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MYKOLAIV

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Much like Odessa, Mykolaiv was built as part of Empress Catherine’s plan to built up the Russian Empire’s presence on its newly-acquired Black Sea Coast. Its location was chosen because it sits at the mouth of the Southern Buh River, allowing for easy transport of grain from inland. The strategic location also means the site has been used since long before the Imperial era. The remains of a Cimmerian (1250-925 BCE) trading city are located near the main promenade. If researchers are correct in thinking this was the “City of the Cimmerians” mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, it would be the oldest city in Ukraine with a written record.

 

“She came to deep-flowing Oceanus, that bounds the Earth, where is the land and city of the Cimmerians, wrapped in mist and cloud. Never does the bright sun look down on them with his rays either when he mounts the starry heaven or when he turns again to earth from heaven, but baneful night is spread over wretched mortals.”

 

There was a Lithuanian fortress on the site of Mykolaiv as well. Meanwhile, the Greek city-state of Olbia and the capital of the Turkish province of Silistria, Özi  (Ochakov), are only a short distance away.

While not as big as its neighbor Odessa, Mykolaiv was still the third largest port in the Russian Empire after St.Petersburg and Odessa by the late 19th century. It also served some more specialized roles. Mykolaiv was, and remains, the main hub of ship-building on the Black Sea. It was also the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet for a century before it was moved to Sevastopol, Crimea. Initially, it was only a military port until 1862.

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Mykolaiv has had a Jewish population since its founding, and Jewish laborers were involved in its construction. Aside from construction work, many merchants came to the city in order to build businesses selling to the Navy and its sailors. However, Jews were banned from Mykolaiv from 1829-1859, during the reign of the arch-conservative Emperor Nicholas I.

 

Mykolaiv’s most famous son is Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), probably the most important religious figure in 20th century Judaism. His family moved to Yekaterinoslav (Dnipro) in 1907 when his father became the city's Rabbi. As an adult, he studied in Berlin before the Nazis took power, then went to Paris, where he stayed until the Nazis followed him there as well. The Rebbe escaped to New York on the very eve of the Nazi conquest of Paris. In 1950, he succeeded his father in law to become the seventh leader of Chabad-Lubavitch.

 

The Rebbe was most influential through his innovations in the field of Kiruv, or outreach. Chabad Houses are found all over the world, and their members are a frequent site handing out shabbat candles and helping men wrap tefilin. Their website is a fantastic resource for Jewish learning as well. Chabad emissaries were sent to Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union in order to rebuild Jewish life and most synagogues in the country are Chabad-affiliated. His enormous personal magnetism allowed him to build relationships both across the spectrum of Jewish observance and into the non-Jewish world.

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Another famous Jew, though one with a more spotted reputation, who passed through Mykolaiv was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky moved to Mykolaiv as a young adult and began his career as a revolutionary organizing other workers here in 1896. He would later go on to lead the Bolshevik Red Army during the Civil War and was a favored candidate to succeed Lenin, but lost the power struggle to Joseph Stalin. He would then go into exile in Mexico before Stalin had him assassinated.

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KHERSON

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Located at the mouth of the Dnipro River, the most important trade and transport artery in Ukraine, Kherson was originally envisioned as the heart of the Russian Empire’s expansion on the Black Sea Coast. So much so that it is the final resting place of Grigory Potemkin, the Prince who oversaw the conquest and colonization of the region. However, the Dnipro estuary proved to be too shallow to be as useful of a port, so the city became eclipsed by neighboring Mykolaiv and Odessa.

 

Jews settled in Kherson as soon as the city was founded, and soon made up a large percentage of the city’s merchants. Lumber and grain export were the largest businesses. Outside of the city itself, Kherson region hosted several Jewish agricultural colonies.

 

The main synagogue of the city, located at Teatralna Street 27, was originally constructed in 1895, but was burned down during the Nazi occupation. After renovating the building, the Soviet authorities turned it into a dormitory for workers at the Petrovsky factory, then later a ward for treating alcoholics. It was handed back to the Jewish community after Ukrainian independence in 1991. It is now renovated and fully operational, with a school and several community organizations.

Synagogue Website: https://jewishkherson.com/

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Kherson oblast is the second least densely populated in Ukraine, and is home to many sites for nature tourism. These include Oleshky Sands, the largest desert in Europe, Askania Nova Nature Preserve, Dzharylhak National Nature Park, and the Dead Sea-like salt pools surrounding Lake Syvash.

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MELITOPOL

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Melitopol is a moderately sized city in the south of Zaporizhia Oblast that has some of the oldest archaeological finds in Ukraine. The Kamyana Mohyla site, in the outlying village of Myrne, was a religious site from the Neolitic era up through the Medieval period. Before the Russian conquest, the city was a fortified town of the Nogai Turks called Kyzyl-Yar. As the Russian Empire took over the lands of the Crimean Khanate, it became a small village occupied by Cossack families.

