Kamianets-Podilskyi, or Kamenets, is an imposing fortress city protected by steep cliffs plummeting into the Smotrych River. It is the historic heart of the Podilia region, and its capital for hundreds of years.
Kamenets was founded in the 12th century by the Principality of Galicia, which was a part of Kyivan Rus. When the Mongol Golden Horde conquered Rus, Kamenets fell under the rule of Tatars, who made it into a regional capital. As Lithuania extended its rule southwards, their victory over the Mongol-Tatars at the Battle of Blue Waters 1362 won them Podilia, while their conversion to Catholicism a generation later turned Kamenets into a major stronghold for the Catholic faith among the largely Orthodox Christian Eastern Slavs. As the process of conflict and integration between Poland and Lithuanian progressed, the region was handed over to the Kingdom of Poland, and from there as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Under Polish rule, the city became one of the most important in the Commonwealth and was afforded many privileges.
However, the city’s privileges also meant that its Christian burghers had more authority to demand bans on Jews, bans which the nobility often saw as inconvenient. Facing frequent restrictions, the Jewish population began to thrive more during the Ottoman occupation of 1672-1699. The Ottoman’s had more tolerant pro-Jewish policies, but when the Poles returned it only led to heightened anti-Semitism against the expanded Jewish community. An apex of this was the Frankist conflict. The false messiah Jacob Frank joined with the city’s Catholic bishop to put traditional Judaism on trial, ending with the burning of Talmudic and other texts.
When Russia took Kamenets in the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, the Czar lifted Jewish restrictions in the city itself as a part of a larger plan limiting Russian Jews to living in the recently conquered Polish territories, the “Pale of Settlement.” During the 19th century, Jews formed as much of 40% of the city’s population, working as artisans, merchants, and playing a role in industrialization. Zionists and the Bund gained a strong foothold in this urban center.
Kamenets was a major prize that the various factions in the Ukrainian War of Independence, and even became the capital of the Ukrainian National Republic after they were forced out of Kyiv in 1919. The Jews of Kemenets suffered greatly from this attention, and there were multiple pogroms in the area. After the Soviet victory, their industrial priorities were more centered in other cities in the region, but it remained a Jewish population center until the Holocaust.
Kamianets-Podilskyi today has an extremely small Jewish community, and the only synagogue on the old synagogue street is now a restaurant. Go a bit farther outside of the Castle to a somewhat difficult to find hilltop, and you will find the old Jewish cemetery. The newer one is in the northern part of town.
Frampol was once a typical Jewish shetl, much like the many others that dotted the landscape of Eastern Europe. Most of the 1000-2000 people who lived there at any given time was Jewish, along with a few Poles. The town itself was originally a possession of the phenomenally wealthy Potocki family, one of the most powerful noble houses in Poland.
Frampol sprung up as a market town servicing some 20 or so villages in the region, where peasants brought their goods to trade every Wednesday and Sunday. The Jews who lived there mostly worked as traders, artisans, shopkeepers, and innkeepers. Its place at about the halfway point on the road between Kamenets, the capital of the Poldolia region, and Proskurov (Khmelnitsky) meant that the town’s inns and taverns made a healthy business off travelers and merchants. It also served as a hub for hiring porters to transport goods between the two.
The shtetl’s Rabbis were followers of the Zinkover Hasidic dynasty and their relative geographic proximity to Medzhybizh and other Hasidic centers helped keep them invigorated. Everyday life followed the same patterns observed for generations. Prayers three times a day, singing on shabbat, holidays, young boys being sent to the Beis Midrash to study Talmud. The secular movements whose clashes marked the Jewish world of the 19th-early 20th centuries arrived here only slowly. When they finally came in 1897, they met only brief resistance until Rabbi Simha Kahana welcomed the creation of a school that taught secular subjects. In the following years, Paolei Zion and the Bund established a presence here. After the Bolshevik victory int he Civil War, the merchant town instead became focused on a nearby kolkhoz, or collective farm.
This story came to an end in 1941. When the Nazis first arrived in Frampol, they demanded that Rabbi Nachum Kahana, Simha’s son, provide them with a list of 10 Jews to be held as hostages. When he refused, he was immediately executed. The already small town became an even smaller ghetto, where they lived for a year. In October 1942, the ghetto was liquidated and most of the people were massacred. The survivors were relocated to the ghetto in the regional center in Yarmolyntsi. Those who lived through the war largely did so because they were either in the Red Army or had been evacuated eastward.
