History of Jews of Polonnoye for Five Centuries
Our small city, with a history of ten centuries, has many interesting pages tightly connected with an easy life for the Jews – representatives of an old nation. Religion and culture, which cannot be separated from all human treasures, are the basis of Christianity and all other religions.
We do not have exact information about the time when the Jews came to this land. But as we can read in the 12th volume of the old Jewish encyclopedia that was completed in Petersburg in the Russian language, in the beginning of the 17th century there were already about 12,000 Jews. This number cannot be called an exactly correct fact and the different additions of those numbers were much less. This religious community was one of the most significant in a big Volinsky region. In the times of the Volinsky kingdom the city was a part of Lutsky county, Volinsky district. Analysis of historical materials gives us reason to say that the Jews started settling here in the 15th century, fleeing from religious and nationalistic persecutions that they suffered in the countries of Western Europe. We know about it from the notes on two old Jewish memorials by the River Khomora. Remnants of one of them is in the city district of Novopolonnoye, the second one is still there and functioning on Baranovskoy Street.
During the years of the Fight for Freedom that the Ukrainian people had against the Polish-Shlyatsky oppressions, the Jewish and Polish population in the city was decreasing, many of these people ran away to different counties or were killed during the military actions. Right before consolidating the right side of the river of Ukraine with Russia there was only a few hundred Jews.
At the end of the 17th century, in 1684, the small Jewish community received from Countess Lubomirskaya, who controlled the city, permission that allowed them “to build nice houses and buildings in the central part that was called ‘Volia’”. For a famous reward that went to the Christians, Jews freed themselves from military service except “General obligation in case of a war”. They were granted the right to sell and also trade goods, with the condition that they pay the taxes, as were specified by the kingdom. This helped to increase the numbers of the Jewish population and developing with it, active participation of much needed businesses. Thanks to that, already at the beginning of the 18th century, the city became a large trade center on Volinsky land.
Religious and spiritual aspects of the community always played a large role in their everyday life. Their belief in God helped them to go through the many difficulties in their lives, and gave them hope for a better life in the future. History preserves the names of the spiritual leaders famous at this time – one they called Scientific Rabbi Samson from Ostropol, who worshipped in Polonnye in the middle of the 17th century. In the second half of the 18th century the rabbi’s post was taken by Yakov-Yosef haCohen. He was a strong believer in a new, at that period, wave of traditional Judaism that was named Hasidism, that in the translation from Hebrew means “teaching of piety”, which is characteristic of the special strict rules of philosophical and ethical principals. The years of the life of Yakov-Yosef Cohen were 1704-1784. He was one of the closest and favorite of the students and a follower of the fundamentalists of the Hasidic Baal Shem Tov from Medzhibozh. He was one of the main candidates for leadership in this religious movement, and an author of two popular works that explained the position of this teaching. Also very well known was another teacher of Hasidism in Polonnoye, the Tzaddic Yehuda Arie-Leib “mochiah”. The year when he was born is unknown and he died in 1770. He also wrote a book about “the teaching of Kabala” under the name “Voice of Yehuda”.
Both of these rabbis, who were highly respected by the followers of Polonnoyian Hasidism, are resting in a stone crypt that is in a Jewish part of a city cemetery. (It is called an Ohel, which means a tent. [The actual description is a domed concrete crypt about 3 feet high from the ground, and four feet wide.T.N.]). Their graves are called sacred. During the past years Hasidim from many countries and from all over the world, especially from the United States of America and Israel, came to the Ukraine, to Polonnoye and Volin, where their teachings originated, they visit their sacred sites, the place in the old Medzhibozh where their teacher is resting, and also Polonnoye, Shepetovka, Sluvuta, Berdichev, Annopol, Savara and different cities where he lived and worshiped and where his famous students rest. In our city, beginning in 1701, was also a functioning Jewish press that was printing mostly Hasidic literature.
We can write a lot about the Jews of Polonnoye, as their lives became a part of the Ukrainian and other populations during this period of five long centuries. During this difficult historical time there were happy and dark pages. The Jewish poet and dramatist Peretz Davidovich Markish, famous throughout the whole world, talked most eloquently about it in his books. There were some touching words about that time by a Russian writer Sergei Narovchaty. In the forward to his selected poems and verses by P. Markish he wrote, “Polonnoye is a little town in Volin — not exactly a town and not exactly a township but a shtetl. There were hundreds of these in Old Russia, which were designated as Jewish settlements. According to the Czar’s laws, the Jews were not allowed to live outside of these ghettos, but they had to live within them. It was not possible to live in the rural areas and the main large cities. The exceptions were made for the tradesmen and the people with higher education. But the number of millionaires was not large, and in the universities they had a quota system limiting the percentage of Jewish students. According to those rules, in Moscow for example, the number of Jews accepted for schooling could not exceed three in a hundred. The main mass of the Jewish population – not the millionaires and not University graduates – were concentrated in a few western counties of the Russian empire in small cities like Polonnoye.
