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Volhynia (Rus. Volyn; Pol. Wolyá) is a historic region in N.W. Ukraine. Under czarist rule most of it was incorporated into the province of Volhynia. Today, the greatest part of it is divided up into the oblasts of *Zhitomir, *Rovno, and Volyn in the northwest part of Ukraine. The earliest information on Jews in Volhynia is in a report on the mourning of the Jews of the town of *Vladimir Volynski over the death of the prince of Volhynia, Vladimir Vasilkovich (d. 1288). However, there is reason to believe that there was already a Jewish settlement there in the 12th century. The Jews continued to live in Volhynia after it was annexed by *Lithuania. Among the Jewish communities whose members were granted rights of residence by the Lithuanian Grand Duke Witold were those of Vladimir-Volynski and *Lutsk.

During the first half of the 15th century, a wealthy Jew leased properties in the town of Vladimir-Volynski and even received an estate from the duke. Jewish landowners in the district of Lutsk are also mentioned during the second half of that century. In 1495, the grand duke of Lithuania, Alexander Jagellon, expelled all the Jews from his country, including those of Volhynia. In 1503, Alexander authorized the Jews to return to Lithuania and restituted their property, with the exception of their estates. In 1507 the ancient rights of residence of the Jews were again ratified by the authorities, and from then until the incorporation of Volhynia into the territories of the Polish Crown (1569), there was a considerable increase in the Jewish population of the region. During this period, there were 13 Jewish settlements in Volhynia, including four principal communities (*Ostrog, Vladimir-Volynski, Lutsk, *Kremenets), which together numbered 3,000 members.

The Jews of Volhynia engaged mainly in commerce, but there were also some craftsmen, such as tailors and furriers, among them. Tension arose between them and the townsmen over Jewish economic activities. At the time, the authorities, and particularly Queen Bona (1493–1557) – within the limits of her estates – defended the rights of the Jews. The general policy of the authorities toward the townsmen was marked by a tendency to increase their obligations, which also affected the Jews. During the second half of the 16th century, the Jews began to lease inns and engaged in various branches of the economy connected with the estates.

The expansion and consolidation of the Jewish settlement during this period made Volhynia a center of Jewish culture. By the middle of the 16th century, the area already boasted such distinguished scholars as Solomon *Luria, who held rabbinical office in Ostrog, and *Isaac b. Bezalel, the rabbi of Vladimir-Volynski. The golden era of Volhynian Jewry was the period between the annexation of the area to the Polish Crown in 1569 and the massacres of 1648. The establishment of towns on the steppes in the wake of the rapid settlement of Ukraine and improved conditions of security led to the expansion of the Jewish population of Volhynia into new areas, especially due to migration from the towns to the townlets. In 1648 there were 46 Jewish settlements in Volhynia with a population of 15,000.

After the annexation, the Jews of Volhynia received legal status, equal to the Jews of Poland, whose rights surpassed those of the Jews of Lithuania. The Jews of Vladimir-Volynski (1570) and Lutsk (1579) were exempted from the payment of customs duties throughout the Polish kingdom. The Jews of Volhynia enjoyed the protection of the royal officials, who even defended their rights before the aristocracy and all the more so before other classes. With the weakening of royal authority at the close of the 16th and early 17th centuries, the Jews had the protection of the major landowners, mainly because they had become an important factor in the economy of Volhynia. At the close of the 16th century, the noblemen began to lease out their estates to Jews in exchange for a fixed sum which was generally paid in advance. All the incomes of the estate from the labor of the serfs, the payments of the townsmen and the Jews (who lived in the towns which belonged to the estate), innkeeping, the flour mills, and the other branches of the economy were handed over to the lessee. During the term of his lease, the Jew governed the estate and its inhabitants and was authorized to penalize the serfs at his discretion. During that period, a Jew named Abraham, who lived in the town of Turisk became renowned for his vast leases in Volhynia. However, with the exception of these large leases, which were naturally limited in number and on which there is no further information from the beginning of the 17th century, many Jews leased inns, one of the branches of the agricultural economy of the estates, or the incomes of one of the towns or townlets. A lessee of this kind was actually the agent and confidant of the owner of the estate and the financial and administrative director of the economy of the aristocratic class. As a result of his functions, such a lessee exerted administrative authority and great economic influence, a situation which embittered the peasants, the townsmen, and the lower aristocracy. The lease of estates, together with the trade of agricultural produce derived from them, constituted the principal source of livelihood for the Jews of Volhynia.

