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Medzhibozh

Medzhibozh
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Medschybisch (German), Medzibezh, Medzibozh, Mezhibezh, Mezhybozhe (Alternative Name), Mejibuji (Turkish), Międzybórz, Międzybóż, Międzybuż (Polish), Międzybóż, Medschybisch, Smiedzyborz (Alternative Name), Меджибіж (Ukrainian), Меджибож – Medzhibozh (Russian), מעזשביזש, Mezbizh (Yiddish)

Medzibozh, a small town in the Khmelnitsky district (former Kamenets-Podolski district), Ukraine; until 1793 a part of Poland and then a part of the Russian Empire until 1917 it came under the jurisdiction of the province of Podolia.

Beginning

Medzibozh Jewish community is one of the oldest in Ukraine, a Jewish community here is mentioned in the Polish sources dating back to 1509 when a Medzhibozh Jew called Liberman was appointed as a tax collection supervisor. Jewish gravestones from the first half of the 16th century in what is now called the Old Jewish Cemetery also indicate the presence of the Jews in Medzibozh in the medieval period.

1571 census recorded the population of Medzibozh as being made up of 95 Ruthenians, 35 Jews, and 30 Poles.

At the beginning of the XVII century Medzhibozh Jewish Community was the biggest and the most influential in the South-East Poland. At that time Rabbi Israel Sirkes (1561, Lublin – 1640, Krakow), more known as Bach (according to abbreviation of his main book’s name “Bait Hadash” – “New House”, which were a comments to codex “Arba Turim”) was the leader of the community, where he stayed for two terms and then left Medzhibozh in 1612. The Main Synagogue built shortly before he left was named “Bach Synagogue” after him and remained that until its demolition in the 1950s.

Jewish population of Medzhibozh:
1765 — 2039 jews
1847 – 1719 jews
1897 ~ 6040 (73%)
1926 – 4614 (58,2%)
1939 – 2347 (51,64%)
1950 ~ 80 jews
1993 – 2 jews
2012 – 1 jew
2015 – 0

In 1648 the cossack uprising led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky resulted in the town being captured three times and the whole region occupied for a year. At the time, there were approximately 12,000 residents living in Medzhybizh and its environs. Among them there were 2,500 Jews living in Medzhibozh in the year 1648 out of the total 4,000 strong Jewish population of Podolia, living in 18 communities in the area. The Jews of Medzhybizh were massacred on July 20, 1648 by the cossacks under the command of Danylo Nechay and Maxym Kryvonis, who some contemporary sources refer to as a Scotsman, his name being a corruption of Cameron. Almost all 2,500 Jews were either killed or captured during the massacre. The Jewish population in Medzhybizh was virtually wiped out and there were no burials recorded for several years after 1648, consistent with the picture of depopulation.

Besht Siddur

Besht Siddur

In 1649 Jan Casimir, the king of Poland, and Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the leader of the cossack uprising, negotiated a treaty, however the hostilities continued in 1651 and 1653. In 1657 the Hungarian Prince Rákóczi took the city, ceding it to the Turks in 1672. It remained under their administration until 1682. By 1661, only a handful of Jews remained in Medzhybizh. In the 1678 census their numbers increased to 275 souls.

Weakened by the cossack uprising, Podolia was invaded and occupied by Turkey in 1672. Medzhybizh became a part of the Turkish Ejalet of Kamieniecki as “Mejibuji” and was a sanjak centre. In 1682, Medzhybizh was recaptured by the Poles led by the Polish military leader Jan Sobieski. However, Poland did not regain full control of the area until 1699 because the town was frequently raided in the ongoing fighting between the Poles and the Turks.

Besht name in a Tax List at 1758

Besht name in a Tax List at 1758

After Medzhybizh was recaptured from the Turks, it went through what many consider its golden age during the 17th and 18th century. Under the Sieniawski family and later the Czartoryski family, the town prospered. Medzhybizh successfully defended itself from several Haidamak attacks. By the mid 1700s, Medzhybizh was the seat of power in Podilia Province. It had a population of nearly 5,000 of which 2,500 were Jews.

In 1765 there were 2,039 Jews registered in the community of Medzibozh and the nearby villages.

The founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov, made the town his seat from about 1740 until his death in 1760 and was buried there. The zaddikim Baruch ben Jehiel, Israel’s grandson, and R. Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta also lived and were buried here.

In 1792 Medzhybizh fell into the Russian hands during the second partition of Poland. The Czartoryski family continued to own the town until Prince Adam Czartoryski was forced into exile in 1831. During the rule of the Russian Empire, the seat of power for Podilia moved from Medzhybizh to Kamianets-Podilskyi. The economy of Medzhybizh deteriorated because the railway line bypassed the town to the south. The nearby town of Letychiv however flourished.

