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[Page 5]

Concerning the History of Vysotsk


Vysotsk in changing times

It was right that we should open our book on our shtetl of Vysotsk with a historical survey about the shtetl, its past and origin; the beginnings of settlement there etc. For sure we do not imagine that our shtetl didn't have its own 'history'. It did, it certainly did. There are many signs to prove it: the old houses, tottering, about to fall, that remained in the shtetl, the old gravestones in the cemetery, the stories and tales told by old folk of the shtetl etc. From all of these we learn that our shtetl is old, with a 'history' of its own. But when we came to commit this 'history' to writing there wasn't a lot to hang on to. There wasn't enough material in our hands to form a complete 'picture'. The shtetl was pretty small, there were no well developed public institutions in it, no local newspaper of any sort appeared there, there were no writers or public figures, they didn't write about the shtetl in any newspapers and didn't tell about it in any 'memoirs'. It seems there wasn't even a community 'journal', the sort that was customary in various Jewish communities. Even when they said that one of the Jews of the shtetl had chronicled the events of the Jews of the shtetl, he didn't record much more than births and deaths. But this 'journal' was also lost with the destruction of the Jewish shtetl as a whole, and there is nobody left who could tell anything about it. This was a little Jewish shtetl which, like dozens and hundreds of other Jewish shtetls in Volyn and Polessia, lived its grey life. Of its joys and sorrows and of the various events no written record remained of any of these.

Nonetheless there is something there. The tiniest bit. We searched and researched and dug out here and there and from all of these something came together. Although we didn't really have time or means to do that much searching and scrabbling in old books, in encyclopaedias and in dictionaries etc, and however much we looked we doubted if we would find any more. We just found isolated lines, from which we learn that indeed the shtetl 'draws' its past from several centuries ago. Some of these records we include here.

In the book '1000 years of Pinsk', which appeared in Yiddish in America some years ago, there is a map of the region in the seventeenth century with Vysotsk marked in it, one of many such little towns. In an article about the history of Pinsk in the same book Vysotsk is mentioned as one of the small towns belonging to the district of Pinsk. This is what the article says: 'The growth of Pinsk in the sixteenth century came thanks to its geographical position. From a modest settlement in Brest province Pinsk grew, in a short period of time, to a metropolis with a wide influence, beyond the boundaries of Polessia. Pinsk's influence came from the fact that it established settlements (colonies) in Polessia which were bound to metropolitan Pinsk in the fields of law and taxation. In the year 1623, at the first sitting of the Lithuanian Council, at a time when Lithuania was divided into three districts, the following belonged to Pinsk district: Lakhovitz, Khomsk, Brahin, Dombrovitz, Vysotsk, Turov, Niz. In fact Pinsk comprised more territory than the Council had determined…'

In a continuation of the article in the same book it tells of a rebellion of the 'colonies' in metropolitan Pinsk. This was in around 1764. The 'colonies' refused to pay taxes to Pinsk and Vysotsk was also among those rebelling…And in the same article, in a table showing the number of Jews in the region in the second half of the 18th century, Vysosk is mentioned as a settlement numbering 85 Jewish souls.

[Page 6]

After Russian tsarist rule was established in the regions of Polessia and Volyn Vysotsk belonged, for administrative purposes, to Volyn and was part of the district of Rovno. With the establishment of Polish rule in the region (1920), Vysotsk was annexed to the district of Stolin in the wojewodztwo[6] of Brest, a region of Polessia.

With the fall of Poland in the first days of the Second World War, when it was divided between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Vysotsk, together with the district as a whole, was annexed to the Soviet Union. A few days after the outbreak of the Russo-German war (June 1941) the Nazi German occupiers took over Vysotsk, as they did the region as a whole. They ruled it until they were expelled from it and from the region by the Red Army at the beginning of 1944. Since then Vysotsk, like the whole of Polessia, belongs to the Soviet Union, to the Republic of Byelorussia.

In our searches for sources regarding the history of the shtetl we found the article on Vysotsk in the Polish geographical dictionary that appeared in the year 1895, edited by Bruno Chalibowsky. In the article there is at last something more fundamental and comprehensive about the past and origin of Vysotsk and we publish this in our book.

Arie Fialkov,

[Page 7]

The shtetl in earlier times

Article according to the 'Geographical Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and Other Slavonic Countries', Warsaw 1895

Vysotsk, which was known at a certain period by the name of Vyshogrod, is a little town on the river Horyn in Rovne[7] province. Vysotsk is situated 17.5 versts[8] from Dombrovitze[9], 350 versts from Zhytomyr, 130 from Rovno and 3 from Vysotsk station on the Polessian railway line Vilne-Rovne[10].

It has 217 houses, 1702 Orthodox inhabitants, 13 Catholics, nearly 100 Evangelicals[11] apart from many Jews.

