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A City That Was …….

by Leon S. Blatman

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The City I Knew in My Youth

Of all the cities in the Ukraine, Kamenetz–Podolsk was considered one of outstanding beauty. The river Smotrich flows around the old city like a belt, forming an island which was connected by bridges with the mainland. Approaching the city which stood deep in green of parks and orchards, one would be reminded of a painting of a medieval town on one side and a modern city on the other. The newer suburb of Kamenetz–Podolsk, the “Novy Plan”, was built in a geometrical pattern with wide, clean and tree–line streets.

The old city, however, was full of old minarets and churches, ruins of medieval forts, new and old stone buildings with narrow streets and large paved squares.

Kamenetz–Podolsk, the largest city in Podolia, was, in many ways, unchanged since the Turks. The region bordered on the west with Galicia (old Poland, then Austria and again Poland until Russia annexed it after World War II); to the south was Messarabia (Rumania); to the north and east were provinces (Gubernias) of Cherson, Kiev and Wolin. Podolia had other cities with large Jewish population such as Proskurov, Vinitza, Mohilev–Podolsk, Bar and Jmerinka and hundreds of smaller towns with 100% Jewish populations. The thousands of villages were 100% Ukrainian with here–and–there a few Jewish families. As a rule, the Czars banned Jews from living in villages but some Jews remained, particularly those whose ancestors had lived there for generations.

Kamenetz–Podolsk, the old city, was on a high cliff, formerly a fortified Turkish city, surrounded by a high stone wall. Parts of the wall, with gates, minarets and fortification are still standing. The view from the “Novy Most”, the modern bridge connecting the city with the suburb of Novy Plan, was magnificent. The river was far below like in a canyon, with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet on both sides. Only in a few places, the straight walls

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Chalutzim from Kamenetz–Podolsk on the way to Palestine


left enough room on the banks of the river for small dwellings where the poor of the “dolina” lived, or narrow open spaces which were used as bathing beaches.

Crossing the Novy Most, one could walk for two miles to the left through the “new boulevard” to the suburb of “Polski Filvarek” or, for three miles to the right through the Park “Proresnaya Dorojka” to the suburb of “Russki Filvarek” with its magnificent villas (dachas). Going straight ahead from the bridge into the suburb, Novy Plan, one would see modern buildings of high schools and government offices, the Pushkinsky Theatre, palatial homes with formal gardens and apartment houses. The main street led to the business centre where “fairs” were held; farther on was the race track “skatchka” and the railroad station.

On the other side of the old city were the “old boulevard” and the Turkish bridge leading to the suburb of Podzamcha. This old bridge was really a tremendous stone wall built centuries ago by the Turks. In the centre of the wall was a gate, an opening the size of a 5–story building through which the waters of the river flowed in the form of an artificial waterfall connecting the western and eastern sides of the river Smotrich.

From the Turkish bridge, the road led for 15 miles west to the Galician border and for the same distance south, to

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the river Dniester and the border of Bessarabia (Rumania). The castles and fortification could be seen for a few miles from the bridge. There were rumours that a tunnel under the fortification led all the way to the river Dniester but nobody dared to go further than a short distance inside it.

In Jewish history, Kamenetz–Podolsk is of some interest: First because of the martyrdom of the Jews of Podolia during the insurrection of Bogdan Chmelnitsky, when pogroms similar to those perpetrated by Petliura's army took place in the Ukraine. Second, because Kamenetz–Podolsk is of importance during the time of Shabsa Zvi and Jacob Frank. Kamenetz–Podolsk is also of interest as the place where Chassidism of Baal Shem Tov was born. At the start of World War I, the population of Kamenetz–Podolsk was about 60,000 Jews, 25% Poles and the rest, Russians and Russified Ukrainians.

The city was not rich but did not suffer from the poverty (among Jews) of Galician or Lithuanian cities. Of course, Kamenetz–Podolsk had its quota of the poor, underprivileged and chronically unemployed. But the majority managed to provide for their families.

