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


NN Theatre

Ostroh - guidebook

Ukr. Острог, Yid. אָסטרע

Ostroh - guidebook

The words of the Torah

The city's name was pronounced in Yiddish as "Ostre", which can be understood in Hebrew as "Os Torah" (Heb. a letter of the Torah). With such a name, the city had strong predisposition to become an important place for the Jewish culture.

W can find information about this old town in an entry from 1100 of the Old Ruthenian Primary Chronicle. In the 14th century, the town became the seat of the Princes of the Ostrogski family, who built a fortified castle here. In the second half of the 16th century, the town was called "the Athens of Volhynia" thanks to the famous Ostrogski Academy, a university founded in 1576, by Prince Konstanty Wasyl Ostrogski – a leading centre of the Orthodox thought in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ostroh is also known thanks to the famous Ostrog Bible, printed by Ivan Fyodorov in 1581, which became the first comprehensive edition of the canonical text of the Scripture in the Old Church Slavonic language.

The Jews of Ostroh

Medieval sources did not contain detailed data on the ethnic composition of the population of the city. However, in the act of division of property issued in 1603, by Prince Konstanty Wasyl Ostrogski between his sons Janusz and Alexander, it is noted that both Christians (Orthodox and Catholics), as well as Jews and Tatars lived in the city. Jews were the second religious group in Ostroh in terms of size. Since 1603, the city was divided into two parts with separate owners (the Old Town and the New Town); there were two separate but cooperating Jewish communities.

Isolated mentions of the Jews living in Ostroh appear as early as in the 13th century, however, the dynamic development of the Jewish community in the city began only in the second half of the 16th century. The Jewish quarter in Ostroh developed at that time south-east of the market square. In 1603, there were 73 registered Jews living in Ostroh; in 1629: already 229. At the end of the 1640s, the Jewish community of Ostroh already amounted to approx. 1.5 thousand. The Ostroh Qahal, being the most important and the most numerous Jewish community in Volhynia, represented the Jews of Volhynia at the Council of Four Lands, next to Lutsk, Volodymir-Volynskyi, Kovel and Dubno.

Maharshal and other great rabbis

Ostroh, being the centre of an important Jewish community, attracted excellent learned rabbis. Since the beginning of the 16th century, there was a yeshiva. The first known Rabbi of Ostrog and a superior of the yeshiva was Kalman ben Yaakov Haberkasten and his successor was Solomon ben Ezekiel Luria (1510–1573), known as Maharshal. Another teacher in the yeshiva was the author of the book Shla (Shene luchot ha-Berit, Heb. Two Tablets of the Covenant) and Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz (1565–1630). Another prominent activist was Samuel Eidels, known as Maharsha (from: More(j)nu ha-rav rabi Shmuel Eidels – Heb. Our teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels). The synagogue in Ostroh was named after him the Maharasha Synagogue.

Shmuel Eliezer Eidels (1555–1631) was one of the most prominent rabbis, experts in the Jewish law and commentators of the Talmud of his time. He was married to the daughter of the Rabbi of Poznan, Moshe Halperin. In 1585–1605, his mother-in-law, Ejdla, funded a yeshiva in Poznan, directed by her son-in-law. Under the pseudonym Edels, created from the name of his mother-in-law, he became famous among the Jews. In 1605 he became Rabbi of Chełm, then Lublin, and since 1624 until the end of his life, he was Rabbi of Ostroh. He opposed to the then universal practice of studying primarily the 16th-century code of the Halakhic law Shulchan Aruch (Heb. Set Table) and insisted on the need to study older sources. He was known for his kindness and unselfish willingness to help others. On the door frame of his house (which burned down in 1889), a verse from the Book of Job was carved: "no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler" (Job 32): it was the motto which the Rabbi observed throughout his life.

In 1600–1602, Edels published his commentaries to most treaties of the Talmud: Chiddushei Halachot (Heb. Novellae in Jewish Law) and Chiddushei Aggadot (Heb. Novellae in Aggadah), in which he explained the Talmudic text: historical tales and legends, parables, aphorisms and ethical maxims of the wise men. In classic editions of the Talmud, they are attached in the appendices next to the commentaries by Solomon Luria (Maharhzal) and Maharam of Lublin.

