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The Early Days of the City - Its Character and Essence

A History of the Jews of Kovel*

By Dr. Raphael Mahler

Translated by Amy Samin

The Jewish community in Kovel is as old as the city itself. The village Kavele[1] on the banks of the Tura has been known since the fourteenth century as a transition point on the way from Lithuania to Ruthenia.

In the year 1518 Prince Vasil Mikhailovitch Sanguszko, lord of the village of Kavele, received permission from King Sigismund I to establish a city which would benefit from the Magdeburg Law[2] and which would be settled by Poles, Ruthenians, Jews, Armenians and Tartars.

Regarding the legal situation of the Jews of Kovel under the leadership of Prince Sanguszko, it is known that they were required to pay a variety of taxes. In 1536, Kovel became the property of Queen Bona when she traded her estate in Volhynia to Prince Sanguszko. That same year, Queen Bona approved the Magdeburg Rights for the citizens of the city, and ordered the Jews to inspect and reinforce the walls and gates of the city just as did all of the other citizens of the city.

During the same period Kovel, like the Volhynia region itself, belonged to Lithuania, but in 1569 it was annexed to the Kingdom of Poland[3].

In 1540, the Jews of Kovel suffered, as did the other Jewish communities in Lithuania, when baptized Jews accused them of performing circumcisions on Christian children.

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The property taxes on the Jews were quite burdensome, until they were reduced by Queen Bona. In 1547 Queen Bona granted to the Jews of Kovel, as part of the Piotrków district, certain privileges which dealt with property taxes. By the order of that proclamation of rights, the Jews of Kovel were freed from the burden of the taxes they had paid during the reign of Sanguszko, excluding the payment of a golden florin[4] for large houses and a half-golden florin for small houses. The same proclamation granted to the Jews of Kovel the same rights as all of the other citizens of the city.

The right to buy and sell merchandise in the marketplace was given special emphasis. On the other hand, the Jews were expected to assume the same obligations towards the city as all of the citizens; and the starosta (regional governor) of Kovel in those times, Franciszek Peltshevski, was required to refrain from preventing the settlement of more Jews in Kovel, and to ensure that the Jews enjoyed the same rights as the other residents of the city.

This generosity on the part of the queen can be easily explained if we recall that at that time Jews were known to be excellent merchants, and their trade reached all the way to the Tartars in Otshakov.

Two indisputable facts prove that the Jews of Kovel were organized into their own community. In the proclamation of rights of 1547 mentioned above, the house of the rabbi specifically was exempt from property tax, and this was borne out on the tombstones in the cemetery of Kovel in the second half of the sixteenth century.

The specific order given by the queen to the starosta of Kovel allowed Jews from outside of the city to move to Kovel, which proved that the Jewish community of Kovel continued to grow. This is supported by the fact that in the sixteenth century the Jews of Kovel paid 45 golden florins “pobór” tax (property tax).[5]

In 1565 King Sigismund Augustus gave Kovel as a gift to Prince Andrei Kurbski, who had fled Moscow in fear of the Czar Ivan the Terrible. This gift ended up paying for itself when Prince Kurbski, together with the division of émigrés from Moscow, took control of a region during the Polish War with Ivan the Terrible.

These changes in the government were disadvantageous to the Jews of Kovel, whose fates depended on the benevolence or cruelty of the landowner. While from time to time Kurbski would come to the Jews of Kovel with arbitrary demands for money, in 1569 his cruelty reached its zenith.

One Sabbath day

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in July 1569, under orders from Prince Kurbski, Ivan Kelemet, one of his agents, closed all of the Jewish houses, as well as the synagogue. A number of Jews, as it turned out some of the wealthier Jews of the city, namely Yuska Shmoilovich, Avram Yakovovich and Bogdana[6], wife of Aharon, were put into a dungeon filled with water located under the castle of Kovel. Ivan Kelemet fabricated a story based on a flimsy pretext to justify his evil actions. He claimed that those who were imprisoned owed money to the baptized Jew Lavrin and other citizens of Kovel.

The Jewish community at Vladimir, under which the Jews of Kovel were subject, appealed to the deputy starosta of Kovel in a formal complaint regarding these cruel acts. An agent of the king sent the beadle to the castle, but he was prevented from entering. As he stood outside the castle he could hear the shouts and cries of those imprisoned in the dungeon. The beadle confirmed that the homes of the Jews were closed and sealed. In response to the complaints of the Jews of Kovel, Ivan Kelemet replied that he was merely acting under the orders of Prince Kurbski, who had the authority to judge his Jewish subjects, even unto the penalty of death.

The matter eventually reached the Sejm of Lublin in 1569. King Sigismund Augustus, who judged the matter at that sitting of the Sejm, ordered the immediate release of the imprisoned Jews, giving as his reason that they were his subjects and that only he, the king, had the authority to deprive them of their legal rights.

Ivan Kelemet responded by saying that he was only obligated to obey the orders of his liege Kurbski, and not those of the king. In order to prove this bizarre claim, he went so far as to order the Jews who still remained in the city to leave Kovel. A few days later he came to his senses and released the Jews from the prison; they were covered in blood. He also ordered the removal of the seals on the synagogue and the Jewish homes.