The little town has its own Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God, which was built of wood on a walled foundation base and founded in the year 1877, also a school, a synagogue and administrative offices. There are five markets a year, mainly of agricultural equipment and produce.

The local authority area includes 16 rural hamlets in which there are 518 houses and 5,184 inhabitants. The total area amounts to 67,087 desyatyns[12].

On one side Vysotsk is washed by the waters of the river Horyn and its tributary Balamutky, on the other by the river Seret, creating as it were an island, linked to the land by bridges and dykes. On a high, man-made hill, stands the castle, and it is to this hill that the place owes its name.

The area to the left of the Horyn, where Vysotsk itself lies, is called by the name Zarzecze[13], meaning 'beyond the river', whereas the territory of Polessia spreads out on the right-hand side of the Horyn. Occasional villages are scattered in the ancient forests of Polessia. The soil in this region is fertile; it consists of a mixture of clay and sand and it produces rye, wheat, millet, spelt, flax and potatoes.

Large deposits of iron ore are found in different spots. The forests here are intersected by rivulets and boggy swamps. Among the lowlands protrude some small hillocks called the 'Khylin hills'. The flora is rich and has its own special features.

There are trees growing here which are not found in any other location: Alnus Glutinosa and Quencus pedunculata (oak).

Small pieces of amber are found in many places in the Horyn. In the distant past, when people were looking for a place for their settlements, they found it near the forest and within the forest itself. We know that Stanyslav Avgust was given a hammer and an awl made from stone, which were found in the fortress of Stolin when they were digging a well at a depth of close to 20 cubits.

Near the village of Rechitza[14], which used to belong to the estate of Vysotsk, there are two large lakes linked by canals. At the bottom of these lakes you can come across wooden stakes, which seem to be remains of buildings in the lake. These have not yet been investigated by scientists. According to local legends, there existed a settlement here, 'Pochaiv'. Because of the sins and wickedness of the inhabitants this sank into the ground together with the church. An abyss opened up and was filled with water. Every year at Easter – so the locals say – there is the plaintive sound of bells rising from the depths of the lake.

[Page 8]

In ancient times the banks of the Horyn were settled by Slavonic tribes, whereas the population of the village and the area around Vysotsk was mixed. The name of the village of Hranitz, near Dombrovitze, is evidence that it was the border between these two Slavonic tribes.

We know from history that already in the eleventh century the Varangian- Rus princes were beginning to carve themselves a path among local tribes by force. We find quotations to that effect dating from 1116. In Horodno (several miles from Vysotsk) the family of Vsevolodok Volodymyrovych, who reigned here from 1116 until 1182, sat on the throne.

The origins of Vysotsk itself are difficult to determine. Vysotsk's position as an island between the rivers, being protected and fortified by nature, attracted settlers.

Dombrovitze Russian princes ruled the area in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Following the invasion by the Tatars the surrounding region was liberated and passed to the ownership of the throne. In the 15th century it was handed over to the Lithuanian princes Olgymuntovych-Olshansky. According to the chronicles, one of the owners was the father-in-law of Wladysław Jagiełło.

Villagers in the area always had to struggle with the primeval forest. Vysotsk grew and became a significant settlement. Prince Yuri, helped by many Boyar knights, fought many battles with the Tatars in the surrounding region. While the prince was absent from home Tatars attacked the area and Dombrovitze. His wife, the princess, hid on the island. That's how she saved her life.

As early as the 17th century the whole area was under threat from the Tatars. In 1654 Tatars attacked hamlets in the area, robbed, pillaged, took people into captivity and sold them as slaves. In 1664 hetman[15] Pavel Tetera Moshkovsky, who had married Helena, the daughter of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, bought the place and built a new castle on the foundations of the old one. But because of arguments about booty and money he was forced to flee from the Zaporozhsky Cossacks and he handed Vysotsk over to the Jesuit order in exchange for a yearly payment of 8,000 zlotys. Later he had second thoughts and sold the estate to a private owner. He died in Turkey, where he went in order to place himself and Ukraine under the protection of the sultan. After his death in 1742 the Jesuits regained ownership of the place, based on a verdict reached after legal battles between them, the buyer on one side and Tetera's heirs on the other side. These legal battles lasted for 70 years.

In 1773 the Jesuit order was liquidated by a papal bull issued by Pope Klement XIV. All the land that belonged to the order passed into state ownership and in 1775 the land was designated for educational purposes, administered by an education commission. In accordance with a decision of the seym[16]

the territory was leased to Wygonowsky[17], and he in turn leased it to Mateusz Butrymowicz, famous for digging the canal linking the rivers Pripyat and Niman. To this day the canal is called Oginsky[18].

There remains an inventory of the property that was transferred in 1774, following the abolition of the Jesuits, with a detailed description of the castle, the churches and also of the town itself, which was next door to the castle (as was customary). According to the inventory, in the town there were 83 houses, in which lived 83 owners, 134 sons and 4 relatives. There were 122 bulls and 42 horses.

