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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Kremenets - guidebook

Ukr. Крем'янець, Yid. קרעמעניץ

Kremenets - guidebook

Under the mountain

Located between beautiful hills, Kremenets has long been a convenient place for people to settle. The Castle Hill (also called "Mount Bona" in honor of Queen Bona Sforza) was perfect for defensive purposes, so it is not surprising that, according to some sources, the first fortifications were built in pre-Christian times.

Kremenets is one of the oldest cities of Ukraine. According to archaeological data, it has been continuously inhabited since the end of the 10th century, but the oldest written mention of the settlement is connected with the battle of the Volhynian Prince Daniel of Galicia with the army of King Andrew II of Hungary and dates back to the spring of 1227. In 1240, the Kremenets castle withstood the Tartars led by Batu Khan. In 1366, the city was occupied by the troops of King Casimir III the Great. After a short period of the Hungarian rule, Kremenets was governed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1438, the Grand Duke of Lithuania Swidrygiello granted the town the Magdeburg rights. The privilege concerned: "each Ruthenian, as well as Lach, and German, and Wallachian, and Armenian, and Jew, and Tatar". Swidrygiello knew Kremenets well, although not at its best: the future ruler had spent nine years as a prisoner in the local castle.

The Jews of Krzemieniets

The presence of the Jews in the city dates back to the 15th century, with a short break in 1495, when the Grand Duke of Lithuania Alexander Jagiello decided to expel all Jews from Lithuania (and therefore also from Kremenets). However, in 1503, he allowed them to return. According to documents, they were given their former property back, including cemeteries and synagogues.

The Jewish community of the city was so influential that at the turn of the 16th and the 17th century, the Jews from Kremenets, along with the Jews of Ostroh, represented all the Jews from Volhynia at the Council of Four Lands in Lublin. In the second half of the 16th century, there were over 50 Jewish houses and a separate street: Zhydovska (currently Shevchenky Street), a synagogue, a qahal house and a hospital (a shelter). A prominent Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe represented Kremenets at the Council of Four Lands. Rabbi Jaffe served later as rabbi in Lublin, Poznan and Prague.

In the first half of the 17th century, Kremenets remained one of the largest cities in the Volhynia Voivodeship. In 1629, there were about 1,224 houses and a population second only to Ostroh (1,655 houses); it had twice as many residents as the Voivodeship center of Lutsk (546 houses).

The following centuries were difficult for the local Jews. The city suffered during the Khmelnytsky Uprising (even the Kremenets castle was occupied and destroyed), in the neighboring Pochayiv, large volumes of anti-Semitic literature were published, аnd in the city itself there were many lawsuits related to the accusations of the Jews of ritual murders and using the blood of Christians to produce matzo.

Among people born in Kremenets, we find an outstanding representative of the Jewish Enlightenment Isaac Baer Levinsohn, a brilliant Polish poet Juliusz Słowacki, an Orthodox saint Alexander Hotovitzky, a well-known Ukrainian composer Mykhaylo Verikivsky, and an American Jewish violinist Isaac Stern. For a long time, a botanist of Austrian origin Willibald Besser worked in the city.


By the border

In 1793, Kremenets became a part of the borderland under the Russian rule, which initially did not intervene in matters relating to the Jews on the annexed lands. But the appearance of the border cut through the traditional trade routes and in this situation many Jews took up smuggling. Since 1812, regular orders and provisions began to appear aimed at limiting the number of the Jews in the borderland (usually, a stretch of land just 50 versts wide). These orders were never fully observed. At the end of the 19th century, the Jews constituted 37% of the total population of Kremenets, which was the lowest rate among all cities in the Volhynia province. The Jews of Kremenets lived in the city center and in two suburbs: dubenskye and visnioveckye. The main street of the city was called Zhydovska [the Jewish street] (until the 19th century, when it was changed to Sheroka Street). At that time the city profited from trade with nearby Austria. The Jewish merchants were involved in the sale of grain and tobacco.

