Kovel was the largest railway hub in the East and a direct connection Warsaw-Kovel was faster than today. The ride was less than 5 hours [...], and the trains [...] had three classes. The first was the most expensive. And there was even a saying that the Jews travelled in the third class, because there was no fourth one.
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.
Kovel was a Jewish town with suburbs. There lived Ukrainians and Poles, forming a separate town. The River Turia flew through the city. Kovel was divided into three quarters. The Old Town on one side of the river, called Zand: like sand, because sandy was the gound it was built on. In the new part, on the other side of Turia, that was Kovel, where the Poles lived, employed mainly in the railway company [...]. It was a separate town. There were less Ukrainians than Poles. Their quarter began just behind the main street. Those three worlds lived side by side. […]
That small poviat town was more than a shtetl. It was a bastion of the Jewish and Hebrew-Jewish intelligentsia. The elders still spoke Russian while the new generation have already adopted the Polish language.
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.
In Zand, there was a large, beautiful synagogue in a slightly fortified style. On holidays, the most prominent Jewish chanters performed there: Koussevitzky and Rozenblatt. There was also a choir, attended by several colleagues from my class. And there was one more synagogue in the city: private, built by the local rich man, Eppelbaum. It was said that he lived in a sinful relationship with a Ukrainian woman, and I remember that the townspeople have always scorned him for that. They said that he built the synagoguehe to wash away this sin in the next life. We went there to pray during great holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot [...]. In my memory, that synagogue is a tragic place.
Theatre in Kovel
In Kovel, as on all lands under the Russian imperial rule until World War I, the Jewish theatre (in Yiddish) was strictly prohibited. Companies from Warsaw, Vilnius and other places rarely performed there. Those that did struggled to outwit the authorities and bypass the law. They advertised their performances as plays in the German language, even though they were actually written in a hybrid vernacular called "Deutchmerish" or "Iwri-Teutsch". Elements of the German language were stronger than the pure Jewish (Yiddish). Performances usually attracted wealthier residents and the Jewish-Russian intelligentsia. Simple viewers were not too interested in this kind of art events.
The development of the folk theatre in the Jewish language began at the beginning of World War I, during the German occupation, when Jews were given some freedom in the field of socio-cultural activities in their own language. One of the incentives that contributed to the creation of the "Jewish theatre company" was the difficult economic situation prevailing in the city. At the beginning of the 20th century, Kovel was filled with Jewish refugees from the adjacent villages, running away from war and revolution. The Jewish residents were helping their brothers and sisters by organizing a network of social assistance, e.g. they distributed food on the streets. Because fundraising was difficult, the Jewish intelligence had an idea to create a theatre company, combining business with pleasure: high artistic level and a chance to donate the revenue from performances to those in need.
There were two enthusiasts of theatre: an apt theatre director Moshe Pugacz and a generous patron and president of the theatre company Moshe Kagan. Both were capable lovers of Melpomene and had both gained stage experience in the country where the Jewish theatre life flourished: the United States. Their main objective was bringing theatre to the masses and fostering good taste in this field of art among the viewers. The repertoire included a selection of the best European dramas and some excellent pieces by [Jacob] Gordin and [Abraham] Goldfaden. Pugacz and Kagan prepared performances very conscientiously and responsibly, even three or four times a year. They soon gathered around them a group of talented young actors.
Under the influence of the theatre company, the perception of the Jewish theatre changed. Once regarded as silly Purim plays, and actors as "comedians" leading people astray, the scornful attitude to "Tijater" disappeared. We might also say that the war between generations ended. The theatre company, in the first years of its existence, created links and brought together the audience of Kovel and theatre companies from other cities like Vilnius or Warsaw started coming to Kovel to perform in the local venue. Here, they received help, support and good advice on how to gain recognition of the local audience.
The theatre company connected all the social groups of the city. Also the Jewish-Russian intelligentsia, brought up on Russian literature and treating Yiddish with contempt, changed their approach to the Jewish literature and learned to appreciate it. Also "folk artists" were active in running the theatre. The theatre team also attracted the Zionist and national circles, particularly invested in the Hebrew culture. Even the religious Jews, opposed to the bourgeois idea of theatre, made an exception with the hope of cultural development and began to come to the performances.
The "Jewish theatre company" in Kovel became a non-partisan, neutral ground, attracting to its educational and cultural facility the youth and amateurs of folk art and drama, as well as all those interested in raising the cultural level of the population. Each of these groups also contributed something to the theatre. That is why it became so popular and was supported by the entire Jewish community of Kovel.
However, soon the deterioration of economic conditions became acute (the consequence of anti-Semitic state policy), which affected the "momentum" of both the theatre team and the spectators. Some got married; others migrated, and were replaced by new people, less interested in the artistic value of their activities.
Director Pugacz was replaced by Torn, a very talented comedian. Contrary to the previous team, whose ambition was to ensure a high artistic level and educational quality, Torn tried to adapt the level of the performances to the level of the audience. Many of the team members who were active from the beginning of the theater's activity and had a strong sense of mission decided to leave the group and the team got small. On the other hand, Torn was able to reach out to young workers. He also began to expand the theatre's activity to the surrounding towns. Thanks to that, and thanks to the involvment of Chalat, the head of the organising team, the theatre company survived until the last days before the Holocaust.
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.
Former synagogue from the half of the 19th century, Nezaleznosti 125
Cathedral of the Resurrection (1877), the intersection of Nezaleznosti and Volodymyrska
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