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

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

A perfect city

Established towards the end of the 16th century as a Renaissance “perfect city,” Zhovkva (then Żółkiew) was named in honour of Stanisław Żółkiewski, its founder. The earliest historical reference to the village of Vynnyky (Winniki), around which Zhovkva was subsequently established, dates back to 1368. In 1597, the Crown Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski began the construction of Zhovkva near Vynnyky, and in 1603, due to a privilege issued by King Sigismund III Vasa, the emerging urban center was granted municipal rights as a private Polish town. The crown privilege gave a powerful boost to the economic life of the town and its vicinity and promoted rapid development of diversified crafts and trade. In the first half of the 17th century, Zhovkva was transformed into a fortified town circumscribed by pompous stone ramparts. The market square located in front of the castle was lined by trading houses on the northern and eastern sides that formed a gallery of stores, known as arcades. The entire town was designed by the famous Italian architect and theorist Pietro di Giacomo Cataneo. The town plan followed the successful experiment of another “perfect” Renaissance town of Zamość, located 100 km north west of Zhovkva and established several years before. Since in the Renaissance art was somatic and anthropocentric, the general town plan and the plans of its environs, including the plots of neighboring lands and houses, reflected in its minute details the system of proportionally interrelated measurements of human anatomy. The famous Italian architects Paolo de Ducato Clemenci (also known as Paweł Szczęśliwy, Ukr. Pavlo Schaslyvyi) and Paolo Dominici (known as Paweł Rzymianin, Ukr. Pavlo Rymlianyn contributed to the creation of the town.

In 1620, Zhovkva became the property of the Daniłowicz noble family, and later became the possession of John III Sobieski (1629–1696), King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who inherited it from his mother, Zofia Teofila. It was during John III Sobieski’s reign that Zhovkva (Żółkiew) saw its heyday. The king transformed the town into a major centre of political and economic life of the 17th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At his Żółkiew residence, he received diplomatic envoys of King Louis XIV of France and King Charles II of Spain. After the victorious battle near Vienna on September 12, 1683, in which the troops of Habsburg Monarchy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Holy Roman Empire under the command of King John III Sobieski destroyed the army of the Ottomans and their vassal and tributary states, the papal nuncio arrived in Zhovkva and granted the king with a sword blessed by the pope. In the early 17th century, Zhovkva was home for young Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595–1657), the future leader of the Cossack revolution, whose father served at Hetman Żółkiewski’s court. The Cossack leader hetman Ivan Mazepa (1639–1709) visited Zovkva too. During the Great Northern War (1700–1721), from December, 1706, to April, 1707, the Zhovkva Castle served as the temporary headquarters of the Russian Tsar Peter I (the Great). 

 Towards the end of the 18th century, with the partition of Poland between Austria, Prussia, and Russia, Zovkva, together with the entire new province of Galicia, became part of the Austrian domain. The Habsburg authorities began demolishing the town fortifications and reconstructing various centrally-located buildings for administrative purposes. The entire sections of the defensive walls, including the Lwowska (L’viv) and Żydowska (Jewish) Gates were demolished; the castle palace was converted into a prison; plans were underway to rebuild the town hall too. Only in the 19th century did the authorities began the renovation. For example, the Zwierzyniecka Gate was restored, and so were some of the castle walls. Yet in the 19th century, the castle as well as the entire town went into decline. 

 In September, 1914, as World War I broke out, Zhovkva was captured by the Russian army. In June, 1915, the Austrians recaptured it. From November, 31, 1918, until May 16, 1919, the Lemberg (L’viv) county was under the administration of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR), and then it was under temporary Polish administration until 1923, when the international community at the Conference of Ambassadors recognised Poland’s sovereignty over Eastern Galicia.