Cultural and social life also prospered between 1569 and 1648. Each one of the four principal communities became an important Jewish center, and leading personalities, such as Mordecai b. Abraham *Jaffe (author of the Levushim), R. Isaiah b. Abraham ha-Levi *Horowitz' (SHe-La-H), R. Samuel Eliezer b. Judah ha-Levi *Edels (Ma-Ha-RSHA), R. Yom Tov Lipmann *Heller (author of Tosefot Yom Tov), *David b. Samuel ha-Levi (Ta-Z), and many others, held rabbinical office in them. The rabbis of the principal communities and the leaders of the province (Volhynia was one of the "provinces" of the *Council of the Lands) convened from time to time to discuss affairs of common interest, but every principal community retained its independence, a fact which caused controversies between the communities. The above-mentioned rabbis and leaders also participated in the conventions of the provinces from the inception of the "Council of the Lands" in Poland in the 1580s. It also appears that earlier, before 1569, they participated in the Lithuanian conventions. In Volhynia, as in the other "provinces", there was a supreme bet *din whose seat was in Ostrog and before which any person who refused to be judged by the bet din of his town could present his case; disputes between communities were also brought before this bet din.

The rebellion of the peasants and the Cossacks in 1648, led by *Chmielnicki, undermined the very foundations of the Jewish settlement in Volhynia. The Jews of Volhynia, unlike those of the Dnieper region and the plain, knew of the defeats suffered by the Polish army and the massacres of Jews, and the overwhelming majority of them sought refuge in the fortified cities. However, after the fall of the fortress of Polonnoye into the hands of the rebels, as a result of the treason of the Ukrainian townsmen, and the massacre of the Jews of the town, a mass exodus toward the west began. The few who remained in Volhynia were put to death or converted, and Jewish homes and property were thoroughly ransacked. Although those who had fled returned to their residences after a few months (the first of them even before the end of 1648), the Jewish settlement in Volhynia, like the region as a whole, did not recover completely. Volhynia was transformed from a region that served as an economic, social, and administrative hinterland for the extensive colonization of the Ukrainian plain, into a border area of the kingdom, and its importance declined even further after the wars of the middle of the 17th century.

During the 1660s, when a period of relative calm dawned on Poland, the Jewish settlement of Volhynia appears to have regained its former dimensions. In the late 1670s, there were about 20,000 Jews living in Volhynia. Thereafter, the number of Jews grew steadily, due to natural increase and to settlement in townlets and small villages. A total of 51,736 Jews were counted in 116 localities in Volhynia in 1765. However, there is reason to believe that their numbers were actually greater because a section of the population evaded the census, which was carried out for purposes of tax collection. About 30% of the Jews lived in over 2,000 villages; in three communities, there were between 2,000 and 2,500 people, and in six communities, there were between 1,000 and 2,000.

Large leases of whole estates are not in evidence during this period, but a considerable number of Jews leased inns or individual branches of the agricultural economy. Some of the Jews acted as the agents of various landowners, whereas others traded with the farmers. A number of them also traded with other parts of Poland or even traveled abroad to attend fairs. The percentage of craftsmen was also on the rise. In the main towns (the so-called royal towns), the townsmen succeeded in completely undermining the position of the Jews, but the Jews established themselves from the economic point of view in smaller towns (the so-called private towns) owned by noblemen. The owners of these towns compelled the townsmen to do agricultural labor for them; and many of the town dwellers, therefore, gradually moved over to the suburbs, which became semi-agricultural settlements, while in the town centers, the Jewish population that kept its distinct urban character continued to increase. This evolution further strained the relations between townsmen and Jews, and there were ample opportunities for anti-Jewish incitement by the clergy.

From the beginning of the 18th century, a series of misfortunes and persecutions befell the Jewish population of Volhynia: a rebellion of the Cossacks broke out in 1702, and several bands penetrated into Volhynia; the Polish armies and the Cossacks of Mazeppa, who came to suppress the rebellion, also robbed the Jews and molested them. During the Great Northern War between Sweden, Poland, and Russia, Swedish regiments invaded the area (1706) and imposed heavy levies on the population. They were followed by the Russian and Polish armies, which continued to exact extortion from the Jews. From the 1730s onward, the Jews of Volhynia were the victims of repeated attacks by the *Haidamacks. From the 1740s to 1760s, there were most frequent blood libels in eastern Poland, possibly against the background of the rivalry between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox clergies. In 1747, there was a *blood libel in Zaslavl; in 1755, an attempted blood libel in Kremenets; and in 1756, a blood libel in Yampol.

