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Podolia and her Jews, a brief history

By David Bickman

Related to: Podolia (Province)Historical Documents

The earliest Jewish settlers in Podolia are believed to have come from Italy, Greece and Turkey and to have been of Sephardi or Oriental, including Palestinian, origin. These settlers have left virtually no evidence of their presence in the region save for some written records. Substantial evidence, however, still exists to document the arrival and settlement of the area by Ashkenazi Jews from the Germanic lands and Poland. Documentary evidence exists today attesting to the presence of Jews in 3 different towns in Podolia in the 1400's.

Jews began to come to Podolia in significant numbers from the West in the 1500's, particularly after 1569 when most of what today is the Ukraine was annexed to Poland. By 1569, approximately 750 Jews lived in 9 localities in Podolia. By 1648, the year of the Ukrainian revolt led by Khmelnitsky, there were approximately 4000 Jews living in 18 localities in Podolia.

The economic position filled by the Jews in the 17th century in Podolia was primarily that of a middle class between the Polish landowning nobles and the Ukrainian landless peasants. The Jews largely prospered in this position gradually coming to be identified by the local population with the Polish ruling class, and they were equally resented.

The Khmelnitsky revolts which commenced in 1648, were largely directed against Polish rule in the Ukraine, but the Jews were equally victimized in their barbaric destruction. In the period 1651-1655, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in the Ukraine and eastern Poland; they were virtually eliminated from Podolia in this period. Massacres are known to have occurred in such towns as Bar, Kamenets Podolsk and Polonnoye.

Podolia briefly came under Ottoman control, from 1672-1699, and was then reacquired by Poland in 1699. Poles and Jews again came into Podolia, the Poles again as rulers and the Jews again as the Poles' local administrators, merchants, innkeepers and petty traders. The Jews lived as a separate religious and national group, with their own virtual government within a government; they were prohibited from participating in the civic government created by the Polish rulers. The Jewish leadership, known in each district as the Kahal, had complete authority over the Jews and was also responsible for collecting taxes from the Jews and remitting them to the Polish government, operating, in effect, as a parallel institution to it.

By 1765, there were approximately 45,000 Jews living in 554 towns and villages in Podolia.

Poland as a separate nation became progressively weaker and more ineffective in the 18th century, gradually losing more and more of her territory to the powerful nations which surrounded her: Prussia to the west, Austro-Hungary to the south and Russia to the east. In 1793, Russia annexed a substantial part of eastern Poland, including Podolia. In the hundred years preceding this annexation, life for the Jews in Podolia had been relatively peaceful insofar as persecution by the Poles or Ukrainians was concerned; the grinding poverty and religious and cultural depravation of the region had given rise to the birth of Chassidism in Medziboz, Podolia, led by the Baal Shem Tov, and there were the earliest murmurings of the Enlightenment (known as the "Haskala") emanating from Germany. But the Russian annexation was to change life irrevocably for the Jews of all of the annexed lands, including Podolia.

Shortly after the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Russian government created Podolia as a gubernia (province) of Russia, and Ushitsa as a uezd (county) within Podolia. The largest single ethnic group in the gubernia was by far Ukrainian, followed by the Jews, Poles, Russians and Germans. The border with Austro-Hungary was the Zbruch River (and was to remain so until after WWI), about 80 km west of Nova Ushitsa.

Special laws pertaining to the Jews were introduced by the Russian government very shortly after the annexations from Poland. For example, in 1804, a statute was passed that, among other things, required the Jews to acquire family names; until this time Jews had given names and patronymic names, but no surname. The Kahals were initially accepted and recognized by the Russian government, largely because many of them had large, outstanding debts to Christian institutions and the government wanted these debts repaid before the Kahals were abolished. The Kahals were used by the government to collect these debts, collect taxes and, later, to enforce various Russian laws directed at the Jews.