Frampol is now Kosohirka, a small village in Kmelnitske region you could easily miss when passing it on the road between Chernivtsi and Khmelnitsky. Only 500 people live there now, mostly ethnic Ukrainian. On the territory where the synagogue once stood, there is now a library, small park, and the monuments to those killed by the Holocaust, in the Holodomor, and while serving in the Red Army in WWII. The most recent resident of the town to be killed by a foreign invader was Major Vadim Bodnar, Deputy Commander of the 30th Separate Mechanized Brigade, who fell in the Battle of Debaltsve.
When I went to Kosohirka, I was lucky enough to meet Maria, the local librarian who also takes care of the Jewish cemetary. Thank you to Maria for her efforts in keeping Frampol alive.
A Russian-language translation of a book on Frampol, where I got most of this information, can be found here: https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Kosohirka/Kosohirkar.html
Proskurov, the Khmelnitskiy’s name until 1954, was first mentioned in the 1400s as a royal Polish garrison town, which typically implied a Jewish population. Khmelnitsky has not, historically, an especially important city in the region. This began to change in 1877, when the Russian authorities turned it into a major railroad transit hub. While still not as large as some other cities in Podilia, it became the center of Podolian economy. The Soviet Union turned it into an administrative center. As Proskurov grew, so did its Jewish community. The Great Choral Synagogue was the largest synagogue in the city, but was handed over to the Spartak Athletic Association in 1938 and was turned into a gymnasium. As the neighborhood developed, it ended up in the courtyard of the local technical college.
The Craftsmen Synagogue is the current center of the modern Jewish community. It was first built in 1890, then renovated most recently in 2009. The building is also home to the local JCC, which runs a variety of programs. The one it prides itself on most is providing aid to about 200 elderly people.
In my article about Jewish political movements in the Ukrainian National Republic period, I mentioned that the UNR government rarely acted against the war-time pogroms. The Proskurov Pogrom is a notable exception. On February 15th, 1919, UNR forces under the command of Ivan Semesenko killed 1,500-1,700 men, women, and children in the city of Proskoruv, now called Khmelnytskyi. Semensenko was arrested and put on trial for the massacre, among other offenses, but was broken out of jail when the Russian White Army captured Kamianets-Podilskyi, the city where he was being held. After living on an assumed name, he was eventually found out, arrested again, and executed by firing squad.
The Proskurov Pogrom was a topic at the trial of Sholom Schwartzbard, a Jewish Communist who assassinated Symon Petliura in Paris on May 25, 1926. Schwartzbard claimed he did it because he blamed Petliura for the pogroms which occurred under his watch. How much culpability had is a matter of debate, but Semensenko’s execution is some evidence that Petliura was, at least personally, against them. The massacre happened only two days after Petliura issued a statement that the Jewish political parties were all supportive of Ukrainian independence and that pogroms were forbidden and pogromists were to be treated as enemies of the state. However, the order was only partially implemented.
This monument now sits over the mass grave of the victims of the massacre.
Medzhybizh today is a small village of just over 1000 people, but during its height in the era of the Kingdom of Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth it was one of the major political centers of the Podilia region. The town’s most notable landmark is Medzhybizh Castle. The original fortification here was built during the time of Kyivan Rus, but was dismantled by Prince Danylo of Ruthenia on orders of his Mongol overlords. It was later rebuilt by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but was heavily renovated and fortified by the Sieniawski family of Polish nobles in 1540. It remained an important regional center, which was key target of the Khmelnitsky Uprising (1648–1657), was used as a residence of the Turkish pashas during their reign here (1672-1699), and was confiscated by Tzar Nicholas I after the Polish November Uprising against Russian rule.
As the administrative seat and most important military garrison in Podilia, Medzhybizh would also attract a substantial number of Jews. This was helped by special privileges Jews were given in order to promote trade. Perhaps the most famous Jew to live here was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known to his followers as the Baal Shem Tov, or Master of the Good Name. The Besht was born in the Podilian fortress-town of Okopy and was already a spiritual leader by the age of 18, but his movement flourished the most after he relocated to Medzhybizh. His teachings focused most on bringing the previously more elite writings of Kaballah and making it more approachable for the common man.
This was the beginning of Hasidism. Medzhybizh remained the center of Hasidism for several generations as it spread throughout Europe, and many of the great dynasties have their origin here, or at least with someone who came here to learn. Hershel of Ostropol, a legendary figure in the history of Jewish comedy, became a jester in the court of the Besht’s grandson, Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh.
The Besht’s synagogue no longer exists, but has been reconstructed for modern use. Go just down the street and you will find the synagogue of renowned Hasidic scholar Avraham Yehoshua Heshel (1748-1825), the Apter Rebbe, who was also the great-great grandfather of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a leader in the Civil Rights Movement who marched with Dr.King at Selma. Go north from there and you will find the Old Jewish cemetery, which includes the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov. Its importance as a pilgrimage site also means there quite a bit of infrastructure for visitors, including a cafe, hotel, and other lodging.
