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  • Writer's pictureAnnemeet Hasidi-van Der Leij

The History of the Jews in Ukraine

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

April 30, 2022

The "Kyivan letter",* is perhaps the first written record of Kiev, and in Hebrew, dated ca. 930

The history of the Jews in Ukraine goes back more than a thousand years; Jewish communities have existed in the territory of Ukraine from the time of the Kievan Rus' (late 9th to mid-13th century). Kievan Rus' was the Kievan Rus, an early medieval predecessor of present-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, centered on the city of Kiev. Some of the major Jewish religious and cultural movements, from Hasidism to Zionism, emerged wholly or to a large extent on the territory of modern Ukraine. According to the World Jewish Congress, Ukraine's Jewish community is the third largest in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. While it sometimes flourished, the Jewish community sometimes experienced periods of persecution and anti-Semitic discrimination in the form of pogroms and massacres.

The word pogrom means; destroy, devastate and it is used for violent attacks on certain groups; ethnic, religious or other, especially Jews, characterized above all by the destruction of their environment (homes, businesses, religious centers). Often pogroms are accompanied by physical violence against and even murder of a population group with the intention of intimidating that group and thus evicting or forcing it to assimilate with the environment.

The Russian word "pogrom" denoted an organized, time-limited, attack on the population of a town or village. When Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, anti-Semitic attitudes were expressed in numerous blood libel cases between 1911 and 1913. In 1915, the Russian Imperial government expelled thousands of Jews from the frontier regions of the empire.

During the conflicts of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, an estimated 31,071 Jews were killed between 1918 and 1920. During the founding of the Ukrainian People's Republic

(1917-1921) pogroms continued to be perpetrated on Ukrainian territory. In Ukraine, the number of civilians killed during this period was estimated at 35,000 to 50,000.

Pogroms broke out in the northwestern province of Volhynia in January 1919 and spread to many other regions of Ukraine. Mass pogroms continued until 1921. The actions of the Soviet government in 1927, led by Stalin, led to a growing anti-Semitism in the area.

Joseph Stalin emerged as leader of the Soviet Union after a power struggle with Leon Trotsky after Lenin's death on January 21, 1924. Stalin has been accused of resorting to anti-Semitism in some of his arguments against Trotsky, who was of Jewish descent.

Trotskyists are critical of Stalinism as they oppose Joseph Stalin's theory of socialism in one country in favor of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. Trotskyites also criticize the bureaucracy and anti-democratic currents that developed in the Soviet Union under Stalin

Those who knew Stalin, such as Nikita Khrushchev, suggest that for a long time Stalin harbored negative feelings towards Jews who manifested themselves before the 1917 revolution. As early as 1907, Stalin wrote a letter distinguishing between a "Jewish faction" and a "true Russian faction" in Bolshevism. Stalin's secretary, Boris Bazhanov, stated that even before Lenin's death, Stalin had made gross anti-Semitic outbursts. Stalin adopted an anti-Semitic policy reinforced by his anti-Westernism. in the language of resistance to Zionism". Since 1936, during the show trial of the "Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center" the suspects, prominent Bolshevik leaders, were accused of hiding their Jewish origins under Slavic names. Total civilian losses during World War II and the German occupation of Ukraine are estimated at seven million. More than a million Jews were shot dead by the Einsatzgruppen and their many local Ukrainian supporters in western Ukraine. In 1959, Ukraine had 840,000 Jews, a decrease of almost 70% from 1941 (within Ukraine's current borders). Ukraine's Jewish population continued to decline significantly during the Cold War. In 1989, Ukraine's Jewish population was just over half of what it was thirty years earlier (in 1959). During and after the collapse of communism in the 1990s, the majority of Jews who remained in Ukraine in 1989 left the country and moved abroad (mostly to Israel). Anti-Semitic graffiti and violence against Jews are still problems in Ukraine.

Kievan Rus'

In the 11th century, the Byzantine Jews of Constantinople had familial, cultural, and theological ties to the Jews of Kiev. For example, some 11th-century Jews from Kievan Rus took part in an anti-Karaite meeting (= Karaite Judaism is a small movement in Judaism that only accepts the written Tanakh and thus not the oral teaching from the Talmud and thus split off of Rabbinic Judaism. The word kara comes from Hebrew and means to read) which was held in Thessaloniki or Constantinople.