Since 1805, Kremenets was called the "Athens of Volhynia". Tadeusz Czacki opened a Volhynian Middle School here, which was converted into a Volhynian High School in 1819. For a quarter of a century, the school remained the most important center of education and science in the Right-bank Ukraine; it contributed to a revival of the social and cultural life as well as noticeably changed the character of the city. In 1817, a Warsaw editor of Jewish origin, Nathan Gluksberg, opened a bookstore here, and two years later – a printing house. For over ten years, 61 books were printed here: high school syllabi, textbooks for the Vilnius school district, scientific papers and literary works. As a result of repressions after the November Uprising, the high school was closed and its book collection was transported to Kiev, where it became the basis of the library and the University of Kiev. Also some faculty members moved there.

From the neighboring Brody (which was then on the territory of Austria) to Kremenets came not only smuggled goods but also ideas. Brody were a strong center of both the Haskalah and Hasidism. At the beginning of the 19th century, Kremenets had its leader of the Hasidic community, Mordechai, son of the Magid from Zolochiv Echel Michel. In the 18th century, Kremenets became one of the most important centers of the Haskalah in Volhynia.

Isaac Ber Levinson (1788–1860) was born in Kremenets: rabbi, writer, comedian, also known as the "spiritual leader of the Maskilim". Although his father-in-law, Nachum Tversky, was a tzaddik in Chernobyl and one of the greatest Hasidic leaders in Volhynia, Levinson moved away from orthodoxy. He tried to instill the ideas of the Haskalah in Volhynia, which he managed with great difficulty; he was considered one of the founding fathers of the Jewish Enlightenment in Russia. Due to unfavorable atmosphere in Kremenets, Levinson moved to the nearby Brody. After returning in the early 1820s, he lived in a modest cottage on the outskirts of Kremenets, where he wrote his most outstanding works. Here, he was visited by his contemporary intellectuals (even a minister in the governments of the Russian Empire, Count Dmitry Tolstoy). In his works, Levinson tried to convince Jews of the need for secular learning and new forms of employment (especially agriculture), аnd to show Christians how unfounded the widespread anti-Jewish myths are. His texts were often banned by the tsarist censorship, but after the author's death they were reissued and translated into many languages. Levinson died in Kremenets in 1860 and was buried there.

An-Ski in Kremenets

The ethnographic expedition of S. An-ski (Salomon Rapoport, 1863–1920) came to Kremenets during the first two seasons of the expedition (1912 and 1913). We can learn a lot about the course of the visit of July 1912, thanks to its description in the Memorial Book of Kremenets.

 The author of the account, Chanoch Gilernt, mentions that An-ski came to Kremenets with Zusman Kiselhof (folklore researcher and musicologist) and Solomon Judowin (painter and photographer). On Friday, the guests came to the hotel of Moshe Melamed, who was surprised to host visitors from St. Petersburg speaking Yiddish: "Some strange Jews came and registered, claiming that they were from St. Petersburg". An-ski and his companions were very interested in the life of the Jews of Kremenets and observed the town's life with curiousity.

 While in Kremenets, the team under the leadership of An-ski was able to record unique Hasidic nigunim (folk songs), write down a lot of local stories and acquire two copper lanterns from the synagogue for the museum in St. Petersburg.

The synagogues

The Memorial Book of Kremenets lists 18 synagogues and prayer houses located in the city. The main synagogue was located on Zhydovska Street (currently Shevchenky Street). According to the Act of the Wallach Reform of 1563, at the end of Zhydovska Street was a square of "Dr Smuil" (1.5 bars); on a parallel Srednia Street, there were two school squares (2 and 1.25 bars) and the squares: of "Dr Jew" (4.5 bars), of a Jewish hospital (2 bars) and of "Jozek shkolnik" (1.25 bars). Probably on one of these plots, there was a synagogue. At the end of the 18th century, a new brick synagogue was built. It was designed on a rectangular plan; it had a nine-column prayer hall and a gabled roof. On the eastern wall, there was a cartouche with the Star of David and a Torah crown, supported by two lions. In the courtyard, there was a smaller Magid Synagogue, named in the honor of Yakov Ben Zvi Israel ha-Levi, a Magid acting Kremenets in the second half of the 18th century, author of volumes of commentaries Shevet Me Israel (Heb. The Tribes of Israel) and Agudat Ezov (Heb. A Bundle of Hyssop) published in Zhovkva (1772, 1782).