From 1815 to 1827 a printing press published hasidic and kabbalistic works in Medzhybizh.

Big Synagogue in Medzhibozh at 1935

Big Synagogue in Medzhibozh at 1935

The main Jewish occupations between the 18th and early 20th centuries were trade and crafts, including tailoring, shoemaking, ironmongery, carpentry, metalwork, weaving, glassblowing, jewellry-making, bookbinding, baking. Among the Jews of Medzhibizh were doctors, chemists, barbers, musicians, and carters. Community functions were performed by a rabbi, a treasurer, a gabay, a melamed, a shochet and a bathhouse attendant. In 1813 Avrom-Yehoshua Heschel from Opatov (1755-1825) became the rabbi, in the middle of 19th century his grandson Avrom Yehoshua Heschel (1832-1887) took up this position, followed by Yisroel-Shalom-Yosef Heschel (1853-1911) in 1881.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Rabbi Avraham Jehoshua Heschel became the rabbi of Medzhibozh.

Medzhybizh enterpreneurs list from the Russian Empire Business Directory from 1904

Medzhybizh enterpreneurs list from the Russian Empire Business Directory from 1904

From 1,719 in 1847 the number of Jews grew to 6,040 (73.9% of the total population) in 1897, then fell to 4,614 (58.2%) in 1926.

Pre-revolutionary period

In 1881-82, in 1896 and 1905 pogroms occurred in Medzhibozh but they were stopped by the military.

In 1900 a Jewish Hospital was founded with a free clinic, working on the “Ezra Hoylem” principles. In 1902-12 Shaul Issachar Bick was the rabbi, in 1912-25 his cousin took office who became the last rabbi of Medzhibozh, Chaim Michl Bik. Joseph Leibovich Schwartzman was the state-appointed rabbi in 1914. There were nine synagogues. All three hotels in Medzhybizh were in Jewish ownership as well as two bookstores, all three pharmacies, four lumberyards, 21 manufactories, 19 grocery stores, all nine haberdashery shops, two bakeries, a mill and a brewery.

By the end of 19th-early 20th century Medzhybizh was the residence of Avrom Yehoshua Heschel son’s – Meshulam-Zusi (? -1929). Later a dynasty Yitzchak Meir Heschel (1904-1985, Haifa, Israel)became the leader of the dynasty.

Medzhibozh castle. Postcard from the early 20th century

Medzhibozh castle. Postcard from the early 20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century the official leadership of the community was transferred to the official rabbi Shwartzman, but a real spiritual leader remained the rabbi from a local synagogue from the Bick family. In the early 1900s there was an active Zionist group here. During the WWI a Jewish boy from Medzhybizh David Wolfowitz Bots was awarded St. George Medal and the Cross of St. George of the 4th and the 3rd class.

In 1912 the Jews of Medzhybizh tried to rename it ‘Borodino’but it was unsuccessful.

A local resident called Blonskiy tried to organise a pogrom with the local farmers but the pogrom failed because Jewish self-defense organization proved to be a strong opposition. The Jewish self-defence group in Medzhybizh was led by by Yakov Myshlin who later on became an Red Army officer and was killed during Stalin’s purges. Midzhybizh suffered no serious pogroms during the Civil War of the early 1920s.

After Civil War

In 1921 the members of “He-Halutz” went to Israel. Kantor Iosel Karolnik and “Hanuya-Di-Melamed” teach Hebrew unofficially. Until the mid-1920s there were ten synagogues and six heders in Medzhybizh. By the mid-1920s the last heder belonging to melamed Beresh Midaner-Grinshtein was closed.

In 1925 the last rabbi from the Bik family Haim emigrated to the US.

The family of the last Medzhybizh Rabbi Chaim Bick in 1926

The family of the last Medzhibozh Rabbi Chaim Bick in 1926

In 1923 Medzhybizh became a district center.

In 1922 a Jewish school was built on the foundations of the former Jewish Hospital complete with a musical band, a choir and a drama studio. It was closed by 1936. By the end of 1920s most synagogues were closed. In 1926 a Jewish Settlement Council was organised in the town, led by Motl Greenstein (? -1942, Stalingrad).

In 1930 a Jewish collective farm ‘Equality’ was set up not far from Medzhybizh. Managed in succession by Vergynis, Derevickiy, Tsigelshteyn, Grinshteyn, Rydenberg, unofficial “Bikur Hoyle” and Chevra Kadisha societies continued to operate on the farm.

Unknown Medzhibozh synagogue in 1930s

Unknown Medzhibozh synagogue 1930s

In 1939 the number of Jews in the town fell to 2,347 (52% of the total population). Before the war the rabbi of the community was appointed Avrum, last name unknown, who was a baker and was killed together with the other Jews of Medzhibozh in 1942.

