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Novye Mlyny

Novye Mlyny

Novye Mlyny is a village located in the Nezhin district of the Chernihiv region on the left bank of the Seim River. The population was 905 people as of 2006.

During its prime, around 400 Jews were living in Novye Mlyny, and I am describing on this website shtetls where more than 1,000 Jews lived. However, in 2015, I accidentally purchased a book on Amazon called “Mother and Son” by Abram Vilcher. He describes in detail the Jewish town of Novye Mlyny in the early 20th century. The book’s author left the USSR in the 1920s and immigrated to the US with his family. Text from this book was used for this article.

Also, there is possibly the last wooden synagogue in Ukraine.

I visited the town during my expedition in 2020. Besides the synagogue building, no traces were left in the village of Jews having lived there.

Wooden synagogue in Novye Mlyny:

Early in the 19 century, a German engineer passing through the area had realized the commercial potential of building water mills along the banks of the Seim. He built five wooden dams some five hundred feet apart to create waterfalls, and at each site erected a mill to produce flour, edible oils, starch and sugar, using the vast agricultural produce of the surrounding villages. Thus the shtetle obtained its name: Noviye Mlini, new mills.

At the close of the Nineteenth Century, a few Jewish families had settled in the township of Noviye Miini in the State of Chernigov in the Ukraine. By the year 1917, the Jewish community had grown to forty-five families, and during that period they experienced no organized acts of hostility. From time to time, there were incidents of harassment by government officials, acts which often occurred when the perpetrators were short of cash. The Jews kept these events at bay by bribery, a practice which eventually became routine.

Road to Novye Mlyny, 2020

Road to Novye Mlyny, 2020

Noviye Mlini, a shtetle in the Ukraine, with a population of some two thousand souls and forty five Jewish families, had two main streets. One from the River Seim, leading from east to west, was known as Sosechnaya Ulitza, the paved street, although its bricks were buried under a cover of mud and sand. Along Sosechnaya Ulitza were lined small wooden buildings, mostly occupied by Jews, housing the stores and markets of the shtetle. Noviye Mlini was a county seat and the trading center of the surrounding villages. A second main street, running perpendicular, south to north, was Zerkovnaya Street, so called because at each end and in the middle were churches. The north end of Zerkovnaya opened onto a large estate with a high fence and an iron gate — the only one in the town. Beyond a large courtyard, a stately house stretched the width of the courtyard, with curving staircases at each end leading to elaborately carved doors. To the right of the courtyard was a strawroofed cottage, typical of the Ukraine. Occupied at one time by serfs of the poretz, the landholder, the cottage was rented to the Jewish community for use as a schoolhouse. It contained two large rooms, one for the heyder, the other for the residence of the melamed the teacher his wife and two-year-old child.

Most of the forty five Jewish families lived clustered around the center of the town, occupying houses rented from their Christian neighbors. Some Jews were artisans: a tailor, a cobbler, a tinsmith, a carpenter, a rag peddler. The majority, however, were engaged in small retail trade. There were a few well-to-do families.

The center of Jewish life was the old synagogue, a log structure, unadorned.

The new synagogue was a wooden structure, two stories’ high, with a balcony for the women. The Torah ark was a wooden commode, elaborately sculptured with lions holding up the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Four hanging kerosene lamps emitted bright light. Overpowering every other object in the shul were two huge stoves, two stories high, covered with black painted sheet metal and overlaid with a golden diamond design.


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Rabbi Moyshe, a short stocky man with an opulent grey beard framing his face and covering his upper chest, stroked his beard

Moishke, a handsome man in his late thirties, was new to Noviye Mlini. He was a refugee from Poland, having fled the German invasion of Russian Poland in 1914. He served the community as a shochet, the ritual slaughterer; as a mohel who circumcised the male infants, and as the chazzan, the cantor.

According to the 1897 census, 349 Jews lived in the town, accounting for 10% of the population.

Market square:


In this year, 1919, autumn approached early. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were unusually solemn for the Jews of Noviye Mlini. There were forebodings. A civil war was raging in Russia and the Red Army was retreating along the River Seim. Day and night, soldiers, horses, wagons and artillery trudged in an endless stream through Noviye Mlini in the direction of Sosnitza, behind the River Desna. The advancing army of General Denikin was only eight miles away. News reached the Jewish community that Denikin’s army, on entering a town, would prey on the Jews, robbing, killing and raping. Although the stories were unconfirmed, the fear was real. Each Jewish family took precautions, sending the young men and women into hiding and burying whatever valuables they had under the brick ovens or in the yard. Yankul der Blekher took no precautions. “Who would touch a pauper?” On the evening of September 14, the Red Army abandoned Noviye Mlini and Denikin’s Army approached. In the vanguard was a Kossack cavalry division dressed in new uniforms, with fur hats, shiny boots and sabres. They were followed by smartly outfitted foot soldiers. In comparison with the shabby Bolshevik mob, Denikin’s cadre looked formidable and invincible. At evening, a high-ranking officer arrived.

Motul and Itze led the cossacks to the home of Yudewitch, a relatively prosperous merchant who lived on the same street. Yudewitch, who had anticipated the events, had left a few days earlier with his wife and two daughters for Konotop. The cossacks broke down the locked door and entered the nicely furnished house. They ransacked it, taking silverware and a clock off the wall. On the table in the kitchen stood two clay jugs filled with buttermilk. One cossack, with a roar of laughter, poured the milk over the heads of Motul and Itze. Motul shivered and wiped his face with his sleeve.

