A thousand years of history: what we know about the life of the Jewish community in the city of Volodymyr (Pt. 1)

Today on the UJE-supported “Encounters” program dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations, we are discussing the first mentions of Jewish life in the city of Volodymyr (Volodymyr-Volynskyi) and the existence of a large Jewish community in this area during the prewar period.

How this book came to be

Vasyl Shandro: Why did you start researching the city of Volodymyr?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: The idea came about quite unexpectedly, and it wasn't even my idea, because after I had collected a certain number of materials on the history of the Jews in Volodymyr-Volynskyi, a good friend of mine, who had noticed this, asked me in surprise: "Why aren't you writing a book?"

Why did I begin collecting these materials? I am not from Volodymyr-Volynskyi at all; I am from the Rivne region, but fate brought my wife and me to Volodymyr. And after I arrived, I was curious to find out if there were Jews in the city because I myself am Jewish. It was interesting for me to communicate with people who lived in this city. Since I was interested in these questions, over time, local people began to ask me why I wasn't taking care of the Jewish graves.

Monument in Piatydni.

As it turned out, there are mass graves on the outskirts of the village of Piatydni, next to Volodymyr-Volynskyi, where the Nazis shot the Jewish population of the city of Volodymyr-Volynskyi and surrounding villages during the Second World War. The graves were in a neglected state, meaning that they had, in fact, been turned into a garbage dump. All types of garbage were being brought there, simply shipped in by car.

I asked myself what could be done to correct the situation. I contacted the local government and asked for help from local entrepreneurs to supply some equipment to restore some order. After the first round of tidying, then the second and third rounds, I realized that it made no sense just to clean up the place because garbage would continue to be brought there again and again. People had to be informed as to what this place was.

That is how I got the idea that, first of all, it was necessary to write some articles for the press. I began writing articles on this topic. But since I was not from Volodymyr, I had to obtain some information. When I turned to the local museum, they could not give me any advice or hints. This topic turned out to be virgin soil. No one was interested or engaged in it. The thinking was: Well, people had lived here, they were killed by the Nazis, they are gone — and that's it. No one even posed this kind of question.

When I began collecting information and publishing it, a local television channel made a film; first one film, then another. One was devoted to the events of the Holocaust, the other — to the Righteous who had saved Jews. And that is how certain information was collected.

Once a certain number [of documents] had been collected, one of my friends, as I mentioned earlier, gave me the idea that I should not keep this to myself but offer it so that people could become informed, so that they would know about this issue. I acknowledged that this was a good idea and began to work, not just on collecting information, but on a book. Over time, that is how the first edition came about — and there is a very interesting story behind the English-language edition. As time went on, I did not stop collecting information. I continue to be interested in this topic; I am discovering interesting materials. The third edition came out this summer [2021].

The first Jews in Volodymyr-Volynskyi

Vasyl Shandro: Did you manage to find out when the first references to Jews in the city of Volodymyr appeared?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: Where sources are concerned, I can say that when I was working on the book, I also examined archival materials and spoke with many eyewitnesses who were still alive. I still had time to do this because practically none of the people whom I managed to interview are still alive today.

I think that I boarded a train that was departing, because the people who could talk about events, eyewitnesses, are no longer alive.

Of course, in various sources, say, works by different historians, there were quite scanty references to Volodymyr-Volynskyi.

From various sources, I put together such a solid picture that in historical terms, one can view it today according to a certain chronology and see a picture of the life of the Jewish community from its very first mentions.

For example, Oleksandr Tsynkalovsky, a historian of Volodymyr-Volynskyi, believed in his work that the very first reference to Jews in the city dates to the tenth century. For example, he wrote that "the Jewish colony in Volodymyr reaches back to ancient times, when trade enticed [Jews] to Volyn during the pre-princely period, which the Arab historian Ibn Hei Qul writes about"; he was most likely thinking of Ibn Hawqal.

Later, there were twelfth-century references to Jews in Volodymyr. For example, in the twelfth century, a Jew from Volodymyr is mentioned by Efraim ben Jacob of Bonn in his book Sefer HaZechira. There is another twelfth-century reference to a Jew from Volodymyr who was mentioned at one time by Abraham the Scribe of Carentan. In addition, there is quite an interesting reference to Jews from Volodymyr-Volynskyi dating to the thirteenth century in which the funeral of Prince Volodymyr Vasylkovych is described in the Hypatian Codex. It states that in 1288 people were crying over the prince. Besides other city residents, the Jews, who were called zhydy at the time, were crying "as though during the capture of Jerusalem, when they were being led into captivity."

In other words, in these meager references, much attention was devoted specifically to them, which also proves that they were already living in Volodymyr at the time.

