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Introduction to the Study of the Agricultural Colonies


Jewish Agricultural Colonies in the Ukraine

 overview of this KehilaLinks site

by Chaim Freedman

Petah Tikvah, Israel, 2002


In the late 18th century large areas of territories in south-east Ukraine came under the control of the Russian Tsarist regime. At that time this area was known as Novorussia (New Russia) and was divided roughly into three Guberniyas (provinces): Kherson, Yekaterinoslav and Tavritch (the latter included the Crimean peninsula and part of the adjacent mainland). The Russian government was anxious to develop this region by settlement from the rest of the Russian Empire. At the same time the government sought a way to relieve itself of the so-called "Jewish Question", particularly in what are now Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. With the accession of Tsar Alexander the First, legislation was passed to define and partially relieve the situation of the Jews. One objective of this legislation was to encourage Jews to leave the crowded and economically poor centers in the north and establish new settlements in Novorussia. Those Jews who qualified to be included in this enterprise were promised financial support to set up agricultural colonies, with the added incentive of exemption from military service (the period of exemption changed at various times throughout the 19th century).


Initially a number of agricultural colonies were established in Kherson Guberniya commencing in the first decade of the 19th century. The Yekaterinoslav colonies were established later. In 1846 the first group of Jewish colonists set off from the rallying point in Mogilev and headed for a region in Yekaterinoslav Guberniya. This group was subdivided according to town of origin. Several convoys underwent the arduous journey by river and by wagon. The 285 families were divided into six colonies. Subsequently other colonies were established bringing the total to seventeen by the late 1860's. At the peak of settlement in the 1880's the Yekaterinoslav colonies comprised about 20,000 Jews. The colony region was roughly north of the Sea of Azov, and the colonies were situated in two uyezds (districts), Alexandrovsk and Mariupol. Much can be written about life in the colonies during the period of the second half of the 19th century until their tragic destruction during the Civil War of 1917-1921. Thereafter most of the colonies were revamped by the Soviet regime and functioned as collectives incorporated as the Nei-Zlatopol Jewish Autonomous Region. The Nazi invasion brought an end to this unique episode in Jewish history.


The Jewish urban communities in Yekaterinoslav Guberniya were established on a very small scale alongside the colonies. As time passed and many families found themselves unsuited to rural life, the urban communities were boosted by many who dropped out of the colonies. The major communities, aside from Yekaterinoslav the capital, included Alexandrovsk (Zaparozhe), Pavlograd, Orekhov, Tokmak, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Mariupol and others. In effect the original colonists drew in their wake significant numbers of their hometown relatives or neighbors from Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus who constituted the majority in the developing urban communities in Yekaterinoslav.


There are very few sources about this region's Jewish population. English books refer briefly to the region. Most of the other sources are in Russian, particularly a very detailed history of the region which includes many statistical analyses. There is one book in Hebrew devoted to the subject, "Khaklaim Yehudiim Bearvot Russia" (Jewish Agriculturalists on the Russian Steppe" , Tel Aviv 1965. The primary source is in Russian, "Yevrei Zyemlyedeltsi 1807-1887" (Jewish Agriculturalists) by Viktor N. Nikitin (Petersburg 1887). This mammoth work of over 700 pages explains the sequence of events leading up to the establishment of the colonies, gives details of the organization and financing of the initial settlement, and includes periodic reports on the development and achievements of the colonies. The reports were prepared by inspectors appointed to investigate conditions in the colonies and recommend action by the government. Since considerable funds were allocated by the government, exact statistics were constantly required.


My first knowledge of the existence of the Jewish agricultural colonies in Russia came about with the death in 1958 in Melbourne, Australia of my late grandfather Shlomo Zalmen Komesaroff (the family name was originally Komisaruk but branches of the family used various versions). As a child I was present at many family gatherings and heard many names and places associated with relatives in Russia. After my grandfather's death I was prying in his room in our house and opened up a cupboard under his bookshelf. There I found a treasure trove of what proved to be sources of family history. There were photo albums from Russia, documents such as his Russian passport, marriage certificate, my mother's birth certificate and personal letters in Yiddish and Russian. I showed my late mother the material and nagged her to provide explanations. Most of the photos she was able to identify. The inscriptions were written in Russian but my mother's Russian was that of a four year old who had emigrated from Russia, and she could not read the language. So I taught myself Russian, a knowledge which continues to be essential as I decipher Russian archival material today.


One particular item held the key to opening up the scenario of the colonies. This was my grandfather's personal stamp which he had affixed in a set of old Hebrew books. The stamp read: "Zelman Mendelevitch Komisarov, Kol. Grafskoy Ekat. Gub." I asked my mother for an explanation and after taking some time to recall what the abbreviations stood for, she told me that Grafskoy was where her father and both grandfathers were born (my grandparents were first cousins), "Ekat." stood for Ekaterinoslav which was the name of the province, and "Kol." stood for "Kolonya" or colony. Then she explained what she had been told about Jewish life on these Kolonyas.