The great revolt of the Haidamacks in 1768 affected the Jews of Volhynia to a relatively slight degree. Two years later, however, "the plague – may we be saved from it – broke out, while a conflagration raged in many districts through innumerable towns and villages, so that the Jews deserted their lands, abandoned their houses, and animals and fled to the forests and the fields; this confusion also struck the province of Volhynia" (Jacob Israel ha-Levi, Aguddat Ezov, 2 (1782), 24). After the massacres of 1648, the importance of Volhynia declined but its cultural organization was strengthened. During this period, the autonomous province of Volhynia remained one of the provinces of the Council of the Lands, and its representatives attended meetings. The activities of the provincial council, which met every three years with the participation of the delegates from the principal communities, also continued. During this period, the communities of Dubno and *Kovel were added to the provincial council. Toward the middle of the 18th century there were frequent disputes within Volhynia; for example, the trustees of the province complained against the communities of Ostrog ("the first and leading one among the communities of Volhynia") and Lutsk for their refusal to contribute toward the province's expenses. Controversies also broke out between the principal communities and the petty communities ("the environs"), which sought to liberate themselves from the authority of the former. It is worth noting that even after the dissolution of the Council of the Lands in 1764, the principal communities of the province continued to convene and deliberate.

Volhynia (together with neighboring *Podolia) was also the first arena of *Ḥasidism. Several members of Israel Baal Shem Tov's company were of Volhynian origin, and during the following generation, Ḥasidism made rapid progress in Volhynia. *Jacob Joseph, one of the most prominent disciples and followers of the tradition of the Baal Shem Tov, lived in Polonnoye; the leader and successor of the Baal Shem Tov, *Dov Baer, in Mezhirech and Rovno; and R. Phinehas in *Korets (where an important press of the Ḥasidim was established); *Levi Isaac in Berdichev; R. *Wolf in Zhitomir; *Moses Ḥayyim Ephraim in Sudilkov; R. Feivish in *Zbarazh; R. Samson in *Shepetovka; R. Zeev Wolf in Zbarazh; R. Mordecai in Kremenets; R. Moses in Zvahi; R. Isaac in Radziwill; R. Joseph in Yapol (the last five were the sons of R. Mekhel of *Zolochev); R. Abraham in Trisk. In the 1760s, the Ḥasidim already exerted much influence in Volhynia, and Dov Baer was a decisive authority in the public affairs of Volhynia. The administration of the communities of Volhynia was subsequently controlled by the Ḥasidim, and all appointments required the consent of the ẓaddikim. The first partition of Poland in 1772 and the separation of Volhynia from Galicia, to which it was attached mainly by social and economic ties, left a considerable imprint on the Jewish population of the region. The great fair of *Lvov was transferred to Dubno and helped the development of that community. Fairs also flourished in several other towns of Volhynia. At the close of the century, Berdichev became an important commercial center for the whole vicinity.

In the second (1793) and third (1795) partitions of Poland, sections of Volhynia were annexed by the Russian Empire, and the province of Volhynia was created from them in 1799. At first, the political changes did not affect the sources of livelihood of the Jews or even the organizational systems of the communities; the proximity to the Austrian border, particularly to the important commercial town of *Brody, encouraged the Jews to establish commercial relations with Austria, even to the point of smuggling. This situation was brought to the attention of the Russian authorities during the first years after the annexation, and in 1812 the governor of the province of Volhynia suggested that the Jews be removed from a border strip 50 versts wide to prevent them from smuggling. This proposal received royal assent in 1816. In 1825, it was extended to all the western provinces of Russia, though in practice it was never fully applied. In 1843, an order was published to remove the Jews from the border region "without any excuses." At that time, Jews from the provinces of Lithuania and Belorussia began to immigrate to Volhynia. In 1847, there were 174,457 Jews in Volhynia. Industry began to develop among the Jews, and toward the middle of the 19th century, a number of wealthy Jews leased the alcoholic beverage excise from the government. As a result, the number of Jewish innkeepers also increased. Many Jews traded in agricultural produce and tobacco. In 1885 there were no Christian merchants of the first and second guilds in Volhynia, whereas the number of Jews who belonged to these guilds amounted to 113; in the third guild, there were 3,749 Jewish and 56 Christian inhabitants of Volhynia.

In 1821, R. Isaac Dov (Baer) *Levinsohn returned from Galicia to his native town of Kremenets, and a center of the *Haskalah was thus created in Volhynia. In the early 1830s, through the initiative of the physician Rutenberg of Berdichev, a circle of maskilim named "Ḥevrat Shoḥarei Or ve-Haskalah" ("Society of the Seekers of Light and Enlightenment") was organized in Volhynia. At that time, the author Abraham Baer *Gottlober, who influenced many youths in the spirit of the Haskalah, was living in Volhynia. The Haskalah also made progress among the wealthy, including the lessees of the tax on alcoholic beverages. From the 1840s, the Russian government endeavored to propagate education among the Jews of Russia. Zhitomir, where one of the two Hebrew presses permitted by the government to function (in 1845) and the government rabbinical seminary (opened in 1848) were located, became an important center of the Haskalah movement in southwestern Russia.

