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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Zhovkva - guidebook

Ukr. Жовква, Yid. זשאָלקווע

Zhovkva  - guidebook
Panorama of Zhovkva. A general bird’s eye view of the town, 1918–1933, collection of the National Digital Archives, Poland

The perfect city

Founded at the end of the 16th century, Zohvkva was a Renaissance "ideal city", named after its founder – Stanisław Żółkiewski. The first chronicle mention of a village Winniki, near which Zhovkva was founded, is dated 1368. Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski began construction of the city in 1597 and Zhovkva was granted city rights in 1603 by King Sigismund III Vasa. Obtaining city rights significantly revived the economic life of the city and the surrounding area, and encouraged development of crafts and trade. In the fisrt half of the 17th century, the town was transformed into a fortified city-fortress, surrounded by ramparts and ditches. The market in front of the castle was surrounded from the north and the east by tenement houses with arcades. The concept of a Renaissance city-residence was created by an Italian theorist Pietro di Giacomo Cataneo and based on a successful construction of a "perfect" Polish city Zamość, a few decades earlier. The outlines of the city and all its districts as well as each plot and house were prepared to the smallest detail. Such an approach was fostered by an elaborate measurement system, reflecting proportions of the human body. Famous Italian builders were invited to contribute to the construction of the city: Paolo de Ducato Clemencia (also known as Paul the Happy) and Paolo Dominici (known as Paul the Roman).

In 1620, the town became the property of the Daniłowicz family and then – as an inheritance from Zofia Teofila – of her son, King John III Sobieski. In his time, Zhovkva flourished. The King turned the city into a major centre of political life. In his residence, he hosted royal messengers of King Louis XIV of France and King Charles ІІ of Spain. It was in Zhovkva, after the victorious battle of Vienna, where the papal nuncio handed to the King the sword consecrated by the Pope. Bohdan Khmelnytsky spent his youth in Zhovkva, while his father served in the court of Hetman Żółkiewski. Also hetman Ivan Mazepa was a frequent visitor to the city. During the Great Northern War (1700–1721), between December 1706 and April 1707, the Zhovkva castle was a residence of the Russian Tsar Peter I.

At the end of the 18th century, the Austrian authorities pulled down urban fortifications and reconstructed various buildings for administrative offices in Zhovkva. Parts of the defensive walls, including the Jewish and the Lviv Gates, were demolished, the castle was adapted to the needs of the prison and plans of the reconstruction of the City Hall were made. It was not until the late 19th century, that the city began the renewal of monuments (the Zwierzyniecka Gate and parts of the castle walls were restored). In the 19th century, the castle, along the whole city, started falling into ruin.

In September 1914, the city was occupied by the Russian army. The Austrians regained Zhovkva in June 1915. Between 31 November 1918 and 16 May 1919, the district was under the rule of the West Ukrainian People's Republic (ZUNR). Until 1923, Zhovkva remained under the Polish interim administration, when the Polish sovereignty in the territory of East Galicia had been recognized by the international community.

Панорама Жовкви. Загальний вид із висоти пташиного польоту, 1918-1933, колекція Національного цифрового архіву Польщі

Panorama of Zhovkva. A general bird’s eye view of the town, 1918–1933, collection of the National Digital Archives, Poland

Фрагмент ринку, видно кам’яниці з підтінями, на задньому плані – церква отців василіанів, 1918-1939, фото Марек Мунц, колекція Національного цифрового архіву Польщі
A view of the market square with arcaded houses; the Basilian monastery is visible in the background, 1918–1939. Photo by Marek Munz, collection of the National Digital Archives, Poland

On the Jewish Street

First Jews settled in Zhovkva already at the end of the 16th century, immediately after the foundation of the city. In 1600, the Russian province governor Stanislaw Żółkiewski gave his permission to the construction of the first Jewish house of prayer. The local community fell under the jurisdiction of the Qahal of Lviv. In 1620, it became an independent Qahal. Jews were allocated a separate street called the Jewish Street (Zhydovska Street), which led to the Jewish Gate (one of the four gates in the city). The Polish King gave Zhovkva equal rights to other cities under the Magdeburg Law, waived customs duties and other taxes and allowed free trade of merchants and craftsmen from other cities. Permission was granted to hold a fair four times a year, and two weekly street markets. The 17th-century Zhovkva was home to over a hundred of Jewish craftsmen, such as furriers, saddlers, jewellers, tanners and tailors. A few dozen tenants received special privileges and with them responsibility for the customs chamber, collecting taxes, brewing alcohol, running inns, taking care of fish ponds, sawmilling and transporting lumber down the river.