Rabbi Shmuel Edels died in Ostroh on 30 November 1631, and was buried at the local Jewish cemetery.

Another eminent scholar connected to Ostroh was David HaLevi Segal (1586–1667): Rabbi and expert on Jewish law. He was known by the acronym טַ"ז, TAZ, created from the first letters of the title of his work Turei Zahaw (Heb. Rows of Gold). In 1641, he settled in Ostroh, where he was rabbi and superior of the yeshiva. Turei Zahaw (published in settlements between 1646 and 1766) is a commentary to each part of the treaty Shulchan Aruch. In fear of pogroms carried out by the Cossacks of Khmelnitsky, HaLevi moved to Moravia. In 1653, he returned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and in 1654, was became the Chief Rabbi of the Golden Rose Synagogue in Lviv. David HaLevi took part in the Council of Four Lands and his signature appears on many parliamentary resolutions.


Crafts and trade

Ostroh laid on the trade route used to move herds of steers West and one of the main activities of the local Jews was cattle trade; however, there were also merchants and craftsmen. In the first half of the 16th century, Ostroh received the privilege of weekly two-day fairs (on Fridays and Sundays) and of annual three-day fairs which took place on St. Onofrio's Day, on the day of Our Lady of Care and on the day of St. Nicolas. At the end of the 17th century, the most popular crafts in Ostroh were alkohol-distillation, brewing and malting. Their importance is evidenced by the large number of vineyards, breweries and malt houses. In 1687, Jews were sole owners of these properties. In the Old and the New Town, they had a total of 144 process tanks. At that time, there were 17 vineyards, 5 breweries and 5 malt houses in the part of the city owned by the Ostrog family. Inventories made in the years 1708 and 1724, testify to the presence of Jews among tailors, barbers-surgeons, smiths, furriers, butchers, bakers, tin-plate and copper artisans, glaziers, bookbinders, doctors, and pharmacists.

Cossacks and Tatars

Nathan Hannover was born in Ostroh (c. 1610–1683): author of the chronicle Yeven Mezulah (Heb. Deep Mire). We read in the chronicle, that in time of the Khmelnytsky Uprising, approx. 600 Jews were killed within a few days in August 1648. No less tragic was another invasion of the Cossacks in 1649, whose victims were approx. 300 people. The bodies were dumped into a well near the synagogue and the temple was turned into a stable. Nathan Hannover, whose father was among the victims of the massacre, wrote that only 3 Jews and 5 Jewish houses were left in Ostroh. However, the community quickly recovered. In the act of 1654, it is stated that out of the 93 houses and palaces in the Old Town of Ostroh, 44 belonged to Jews. In 1666, the Jews of Ostroh again sent their delegate to the Council of Four Land.

Massacres during the Khmelnytsky Uprising were a great tragedy for the Jews living in Ukraine, however, the number of victims reported by the 17th-century chroniclers tends to be exaggerated and we should treat it with caution. According to the research of Prof. Shaul Stampfer from the Hebrew University, in the 1640s, the Ukrainian lands of the Commonwealth were inhabited by approx. 40 thousand Jews. During the Khmelnytsky Uprising approx. half of them were killed.


In 1687, there were at least 135 Jewish houses with an overall number of 390 houses in the whole city. The town was also destroyed during the great northern war at the beginning of the 18th century. According to the inventory acts from a part of Ostroh issued in 1708, there were 58 Christian and 40 Jewish houses, 9 free houses and 14 mansions. 188 houses were vacant.

It was said among the Jewish community of Ostroh that in 1734, during the Cossack-peasant uprising, remembered as the "Haidamaki", the local Tatars defended the Jews. For a long time, this event was mentioned every year in the synagogue in Ostroh.