We do not have specific information about the lives of the Jews of Kovel under the remainder of evil reign of Prince Kurbski, but it is possible to assume that their suffering continued. In fact, in the same year, 1569, after Kurbski had been forced to do the bidding of the king and reopen the homes of the Jews, he threatened to take revenge on them in the fullness of time. A few years after the events described, the nobles who had the ear of the king continued to make complaints against the wild behavior of Kurbski.

In the year 1583 Andrei Kurbski died. In 1590 Kovel and the surrounding estates were confiscated from Kurbski's widow by a ruling of the government court, and were turned over to the king. Thus ended the forlorn period of the lives of the Jews of Kovel under the governance

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of the villain. However, one cannot conclude that from then on, the lives of the Jews of Kovel were those of calm, serenity and self-governance; and that a quiet new era of building and development followed.

The civil war between Christians and Jews that had begun with the founding of the city of Kovel was renewed with a fury. The war continued until the third partition of Poland in 1795, when the Volhynia passed into the governance of the Russians. This war was stopped a few times by peace treaties signed by the warring parties, or by order of the king's councils.

As early as 1556, the people of Kovel appealed to Queen Bona to restrict the Jews of the city to living only in the street of the Jews. The Jews did not even enjoy the privilege they had been granted by the queen's son the year before which promised them freedom to live and work anywhere in the city, and which had first been granted them as early as 1547.

The queen ruled that the Jews must leave their homes that were not located on the Jewish street, but she also ordered any Christians who owned homes in the Jewish street to leave and to sell their homes. This is a typical example of privilegium de non tolerandus christianis (the right to non-tolerance of Christians), a right that was given to Jews in all of the places where their own right to settle was shrinking to specific Jewish streets or Jewish quarters, such as Kracow, Kazimierz, Posen, and most of the cities in Lithuania. Thus we have before us an example of an indecisive and inconsistent policy implemented by the rulers of Poland in the dispute between the Jews and the urbanites of the sixteenth century.

Mostly, it was the urbanites whose claims were met, because their needs were taken into consideration more than those of the Jews and because they had the connection of religion and faith with those in power. However, often the decrees against the Jews would, a short time later, be cancelled and their previous rights restored either because it was advantageous to the government treasury to do so, or thanks to the gifts which the Jews would present to the king. As it turned out, the order of Queen Bona of 1556 was never put into action, because in 1569 King Sigismund Augustus approved for the second time the rights he had previously given to the Jews of Kovel in 1547.

However, the ruling of the king did not resolve the conflict between the Christian urbanites of Kovel and the Jews of the city regarding the freedom to reside and do business in the city. Indeed, it achieved the opposite, adding new reasons for friction between the two sides. The more the Jewish settlement in Kovel grew, the problem of the participation of the Jews in the city's taxes, which were meant to cover the city's growing expenses, became more serious.

A compromise was reached at the start of the seventeenth century in the matter of the dwelling rights of the Jews, according to the ruling of “Adon Radomski” which apparently reached the heart of the matter

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in the guise of the agent of the king.

That ruling, which was made by the starosta of Kovel at that time, Crown-Chancellor Sajnesni Kriski and stamped with the seal of the city council of Kovel, granted Jews the right to live and buy homes in the marketplace, in the streets around the marketplace, and anywhere else in the city. In 1614 a formal agreement was signed by both sides, which discussed potential points of dispute at length.

The rulings of the agreement were as follows: the citizens formally promised not to plot against the dwelling rights of the Jews and would not limit their rights to purchase houses in the marketplace, in the surrounding streets, or “anywhere else in the city” but rather would “leave them in peace forever.” In addition, the participation of the Jews in the taxes of the city was settled. From time to time military writs reached the city, and it was agreed that the Christians would bear two-thirds of the economic expenses of the army, and the Jews one third. Three administrators, two Christians and one Jew, would be elected to handle these financial matters. Owners of stores and small shops (kramnice y kletki) were all to pay, without exception, twelve Lithuanian groszy per year. The same rule applied to salt stores. “The bakers” and other merchants would pay six groszy a year. The breweries, breweries of sweet beer, and taverns “those that are located next to the dam and those located in the same yard” would pay eight groszy a year. The places for stalls in the marketplace would be rented to Christians and Jews alike for the amount of six groszy a year. The income from poll taxes, taxes on pedestrian crossings on bridges, and the tax on the municipal beeswax refinery (woskoboynia) were required to be paid through leasing, two years for Christians and one year for Jews, with equal leasing conditions. Expenditure of that income would be decided upon jointly by Christians and Jews. “Municipal improvements” and “times of municipal financial depression” were two reasons to require from each household, Christian and Jewish, three groszy per year, and sometimes even twice a year; however, this was required to be agreed to, from time to time, by both the city council and the Jewish community together.

The final ruling determined that, at the time of the election of a new member of the city council the retiring member of the council must present an accounting of all expenses and income of the city; this accounting was to be presented in the presence of the Jew whom the Christians (in other words, the city council) deemed to be trustworthy.