In Halychyna (Galicia), the westernmost part of Ukraine, Jews were first mentioned in 1030. From the second part of the 14th century they were subjects of the Polish kings and magnates. The Jewish population of Halychyna and Bukovyna, part of Austria-Hungary, was extremely large; it made up 5% of the global Jewish population. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

From the foundation of the Kingdom of Poland in the 10th century to the foundation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, Poland was considered one of the most diverse countries in Europe. It became home to one of the world's largest and most vibrant Jewish communities. The Jewish community in the actual territory of Ukraine during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became one of the largest and most important ethnic minority groups in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Cossacks

Bohdan Khmelnytsky: 1595 – August 6, 1657, was a Ukrainian military commander of the Zaporozhian Host, then under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

He led a revolt against the Commonwealth and its magnates (1648–1654) that resulted in the establishment of an independent Ukrainian Cossack state.

In 1654, he concluded the Treaty of Pereyaslav with the Russian Tsar and allied the Cossack Hetmanate with the Tsardom of Russia, bringing central Ukraine under Russian control. He accused Jews of assisting the Polish kingdom, as the former were often used by them as tax collectors. Bohdan tried to exterminate the Jews from Ukraine. So, according to the treaty of Zboriv, ​​all Jewish people were forbidden to live in the territory controlled by Cossack rebels. The Khmelnytsky Uprising resulted in the deaths of an estimated 18,000-100,000 of the 40,000 to 50,000 Jews living in the area. 300 Jewish communities have been totally destroyed.

Stories of cruelty about massacre victims who had been buried alive, dismembered or forced to kill each other spread throughout Europe and beyond. Between 1648 and 1656 tens of thousands of Jews - given the lack of reliable data, it is impossible to establish more accurate figures - were killed by the rebels, and to this day the Khmelnytsky Uprising is regarded by the Jews as one of the most traumatic events in their history.

The Zaporozhian Cossacks led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky Rise of Hasidism

The Cossack uprising left a deep and lasting impression on Jewish social and spiritual life.

In this age of mysticism and overly formal rabbinism came the teachings of Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, (1698-1760), which had a profound effect on the Jews of Eastern Europe. His disciples taught and encouraged a new fervent form of Judaism, akin to Kabbalah, known as Hasidism. The rise of Hasidism had a major influence on the rise of Haredi Judaism, with an ongoing influence through the many Hasidic dynasties.

Russian Empire and Austrian rule

Traditional measures to keep the Russian Empire free of Jews were hampered when the main territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was annexed during the division of Poland. During the Second (1793) and Third (1795) partitions, large populations of Jews were taken over by the Russian Empire, and Catherine the Great established the "Pale of Settlement" in 1791, which included the Kingdom of Poland and Crimea. This was after several failed attempts, especially by Tsarina Elisabeth I, to expel the Jews from Russia unless they converted to Russian Orthodoxy.

The "Pale of Settlement" was a western region of the Russian Empire with several borders that existed from 1791 to 1917 in which permanent residence by Jews was permitted and then Jewish residence, permanent or temporary, was usually prohibited.

Most Jews were also still barred from residence in some towns in the Pale. A few Jews were allowed to live outside the area, including those with university degrees, the nobility, members of the wealthiest of the merchant guilds and certain craftsmen, some military personnel and some associated services, including their families, and sometimes their servants . The Archaic English term pale is derived from the Latin word palus, a post, extended to denote the area enclosed by a fence or boundary. Life in the Pale was economically bleak for many. Most people relied on small businesses or craft work that was not enough to support the population, resulting in emigration, especially in the late 1800s. Yet Jewish culture, especially in Yiddish, developed in the shtetls (small towns), and intellectual culture developed in the yeshivot (religious schools) and was also transferred abroad.

Sjtetl The Russian Empire was predominantly Orthodox Christian during the Pale's existence, unlike the Pale area with its large minorities of Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Catholic populations until the mid-19th century.

The end of the Pale's maintenance and formal demarcation coincided with the start of World War I in 1914 and finally with the fall of the Russian Empire in the February and October Revolutions of 1917. Odessa pogroms

Odessa became home to a large Jewish community in the 19th century, and in 1897 it was estimated that Jews made up some 37% of the population.

~1821 pogrom

The pogrom of 1821, perpetrated by ethnic Greeks rather than Russians, is cited in some sources as the first pogrom in modern times in Russia: in Odessa, Greeks and Jews were two rival ethnic and economic communities, living side by side.

The first pogrom in Odessa, in 1821, was related to the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence, in which the Jews were accused of sympathizing with the Ottoman authorities and of aiding the Turks in killing the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, dragging his corpse through the streets and eventually throwing it into the Bosphorus.

~1859 pogrom

The community did not escape the horrors of this pogrom. This was in reality not a Russian but a Greek pogrom; for the leaders and almost all the participants were Greek sailors from ships in the harbor, and local Greeks who joined them. The pogrom occurred on Christian Easter.

