Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

 

Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

 

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Korets - guidebook

Ukr. Корець, Yid. קאָריץ

Korets - guidebook

A stroll with pleasure

The first reference to a settlement named Korchesk dates back to 1150 and is found in the Primary Chronicle, the 12th-century historical account of the history of the Slavic people also known as the Kiev Chronicle. In 1380, Grand Duke Jagiełło (Jogaila) of Lithuania transferred the lands of Korets to Prince Fedor Ostrogski. In 1386, the Ostrogskis built the castle here and redirected the course of the Korchik River. At the beginning of the 15th century, the settlement became the property of the Princes Koreckis, and after the 1596, Union of Lublin it became part of Lutsk County in the Volhynian Palatinate. From the 16th century until the mid-17th century, Korets was one of the largest towns in Volhynia. 

 In the second half of the 17th century, Korets gradually fell into decline, as the result of several devastating attacks of the Cossack army led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648–1649. The town began to revive only in the second half of the 18th century; manufactories producing cloth, fabrics, and leather goods were established. In 1788, the town owners Counts Potockis established a faience and china manufacturing plant, but they were forced to close it in 1831 after the local white clay deposits were exhausted. After the 1793 Second Partition of Poland, Korets came under the rule of the Russian Empire. After the peasant reform of 1861, part of the Great Reforms of Alexander II, the town became a significant commercial and industrial centre. In 1887, Korets had a brewery, two leather factories, a cloth factory, and five water steam mills; most importantly, annual fairs bringing international merchants and commodities from all over Europe were held 12 times a year. In 1898, Count Józef Potocki established a sugar refinery here. 

 In November 1846, the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko visited the town; he later mentioned Korets in his short novel Progulka z udovolstviiem i nie bez morali (Rus.: A Stroll with Pleasure and Not Without Morals, 1858). This is Shevchenko’s impressions of the town:

 

The Jews of Korets

Jews settled in Korets in the 16th century, though, according to the local legend, Jews settled there much earlier. As in other towns, the Jewish community suffered significant losses during the mid 17th century Cossack revolution. By 1655, the devastation of the Cossack-Polish War left only 10 Jewish houses in Korets. The oldest matzevah at the Jewish cemetery dates back to the 17th century, and towards the end of that century a synagogue was built. The main occupations of the Korets Jewish population in the 18th century were crafts and trade; among other businesses, Jews owned two tanneries and 14 stores in the marketplace.

 In the first half of the 18th century, Korets was home to Dov Ber of Mezheritch, known as Maggid of Mezherich: after the death of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760, he gathered at his table in Mezherich (near Rivne) the new generation of religious enthusiasts, who called themselves Hasidim, and who eventually established the key centers of the rising Hasidic movement in Karlin, Liady, Berdichev, Chernobyl, Hannipol, and Vitebsk. In the second half of the 18th century, most of the Jews in Korets associated themselves with the Hasidic movement. In 1760, Rabbi Pinhas Shapiro, a close associate of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, moved to Korets from Shargorod and soon became known as Rebbe Pinhas of Korets. Inspired by their father, his sons established one of the most significant Hasidic printing presses in East Europe – the one in Slavuta.

 

Pinchas ben Abraham Aba Shapiro (Pinchas of Korets; 1728–1790) was an eminent Hasidic master, a colleague of the Baal Shem Tov. He was born in the town of Shklov (Szkłów), where he received a traditional Jewish education. As a young man, he worked as a melamed in Korets, where he found himself in the centre of the budding Hasidic movement. He was strongly influenced by the ideas of the Baal Shem Tov. Rebbe Pinhas became the head of the Jewish community of Korets, and in the last period of his life also acted as the highest legal and spiritual authority for Hasidim in the towns of Slavuta and Ostroh. In 1790, at the age of 63, he set out from Ostroh on the long journey to the Holy Land, hoping to spend the rest of his life there. However, he died suddenly at the very beginning of his trip, in the town of Shepetivka (Szepietówka), on the 10 th day of the month of Elul, in the year 5551 according to the Jewish calendar. He did not leave a Hasidic reatise yet his aphorisms and short commentaries on the Torah recorded by his disciples and children were published posthumously in a two-volume collection Imrei Pinhas (The Sayings of Pinhas) His ohel – gravesite – was reconstructed in the late 1990s and is located in the center of Shepetivka at the site of the oldest Jewish cemetery next to the central police station.

 

Rabbi Pinhas often cited the words: “A man’s soul will teach him”, and emphasized them by adding: “There is no man who is not incessantly being taught by his soul.” One of his disciples asked: “If this is so, why don’t men obey their souls?” “The soul teaches incessantly,” Rabbi Pinhas explained, “but it never repeats.” 