Chaim lived on Sosechnaya Street, across from the shul. He was a refugee from wartorn Lithuania. He had settled in the shtetl in 1915 and opened a barbershop — the first in Noviye Mlini. On each of the two front columns, he had hung a painting. One was of a barbarian with wild, uncombed hair and the other of a well-groomed man with neatly cut hair. Above the two portraits was a sign: “Parikmakherskaya” — barber. Chaim was childless, and bestowed all his love on his wife, Chaika, whom he treated as if she were a little girl. Whoever came in for a haircut was treated to a long discourse on the Bible and the Midrash and to folk stories.

Old PreRevolution building in former shtetl

Old PreRevolution building in former shtetl


When the Denikin Army entered Noviye Mlini, the officers flocked to the barbershop. From late in the afternoon through the whole night, Chaim cut hair and shaved officers and cossacks, without a stop. By dawn, he was weak from lack of food and sleep. “Please, let me rest a few minutes; then I’ll be able to give greater service to Your Excellency. I am exhausted,” Chaim pleaded to a high-ranking officer. “I have no time to wait. Go wash your face in cold water and continue.” A drunken cossack followed the officer to the barber’s chair. While Chaim was cutting his hair, the cossack fell asleep. When Chaim began shaving, the razor nicked the man’s face. The cossack jumped from the chair with pain and felt the blood on his face. In anger, he grabbed his rifle and struck Chaim over the head with it, splitting Chaim’s skull. With a roar of a wild beast, Chaim fell — blood pouring from his skull. Chaika, Chaim’s wife, had been hiding in the attic. She heard Chaim’s cry and rushed into the room — now empty of soldiers. Chaim lay dying in a pool of his blood.

Old shtetl's building in the centre of village

Old shtetl’s building in the centre of village

During the night of the pogrom, Katusha heard and saw the roving bands of soldiers, their coming and goings into Luba’s house. As usual, she left early that morning for the marketplace which was crowded with peasants, mostly from outlying villages, busily looting the Jewish stores. The stores belonging to Christians, identified by a large cross painted on their doors, were shut and locked. Egged on by the Denikin officers and cossacks, the peasants plundered the Jewish stores and homes. They carried away everything that was movable. It was a festive occasion.

Shleime Slutsky, a middle aged Jew, lived with his wife, Cheya, and two sons, Simenke, 19, and Kalman, 21, in a house facing the market square. The house was attached to a large hardware store, the most successful store in the shtetle. It was rumoured that Shleime was a gvir — a rich man. While most of the shtetle’s Jews went into hiding, Shleime decided that his family should stay at home to protect the property. He relied upon his long experience of staying out of trouble with the goyim by bribing them. He was fond of saying, “When you grease the axle, the wheel rides smoothly.” On the first night of the pogrom, the family climbed through a secret door into the attic of the store. Miraculously, their home was spared that night. The following morning, peasants broke into the store. The family abandoned their hideout and came down to save their belongings. There was so much loot that the peasants and soldiers just ignored the protesting owners. A new band of young cossacks entered the house and saw the family Cowering in a corner of the living room.

Ruins of old house

Ruins of old house

The Denikins had used the synagogue as a stable, and Motul saw horse manure, hay, torn prayer books and prayer shawls, and pieces of torn Torah, all scattered upon the floor. A small crowd of fellow Jews who had come out of hiding were cleaning busily. There were greetings without handshakes, expressions without words. “Motul, we’ll have a minyan soon,” said Shmuel, the shamess, caretaker of the shul. “Look around, you may find your tallis or prayerbook. Some can be put together and used.” A small crowd of Jews gathered in the courtyard of the synagogue. Members of the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society, had brought the bodies of three murdered Jews to the synagogue for burial in temporary shallow graves. As was the tradition, a small grave was also dug to bury the torn Torah and prayer books. Among the wailing women and deeply despondent men stood the revered Rabbi Joseph.

As a result of the pogrom, three people were killed – Zyama (brother of Abram Vilcher), hairdresser Chaim, and the son of merchant Shlema Slutsky.

Old house in the centre of village

Old house in the centre of village

After Pogroms

After the establishment of Soviet power and the destruction of traditional economic ties, Jews began to leave Novye Mlyny en masse. In the 1920s, most Jews left for Konotop, Chernigov, and other cities of the USSR.

In the 1920s, the synagogue was closed and turned into a village club.

I could not find out if any Jews lived in the village at the beginning of World War II.

Grave of soviet soldiers who perished during the village liberation in 1943

Grave of soviet soldiers who perished during the village liberation in 1943

After the war, a Jewish janitor worked at the local school, but I needed to determine if he was a local resident or if he was brought in from another place for work after the war.

During my visit in 2020, the synagogue remained closed and was not used for anything in the village. According to the information from residents, only one room in the building was being used. It had been converted into a milk collection point.

Famous Jews from Novye Mlyny

Yosef Haim Brenner (1881, Novye Mlyny – 1921, Israel) was a Jewish writer, literary critic, translator, and one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew literature.

Yosef Haim Brenner

Yosef Haim Brenner

Jewish cemetery

The town did not have a Jewish cemetery, and Jews buried their dead in the Jewish cemetery in Sosnitsa.



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