviet Union’s Communist rule were returned to Jewish communes in Ukraine by the state authorities.There is a growing trend among some Israelis to visit Ukraine, Zhytomyr, Korostyshiv, Berdychiv, Rivne, Drohobych, Buchach with a “roots trips” to follow the footsteps of Jewish life there and their ancestors.
NOTABLE UKRAINIAN JEWS
Adolph Joffe, Bolshevik diplomat
Karl Radek, Soviet politician
Grigory Sokolnikov, Bolshevik politician
Abram Slutsky, headed the Soviet foreign intelligence service (INO), then part of the NKVD
Leon Trotsky, Bolshevik politician, the founder of the Red Army
Moisei Uritsky, Soviet politician
Grigory Yavlinsky, Russian politician, head of a liberal “Yabloko” party
Grigory Zinoviev, Soviet politician
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, second President of Israel (1952-63)
Shmuel Dayan, Zionist activist, Israeli politician
Levi Eshkol, Israeli Prime Minister (1963-69)
Ephraim Katzir, fourth President of Israel (1973-78)
Golda Meir, Israeli Prime Minister (1969-74)
Natan Sharansky, Israeli politician
Moshe Sharett, Israeli Prime Minister (1954-55)
Israeli military persons
Yaakov Dori, the first Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) (1948-1949)
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of British Jewish Legion
Tzvi Tzur, the sixth Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (1961-1964)
Soldiers and Revolutionaries
Pavel Axelrod, Menshevik, Marxist revolutionary
Yakov Blumkin, Soviet spy
Ivan Chernyakhovsky, Soviet Front Commander, WWII
Leo Deutsch, revolutionary
Raya Dunayevskaya, founder of Marxist humanism in the U.S.
Grigory Goldenberg, revolutionary
Olga Kameneva, Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and a Soviet politician (sister of Leon Trotsky)
Rodion Malinovsky, Soviet front commander, WWII, Minister of Defence (Jewish origin is disputed)
Alexander Parvus, revolutionary
Sidney Reilly,(Born Shlomo Rosenblum) a Ukrainian-born adventurer and Secret Intelligence Service agent
Pinhas Rutenberg, Zionist, Social revolutionary
V. Volodarsky, communist revolutionary
Iona Yakir, Red Army commander and one of the world’s major military reformers between World War I and World War II
Other Historical figures
Michael Dorfman, Russian-Israeli essayist and human rights activist
Yisroel ben Eliezer (The Baal Shem Tov), Rabbi, founder of Hasidic Judaism
Shlomo Ganzfried, Rabbi
Fanny Kaplan, would-be assassin of Lenin
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch
Leon Bagrit, pioneer of automation
Bernard Delfont, impresario
Leslie Grade, executive
Lew Grade, founder of ATV
Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal
Viktor Vekselberg, billionaire, steelmaker
Waldemar Haffkine, biologist, vaccine against colera and plague
Boris Hessen, physicis
Abram Ioffe, nuclear scientist
Veniamin Levich, electrochemist
Alexander Vilenkin, cosmologist
Selman Waksman, biochemist, Nobel Prize (1952)
Georgy Adelson-Velsky, mathematician
Vladimir Arnold, mathematician
Solomon Buber, Hebraist
Ariel Durant, historian,
Boris Eichenbaum, historian
Mikhail Epstein, literary theorist
Moshe Feldenkrais, inventor of the Feldenkrais method
Alexander Gerschenkron, economic historian
Jean Gottmann, geographer
Jacob Marschak, economist
Simon Barere, pianist
Felix Blumenfeld, pianist
Shura Cherkassky, pianist
Isaak Dunayevsky, composer
Mischa Elman, violinist
Anthony Fedorov, singer, American Idol finalist
Samuil Feinberg, composer
Emil Gilels, pianist
Maria Grinberg, pianist
Jascha Horenstein, conductor
Vladimir Horowitz, pianist
Tina Karol, singer
Leonid Kogan, violinist
Mikhail Kopelman, violinist
Oleg Maisenberg, pianist
Samuel Maykapar, composer/pianist
Nathan Milstein, violinist
Benno Moiseiwitsch, pianist
David Oistrakh, violinist
Igor Oistrakh, violinist (Jewish father)
Leo Ornstein, composer
Gregor Piatigorsky, cellist
Pokrass brothers, composers
Joseph Schillinger, composer, music theorist, and composition teacher
Leo Sirota, pianist
Isaac Stern, violinist
Yakov Zak, pianist
Performing and fine artists
Jacob Adler, actor
Nathan Altman, painter and stage
Boris Aronson, painter & designer
Nudie Cohn, fashion designer
Sonia Delaunay, painter
Maya Deren, filmmaker
Boris Efimov, cartoonist
Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), playwright and theatre director
Boris Iofan, architect
Ilya Kabakov, conceptual artist (Jewish father)
Yevgeny Khaldei, photographer
Aleksei Kapler, film artist
Jacob Kramer, painter
Mila Kunis, actress
Morris Lapidus, architect
Anatole Litvak, director
Alla Nazimova, actress
Louise Nevelson, sculptor
Solomon Nikritin, painter
Jules Olitski, painter
Leonid Pasternak, painter
Antoine Pevsner, sculptor
Elena Ralph, model
Yakov Smirnoff, American comedian
Writers and poets
Sholom Aleichem, Yiddish-language writer
Isaac Babel, writer
Eduard Bagritsky, poet
Hayyim Nahman Bialik, poet
Yosef Haim Brenner, Hebrew-language writer
Sasha Cherny, poet
Michael Dorfman, journalist and esseyst
Ilya Ehrenburg, writer
Alexander Galich, playwright poet
Asher Hirsch Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’Am), Hebrew-language writer
Lydia Ginzburg, writer
Jacob Gordin, American playwright
Vasily Grossman, writer
Ilya Ilf, writer
Vera Inber, poet
A.M. Klein, poet
Pavel Kogan, poet
Lev Kopelev, author and dissident
Benedikt Livshits, writer
Nadezhda Mandelstam, writer
Yunna Morits, poet
Anatoli Rybakov, writer
Boris Slutsky, war-time poet
Shaul Tchernichovsky, poet and translator
David Bronstein, World Championship challenger
Haim Nahman Bialik;
Mendele Mocher Sforim