 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, trans. O. Marx, New York 1991, p. 121.

Hasidic printing house

In 1776, a Jewish printer (whose name is not known) arrived in Korets after obtaining a privilege from Count Józef Klemens Czartoryski to establish a Jewish printing press. The Korets printing press operated until 1819, and over 40 years it published about 93 books. As many other printing presses established in Volhynia and Podolia at that time, the Korets printing press published predominantly books on Kabbalah and Hasidism, prayer books with Kabbalistic commentaries and traditional books of Jewish learning containing glossas provided by Hasidic masters. That printing house played a major role in fostering the spread of Hasidic Judaism in Poland and neighbouring countries. In 1780, the Korets printing press published the book Toldot Yaakov Josef by Yaakov Yosef of Polonne, one of the first foundational books presenting the theology of Hasidism. 

In the 1780s, Jan Antoni Krüger, a Christian who owned a Hebrew printing house in Novyi Dvir (Nowy Dwór) took over the Korets publishing house and ran it until 1786. He had an excellent understanding of the Jewish market – hence published major Kabbalistic books and Hasidic commentaries to Kabbalistic sources. In 1798, a printing company owned by Shmuel ben Issachar Ber Segal and his father-inlaw Tzvi Hirsch ben Arie Leib Margaliot took over the Korets printing business. Yet the change of hands changed little in the books repertoire of the Korets printing press: till the mid-1830s, when this press was denounced by the anti-Hasidic minded Jewish censors and advisers and eventually shut down, Korets remained one of the keys which nourished the Hasidic movement in east Europe with Kabbalistic prayer books, classical sources of Jewish mysticism, and newest writings of the Hasidic masters.


Synagogues

In 1865, Korets had 10 functioning synagogues, six of them Hasidic. But tragedy struck in 1881, when they all burnt down in a great fire: the Main Synagogue, the tailors’ andshoemakers’ synagogues, the Bereznershul, the Chernobyler-shul, and all the others. They were gradually rebuilt, and other synagogues were added thanks to the increase in Jewish population. In 1847, the town had 3,832 Jewish residents, and in 1897, 4,608 Jews, making up 76 percent of the total population.

In 1910, there were 15 synagogues in Korets. In addition, there was a Talmud Torah school for poor Jewish boys and Jewish orphans, a private Jewish school, and a sizeable public library, and separate private Jewish vocational training schools for women and men.

 

Rabbi Nechemia Herhzehorn (1833–1923) served as a rabbi of Korets for 59 years (1864–1923). He was exceptionally active in organizing various philanthropic services for the needy, particularly providing traditional education to Jewish children, disregarding their financial status. On many occasions, and in many of his articles in the Jewish press, he stressed the necessity to teach the Torah broadly conceived to young Jewish people seeking to prevent their assimilation. He bombarded state officials with requests to introduce classes in Jewish religion and Russian language at all Jewish educational establishments starting with the cheder (elementary school). Though he was successful in obtaining the permission, the Hasidim of Korets did not allow him to do so. In response, with the help from the local Jewish elites, Hershehorn created a modern Jewish school based on the local Talmud Torah. Unlike the traditional Jewish education which did not differentiate teaching elements of Judaic religion from teaching the basics of Hebrew language, the new school taught Hebrew grammar, the Tanakh, the history of the Jews, and Russian language. On the ground floor of the school building, there was a canteen for students, a prayer room, and a library, and in the yard there was an orchard where students acquired elementary skills in botany and agriculture. After the great fire of 1881, Rabbi Hershehorn made every effort to rebuild the main beth midrash. In 1883, a Jewish hospital was built, established by his initiative. 

Rabbi Hershehorn also established the Hebrew-language Tarbut library, which became an important spiritual proto Zionist centre, as well as the National Credit Bank, an important institution for the local Zionist movement. Rabbi Hershehorn was an ardent Zionist. He attended a Zionists’ convention in Minsk and was in long-lasting correspondence with many distinguished leaders of the movement. Together with his followers, he set up a Zionist club, in which he gave lessons in Hebrew promoting Zionist ideas in Korets. Every Saturday, he also gave lectures on Zionist and literary topics.

The time of changes

The beginning of the 20th century was a time of political action in Korets. Branches of the Zionist organisations “Tseeirei Zion” and “Poale Zion” were established in the town, and from 1905, also a branch of the Bund (Jewish socialist Marxist movement). In 1914, a volunteer social relief society helping Jewish craftsmen was founded. Jews were active in all branches of social and economic life, too. Korets Jews managed a pharmacy and four pharmacy warehouses, wholesale companies, the town’s only public library, all three bookshops, leather factories, all three timber wholesale outlets, three factories producing mead, both steam mills, two cloth factories, two beer wholesale outlets, one printing house, four photographic studios, and 84 other businesses (including all 22 workshops and 21 groceries). There were also three Jewish doctors and three Jewish dentists in Korets. 