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

The first Jews settled in Zhovkva as early as the 1590s, immediately after the foundation of the town. In 1600, Stanisław Żółkiewski, the Voivode of Ruthenia, allowed Jews to establish their first prayer house. At that time, the local Jewish community was subordinated to Lviv kahal, but in 1620, it became independent and established its own communal authority. The Jews were granted a privilege of building their residences in a street subsequently called Żydowska (Jewish) Street, which led to the Jewish Gate, one of the town four main gates. The king granted Zhovkva the autonomy according to the Magdeburg law and also exempted it from custom duties and other special taxes. These privileges enabled merchants and craftsmen from other towns to trade freely in Zhovkva. The town also received a privilege of hosting a major trade fair (Jahrmark) four times a year and to have two market days each week. 17th-century Zhovkva was home to more than a hundred Jewish craftsmen, including furriers, silver- and goldsmiths, jewellers, tanners, pharmacists, and tailors. Several dozen Jews received special privileges including the lease of the customs house, of tax collecting, and of propinacja (producing and selling alcoholic beverages). They were also running inns, managing fish ponds, running lumber mills, and freighting timber. 

 In 1624, a wooden synagogue was opened next to Aron Moshkovich’s house, and in 1626, the kahal appointed first communal rabbi Ezekiel Issachar (d. 1637). In addition to the synagogue, the Jewish quarter enjoyed the operation of all other communal institutions, including a mikveh (ritual bath), a slaughterhouse, the rabbi’s house, a beth midrash (study house for adult Jews), and a hekdesh (shelter for the poor and for the vagabond alms-seekers). In 1640, the town owners allowed the Jews to open a yeshivah. The town’s Jewish community gradually grew and acquired importance. In 1628, 21 houses in Zhovkva were Jewish, and in 1680, 88 houses. When in 1648, the Cossack troops under Bohdan Khmelnytsky approached Zhovkva, thousands of Jewish refugees found safe haven in town and took part in defending the town against the Cossacks along the Polish garrison. In 1765, the Jewish community of Zhovkva boasted more than 1,500 members and possessed more than 270 buildings. Jews owned nearly all the buildings around the market square, which formed a lined-up gallery where most of trade took place. The street leading from the market square to the synagogue also had a commercial importance and was known as 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

As early as 1635, the Jews of Zhovkva were granted the privilege to build a stone synagogue, but it was not built until towards the end of the century. Also known as the Sobieski Shul, it became one of Europe’s most notable Jewish monuments.


The synagogue was called royal not only because of its pompous size and beautiful decorations and ornaments, but also because of 6,000 zlotys that the king lent the Jewish community toward its construction. Built of stone, the synagogue was erected in lieu of the old wooden one, next to the northern ramparts of the town, close to the Jewish Gate. By 1700, the construction was completed under the guidance of the crown architect Piotr Beber. The main nine-bay prayer hall measured 21 to 20 meters, and its height reached 14.5 meters at the highest point of the dome. The interior was lavishly decorated with stuccoes and frescoes. On the western and southern sides, the main hall was adjoined by a vestibule and women’s galleries. The synagogue roof was hidden behind an attic with special decorative visors, which made many believe that the building also allegedly served as part of the town fortifications. The Renaissance-style building (with some manierist elements) looked so elegant that the Catholic clergy forbade painting it in white so that it would not eclipse Zhovkva churches with its radiating beauty. 

 In the first days of German occupation in 1941, the Nazis tried to demolish the synagogue. Attempts to blow it up totally destroyed the southern women’s gallery; the western part of the building lost its roof and a gallery vault, and in the main prayer hall the dynamite explosion destroyed three sections of the vault, the central columns, and parts of the roof. 

 In 1963, the synagogue was partially renovated and catalogued in the National Register of Architectural Monuments of the Soviet Ukraine. Despite its state-protected status, the building was used as a warehouse. From the early 1990s, various plans were underway for conservation and restoration purposes, but the lack of adequate financial resources and the complete absence of the local Jewish community made any comprehensive renovation impossible.

 In the mid-1990s, the “fortress” synagogue of Zhovkva was listed by the New York-based World Monuments Fund as one of the “100 most endangered heritage sites in the world.” Thanks to this alert, renovation was begun in 2000. However, it was subsequently suspended as the supervising authorities discovered cases of embezzlement and inappropriate use of funds allocated for restoration of the monument. In 2007, the roof of the synagogue was covered with protective copper tiles yet the building has remained in perilous condition. 