In 1624, a wooden synagogue was established by the house of Aron Moszkowicz in Zhovkva and the first Rabbi was appointed in 1626. It was Ezekiel Izachar (d. 1637). Apart from the synagogue, the Jewish quarter had all the necessary buildings: the mikveh, a room to perform shechita (kosher slaughter of birds and cattle), the house of the rabbi, the Beth Midrash, and a hospital. In 1640, the owners of Zhovkva agreed on the opening of a yeshiva. The Jewish community was gradually growing. In 1628, Jews owned 21 houses, while in 1680 – 88. With the approach of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1648–1649), thousands of Jews sought refuge in Zhovkva and participated in the defence of the city against the Cossacks. In 1765, the Jewish community of Zhovkva consisted of more than 1.5 thousand people and was in possession of over 270 buildings. Jews owned almost all tenements around the market, including the trading arcades. Also the street leading from the market to the synagogue was mainly commercial and was called the Jewish Market.

 Синагога у Жовкві, 1918–1933, колекція Національного цифрового архіву Польщі


Synagogue in Zhovkva, 1918–1939, collection of the National Digital Archives, Poland

The Sobieski's synagogue

In 1635, the Jews of Zhvokva received the right to build a brick synagogue. However, its construction was not completed until the end of the 17th century. Zhovkva synagogue (also known as the "Sobieski's shul") is among the most famous Jewish monuments in Europe.


The synagogue was called "royal" not only due to its size and decoration, but also a loan of 6 thousand zlotys granted by the King for its construction. A new stone synagogue replaced the former wooden synagogue, situated near the northern walls, by the Jewish Gate. Its construction, supervised the royal architect Peter Beber, was completed before 1700. The main, nine-column prayer hall measured 20.55 × 19.84 m, and approx. 14.5 m at the highest point of the vaults. The interior was richly decorated with stuccowork and frescos. A porch and women's gallery were adjacent from the west and south. The synagogue had a so-called butterfly roof, covered with an attic with loopholes, giving it a defensive character. The Renaissance (with elements of Baroque) building was so refined that the Catholic clergy forbade whitening it, so as not to obscure the beauty of the Zhovkva churches.

The Nazis tried to destroy the synagogue in the very first days of the German occupation in 1941. After detonations, the southern gallery for women was completely destroyed, the western part lost its roof and the vault of the gallery; three vaults, columns, as well as the roof were knocked down in the main prayer hall.

In 1963, the synagogue (partly renovated) was entered into the National Register of Archaeological Monuments. Despite the special status of the synagogue, the building was used as a warehouse. From the beginning of the 1990s, a variety of conservatory documentation was developed but due to the lack of adequate financial resources, there was no concept of a comprehensive restoration of the synagogue.

Thanks to listing the fortified synagogue in Zhovkva on the World Monuments Fund in New York as one of the "100 most endangered objects of the world", conservation works began in 2000. However, after the disclosure of irregularities in the use of funds allocated for the purposes of restoration, the works were suspended. In 2007, the building was covered with copper sheet. The state of the synagogue poses a threat of collapse, but its renovation is underway.

In 2012, The National Bank of Ukraine introduced commemorative coins "Synagogue in Zhovkva" in the series "Architectural monuments of Ukraine"; the coin's denominations are UAH 5 and 10.


