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[Page 15]

Communities

Ostrog

By Shuka Katzir

Translated by Selwyn Rose

This year has been declared in Ukraine as a year of celebrations and events marking the 900 th anniversary of the State. The city of Ostrog is older by a few years than other Ukrainian cities. A few years ago, I received a copy of the lead article in the Ukrainian newspaper “The Lvov” entitled: “Ostrog – The Athens of Ukraine”. This article proves that, according to archæological excavations now being undertaken in Ostrog, the city is the oldest of all other cities in Ukraine. The 900 th anniversary celebrations began two years ago.

All the above refers to non-Jewish Ukraine. So far as the Jewish presence in Ostrog is concerned there are differences of opinion. According to reliable sources, Jews were known to live there from the very beginning, while others say that the first Jews came after the expulsion from Spain, Holland; and Germany and there is reason to believe that Jews from Khazar either preceded them or joined them later. There are those who claim that they are the remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes or pagan tribes from the far east, who decided to convert to Judaism.

The pronunciation and spelling of the city's name varies according to the provenance of the rulers. The Russians and the Ukrainians called it “Ostrog” (Ostria) - a fortification – signifying the 5 fortifications which protected the town on all sides. (Within them was the Great Synagogue of Rabbi Samuel Eliezer ben Judah Ha-Levi Adels, which, too, was constructed like a castle). The Poles called it Ostrog, or more correctly Ostrog-Horyniem after the name of the river which encompassed the city. It was known to the Jews as Ostrah or Ostrag. The Hassidim and the Rabbis wrote it as "Os-Torah” – “Ostora”. Until the end of the 17 th Century, the town was under Polish rule. Later the control passed to the hands of Czarist Russia and after the First World War, 1918, it once again passed to the hands of Poland.

During the Ukrainian uprisings (1648-9), under the leadership of the Hetman, Bohedan Chemlnelitzki, more than 6000 of the city's Jews were murdered. In spite of the decrees and murders, the Jewish community overcame the difficulties and even grew. The Jews of Ostrog performed wonders in trade, exploiting the surrounding forests and developing projects in the timber industry. All the regimes profited from the economic advantages of the projects. According to the census of 1921 there were 8500 Jews, 3000 Ukrainians, 1000 Russians and only 1500 Poles (the rulers!), living in Ostrog – the Poles were mainly the administrative clerks, police, two military regiments, border guards and teachers. There was also a very small community of Tartars – Moslems who lived alongside the road leading to the railway station of Oszcenin – hence the street was called “Tatraska”.

During the 'thirties, before the outbreak of World War Two and the Holocaust, the Jews of Ostrog numbered 10- thousand in a total population of 15 thousand.

Under the autonomy which was given to the Jewish settlement in Poland during 200 years (16 th -18 th Centuries), by the Polish Sejm the “Confederation of Four Countries” was founded (a sort of autonomous Sejm of Jews), and Ostrog was one of the capitals of the 4 countries and represented the whole of Wolyn and Russia.During that period the the chair of the rabbinate was held by various well-known rabbis like Rabbi Shlomo ben Yehiel Luria and Rabbi Samuel Eliezer ben Yehuda (see above). Rabbi Samuel Eliezer ben Yehuda was the initiator and founder of the Great Synagogue in the 16 th Century. The building, which was a large, magnificent one, exists still today, although it was badly damaged by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators.

From the end of the First World War, until the outbreak of the Second World War, Ostrog was on the border between Poland and Soviet Russia. This isolated it economically and socially from its eastern hinterland, and left its only exit via the railway or a dirt road to Zdolvonov (the local capital), and Rovno. Many sources of income and sustenance were lost and few came to relace them. The economic situation of many Jewish residents became much worse. In the absence of possibilities for economic development extra efforts were made in the direction of social and cultural organization. The Zionist Organization, especially the youth movements, starting with “ Hashomer Ha-tza'ir ” via “ He-Chalutz ”, “ Gordonia ” to “ Betar ”, absorbed the best of the youth. The Jewish youth was, perforce, unemployed to the extent of being forced to leave the town, being prepared especially to undertake pioneering training and emigrate to Palestine. Only the absence of the British mandate “Certificates” prevented them from doing so. The Jewish students studied in government schools and in the Jewish schools and the gymnasium “ Culture ”, which were founded just before the Holocaust and during the war. With the outbreak of war and the entry of Russian authority to the region all the cultural and social achievements of the Jewish community of Ostrog were extirpated. The new Soviet rule forbade the existence of any kind of Jewish organization.

A few days before the German invasion of June 1941, a significant number of Jews managed to escape over the border eastwards into the depths of Russia and on to the far east. All of those (or at least, most of them), who failed to escape, were exterminated in the three large “ Aktions ” carried out by the Nazis. Today, the population of the town is entirely Ukrainian and numbers 26,000 people. Many of the original neighbourhoods have been eradicated and in the place ugly multi-storied apartment blocks erected. There are only 8 Jewish families in Ostrog – none is from the original population of before the Holocaust.

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