On the outskirts of the city you will find a series of mass graves to victims of the Holocaust.
Vinnytsia, the capital of the Vinnytsia Oblast, was founded in 1363, but, like Khmelnytskyi, rose to become much more prominent in the 19th century from industrialization and the 20th from its role as an administrative center. In the 1897 census, 11,689 Jews lived in Vinnytsia at the turn of the 20th century, which was 38% of the total population. Most Jews lived in the Yerusalymka neighborhood in the city center. Yerusalymka was destroyed by the Nazi occupiers and most of the Jews in the city and surrounding region were killed. See my post on the Last Jew of Vinnytsia for more information.
In the early 20th century, there were 17 synagogues in the city. Most of them them are no longer in use. The Krasnokrestovskaia Street Synagogue, built in 1903, is now a sports hall, for example.
There are two working synagogues in the city. The Chabad House is located in an quiet alley in the center of town. Then there is the Lishvitsa synagogue, right on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, across from city hall.
Vinnytsia is also the home city of Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s first Jewish Prime Minister who served from 2016-2019.
I usually like to stick to sharing information about Jews themselves and how they relate to Ukraine. But, this post will break that rule a little because it is important enough.
Immediately north of Vinnytsia, only just outside the city limits, is the ruin of the Führerhauptquartier Werwolf , Hitler’s forward operating base on the Ukrainian front of the Second World War. The main base he used to observe the Eastern Front was in Rastenburg, East Prussia (now Kętrzyn, Poland), but he visited Werwolf three times. It was the furthest east Führer Headquarters which was actually used. It was from Werwolf that he ordered the attacks on Stalingrad and the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus region. The site was made to be comfortable for the Hitler and the Wehrmacht officers who utilized it. It included a movie theater and a swimming pool, which still exists.
The base was constructed using local slave labor and prisoners of war. Following its completion, the slaves were executed en masse on the other side of road.
As the German army retreated from the Vinnystia region, they demolished all of the buildings down to their foundations. The Soviets then sealed any underground portions.
Today, there is a small museum on the site, along with a well-marked path with information boards. From what I understand, there is also a collection of Nazi military vehicles, but they were not there at the time I went.
Vinnytsia is where one of the most haunting photographs from the Holocaust was taken. It is called “The Last Jew of Vinnytsia.” It depicts a man staring into the camera while a a group of German SS soldiers from Einsatzgruppe D look on as he is about to be shot. That there are no other civilians in the photo implies that, even though he was not the last Jew in the city, he may have been the last to die in that massacre.
The photo was widely circulated during the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and is now the most iconic representation of the “Holocaust by bullets.”
Just south of Vinnytsia, the town of Bratslov (Breslov in Yiddish) was first mentioned as a castle town in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1362. The castle, however, has long since fallen into ruin and no longer exists. After becoming a part of the Kingdom of Poland, it was made into the the capital of the Voivoidship of Bracław in eastern Podilia region in 1570. However, it suffered greatly from Tatar raids and Cossack rebellions, leading to many of its functions being informally transferred to the comparatively safer Vinnystia by the end of the century.
Despite losing some of its potential grandeur, Bratslav was still a regional urban center with a consistent and sizeable Jewish community. Its most famous member was Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).
Reb Nachman was born in Medzhybizh and was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. He was a voracious and talented scholar who gained a following at a young age. He was also fairly well travelled and visited many places not only in Ukraine, but also spent a year in the Land of Israel.
He eventually settled in Bratslav, where he met Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz, or Reb Noson, who was became his main Disciple. Reb Noson was himself form a prominent rabbinic line and was responsible for writing down Nachman’s teachings, primarily in his commentaries, the Likutey Moharan. Noson became the man most responsible for carrying on the tradition of Bresolver Hasidus, though, unlike other Hasidic movements, there is no formal line of succession. Another unique element of Breslov Hasidus is the prominence of Hitbodedut, or self-seclusion. It is a kind of personal, unstructured prayer which is best conducted in nature.
During the 19th and 20th century, Breslov developed industry, much of it owned by Jews. Its centerpieces were a brewery and a mill. The mill is located on the banks of the Buh River and is still in pretty good condition. Go up the hill and you will find the old Jewish cemetery, where the owner of that mill is buried. Yankel Soliterman was a victim of a pogrom in 1919. During the Civil War, like in earlier periods, Bratslav suffered more than its share of violence. On the way there you will pass the memorial to Holocaust victims who killed on that site. The centerpiece for any visitor, though, is the tomb of Reb Noson, which is located in small building halfway between the mill and the rest of the cemetery.