~1871 pogrom

But after 1871, the pogroms in Odessa took on a form more typical of the rest of the Russian Empire: "Although the pogrom of 1871 was caused in part by a rumor that Jews had destroyed the church of the Greek community, many non- Greeks' participation in Russian resentment and hostility towards Jews emerged in the pogrom of 1871 when Russians joined the Greeks in attacks on Jews.

The pogrom of 1871 is seen as a turning point in Russian Jewish history: "The pogrom in Odessa led some Jewish publicists, exemplified by the writer Peretz Smolenskin, to question the belief in the possibility of Jewish integration into Christian society. attract and call for greater awareness of Jewish national identity."

~1881-1906 period

In the period after 1871, pogroms were often committed with the quiet approval of the tsarist authorities. There is evidence that during the pogrom of 1905, the army supported the crowd: the Bolshevik Piatnitsky, who was in Odessa at the time, remembers what happened: "There I saw the following scene: a gang of young men, between 20 and 25 years old. including plainclothes policemen and members of the secret police of the Russian Empire, who rounded up anyone who looked like a Jew - men, women and children - stripped them naked and brutally beat them... We immediately organized a group of revolutionaries armed with revolvers... we ran up to them and fired at them. They ran away. But suddenly a solid wall of soldiers appeared between us and the pogromists, armed to the teeth and facing us. We retreated. The soldiers left , and the pogromists came out again. This has happened a few times. It became clear to us that the pogromists were acting together with the military."

~1905 Pogrom

The 1905 Odessa Pogrom was the worst anti-Jewish pogrom in Odessa history.

Lichamen van Joden gedood in een pogrom van 22 oktober 1905 in Odessa op de begraafplaats Between October 18 and 22, 1905, ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Greeks murdered more than 400 Jews and damaged or destroyed more than 1,600 Jewish properties.

Joodse wezen in Odessa

Political activism and emigration

Persons of Jewish descent were overrepresented in the leadership of the Russian revolutionaries. Most of them, however, were hostile to traditional Jewish culture and Jewish political parties, loyal to the Communist Party's atheism and proletarian internationalism, and committed to eradicating any sign of "Jewish cultural particularism."

Counter-revolutionary groups, including the Black Hundreds, opposed the revolution with violent attacks on socialists and pogroms against Jews. There was also a backlash from conservative elements of society, particularly in spasmodic anti-Jewish attacks, with about five hundred being killed in one day in Odessa. Nicholas II of Russia himself claimed that 90% of the revolutionaries were Jews.

Early 20th century

In the early 20th century, anti-Jewish pogroms continued to take place in cities and towns across the Russian Empire, such as Kishinev, Kiev, Odessa, and many others.

Numerous Jewish self-defense groups (see photo above) were organized to prevent the outbreak of pogroms, the most infamous of which was led by Mishka Yaponchik in Odessa.

In 1905, a series of pogroms broke out at the same time as the revolution against the government of Nicholas II. The main organizers of the pogroms were the members of the Union of the Russian People (commonly known as the "Black Hundreds").

From 1911 to 1913, the period's anti-Semitic streak was marked by a number of blood libel cases (accusations of Jews murdering Christians for ritualistic purposes). One of the most famous was the 2-year trial of Menahem Beilis (see photo below), who was charged with the murder of a Christian boy. The trial was

shown by the authorities to illustrate the disloyalty of the Jewish population. Although Beilis was acquitted after a lengthy process by an all-Slavic jury, the legal process sparked international criticism of antisemitism in the Russian Empire.

From March to May 1915, in the face of the German army, the government expelled thousands of Jews from the border areas of the empire, which coincided with the Pale of Settlement.

The Aftermath of the First World War

During the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Russian Civil War, an estimated 70,000 to 250,000 Jewish civilians were killed in the atrocities committed in the former Russian Empire during this period. On the territory of modern Ukraine, an estimated 31,071 died in 1918-1920.

Ukrainian People's Republic

During the establishment of the Ukrainian People's Republic (1917-1921), pogroms continued to be perpetrated on Ukrainian territory.

The Pogrom Victims 1917-1921 - Age-restricted video

Between 1918 and 1921, more than 1,000 anti-Jewish riots and military actions — both of which were commonly referred to as pogroms — were documented in about 500 different locations in what is now Ukraine.

In Ukraine alone, the number of civilians killed during this period has been estimated at 35,000 to 50,000. Archives released after 1991 provide evidence of a higher number; in the period from 1918 to 1921, according to incomplete data, at least 100,000 Jews were murdered in the pogroms in Ukraine.