Only one copy remains of this document, written in Polish and dated 1660. It reaffirms the previous rulings. In this approval it unequivocally states that the agreement of 1614 was written simultaneously in three “writs” with commentary in three different languages: Polish, Yoni (in other words, Russian) and Hebrew. On the part of the city, the document was signed by the regional judge, Ostapsky Samnovitch, the mayor Herich Mitzniv[7], three council members, five city elders

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(scabini, ławniki) and five representatives of the common man (pospolity człowiek). From the side of the Jews, the following people signed in their own names and on behalf of the whole Jewish community: Avraham (Awruszko) Ben-Aharon, Rabbi Gedalia (Rebigdala) Ben-Mordechai, Kopel Yechimovitch (Ben-Haim) and Moshe Ben-Hazagag (Szklarzewicz)[8] who were considered elders (leaders) of their community.

The agreement that was signed between the city council and the Jewish community in Kovel does not only cover the provision of equal rights of commerce and the burden of taxes for the Jews. The ordinance that most characterized the agreement was the provision allowing the Jewish community to participate in the inspection of the municipal income and expenses. It is not difficult to assume what motivated the city council to make this concession to the Jews. In the same agreement it is mentioned that the equality of the taxes for stores and small shops was made in consideration of the fact that the situation in Kovel was not as sound as that of Brisk (Brest). It is possible to conclude that the Christian citizens of Kovel had come to realize that confining the progress of Jews in commerce was damaging to the city and weakening its position in its competition with Brest.

However, even after the formal agreement of 1614, any peace that existed between the two sides did not last long. The Christian citizens preferred competing against the Jews over the city's competition with Brest. As early as 1616, King Sigismund III sent a committee to Kovel to investigate complaints the urbanite Christians had made against the Jews. The urbanites complained that the Jews had purchased every Christian home and tavern, and excluded them from farming the taxes imposed by the Sejm, and also from farming private taxes. Regarding the matter of performing free work for the city, they falsely accused the Jews of being unwilling to bear the burden of inspecting the city's walls and claimed they were shirking their duty of defending the city. In 1619 a ruling was passed in the matter of the tax farming of the Jews, according to which the official tax collector was required to transfer the taxes to the state treasury, and not to the Jews who farmed this income.

All of the disputes that broke out between the Christian urbanites and the Jews until that time had mostly been concerned with the question of Jewish commerce, although in those days a war broke out between the artisans of Kovel and the Jewish artisans. In 1618 the tailors and furriers obtained

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a privilege from King Sigismund III, which mainly discussed the problem of the Jewish artisans. The king decreed that the Jewish tailors and furriers were subordinate to the Christian artisan guilds and must make the same payments into the treasuries of the guilds that applied to the Christian artisans. As a guarantee that the Jews would, indeed, fulfill their obligation they were required to pay thirty-two Lithuanian groszy for the benefit of the Kovel fort and the same amount to the account of the artisan guild.

It is possible to think, theoretically, that all was well and good, that there was nothing in the king's words to impose an injustice on the Jewish artisans, and that it was composed of good intentions – to impose equal obligations on both Jews and Christians, especially if we note that in certain cities, restrictions were placed on the Jewish artisans' ability to sell the crafts they made, or they were denied the right to work at all. In the sixteenth century, for example, tailors and leatherworkers of Lvov were forbidden from selling their wares at fairs. In Vilna, Jewish tailors were only allowed to sell their products to other Jews. In Lublin, Jewish tailors and furriers were forbidden from selling their goods in the city or its suburbs at all, except during fairs.

In truth, the privilege granted in the year 1618 to the tailors and furriers of Kovel did not provide any preferential rights to the Jewish artisans. In fact, the opposite was true: the intent was a decree against the Jews. The privilege did not deal with the status of the Jewish artisans as part of the guilds, but rather with their obligations alone. The Jewish tailors and furriers were not given any right to express an opinion or vote in the guilds. They didn't enjoy any rights of guild members, but in spite of that were required to make the same payments to the guild treasury that the Christian artisans were required to pay. In addition, it must be taken into account that Jewish artisans, as it turned out, had also organized their own guilds, as is known from the records of these cities: Krakow, Lvov, Posen, Przemyœl, Lutsk, Berdychiv, and others. It is therefore possible to understand the size of the burden borne by the Jewish artisans. They were obligated to pay twice; once to the Jewish guilds, and once to the Christian guilds from which they derived no benefit.

The atrocities that took place in the lives of Jews during the uprising of Chmielnicki, the events known as the Pogroms of '48, did not pass over the Jewish community of Kovel. From the complaint presented by the Catholic priest of Kovel to the court in the fortress of Ludmir in 1650, we learn that in 1648 the schismatikos[9] drowned in the river all Jews and Catholics who were

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unable to flee the city. It is therefore not surprising that in the year 1651 the Jewish settlement in Kovel numbered only twenty houses.