On Zhydovska Street, there were also a qahal house and two Beth Midrashes: the old and the new called "the Cossack" (the second largest synagogue in the city). On Kraviecka Street, there was a synagogue of tailors (Yid. shnajder shul); on Jatkova Street, there was a synagogue of butchers (Yid. kacavim shul). There were also several Hasidic synagogues and places of prayer in private homes. There were also synagogues in the suburbs: Vysnyovieckye and Dubyenskye.

Only one synagogue has survived to modern times, located at the end of Dubyenska Street. Completely rebuilt after the war, today it serves as a bus station.

The time of changes

At the beginning of the 20th century, the young generation of the Jews of Kremenets could develop their skills in traditional educational institutions (cheders, Talmud-Torahs and a small yeshiva founded in 1910). Soon, they could also attent secular educational institutions: in 1907, a "progressive cheder" for children of both sexes was opened, with Hebrew as language of instruction. A year later, a commercial vocational school with Russian as language of instruction was established: according to the statute, 40% of students could be Jews and 60% could be Christians. To achieve the right proportions among the students, a Jewish family who wanted to educate their child, had to find a Christian child and cover the cost of his education (another requirement was the purchase of school supplies).

During World War I, the front line ran near the city, but thanks to the surrounding mountains Kremenets was not destroyed. The Jews of Kremenets also avoided pogroms, which were widespread during the war (although the tensions between Jews and Christians were perceptible). In the period 1917–1920, Kremenets passed 7 times from hand to hand between the fighting sides.

Since the declaration of independence of Ukraine by the Central Council on 22 January 1918 until 2 June 1919, when the Bolshevik forces entered the city, Kremenets was subordinated to the Ukrainian authorities, which, however, changed its image and political composition three times within less than 1.5 years of its existence.

During the elections for the City Council, which took place in the autumn of 1917, the Jews gained over half of the seats. After the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, the "Bund" fraction called for closer cooperation with the Ukrainian Central Council. In April of the following year, it fought for the introduction of the 8-hour working day. In 1919, a Jew Azril Kremenecky temporarily assumed the position of the chairman of the City Council.

After the war, the town became a part of Poland. According to the 1921 census, the Jewish community had 6,397 people and constituted almost 40% of the population of Kremenets. In the later period, due to changes in the administrative boundaries of the city, the percentage of the Jewish population fell slightly. The Jewish residents had their society for the elders, a Jewish Sports Club "Hasmonea", and a Jewish Workers' Sports Club "Lauds". The Zionist organization and Jewish trade unions had their libraries. There were magazines issued in Yiddish. In the journal "Kremenicer Shtyme" (Yid. The Voice of Kremenets) a report on the situation of the Jewish community in the city was published in 1931.

Since the 1920s, the Jews of Kremenets began to leave in an organized way for Palestine. Preliminary preparations took place in the village of Verba (now in the Rivne oblast), where a kibbutz was set up – a settlement striving to live according to new rules. Residents of the kibbutz learned Hebrew and professions which could be useful in Israel, but also, according to the accounts of witnesses, they sang a lot.

World War II and the Holocaust

In September 1939, Kremenets was occupied by the Red Army. The city was flooded with Jewish refugees from the parts of Poland occupied by the Germans. In the spring of 1940, the authorities obliged the refugees to register and inform about the wish to stay in the Soviet Union or to return to Poland. Those who decided to return were unexpectedly visited at night by the NKVD. Whole families were put on trains and deported to Siberia. All Jewish parties, movements and even theatre performances were banned. Only the cinema remained open, but it screened Soviet films exclusively. In the local prison, the NKVD murdered 100–150 inmates, both Ukrainians and Poles. The Germans entered the town on 2 July 1941. At that time, over 8.5 thousand Jews lived in Kremenets. The next day, there was a pogrom of Jews, organized with the participation of the local Ukrainian nationalists, during which at least 130 Jews were killed. On 23 July 1941, The Germans carried out a mass execution of the Jewish intelligentsia, and on 28 July thet arrested the Polish and the Ukrainian intelligentsia. On 1 March 1942, a ghetto was established in the city center. Many people died there of starvation. On 10 August 1942, The Germans began the liquidation of the ghetto; on that day, they shot approx. 5 thousand people. According to various souces, a group of armed Jewish youth resisted the Nazis. The ghetto was set on fire, and people led out and shot near the tobacco factory. To this day, no one knows who set fire to the ghetto – the Jews in self-defense or the Germans to force the Jews to leave the shelters. The fire destroyed the historic part of the city. There were only 14 survivors from the ghetto.