The synagogue

Reportedly, the foundation stone for its construction was laid by Rabbi Mahasha himself. The similarity of the building to the Great Suburb Synagogue in Lviv, built also during this period, suggests that it was designed by the same architect, Giacomo Medleni from Lviv. The main hall is a rectangle with thick walls of stone and brick. Its height from the ground to the highest point of the vaults reaches 11 m. In each of the four walls there are 3 large windows, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel. The vault is supported by 4 octagonal pillars with Doric chapiters. Vestibuls and woman's galleries were once adjacent to the main hall from the west and south. The rich interior of the synagogue has not been preserved to our times. Only photos and descriptions of witnesses allow us to recreate the original appearance of the building. The synagogue was the object of further raids and fires; however, it survived as an active cult building until World War II. In the Soviet period, it was used as a warehouse of chemicals. Currently, it is empty and completely destroyed. A group of residents of Ostroh makes attempts to save this unique monument.

Among the traditional interior elements of the synagogue, there was also one original item: a cannonball hung from the ceiling on a long line. According to a legend, in 1792, the Russian troops decided to seize the Ostroh synagogue by surprise, thinking that Poles hide there. However, the cannonballs falling into the synagogue fortunately did not explode and did not harm the Jews gathered inside. After a 3-day siege, a Jew by the name of Eliezer went out of the synagogue, crossed the river and went to the camp of the invaders. He convinced them that there were no more Polish troops and showed them a ford they could use to cross the river. The Russians ceased the siege and left Ostroh. In honor of this extraordinary event, the Jews decided to suspend one of the cannonballs from the ceiling. Several cannonballs from that time are now in the Museum of Local History in Ostroh. To commemorate these events, the 7th day of tamuz (June–July) was celebrated in Ostroh as gleefully as Purim, аnd on each anniversary, a specially written text called Megilat Esther Tamuz (Heb. The Book of the Month of Tamuz) was read in the synagogue.

Printing houses

At the end of the 18th century, Ostroh became the most important center of Jewish printing in the Russian Empire. Between 1794 and 1832, there were 7 publishing houses. The first of them was founded around 1792, by Avraham ben Yitzhak Ajzyk of Korets. He employed: Arie Leib ben Yehuda, Mordecai ben Ya'akov, Yehuda Leib ben Noah Shac (typesetters), Jochanan ben Shlomo and Ya'akov ben Mordechai (press operators) and Yitzhak ben Joshua Hehzel of Poryck (giser, printer). Avraham ben Yitzhak Ajzyk's partner was Aaron ben Jona, who opened another Hebrew printing house in 1796. It had to compete not only with the local publishing house, but also with the printing house of Krüger in Novyi Dvir. To confuse the customers, who believed that they buy Krüger's books, he used a printing signet – a monogram resembling the one used by the printer from Novyi Dvir. Soon, in 1795 or 1798, the third printing house was established, ran by Shmuel ben Issachar Ber Segal, the owner of Hebrew printing houses in Korets, Shklov and Polonne. This last printing house was closed due to publish materials for the Polish insurgents during the November Uprising in 1831.

Researcher of memory

Menachem Mendel Bieber (1848–1923) became researcher and chronicler of the fascinating history of the Jews of Ostroh. He was a historian, writer, teacher and researcher of the Jewish heritage, who from an early age was fascinated by the history of his town and collected materials for a literary monument of the Jewish community of Ostroh. Having married in 1866, he moved to Krakow, where he obtained historical education and became a professor in a Jewish middle school. In his spare time, he worked in libraries in Krakow, Warsaw and Vilnius. Bieber is the author of historical novels Di nacht in goles (Yid. A Night in Exile, 1874) and Ven dos leben ot geblit (Yid. When Life Bloomed, 1877). At the end of 1889, he returned to Ostroh, where he learned that historical monuments and his materials together with the library had been lost in the fire. Then, decided to carefully examine inscriptions on the matzevahs. The result of this tedious work was a large number of important and interesting documents about the life of the Jews of Ostroh since the beggining of the town's history until the 20th century. He published his research in 17 scientific articles in various magazines in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw as well as in many sketches and press releases. In 1902, in Warsaw, he published his first historical monograph Di alte Ostroger yiddishe velt (Yid. History of the Jews of Ostroh) and in 1907, the second one (written in Hebrew) was published in Berdichev, Mazkeret li-gedole Ostroh (Heb. To the Memory of the Great Rabbis of Ostroh). The monograph described the life and activities of over 400 rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community of Ostroh. Apart from the research work, Bieber was a great promoter of knowledge of Ostroh and its inhabitants. He wrote over 100 articles for newspapers and magazines in many countries around the world аnd continuously taught history in the middle school in Ostroh and in the Talmud-Torah. He died in 1923 at the age of 75.