 

In 1842, Melitopol was given its status as a city along with its name, which is Greek for Honey City. Melitopol is still famous for producing honey, as well as cherries. By the late 19th century, it was roughly 40% Jewish. While nearly all of Melitopol’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust and the city is now predominantly ethnic Ukrainian and Russian, they are proud of their diverse roots and are a participant in the Council of Europe’s Intercultural City Program.

Melitopol Synagogue is located on Interkulturna Street, in between Chernyshevs'koho and Mykhaila Hrushevskoho. There is also a memorial to Holocaust victims and the Righteous Among Nations. The statue is, in part dedicated to Vera and her Alla Zemtseva, who rescued Zhanna Tsyparska from the fascists.

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BERDYANSK

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Berdyansk’s early history was marked by it being deep into the frontier with the Crimean Khanate. Zaporizhian Cossacks settled here beginning in the 16th century, but they shared the southern steppe with Crimean Tatars and Nogai Turks. They were located near the beginning of the Muravsky Trail, the route taken by the Khanate’s armies on their way to raid into Ukraine and Russia. By the mid-1700s, the Russian Empire had expanded to the point where the border between itself and the Turks was the Berda river, from which Berdyansk takes its name.

 

In 1771, General Alexander Rigelman began construction of Petrivka Fortress in what is now the suburb of Novopetrivka, a part of the Dnipro Defensive Line stretching from modern Zaporizhzhia to Berdyansk, but it was not used for long. It was fully completed in 1782, only one year before the final conquest of the Crimean Khanate. In his retirement, Rigelman, though an ethnic German from St.Petersburg, became fascinated with Ukrainian Cossack culture and became a historian of the country. The permanent city of Berdyansk was built in the late 1820s-1830s.

 

Berdyansk was not the most vital port on the Black Sea, but still had a robust trade, especially in grain, and later oil refining. As such, it attracted a Jewish population, though they were never as substantial a percentage of the population as some of the others cities I’ve written about in the region. Still, the Talmud-Torah was one of the earliest educational institutions in the city. Of the two synagogues from the 19th century, one of them is a Karaite Kanessa, a variety of Judaism that disregarded the Talmud and who, in Ukraine, had largely adopted Turkic language and culture. Today, the Kanessa is now used as a karate gym.

 

Today, Berdyansk is well known as a beach town. In my opinion, it is one of the best in the country north of Crimea.

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ZAPORIZHIA

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Zaporizhzhia is one of the most important sites in the development of Ukrainian nationhood. The main point of interest in the city is Khortytsia Island, the largest island in the Dnipro river, which has archaeological sites dating back to the Stone Age, including those showing it to be a religious center. However, when it truly comes into the story is during the era of the Cossacks.

 

The Cossacks were a militarized society of typically free peasants who fled to the southern frontier between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Crimean Khanate, a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. As the Polish nobility became increasingly powerful and repressive to their serfs, more and more Ukrainians, and others, joined the ranks of the Cossacks. The Polish kings tolerated them because were strong soldiers who controlled the explosive borderlands between themselves and the Turks. The Cossacks became a powerful independent force that were the fulcrum that Warsaw, Istanbul, and Moscow balanced on. They were, however, frequently rebellious, which eventually proved to be the beginning of the end of Polish power with the Khmelnytsky Uprising.

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The Khmelnytsky Uprising, and subsequent Cossack history, is an incredibly complicated and nuanced topic that I can’t begin to cover here. It was the beginning of modern Ukrainian nationhood and freedom from Polish rule, it was the beginning of the even more repressive Russian dominance over Ukraine, and it was one of the largest mass slaughters of Jews in European history prior to the Holocaust. The devastation was so traumatizing that it sparked a messianic movement centered in Turkey under the False Messiah Sabbatai Zevi. The collective memory of the Khmelnitsky uprising and subsequent Cossack uprisings, which frequently targeted Jews along with Poles, led to the Jewish popular understanding of Cossacks as pogromists and, later, the Tzar’s stormtroopers. While, to a non-Jewish Ukrainian, they represent a radical defense of freedom and the seed of Ukrainian identity.

 

Their first capital was on an island next to Khortytsia and while the location of the capital changed, Khortytsia remained one of their most important strongholds. Something that the city of Zaporizhzhia takes pride in. There are many things to see on the island, including a living history museum modeled on the Cossack Sich.

 

The Sich would eventually be liquidated on orders of Empress Catherine II in 1775, shortly before the final partition of Poland. Its remnants would be reconfigured into more easily controlled registered Cossack formations.

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The modern city of Zaporizhzhia was founded as Aleksandrovsk in 1770. In a bit of trivia which I find amusing, it was only given its more historically-inspired name of Zaporizhzhia in 1920, referring to its place “Beyond the Rapids.” Only a little over a decade later, the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station turned the once nearly-impassable rapids into a reservoir. So there are no more rapids to be beyond.