In 2012, the National Bank of Ukraine introduced memorial coins worth 5 and 10 hryvnias with the images of the Zhovkva synagogue as part of the Architectural Monuments of Ukraine series.


The printing house

In 1690, King John III Sobieski granted Uri Faivush ben Aaron ha-Levi (1625–1715) from Amsterdam with a crown privilege to establish a Jewish printing press in Zhovkva. Uri Faivush had exported books to Poland-Lithuania for many years and was one of the three main Amsterdam book printers. He had also been known as the publisher of one of the first newspapers in Yiddish, Dienstagishe un Freitogishe Kurant (A Thursday and Friday Carillon). In 1692, Uri Faivush brought his unique Amsterdam type to Zhovkva and published his first Zhovkva printingpress book. In 1705, he returned to Amsterdam while the printing press was continued to be run by by his grandsons, two outstanding printers Aharon and Gershon. Due to its excellent layouts and the clarity of its print and despite the restrictive decisions of the Council of Four Lands, Zhovkva printing press suppressed the two other printing presses operating in Poland at that time – Lublin and Krakow – and for almost 80 years remained a monopolist, the only Jewish printing centre in the entire Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This exclusive position of Zhovkva in the printing market changed only after the 1764 dissolution of the Council of Four Lands. Zhovkva printing press published classical works of religious literature and also rabbinic treatises submitted for print by rabbinic scholars from various countries. The descendants of Uri Faivush (under various family names such as Madfes, Mann, Letteris, and Meirhoffer) owned the Zhovkva printing house until the end of the 18th century. The house of Uri Faivush, in which the printing house functioned, is located in the market square at 7 Vicheva Sq.

The Haskalah

In the late 18th century, Zhovkva became an important centre of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement, particularly when Nachman Krochmal (1785–1840), one of the leading maskilim (enlightened thinkers) in Eastern Europe lived in town. Krochmal was a religious thinker, historian, theologian, and writer. Born in the town of Brody, he spent a considerable part of his life in Zhovkva, making it one of the centres of the Haskalah. Other maskilim, members of the Haskalah movement such as Salomon Judah Leib Rappaport, Isaac Erter, Halevi Bloch, and others were closely connected to the circle of Krochmal in Zhovkva. After the death of his wife in 1836, Krochmal returned to Brody and two years later settled in Ternopil. Through consistent independent study, Krochmal mastered variousfields, especially history and philosophy. He was one of the first thinkers to turn to the study of Jewish history “for a better knowledge of our essence and our nature.” He penned a renowned philosophical treatise entitled More nevukhey ha-zman (Heb.: A Guide for the Perplexed of Our Times, 1839, published in Lviv in 1851). The title alluded to Maimonidean More nevukhim (Heb.: The Guide for the Perplexed), while the work used categories of rationalist philosophy and elements of German romantic thought with which Krochmal sought to construct paradigms of Jewish historical destiny. He wrote in a renovated Hebrew, enriching it with scientific and scholarly terminology of his own making thus considerably contributing to the development of contemporary Hebrew literature. He died in 1840 in Ternopil. His son Abraham Krochmal (b. 1820 in Zhovkva, d. 1888 in Frankfurt am Main) took after his father as a writer, thinker, and journalist in his own right. His hallmark was a rationalist approach to Judaism, which he treated mainly as an ethical system. As all maskilim of his generation with their aversion to piesistic trends in Judaism, including Kabbalistic thought, he vehemently rejected Hasidism.


A Galician town

In the mid-19th century, Zhovkva turned into a hub of the fur industry providing employment to hundreds of Jewish workers. Towards the end of the 1890s, 3,783 of the 7,143 residents of Zhovkva, or about 53 percent, were members of the Jewish community. After World War I, according to the 1921 census, the Jewish community numbered 3,718 people (47 percent of the town population). In the interwar period, the population of Zhovkva grew, but by 1939, the percentage of Jews had decreased to about 40 percent (4,270 people) of the 11,100 town inhabitants. The town population also included Poles (approx. 35 percent) and Ukrainians (approx. 25 percent). 