In 1827, Czar Nicholas I introduced the draft for the Jews (by 1856, Jews were a greater proportion of the Army's soldiers than they were of the general population). Jews were drafted at age 18 and served for 25 years. Some Jews were taken from their parents at age 12 for 6 years of preparatory training (these recruits were called "cantonists") prior to commencing their military service. Substitutions for draftees were allowed who also had to be Jews; in this way, the wealthier Jews were often able to bribe their way out of military service and the poorer Jews were even more victimized. The administration of the draft was the responsibility of the Kahals, causing much dissension and resentment within the Jewish communities and undermining their internal solidarity. Because one of the major objectives of the draft was conversion to Christianity (Russian, or Greek, Orthodoxy), the techniques employed by the Jews to evade the draft were many, varied and often drastic.

The Russian conscription law also spawned the development of a new profession, that of the informer who reported to the authorities on efforts by the Jews to evade the draft. There are numerous reported cases of such informers being caught and punished by the Jewish communities, one particularly serious incident of this nature having occurred in Nova Ushitsa in the 1830's.

Established by Catherine II in 1791, the "Pale of Settlement" was clarified and demarcated in 1835 by the Russian government, and Jews were required to maintain their residence only within the "Pale" (this law remained in effect until 1915). In 1843, Jews were expelled from Russian lands along the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian frontiers and thereafter were not permitted to live within 50 km of the frontier with Austro-Hungary (this law remained in effect until 1904). In addition, Jewish males were forbidden to marry until age 18, and Jewish females until age 16. In 1836, the government ordered and implemented the censorship of Jewish books and the closing of Jewish printing houses; four years later, educational "reform" was introduced. By 1844, schools created by the government for Jews were spreading throughout the "Pale", the primary if not sole objective of these schools being to convert the Jews into Russians, culturally and religiously. One such school opened in Kamenets Podolsk in 1849; and one in Proskurov (now Khmelnitsky) in 1850. By 1855, such schools existed throughout the "Pale". The vast majority of the Jews avoided these schools, so Jewish schools were placed under government supervision and secular subjects taught in Russian became a compulsory part of their educational programme.

The Kahals were abolished in 1844 and the Jews came completely under Russian law. The Jewish leadership in each community now had its authority limited largely to strictly religious and communal matters. While this step by the authorities in and of itself had little immediate effect and the kahals were still able to maintain some power within the Jewish communities until late in the 19th century, various subsequent government measures undertaken against the Jews ultimately brought an end to Jewish self government and Jewish life as it had hitherto been known.

In 1856 the draft of cantonists was abolished and conversionist policies were ameliorated. Children were permitted to return to their parents if they had not been converted; those who converted were placed with reliable Russian Orthodox families. A Polish insurrection in 1863, supported by many of the Jews, led to severe repression of both Poles and Jews by the Czarist regime; the modest liberalization of rule in the previous ten years abruptly ended and, in fact, was reversed.

The census of 1840 counted 115,143 Jews in Podolia, out of a total population of 1,691,928 (about 7%). A similar census in 1888 counted 325,907 Jews out of a total population of 2,470,142 (about 13%). In 1897, a detailed census found the Jews to be 12.3% of the total population of Podolia. The peak proportion of Jews to the total population was likely about 13% as about half of the emigrants from Podolia in the period between 1881 and the outbreak of WWI are believed to have been Jews.

For most of the 19th century, the Poles were the dominant class in Podolia, being most of the landowners, factory owners and intelligentsia. The middle, or merchant, class was predominantly Jewish, and the agrarian, or peasant, class was almost exclusively Ukrainian. Relations between the Poles and Ukrainians, to the extent that there were any at all, were poor; the Jews often found themselves caught in between. Accordingly, conflicts between the Polish and Ukrainian peoples inevitably led to Jewish pain and suffering as both accused the Jews of siding with the other. Whenever it suited the Russian rulers, they exploited these inter-ethnic tensions, occasionally permitting and even encouraging matters to "boil over". Pogroms would result, in which the Jewish population would suffer beatings, rapes, murders and looting.

