(Pt. 1) Jewish communities on the territory of Ukraine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: An interview with the researcher Natalya Starchenko

Natalya Starchenko. (Photo Facebook)

What do we know about the life of Jewish communities on the territory of Ukraine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? How did people of different cultures and religions coexist? How did they communicate? Did they have equal rights and obligations in the state?

These and other questions heard on the Encounters program were answered by Natalya Starchenko, Doctor of Historical Sciences, who is a senior research associate of the M. S. Hrushevsky Institute of Ukrainian Archeography and Source Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a specialist in the history of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period of Ukraine.

Natalya Starchenko: When we talk about the position of Jews in the Ukrainian lands during the Early Modern period, we must keep in mind what happened earlier in Europe: 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from England; 1394, from France; the 1490s, from Spain and Portugal. The expellees from Europe move to the East, where they settle, say, in the Rzeczpospolita. As one contemporary Jewish author wrote at the time: “Of course, bread is fluffier and sweeter in Germany, but it is better to eat dry bread in our fatherland, the Rzeczpospolita, where treatment of the Jews is significantly better than sweet bread from Germany.”

There was a discussion in Warsaw about the situation of the Jewish population in the Rzeczpospolita, and one of our Russian colleagues declared: “There was no anti-Semitism in Russia! Jews were treated well in Russia at the time!” Then one of our Polish colleagues commented: “Yes, at the time, there were no Jews in the Muscovite state.” Actually, we need to remember the context.

Vasyl Shandro: Can one say that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were one of the waves during which Jews flocked in droves to the territory of Ukraine?

Natalya Starchenko: Yes. This was a period of active migrations of expellees from Europe, especially religious ones, who settled in the Polish Crown lands and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and from 1569 onward—the Rzeczpospolita. In the late sixteenth century, according to my observations, the state tries to control spontaneous migrations, but this process is quite difficult. Let us say that the cities and royal estates in Volhynia are settled by Scots, Germans, Armenians, Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, and Roma whom the authorities are trying in vain to expel by passing laws in the Sejm. This is a motley mass of people not separated by walls.

Communities that enjoy different rights, so-called jurydyky, exist in cities. There are nobiliary households—a nobiliary jurydyka; there are spiritual jurydyky, both Orthodox and Catholic. There is a community that lives under Magdeburg Law, which must theoretically encompass the entire city, but in reality, is only part of it. In the center of the city is a castle to which some territory belongs; this is the residence of the royal vicegerent. There are certain Jewish locations and Jewish streets in many cities. However, unlike a number of European cities that have Jewish ghettos, there are none in Ukrainian cities; the population is not divided by thick walls. Christians also live in these specifically Jewish areas. For example, the Church of Saint Michael is mentioned as standing on Zhydivska Street (Jewish Street) in Lutsk.

Jews own homes at the market square, which constitutes the city’s elite section.

The presence of a substantial Jewish community in a city is a marker of its economic success. However, this picture would not be complete without mentioning the close interaction of the population. One of the sources of income of the Jewish community is credit operations, loans. However, it turns out that Jews not only offered cash on credit but also took out loans, using their homes as collateral. If the debt was not paid off on time, the house was transferred to a Christian, who might obtain ownership in an area settled compactly by Jews.

Vasyl Shandro: One myth is that Jews traditionally owned taverns and inns or worked in the financial sphere. It turns out that this might not have been so.

Natalya Starchenko: This is not entirely a myth because the trade and economic levers were precisely in the hands of Jews. They were lessees, merchants, and owners of inns, but at the same time, they were tradesmen, quite impoverished members of the community. I came across an interesting story. A nobleman tried to bribe a Jew to testify in court on his behalf, but the Jew refused, saying that even though he was a poor tradesman, he did not want to have a sin on his conscience because his conscience was important to him.

Despite some differences, that world is quite closely intertwined.

In general, the sources of our knowledge about Early Modern history are mostly court books—an account, with few exceptions, of “everything bad.” People go to court to complain about an “injury,” when they end up in a conflictual situation. Thus, the historian must constantly pay close attention to this detail. But it is easy to slip over the edge, where material about conflicts will be identified with everyday life. After all, we do not know for sure what percentage this sphere of conflict occupied in peoples’ normal coexistence. That is why it is important to pay attention not only to the fact of a conflict but also to the way people found ways to resolve it. I think that this is most important.

Vasyl Shandro: Did all members of the community, regardless of faith, enjoy identical rights and obligations?

Natalya Starchenko: Jews had their own privileges that regulated their position in the city; the community also had separate rights under Magdeburg Law. These were self-governing units, little islands of freedom that were relatively independent of the state. These city residents were regarded as the king’s people because, for them, he was the chief judge in the event that a decision passed by the self-governing courts was appealed or in case a defense was needed. But when burghers and Jews came into conflict, the conflict was usually supposed to be resolved by royal vicegerents, district officials (starostas), and the city court that they had formed. Here noblemen rubbed shoulders with Jews, noblemen with burghers. In this case, they litigated according to the Second Lithuanian Statute, adopted in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1566. The Statute stated that all residents of the Duchy were supposed to be subject to one law. When the Ukrainian lands became part of the Kingdom of Poland as a result of the Union of Lublin (1569), the function of the Second Lithuanian Statute remained in force in their judicial procedure.

Vasyl Shandro: Does this mean that an autonomous court system and autonomous law remained in force in the Ukrainian lands?

Natalya Starchenko: Yes, and this distinguished our lands from the rest of the Kingdom of Poland; they were autonomous and guaranteed in a specific way that the position of Jewish communities in the Ukrainian lands was somewhat different. We are all aware that from the twelfth century onward, Jews were accused of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood in rituals. This legend reached the Polish lands around the mid-sixteenth century. Polish researchers estimate that between the mid-sixteenth century the end of the seventeenth, 49 such accusations were recorded on the territory of the Kingdom of Poland, which included our lands; six of them pertain to the Ukrainian lands. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a number of Grand Ducal privileges prohibited people from leveling accusations of ritual murder against the Jews. If such accusations were made, they were sent to the king’s court, and seven witnesses, including four Christians and three Jews, had to prove them.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

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

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