The beginnings of Chernivtsi and its Jewish community are associated with the emergence of the Moldovan state in the mid-14th century (earlier, a Russian stronghold had most likely existed at the site; it was burnt down during Tatar-Mongolian invasions). The oldest mention of Jews living in this borderland settlement on the Prut river dates back to October 1408, when a privilege was granted by Hospodar Aleksander Dobry to Lviv merchants. The oldest Jewish community in Chernivtsi was composed of Ashkenazi Jews from the north and Sephardi Jews from the Balkans. The close proximity of Ruthenian territories, which later became part of Poland and then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, led to the dominance of the former, Yiddish-speaking group (especially after numerous Ashkenazi refugees had settled in the town during the Khmelnytsky Uprising in 1648).

The close proximity of the border often brought war-time tribulations to the Chernivtsi population and contributed to the repeated plundering of the town by Polish, Moldovan, Russian, Tartar, and Cossack soldiers. Despite these incidents, the Jewish community was gradually growing in strength, primarily thanks to its participation in international trade along the route connecting Nuremberg, Wrocław, Kraków, Lviv, and Moldova, then running though Adrianople and reaching the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The community soon gained the status of a Breasla Yidoveasca (“Jewish guild”) and was headed by an elected superior (called staroste or rosh medina). The relations between Jews, the Christian population and the local authorities were regulated by special royal privileges (called hrisov), introduced in Moldova in the first half of the 17th century. The most important was the 1622 privilege granted to Jews living in Jassy (confirmed in 1666). It granted kehillot the right to erect a synagogue (the first synagogue in Chernivtsi was built in 1710) and have their own cemetery (in Chernivtsi it was opened ca. 1700), at the same time obliging Jews to settle in designated districts and pay the poll tax, the collection of which was one of the most important duties of the staroste. Significant legal changes were introduced after 1711, in the so-called Phanariote period (the reign of Constantinople Greeks installed on the throne by the sultan, characterised by extreme fiscalism). The task of collecting the tax was entrusted to rabbis approved by hospodar officers, which made them de facto leaders of their respective Jewish communities. In the 18th century, the Chernivtsi kehilla was managed by Hirsz, and then, for the following 35 years, by Lazar Israel (1747–1782). Other local rabbis were Meir Ben Jechiel (died in 1740), Israel Josef Ehrendorf, Simcha Zeew from Kuty (died in 1780), and Baruch Szlom Ben Szlom (died in 1793).

A new period in the history of the town began with the annexation of the north-western part of the Moldovan Principality by the Habsburg monarchy in 1774, under the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca. Austria had gained an opportunity to expand its territory to the other side of the Carpathian Mountains just two years earlier, after the First Partition of Poland and the establishment of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Taking into consideration the traditionally anti-Jewish policy of the new rulers, nobody could anticipate the emergence of such a large concentration of Jews and an important centre of Jewish culture in the poorest part of the empire. Under the military administration of General Karl von Enzenberg, which lasted from 1778 to 1786, Jews were banned from living in Chernivtsi (ca. 400 Jewish families were to be removed). This provision, although largely ignored, was formally in force until 1848. The town was heavily destroyed in the Turkish-Russian war of 1768–1774 (one of the burnt buildings was the wooden synagogue). Nonetheless, its successful reconstruction was possible thanks to the establishment of a new province called Bukovina, with Chernivtsi serving as its administrative centre. Meanwhile, the town of Sadhora, established in 1770 on the other side of the Prut River and owned by Danish banker and servant to the Russian court Peter Nicolaus von Gartenberg, quickly became a large centre of Hasidism. The large influx of Jews from Polish territories was facilitated by the administrative merger of the newly acquired Moldovan lands with Galicia (1786–1849). The Austrian authorities became concerned with the growing influence of the Jewish community. Supported by a part of the existing community, which feared growing economic competition (especially Governor Josef Schmuel Pultower, appointed by General Enzenberg), the state sought to stop the influx and development of the Jewish population or largely reduce it, but to no avail.

