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

Kobryn guidebook

Pol. Kobryń, Bel. Кобрын, Yid. קאָברין

Pre-war buildings in Kobryn
Pre-war buildings in Kobryn (Author: Pivovarchik, Irina)


Kobryn first emerged on an island, where the Kobrynka River flows into the Mukhavets River. The Upper and Lower Castle were built later. In the first half of the 14th century, Kobryn became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1532, Bona Sforza, the wife of Poland’s Kind Sigismund I the Old, was granted the rights on the County of Kobryn. It was under her dominion that the Queen Bona Canal was built; the canal is now the oldest structure of this kind in Belarus. Polish writer and ethnographer P.M. Szpilewski wrote that in the 16th century “there still was a beautiful and majestic castle with twelve towers and a separate, smaller one with a fence of sharpened poles, a drawbridge at a huge gate, and high walls, […] Queen Bona lived in it.” In 1586, Kobryn came under the dominion of Queen Anna Jagiellon; in 1589, she brought the town’s residents a document granting the town with Magdeburg rights, signed by King Sigismund III Vasa, thus allowing a high level of self-administrative power.


The Jews of Kobryn

Accounts were handed down from generation to generation that Kobryn’s Jews had come from the Germanic lands and thus were genuine Ashkenazim. In the memorial book of Kobryn, published in Yiddish in the 1950s in Argentina, it states at one point that Jews appeared in Kobryn in the 12th century, reportedly attested to by the oldest inscriptions on a gravestone at the old Jewish cemetery. However, according to a more reliable opinion found in the same book, the oldest tombstones in the cemetery date back to the 16th century.

In fact, the first written mention of a Jewish community in Kobryn is found in a 1514 document, in which King Sigismund I the Old confirmed the already existing privileges for the Jews of Kobryn which his brother Alexander Jagiellon had granted to the Jewish communities in Lithuania in 1503. In 1563, Jews comprised 25 out of the 377 households in Kobryn. Their activity was described as follows: “Kobryn’s toll and kapszczyzna [the fee for the sale and manufacture of alcohol] from inns serving beer, mead, and distilled beverages are all held by the Jews.”

In 1910, Kobryn had a private Jewish school for boys, several reformed cheders, a Talmud Torah school, a yeshiva (founded towards the end of the 17th century or in the early 18th century), a seven-grade Tarbut school taught in Hebrew, a school taught in Yiddish, and a two-grade Orthodox Jewish Beit Yaakov religious school for girls, founded by Rabbi Noah Weinberg. There was also a theatrical troupe, working under the guidance of film director Peisach Boim and the Markuze brothers, and a local football team “Ha-Koach” (Heb.: Strength).


The Hasidim of Kobryn

A dynasty of tsaddikim has been associated with Kobryn since the 19th century. It was started by Moshe ben Israel of Kobryn (1783–1858), and his successors were: his grandson Noah Naftali of Kobryn (d. 1889), David Shlomo (d. 1918), Moshe Aharon (d. 1942), and Baruch Joseph Zak (d. 1949). Another Hasidic rabbi, Menachem Nuchim ben Yehuda Leib Einstein, was born in Vysokaye (Wysokie Litewskie). Having completed his education among the Hasidim of Slonim, he moved to Kobryn and, in 1846, founded a Slonimer Hasidim Shtiebel, which functioned until World War II. Chaim Zundl, born in Kobryn in 1856, graduated from the yeshiva in Brest and became famous as the Kamenetzer Maggid. He was one of the founders of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement in Russia known as Palestinophile movement which emphasized modern Hebrew learning and support of the settlers and vocational training specialists in the ottoman Palestine.


Like Joseph with his brothers... A touching meeting of a Kobryn rabbi with his two brothers


Economic life

Almost all Kobryn industrial enterprises were managed by the Jews: brickyards belonged to Mote Weinstein, Shlomo Pintchuk, and Shlomo Rimland; the lumber mill – to the Hurwitzs; three steam mills – to the Broitbards and Yedvabs; butter factories – to the Katzs, Leizers, and Aliniks; the string factory – to the Kobrinetzs and Kramans; the cigarette factory – to the Tenenboims; furniture factories – to the Mezrichs and Słomiańskis; tanneries – to the Pintchuks; the bakery – to the Gorzańskis; the soap factory – to the Mazurskis; the soda water factory – to the Palevskins and Wiesensteins; and the candle factory – to the Tenenboim brothers. The Kobriner Shtime (Yid.: The Voice of Kobryn) was the main local Yiddish newspaper.