Holocaust

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, only a small number of Medzhibozh Jews managed to evacuate. Many believed that the spirit of the great rabbis would save the town from misfortune as had happened before during the pogroms of 1905 and 1919. Others recalled moderate German occupation regime of 1918.
Following the Red Army retreat on July 6, local Ukrainian nationalists carried out a pogrom against the Jews. The Germans occupied Medzhibozh on July 8, 1941.

Medzhibozh enterpreneurs list from the Russian Empire Business Directory from 1913 (save and zoom on your PC)

Medzhibozh enterpreneurs list from the Russian Empire Business Directory from 1913 (save and zoom on your PC)

Blonskiy became the head of the local police, the son of another Blonskiy who tried to organize Jewish pogroms during the Civil War of the 1920s. The policemen, noted for their barbarity, were Dobrovolskiy, Lisovskiy brothers, Kisilnik, Gonchar, Pavlovskiy who said that he murdered over 500 Jews with his own hands.
From the first days of occupation, they humiliated the remaining Jews, demolished the famous Besht Beit Midrash, Ashkenaz Kloiz and other Jewish sacred sights. All the Jews of the town were then relocated into a ghetto, occupying the poorest area in town around Bannaya Str. Haim Milis was appointed the Head of the ghetto. The ghetto was surrounded with high wall topped with barbed wire. Many Jews died in the ghetto from starvation and exposure, some were burried in the ghetto cemetery.
On April 14, 1942, 220 Jewish men were sent with horses to the front line. None returned.

The Germans murdered more than 2,000 Jews on September 21 (according to another source, September 22), 1942. Several Jews who managed to escape this mass murder operation were caught and killed over the following two weeks.
About 100 young Jews of Medzhibozh who had been selected before the massacre, together with some other Jews caught in the first days after the operation, were sent to the Letichev labor camp. Only some of them survived. A few Jews from Medzhibozh survived in the neighboring villages, helped by the locals.

After WWII

The Red Army liberated Medzhibozh on March 24, 1944.
After the war, about two dozen Jewish families returned to Medzhibozh. The head of the local police Vasiliy Cherniy had to help them to re-settle in their houses as many had been occupied by the local Ukrainians.

Jewish houses in Medzhibozh Main Street. 2010

Jewish houses Medzhibozh Main Street. 2010

Remains of the Old Synagogue, destroyed in 1950s. Local Jews opposed this but unsuccessfully :(

In 1967, on the site of the mass execution of the Jews of Medzhibozh a memorial was erected . In 1969 the district center moved to Letichev and most Jewish families left Medzhibozh.

In 1981 only three Jewish families lived in Medzhibozh.

Since the late 1980s Medzhibozh became a place of mass pilgrimage of Hasidim from the US, Israel and other countries.

In 2011 Perla Shmulevna Derevitskaya died, the wife of Vladimir Samoloivich Dilman. She was the last native Jew in Medzhibozh. In 2012 Vladimir Dilman (96 years old) was the last surviving Jew of Medzhibozh. He lives alone, his children live in Russia.

Vladimir Semenovich Dilman died in August 16, 2014…

You can find more detailed Medzhiboz’s Jewish history in “100 Jewish towns in Ukraine”, published by Peterburg Jewish University. For more details, please contact us.

An excellent documentary was made by Peterburg Jewish University in Medzhibozh in 1988:

Interview with the last Jew of Medzhibozh made in 2009

 Genealogy

 Places

Baal Shem Tov grave

Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (Hebrew: רבי ישראל בן אליעזר), often called Baal Shem Tov  or Besht, was a Jewish mystical rabbi. He is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Died in Medzhibozh at May 22, 1760 and was burried in a local Jewish cemetery.

Baal Shem Tov is buried among a host of his students and descendents, including Reb Wolf Kitzes, Reb Baruch of Mehzbehz, The Degel Machanei Ephraim, and The Ohev Yisrael – Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt.

The oldest burial in this cemetery dates from 1556. The latest burials were in 1840-1850s.

A wooden canopy over Baal Shem Tov’s grave survived untill the WWII. After the war the cemetery was completely abandoned, grave stones taken by the locals and some graves looted in attempts to find gold. The grave stone on the Besht’s grave was stolen or destroyed. In 1960s the older Jews who could remember the place of the grave put a concrete slab on it.

Besht street in Medzhibozh

Besht street in Medzhibozh

In 1977 a rabbi from Monreal Izhak Gehtman, rabbi Shalom Kleiman from Moscow, and rabbis Eli and Gilel Lapickiy from Kiev arrived in Medzhibozh. Gehtman brought plan of the old Jewish cemetery which he received from the son of the last Medzhibozh rabbi Moshe Bick. According to the map, on the right to Besht’s grave his student rabbis Vulf Kices, Monish-Dayan and Dov Berish Kohen-Rappoport were buried. Along the passage leading to the Besht’s grave, on the left there was a grave of his grandson rabbi Moishe Haim Efraim from Sydilkov and on the right another Besht’s grandson rabbi Baryh from Medzhibozh was buried, a part of his gravestone survived.