By the end of the last century there were about 10,000 citizens – Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews (according to the census of 1897 there were 16,288 people, but the author probably used numbers from a geographical-statistical dictionary of the Russian Empire of 1873, that stated that the city had at that time 10,682 people–S.B.). The orthodox Catholic Church and the synagogue divided these people according to their beliefs. The china factory, paper factory, mills, rock quarry, fairs and markets mixed and combined all of these people not paying any attention to their beliefs or nationalities. In this city there were tens if not hundreds of little repair places, stalls and small shops, where the provisions always exceeded the need for them. Tailors, shoemakers, weavers, coopers, tried to steal customers from each other and lived on bread and kvas. Small merchants during the daytime would try to catch occasional customers by the hem of their coats, and at night they managed without calculators to balance their daily income. This style of life is very familiar to us from the stories by Sholom Aleichem.
In the Encyclopedia Dictionary of 1898, Volume 24, you can learn that in the city of Polonnoye, Novograd-Volinsky County by the Khomora, there were nine Russian Orthodox churches, a Catholic church, two schools, two factories, a porcelain china factory, an extra-fine china factory (faience), two large mills, a hospital, a pharmacy, and a quarry. But for some reason it does not mention anything about the Jewish synagogues, even though there were not less than seven. After the revolution and until the end of the 1930?s almost all of them stopped functioning. Now in the city there is no religious community. At this point there is only the remains of two old synagogues – the main one on Gorky Street where now there are electrical services and the second one is near the rail station – a building converted into a club for porcelain workers.
Jewish entrepreneurs started in the city quite a few different repair places and small family manufacturing businesses. Some of them later became big manufacturers. That’s how in 1889 Moishe Shapiro from Slavuta started, by the railroad station building, a factory for fine porcelain china. What he started became the foundation for a large porcelain factory, and Moishe Brichkin at the same time started the manufacturing porcelain industry in the town of Goroshky, that later was moved to Baranovskaya Street and now Kirova Street. This was a small manufacturer that in the present day has become a factory of artistic ceramics. From one of the encyclopedias of 1873 we know that Polonnoye had nine carriage factories, a wine factory, a beer factory, a tar factory and 10 fairs per year. By the emphatic words “factory” and “plant” you need to understand that a small private family business would often have less than 10 employees.
Among the Polonnoyian Jews, as well as Ukrainians, Russians and Poles were many talented people whose names became widely known in the fields of literature and culture, and also in the fields of science and technology. The fame was given to the city and its citizens by the outstanding Russian Jewish poet with the world famous name Peretz Davidovich Markish. He was born to a poor family of Polonnoye on Bakunivtsy, now T. Shevchenko, Street, on the 25th of November by the Gregorian calendar, 1895, and tragically died – was murdered – on August 12, 1952 during the period of the Stalin-Beria repression. He was falsely accused in a case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a member of which he was, and he was exonerated after his death in 1955. He glorified his city in his poem “Inheritance” that was written during the years of 1928 through 1948, where with an amazing strength showed pictures from the lives of Jewish proletariats with their uncomfortable life style, their fighting with other poor people for their freedom and happiness in a new period after the first Russian Revolution in 1905. There is a poem about the Polonnoye porcelain factory and it is interesting that one of its main heroes is the revolutionary Natan Kuperman, who was an actual person. In other well-known Markish poems “Volin” (1918) and “Brothers” (1929), he gave a very realistic description of the life-style of the Jewish population during the period following the revolutions of February and October of 1917, times that forever stayed in the poet’s memory and even the name of the little city was repeated many times in his poems. We have to emphasize that in Yiddish starting from 1919 until now were printed more than 40 of his books, and in translation to Russian and Ukrainian, 16.
Very famous in the country was an opera singer Lev Mikhailovich Sibiryakov (1870-1938). He was born in Polonnoye to a Jewish family. His real name was Leib Moiseyevich Spivak. He received his musical education in Odessa and perfected his singing skills at the theater “La Scala” in Italy. In order to be able to perform in the Russian opera theaters he converted into Christianity and became Sibiryakov. After that he was given a position as a soloist at the Mariansky Imperial Opera Theater in Petersburg, he performed with Shaliapin and Sobinov. After the revolution in 1921 he emigrated from Russia, toured frequently in Western Europe and became a professor at the Warsaw Conservatory.