It wasn't long before the Jewish settlement in Kovel had once again reached its previous situation. In 1660, the agreement between the city council and the Jewish community which had been signed in 1614 was renewed. Those who signed the renewal on behalf of the Jewish community were Rabbi Gedalia Ben-Mordechai, the head of the community, who had also signed the original agreement dated 1614, Moshe Ben-Avraham[10] and Yaacov Ben-Eliakim.

In 1661, a government asset assessor (losterator) arrived in Kovel; the 1614 agreement had been renewed prior to his arrival. However, a new restriction was added: both sides were required to honor all of the rulings of the agreement, with a penalty at a rate of 10,000 Lithuanian groszy (shak). This penalty would apply to whichever side lobbied the king to cancel the agreement and grant a new privilege. While ostensibly this punishment was added to the agreement by the assessor with the intent that it be applied equally to both sides, in actuality it was directed at the Christian urbanites, who had sent countless delegations to the king to complain about the Jews.

The royal assessor approved the rights mentioned above that were given to the artisan guilds of the tailors and furriers in 1618. However, he limited the rights of the Jewish artisans with the explanation that those rights applied only to artisans who were long-standing residents of Kovel. On the other hand, in the event that the Jews of the nearby towns and villages should be so impudent as to engage in the occupations of tailor or furrier, or to buy the products of such tailors and furriers, the Christian guilds would have the right to confiscate those products. “Foreign Jews” (from outside the city) who were caught committing this “crime” would be fined two Lithuanian groszy paid to the king's fort, and two more groszy paid to the treasury of the artisan guilds.

From the documents that were generated by the visit of the assessor, we learn of the malicious accusations made by the Kovel priest, Stanislaw Kocherski regarding the Jewish community of Kovel which revealed the legal and economic situation of the Jewish community and its legal and economic enslavement by the Church.

The main reason for the dispute between the Church and the Jewish community in Kovel was the matter of Jewish payments for the benefit of the Church. This dispute broke out for the first time in the days of the previous priest, Mikolai Malkovski, who demanded that the Jews of Kovel make an annual payment of one golden florin per household and the shoulder (łopatki) cut of a slaughtered animal.

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The collection of such payments was not a new idea in Poland in those days.[11]

King Jan Casimir, to whom both sides presented their petitions, first obligated the Jews in his ruling of 1659 to pay those taxes to the priest. The Jews appealed this ruling based on previous rights and written proofs that clearly verified that the priest had no basis for his demands. As a result, the king ordered the clerk of Kovel, Stephan Chernitzski, to release the Jews from the execution of the afore-mentioned ruling, as long as the dispute would not be brought to court again. However, in spite of the king's ruling, the new priest Stanislaw Kocherski continued to demand that each Jewish household make the monetary payment as well as the portion of meat. In addition, relying on a decision made by the king in 1659, he demanded other payments, such as candle wax for Good Friday, pins and nails for the needs of the church, and incense. The Jews, however, refused to make those payments, so the priest Kocherski falsely accused them of new crimes, and thereby found the way to take his revenge on them.

Previously, during the time of the priest Malkovski, the Jews had begun construction of a synagogue on the square between the Uniate churches[12] and the Catholic Church. The priest did everything in his power to interfere with the synagogue, relying on the laws of the Church and the state. Immediately after the death of the priest Malkovski, the Jews took advantage of the lack of a new priest and completed the construction of the synagogue. Immediately after receiving his appointment, the new priest Kocherski approached the deputy starosta, demanding the synagogue be closed based on the claim that the synagogue building was taller than the other churches around it, and also claiming that the Jews prayed too loudly and that the noise and shouting could be heard from far away.

The deputy starosta replied that if the priest should close and seal the synagogue, he would not only reopen it, but he would kill any person (emissaries of the priest) he found next to the synagogue. In spite of those specific threats, the priest sealed the synagogue. The Jews of Kovel appealed to the king's assessors, who immediately reopened the synagogue. However, after the assessors had left the city, the priest had the synagogue sealed once again.

In 1661, when the king's assessor came again to Kovel, the two sides submitted

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their positions. In addition to the sins previously mentioned, the priest found new transgressions. The false accusations he reported to the assessor included the complaint that the Jews engaged in commerce in the streets during Christian holy days, and that they forced their Christian women servants to work on holy days.

The Jews absolutely denied the claims of the priest. Regarding the payment of taxes to the Church, the Jews relied on the king's decision which had annulled the earlier ruling until a new trial had taken place. Regarding the synagogue, the Jews testified that their previous synagogue had been taller than the one currently being built. In addition, they stated that it was a lie that they made noise while praying. Furthermore, the Jews said that they did refrain from commerce on Christian holy days, and that they did not employ Christian servants at all.

After hearing the claims of both sides, the king's representative immediately reopened the synagogue and warned the priest to show more moderation and patience regarding all of his complaints against the Jews, until such time as the king made a new ruling. Meanwhile, the priest was instructed to leave the Jews alone.

The complaints of both sides and the response of the Jewish community to the false complaints of the priest (Remanifestatio) were registered at the fortress office (notary) and assumed to be material for legal re-clarification.