While the Jews were not initially adverse to the Russian annexations, having suffered considerable persecution under the Poles and believing the Russians couldn't be any worse, by the 1880's life in Podolia for the Jews (and, only to a slightly lesser extent, everyone else as well) had become highly problematic and virtually unbearable. The year 1881 saw the beginning of severely repressive laws directed specifically against the Jews. The economic improvement of the Jews' lot in the previous 20 years, during Alexander II's rule, was abruptly ended under Alexander III's rule. Restrictions were placed on the Jews' ability to earn a living and where they could live; pogroms became commonplace. Authorities, under instructions from above, stood by while Jewish homes and businesses were vandalized and Jews were beaten, raped and murdered. One of the long-stated objectives of the Russian government was now being achieved: emigration of the Jewish population. In the period 1881-1914 several millions of Jews left Russia for other parts of the world, primarily North America. Many of these emigrants came from Podolia, where several pogroms occurred.

In the early 1880's a number of pogroms occurred throughout the Ukraine, 63 of which were in Podolia. The pogrom nearest to Nova Ushitsa took place in Zhmerinka, 40 miles to the northeast, in April, 1881. Repressive government measures following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, which took place on March 1, 1881, and for which the authorities unjustly blamed the Jews, precipitated the pogroms and caused so much suffering amongst the Jewish population in the Ukraine that many chose to leave the country.

Economic restrictions imposed on the Jewish population by the Russian government were almost always at the instance of, and in order to pacify, Ukrainian and Polish citizens who claimed that they could not compete, without the restrictions, with their Jewish neighbours.

Not only the Jews, however, were dissatisfied with their lot in life in Czarist Russia. While Jews for the most part were displaying their disillusionment in the late nineteenth century by emigrating, some joined their gentile neighbours in the various revolutionary movements that were prevalent in Russia at the time. Central authority was weakening, as became particularly evident in Russia's defeat in the war with Japan in 1905. The government attempted, with limited success, to blame this defeat on the Jews, notwithstanding the uncontroverted fact that a disproportionate number of Jews served in the Imperial army in the war against Japan. Pogroms occurred throughout the Pale, 37 in Podolia. Such outrages are reported to have occurred in November and December, 1905 in Kamenets Podolsk, Zhmerinka and Bershad. Some Jews decided to fight back, resulting in the organization in Podolia of self-defence units. Jews also continued to emigrate at record levels, until it was halted by the outbreak of WWI.

Prior to the beginning of WWI, Podolia was the most southwesterly gubernia in Czarist Russia. Podolia's western boundary bordered on Galicia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; her souther boundary bordered on Bukovina, also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czarist Russia and Austro-Hungary were enemies in this conflict and much of Podolia was occupied, firstly by Austro-Hungarian forces and later by German forces. Before the war officially ended, Russia withdrew from the conflict as a result of the onset of the Revolution. Shortly thereafter, the war ended and Germany and Austro-Hungary were defeated. Podolia was evacuated by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, leaving a vacuum insofar as governmental authority was concerned. For the next 4 or 5 years, anarchy prevailed as various factions, amongst them Ukrainian nationalists and Russian Bolsheviks, fought each other for control of the region.

Those few Jews who participated in the struggle for control of the Ukraine in the period 1917-1922 were mostly on the side of the Bolsheviks, though a small number threw in with the Ukrainian nationalists. In July, 1917, the provisional Ukrainian government declared its independence from Russia and granted autonomy to all minorities within its boundaries. The initial reaction of the Ukrainian Jewish communities was positive; however, the Kerensky regime, then in power in Moscow, and the Bolshevik regime which followed it both opposed Ukrainian independence. The seizure of power in Moscow by the Bolsheviks led to anarchy throughout the former Czarist empire, including the Ukraine, and Russia shortly thereafter invaded the Ukraine to put down the independence attempt.

The majority of the Jews took no position in the dispute between the Ukrainian nationalists and the Russian Bolsheviks, rightly having come to the conclusion that none of the combatting factions offered them anything better than the miserable life they already knew under the Czars. There were numerous pogroms in this period as well, resulting in many deaths and further impoverishment of the Jews. Before 1919, the pogroms primarily occurred in the cities, one particularly ugly such pogrom occurring in the city of Proskurov (Khmelnitsky). After 1919, they were more prevalent in the villages. Again, the Jews were unfairly accused, this time of being pro-Bolshevik and anti-Ukrainian. Jewish self-defence organizations were established in many cities, towns and villages, as once again the "ruling" authorities were either unwilling or unable to prevent attacks by the various factions on the Jewish population.