Among the scientists from the Jewish population of Polonnoye we have to name the doctor of medical science Professor Peter Grigorovich Tsarfis. He is the author of 200 scientific publications including 20 monograph books. He is known as a founder of a new division in resort therapy, that changed the tradition and practice of curing many human diseases. The scientist is now 74 years old; he lives in Moscow and helps as a scientist-consultant at the Institution of Resort and Physical therapy.
Also remembered in the city is the teacher Aron Ionovich Katz who was a leader of the first Polonnoyian Underground Revkom. On April 8th, 1919, nine members of the Revkom were caught by the Petlurovtsi and brutally slaughtered. A memorial obelisk in their honor was erected in the square on Petrovsky Street.
After establishing the Soviet regime during this period until the end of the Thirties, there developed in the city and area a Jewish culture in Yiddish that opened national schools in Polonnoye and Labun, and a club. For a short period of time besides the Ukrainian newspaper, Jewish and Polish editions were printed also. On an official stamp of Gorsovet there was a text in Ukrainian and Jewish. That meant that the number of people of this nationality was no less than half of the total population. There is some information about a Jewish collective farm in Labun, whose president was H. I. Podkidish. But in 1939 all the Jewish schools – a hearth of native language and culture – were closed, and these students started learning in Russian and Ukrainian.
Our city was also the home for the ex-prime minister of the Communist Party of Israel, Samuel Mikunis. His years were (1903-1982). He led the party from 1948 until 1965 and before that (from 1939) was a secretary for the Communist Party of Palestine and the editor of its underground publication. In his younger years Mikunis was one of the founders and an actor in a working-class theater, he graduated from a polytechnic school in France, and worked as an engineer-builder. At the beginning of the 1960?s he visited Polonnoye where he had spent his childhood and youth.
There is some interesting information about the size of the Jewish population. In 1847 it was 2,647 people. In fifty years the census showed the number to be 7,910 with a general population number of 16,288. The city’s religious community had besides many Jewish elementary schools, a cheder for the boys, and also its Talmud Torah. It was like a cheder traditional school but mostly for the children from families with little means of income where they studied the first five books of the Bible, in other words called the Pentateuch or the Torah, and many commentaries to biblical texts that were from the Talmud.
Right before the Great Patriotic War there were not less that 9-10,000 Jews living in Polonnoye. Most of them did not have a chance to leave and go to the eastern parts of the country and escape from the fascists. The exception were those who were mobilized and were fighting with the Russian army. The German occupants invaded the city on July the 6th, the 14th day from the beginning of aggression.
From the very first days of the occupation they enacted cruel measures to the civilian population, to the innocent Jewish population and to those people who were mostly women, elderly and children, most of who did not have any energy or real possibility to defend their lives. Pogroms, robberies, vandalizing of poor people by the occupants and police became everyday routines. On the 1st of September a special fascist squadron that came from Shepetovka started an horrific action of mass liquidating the largest part of the Jews from Polonnoye, Vorobievka and other towns. Almost 4,000 victims died in the forest in the vicinity of the railway station during those black days in September. People say that a group of the condemned tried to escape but the whole area was surrounded by soldiers and police, so they were killed from the bullets of the guards. We have information about the executions that happened there, and about an approximate number of people that were killed from the citizens and act commission that was investigating after the liberation. In the other forest, by the working town of Poninka, the murderers killed almost 2,400 Jews during the fall of 1941, the ashes of the murdered people are in six huge graves and witnesses say that one of these graves was of children.
Another horrible page in the black history of the racists was creating a Jewish ghetto in October of 1941 and the extermination of its occupants. In this camp – that was on the territory of a granite mine on Baranovskaya (Kirova) Street – during a nine month period in horribly inhuman conditions there lived, if only we can call it life that horrible existence, almost 1,300 slaves. They were professionals with their families. The occupants left them alive so they could do some necessary work. The murderers made these hopeless and hungry people destroy their own holy places – monuments on the graves of their relatives and friends in the Jewish cemetery, and those who refused to do so were killed right there. Now we can see that almost half of an old necropolis, that for centuries was covered with the monuments of generations that died, doesn’t have anything at all, it is even unknown what happened to the base stones, they disappeared.