Gravestones from the Jewish Cemetery within the castle walls at the end of 1980s

Gravestones from the Jewish Cemetery within the castle walls at the end of 1980s

e with his name still remain on cemetry). The grave of  Apter-rebe was located on the right from rabbi Baryh’s grave.

The local authorities gave permission to place a gravestone on Besht’s grave. At this time two open concrete ohels were built here.

At the end of 1980s the local museum moves a part of the gravestone from the Jewish cemetery to the museum yard. They were moved back to the cemetery by the ethnographic expedition from Leningrad University. At that time due to the efforts of Mihail Grinberg from Moscow, a fence was constructed around the cemetery.

At the beginning of 1990s a brick ohel was built on Besht’s grave.

Over the past few years, the “Agudas Ohalei Tzadikim” organization, based in Israel, has restored many graves of Tzadikim (Ohelim) in Ukraine, including Baal Shem Tov’s (2006). A new guesthouse and a synagogue are also being built next to the Ohel of Baal Shem Tov.

New Jewish Cemetery

This later Jewish cemetery was used from the early 1840s through to the 2011. Here the graves of tzadikim from Heshel family can be found. In 2011 the wife of the last Jew in Medzhibozh, Polina Dilman, was buried here.
The cemetery has a new wall around it.

Besht Beit Midrash

A synagogue constructed between 2000 and 2005 on the site of the old Besht Synagogue which was destroyed by the Nazis during  WWII.

Apter Synagogue

This sinagogue was built alongside with the Big Synagogue in the 16th century. It belonged to the Heshel family of Medzhibozh tzadikim and was connected by a gallery to their house. The synagogue was also known as “Medzhibozher-rebens Beit Midrash”.

Apter Synagogue. Photo from jews.in.ua

Apter Synagogue. Photo from jews.in.ua

The synagogue was nationalized in 1917 and until the 1960s the building was used as a bank. In the 1960s this was the fire brigade headquarters. The synagogue was returned to the Jewish community in the 1990s and now it is one of three working synagogues in Medzhibozh.

Holocaust mass grave

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdxYOYNb0r4
In the morning of September 22, 1942, before dawn, on the first day of Yom Kippur, the Germans came to the ghetto of Medzhibozh and, with the help of the Ukrainian policemen, rounded up the remaining Jews. They marched them along the Rusanovtsy road in the direction of the Southern Bug, and shot them in the ravine. On this day over 2,000 women, children and older people were killed.
Many Jews from Staraya Sinyava and Novokonstantinov villages were also killed here.

In 1965, a group of local Jews decided to commemorate the Jews murdered in Medzhibozh on September 22, 1942. A community of Jews from Georgia donated a significant part of the money, which was collected to install a memorial and place a concrete slab over the mass grave. The group intended to prepare two separate plaques for the monument, one in Yiddish and one in Russian. However, the local authority banned the Yiddish inscription, and ordered the word “Jews” to be deleted from the Russian text. Instead the cliché “Soviet citizens,” used in lots other localities, was inscribed on the memorial.

The group fought to add the words “the prisoners of the Medzhibozh ghetto.” The plaque’s final Russian inscription reads: “In these ravines, on September 22, 1942, the German-Fascist barbarians brutally shot over 3,000 elderly people, women and children, the prisoners of the Medzhibozh ghetto. Eternal memory to our dear fellow residents. September 22, 1967.” The monument was erected for the 25th annual memorial ceremony. Many Jews from across the USSR used to come to the gravesite annually to participate in the memorial ceremony. At the end of the 1980s, during the Perestroika period, some 100 Jews, many with their children and grandchildren, gathered for the annual memorial ceremony in Medzhibozh. After the ceremony, they visited the tomb of the Besht in the old Jewish cemetery.

Testimony of Bronya Khalfina about the mass murder of the Medzhibozh Jews:


Other buildings and places

The basement of the Old Synagogue still exists near the new Besht Synagogue.

The basement of the Old Synagogue. Photo from photohunt.org.ua

The basement of the Old Synagogue. Photo from photohunt.org.ua

On the main street you can still see two-storey Jewish houses. They are in need of restoration but they witnessed the ups and downs of the great Jewish history of Medzhibozh.

On Shevchenko Str., 5 you can see a two-storey building where the last rabbi of Medzhibozh Haim Bick lived.

Medzhibozh music school now occupies the building of the Jewish School, built by the Jewish community in 1922.

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