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Virtual Jewish World: Donetsk, Ukraine

Donetsk is an industrial city in eastern Ukraine established in 1869 when an iron mill and coal mines were opened. Until 1924 it was called Yuzovka and until 1961 was called Stalino.

Three decades after its founding, the Jewish population of Donetsk numbered 3,168 (11.5% of the total). They were occupied mostly as traders and artisans. In 1887, a magnificent synagogue was built, a talmud torah school opened and charity organizations were established. That same year, the Ukrainian authorities prevented a pogrom against Jews and Englishmen. However, during a pogrom which lasted for three days from October 20-23, 1905, many Jews were killed and wounded and a number of the town's synagogues and Jewish houses were destroyed.

In 1910, there were three synagogues and five Jewish private schools in the city. Zionism was active and a delegate from Donetsk was sent to the Sixth Zionist Congress. During World War I, many Jewish refugees from the surrounding areas came to Donetsk and were helped by a local Jewish committee.

Between the wars the general population of Donetsk grew by 400% and the Jewish population doubled. There were 11,300 Jews living in the town in 1926 (10.6% of the total population). In 1922, most of the Jews were artisans and were dominant in tailoring and hide production. In the second half of the 1920's there were 300 Jewish workers (among 12,000) in the big steel mill, 30 of them professionals. There were also several hundred young Jews among the 4,000 workers employed in the construction of new steel mills. There was one Yiddish school with 320 pupils.

In 1939, the Jews numbered 24,991 (total population 466,268). At the beginning of the German-Soviet war thousands of Jews were evacuated by their factories, such as about 1,500 Jews employed at the Stalino Works who left with their families for the Urals. On October 20, 1941, the town was occupied by the Germans, who held it until September 8, 1943. A large ghetto was set up and its inhabitants were kept without food or medical aid, with hundreds dying every day. In December 1941, Einzatzcommando-6 murdered several hundred Jews.

In April 1942, the liquidation of the Donetsk ghetto commenced. The Germans took the Jews to the abandoned Maria mine and threw most of them down the shafts alive. They also used gas vans, throwing the bodies into the mine. Some 15,000 Jews were murdered.

According to the 1959 census, the Jewish population of Donetsk numbered 21,000 (3% of the total). There was a synagogue, a rabbi and poultry slaughtering until 1959, when the synagogue was closed down during High Holiday services. In 1963, the militia clamped down on daily services and confiscated religious articles, returning only prayer shawls.

Modern Community

In 1970 the estimated Jewish population was 40,000. Many immigrated to Israel and the West in the 1990's but Jewish life was revived, with Pinchas Vyshedsky as chief rabbi from 1995 and a full range of religious, educational, and cultural services offered to the community.  During the 1990's and early 2000's the Jewish community enjoyed a relatively prosperous time in Donetsk, and were very active in the business community.  In 2012 and 2013 the city was named the best place to do business in Ukraine.  

Following the start of the Ukranian revolution during February 2014 in the capital, Kiev, Pro-Russian activists stormed and seized control of the main government building in Donetsk in early April.  In May 2014, a referendum was held in Donetsk in which voters could choose political independence from the Ukraine.  Although almost 90% of voters chose independence the government of Ukraine does not recognize the vote as legitimate, and neither do the European Union or the United States.  In April 2014, on the eve of Passover, armed men handed out leaflets calling on Jews in the city to register their religion and property with the interim pro-Russian government or risk deportation and the loss of their citizenship.  Demonstrations and protests from pro-Russian groups escalated into an ongoing armed conflict in mid-2014, known as the War in Donbass, between seperatist pro-Russian forces in Donetsk (the DPR and the LPR), and the Ukrainian government. The majority of these seperatist forces were reported to be comprised of Russian paramilitary troops.  Since the begining of the conflict there have been eleven cease-fires declared between the groups, none of which have successfully stopped the fighting.  

The War in Donbass has been especially hard on the 1,500 or so Jews remaining in Donetsk, with food scarce and Jewish institutions barely scraping by.  The entire city lives under constant threat; not a day goes by quietly.  Gunfire is always in the background, says Donetsk Rabbi Dina Vishedski.  Jews in the city live a very restricted existence according to the Rabbi, and those who have managed to flee have made aliyah, moved to Germany or the U.S., or gone to safer parts of Ukraine such as Kiev.  

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Eynikeyt (March 3, 1945), 2; S. Schwarz, The Jews in the Soviet Union (1951), index. YNet (April 16, 2014);
Olidort, Baiya.  'We Need Your Prayers' Donetsk’s Jews Three Years Later, In Limbo, In Exile, Lubavitch,com, (April 4, 2017)