Today, there is no Jewish community in Kremenets. The local Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust or emigrate from the city in advance, as well as their descendants, have formed active Landsmanshafts in Israel, the USA and Argentina. The results of their efforts are two Memorial Books issued in 1954 in Israel and in 1965 in Argentina, but also a magazine issued in Israel "Kol Kremenic" (Heb. The Voice of Kremenets).

A violinist Isaac Stern (1920–2001) left Kremenets for the USA with his family as a one-year-old child; his violin can be heard in a Hollywood movie from 1971, Fiddler on the Roof, which won many film awards, including 3 Oscars and 2 Golden Globes.

A year before the war, Mark Kac (1914–1984) immigrated to the United States. At the time, he was already Doctor of Mathematical Sciences and one of the representatives of the so-called Lviv School of Mathematics. Later, he became an outstanding expert in the field of spectral theory and winner of prestigious awards in the field of mathematics.


In place of collective graves located in a former tobacco factory, where several thousand Jews had been murdered, two monuments were erected. The first was put up in Soviet times; the second in 1992, at the initiative of the Israeli compatriots and former inhabitants of Kremenets. In the area, there is also the collective grave of the Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish intelligentsia murdered by the Nazis at the so'called Hill of Crosses.

The contemporary Kremenets is a district city with approx. 20 thousand inhabitants, an important center of local tourism, the seat of the National Historical and Architectural Reserve. Beautiful nature, picturesque landscapes shrouded in legends of the past, numerous monuments, deep traditions of spiritual life, interesting surroundings – they make it one of the greatest tourist destination of Ukraine and attract thousands of visitors.



On the surrounding hills, there are beautifully arranged cemeteries of different faiths and nationalities. The oldest preserved tombstones can be found at the Jewish cemetery located on the slope of the Czercz Mountain. Among approx. 7 thousand preserved matzevahs, there are around 50 gravestones from the 16th century. On the other slope of the same mountain, we can find the Cossack Piatnitski Cemetery, where Maksym Kryvonis' Cossacks who died during the siege of the city in 1648 were buried. Established at the end of the 18th century, the Tunicki cemetery was used to bury Christians of the Orthodox and Uniate rites, as well as the Roman Catholics.

Worth seeing

  • Jewish cemetery (16th century), Dzerelna

  • Synagogue (19th century), Dubenska


  • Castle ruins (13th century), on the Queen Bona Mountain


  • Cossack Cemetery (17th century), Kozatska


  • Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas; former Franciscan monastery (17th century), Shevchenky 57


  • Buildings of the former college (18th century), Lyceina 1


  • Monastery of the Epiphany (18th century), Dubenska


  • Twin houses (18th century), Medova 1


  • Church of St. Stanislaus (19th century), Shevchenky 30


  • Museum of Local History, Shevchenky 90, tel. +38 035 462 27 38


  • Museum of Juliusz Słowacki in the family house of the poet, Slovackoho 16

In the vicinity

Pochayiv (23 km): Orthodox Monastery Lavra Pochayiv (16th century)

Vyshnivets (25 km): Jewish cemetery (16th century; a few hundred matzevahs: the oldest from 1583); the Wiśniowiecki family Palace and park (1720); Church of the Assumption (1530)

Shumsk (38 km): Jewish cemetery (18th century, over 100 matzevahs), Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration (17th century); Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1852)

Jampol (46 km): Jewish cemetery (16th century); ohel of the Magid from Zlochov, a Hasidic pilgrimage centre

Zbarazh (52 km): Jewish cemetery (18th century); former synagogue (18th century), Zbarazh castle (1626); Bernardine monastery and church (17th century); Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration (17th century); Orthodox Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God (18th century)

National Park "Kremenetske Mountains"


Author: Volodymyr Dyshlevuk