 The Jewish population decreased during World War I, but still, in 1921, the town’s 3,888 Jews made up 83 percent of the population. In the interwar period, this number increased and reached 4,695 by December 1937. 

 Like many towns in Ukraine, particularly in Volhynia, Korets changed hands many times during World War I and the subsequent post-revolutionary Civil War. Occupational administrations sought to exploit local resources and embezzle themselves at the expense of the local population, among which Jews performed a prominent role. At the end of World War I, when Korets came under the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Korets economy had been paralized. The new authorities introduced a new monetary system based on the circulation of large denomination banknotes, meaning that there was no way to obtain change. The Jewish community stepped in and, as a solution, started to print their own low-value notes, printed on poor-quality paper since the war was still going on and better-quality paper was impossible to come by. Each note bore the signatures of three leaders of the Jewish community, a stamp, and a serial number. It was possible to exchange that “Jewish money” for “official” money, thus helping the new administration to solve financial issues.

 After the Bolsheviks suffered serious losses in the 1920s fighting the Poles, new borders were established and Korets was incorporated into the revived Polish Republic. The establishment of the new borders had a negative economic impact on the town. Impoverished refugees escaping the pogroms and the new Soviet regime inundated the town. The new 1924 elections under Polish rule brought several Jews to the municipal council, and even to the position of a deputy mayor, but Jews found themselves a segregated and marginalized minority in a new Polish state.

 

Rabbi Joel Sorin (Shurin) (1871–1927) was a distinguished preacher and Torah scholar. He was born in Lokhvytsia in Poltava Province, to a poor Jewish family. From his childhood, he showed exceptional talent and soon earned his nickname of “the illui [child prodigy] of Poltava.” Having learned about the talented young man, the local rabbi Moshe Ber Luria helped him enrol in Volozhyn yeshiva, a prestigious Talmudic academy. After getting married, Joel Sorin moved to live with his father-in-law, Rabbi Elkhanan Shiff, in the town of Cherniche in MinskProvince. His goal in life was to spread the Torah knowledge and Talmudic education and to found yeshivas in places where educational opportunities were limited. In 1897, he founded a yeshiva “Or Torah” (Heb.: Light of the Torah) in Brzeźnica, attended by 70 students, and a few years later he transferred it to Zviahel (Yid.: For Novohrad-Volynskyi). In the fall of 1920, when Polish forces were to transfer Novohrad-Volynskyi to the Soviet authorities in accordance with the Polish-Soviet peace treaty, most of the yeshiva’s students left town and settled in the nearby Korets, where the “Or Torah” yeshiva, directed by Rabbi Sorin, was re-established. In the school year 1929/1930, the yeshiva boasted 160 students. Rabbi Joel Sorin died in Warsaw at the age of 61. He was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Gęsia Street (now Okopowa Street) in Warsaw.

 
World War II and the Holocaust

On September 17, 1939, Soviet troops entered Korets. Jewish institutions were liquidated and political parties disbanded. The Jews tried to adapt to the new reality by learning new trades or by setting up Soviet-style cooperatives for craftsmen.

Early in July 1941, German troops entered Korets. The murder of the Jews and the destruction of Jewish economies and residences immediately ensued. For five weeks there was mass “hunting” for Jewish men, who were brought by brutal force into a pigsty near the municipal pharmacy. After gathering about 300 men (the group also included boys aged 10–12), the Germans transported them on trucks in the direction of Novohrad-Volynskyi. Once they were outside the town, the people were forced to dig ditches, in which they were buried alive. Similar operations were later repeated, resulting in the death of almost 1,000 Jews, who were buried outside Korets, near Kamienna Hill and Shytnia manor farm. 

 According to the September 17, 1941, order of the District Commissar Dr. Beyer, all Jews were obligated to sew yellow patches onto their clothes: on the back between the shoulder blades and on the left side of the chest. Every day they were taken to clean snow from the road to the village of Samostrily (Samostrzały, located 16 km away) and sent to the forest for various kinds of the humiliating and usually unnecessary manual work. The exhausted Jews were succumbing to various diseases and died in large numbers due to the lack of clothing and medicines. 

Early in 1942, a ghetto was established in Korets, where all the Jews from the town and the nearby villages were rounded up and confined. The Germans regularly carried out operations in which people unfit to work were murdered: children, elderly people, and the sick. 