Yiddish was an official language in the Ukrainian People's Republic, while all government posts and institutions had Jewish members. A Ministry of Jewish Affairs was established (it was the first modern state to do so). All rights of Jewish culture were guaranteed. All Jewish parties abstained or voted against the Fourth Universal of the Tsentralna Rada (=Central Council or Central Soviet) of January 25, 1918, which aimed to sever ties with Bolshevik Russia and declare a sovereign Ukrainian state, as all Jewish parties were strongly against Ukrainian independence.

The Ukrainian People's Republic did issue orders condemning pogroms and tried to investigate them. But it lacked the authority to stop the violence. In the last months of its existence, it lacked power to create social stability.

Between April and December 1918, the Ukrainian People's Republic did not exist and was overthrown by the Ukrainian state of Pavlo Skoropadsky, which ended the experiment in Jewish autonomy.

Provisional Government of Russia and Soviets

The revolution of February 1917 brought a liberal Provisional Government to power in the Russian Empire. On March 21/April 3, the government abolished all "discrimination based on ethnic, religious or social grounds". The Pale was officially abolished. The lifting of restrictions on the geographical mobility and educational opportunities of Jews led to a migration to the major cities of the country.

A week after the Bolshevik revolution of October 25 / November 7, 1917, the new government proclaimed the "Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples [Nations] of Russia", promising all nationalities the right to equality, self-determination and secession. Jews were not specifically mentioned in the statement, reflecting Lenin's view that Jews did not constitute a nation.

In 1918, the RSFSR Council of Ministers issued a decree entitled "On the Separation of Church and State and School of Church", granting religious communities the status of legal entities, the right to property and the right to enter into contracts. taken away. The decree nationalized the property of religious communities and banned their assessment of religious education. As a result, religion could only be taught or studied privately. On February 1, 1918, the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs was established as a subsection of the Commissariat for Nationality Affairs. It was tasked with establishing the "dictatorship of the proletariat in the Jewish streets" and drawing the Jewish masses to the regime, while advising local and central institutions on Jewish issues. The commissariat was also expected to fight the influence of Zionist and Jewish Socialist parties.

On July 27, 1918, the Council of People's Commissars issued a decree stating that antisemitism is "deadly to the cause of the ... revolution". Pogroms were officially banned. On October 20, 1918, the Jewish Section of the CPSU (Yevsektsia= the Jewish Section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) was established for the Jewish members of the party; its aims were similar to those of the Jewish Commissariat.

Pogroms in western Ukraine

The pogroms that broke out in the northwestern province of Volhynia in January 1919 spread to the towns and villages of many other regions of Ukraine in February and March. After Sarny it was Ovruch's turn, northwest of Kiev. In Tetiev, about 4,000 Jews were murdered on March 25, half of them in a synagogue set on fire by Cossack troops led by Colonels Kurovsky, Cherkowsy and Shliatoshenko. In Dubovo (June 17), 800 Jews were beheaded continuously. According to David A. Chapin, the town of Proskurov (now Khmelnitsky), near the town of Sudilkov, was "the site of the worst atrocities committed against the Jews this century before the Nazis."

Pogroms in Podolia

The Proskuriv pogrom took place on February 15, 1919 in the city of Proskurov during the Ukrainian Independence Day.

war, which was initiated by Otaman Ivan Semesenko (1894-1920).

The massacre was carried out by soldiers of the Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR) of Ivan Samosenko. They were instructed to save the ammunition in the process, using only lances and bayonets.

In just three and a half hours, at least 1,500 Jews were murdered, up to 1,700 by other estimates, and more than 1,000 were injured, including women, children and the elderly.

A witness writing about the violence said: "It is impossible to imagine what happened here on Saturday, February 15, 1919. This was not a pogrom. It was like the Armenian massacre."

According to historians Yonah Alexander and Kenneth Myers, the soldiers marched into the center of the city, accompanied by a military mob and under the motto "Kill the Jews and save the Ukraine."

The massacre was arguably the bloodiest of the Russian Civil War, and it was part of a much larger wave of anti-Semitic violence in Ukraine between 1917 and 1921: soldiers serving the Ukrainian People's Republic, the "white" Russian volunteer army, independent warlords, bandits and, to a lesser extent, the Red Army has murdered, raped, assaulted, mutilated and dispossessed tens of thousands of Jews.

The army of the Ukrainian People's Republic was arguably the worst offender. The UPR had declared independence from Russia in January 1918 and became the focus of many nationally conscious Ukrainians' desire for liberation.

