Jews were living in Zhytomyr by the mid-fifteenth century. The city itself was
founded in the ninth century by a Slavic prince named, not surprisingly, Zhytomyr.
The city of Zhytomyr lies on the Teterev River, a tributary of the Dneiper River,
and was part of an important trade route connecting the Ukraine with regions
further to the west.
Like many other cities and towns throughout the region, Zhytomyr was subjected
to a succession of invasions and wars wrought by a variety of asian and north
European invaders. The thirteenth century saw the invasion of Batu Khan's Mongol
hordes which resulted in the sacking of Zhytomyr. Less than a century later the
town was captured by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. One-hundred and twenty-four
years after that event, in 1444, Zhytomyr was granted Magdeburg rights, giving
the town the right to regulate its internal affairs (see
In 1569 Zhytomyr became part of the Polish Kingdom followed, a mere ten decades
later, by a treaty that honored the city by making it the capital of the Kiev
Province within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The 1793 Second Partition
of Poland turned Zhytomyr over to Tsarist Russia.
It wasn't until the chaos of the civil war following the 1918 Russian Revolution
that the Ukraine and, by extension, Zhytomyr had a brief period of independence,
during which Zhytomyr was the Ukrainian national capital. However, after the
Soviets won the civil war the Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union.
The Nazis, too, after it invaded Soviet Russia in June 1941, decided to give
Zhytomyr a special placeHimmler's Ukrainian headquartersin
Germany's colonial empire. Hitler's great ambition was to extirpate the East
of Jews and Slavs and to resettle this "cleansed" region with the pure Aryan
race. The Zhytomyr General District was meant to be the prototype for
this resettlement program. To this end Jews, initially, were brutally
expunged from Zhytomyr and the surrounding areas. The Ukrainians were
scheduled to be removed (except for some portion that would become slaves),
as well, but the Allies put an end to the Nazi dream of a slave empire ruled
by the Aryan Germans.
Zhytomyr was one of only two of Imperial Russia's Jewish centers in the Pale
of Settlement (Vilnius was the other). It was in these two cities that the
printing of Hebrew language books was officially sanctioned. It was in these
two towns that the Jews were allowed to establish rabbinical schools. The
educational objective of these schools was the abandonment of the Talmud
and its replacement with the study of Hebrew and German. The latter was
associated with the Haskalah Movement. This movement, begun at the end of
the eighteenth century in Germany, was aimed at integration into modern
The Tsar's purpose in setting these restrictions was to emasculate traditional
Jewish culture and religion. In 1873 the rabbinical schools in both Zhytomyr
and Vilnius were shut down by tsarist authorities because the education of
the rabbis were not deemed sufficiently secular.
The first Jewish printing presses in Zhytomyr were established in the early
nineteenth century. These presses formed the foundation of a great Jewish
publishing tradition centered in Zhytomyr. The city was also an educational
center; it had the first Jewish vocational schools in Russia for
boys and girls.
Pogroms recurred periodically
throughout Jewish residency in Zhytomyr and its environs. The
year 1753 saw Jews accused of the medieval canard of ritual
murder; fourteen Jews from satellite towns of Zhytomyr were
executed for this imaginary crime. Their execution was
accompanied by attacks on the larger Jewish community.
In the spring of 1905 Jewish self-defense forces provided
the community with some protection against a pogrom; there
were about thirty deaths, including a Christian named
Nicholas Blinov. Fourteen years later, during the Russian
Civil War, there were at least ten times as many murdered
Jews. During the civil war Christians provided shelter to
their Jewish neighbors. The murders of World War II were
in a class of their own (see the previous section).
For further details, see both Zhytomyr I
and Zhytomyr II.