Following the implementation of the so-called Tolerance Patent (Die josephinische Judenordnung) issued by Emperor Joseph II in June 1789, the Jews of Chernivtsi gained legal stability. The old Moldovan form of Jewish self-government was abolished and replaced with the institution of a religious community (Kultusgemeinde), similar to those operating in other provinces of the monarchy. It was one of two such communities in the entirety of Bukovina. For many years, the elected local government became a figurative battleground, with conservative Hasidim and enlightened Maskilim incessantly struggling for influence over the local population. The following people were elected to the council in the first decades of the community’s existence: Aron Amster, Salomon Bayer, Beer Rosenthal, Juedl Schmiedenauer, and Salomon Zahn. In 1789, the head of the community was Rabbi Chaim ben Schlomo Tyrer, known as Chaim Chernovitzer (1760-1816/17), the author of numerous theological works, a supporter of Hasidism, and a staunch opponent of the Enlightenment movement. He bravely opposed the government's attempt to introduce legislation unfavourable to Jews. When he left the city in 1807, he was succeeded by rabbinical lawyers Moses M. Loewy, Meier Reiner, and Efraim Zelniker. It was not until 1833 that Isak Schimschon Horowitz-Meisels was appointed rabbi, remaining the spiritual leader of the community until 1870. In the second half of the 19th century, as the Chernivtsi community was growing in significance and wealth, the animosity between Orthodox (Hasidic) Jews and supporters of Reformed Judaism started to become more and more aggravated. In 1872, the local Hasidim left the community and created their own. For some time, two Jewish communities operated independently: the Orthodox one was mostly composed of the supporters of Rabbi Horowitz-Meisels, while the Progressive one was headed by Eliezer Elijah Igel (1825–1892), a well-known philologist. The conflict was eventually brought to an end thanks to the repeated attempts at mediation made by the mayor of the town and the president of the region. A compromise was reached in 1875, when it was agreed that two rabbis were to be appointed: a Progressive rabbi with the title of Chief Rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi, called Av Beth Din. Igel was appointed Chief Rabbi, while Benjamin Weiss (1841–1912) received the title of Av Beth Din. One of the most glaring examples of the divisions among the local Jews was the construction of two main synagogues in a relatively short period of time – the Orthodox Great Synagogue was completed in 1853, while the Progressive synagogue, called Tempel, was erected in the years 1873–1877 and designed by Lviv-based architect Julian Zachariewicz.

During the period of the dual Habsburg monarchy (1868–1918), Bukovina, and especially its capital, became the site of an unusual ethnic and cultural experiment, a melting pot uniting various national and religious groups – Austria-Hungary in miniature. An original feature of the region was the unusually large role played by the Jewish community. Culturally and linguistically, Jews from Chernivtsi felt greatest affinity with the German population – as many as 57% people who identified as German followed Judaism. When the legal restrictions on settling and owning property were lifted in 1867, great numbers of Jews started to arrive into the town. This influx was happily welcomed by Vienna, which saw the Yiddish-speaking newcomers, strongly associated with the German culture, as an opportunity to strengthen the connection of this neglected, remote province with the rest of the monarchy. In the mid-19th century, Jews made up about one-fifth of the total population of ca. 20,000 people. On the eve of the outbreak of the Great War, this percentage grew to one-third, and the number of Jewish inhabitants of Chernivtsi rose from 5,000 to 29,000. At the turn of the century, the Jewish social and political life in Bukovina was dominated by the work of Benn Straucher, a long-term parliamentary deputy in Vienna, great defender of the national interests of his coreligionists. Other political organisations, representing conservative, liberal and socialist interests, remained in the shadow of this figure.