On June 25th, 1942, the fascists killed 1,270 people in the ghetto close by the railroad crossing near the station of Poninka. Also known is a place where a part of Novolabun’s Jews died, in the forest by this town. It’s hard to say how many were killed, but the town’s committee made a list of the victims by asking survivors and placed in l990 a monument on their grave. We have reasons to say that even now after a half century not all the places where innocent people were shot are known.
The 7,670 victims of Polonini – from the general number of 8,679 – died only because they were of Jewish nationality. That’s exactly was their “guilt” according to the animal anti-human hatred “theory” of Hitler’s Nazis. This “theory” is called genocide and it was criticized by the people of the whole world as the most horrible carnage against human beings. Six million Jews – one-third of the Jewish population – died in occupied territories in Western and Eastern Europe during the period of 1939-1945 and 7,670 of them were our residents.
Among the millions of Soviet soldiers that bravely battled with the hated enemy in liberating their land from the killers and occupants, there were 500 thousand Jews; 200 thousand of them never came back from the war fields. It is also known that in the partisan corps there were 23,000 Jews fighting along with the others. They were the soldiers that managed to run from German captivity and almost everybody who managed to escape from the ghettos during the uprisings came to those camps.
On the places of Jewish execution in Polonnoye, Poninka and Novolabun there are erected memorials. Unfortunately, right after the liberation no one took care of writing down the names of everybody who was killed during that horrible time, to save their names for future generations. This cannot be explained or defended. Now after five decades we could with many difficulties discover only 1,293 last names, which is only 15%, by asking the tens of witnesses, relatives, and friends that remain in smaller and smaller numbers. It is even more difficult to find names, father’s names, and ages for many of them.
During those cruel times there were on this land some simple people, practicing Christians and atheists, that now are called the righteous of peace, that very often by risking their own lives and the well-being of their relatives rescued those who would die, gave them shelter and food, hid them from the Nazis and the police, and helped them to find their road to the partisans to help to fight against the enemy.
That’s how a teacher Anastasia Ivanivna Boriskina saved in Polonnoye the student Maria who was the daughter of a friend from the family Shafransky that she knew. The family of Nikolai and Maria Ribachuk from Poninka and their children Stepan and Anastasia for almost two years before the town was liberated were hiding in their house the barber Bagula. There were farmers from the town Kotelyanka, Radion and Evgeniya Yanyuk. Their sons Grigory and Nikolai saved the lives of the Jewish girls Evgeniya and Maria Tribun, who had escaped from the ghetto. The first one of them over the time found the road to the partisan corps, and the second one was hidden from the enemies for over a year and a half until the Soviet Army came. The children from a mixed marriage, Boris and Anatoly Timoshenko remained alive. Their Jewish mother Evgeniya Markovna Druker died, and their Ukrainian father N. N. Timoshenko was fighting with the army. The children that were taken to the ghetto where their mother was a few times were rescued by the relatives of their father and neighbors. His Jewish wife Evgeniya Yakovlevna and his daughter Galina were for 22 months hidden in Poninka by Anton Nikolaevich Baginsky, Polish by nationality. Another two Jewish girls Sophia Meyerson (now Kamenetskay) from the town Vorobievka and Anna Kalika from Labun, who managed to escape from the ghetto, survived because of their bravery, creativity and patience. They called themselves Ukrainians. They changed their last names to Mikhalchuk and Andriychuk. The first one was captured and sent to a camp in Germany, the second one worked until the victory at Bogdanovsky Forest Preserve by Berdichev in Jitomirshina. Polochanian Yakov Marder managed to jump off the car when they were being taken under guard to the forest to the place of execution; he hid in the little towns and then fought with the partisans.
The list of the people who were saved and survived until the victory is very short – just eleven people. Now only seven remain alive. From those who were rescuers, only five are alive. It is possible that there are some people that were saved or were savers, names of whom we do not know. People who tried to save the Jews now are called “Righteous of World Peace”. A section under such a name is listed in the Israeli Institute’s “Catastrophe and Heroism” that is located in the sacred city of Jerusalem. This institute also has a biblical name “Yad Vashem”, that means “Memory and Name”. In this institute they gather documents about the tragedy of the Jewish people and the fight of the doomed, about the righteous who saved them. In honor to each one they planted a tree at this memorial complex and everyone received a memory medal. There is a note on this medal “Rescuing a man, you save humanity”. Already 8,000 have received it.
At the end of 1991 there were only about 100 Jewish people remaining in Polonnoye, only 19 in Poninka. Citizens of the city and towns, the current and future generation, tries to save the memories of their fellow citizens of Jews, that once along with everybody else worked and lived in this wonderful Ukrainian land during the period of five centuries.