On the hilly outskirts of Chechelnik, the town’s Jewish cemetery abuts fields of corn and sunflowers that stretch to the horizon.
On a summer’s day, the cemetery was choked with weeds interspersed with brilliantly colored wild flowers that attracted scores of small white butterflies.
For more than 400 years Chechelnik, or Chichelnik like my grandmother called it, was typical of the many Jewish towns or shtetlach
, that dotted the western reaches of czarist Russia.
Chechelnik was founded "as a refuge from Tatars and landlords" in the early 16th century and achieved the status of a town in 1635. Between 1795 and 1812 it was renamed Olgopol.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 (other sources give a much higher percentage), in 1898 29% of the population was Jewish.
They were the typical shtetl Jews that Sholem Aleichem wrote about:
Their principal occupation was commerce; but 352 were engaged in various handicrafts, and 96 were journeymen.
About 200 Jews earned a livelihood as farm-laborers; and 41 were employed in the local factories.
There were no charitable organizations and poverty among the Jewish inhabitants was general.
A private school for boys with 100 pupils, and 23 hadarim with 367 pupils, constituted the Jewish educational institutions of Chechelnik.
Formely a synagogue, this building dating from the 18th Century was in 1991 a furniture warehouse.
During the war, a Ghetto was established in the town.
According to Mr. Okhs, a Jewish historian from Odessa who spent more than a decade on the 1980s documenting what little remained of Ukrainian shtetl life, relative to what happened in the neighboring Jewish towns, Chechelnik made it through the war in good shape. “Only a couple of hundred” Chechelnik Jews were killed by Germans and their Romanian henchmen, he said during an interview.
But while Chechelnik’s Jews physically survived the war, the town’s Jewish flavor did not make it through what Mr. Okhs termed the heavy-handed “Sovietization” of the region that occurred after the war. Kremlin leaders suppressed Jewish culture and religious tradition in Chechelnik, as they did everywhere in the Soviet Union.
In 1991 death and emigration to the West and Israel was writing the final chapter for Jewish life in Chechelnik and its surrounding areas.
We don't have any information about Jewish life in Chechelnik today.