In spite of all this, the dispute between the priest and the Jewish community in Kovel was not resolved. Similarly to the situation in other large Jewish communities in Poland, the burden of obligations on the Jews of Kovel in the seventeenth century was heavy. The role of the Jews in money lending changed completely compared to the Middle Ages, when the Jews were the most important money lending source in the country. Now, in the seventeenth century, the Jewish communities borrowed money themselves from the nobles, the priesthood or the orders of monks and nuns, in order to pay their regular taxes (poll tax), and the special taxes which they owed to the King's treasury. Not just the communities, but the provincial organizations and the autonomous central organization of the Jews, the Council of Four Lands, sank deeper and deeper in debt; the interest alone accumulated into enormous amounts.

The community of Kovel had a longstanding debt to the local church of 700 golden florins. The priest Malkovski, predecessor of the priest Kovalski, whose dispute with the community was over his complaint about the Jew's payment to the Church, had surely intended to pressure the Jews by falsely accusing them while forcing them to pay the debt. However, the Jews managed to obtain a five year extension on their debt in the trial at the fortress of Ludmir. Incidentally, it was decided that the Jews must pay interest in the amount of 70 gold florins per year.[13]

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The new priest, Kovalski, was not satisfied, knowing that the Jews were paying only the interest on the debt; he insisted that they also pay off the debt itself. The assessor, who went to Kovel in 1661, ruled according to the previous judgment that the Jews must pay only the interest for five years, and only after that time would the priest be entitled to take the Jews to court to settle the debt.

A few dozen years later, in 1710, we learn of a renewed dispute between the city council and the Jews. The head of the Kovel region determined that the Jews must pay one-third of all of the taxes and municipal fees. From this document, it can also be proven that the Jews of Kovel managed a wide area of commerce, both in and outside of the country. In order to avoid paying taxes and fees, many Jews would settle in the suburbs outside the city walls so that the laws of the city would not apply to them.

The political and legal status of the Jews of Kovel was decided in the seventeenth century by the privilege of King Władysław IV, which was approved in 1650 by King Jan Casimir.

As we mentioned, Volhynia was annexed in 1569 to the Kingdom of Poland. In spite of that, the legal situation of the Jews of Volhynia and especially the Jewish jurisdictional area did not change, and remained as it had been in Lithuania. The main difference between the Jews of the Kingdom of Poland and those of Lithuania was in the area of judicial organizations related to proceedings between Christians and Jews in cases where the Jew was the defendant. In such a case, in the Kingdom of Poland the dispute was brought before a Jewish court, under the authority of the voivode (palatine), deputy palatine, or a “special Jewish judge” (Sędźia źydowski), a Christian, and with the participation of the Jewish judges (assessors). In Lithuania, this authority was given in such cases to the starosta or his deputy. The privilege given to the Jews of Kovel in 1650 granted them the right to be judged before Jewish judges (przed doctorami swemi). Disputes between Jews and the urbanites of Kovel in which the Jew was the defendant were required to be discussed on appeal before the deputy starosta of Kovel with the participation of one of the Jewish elders. Regarding the first level of hearings, nothing was mentioned about the privilege in such matters. It turned out that the Jewish court would also discuss matters between Jews and urbanites if the Jew was the defendant.

The privilege also determined that the Jewish synagogue would remain in place. It is possible to assume that the square was located between the Uniate Churches and the Catholic Church, according to what we recall from the dispute between the Jews and the priest. In the same privilege it is mentioned that the Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) was located “on the river bank” behind the dams (za grobelkami) on the way to Milanovac. As was customary in those days, the synagogue and the cemetery were exempt from the burden of municipal taxes, taxes for the king, and the tax for the benefit of the king's fortress. The privilege also released the Jews of Kovel from the obligation to give the shoulder portion (łopatki) of the slaughtered animal to the king.

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The development of the Jewish settlement in Kovel into a well-populated community can be attributed to the fact that Kovel had the right to representation in the autonomous institutions of the Jews of Volhynia.

As it is known, the autonomous institutions of Volhynia were structured differently from the rest of the institutions in the area. In the rest of the provinces in the Kingdom of Poland, the autonomous Jewish institution was divided into three levels: community, provincial community, and the Council of the Four Lands. In Volhynia, the autonomous institutions were structured on four levels; small communities were not directly subordinate to the provincial committee, but instead to larger communities which were the only ones represented on the Volhynia provincial committee. At the beginning, there were only four such large communities: Ostróg, Kremenetz, Lutsk, and Ludmir (Volodymyr-Volynskyi). In the seventeenth century, before Kovel had a representative on the provincial committee, it was subordinate to the Ludmir community. By the end of the seventeenth century, Kovel was separate from Ludmir and rose to the level of a central autonomous community. At the convention of the provincial community of Volhynia in the town of Horokhiv, Kovel is mentioned as a community independent of Ludmir. Kovel was already an independent community and collected taxes from smaller communities such as Kamin-Kashyrskyi, Wyżwa and Michnowce. From the report of the king's commissar who was sent to the convention of the provincial committee we learn that Kovel was not involved in any disputes with its subordinate communities, and therefore sent no delegates to the convention of the provincial committee (the provincial committee was convened in order to settle disputes between large and small communities). Only in a document from the year 1730 was mention made of a dispute over the poll tax that arose between Kovel and Wyżwa, which succeeded in releasing itself for a brief time from the authority of the community of Kovel. However, in 1732 the town of Wyżwa appeared in a document about tax division as a part of the Kovel province. In 1726, and also in 1739, the town Nezkizh (Niesuchojeźe) appeared as subordinate to the Kovel community.