The defeat of the Ukrainian nationalists by the Bolsheviks was followed by numerous terrible pogroms against the Jews in the Ukraine; these actions were most often led by Ukrainian soldiers supported by Ukrainian civilians, and were "justified" as retaliation against the Jews for their support of communism.

Of the three periods in which pogroms occurred in Ukraine, the worst period was from 1917-1921. In Podolia alone, 213 pogroms are recorded, the vast majority of them having been committed by supporters of one or another of the various Ukrainian nationalist movements that were operating at the time in the region.

The Bolsheviks ultimately emerged as the victors of the conflict and the entire Ukraine shortly thereafter underwent a harsh, involuntary and forced adaptation to Communist domination that, some 75 years later, it has yet to overcome. Agrarian reform, for example, starved millions of Ukrainians, amongst them the Jews, to death. Many people were forced to emigrate from Ukraine to other parts of the USSR; emigration abroad was severely restricted to the point that very few people even attempted to leave the country.

The Jews of Podolia at the beginning of the Communist regime were for the most part town and village dwellers engaged in small businesses as tradesmen and petty traders. Communism virtually eliminated all of these occupations, causing the Jews to leave the small towns and villages for the cities where they sought work in factories and government-run stores as labourers and clerks. In the 1920s, some Jews were able to emigrate abroad. While western Europe and North America were largely closed to these emigrants in this period, South America, Argentina and Brazil in particular, were relatively open.

Life was hard in Podolia in the 1930s as well as before, but political stability had by then been achieved, at a terrible cost in lives and dislocation. As part of the overall Communist plan, agriculture was collectivized and the middle class was abolished. The economic impact on the Jews of Podolia and their Ukrainian neighbours was catastrophic. The abolition of any religious practises other than Communism resulted in the closing, by the end of the 1930s, of virtually all of the synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Traditional Jewish life, as it had existed in Podolia for hundreds of years, by 1939 virtually ended. The vast bulk of the Jews were now proletarians who, but for their names and language (Yiddish) were indistinguishable from the other people in whose midst they lived.

In September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west and, shortly thereafter, ostensibly for security and safety reasons, but in fact as part of a previously arranged pact with the Nazis, the Soviet Union entered Poland from the east. Germany and the USSR divided Poland between them and, for a time, eastern Poland was under Soviet domination. Almost two years later, in late June, 1941, Germany and her allies (Hungary and Romania, in particular) attacked eastern Poland and quickly advanced through this region and into the western Soviet republics, including the Ukraine.

WWII came to Podolia in July, 1941. By the time this war ended, not only did Jewish life end in Podolia; the Jews, as a people, were identified, segregated and murdered by the German occupiers to such an extent that, after 1945, not even a semblance of Jewish life remained.

Germany and the USSR divided Poland between them in the fall of 1939. This move ended Poland's existence as an independent country and extended Soviet Russia's western boundary westwards to include Galicia. Jews seeking to escape German occupation moved from German-occupied Poland to Soviet-occupied Poland and thence to, among other regions of the USSR, Podolia. These Jewish newcomers were more religious and familiar with Jewish culture, customs and traditions than their Podolian brothers and sisters; they had not been subjugated in Poland to the same kind of Communist indoctrination that destroyed Jewish life in Podolia. Jewish life in Podolia in the period 1939-1941 was briefly invigorated by these newcomers, but this interlude ended with Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941.

Part of Germany's plan for the invasion and occupation of the USSR included the extermination of all of the Jews; therefore, not long after the beginning of the invasion, the outright slaughter of the Jewish civilian population of the occupied lands took place. The vast bulk of Podolia was occupied in the first few months of the invasion, by Hungarian and German forces. The organized murder of Jewish civilians was undertaken by special German forces, known as Einsatzgruppen, with assistance from regular German forces as needed and from local collaborators, of whom there were many. Jews were typically taken from their homes in the towns and villages of Podolia and led out of town to pre-prepared sites where they were stripped, lined up and shot, and then buried in mass graves. In some towns and villages, ghettoes were set up and able-bodied Jews were kept for slave labour, only to be murdered later, in the same fashion as the earlier "actions".