Vasyl Shandro: The city also has a Jewish name, and it is often used in documents, is it not?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: Even more so: The name "Ludmir" is still used in Jewish circles to this day. Sometimes comical situations arise when, for example, people are traveling to Volodymyr-Volynskyi to pray at the grave of Shlomo Gottlieb, a tsaddik who is buried here; he is quite a respected figure in Hasidism. So, they take taxis and ask to be driven to Ludmir. But the taxi driver doesn't know where it is. These people have my number, they give the taxi driver their phone, and he asks me: "In which oblast is this Ludmir located? What city is that?" Things like that happen.

Vasyl Shandro: So, "Ludmir" is an ancient name that is still used today?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: Yes, and it is encountered everywhere in Jewish documents and to this very day. People write “Ludmir” and in parentheses — Volodymyr or Włodzimierz.

Jewish settlement in the prewar period

Vasyl Shandro: As for subsequent periods, what about references, numbers, and artifacts from the Lithuanian-Rus′ period, the Cossack period, all the way to the twentieth century?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: As regards references, many documents on this topic are no longer extant. Perhaps some of these documents have not been studied yet. I have a certain problem with sources that are written in Hebrew, for example. Regrettably, they are not accessible to me, and if I did manage to locate some documents, I had to turn to my friends for a translation. I think that what I have researched so far is just the tip of the iceberg, and it is quite a general survey work. If each period were to be researched in detail, then one could find many, many such…

Vasyl Shandro: …facts that were not known earlier?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: Not just facts but historical treasures. Even the diverse materials that I have managed to locate and systematize speak to the fact that much more can be found.

As regards the population, the Jewish population of Volodymyr differed in size during various periods. The first documented mention, under the year 1662, talks about 318 Jews.

Vasyl Shandro: Was that a large community for that time?

 Volodymyr Muzychenko: At the time, it was a large community for such a locality. According to my data, the Jewish population reached its peak in 1892. The census states that it comprised 78 percent of the total population.

Vasyl Shandro: In other words, this was mostly a Jewish city at that time?


Volodymyr Muzychenko: At the time, it was nearly 80 percent. But depending on the period, the number changed. When the armies of Bohdan Khmelnytsky were approaching the city, those who did not escape died, and the Jewish population almost ceased to exist. However, it revived periodically after various historical situations. As of 1939, the Jewish population stood at around 45 percent—17,000, according to my data.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, the Jewish population began increasing. For example, in 1937, they constituted 39 percent and in 1939—45 percent. Before the Nazi occupation of our city, the Jewish population was, I believe, even larger thanks to refugees who, starting in the mid-1930s, were fleeing from Germany and even from Poland. And in 1939, when the Second World War began, that wave was massive. Eyewitnesses recounted that Jews who were fleeing across the Buh River from the territory of Poland to territory which had been captured by Soviet troops, lived in houses and synagogues, slept on floors, and were very tired and hungry because they had had to abandon everything that they owned in Poland.

When the Second World War began in 1939, they tried to cross over into the Soviet Union, and even in Volodymyr-Volynskyi some people tried to cross over into Soviet territory. There were even stories of how, when they were approaching Ostroh and hearing the news that Soviet troops had crossed the Polish border, they turned back to Volodymyr, to the city that had just been captured by Soviet armies. On the road back, they were overtaken by Soviet troops. So, the size of the Jewish population depended on circumstances that existed at a particular time.

The fate of the Jewish community during the Second World War

Vasyl Shandro: What happened after the Second World War and during it?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: After the Second World War, unfortunately, it was, of course, impossible to restore the Jewish community to the condition it had been in because the Jewish community was destroyed in 1942 and 1943. Interestingly enough, a large proportion of the population, not just Jews, left the city because, for example, when Soviet troops arrived in the city, some surviving Jews who had left their hiding places or returned from the woods found the city practically emptied. At that particular time, a certain segment of the population was comprised not of local residents but people who had come from surrounding villages after the Ukrainian-Polish conflict, who had fled to the city away from this conflict. They often settled down in the houses that had been abandoned by Jews who were shot by the Nazis.

Yes, of course, the Jewish community could not be revived after this. In the 1950s, no one took those circumstances into account, and during the Soviet period, the Jewish cemetery was destroyed with the excuse that no one was being buried there; without reckoning with the fact that there were tons of people who were living outside the borders of the Soviet Union whose close relatives were buried there. So this Jewish cemetery, which was one of the oldest, has been erased from the face of the Earth. I succeeded in finding some gravestones in the city and collect them. Unfortunately, most have been lost.

Jews in Volodymyr today

Vasyl Shandro: Is there a Jewish community in Volodymyr today?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: In our city, there is a small number of Jews who belong to the Volhynian community of Progressive [Reform] Judaism, but this is not at all the community that existed earlier. A certain number of people who have Jewish roots have little interest in their history, in their culture, frankly speaking. They are simply living their lives and resolving their everyday questions. That's the situation, unfortunately.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.