The printing house

In 1690, King Jan III Sobieski authorized the opening of a Jewish printing house in Zhovkva. It was founded by Uri Phoebus Ben Aaron ha-Levi (1625–1715) from Amsterdam, who for many years had exported books to Poland. He was also known as the publisher of one of the first newspapers published in Yiddish Dinstagisze un Frajtogisze Kurant (Yid. The Thursday and Friday Chime). In 1692, Uri Phoebus published the first book in the Zhovkva printing house. In 1705, he returned to Amsterdam and the activity of the publishing house was continued by his grandchildren – Aharon and Gershon. Due to restrictions imposed at the end of the 17th century by the Council of Four Lands on printers Hebrew books, for nearly 80 years, Zhovkva was the only centre of Jewish printing industry in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This changed only after the dissolution of the Council of Four Lands in 1764. The Zhovkva Jewish printing house was famous all over the world and the city became the the third centre of Jewish printing in the country (after the previously closed printing houses in Lublin and Krakow). It published traditional religious literature, as well as disputes on the nature of the theology by authors submitting their works from different countries. Descendants of Uri Phoebus (with surnames: Madfes, Mann, Letteris, and Meirhoffer) owned the printing house until the end of the 18th century. The house of Uri Phoebus, where the printing press operated, is located at the market square (Vicheva Square 7).

The Haskalah

At the end of the 18th century, Zhovkva became an important center of the Enlightenment movement called Haskalah, especially when one of the leading thinkers of the Haskalah in the Eastern Europe Nachman Krochmal lived there. Nachman Krochmal (1785–1840) was a religious philosopher, historian, theologian and writer. He was born in the town of Brody. He spent a significant part of his life in Zhovkva and made it one of the centers of the Haskalah; some people associated with the movement were also Salomon Judah Leib Rappaport, Isaac Erter, and Halewi Bloch. After the death of his wife (1836), Krochmal returned to Brody, and then settled in Ternopil (1838). Through self-learning, he obtained a vast knowledge in various fields, especially in history and philosophy. He was one of the first thinkers who turned to history "in order to learn about the human essence and the human nature", thus creating the origins of scientific Judaism. He is also the author of a well-known philosophical work titled More newuche ha-zman (Heb. The Guide for the Perplexed in Our Times, 1839, published in Lviv in 1851), in referrence to the work by Maimonides More newuchim (Heb. The Guide for the Perplexed). He wrote in Hebrew, enriching it with scientific terminology, thus making a significant contribution to the development of contemporary literature written in Hebrew. He died in 1840 in Ternopil. His son Abraham Krochmal (born in 1820 in Zhovkva, died in 1888 in Frankfurt am Main) was a writer, thinker and columnist. He presented an innovative, rational approach to Judaism and treated it mostly as an ethical doctrine. He categorically rejected the Hasidism.

The Galician town

In the middle of the 19th century, fur industry started to develop in Zhovkva, employing hundreds of Jewish workers. At the end of 1890, out of 7,143 inhabitants of Zhovkva, 3,783 were part of the Jewish community (53%). After World War I, according to the 1921 census, the Jewish community amounted to 3,718 people (47% of the population). In the interwar period, the number of inhabitants of Zhovkva grew, but the percentage of Jewish population decreased and in 1939 it constituted approx. 40% (4,270) out of all 11,100 inhabitants. The town was also inhabited by Poles (approx. 35%) and Ukrainians (approx. 25%).

The synagogue was the centre of religious life; the Zhovkva community ran the Talmud-Torah school, the Tarbut School, an orphanage and other educational and charitable institutions. There were also a cultural society and a football team "Hasmonea".

Walking around Zhovkva with Shimon Samet

World War II and the Holocaust

In September 1939, the city was occupied by the Red Army. The statues of King Jan III Sobieski and Stanisław Żółkiewski were knocked down. Before the German army entered the city, at least 29 prisoners had been killed in the local NKVD prison located in the castle.

On 29 June 1941, the German troops marched into Zhovkva. They persecuted the Jews and devastated the synagogue. On 22 July, the Jewish police and the Judenrat were established. In November of 1942, the Nazis set up a ghetto on the square in front of the Dominican church and on Turyniecka Street. They held approx. 6 thousand people there. The liquidation of the ghetto began on 25 November 1943. Over 4 thousand Jews were executed during the mass executions in the "Bór" forest. The rest were taken to the so-called Janowski concentration camp in Lviv and a labour camp in Rawa Ruska, where they were murdered.

After the war, a monument was erected on the site of the mass grave in the "Bór" forest. Another memorial can be found at the municipal cemetery, on the grave where the exhumed remains of people killed in the Zhovkva ghetto were buried.