In the second half of the 19th century, a separate Jewish district, often referred to as Judenstadt, was established in Chernivtsi. It encompassed the following streets: Bahnhofstraße, Springbrunnengaße, Sinagogengaße, and Niederjudengaße. Jews dominated the local economy – they owned practically all of the town’s industrial enterprises and banks. During the Austrian period, the local industry was limited to several successful enterprises. The Schlossmann steam mill, established in 1867, was founded by Jews from Wrocław. Three breweries, the largest of which was Aktienbierbrauerei, were also run by Jews. The brick stoves of the “Patria” company and H. Trichter's enterprise (producing wall tiles and stove tiles) were erected on Weinberg Hill. Six Jewish-owned oil refineries operated in the town. Most of the forests of Bukovina belonged to the Orthodox Christian Church and were systematically cut down with its consent. Out of 34 large sawmills in Bukovina, 28 were owned by Jews. Before the Great War, the most famous Jewish industrialists were Emanuel Fischer (potash), Emanuel Axelrad (cement), Moki Fischer and Nathan Eidinger (sugar factory), Fredric Fischer (glass factory), the Kraft brothers and Luttinger (milling industry). Many artisan professions (e.g. plumbers, glassmakers) were fully monopolised by Jews. The craftsmen’s organisation, headed by community councillor M. Picker and his deputy Elias Grill, had its own building at Drifaltigkeitsgasse. Jews were also a dominant group among watchmakers, goldsmiths, photographers, carpenters, tailors and shoemakers. Hotels with elegant restaurants, such as Moldova, Zum Schwarzen Adler, Central Palace, and Bristol, were also owned by Jews, alongside many popular cafes, such as Casino de Paris, Europa, and Astoria. With a few exception, the directors and board members of local banks were Jewish. The insurance business was also dominated by Jews (Phoenix, Assicuracioni Generali, Reunione Adriatica, Nordatern).

In the second half of the 19th century, the number of Jews working in liberal professions increased significantly. In 1855, only two Jewish lawyers – Josef Fechner and Josef Wohlfeld – sat in the national court; fifty years later, it was difficult to meet a non-Jewish lawyer in the Chernivtsi bar. Most Jewish doctors ran private practices, and their numbers grew year by year. With time, medicine began to be perceived as a Jewish profession. In the technical field, however, Jews had to contend with strong competition from the non-Jewish community. The number of Jews among the intelligentsia started to grow thanks to the establishment of the university in Chernivtsi in 1875. In the academic year 1903/1904, ca. 270 out of all 640 students attending the university were Jewish. The size and wealth of the local intelligentsia resulted in the development of the Jewish publishing market. Educational and cultural institutions (including amateur theatres), charity and sports institutions flourished.

The importance of Chernivtsi in the intellectual life of the Jewish Diaspora was reflected in the fact that it was selected as the venue for a conference devoted to the role and position of Yiddish in the life of the Jewish nation. The event, organised by Nathan Birnbaum and a group of New York intellectuals, took place in the capital of Bukovina in August and September of 1908. It brought together ca. 70 eminent representatives of the world of science, literature, and politics. It was attended by writers and journalists: Icchok Perec, Abraham Rajzen, Shalom Ash, Hirsz Dawid Nomberg, and Noach Prylucki. The Conference in Chernivtsi was an important stage in the formation and consolidation of the Yiddish movement. The most important conclusion formulated at the conference – the demand for Yiddish to be recognised as a Jewish national language – faced opposition from supporters of Hebrew as the most significant Jewish language. This was due to the growing popularity of Zionist ideas in the beginning of the 20th century; one of the postulates of the Zionist movement was to give Hebrew – the language of the Forefathers – the highest status among all languages used by Jews.

The end of the Great War in 1918 and the rapid disintegration of the dual monarchy marked the beginning of dramatic changes for all inhabitants of Bukovina, especially the Jewish population, which overnight became not only an ethnic but also a national minority. In the autumn, when the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was inevitable, the streets of Chernivtsi filled with armed soldiers who had abandoned their units. In order to defend the civilians, especially the local Jews, Chief Physician Ferdinand Sternlieb and Lieutenant Leon Schmelzer formed an organised, well-armed militia which managed to maintain order in the town. A committee was set up to assist ca. 6,000 Jewish refugees from Ukraine. It was initially headed by Schaje Goldfeld and later by Karl Klueger.