The cemetery

Menachem Mendel Bieber found eternal rest at the local cemetery, probably as old as the local Jewish community. His matzevah had the following inscription: "Born in Ostroh, our teacher and mentor, Menachem Mendel Bieber, son of Ari Leib Bieber. May he rest in peace. Researcher of history, attentive to the people. Teacher and school headmaster. He wrote two books. He is our pride and glory!" Unfortunately, his matzevah has not survived to our times.

In the book Mazkeret li-gedole Ostroh (Heb. To the Memory of the Great Rabbis of Ostroh), Menachem Mendel Bieber mentions that in the oldest part of the cemetery there were many old matzevahs but only two had legible inscriptions. He described them and dated them to 1445 and 1449. A photo of one of them has survived, however, its detailed analysis made by Prof. Andrzej Trzcinski indicates that the date was misread and the matzevah was set in 1520, which puts it among the oldest known headstones with Hebrew inscriptions in the old Commonwealth. It reads: "Here lies a good man, Mr. Menahem, son of Mr Eliezer, buried on Thursday, the 15th day of the month of Shevat, in the year 280 in short years. May his soul be weaved in a bag of the living".

Other prominent residents of Ostroh burried at the Jewish cemetery include, among others: Shlomo ben Eliezer, Joel Halperin, David Szmulewicz, Chaim Horowitz. However, the most famous person buried there is Samuel Edels (Maharsha).

Having survived all challenges of time and wars, the cemetery became a victim of the Soviet administration. After decommissioning in 1968, it was converted into a leisure park with a dance floor, an indoor shooting range and an amusement park; tombstones were used to make pavements in a military unit and in a psychiatric hospital. In the recent years, thanks to the efforts of the leader of the local Jewish community, Hryhorij Arszynov, the park has been closed and some matzevahs removed from squares and streets of Ostroh and brought back to the cemetery. Also the ohel over the grave of Rabbi Edels has been rebuilt. The tomb of Maharsha is once again a place of pilgrimage of Jews from all over the world.

Book of Desire

Ostroh was visited twice by the ethnographic expedition of An-ski. He found a manuscript Sefer Ha-Cheshek (Heb. Book of Desire). This is a book about a healer (baal Shem) called Hillel, a famous Kabbalist, who in the years 1732–1740 cast out evil spirits in the towns of Volhynia and Podolia. Sefer ha-Cheshek is a collection of advice in folk medicine, especially prayers designed to serve as exorcisms. Interestingly, in contains not only examples of successful rituals, but also those cases when the Dybbuk remained in its victim. Such a situation occurred in Ostroh, and Hillel describes it as follows:

The "Kultur-Lige" in Ostroh

The beginning of the 20th century saw the formation of new political and social organizations. One of such organizations was the "Kultur-Lige", founded in 1918, on the initiative of Jacob Tolpin: activist of "Poale Zion", who describes the organisation in the Memorial Book of Ostroh.

In the interwar period, Ostroh became a sleepy provincial town, although the location on the border with the Soviet Union meant that you could meet here both soldiers protecting the border and smugglers. The Jewish community developed an active cultural and socio-political life. There were branches of Jewish political parties, cultural organizations, a Jewish library and a Tarbut school. In 1933, a new yeshiva was opened, named "Maharsha" in honor of Samuel Edels.


The hospital

In the second half of the 19th century, 8 to 10 Jewish doctors had their own practices in Ostroh. To ensure that the poor Jews had access to medical care, an Ostroh entrepreneur Moshe Zusman bought a big house and gave it to the Jewish community in order to create a hospital. The facility was opened on 16 September 1861. The position of chief physician was held by Lew Altshuler. The hospital had 20 permanent beds and could accomodate 100 outpatient visits per day; it also had a pharmacy and a shelter with 4 beds.