 

While Aleksandrovsk was built as a fortress town to protect the border with the Crimean Tatars, but after it shortly became unnecessary for that purpose, it became largely a hub for agricultural production. Sugar beets especially were a major cash crop of the region. The city’s industry grew up around food processing, but was later developed to the point where Zaporizhzhia is one of Ukraine’s major industrial cities, especially metallurgy and aerospace.

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The area around Aleksandrovsk had a number of Jewish agricultural colonies, a new type of community in the 19th century that would become a model for the Zionist kibbutzim movement. The city itself grew to have a population that was roughly a quarter Jewish by the start of the 20th century. They were nearly all killed during the Holocaust, then face repression when trying to re-establish themselves under the Soviet Union. Its post-independence revival in the mid-90s, however, was quite successful.

 

The Jewish community has recently been consolidated at Giymat Rosa Synagogue at 27 Shkilna Street, but it also maintains the building of an older synagogue from 1898 at Turhenjeva 22. Another historic synagogue from is found around the corner from there at Troikska 27, but it is now a business center.

 

Synagogue Website: http://evrey.com.ua

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HULIAPOLE

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Huliaipole has its origins as a Cossack town settled in the waning years of the Zaporizhian Host in order to help shore up the Dnipro Defensive Line. In the 19th century it developed as an agricultural hub, with a variety of industries built up to support that sector. Farm machinery manufacturies, mills, distilleries, etc. A significant number of these were owned by German Mennonites, who were invited to Southern Ukraine by Empress Catherine II of Russia to help settle the former frontier. She saw them as being especially industrious and many Mennonites became industrialists and landowners in the region.

 

The Jewish population was always fairly small, just less than 4% before the Second World War, and was completely destroyed in the Holocaust. However, it was influential. In the central square across from city hall, there is a collection of shops in what used to be the Kerner and Sons Trading House, a cloth trading hall owned by the Jewish Kerner Family, who also were also part owners of a steam mill.

 

The building of the former synagogue has been incorporated into the city hospital, which was itself built on donations from the Jewish community.

 

One of the main draws in the city is the lovely Huliaipole Museum of Local Lore, which is really worth a visit. It was built inside the former premises of the Mutual Credit Society, which was connected to the Jewish Colonization Association that helped attracted Jews to live in the region. Right across the street there is a large school. While the original building is no longer there, it used to by a combined educational complex that included not only Christian and secular schools, but also a Jewish Heder, or elementary school.

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One of the main draws in the city is the lovely Huliaipole Museum of Local Lore, which is really worth a visit. It was built inside the former premises of the Mutual Credit Society, which was connected to the Jewish Colonization Association that helped attracted Jews to live in the region. Right across the street there is a large school. While the original building is no longer there, it used to by a combined educational complex that included not only Christian and secular schools, but also a Jewish Heder, or elementary school.

 

The most notable period in the history of Huliaipole was during the Ukrainian Revolutionary War of 1917-1921. The country was caught in the middle of a war between the Ukrainian National Republic, the Soviet Red Army, the Russian Monarchist White Army of Anton Denikin, and a scattering of regional warlords. After Russia’s surrender in WWI through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the German Empire made the UNR under Hetman Pavlo Skorpadsky a protectorate while extracting large amounts of food from the rural peasantry.

 

A rebel from Huliaipole named Nestor Makhno began an insurgency campaign against Germany, leading a group that would become known as the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army, or Black Army. The factory where he began his revolt still builds machinery. Disaffected by the lackluster reforms of the UNR and on guard from Denikin’s revanchist White Terror, the Black Army represented the alternative model of anarchism. The “Free Territory” controlled by the Makhnovists, at its height, spanned across most of Southeastern Ukraine and was organized around local anarchist worker’s councils. This was all centered in Huliaipole, and the administration building where the Territory was proclaimed is still the town hall.

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There were many prominent Jews in the anarchist movement. The Secretariat of the Nabat, the most influential ideological faction within the Free Territory, was majority Jewish. This included Olga Taratuta, who founded the Ukrainian Black Cross, an anarchist answer to the Red Cross.

 

While the Makhnovists were accused of pogroms, these accusations largely came from the Bolsheviks, who stood to benefit from smearing their rivals, were second hand, or were otherwise questionable. Accused pogromists were often executed. One mark against him in this area was his alliance with Nikifor Grigoriev, a warlord who had switched sides many times and had committed many massacres of Jews. However, the partnership lasted only a few weeks before Grigoriev tried to switch to join the Whites. Makhno either ordered his execution or shot him himself.

 

In the end, the Makhnovists were betrayed by their former Bolsheviks allies and the anarchist movement was almost completely liquidated in 1921. Makhno and a small contingent of supporters escaped, eventually settling in France. There, he frequently worked with Jewish anarchist organizer Alexander Berkman.

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