My grandfather's youngest brother William (Khaim Velvel) Komesaroff was still alive and since he left Russia aged fourteen he retained many memories of life there. I collected much information which I published privately in my first book "Our Fathers'Harvest" (Petah Tikvah, Israel 1984). Subsequently I discovered considerably more material, both by contacting many relatives particularly in North America, and by discovering rare sources in Israeli libraries. So much material accumulated that I published it as a supplement in 1990. I began communicating with my cousin Mel Comisarow in Vancouver BC, Canada who researched and added much material culminating in his two visits to the Ukraine to rediscover what remained of the colonies. At the same time we succeeded in extracting much material from Ukrainian archives. In fact we continue to amass material so much so that I began to be concerned about its ultimate fate. Was it to remain in the personal archives of Mel and myself, or should we make it available to the public at large so as to ensure its preservation as a source of a valuable part of Jewish history?


I believe that to the phenomenon of Jewish agricultural settlement in an organized form in the European Diaspora is of importance in understanding the endeavors of certain groups of Jews to improve their social and economic situation under the restrictive and oppressive Tsarist regime. Their efforts were part of a unique episode in the struggle for Jewish survival in the Diaspora. This striving for survival whilst retaining Jewish values and life style needed to be brought to light in order to put into proper and just perspective the positive character of Jewish activities in the Diaspora, often besmirched and denigrated by Jews and gentiles alike in their accusation that the Jews exhibited a passive acceptance of the inevitability of their fate.


I found the ideal solution to my concern as to the future of my material when Nancy Holden, who also has connections with the colony region, decided to set up a KehilaLinks site under the auspices of Jewishgen. I decided to donate all of my material to the site. Nancy worked tirelessly as I engulfed her with material in innumerable e-mail attachments. This included most of the text of my two books as well as about thirty photographs. These were rare photographs of relatives as well as unique photos of houses in colony Grafskoy, the synagogue was photographed recently by Mel Comisarow, tombstones and general views. As the site became publicized other families who originated in the same area donated their photographs and material.


The following are the major sections of the site:


The many sections of the site are cross referenced by internal links for ease of navigation.


I - Presents extracts from the major sources such as Freedman's book "Our Fathers' Harvest"; translations of selected sections of Nikitin's work "Jewish Agriculturalists" and other Russian sources; an extensive article from "The Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnall); recent articles on archival data by a Russian researcher Dmitri Feldman; excerpts from an article "Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Russia" by Harry D. Boonin reprinted from ROOTS-KEY, the newsletter of Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles(Spring 1991); "Jewish Agricultural Colonies" from the RAGAS Newsletter (Summer 1996), Patricia Eames, editor; a Timeline of contemporaneous events; Migration - charts and maps showing the geographic origins of the original colonists; Russian Geography - an account of the methods used to locate the exact positions of the colonies; and the ever valuable Site Map.


II - Index of the Colonies - a list of all the places (colonies, villages, towns and cities) mentioned on the site, linked to the particular subsection which houses material about each place. It is the aim of the site to have a page for each place that will eventually incorporate history, surnames, sources, family pictures and stories.


Surname List - over 800 surnames found in various sources such as Hebrew newspaper donor lists, Prenumeranten lists and archival Revision Lists. This section will grow progressively as more sources are found


III - History of the agriculturalists documented from many viewpoints. A special section includes translations of articles found in the nineteenth century Hebrew Press in Russia (Hamelitz, Hamaggid, Hatzefirah) which give vivid first hand accounts of life on the colonies. The number of such articles is surprising and indicates that the Jewish world at large was fascinated at the phenomenon of Jewish farmers.


IV - The Holocaust and the colonies presents three witness sheets from Yad Vashem of colony born victims of the Nazi extermination of the Jews in the Ukraine. Other material has been located in the Ukraine and awaits translation.


V. - Personal memoirs of people who lived on the various colonies. These have been translated from Yiddish and Hebrew and provide fascinating first hand accounts of Jewish life in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Many of the experiences related are heart rending as the loss of family members in pogroms is vividly portrayed. One continually marvels at the scope of the writers' memories as they give minute details of farming methods, Jewish holidays and practices, and the sequence of events in war time.


VI  Photo Index reproduces all the photos which are located in individual parts of the site. The index is divided into two sections: "People" and "Places".

VII- Documentation - charts listing colonies in various regions such as Ekaterinoslav, Kherson, Bessarabia, Moldavia as well as nearby German colonies and Ukrainian villages and towns. It should be noted that at this stage (late 2002) most of the material received concerns the Ekaterinoslav colonies and it is hoped that researchers of other areas will provide their material.


In summary, the site presents a wealth of material and it is hoped that it will become known widely and the material further enriched.





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Research Contact: Chaim Freedman
This page maintained by Max Heffler
Updated Monday September 05 2022. Copyright 1999 [Jewish Agricultural Colonies of the Ukraine]. All rights reserved.