After several days of Ukrainian rule, Romanian troops entered Chernivtsi on 11 November 1918. Jews received the news with fear of losing their position and standard of living, especially in the light of the fate which befell their compatriots in Romania. In official communiqués, Jews were referred to as Evrei, but in everyday life, they were more often called Jidani, i.e. “Jewish scoundrels.” The first months of the Romanian rule were characterised by rather favourable treatment of the Jewish population, which was due to the fact that the government in Bucharest was awaiting the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference, which was to decide the fate of Greater Romania. Under the provisions of the peace treaty signed by Austria and the Allied Powers in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in September 1919, the Jews of Chernivtsi were to remain under the rule of King Ferdinand I. Despite the fact that Romania signed the so-called little Treaty of Versailles, the promise of equal rights for Jews turned out to be illusory. Successive Romanian governments sought to limit the role of Jews in trade and industry. The interests of the Jewish community were initially represented by the Jewish National Council (operating from December 1918 to December 1919). Later on, the only way for Jewish people to express the opinions of their communities was to join Romanian political parties. In the interwar period, several Bukovina Jews were elected to both chambers of the Bucharest Parliament (including famous historian Manfred Reifer and socialist Jacob Pistiner). The Jews who sat on the Chernivtsi Municipal Council – only sporadically represented in its Presidium – had limited influence on the course of events. Among the Jewish councillors were Norbert Zlocower, Leo Schnapp, and Marcus Kraemer. At the end of the 1920s, Oberlaender and Karl Klueger held the position of deputy mayors. Even in the Chamber of Commerce, where Jews constituted the majority of members, the post of the chairman was reserved for Romanians. Student organisations continued their activities until the Romanian government put an end to their operation in 1936. The Jewish press, which had been published until the same year, was increasingly restrained by censorship. The policy of Romanisation was introduced for all national minorities (accounting for over 30% of the Kingdom’s population) and also affected the Jews living in Chernivtsi. In an effort to consolidate the territories, where as many as four official languages had been recognised before the end of the Great War (apart from Romanian, there was also German, Hungarian and Russian), the authorities attacked non-Romanian press, education and science. In Bukovina and Chernivtsi, the government fought against German culture, which was an important part of the identity of most Jewish residents of the region, especially those well-educated. Paradoxically, this contributed to the strengthening of the position of Yiddish and Hebrew and to the growth of Jewish national consciousness (in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jews were considered a religious group, not a national minority). Despite the progressing Romanisation of the town, statistical data from 1930 shows that Jews still constituted the most numerous group among the residents of Chernivtsi – 43,000 out of the total population of 112,000 people (38%). The weakened role of the Jewish community, systematically eliminated from holding any public positions, became particularly visible in the field of education, especially in the second half of the 1930s. The percentage of Jewish students in local middle schools decreased from 18% to 9%. At the University of Chernivtsi, the numerus clausus was introduced for Jewish students. Despite these unfavourable social and political circumstances, Chernivtsi remained an important centre of Jewish culture in the Romanian period.

In June 1940, the authorities of the Soviet Union, with Hitler's consent, threatened the Romanian government with military aggression and forced the cession of Bessarabia (which Moscow had never recognised as part of Romania) and the northern part of Bukovina, which was largely inhabited by Ukrainian and Hutsul populations. For the Jews of Chernivtsi, this was another change in the national affiliation of their region. They were treated with distrust and even open hatred by the representatives of other nationalities and by local authorities, who considered Jews to be responsible for the ongoing changes and saw them as natural allies of the Bolshevik regime. In the days preceding the entry of the Red Army to the town (Chernivtsi was seized on 28 June), a wave of violence against the Jewish population swept through Bukovina’s towns and villages. Soon, representatives of all nationalities were to learn about the “benefits” of the new system. Soviet terror and persecutions did not omit the Jews of Chernivtsi, especially due to the fact that they were the dominant force in the sectors and social classes seen as the enemies of the people. It is estimated that ca. 3,000 members of the Jewish community, not only “exploiters,” but also representatives of the intelligentsia and activists of illegal social, religious, cultural, and sports organisations, were deported to remote regions of the Soviet Union.