Under the Czarist laws, Jews were not allowed to hold any government jobs. Like elsewhere in Russia, no Jew could be employed as a teacher, or by banks, by the railroad or in the post office, in telegraph or telephone offices, in the courts or in any capacity by municipal, regional or state subdivisions including the police. Jews were not allowed to serve even as janitors or jail guards.

Starting with the Governor's palace and down to the home of the jail warden's officials were provided with quarters in addition to their salaries. The city's gentile population, which consisted in its majority of officials, did not have to worry about their daily bread. The city had no industry. Industrial workers (non–Jews) could find employment only in a few places such as at the electric station, at the railroad, at iron foundry, in some of the printing shops, at the beer brewery and at flour mills. You could

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Organizers of Textile–Employee's Union
Among them: M. Wasserman who took part in organizing a strike against his father's business; Michael Kaplun, Morris Kaplun, Israel Nesis, Nachman Yakor, Carver, Presman and the fiancée of Nesis, Lora Cogan


not find a Jew at such occupations, as janitors, water carriers (by horse and wagon) chimney sweepers, etc. But Jews comprised of 90% of house painters, shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, watchmakers, etc. All the storekeepers were Jews. There were a few non–Jewish retail establishments like Cook's shoe store, Winiarski's book shop, Jaravliev's linen shop and the Cooperative Department Store.

But most of the retail and wholesale business was in the hands of Jews. The business establishments were in the centre of the old city; there were small and large stores, some of them were not inferior to stores on the main streets of Petrograd, Moscow, Kiev or Odessa. The owners of hotels, restaurants, movie houses, drug stores, the local press and private banks were Jews. Some Jews would engage in the export of agricultural products, traded with farmers at the weekly and yearly fairs or travelled through the villages buying grain, fruit or vegetables. There were some exporters who dealt with the owners of large estates, buying from them grain, livestock, forest and poultry.

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A special Jewish occupation was the brokerage, the go–between the “mekler”. When a Jew from the province came to Kamenetz–Podolsk, because a son was to appear before the draft board, he would be helpless without a mekler. The proper mekler would make contact with the military doctor, with a member of the staff and arrange things for a price. If one had business in the courts or some other government office, a mekler could facilitate the transaction and help cut the red tape. To reach a high police official, even the secret police, or to influence any official or to petition the Governor, one was advised to do it with the help of the proper mekler. At times, one would approach a mekler who knew the top mekler who really knew the top official. There were commercial meklers who helped in business transactions with the owners of large estates. It looked as though a large percentage of Jews in Kamenetz–Podolsk were meklers. And the local express was that meklers “luftmenchen” made a living by “pulling ribbons from the air”.

But discounting businessmen and meklers, the majority of Jews in the city worked hard to earn a living. They were the tailors, the shoemakers, the carpenters, the house painters, the printers, the tinsmiths, the barbers, the cobblers, the furriers, the watchmakers and others engaged in trades. They worked for themselves, employing a helper or two. Only the printers such as Landwiger, Weinbaum, and Konigsberg & Fitterman had dozens of employees. Among the professionals such as doctors, pharmacists, dentists, lawyers, midwives and private tutors, the majority were Jews. To round up occupations, were must mention the Jewish clergy: a few orthodox rabbis (the Government–appointed Rabbi Ocksman did not perform the duties of an orthodox rabbi); the schochtim (slaughterers of fowl and cattle for kosher meat); the custodians of the synagogues (shamosim) and a few others. A great number of Jews in Kamenetz–Podolsk were religious but the city, nevertheless, was not under the domination of the orthodox Jews. True, the stores and shops were closed on Saturdays but one could hardly see Jews dressed in “kapotas” and “shtramlach” or wearing

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Technical High School in Kamenetz–Podolsk in 1909


long, curly sideburns (payas) a sight frequently seen even today in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Modern dressed, clean shaven Jews could be seen often smoking a cigarette on Saturdays. Jews went to the theatre and to the movies on Friday nights and Saturdays and, of course, high school students went to classes where they had to write on Saturdays. Only on High Holidays did everybody go to the synagogue; this included doctors some of whom would ride in their cars until a block or two away from the house of worship and then walk.