Pogroms, epidemics, and fires

Over centuries, Kobryn experienced various kinds of disasters. In September 1648, the Cossack troops of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, set Kobryn on fire. According to Nathan Hanover’s contemporary chronicle, 200 Jewish families were killed at that time. Later, Kobryn was ravaged twice by Swedish troops: in 1666 and at the beginning of the 18th century. A local saying was even coined about those hard times, in Yiddish – Gei tzu di shvedn! (Yid.: Go to the Swedes!). In 1662, the town was plundered by the Polish-Lithuanian troops, commanded by Marshal Żeromski. In 1711, bubonic plague claimed the lives of more than a half of Kobryn population. The epidemics led, among other things, to a decline of trade and crafts. In 1895, 310 dwelling houses burnt down in a fire; the very next year another fire consumed 210 houses, leaving more than 2,000 people homeless, and another fire in 1905 destroyed 104 houses.

Hardship and legal strictures led to mass emigration of Jews to America. Specific factors in this were the regulation enacted in 1882 that prohibited Jews from leasing land in the rural areas and the introduction of liquor production and sale monopoly in 1897. In 1906, about 1,500 people from the County of Kobryn left for the USA and Canada.

Oscar Zariski (Aszer Zarycki, 1899–1986), a brilliant 20th-century American mathematician, was born in Kobryn to the family of Betsalel Zarycki, a learned Talmudist, and Chana Tenenbaum, a local shop owner. The mathematical talents of the future Harvard University professor manifested themselves as early as during the study in gymnasium (secondary school) in Chernigov (now Chernihiv, Ukraine), where the boy escaped with his brother during World War I. He went on to study in Kyiv and Rome, from where he emigrated to the USA in 1927. In America, Zariski was given a chance to make full use of his intellectual potential, as shown by his awards and achievements: he was a Cole Prize winner for outstanding contribution to the field of algebra, a member of the Fields Medal Committee, Vice-President and President of the American Mathematical Society, a Wolf Prize winner (as the originator of the modern approach to algebraic geometry through its interface with commutative algebra), and a Steele Prize laureate for his lifelong contribution to the field of mathematics. His services as a teacher devoted to his students were rewarded with the National Medal of Science, awarded by the US president in 1965.


World War II and the Holocaust

After the capture of Kobryn by the Red Army on September 20, 1939, some of the Zionist youth escaped to Vilnius and later made it to Israel, in most cases – through central Asia or China.

Kobryn was captured by German forces on June 23, 1941. In the fall of that year, the local Jewish population (about 8,000 people at the time) was confined in a ghetto, consisting of two separate parts. The inmates in ghetto “A” were Jewish professionals (specialised workers, artisans, doctors, and others) as well as physically strong people. Its borders ran along Suvorova St., Svobody Sq., Pervomayskaya St., and Kirova St. Ghetto “B” was for elderly people, women, children, and invalids. Its borders coincided with the western part of Svobody Square as far as the bridge and the right side of Savetskaya St. and Sportivnaya St. The head of the Judenrat was a former wholesale merchant named Angielovich. The Judenrat building was located at the former Jewish cemetery in Pervomayskaya Street.

Young people formed an underground group led by a Jewish police official. When they found out about the death of their families in the executions carried out on October 15, 1942, they started an uprising. The uprising was brutally put down, and 150 people were killed.

About 100 Jews managed to escape from the Kobryn ghetto. Many of them joined partisan units. During the liquidation of the ghetto, a group of children managed to escape too; they found refuge in a church. Two priests, Jan Wolski and Władysław Grobelny, harboured 8 Jewish children in the church, but they were denounced and shot next to the church, together with the children.

