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Jews in Ukraine - Early History

Jews appeared in the territory of present-day Ukraine in antiquity, when Jews are known to have lived in Greek settlements in the Crimea from the first through fourth centuries CE. Jews probably lived elsewhere in the territory of Ukraine continuously since the tenth century, long before the Ukrainian nation emerged. By the end of the 1500s, there were about 45,000 Jews in the regions now constituting Ukraine. By the mid-1800s, there were almost 600,000 Jews in the parts of Ukraine under Russian rule. Many more lived in parts of modern Ukraine that were then part of Austro-Hungary.

Much later, in the 12th century, when this territory became the part of Khazar Kaganate, Judaism played an important role. Many Khazars converted to Judaism. There is substantial ongoing research about the history of the Khazars and the extent of the Jewish practice. Khazar necropolises are known in Ukraine. Ancient Russian chronicles relate that Jews from Khazaria visited Volodymyr, the prince of Kyiv-Rus, to try to convert him to Judaism in 986. A letter written by Kyiv Jews found in the Cairo Geniza indicates that Jews were settled in central Ukraine in the 10th century. Medieval writers Benjamin of Tudela and Pethahiah of Regensburg, the latter of whom visited Kyiv in the 12th century, mention the city. Additional evidence is the name of one of the Kyiv city gates of the 12th century - Zhydivski Vorota (Jewish Gate) - situated near present-day Lvivska Ploshcha - (Lviv square). Unfortunately, there is no information about Jewish cemeteries from that time, but at least one Jewish cemetery must have existed in Kyiv. Then, beginning in the 12th century, Jews entered the territory of Ukraine from Western Europe in the wake of the expansion of the Teutonic Knights and other Christian forces. Jews also migrated to Ukraine from the east due to the persecution against Judaism from Russian and Byzantium Orthodox clergy.v The 13th century Mongol invasion started a series of events which are still evident in the population of Ukraine. The invasion broke up the loosely-organized Kieven state, bringing some lands under direct Mongol control, while others continued precarious existence as Mongol vassals. One of the most important was the Galician-Volyhnia Principality in western Ukraine. The principality suffered several punishing raids by the Mongols, but retained its independence. By the mid 14th century, two events converged to end the independence. The male line of the local ruling dynasty died out, and Polish principalities were unified by Casimir III the Great.

Taking advantage of the chaos, Casimir, with the help of Hungary, conquered Galicia. Lithuania conquered the northern portion of the principality, Volyhnia. During the next several centuries, the Polish state continuously expanded eastward, especially after the establishment of the Commonwealth with Lithuania.

Western Ukraine was the site of some of the earliest Jewish settlements. By 1447, a Jewish community was established in Sambir, and soon afterward Jews settled in Uzhhorod, which became a Jewish religious center (this area was part of Czekhoslovakia between the World Wars). At Berehovo, then part of Hungary, Polish Jews were encouraged to settle on the estates of the Schoenborn counts. Mukachevo was once home to thirty synagogues [and later had a Hebrew press established in 1871].

Polish occupation brought many Poles and Jews to Ukraine. The growth of the Polish population resulted from migration and assimilation. The assimilation was more rapid among the nobility and the urban population, as towns turned into Polish enclaves surrounded by Ukrainian countryside. Jews came from Poland, as in the late Middle Ages, vicious pogroms and expulsion of Jews occurred in various parts of Western Europe. At the same time, the Polish Crown encouraged migration to expand commerce and industry. The two events brought many Jews to Poland, and as the Polish state expanded eastward, Jewish migrants followed.

The Jews settled in Ukraine at the end of the sixteenth century. The emigrants from Lithuania and Poland found here uncultivated land and sparsely populated villages. Gradually there grew up cities, castles and settlements. The Polish nobility attracted as colonists the petty nobility, the serfs and also the Jews as a class engaged in commerce and industry. Thanks to the Jewish spirit of enterprise there soon developed an extremely energetic commercial activity. The greatest variety of industries, the production of nitric acid and potash, fishing and hunting as well as the liquor business were in the hands of the Jews. Only a very small part of the Jews were rich.

Beginning in the 16th century, Ukraine was the site for nearly every major religious, social, and political movement in the Jewish world. Despite the devastation of the Chmelnytskyj massacres in 1648 (in which 100,000 Jews died), the Jewish community continued to grow and develop. The literature on Hasidism is vast. Many have been introduced to the stories of the sages through the writings of Martin Buber and Elie Wiesel. See especially Buber's Tales of the Hasidim (New York: Schocken Books, 1947) and Wiesel's Souls on Fire (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982). A more scholarly approach can be found in Gershon David Hundert, ed., Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to Present (New York and London: New York University Press, 1991).

The most active period of migration to western Ukraine was in the 16th and 17th centuries when the region was under Polish rule. The Polish nobility invited Jews to help manage their estates and develop economic activity in the newly founded private towns. Predominantly Jewish towns (shtetls) began to appear on Ukrainian territory as early as the 15th century when the Polish aristocracy invited Jews to settle. By the 17th century, Jews began also to settle in eastern Ukraine. Jewish communities appeared in Podillia, and farther to the east in the towns of Rivne, Chernihiv, Bila Tserkva, Bohuslav, Perejaslav, Pyriatyn, Lokhvytsia, Dubno, etc. Architectural remains and cemeteries in these areas date from this period.

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