Lutsk, Volhynia, Ukraine: Historical Sketch

Volhynia, Ukraine

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Historical Sketch

Lutsk is a fourteen-hundred-year-old Slavic city located on a strategic bend in the Styr River in the northwestern part of the Ukraine. The earliest known reference to Lutsk, however, dates from the year 1085. The town was centered on a castle built by members of the Rurik Dynasty. This dynasty became the ruling dynasty of the Kievan Rus' – the founders of the Tsar'dom of Russia.

Over the centuries, Lutsk and the surrounding region fell victim to a number of invasions. In the mid-thirteenth century the Tatars, a Turkic ethnic people from the Volga area, captured and looted Lutsk. Eighty years later, in 1321, the town and castle were captured by Lithuanian forces. Almost thirty years further on, Casimir III, king of Poland, captured Lutsk from the Lithuanians, only to lose it to them soon after.

Lutsk prospered under Lithuanian control. Vytautas the Great, Grand Duke of Lithuania (1392–1430), invited Tatars, Jews, and Karaims (a.k.a., Karaites) to immigrate to the town. Two years after Vytautas' death the Volhynia Duchy, which included Lutsk, came under the control of the Polish Kingdom. Lutsk was made the government seat and granted Magdeburg Rights which gave the town some degree of self-rule.

The city's Jews, who lived in Lutsk as early as 1409, were allowed to worship their religion without interference; allowed juridical independence; and allowed to engage in trade.

More than one-hundred-thirty years later, Volhynia Duchy became part of the Polish Kingdom, with Lutsk (Polish name of Łuck) retaining its role as the capital of the duchy as well as its administrative center. Lutsk continued to grow economically.

Tragedy continued to stalk Lutsk. The Cossack Khmelnytskyi Uprising of 1648-1657, the first of three wars lasting until 1667, fought to rid the Ukraine of the domination of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ended with the domination of the Tsardom of Muscovy. The source of the discontent among the Cossacks and peasants was the ownership of the land by Polish absentee landlords; the collection of rent by Jews, who acted as agents for the Polish landlords; and the existence of Catholicism as the dominate religion. The rebellion resulted in the displacement of the Poles; the massacre of large numbers of Jews, only a few of whom were Polish agents; and the replacement of Catholicism with the Eastern Orhodox tradition.

Most Jewish Ukrainian communities were destroyed during the rebellion. No Jew was spared; men, women and children were brutally murdered, and their property looted. Catholic priests were murdered and their churches burned. The devestation among Jewish communities was so extensive, that Jewish elders banned all merrymaking. Despair was so profound among the Jewish population that Jews fell back on the mystic ideas of Isaac Luria and hung their hopes on Sabbatai Zevi as the Messiah.

Lutsk experienced an estimated four-thousand deaths, and many thousands of people fled the town, which was looted and burned. The Jewish community was reduced from about four-hundred Jews to less than two-hundred souls; eventually the comunity regenerated. Poll tax records for 1662 indicate that four-hundred-eighty-three Jews lived in Lutsk, the second largest Jewish community in the region and one of the most significant in Volhynia. Lutsk Jews engaged in commerce, tailoring, shoemaking, and fur dressing. But Lutsk never again attained its pre-rebellion level of vibrancy and energy.

Throughout their time in Lutsk, Jews were periodically subject to abuse. Four Jews, in 1696, were accused and executed for blood libel; seven decades later, a Jew named Yehudah Ze'ev ben Toviyah chose death over conversion to Christianity.

The Third Partition of Poland, in 1795, effectively ended its existence until 1918. As a result of the partition, Lutsk was annexed by the Russian Empire and lost its status as the capital of Volhynia Province.

Legislation imposed by Russia in 1804 evicted Jews from villages, forcing them into larger towns, among which was Lutsk; as a consequence, the Jewish community of Lutsk

expanded. However, Lutsk was included in an 1844 list of border towns and, perversely, Jews were barred from living in such towns. Lutsk's Jews were constantly threatened with eviction (such threats continued into the early decades of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, its Jewish population grew from about 1,297 people at the start of the nineteenth century to 9,468 – 60% of the total population – by the end of the century.

Austria–Hungary seized Lutsk during World War One, but only held it for about nine months – from August 1915 to June 1916 – when Tsarist troops recaptured the town after a heavy artillery barrage. During the Austrian occupation a typhus epidemic decimated Lutsk's inhabitants.

The 1917 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended the war for the Russians, gave control of Lutsk to Germany, which held the town for a brief two weeks, before withdrawing and turning the town over to Symon Petliura's Ukrainian troops in February 1918. A mere fifteen months later, Lutsk came under the control of Polish forces. Finally, after The Great War ended, Lutsk was incorporated into a resurrected Poland and returned to its former status as capital of Volhynia Province.

Immediately after the First World War, during the period of chaos caused by the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Poland and the Ukraine were awash in pogroms against Jews. From 1918 to 1920 Jewish self-defense forces sprung up to protect Jewish commmunities; the Jewish commmunity of Lutsk was among them. The pogroms eventually faded away.

For the following two decades the Jews of Lutsk participated in municipal and regional governments. The community continued to grow – about 17,500 Jews just before World War II. Serving this population were fifty synagogues; a yeshiva; a newspaper; and a number of schools. Peace, at last, was not to be; a vicious storm of unprecedented proportions was bearing down on Europe and its Jews.

World War II began with the September 1939 invasion of Poland. Soon after the German attack the Soviets, in accordance with the terms of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, invaded the eastern portion of Poland. The Soviets proceeded to denude the territory under its sway by dismantling factories of value and transporting them to Russia. Lutsk came under the heavy-hand of the Russians; thousands of its citizens, primarily political and business leaders, were either deported to Kazakhstan or arrested by the NKVD. Institutions – political, charitable, and cultural – not sanctioned by the Soviets were closed down.

Less than two years later the Germans double–crossed the Soviets by invading Russian territory. The retreating Russians executed political prisoners, Jews and non-Jews alike.

When the Nazis arrived in Lutsk, on 25 June 1941, their first act was to incite a pogrom against the local Jews. Over the following weeks, the Nazis murdered three-thousand Jews. The remaining Jews were forced into a ghetto. Approximately ten-thousand Poles were murdered by a Ukrainian Insurgent Army during this period.

In early 1942, a number of young Jews were killed in a failed attempt to escape the ghetto. Later that year, more than twenty-five-thousand ghetto Jews were murdered at Polanka Hill, outside of Lutsk. The Germans had established a nearby labor camp populated by Jews. In December 1942, when the Nazis tried to liquidate the labor camp, they ran into armed resistance from five-hundred Jews; the Germans had to bring in artillery to put down the Jews.

The Soviets liberated Lutsk in February 1944. Only one-hundred-fifty Jews remained. In time, this number increased by a factor of four. The synagogue was reincarnated as a movie theater and, still later, into a sports center. The Jewish Cemeteries became the foundation of residential housing. By the last decade of the twentieth century a wave of emigration from Lutsk left an elderly residue of about one-hundred-sixty Jews. During this period Lutsk's Polish residents were expelled, "morphing" the town's demographic character into an essentially Ukrainian ethnicity.

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  • Last Modified: 03-16-2013

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