The occupation of Podolia lasted until April, 1944, approximately 33 months. In that period, the Germans "succeeded" in destroying forever the Jewish communities that had existed there for centuries. The few survivors of these communities were persons who managed to evade occupation by evacuating to the east far enough to never be subjected to German rule. Most of these survivors either never returned to Podolia or, if they did, they left soon after they returned. They saw that nothing was left from before WWII, not even the cemeteries of their ancestors, let alone the friends and relatives they had left behind.

Axis forces actually entered Nova Ushitsa for the first time on July 12, 1941 when a combined Hungarian-German unit occupied the town. The 101st Light Division of the German 17th Army entered Nova Ushitsa on July 13, 1941 and 257th Division arrived on July 17th together with the Hungarian Schnellkorps. The Hungarian 1st motorized brigade arrived the following day.

The gathering of the Jews in the Ushitsa county began within a few weeks or months of the arrival of the Axis forces, and mass executions took place in the surrounding area. Captured German wartime communications from the region document mass executions of Jewish civilians in and around Kamenets Podolsk, Zwiancyk and Sokolec in late August and early September, 1941.

A ghetto was established in Nova Ushitsa almost immediately after the town was taken by the Axis forces, and Jews from the town and from the immediately surrounding villages were gathered and confined in this ghetto. There were up to 3000 Jews confined here, approximately 1000 having been residents of Nova Ushitsa prior to the occupation.

On August 20, 1942, most of the Jews from the ghetto were marched to a pre-selected and prepared site in the woods outside of town, known as "Trikhov", where they were stripped, executed and then buried in a large pit. A second "action", on October 15, 1942, similar in style as the first, completed the extermination of the Jews of Nova Ushitsa, except for perhaps a dozen or so who either escaped just before the mass executions or, in one case, survived the actual shooting by lying in the pit until dark and then climbing out and hiding in a Ukrainian farmer's barn for 18 months until the area was liberated by Soviet forces.

In late March and early April, 1944, Ushitsa county was the scene of heavy fighting between German and Soviet forces. The 101st Jager Division of the 3rd Panzer Korps was the last German force in Nova Ushitsa and it withdrew to the advancing Soviets on March 27th, 1944 after rescuing the 17th Panzer Division which was also defending the town.

A short time after its liberation by the Soviet forces, a committee of local dignitaries was appointed to investigate the criminal activities of the Axis occupation forces in Nova Ushitsa. The mass burial pits were opened and the bodies counted; interviews were conducted and thereafter a protocol was released by the committee after its investigation was completed. A total of 3222 bodies were found in and around Nova Ushitsa. All but a small number were Jews, and all were found naked. Some of the dead, children in particular, were found to have been buried alive. The vast majority, however, were found to have been murdered by a shot or shots in the head.

The Protocol of the committee confirmed that the executions were in the late summer and fall of 1942 and that they were committed by German soldiers wih the assistance of local Ukrainian collaborators.

Liberation of Nova Ushitsa did not revive the Jewish community, as the members of that community were almost all dead. Moreover, the area of the ghetto was physically destroyed, along with the Jewish cemetery, by the German occupation forces shortly after the second liquidation in October, 1942. The few survivors of the War who returned to Nova Ushitsa after liberation did not stay but moved on to other parts of the USSR or left the country completely.

The continuing urbanization of Soviet society after WWII pretty much eliminated what little there was of a Jewish presence in the small towns and villages of Podolia. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, with the advent of permitted emigration to Israel and the USA, those few remaining Jews who were still alive and living in these areas left and Jews virtually disappeared entirely from rural Ukraine. Visitors to these places in the 1990s can find almost no evidence whatsoever of the Jews' former presence, notwithstanding that they once comprised anywhere from 30% to 75% of the population in the small towns of Podolia.

David Bickman, Written: April 21, 1996

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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