Young Jews would talk in Russian in public although the majority spoke Yiddish at home.

Among the older generation were many Chassidim, followers of the Zinkover, Gusatiner or Chortkover Rebes. The local Rebe, Naftultzi was not popular except among the poorer Jews. Youngsters, not accepted in local high schools on account of the “norma”, studied with private tutors, usually following the curriculum of the schools. These so–called “externs” sometimes succeeded in entering into higher classes or would pass an examination for the entire course of the high school. In such cases, they could enter the university, if they were lucky in the drawing and

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their names came up among the 10% of Jews to be admitted to a university.

The city's school system had nine high schools: the boys' high school, the technical high school, two high schools of commerce, and two high schools for girls, the Greek orthodox seminary, the pension for Christian girls and the city's junior high school. There were also a number of grammar schools and Ganitsky's music school. In 1918, the Ukrainian Government established the Kamenetz–Podolsk University.

The Jewish educational institutions consisted of a number of traditional cheders, of private Hebrew teachers and of the government subsidized Talmud–Tora. There were at one time two modern Jewish schools, Blavstein's for girls and Schectman's for boys. They did not get enough support and after a few years were forced to close. As a rule, Jewish high school students did not continue their meagre Jewish education which they obtained in cheders. For a while it looked as though a generation devoid of Jewish education was growing up. There was the danger of assimilation and, what is more, russification by Jews of the local Ukrainians. This was something the Czarist government welcomed. But a few years before World War I, a nationalist and Zionist movement sprung up among the Jewish high school students. Groups were formed to study in secret both Hebrew and Yiddish, Jewish history, Jewish literature and Zionism. The city library and school libraries were sufficient until then but now the Jewish library became popular among the Jewish youth.

Cultural needs in the city were filled by the local press: Podolsky Krai, a progressive organ and “Podolianin”, the voice of the government and the extreme right, were the two local newspapers. Papers from other cities such as Kiev and Odessa were received and sold in fairly large numbers. Books and periodicals were available in the book stores of the brothers Banvelman, Kaplun and Winiarsky. There was a small group of Ukrainian intellectuals around their club “Prosvita” but Jews had little contact with them. Like the Jews, the Ukrainians had to conduct

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their activities in secret. Other cultural needs of the city were fulfilled by a repertory theatrical company at the city theatre. Opera companies – Russian and Italian – visited the city for a few weeks each winter. Concerts by outstanding artists and by symphony orchestras were given occasionally at the Pushkinski Dom. The circus came to town each spring. Jewish theatre was not allowed except by special permit from the Governor. Such rare occasions were usually turned into Zionists events. The great Kaminsky with her company gave a few performances in 1912 coming all the way from Warsaw. After each performance there were cries “Heidot” and singing of the “Hatikva”. The city had four movie theatres, the largest – “the Gigant”, featured vaudeville. Roller skating was tried but did not become popular. Horse racing on the city track “skatchka” was only for the rich gentry. Life was quite placid in Kamenetz–Podolsk except for such events as a visit by aviator Utochkin in 1911. He flew his home–made aeroplane over the “skatchka”, landed to take on a passenger and after a few turns over the city, landed again. Another event was the visit of the Czar Nicholas II in 1913, celebrating 300 years of the rule of the Romanovs.

Till the start of World War I, progress came slowly to Kamenetz–Podolsk. Automobiles were few; there was no electric tramway and like in other Russian cities, electricity was limited and the railroad was finished just before the war. The war and the 1917 Revolution brought an upswing in the economic, cultural and political life of the city. After 3 years of revolution, civil war and pogroms, Kamenetz–Podolsk was finally occupied by the Bolsheviks and became part of the Soviet Ukraine. Half of the Jews of Kamenetz–Podolsk managed to escape abroad and many travelled and settled in the larger cities of Russia. The decline of Kamenetz–Podolsk was accelerated by removing the important institutions to Vinitza which was made the capital of Podolia.

Kamenetz–Podolsk, a second class provincial city, was destroyed by the Nazi at the start of World War II and the remaining Jews were annihilated. This was the end of the Jewish community in Kamenetz–Podolsk.