The Jewish cemetery

The Nazis also destroyed the old cemetery, founded in the early 17th century. The oldest matzevah preserved in the cemetery until the war, stood over the grave of Yitzhak, son of Abraham (d. 1610). The last burials took place in 1943. During the German occupation, gravestones were used to build roads. The Jewish cemetery was finally destroyed in 1970. Tombstones were demolished and a big bazaar was organised in the place of the cemetery. Original baroque cemetery fence was preserved around one part of the bazaar and in its south-east part, next to the entrance, we can find the ohel commemorating the grave of a local tzadik Yitzhak (d.1737) and fragments of matzevah embedded in the fence.

After the war


After the war, Zhovkva was at first in the USSR, and then in the independent Ukraine. The composition of the population of the city changed completely. Jews were murdered during the war (in 1944, there were 74 survivors of the Holocaust) and Poles were deported to the west after the war. In their place came the Ukrainians, some also brutally resettled from the eastern Poland. In Soviet times (since 1951), Zhovkva was called Nesterov, in honor of the Russian military aviator Peter Nesterov, who died here in 1914, as the first pilot in the history of aviation to ever ram an enemy aircraft in the air. In 1992, the city regained its former name. In 1994, Zhovkva received the status of a National Historical and Architectural Reserve. It has 55 monuments of global, national and regional significance.

A good place to start exploring Zhovkva is the Tourist Information Centre in the City Hall (Vicheva Square 1, tel. +38 032 522 24 98).

Traces of presence


Apart from the synagogue, among other preserved traces of the Jewish community of Zhovkva, are: the former Hasidic prayer house (Vynnykyvska Street 2), the former seat of the Qahal (Zaporyzska Street 7) and the building of one of the cheders ( B. Khmielnnyckoho 10). You can also see buildings which housed the association "Tarbut" (Lvivska Street 8-10) and a craft school for women (Lvivska Street 76). Another surviving building is the former ritual slaughterhouse, built in the 19th century, (Ludkevycha Street 1). And if you look closely at the stone portals of the houses at the market square, some of them have diagonal marks after the removed mezuzahs.


Worth seeing

  • The synagogue (1692–1700), Zaporyzska 14

  • The castle (1594–1606) founded by Stanislaw Żółkiewski, built by Paul the Happy. Now, the "Zhovkva Castle": Museum with an exhibition on the history of Zhovkva since its origins until the modern times, (Vicheva Square 2, tel. +38 067 996 96 68)

  • Roman Catholic Church of St. Lazarus (1606–1618) – family mausoleum of the Żółkiewskis, Lvivska 21

  • Monastery (Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) (1612), printing house of the Basilian friars, which is part of the monastery and still operates; Bazylianska 4


  • Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity (1720), UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013, Sviatoyi Tryicy 1

  • Orthodox Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (1705), Ivana Franka

  • Former Dominican monastery (17th century) (now, Greek Catholic church), Lvivska 7

  • City Hall (1932), Vicheva Square 1

  • Gates and fortifications (17th century)

  • Tenements with arcades (17th century)

In the vicinity

Krekhiv (12 km): fortified monastery of St. Nicholas (1612); Orthodox church of St. Paraskeva (17th century)

Lviv (25 km): the largest metropolis of Galicia. Many architectural monuments, numerous well-preserved monuments of the Jewish culture, e.g.: Jacob Glanzer's Hasidic synagogue on Vuhylna 3); Staroyevreyska – houses with traces of mezuzahs and the place where there used to be the "Golden Rose" synagogue; synagogue on Brativ Mikhnovskych; on Sholem-Alejchema 12: a building which housed the first Jewish museum in Lviv; the Maurice Lazarus hospital on Rappaporta; a site commemorating the victims of the Holocaust; a memorial plaque at Shevchenky, where there was the so-called Janowski concentration camp; a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust on Chornovola

Velyki Mosty (25 km): ruins of the synagogue (early 20th century)

Maheriv (25 km): old synagogue (19th century.)

Rava-Ruska (35 km): Jewish cemetery (17th century), around 100 matzevahs

Stradch (38 km): cave monastery (19th century)

Sokal (50 km): old synagogue (18th century)

Niemyriv (50 km): Jewish cemetery; hundreds of matzevahs from the 19th and 20th century

The Yavorivskyi National Park


Author: Bozhena Zakaliuzna, Anatoliy Kerzhner