Jewish settlement in Czerkasy dates back to the end of the 16th century, when Ukraine experienced an intense colonisation. The settlers represented various nationalities, including Jews from Polish territories. They began to engage in trade between Moscow and Caffa (today’s Feodosia, Crimea). The community was decimated during the Khmelnytsky Uprising (1648-1655) and the Russian-Polish war (1654-1667).

Jews reappeared in the town in the 18th century. According to the census of 1765, Czerkasy was inhabited by 171 Jewish people. Yet this period also ended tragically: all Polish and Jewish residents of the town were murdered when a Cossack unit commanded by Maksym Zalizniak took Czerkasy by storm during the battle of Koliyivshchyna (1768).

In 1793, in the aftermath of the Second Partition of Poland, Czerkasy – together with the whole right-bank Ukraine – fell under the rule of the Russian Empire. Czerkasy became a district town in 1797. The tax records of 1802 show that at that time the town was inhabited by 23 Christian merchants, 23 Jewish merchants, 1,633 Christian townsmen and 1,750 Jewish townsmen. There were several synagogues in operation, 9 prayer houses, 3 private all-boys schools, one school for girls and a Talmud-Torah school.

In 1847 the community had 1,568 members. In the 1860s it founded a Jewish hospital and poorhouse. The community’s main occupations were grain trade and crafts, but it also gained profit from the right to manufacture and retail of liquor. One of the most important leaseholders of the propination laws privilege was H. Margunowski. In the 19th century Czerkasy became one of the important centres of Hasidism. Tzaddik Yakov Israel Twerski (Yaakov Yisroel Twerski, 1794-1876), son of the Magid of Chernobyl, resided in the town. He was the founder of the Hornsteipl dynasty and the leader of the local community from the 1830s until his death. From the 1880s, more and more Czerkasy Jews were supporters of the Hovevei Zion and later, in the 1890s, of Zionism. In the early 20th century many Zionist parties had their divisions in the town.

According to the census of 1897, the district was inhabited by 300,000 people, 30,317 of whom were Jewish. In Czerkasy there were 10,950 Jews, while the total number of inhabitants reached 30,000. In 1910 the town was inhabited by 12,979 Jews. In 1903 there were 22 synagogues and prayer houses in the town.

In June 1905 black-hundredists of the Society of Russian Patriots instigated a pogrom against local Jews using support of local authorities. The pogrom was aimed to suppress revolutionary movements and was preceded by a massive anti-Semitic campaign. On 23 June 1905, employees of local plants such as the sugar refinery and the nail factory, in which many Jews were employed, went on strike in protest against the pogrom. In September 1917 soldiers of the Czerkasy garrison established the Society of Jews-Servicemen.

During the Russian Civil War the town was captured and recaptured a number of times (it was occupied, among others, by the Denikin’s army and the armed forces of the Ukrainian People’s Republic). Almost every change of authority was accompanied by new series of pogroms. An especially brutal one was the pogrom instigated by the troops of Ataman Grigoriev (12-20 May 1919), when 700 people were murdered. The entry of Denikin’s army led to the murder of 250 Jews, furthermore it is said that every Jewish house was plundered on average seven times. In the summer of 1919 the Bolsheviks nationalised 11 big enterprises that until then had belonged to Jews.

In 1926 there were 10,866 Jews living in Czerkasy (25,3% of the population). The Soviet government gradually liquidated all Jewish organisations. In the 1920s all the prayer houses, synagogues, religious and private schools were closed. However, Jewish secondary and professional schools were established – in the 1920s and 1930s a Jewish technical school was in operation. A Yiddish newspaper entitled Dos Komunistishe Vort was published in the year 1929.

On 22 September 1941 German troops marched into Czerkasy. The provincial administration and local police conducted a registration of the Jewish population. The Jews were forced to wear a Star of David on their sleeves. The new administration issued a decree of instituting a Jewish residential area; over 300 people were resettled there on 12 October 1941. A Judenrat was founded, consisting of three people; it designated workers aged 15-60 to work for the invaders and collaborators on a daily basis. In the first days of November 1941, Einsatzkommando 5 shot the residents of the ghetto. Olexandra Shulzhenko, director of the orphanage, was only able to save 25 orphans[1.1]

In 1959 there were 5,100 Jews in Czerkasy, constituting 6% of the population. Before the end of the 1950s the authorities closed the last functioning synagogue under the excuse of it interfering with the plans of rebuilding the town. In 1989 they were 3,538 Jews living in Czerkasy, and 6,505 in the entire district. In the 1980s, the revival of Jewish life began along with perestroika and democratisation. The Cherkasy Society for Jewish Culture and two religious communities were established: an orthodox and reformed one. In the early 1990s, however, many Jews from Czerkasy chose to emigrate to Israel, Germany and the United States[1.2].

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Cherkassy [in] Holokost na tieritorii SSSR. Enicklopiediya, ed. I. A. Altman, Moscow 2009, 1059
  • [1.2] Cherkassy, in: Elyiektronnaya Yevrieyskaya Entziklopiediya [online], http://www.eleven.co.il/article/14666 [Accessed 31.08.2013].