The signatures of the elders and rabbis of Kovel appear on the Jewish poll tax list of the Kovel region in the eighteenth century. In 1720, at the convention of the provincial council in Berestechko, the following representatives signed their names: “Rabbi Itzhak Ashkenazi son of the rebbe of Kovel, and Shlomo Zalman (son of my master and father), our teacher and rebbe Rabbi Yehoshua of blessed memory.”

Both of them came “on the orders of the leaders of the holy Kovel community.” The third signatory was “Nachman son of my beloved father Moshe the righteous of blessed memory.” In 1724 “Aryeh Leib son of the genius and rebbe our teacher and rebbe Rabbi Yehoshua of Kovel the righteous of blessed memory” also signed the document concerning the division of the poll tax (Dyspartyment). He signed his name as the son of the rabbi, although it is fair to assume that he was, himself, a rabbi. In 1730, the name of the same Leib, son of Yehoshua, appeared. In 1735 the following people signed the document regarding the division of the poll tax:

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“The holy Yechiel Michal may God hear him, of the holy community of Kovel
and its environs[14]
and Yonah son of our master and father, our teacher and rebbe Avraham Halevi of Kobla”

In the year 1737 the following names appeared in the official copy of the poll tax list: Abram Matysowicz, Zús Rabinowicz[15] Wolfowicz.

The size of the Jewish community of Kovel in the eighteenth century was not known until the year 1765, when a census was taken of the Jewish population of Poland. Up until 1765, we did not have any tax lists except for the Jews of Kovel and the surrounding area. According to the survey (losterchia) that took place in 1661, the Jews of Kovel paid:

Fort tax:urbanite Jews– 400golden florinsChristians– 321golden florins
Forest tax (gajowe)  “            “– 70   “            “  “– 23  “            “
Land tax (prętowe)[16]  “            “– 17.75  “            “  “– 30  “            “
Total 487.75   374 

We may learn from this that, aside from the land tax which was lower, the Jewish urbanites paid higher taxes than did the Christian urbanites. One cannot conclude from this that the Jewish population outnumbered the Christians, but rather that the tax burden was heavier on the Jews.

In the year 1725 the Jewish community of Kovel alone (including villages) paid a poll tax of 1,000 golden florins; in 1726 – 1,448 golden florins, and in 1738 – 1,555. From the entire Kovel region (the city of Kovel and the surrounding towns and villages), the amounts of Jewish poll tax were recorded as follows:

In the year17192,100golden florins
          “17231,847          “
          “17241,482          “
          “17281,000          “
          “1729 820          “
          “1733 720          “
          “17391,650          “

As is shown on the list, the amount of poll tax paid by the central community in Kovel and its environs decreased. This could have been the result of the impoverishment of the Jews of this area, and the Council

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of the Four Lands and also the provincial committee of Volhynia took this into consideration and granted them a suitable tax break.

However, there is another obvious explanation: starting in 1730 and through 1738 Kovel ceased to appear on the tax rolls for the Jewish Kovel region. This proves that Kovel paid the Jewish poll tax separately, and that the Jewish community in Kovel left the sub-province of the Kovel region. Such instances of the deterioration of the Jewish provincial institutions increased throughout the eighteenth century. The most common pattern was that the central community of the province would separate and leave the smaller communities to their own devices as a smaller province. In 1764 as is known, the central autonomous institutions of the Jews (the Council of the Four Lands, the provincial committees) were revoked. Henceforth, the poll taxes were collected directly from the communities, according to population – two golden florins per person. In connection with this, by the end of 1764 and the beginning of 1765, a census of the Jewish population of all of Poland (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) was created.

This census revealed the following numbers: the Kovel community included (not including the city of Kovel itself) the following towns: Michnowce, Wyżwa, Milanowicze, and fifty villages.

The number of Jewish souls in all of the Kovel communities one year of age[17] and older during that same year reached 1,516; the number in the city of Kovel alone reached 827 souls. In the town of Wyżwa 168 Jewish souls were registered; in Michnowce the number was 18 and in Milanowicze 10. In the fifty villages of the Kovel community there were 493 Jewish souls; in other words, an average of ten Jewish souls in each village.

The 827 Jewish souls in the city of Kovel comprised 187 Jewish families; of those 137 were homeowners and the remaining fifty were tenants. The number of homeowners is, without a doubt, larger than the number of Jewish homes; in Kovel, as in other towns, the Jewish “homeowners” were found to be living in homes which they rented from their Christian owners. Indeed, for the year 1784 we know of only 94 Jewish households in Kovel.