The overall number of Holocaust victims in Kobryn amounts to about 6,900 Jews. In 1975, on the southern outskirts of Kobryn, an obelisk was erected at the site of the mass execution of Jewish people carried out in 1942.


Traces of Jewish presence

The Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the town, in Kutuzova Street, was devastated during German occupation and almost completely destroyed in Soviet times. Only a few matzevot can be found there today. There is also a memorial plaque placed a at the beginning of the 2010s, with an inscription in Hebrew, English, and Belarusian.

In July 1944, 64 Jews returned to the town. In the 1950s, the Jewish community of Kobryn was refused formal registration and the main synagogue building, dating back to the middle of the 19th century, was converted into a brewery. From the late 1980s until 2000, the building had no owner. In 2003, the Jewish religious community of the city of Kobryn obtained a state registration. The organisation’s plans include the renovation of the synagogue.

Authors: Irina Yelenskaya, Ales Astrauch


Worth seeing

  • Former synagogue (mid-19th c.), 40 Pervomayskaya St.
  • Jewish cemetery, Kutuzova St.
  • Former post office building (1846), 106 Savetskaya St.
  • Alexander Suvorov Park, from the mid-19th c. it belonged to Aleksander Mickiewicz, poet Adam Mickiewicz’s brother.
  • Former Spaski Monastery building (1465, 17th–18th c.), 11 17 Verasnia St.
  • Orthodox Co-Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky (1864–1868), designed by I. Kalenkevich, 17 Lenina St.
  • Manor house (1790), the Alexander Suvorov house-museum, 16 Suvorova St., dedicated to the most illustrious 18th-c. Russian field marshal.
  • Memorial in honour of the first great victory of the Russian army over Napoleon on 27 July 1812.
  • Orthodox Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (1465); in 1913 the Orthodox church was transferred from the Bazarovyi Sq. (now Svobody Sq.) to the cemetery, Pervomayskaya St.
  • Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas (1750–1860), 2 Nikolskaya St.
  • Orthodox Church of St. George (1889), 104 Lenina St.
  • Former prison (1821), Savetskaya St.
  • Former Maria Rodziewicz Gymnasium (1910), School No. 1, 94 Savetskaya St.

Surrounding area

Horodets (23 km): the former mikveh building; a Jewish cemetery with a memorial to Holocaust victims; the Orthodox Church of the Ascension of Our Lord (1735); remains of a manor house.

Hrushava (29 km): “Dewajtis” oak; a memorial plaque and the grave of the parents of Maria Rodziewiczówna, a celebrated interwar Polish writer.

Antopol (33 km): two former synagogue buildings (19th c.); market halls; a Jewish cemetery with 100 matzevot; a memorial at the grave of Holocaust victims in Chojniki forest wilderness; Resurrection Orthodox Church (1854).

Brest (46 km): Brest Fortress (1833–1842); the remains of the Great Synagogue, currently a cinema; the Ekdish synagogue; the Feivel prayer house; a synagogue, a Sunday school, and a kosher canteen in Kuybysheva St.; the buildings of Isaac Hendler’s printing house and the Tachkemoni school (attended, among others, by the future Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin); ruins of a convent of Bernardine nuns (18th c.); the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (1856); St. Simeon’s Orthodox Church (1868); the Polish Bank (1926); the Railway Technology Museum.

Kamyanyets (51 km): a former synagogue and a yeshiva (1932); dayan’s house; former Jewish houses with the Stars of David and traces of mezuzot; rabbi’s house; the White Tower, a bastion (13th c.); Orthodox Church of St. Simon; the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (1925).

Skoki (52 km): the Niemcewicz family palace and park complex (1770s); a cemetery of Soviet soldiers and World War II victims.

Volchin (82 km): the birthplace of Poland’s last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski; the layout of the old town with the market square; a former Jewish prayer house; Holy Trinity Church (1729–1733); Orthodox Church of St Nicholas (wooden, mid-19th c.); a Jewish cemetery with several dozen fieldstone tombstones.

Damachava (89 km): the former mikveh and rabbi’s house in Gogola Street; in the forest, next to the memorial of the execution site, several post-war matzevot; Orthodox Church of St. Luke (1905).




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