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The Jewish sport club “Maccabee”

From the first World Zionist Congress onwards, the leaders of the movement advocated the formation of Zionist sport clubs. They suggested the name “Maccabee” in honour of the Biblical Heroes.

Such clubs were organized in Germany, Austria and in a few other Western European countries. The feeble attempts to have such clubs in Russia were abandoned when the Czarist government declared the Zionists as subversives. But the idea to have eventually such sport clubs was very much alive among the Zionist student organization – “Hachover”.

In 1915 in Odessa where I was studying at the time, I met Jacob Granowsky who, after the Revolution, was the head of “Maccabee” in Russia. Granovsky seemed almost fanatical on the subject of Jewish sport clubs. He would single out a student from the province and explain to him the programme of the “Maccabee”. He would rationalize that in Odessa and in other large cities nothing could be done for “Maccabee” because the secret police has its agent in every house in the janitor. Granovsky would point out that the secret police in the provincial cities and towns were not too sophisticated and could easily be bribed. Who would pay attention to a group of Jewish youths practicing gymnastics, riding bicycles, playing ball or engaged in other physical exercises?

I would listen to Granowsky and his enthusiasm would become contagious. I even promised to do whatever would be possible on my return to Kamenetz–Podolsk for vacation. Before I could start preliminary work, Granowsky was arrested and exiled. After the Revolution, I was too busy with Zeire–Zion work and other activities. In 1918, I met again Granowsky in Odessa, who was supervising the “Maccabee” all over Russia and the Ukraine. He remembered me and my promise to start a “Maccabee” club in Kamenetz–Podolsk. I decided to do it this time on my return home.

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Party card of a member of “Zeire–Zion” in Kamenetz–Podolsk


I called a meeting of young people most of them high school students. Together with Isaak Schweitzer, Shimon Drachler, the brothers Schoimer, T. Tackgaus and my younger brother Schmiel, we started the Kamenetz–Podolsk Zionist sport club – “Maccabee”. A drive among boys and girls brought the formation of a number of groups of different ages to be engaged in sport activities. It took diplomacy and persuasion to secure the right to use the outdoor sport field of the Government High School for boys. Using the completely equipped athletic facilities of the school's field, the different groups were drilled in simple gymnastics, in marching and ball playing. A former athlete, a Czech, stranded in the city, was engaged to supervise the athletic activities. He was a prisoner–of–war, but in peace time, a physical culture instructor.

Now came the problem of raising funds to cover the expenses of the club. But this was soon solved by Takgaus who had a simple formula. He would arrange dances and charge admission. The “Takgaus dances” soon known as “talcum balls” had no resemblance to the usual balls in our city. A ball at a high school would take weeks of preparations. It consisted of a musical part, a literary part, a free

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a buffet and dancing. Takgaus simplified all that – he provided the hall, the orchestra, spread some talcum on the parquet floor and let the participants entertain themselves by dancing and talking to each other.

During the first summer, the “Maccabee” club became very popular. Boys and girls would enjoy the free membership where they played games, became experts in gymnastics, arranged walks into the woods and picnic in the fields. The teenagers of “Maccabee” were soon part of Zionist celebrations where they exhibited their skills in athletics.

The pride of “Maccabee” was the soccer team. Practice and matches took place on the field of the “skatchka” (the horse racing track) on the Novy Plan. In the spring of 1920, the city was jointly occupied by the Petliura and Polish military detachments. A match was arranged between the soccer team of the Polish army and the “Maccabee” team. There were so many spectators that it looked as though half of the city had come to watch the soccer game. The “Maccabee” team won but the victory turned almost into tragedy. The Polish soldiers could not stomach the fact that the Jews had won and started a riot. Thanks to the Ukrainian staff officer, who witnessed the game, the riot was nipped in the bud. He called on the Ukrainian military police to stop the riot before it developed into a pogrom.

In the fall of 1920, the work of “Maccabee” was terminated by order of the Bolsheviks who declared the sport club as a nest of counter–revolutionists.


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