On May 21, 1942, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto. They herded all the Jews and selected about 250 people who could still do some physical work. Others were executed after the Nazis searched them and confiscated any valuables. On September 23, 1942, the Germans finalized the final liquidation of the ghetto.

 

Moshe Gildenman (1898–1957) was a partisan commander, journalist, and prose writer. He worked as  construction engineer, owned a concrete factory, and was the head of the Jewish Painters’ Association; he also founded a choir, an orchestra, and a theatre at the Jewish school. 

 In May 1942, the day before the feast of Shavuot, the occupying forces and the local police killed 2,200 Jews from Korets, including Moshe’s wife and his 13-year-old daughter. When the Jews gathered in the synagogue to say kaddish for the victims, Gildenman gave a sermon from the bimah, calling on the Jews to fight. 

 In September 1942, during the liquidation of the ghetto, Gildenman, his son Simha, and 15 other young people managed to escape from the ghetto, cross the Sluch River, and hide in the forest. Moshe became the commander of a Jewish partisan unit (known as “uncle Misha’s group”), which fought its way through to the forests of the Zhytomyr region. The unit carried out more than 150 combat operations and liberated 300 inmates from German camps. In 1943, it joined the Red Army. Moshe Gildenman and his son both survived and celebrated the end of the war in Berlin. 

From 1946, Gildenman lived in Poland, then Paris, and from 1952, in Israel. He wrote short stories and memoirs about his life as a partisan. In Israel, he worked for the Yad Vashem Institute, engaged in social activity, and wrote his memoirs, published in The Memorial Book of Zviahel (Novohrad-Volynskyi) in 1962.

 

Memory

Only about 500 Jews from Korets survived the war. Most had escaped or were evacuated into the Soviet Union. In 1948, under a directive from the Korets municipal council, the former synagogue building was converted into a movie-theater. In 1959, the police broke up a minyan that was praying during Pesach in a private house. By 1970, only a few Jewish families lived in the town. 

Things changed radically after Ukraine became independent in 1991. Today, about 7,000 people live in Korets, which is located on the main route between Kyiv and Rivne. The numerous local Christian churches and the ohalim (burial sites) of famous rabbis at the Jewish cemetery attract crowds of pilgrims. Part of the exhibition at the Regional Museum in Korets, founded in 2000, is dedicated to the history of the town Jewish community, and in the 1990s, memorial plaques were established at the sites of executions of Korets’ Jews during World War II.


The cemetery

Korets still has its old Jewish cemetery with 17th-century tombstones. Three outstanding Hasidic leaders are buried here: Rabbi Asher Tzvi (a disciple of Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, and the author of Ma’ayan Ha-Hokhma (Heb.: A Spring of Wisdom); Rabbi Yitzhak ha-Kohen (also thedisciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch, and the author of Brit Kehunat Olam, Heb.: The Covenant of Eternal Priesthood); and Rabbi Mordechai (the head of the rabbinic court).

Author: Bohdana Brukhliy

 

Worth seeing

  • Jewish cemetery (16th century), Korotka

  • Convent of the Holy Trinity (17th century), Kyjivska 56

  • Orthodox Church of St. George the Conqueror (19th century), Kyjivska 13а

  • Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas (1834), B. Khmelnytskoho 4

  • Monastery of the Resurrection (Voskresyensky), Staromonastyrska 50

  • Roman Catholic Church of St. Anthony of Padua (1706), Kostelnyj 6

  • Orthodox Church of the Resurrection, J. Konovalcia 4

  • Ruins of the castle of the Korecki Dukes, B. Khmelnytskoho 16a

  • Small Czartoryski Palace, "Hostynnyj Dim", Kyjivska 75

  • District Historical Museum, Kyjivska 45

  • Catholic cemetery, J. Konovalcia

  • City park, Kyjivska 45

  • Orthodox Church of St. Cosma and Damian (1897), near Korets

  • Orthodox Church of St. Paraskevi, near Korets

  • Orthodox Church of St. Elias, near Korets

  • Site of mass execution of Jews in the village of Shytnia (near Korets, at the entrance to the city from the Novohrad-Volynskyi)

In the vicinity

Velyki Mezhyrichi (21 km): Jewish cemetery (17th century); Church of St. Anthony (1702); Piarist college (18th century); estate of the Stecki family (end of the 18th century); wooden Orthodox Church of St. Peter and Paul (1848)

Hannopil(37 km): Jewish cemetery (18th century) with the ohel of Dov Ber of Mezhyrichi; the Jabłonowski Palace (18th century)

Novohrad-Volynskyi (39 km): synagogue (a memorial plaque to Mordechai Zev Feierber); remains of the fortress (16th century); Museum Of Lesya Ukrainka; Museum of the Kosachov Family