According to the inventory only 7 of the property owners were Jews. At the time of Lithuanian rule Vysotsk belonged to Lithuania as part of the Brest-Lithuanian province in the district of Pinsk.

[Page 9]

After the partition of Poland Vysotsk became part of Minsk province, and in 1805 it was united with Rovno district in Volyn province. Wygonowsky handed the area over to Borejko, who took part in Tadeusz Czacki's cultural project. He invited immigrants from Denmark[19]. They were Mennonites (an Anabaptist sect) and they founded a Danish colony called Sofiivka (it is now a German colony not far from Vysotsk), named after his daughter Sofia, who married Rulikowsky. Finally the territory was handed over to the Rulikowskys.

Local Jews are involved in trade, picking blackberries and cranberries and also the mushrooms which grow in great quantities in the forests. Every year they send several baydaks[20] full of this produce to Kiev and Odessa.

The villages which belong to Vysotsk are: Ozery, Udrytsk, Milyach, Zhaden, Yelno and Vilka Klusovska.

In the 'Jewish Encyclopaedia' [publ. in St Petersburg before the Revolution] appear the following two references:

  1. Vysotsk – a small town in Rovno district, Volyn province. In 1847 the Jewish community in Vysotsk numbered 320 souls; in 1897 there were 912 inhabitants of whom 880 were Jews.
  2. Vysotsk – during the time of Polish rule the small town was in the voyevoda[21] of Brest (Lithuania), Pinsk district. Following the foundation of the Lithuanian council in 1623 the Jews of Vysotsk became part of the community in Pinsk. According to the census of 1766 there were at that time 85 Jews.

Vysotsk in1901

From the Towns of the State

Vysotsk (Volyn district). The families of our community, the sons of Israel, number about two hundred and fifty. The majority are craftsmen who earn a living with difficulty. There are a few small shopkeepers and small traders, but their fate is no better than the first. The economic situation of our town is in general very bad; there are many who look for work but don't find any.

The moral situation of our community is much lower than the physical situation; it is a miracle that the charitable institutions that exist are still standing. There is the hospice which the venerable old rov did much to improve and adorn and put on strong foundations but now the hospice has deteriorated markedly, with zero funds for its economic needs, for the little money that is collected each week from the members is not enough for the many needs of expenditure. Accordingly they are up to their necks with spiralling debts. The former managers have washed their hands of it, and until others come to fill their place there is nowhere for the poor to rest other than in the prayer houses.

The sick fund society that existed for some years has also failed, collapsed and ceased its activities, as if it had never been.

In our town the lack of water is certainly felt, for the river that supplies the residents of our town with water is some distance away, and it is a common thing for the lack of water in the town to leave its inhabitants thirsty. It is about three moons since generous persons were moved to make good the lack of water by digging wells.

[Page 10]

They had already begun their positive project and dug and found fresh water suitable for drinking and cooking when hard-hearted men in our community raised objections and disrupted the work, which was stopped in the middle. Meanwhile our town remained without water as before, and not only that but the well, which was not finished, became an obstacle in a public area. A 9 year-old boy has already fallen down the well but he was brought out while he still had life left in him.

We also feel the lack of a doctor. The doctor from the nearby town of Dombrovitze did indeed agree to visit our town twice a week for an agreed yearly salary, also there were other home-owners who undertook to pay the salary due to him, but when the time came to pay their dues, again there was embarrassment and confusion. So therefore our town will remain without a doctor.

Once again the wrath of the Lord poured forth on Breznitze, a neighbour of our town. On the 16th day of Tammuz[22] at one o'clock in the morning fire broke out from one of the cowsheds and consumed eighty-six large and good houses. Also many shops. The condition of that town is very bad because that was the third fire in the last three years. And the inhabitants of the town were getting poorer even before the latest fire.

B. Abelson taken from HaTsfira[23], no. 174

A house in Vysotsk
(the home of the Gutman family)


  1. Polish: province return
  2. now Rivne (Ukrainian), previously Rovno (Russian), Rowno (Polish) as well as Rovne (Yiddish) return
  3. 1 verst = 3500 feet return
  4. now Dubrovytsya return
  5. Vilnius-Rivne return
  6. Lutherans return
  7. 1 desyatin = 2.7 acres return
  8. now Zarichya return
  9. now Richytsya return
  10. the second highest military commander (after the king) return
  11. Polish parliament return
  12. chamberlain of the Brest-Lithuania province return
  13. Butrymowicz worked for Prince Oginsky return
  14. Holland, according to the original Polish version return
  15. flat-bottomed boats return
  16. Russian: province return
  17. June-July return
  18. ‘The Dawn’, the first Hebrew-language journal in Poland. Founded in 1862, it ceased publication in 1927 return


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