 The Great Synagogue was the centre of town religious life; the community of Zhovkva also maintained a Talmud Torah elementary religious school for poor children, a Tarbut Hebrew-language school with its robust Zionist agenda, an orphanage, and other educational and charity institutions, including modern Polish-, German- and Hebrew-oriented cultural societies and a football team “Hasmonea,” established according to the vision of the “Jew of muscle,” a new type of a modernized secular Jew.

A tour of Zhovkva with Shimon Samet


World War II and the Holocaust

In September 1939, the town was captured by the Red Army. Monuments to King John III Sobieski and Stanisław Żółkiewski were demolished. On June 29, 1941, German troops entered Zhovkva. Before they arrived, the retreating Soviet security police murdered at least 29 Ukrainian and Polish political prisoners in the local NKVD (Soviet secret police) prison located in the castle. The victims were the participants of various national resistance movements, some of them were just cultural figures with nationaldemocratic proclivities. The persecution of the Jews started immediately after the Nazi invasion. The synagogues were leveled. On July, 22, the Germans established Jewish auxiliary police and a Judenrat, a Jewish communal council reporting to the Nazi authorities. Then, in November 1942, the Nazis established a ghetto, stretching from the square in front of the Domincan convent and through Turyniecka Street. Approximately 6,000 people were confined there. The liquidation of the ghetto took place a year later, on November, 25, 1943. More than 4,000 Jews were shot during mass executions in the Bór forest; others were transported to the Janowski concentration camp near L’viv and to the labor camp in Rava-Ruska, where they were subsequently murdered. 

 After the war, a memorial was erected at the site of the mass grave in the Bór forest. Another memorial was established at the municipal cemetery, at the gravesite where the exhumed remains of the victims of the Zhovkva ghetto were re-buried.


The Jewish cemetery

The Nazis destroyed the old Jewish cemetery, established at the beginning of the 17th century. The oldest matzeva (tomb-stone), which was known to have been there before the war bore the name of certain Yitzhak, son of Abraham (d. 1610). Thelast burials took place in 1943. During the German occupation, tombstones were used to build roads. The Jewish cemetery was eventually destroyed in 1970, when the communist authorities demolished dozens of Jewish cemeteries across the USSR, particularly in Ukraine. The tombstones were removed and a large marketplace was established on the former site of the cemetery. The original Baroque cemetery wall survived partially, and in the south-eastern part, next to the entrance to the marketplace, there is an ohel over the grave of the local 213 righteous man called Yitzhak (d. 1737) and fragments of matzevot embedded in the wall.


After the war

After the war, Zhovkva found itself on the territory of the independent Ukraine. The town’s ethnic composition changed radically. During the war, the almost all Jews were murdered. In 1944, there were only 74 Holocaust survivors in town. In the late 1940s, Polish residents were transferred to the west and replaced by Ukrainians, transferred here from eastern Poland. In 1951, Zhovkva was temporarily renamed Nesterov to honor the Russian pilot Piotr Nesterov, who perished here in 1914 destroying an enemy plane in flight for the first time in the history of aviation. In 1992, the town regained its previous name, and in 1994, Zhovkva was granted the status of the National Reserve of History and Architecture, with 55 monuments of global, national, and regional significance. 

A good place to start sightseeing in Zhovkva is the Tourist Information Centre located in the town hall at 1 Vicheva Sq. (tel. +38 032 522 24 98).


Traces of Jewish presence

Apart from the synagogue, the surviving traces of the Jewish community of Zhovkva include the former Hasidic prayer house (2 Vinnikivska St.), the former seat of the kahal’s authorities (7 Zaporizka St.), and the building that housed one of the heders (10 B. Khmelnytskoho St.). The buildings that housed the Tarbut school (8–10 Lvivska St.) and the vocational school for women (76 Lvivska St.) also survived, and also the former 19th-century ritual slaughterhouse (1 Ludkevycha St.). And if one looks closely at the stone portals of the houses around the market square, one finds traces of mezuzot on the door posts.

Authors: Bozhena Zakaliuzna, Anatoliy Kerzhner


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