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

Kovel - guidebook

Ukr. Ковель, Yid. קאָוולע

Kovel - guidebook

The smiths of Kovel

Kovel is located in the very centre of Volhynia Province, on both banks of the Turija River, a tributary of the Pripyat flowing from south to north. The first written mention of Kovel is dated to 1310. Perhaps the town owes its name to the word kowal, meaning “blacksmith” – a common trade in this area in the 10th–13th centuries. A local legend tells about a blacksmith who made a sword for Prince Danylo of the medieval Galicia-Volhynia Palatinate. 

 On December 24, 1518, in Brest, King Sigismund I granted Prince Bazyli Sanguszko a privilege establishing the town around the medieval Kovel and granted the town with the Magdeburg law.

The Jews of Kovel

Jewish settlement in Kovel began after the town was granted municipal rights in 1518. In 1536, Queen Bona confirmed the town privileges and obligated the Jews of Kovel to take part in repairing its walls and bridges. Additionally, she issued a special privilege allowing Jews to settle locally but only on streets designated for them and not among Orthodox Christians. In 1547, Bona imposed a tax on Jewish houses (except the rabbi’s house) and made the Jews equal to the Christian population in terms of their privileges and duties before the crown.

 As elsewhere, devastating pogroms and bloody persecutions of the Jews took place during the mid-17th-century Cossack revolution. In 1650, however, local Jews managed to re-establish the kahal of Kovel and revive their economic activities due to the earlier privileges confirmed by King John II Casimir. 

The number of Jews in Kovel began to increase in the 18th century. In 1765, there were 827 Jews registered in the town as poll tax payers (the tax had to be paid by every person aged one or above). Towards the end of the 19th century, the number of Jews in Kovel exceeded the number of Ukrainians. In 1893, the total population of Kovel was 15,116, which included 5,810 Jews, 5,498 Orthodox Christians, 3,088 Roman Catholics, 612 Protestants, and 108 adherents of other religions. In 1921, the town had 32,500 registered residents, including 15,000 Jews.

Synagogues and Rabbis

The best-known 16th–17th-century rabbis of Kovel and heads of the local yeshivah were Shimon and Yitzhak ben Nathan Shapiro and Yehuda (Yudl, Idl), a descendant of Yehuda Löw ben Bezalel (the Maharal of Prague). After Rabbi Mordechai of Nesukhozhe (currently the village of Toikut in Kovel Region) (1752–1800) settled in Kovel, Hasidim established in town their headquarters. 

 A synagogue was built in 1660, but in 1744, it was destroyed by fire. In 1857, another fire destroyed nearly all the town, including the synagogue. However, the town was later successfully rebuilt. 

 By the early 20th century, there were several synagogues in Kovel, one of them was the Great Synagogue, built in 1886–1907. This unique, though reconstructed, monument has retained its grandeur despite wars, revolutions, confiscations of Jewish religious property and its reconstruction. The former Great Synagogue in Kovel is located at the intersection of Nezalezhnosti St. and Volodymyrska St. and is one of the buildings of the local sewing factory, WKF Kovel. Before 2009, a Star of David was visible in front of the entrance to the synagogue, but later it was painted over.

Theatre in Kovel

Michał Waszyński (Mosze Waks, 1904–1965) born in Kovel in the family of Hasidic blacksmith. As a teenager he interrupted his education in yeshiva, went off to Warsaw and became one of the most colourful figures in the history of Polish cinematography. In the 1930s, he directed 37 films, including smash hit films such as Antek Policmajster (Police Chief Antek, 1935) and Znachor (Quack, 1937). The most important of his achievements is Dybbuk (1937), which is the film adaptation of S. An-Ski’s play written in Yiddish language. During World War II, Waszyński found himself in Siberia, from where, together with the Polish Armed Forces of General Anders, he went through the combat route through Iraq, Iran and Palestine to Italy, which he immortalized in the film Wielka droga (Long Road, 1946). After World War II, he lived in Rome. Although he did not direct films anymore, he became an important figure in the Italian film industry. He collaborated with Orson Welles, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren. The story of his life can be seen in the documentary The Prince and the Dybbuk (2017) awarded at the Venice Film Festival.

World War II and the Holocaust

In 1939, there were 17,000 Jews among the 36,000 inhabitants of Kovel. After the town was annexed by the USSR in September 1939, the new authorities considered its well-to-do dwellers as the exploiters and blood-suckers and partially confiscated and partially nationalised their property and real estate. For instance, the Grinblats lost the three stores it owned, and Soviet officers were billeted in two rooms of their house. The same fate befell the Tenenboims, who owned a furniture factory. 

 On June 28, 1941, Kovel was captured by German troops. Only a small part of the town’s Jewish population managed to flee. About 1,000 Jews were killed during the first days of the occupation. On May 21, 1942, two ghettos were established. In one of them the Germans confined 8,000 people fit for work (and their family members), and in the other, located in the suburbs, they placed 6,000 people unfit for work. On July 2–4, 1942, the Jews from the second ghetto were transported out of the city and killed. On August 19, 1942, the Nazis began the liquidation of the first ghetto. 

 After the Soviets again took over the town, only about 40 surviving Jews returned to Kovel.


Two Jewish cemeteries survived in Kovel until after World War II, but neither has survived to this day. One of them (in Volodymyrska St.) was liquidated by the Soviet authorities in 1970, when dozens of Jewish cemeteries in Ukrainian SSR were demolished, and the Taras Shevchenko Community Centre was built on the site. The gravestones were transported to a military base. The other Jewish cemetery (located in Varshavska Street), was also liquidated by the Soviets.

Memorial site

A memorial dedicated to the Jews shot in 1942 is located in the forest, on the right side of the road to Kamin-Kashyrskyi, a few kilometres from the edge of town near the village of Bakhiv. In 1944, a memorial post stood here with the number of 18,000 inscribed in it: the number of murdered Jews from the Kovel ghetto. In the 1960s, a high mound was constructed here. A granite monument was established in 1990, and further memorials were unveiled in 2002 and 2015. Unlike the previous memorials dedicated to the “peaceful Sovet citizens” murdered by the “Nazi invaders,” the post-communist memorials explicitly mentioned the Holocaust and the Jewish victimhood.

Author: Serhiy Hladyshuk


Worth seeing

  • Former synagogue from the half of the 19th century, Nezaleznosti 125

  • Cathedral of the Resurrection (1877), the intersection of Nezaleznosti and Volodymyrska

  • Fridrikson Pharmacy (19th century), Nezaleznosti 89

  • 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