The emancipation of the peasants in 1861 and the Polish rebellion of 1863 caused far-reaching changes in the economic and social development of Volhynia that affected the Jews. The decline of the estates of the Polish nobility, the construction of railways, and the creation of direct lines of communication with the large commercial centers deprived the Jewish masses of their traditional sources of livelihood and impoverished them. This prompted the Jews to develop industry. Of the 123 large factories situated in Volhynia in the late 1870s, 118 were owned by Jews. The number of craftsmen also increased. In 1862, a vocational school, the first of its kind in Russia, opened in Zhitomir. In 1897, there were 395,782 Jews living in Volhynia, constituting 13.21% of the total population; 30% of them lived in the towns, 49% in the townlets, and 21% in the villages. The Jews constituted one-half of the population of the towns. Forty percent of Volhynia's Jews earned their livelihood from commerce, 25% from crafts, 12.5% from public and private services, 3.7% from haulage, and 2.3% from agriculture. The industries in which they engaged were light and nonmechanized and consisted essentially of the processing of agricultural produce, wood, hides, soap, etc. During the last quarter of the 19th century, the Jews of Volhynia, together with those of other parts of Russia, organized their public life and entered into a political struggle for their rights. By the 1880s, cells of the Ḥovevei Zion had already been established in the towns and townlets of Volhynia, and at the beginning of the 20th century branches of the *Bund and the Zionist parties were organized. Ḥasidism, however, continued to exert the most decisive influence.

Most of the Jews of Volhynia were not harmed directly by the pogroms in Russia during the 1880s and in 1905–06. Many disasters befell them during World War I and the Russian civil war, however. In 1915 the Russian soldiers perpetrated pogroms in Volhynia, as in the other regions within proximity of the front, when they enforced the expulsion of the Jews because of their supposed disloyalty to Russia. In the summer of 1917, soldiers fleeing from the front murdered and robbed Jews in various parts of Volhynia. The situation deteriorated in the wake of the hostilities between the Ukrainians and the Bolsheviks in 1918, and the disorders reached their climax in a series of pogroms against the Jews by armed bands and in the frequent changes of regime in 1919–20. Many thousands died in these pogroms. During the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, the Jews of Volhynia suffered at the hands of both sides. In the peace treaty signed between Russia and Poland, the greater part of Volhynia went to the Poles, while the towns of Zhitomir, *Ovruch, and their surroundings remained under Soviet rule. In the 1926 census, 65,589 Jews were counted in Russian Volhynia, while some 300,000 Jews lived in Polish Volhynia in the early 1930s. The economic discrimination against Jews by the Polish government was evident in Volhynia as in other parts of Poland, but Jewish cultural and social life prospered there. Jewish educational institutions, parties, the courts of ḥasidic ẓaddikim, etc., developed freely. The Jews of Volhynia, as in other parts of Poland, played an important role in aliyah to Palestine and the support to the yishuv.

The situation in the Soviet part of Volhynia was rather different. A brief period of cultural awakening in the 1920s was followed by the decline and the apathy of the 1930s when many active Jews abandoned the townlets for the larger towns of Ukraine and inner Russia. After the division of Poland in September 1939 according to the Hitler-Stalin agreement, the whole of Volhynia was annexed by the Soviet Union, and a policy of liquidation of the Jewish parties, organizations, and institutions was pursued until the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Holocaust Period

The extermination of the Jews of Volhynia began in the first days after the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union. In many places, the Ukrainians perpetrated acts of murder before the arrival of the Germans or immediately after it. In Zhitomir, 2,500 Jews were exterminated during the last week of July 1941, while several thousand were confined to a ghetto that was liquidated on September 19 of the same year (mainly by Ukrainians). Ghettos were set up in various towns in formerly Polish Volhynia. They continued to exist until the autumn of 1942, and during the months of September–November, the Jews were exterminated, and the ghettos of Rovno, Kremenets, and Dubno were liquidated. It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews who perished in Volhynia, but there is no doubt that it reached tens of thousands. After World War II, some of the few survivors returned to the towns of Volhynia, but the Holocaust and the Soviet policies of the 1950s and 1960s had completely obliterated the communal and public Jewish life that had existed in Volhynia for about eight centuries.

In 2005, two Holocaust monuments were erected in the city.


S. Ettinger, in: Zion, 20 (1955), 21 (1956); S. Bershadski, in: Yevreyskaya Biblioteka, 7 (1879); 8 (1880); Arkhiv Yugo-Zapadnoy Rossii, pt. 5 vol. 2 (1890); S. Dubnow, in: Voskhod, 14, nos. 4 and 12 (1894) Vseukrainska Akademiya Nauk, Zbirnyk prats zhydivskoy istorychno-arkheografichnoy komisii, 1 (1928); V.P. Rybynsky, ibid., 2 (1929); V.P. Ikhtyussky, ibid.; Sifrei Zikkaron for most of the communities mentioned.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.