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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Kovel - guidebook

Ukr. Ковель, Yid. קאָוולע

Kovel - guidebook

The smiths of Kovel

Kovel is located in the center of the Volhynia Oblast, on both banks of the Turia River, flowing from the south to the north, and being a tributary of the Pripyat River. The first written mention of Kovel dates from 1370. Every year, the residents celebrate the anniversary of the city on the 6th of July. On 24 December 1518, in Brest, King Sigismund І gave the Prince Bazyl Sanguszko the privilege of locating a town according to the German law.

The name of the city probably derives from smithery [kowalstwo] popular in this area in the 10th–13th century. For centuries, a story was told by the local population about a blacksmith who forged the sword of Prince Daniel of Galicia.

The Jews of Kovel

Jews began to settle in Kovel after the town had been granted the city rights in 1518. In 1536, Queen Bona confirmed privileges of the city and committed the Jews of Kovel to participate in the repairs of walls and bridges. She also issued a special act which stated that Jews should settle on designated streets and not among the Orthodox Catholics. In 1547, Bona imposed a  tax on Jewish houses (except for the rabbi's house) and gave the Jews equal rights and obligations as those of the Christian population.

During the Khmelnytskyi Uprising, Jews were the target of persecutions and pogroms. In 1650, the Jewish community of Kovel was reborn on the basis of earlier privileges, now confirmed by John II Casimir Vasa.

The number of the Jews in Kovel began to increase in the 18th century. In 1765, there were 827 Jews in the city, who payed capitation tax (applied to each person). At the end of the 19th century, the Jews in Kovel outnumbered the residing Ukrainians. In 1893, the total number of inhabitants of Kovel was 15,116 people, including 5,498 Orthodox Catholics, 3,088 Roman Catholics, 5,810 Jews, 612 Protestants, and 108 people of other faiths.

In 1921, there were 32.5 thousand registered residents, including 15 thousand Jews.


In 1660, a synagogue was built. Among the rabbis of Kovel and the chairmen of the yeshiva in the 16th–17th century, the most famous were Simon and Yitzhak ben Natan Shapiro as well as Yehuda (Judl, Idl), a descendant of Yehuda Liva ben Becalel (the Maharal of Prague). In 1744, the synagogue was destroyed in a fire (its cause is unknown).

After a notable Rabbi Mordechai of Neshchiz (now the village of Toikut in the Kovel Raion) (1752–1800) had settled in Kovel, the Hasidic Judaism became popular.

In 1857, a fire destroyed almost the entire city, including the synagogue. However, the city was rebuilt.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were several synagogues, including the Great Synagogue, built in 1886–1907. This unique monument, though rebuilt, retained its dignity despite the wars and revolutions. The former synagogue in Kovel is located at the intersection of Nezaleznosti and Volodymyrska Streets and is one of the buildings of the local sewing factory WKF Kovel. Before 2009, in front of the entrance to the synagogue, there was the Star of David; however, it has been blurred.

Theatre in Kovel

World War II and the Holocaust

In 1939, among the 36 thousand residents of Kovel, there were 17 thousand Jews. After joining the Soviet Union in September 1939, the assets of wealthy residents of Kovel were nationalized. For example, the Grinblat family was stripped of its 2 shops, and Soviet officers were housed in 2 rooms of their house. The same fate befell the family of Fajga Tenenbojm, the owner of the furniture factory.

On 28 June 1941, the city was occupied by the German army. Only a small part of the Jewish population managed to evacuate in time. In the early days of the occupation, approx. 1 thousand Jews were killed. On 21May 1942, two ghettos were set up in Kovel. 8 thousand people able to work and their families were detained in the first ghetto; in the second, located in the suburbs, there were 6 thousand people. On 2–4 July 1942, the Jews from the second ghetto were taken out of town and killed. On 19 August 1942, the Nazis liquidated the first ghetto.

When the Soviets returned to Kovel, only 40 Jews came back to the city.


In the second half of the 20th century, Kovel had two Jewish cemeteries, none of which has been preserved until today. One of the cemeteries (on Volodymyrska Street) was closed in 1970. In its place, the Taras Shevchenko Cultural Center was built. Matzevahs were transported to a military unit, closed soon after. The ruined cemetery had a very clear layout. The second Jewish cemetery was located at Varshavska Street.

The memorial site

It is located in a forest, on the right side of the road leading to Kamin-Kashyrskyi, a few kilometers from the border of the city, near the village of Bakh. The monument is dedicated to the Jews shot in 1942. In 1944, a pillar of memory was erected, with the engraven number: 18 thousand, i.e. the number of murdered Jews from the Kovel ghetto. In the 1960s, a high mound was formed. In 1990, a granite monument was erected, and in 1996, a new monument was unveiled.

Worth seeing

  • Former synagogue from the half of the 19th century, Nezaleznosti 125

  • Cathedral of the Resurrection (1877), the intersection of Nezaleznosti and Volodymyrska

  • Fridrikson Pharmacy (19th century), Nezaleznosti 89

  • Roman Catholic Church of St. Anna (1771), Verbyckoho 1 а

  • Historical Museum, O. Pchilky 11

In the vicinity

Kolodiazhne (9 km): Museum of Lesya Ukrainka

Turiisk (20 km): Jewish cemetery, (17th century) with a preserved funeral home of and a dozen of matzevahs

Hishyn (15 km): wooden Orthodox Church of Demetrius of Thessalonica (1567), the oldest wooden Orthodox church in Volhynia

Lutsk (73 km): the capital of the region; qahal house (early 20th century) used today by the local Jewish community; old fortified synagogue (1626-1629); Lubart Castle (13th century) with the Museum of Print; Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God (13th century); Cathedral of St. Apostles Peter and Paul (1639); Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (1755); numerous monuments, museums, galleries

Trochenbrod (110 km): a monument in the place of a town once inhabited by Jews and wiped out during World War II


Author: Serhiy Hladyshuk