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Introduction to the Jewish Presence in Kherson

The modern name of Kherson is derived from Chersonesos, the name of an ancient Greek colony that was founded in 422 BCE in the southwestern region of the Crimea. Chersonesos is the Greek word for "peninsula."

Kherson was founded in 1778 by Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, on orders of his lover, Catherine the Great. The construction of the city, on the site of the Aleksanderschanz Fort, was supervised by General Ivan Gannibal, the great-uncle of Alexander Pushkin. Kherson was to be a base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

A ukase of 16 November 1769 gave Jews permission to settle in New Russia (the area north of the Black Sea, formerly part of Ottoman Turkey, that was conquered by the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century); much of New Russia was contained within the Pale of Settlement. As a consequence of the ukase, Jews settled in the area that later included Kherson; they were among the first residents of the town, and by 1781 there were enough Jews in Kherson to establish a community. Within about two decades there were one-hundred-eighty Jewish townsmen and thirty-eight merchants. As the Kherson Jewish Community grew, so too did Jewish social institutions.

Habad Synagogue

A hospital was built in 1827; a mutual fund bank for petty merchants and artisans was established early in the twentieth century; a law court was functioning by the 1920s; a Jewish elementary school as well as an industrial school were in operation; and there was a Jewish Department in the local university, as well as an Chabad Hasidic Yeshiva. Kherson was a center of the Chabad movement as well as an active center of Zionism.

By late in the nineteenth century, just under half of Kherson City merchants were Jewish. Eight factories and fifty-five shops, fifteen percent and forty-five percent, respectively, of the total factories and shops belonged to Jews. Many Jews worked in factories. Kherson Jews were also involved in the timber and grain trades. Ninety percent of the lumber yards were Jewish owned.

The early years of the nineteenth century also saw the establishment of Jewish Agricultural Colonies in the region that became Kherson Province. By mid-century, there were more than three-thousand-eight-hundred Jews living within the borders of the province.

All of this progress came crashing down in the twentieth century. Throughout the Ukraine, the pogroms of 1905 were the first in a series of pogroms of increasing viciousness. April 1919 saw the depredations by Denikin's minions. During the Russian Civil War (1919-1921), the suffering brought on by murder and mayhem was compounded by the forced famine imposed by the Soviets on the entire Ukrainian population. Read more on pogroms at Wikipedia and USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia.

These were the harbingers of the approaching fury. The Germans marched into Kherson on 19 August 1941. Ten days after the German blight entered the town, one-hundred Jews were murdered; early September saw one-hundred-ten more slaughtered. The Nazis established a ghetto on 7 September with the standard Judenrat and Jewish police force. Einsatzkommando 11a rolled up its sleeves and got to work soon thereafter, murdering eight-thousand Jews on 24 September 1941. Any Jews who escaped were hunted down and executed. Several months later, in February 1942, four-hundred children of mixed marriages were deemed too tainted by “Jewish blood” to be allowed to live.

After The War, Jews began to filter back into Kherson. By 1959, the Jews of Kherson made up six percent (9,500 souls) of the city's population. That year the Soviets closed the town's only synagogue; it would not re-open until 1991, upon the collapse of the Soviet State.

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Last Modified: 11-22-2015
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