Unfortunately, the census did not indicate the professions of those counted; it is therefore difficult for us to draw any conclusions about the economic situation of the Jews of Kovel in those days. However, the index to the census sheds a certain amount of light on the social situation of those counted. Of the 827 souls, 209 of them were mentioned in a separate section as being “abjectly poor amongst the Jews of Kovel” (samo ubóstwo w m. Kowla). Of the 137 Jewish homeowners, 37 were included in the same paragraph; of the fifty tenants, 24. Altogether that is 61 Jewish families.

[Page 27]

The truth is that the number of the poor was substantially larger than what was listed in the census, and it turns out that a decisive majority of the Jewish population of Kovel was poor, as was the case in other cities.

The census list was prepared, as is known, in the following manner: the rabbi, an elder, the beadle, and the Christian “revizor” went to every house and listed all who lived there. The section regarding the “abjectly poor” was not based on professions, but rather on a topographical basis. This section marked specific neighborhoods which were known by the name “abjectly poor.” The deciding evidence for that topographical factor was clear to the census takers; in the preparation of this section they provided the following fact: the professions of “vintner,” which was applied to the bartender in a tavern, and waiters[18] appear four times in the section for the “abjectly poor.” However, those professions also appear twice in the section that includes the remainder of the Jews. The only musician who is listed in the index was a man named Wolf the Musician, who could in no way be considered an extremely rich man; he did not appear in the section for the “abjectly poor,” but rather in the section applied to other Jews.

Although in the census professions and occupations were not specified, we still find names of eight home owners who employed workers, or artisans. Of them, three were artists who each employed one assistant and five who employed two assistants, altogether thirteen assistants. There is no doubt that this number is random, and that the number of assistants was actually significantly higher. In the census there appeared a list of 29 servants; four were male, and 25 female. Usually only one female servant was employed; only in two cases do we find families which employed two Jewish female servants, and in once instance three female servants who worked in the home of Rabbi Damta.

One resident, a tenant named Lazer ben Todrus (Leysor Tordusowicz), was without a doubt and according to all indications, the richest Jew in the city. We can learn this from the number of servants he employed: two male and two female servants. Of the 27 grooms and sons who received the financial assistance mentioned above, the rabbi alone supported three married sons, while the rest of the home owners each supported only one.

The name of the rabbi who signed the index of the census was Yekutiel ben Yosef (Kisiel Josyfowicz). The city elder who signed was “Avigdor, our beloved father, the honorable rebbe and teacher,

[Page 28]

Sender of blessed memory, the monthly leader of Kovel (Syndorowicz Kwartalny[19] Wigdor Kowelski).” The third member of the team of census takers was the beadle: “Yehuda-Leib son of rebbe Moshe Shemesh of the holy community of Kovel” (in Polish, Leybe Moskowicz Szkolnik).

The census of 1789 teaches us that at that time there were in Kovel 150 Christian households and 94 Jewish households. Eighteen of the Jewish households were listed as “inns” (domy zaiezdne) and 76 as “small houses.” The Jews paid “tax” to the King at a rate of 1,080 golden florins, that is, for the defense of the city. In addition to that they contributed various offerings of slaughtered beef which were calculated thusly: 30 golden florins instead of the shoulder piece (łopatki) of the animal and ten blocks of candle wax worth 12 golden florins each; altogether 120 florins. It is astounding that the “piece from the back” was included, because in the seventeenth century King Władysław the IV had granted a privilege to the Jews explicitly exempting them from this tax.

It is likely that this can be explained by the fact that in 1744 the Jewish synagogue burned down and all of the privileges and certificates were destroyed. There is no doubt that this was the same synagogue that the Jews built in 1660 “on the square between the Catholic church and the Uniate churches”; the same synagogue which so troubled the mind of the priest Kovalski.

The Jewish community of Kovel understood very well the significance of the loss of the privileges; immediately after the fire, in 1745, they had inscribed in the court records in the Ludmir fort a “public statement” which claimed that together with the synagogue all of the old privileges and subsequent confirmations thereto were lost.

In the Jewish book census which was taken in 1776 in order to determine a stamp tax for books, 759 Hebrew (and Yiddish) books were registered in Kovel; in the nearby villages of the Kovel community 141 Jewish books were found.

In 1795, the year of the third partition of Poland, Kovel like the entire Volhynia region, came under Russian governance.

In 1799 eleven Jews were registered in Kovel as merchants; no Christians were listed under that occupation. There were also listed 1,308 Christian urbanites and 811 Jewish urbanites. In the year 1847 the entire Kovel community numbered 2,647 souls. In 1897 the population count in Kovel was 17,697 residents; of those, 8,521 were Jews. According to the census taken in 1921, the population of Kovel numbered 20,818 residents,

[Page 29]

and of those 12,758 were Jews. That same census determined that in Kovel there were 317 Jewish industrial enterprises (factories and workshops) which employed 654 people. Of them, 110 employed laborers. Of the people employed by the 317 Jewish factories were listed 311 homeowners, 47 of their family members, 288 Jewish workers (277 men and 11 women) and eight non-Jewish employees.