However, according to the most reliable statistical research, his troops were responsible for about two-fifths of all pogroms and half of all deaths.

A few days later, the Red Cross representative in Proskuriv witnessed Semosenko's oral report to Symon Petliura. He was a Ukrainian publicist, writer, journalist, politician and statesman. During the Russian Civil War, from 1918 to 1920, he headed the independent Ukrainian Republic (UPR).

Symon Petliura (photo above) was of Cossack origin. Unfortunately, UPR head Symon Petliura Otaman did not punish Ivan Semesenko for the mass murder of Jews. Semesenko was shot in the early 1920s for not following Petliura's orders.

A local Ukrainian public figure, Trokhym Fedorovych Verkhola (1883-1922), a Ukrainian social democrat, teacher, artist and educator, rebelled against this mass murder of civilians.

After the revolution of 1917, he was elected as a deputy to the municipal council, the head of the Prosvita Association [Enlightenment] and as a representative in the Constituent Assembly of Russia. Verkhola took part in the origin of the Ukrainian national revival in Proskuriv. For a time he was even the mayor of the city.

Verkhola had good relations with the local Jewish community for many years. There was a charming episode in March 1917 when he was preparing the first Ukrainian public demonstration in Proskuriv after the overthrow of tsarism. Preparation for the demonstration was on a Saturday and all the city's shops were closed for Shabbat, but Verkhola agreed with the local Jews to receive yellow and blue fabric for sewing Ukrainian flags. During the reign of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky, he was arrested by the Austro-Hungarian military authorities and sent to the court in Lviv. After the overthrow of hetman (=Hetman of Ukraine is a former historical government office and a political institution of Ukraine equivalent to a head of state or a monarch) and the coming to power of Symon Petliura, Verkhola returned to Proskuriv on February 12, 1919 , three days before the pogrom.

When Verkhola heard about the massacre of Jews, he went into the streets of the city and saw the slaughtered victims near many buildings. Verkhola urgently began collecting medicines for the injured from pharmacies across the city.

The next morning, on February 16, Verkhola called an emergency meeting of the city council, attended by Otaman Semesenko and his aide, the military commander Kiverchuk. Just outside the city hall building, he saw Cossacks murdering a Jew. Verkhola demanded an immediate end to the Proskuriv massacre and ordered Semesenko's soldiers to return from the neighboring town of Felshtin, where they were sent out for another mass murder of Jews.

Verkhola declared right in front of the assassins commander: “What are you doing, Otaman?! You are not a Ukrainian or Ukrainian Cossack!” Verkhola demanded an end to the pogrom "for the sake of Ukraine's honor".

Semesenko denied the fact of the massacre. He said: "I have ordered the extermination of the Bolsheviks, and if there are any old men, women and children among the Jews who are Bolsheviks, it is their fault, not mine."

Otaman Semesenko arrested Verkhola and wanted to shoot him, but the Ukrainian deputy was released at the request of local Ukrainian politicians.

It is interesting to note that the pogrom in Proskuriv was halted after the city's Ukrainian activists sent an urgent telegram to Yevhen Konovalets, the commander of the Ukrainian army (pictured below).

The future creator of the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] immediately ordered Otaman Semesenko to stop the massacre.

Trokhym Verkhola remained a Ukrainian public figure in Proskuriv in 1919-1920. The Jews have always remembered with gratitude that Verkhola helped the victims of the pogrom and defended the Jews.

Fleeing from the Bolsheviks, Verkhola fled to Lviv in 1921. Local Jews helped him financially, but Trokhym was already seriously ill with tuberculosis. He died in Lviv in 1922 at the age of 39.

Verkhola is remembered in the memoirs of Ukrainian activist Natalia Doroshenko-Savchenko (1888-1974).

From 1913-17 she lived in Proskuriv and together with Trohym Verkhola took an active part in Ukrainian national life. In 1921 she moved to Lviv, where she was a librarian at the Prosvita Society before 1939. Later she emigrated with her family to the United States. Her memoirs were published in Svoboda [Freedom] (New York, December 25, 1955) and were titled "The Beginning of the National Revolution in Proskurivshchyna."

"T. Verkhola became the soul of the Community. He was a man of inexhaustible energy, extremely mobile, and above all completely devoted to the cause at hand. He was also an excellent artist - a painter. In addition, he enjoyed popularity among the peasants from Proskurivshchyna, because he himself came from the peasants of Satanov. He was highly regarded by the Jewish community. Incidentally, when later, in 1919, a Jewish pogrom broke out in Proskuriv, Verkhola did much to calm the situation. Grateful Jews helped him when he emigrated to Lv