After the invasion of the Third Reich and its allies on the Soviet Union, Chernivtsi was seized by German and Romanian troops on 5 July 1941. During the first three days of the occupation, the town, and especially its Jewish districts, became the scene of pogroms carried out on an unprecedented scale. It is estimated that ca. 600 local Jews were murdered at that time. There were also numerous cases of rapes of women, as well as widespread plundering and devastation of Jewish shops, institution, and private apartments. The German Einsatzgruppe D, led by Otto Ohlendorf, arrested and murdered ca. 1,500 representatives of the Jewish community, mainly members of the local intelligentsia, entrepreneurs, political and spiritual leaders. On 1 August, another group of ca. 700 Jews was arrested and murdered. Among the victims was Abraham Jacob Mark, the Chief Rabbi of Czerniowce, whose Reformed synagogue was burnt down. The remaining 50,000 Jews were forced to move into mere 4,000 apartments in the ghetto, opened on 11 October in the poor northern district of the town. The military order issued by Colonel Alexander Rioșanu, the Bukovina Prefect, was carried out in just 18 hours. It was accompanied by an immediate deportation of ca. 5,000–6,000 thousand people to the area of Transinistria (mainly southern Podolia and the Odessa region, occupied by the Romanian army). By mid-November, ca. 32,000 Jews were deported there, and two years later only several hundred remained alive. Further transports were discontinued by Romanian Prime Minister Marshal Ion Antonescu. His decision was influenced by the numerous pleas made by Mayor of Chernivtsi Traian Popovici, who put emphasis on the losses to the country’s war economy suffered as a result of the deportations. Earlier, he had refused to surround the area of the ghetto with barbed wire. The 20,000 Jews still remaining in the town (before Popovici’s intervention, the authorities had planned to spare the lives of only 200 people) were allowed to return to their plundered homes. Extraordinary committees were set up with the task of determining which professional groups would be allowed to remain in the town. All people aged 16 to 60 who received the state authorisation were forced to work to support the wartime struggle of Romania. Another series of deportations took place in three waves in June 1942 and affected ca. 5,000 people, mainly sick people unfit for work, children and women. In February 1944, the Red Army took over control over the town. Only 15,000 out of the town’s pre-war Jewish population of 50,000 lived to see that moment. The vast majority soon left for Romania, and then mostly to the emerging state of Israel.

During the Soviet period, a large group of Jews from inner Ukraine arrived to the town, which allowed for a partial reconstruction of the community. In 1959, the first post-war Soviet census was held, according to which Chernivtsi had a total population of 142,000 people, including 37,000 Jews (26%), while in the second census, carried out 20 years later, only 21,000 residents of the town declared to be Jewish (10%). In 1959, the Reformed synagogue destroyed during World War II was rebuilt, but the building was then converted into a cinema. The religious needs of the community were met by just one synagogue. In 1965, Sadhora, an important Hasidic centre during the Holocaust, was incorporated into Chernivtsi as one of its districts. Another wave of mass migration of Jews from Chernivtsi began in the 1980s, in the final years of the existence of the USSR, and intensified in the first years of Ukrainian independence. In 1989, the Jewish population decreased to 17,000 people (7%), and in the second decade of the 21st century – to 1,300 people (0.5% of all inhabitants). An important event in the life of this small community, gathered around the Eliezer Shteynbarg Association, which cultivates the traditions of the “Jerusalem on the Prut,” was the opening of the Museum of the History and Culture of Bukovina Jews in 2008, on the 600th anniversary of Hospodar Alexander the Good granting privileges to the local Jews. The museum is located in the restored Jewish National House, which today serves as the Central Municipal Palace of Culture.

Print