It was financed from donations. Due to a severe economic situation in the 1920s, the facility was threatened with bankruptcy. The hospital staff came up with the idea of organizing charity concerts and dinner parties. The location of the charity events was the A. Bludova middle school for women. After 23 events, the financial situation of the hospital was stabilized.

With the Soviet authorities taking over the city in 1939, the Jewish hospital was closed. All equipment and property was transferred to the newly opened local hospital. The Jewish hospital operated for over 78 years and provided assistance to all inhabitants of Ostroh, regardless of nationality.

World War II and the Holocaust

In 1939, the Jewish community of Ostroh amounted to approx. 10.5 thousand people. In September of 1939, the Soviet troops entered the town and many residents (Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians) were deported to Siberia. In July 1941, Ostroh was occupied by the Germans, who arrested and shot 300 representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia on the very first day of occupation. Then, in two mass executions (On 4 August and in September 1941) they killed approx. 5.5 thousand Jews. The survivors were detained in the ghetto and most of them died during the next mass execution, which took place on 19 November 1942. Executions took place in the vicinity of the forest of the New Town. In the 1920s, a monument commemorating the victims of the Holocaust was erected there. The author of the monument is Zalman Shoychet, born in Ostroh.

Modernity and Memory

After the war, several dozen Jews who survived the Holocaus returned to Ostroh, including members of the guerrilla. Most of them emigrated, but the Jewish community is still present in the city. It now has approx. 30 people. Its leader Hryhoriy Arshinov has managed to organize the restoration of the Jewish cemetery and has been trying to save the historic building of the synagogue. The Ostroh Academy, a unique university of humanities, has launched the Centre of Jewish Studies. Ostroh abounds in monuments and tourist attractions and each year is visited by more tourists.

Worth seeing

  • Synagogue (16th–17th century), Edelsa

  • Jewish cemetery (16th century), Kozacka

  • Ostroh Academy: the oldest Ukrainian educational and scientific facility (16th century), Seminarska 2

  • Church of the Assumption (15th–19th century), Kniaziv Ostrogskich 4a

  • Orthodox Church of the Epiphany (15th century), Akademichna 5

  • Brick Tower (14th century): former residence of the Ostroh Palace, currently the Museum of Local History, Akademichna 5

  • Round Tower (16th century), Akademichna 5

  • Museum of Books and Print: in Lutsk GateTower (16th century). Collection of books of the Museum of Local History founded in 1909–1912. Among the rare exhibits of the Museum is the Ostrog Bible printed by Ivan Fedorov. The collection comprises approx. 3 thousand exhibits; half of them are manuscripts, old books in Latin and the Cyrillic from the 16th–17th century, Papanina 5

  • Tatar Gate Tower (16th century), Tatarska 65

  • Numismatic Museum, Prospect Nezaleznosti 11

  • Tenement houses from the 19th century, including: a house of Dr Wobły (Herojiv Majdanu 10); house of Weintraub (Herojiv Majdanu 4);

  • house of Scheinenberg (Prospect Nezaleznosti 45); house of Scheinfein (Herojiv Majdanu 2)

In the vicinity

Mezhireche (5 km): monastery of the Holy Trinity (13th century)

Novomalyn (12 km): castle of the Malinsky and Sosnowsky Dukes (14th–17th century)

Derman (25 km): monastery founded by the Ostrogski Princes; turned into a convent in the 20th century. Ivan Fedorov once worked in the monastery. The village is the birthplace of a famous Ukrainian novelist Ulas Samchuk.

Slavuta (27 km): active synagogue; Jewish cemetery with the grave of Tzadik Moshe Szapiro; burial place of the victims of the Holocaust; Church of St. Dorothy; crypt of the Sanguszko Princes; Sanguszko's administrative and stable buildings, commercial buildings; city hall


Author: Viktor Naumovich, Emil Majuk