The factories branched out into the following areas: the clothing industry – 309 people; leatherworkers – 60 people; food industry - 58 people; building – 49 people; graphics – 3 people; cleaning – 54 people. Only a few people were employed in the remaining areas of industry.


Sources and Literature About Kovel

Regesty i nadpisy I. II; Russko jewr. Archiw I, II, III; Baliński-Lipinski: “Starożytna Polska” II; Berszadskij: “Litowskije jewreje” 349 – 50; Władymirskij-Budanow: “Kijewskaja Staryna” 1888, I 22. Lustracja Wolynia z lat 1661, 1789 (Archiwum Skarbowe w Warszawe, Oddz. XLVI); “Dyspartymenta pogłównego żydowskiego”. Taryfa pogłównego żyd. powiatu Włodżimierskiego z r. 1765 (A.G. Oddz. 65 A. Nr. 2. 23, A.G. Oddz. 65 B. Nr 18.) Akta poborowego (Arch. Skarbu Oddz. I Nr. 62).
The Jewish Industrialist – Ventures in Poland 1921 (Materials of Dushyant County).
Jewrejskaja Encykłopedia IX.

*The original name of the article: Tzu Der Geschichte Fun Yidden in Kovel, printed in the journal Landkantnisch, Number 1, Warsaw 1933. Translated into Hebrew by Eliezer Leoni. Return
1Even today, the town is called Kavele in Yiddish. In addition, the rabbis and leaders of Kovel in the 18th century sign the name of the city using its ancient name of Kovli. Return
2German settlers in Poland in the Middle Ages received the right to self-government, similar to the law of the city of Magdeburg in Saxony. That law included the right to choose a mayor, who was given the title “judge” (advocatus, from which the Polish word wójt is derived), the right to choose a city council of twelve members, the right to a trial in financial and personal disputes in the city's own autonomous courthouse, and the right to pass laws regarding the legal internal business of the city. The Magdeburg Law was adopted in many cases in cities where the citizens were not Germans but were, rather, Poles, Ukrainians, et cetera. Return
3The Kingdom of Poland was the name given to the portion of the Polish Commonwealth which was ruled by a governor who was crowned king, as opposed to the Eastern portion – Lithuania, where the governor was called Grand Duke. Return
4The price of the golden florin in the first half of the sixteenth century was 45 cents. The standard golden florin was 30 cents. Return
5“Pobór” – this was the name of the property tax, which was imposed occasionally on all of the residents of the kingdom according to the decision of the Sejm. Return
6Slavic names for Jewish women, such as the name Bogdana, are still found today; for example Zelta, Cherna, et cetera. Return
7The wójt was at this time, first and foremost, a judge, the chairman of the court of city elders (ławniki). For this reason, even today villagers call the wójt by the name judge. The actual mayor and chairman of the city council was called burghermeister (burmistrz). Return
8Among the representatives of the “common man” on the side of the city were mentioned two leatherworkers. It is likely that Moshe Ben-Hazagag was not a leader, because he was listed as a representative of the “common man” on the side of the Jewish community. Return
9Schismatikos means separatists in Greek (from the Greek root schizein, to separate). The separatists were Greek Orthodox, “praboslavs” (translator's comment). Return
10According to all indications, this is the same Moshe Ben-Avraham - Mosko Abrahamowicz – son of the community leader Avraham Ben-Aharon (Awruszko Aronowicz) whose name is signed on the agreement dated 1614. The title of community leader would usually pass as an inheritance from father to son. Return
11In the 17th century, the Jews in Hrubieszów would make payments to the priest in taxes and “gifts” as follows: for St. Jacob's Day, 20 florins; for Christmas and Easter, 2 pounds of pepper, one pound of ginger, one pound of cumin, two units of cloves, two units of turmeric, one unit of nutmeg and three pounds of sugar crystal. Return
12The “Unio Catholica” was the union of the Christians from the East with the Roman Catholic Church. They recognized the example of the Roman Catholic Church, and in particular acknowledged the pre-eminence of the Pope (translator's note). Return
13As we can see, the Church charged 10% interest on the debt. Return
14The letter “hay” in the Hebrew translation was omitted in order to avoid taking the name of the Lord in vain. Return
15Rabinowicz was not at that time the family name; rather it was as it sounds: son of the rabbi. Return
16Land tax, or prętowe: tax for the measurement of the division of land. Return
17The Jews were required to pay a poll tax on each person one year and older. Therefore, the census takers did not include Jewish infants (younger than one year).
The social situation of those categorized as “paupers” is revealed by the fact that amongst them only two fathers-in-law are listed as providing financial support to their sons-in-law; while in the category of “affluent” 25 sons and sons-in-law are listed as receiving support. Return
18For comparison, see my article “Hebrew-Yiddish Documents of the Divisions in Poland in the 18th Century.” YIVO Journal,1932. Return
19In ancient Poland, each and every year three to five elders were chosen who would take turns filling that role every quarter year or every month. For this reason, the elder was called the “monthly leader” (or, in Polish: Kwartalny). Return

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