Zhitomir, Volhynia Gubernia, Ukraine: A History Review

Volhynia Gubernia, Ukraine

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A History Review


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 Magdeburg Rights).

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 place–Himmler's Ukrainian headquarters–in 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.

Jewish Zhytomyr

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 European society (See Haskalah).

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.

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  • Last Modified: 05-01-2012

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