Jewish Kyiv – 10 Interesting Facts about Jews in Ukraine – Kiev Private Tours
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Jewish Kyiv - History of famous Jews
30 Sep

Jewish Kyiv – 10 Interesting Facts about Jews in Ukraine

The Jewish history of Kiev, which dates back at least 10 centuries, is full of various memorable moments – one of the largest Jewish communities in Ukraine which financed many urban development projects was formed and flourished here; the largest pogroms and tragedy of Babyn Yar took place here. Many philanthropists, politicians, people of science and art were born or lived and made a career in Kiev and its suburbs – starting with the famous sugar industrialist and philanthropist Lazar Brodsky and the first woman as Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir, writer Ilya Erenburg, who first began to speak about the Holocaust, and Lazar Kaganovich, one of the main organizers of the Stalinist repressions, because of which several tens of millions of people, including Jews, were tortured to death in the dungeons, died during the Holodomor, or were imprisoned in camps.

This article tells a little about the Jewish history of Kiev and what famous people were born on the territory of modern Kyiv region.

10 Interesting Facts about Jews in Ukraine

1. Kyiv letter

The starting point in the official history of the Jews of Kiev was the so-called Kyiv letter addressed to all Jewish communities in the world to raise money for the ransom of the merchant Yaakov bar Hanukkah from the debt prison. The letter was drawn up around the year 930 and it described the reasons for the unfortunate person to meet the following conditions: Yaakov bar Hanukkah was to pay the debt of his dead brother, but neither he nor the Kiev Jewish community had the required amount of 100 dirhams, and a decision was made to apply to the whole Jewish world.

However, obviously, the Jews lived in Kiev lands long before the writing of this letter. It is possible that their main settlement was the Kozary tract, which was mentioned in the Ipatiev Chronicle for 945. It is also known that in 986 Jews from the Khazar Kaganate came to Prince Volodymyr, hoping to convince him to convert Kievan Rus to Judaism (in all probability, there was already some existing Judaism community to launch this religious “project”).

In the ancient history of Kiev, there are several more references to Judaism. One of the legendary founders of the city was called Horeb, but this name was also sometimes used for Mount Sinai, where Moses received the commandments. In the treatise On Empire Management (circa 948), Kiev and its fortress were referred to as Samvatas – which is very similar to the name of the Sabbath River Sambation mentioned in Jewish literature, flowing at the edge of the earth in the country of ten lost Israeli tribes.

2. Years of exile and prosperity

In the days of the Tatar-Mongol yoke, the Jews – as, indeed, the majority of the population of the city – had a very difficult time. Over time, the city was occupied by Lithuanian princes (and many captured Jews were taken to Crimea), and from the middle of the XIV century there is practically no information about the life of Jews in the city – except that in the documents of the XV century there are small references to Kiev Jews who collected taxes and owned solid property. When in 1495 Jews were expelled from Lithuania, this also affected Kiev Jews, but in 1503 the decree on expulsion was canceled.


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However, a century later, history repeated itself – in 1619, at the request of Christian merchants, Jews were forbidden to stay in Kiev for more than one day; even then, and they could only live in a “city house”. However, no one took the property from the Jews – and therefore they managed all their affairs remotely. In general, after Kiev came under the rule of the Moscow Tsar, little has improved. This continued until the end of the XVIII century, when circumstances changed and the Jewish community began to gain its influence again. In a century and a half, it has become one of the most prosperous and largest in Europe.

Jewish synagogue Kiev

3. Marchak Jewelry House

Although the surname Marchak is primarily associated with children’s poems, the hero of this story was not a writer, but a successful jeweler who created his own jewelry house, which became international.

Joseph Marchak (1854 – 1918) was born in the village of Ignatovka and was the eldest of six children. When the future founder of the jewelry house was 14 years old, he went to Kiev and got a job as a student in a jewelry workshop. After a couple of years, he passed professional exams and got the right to practice craft independently.

Joseph Marchak in Kiev

Almost immediately, Joseph opened his own workshop in Podil and at first worked there alone, and a year later, he moved to Khreshchatyk and was able to expand the business by hiring apprentice and students.

At first, Marchak only made jewelry and sold them at the stores of other craftsmen and merchants. Over the next 10 years, he significantly expanded his business, recruited new masters, gained credibility in his business, visited jewelry exhibitions in Germany and France, and introduced new approaches in his production. In particular, he was the first to entrust female artisans to perform engraved operations that required extreme accuracy and concentration.

Gradually, Marchak’s workshop grew into a factory, and the factory very quickly began to master new trends and techniques – at first the products were sold in Kiev, Poltava, Kharkov and Tbilisi, and eventually also in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw, whose large stores were the main customers of the Kiev jeweler.


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In addition, Marchak’s products were highly appreciated at specialized exhibitions – in 1893 in Chicago and in 1894 in Antwerp, his works were awarded with a diploma and a medal (after which there will be many more other awards). After a while, Marchak added watchmaking to jewelry, buying the watch trade from the Swiss (from whom he first rented, and then bought a room with workshops), and then opened a craft school.

Joseph Marchak was one of the main competitors of the jeweler Peter Faberge; they even called him Cartier from Kyiv. His products – not only jewelry, but also dinnerware sets, watches and other expensive pieces of jewelry – were presented not only to wealthy people, to representatives of the nobility and merchants, and to the imperial family.

Joseph Marchak had eight children and many students, and therefore his work continued – but on other lands. When the founder of the jewelry house Marchak died at the age of 64 of cancer, he left a will, according to which his fortune was distributed among the children, and part of the money – 1 million rubles – was given to charity and the support of the workers of his factory.

Unfortunately, because of the revolution, much of his last will was not implemented, but the jewelry house survived. Joseph’s son, Alexander, opened a salon in Paris, where he successfully continued his father’s business, and after World War II, jeweler Jacques Verger discovered Marchak Jewelry House for America and Morocco. After experiencing many difficulties and even closing, the Marchak salon was reborn in Paris in April 2005.

4. Philosopher Shestov-Schwartzman

Lev Schwartzman (1866 – 1938) was born in Kiev in the family of a merchant who owned the Isaac Schwartzman Manufacturing Partnership located on Podil and traded first-class fabrics. A wealthy parent who bear progressive views and spacious mind, wanted his children to continue his work, but in no case insisted on it. When Lev entered the Faculty of Mathematics of Moscow University and later was transferred to the Faculty of Law of Kiev University, his father supported him. However, Schwartzman never became a doctor of law – his dissertation “On the situation of the working class in Russia” was censored and banned.

Philosopher Shestov-Schwartzman

Lev Schwartzman returned to Kiev and began to engage in the work of his father, while devoting himself to literary and philosophical activities. At some point, the stress of combining two different lives – creative and business – affected him so much that he had nervous breakdown and was forced to go abroad for treatment. However, he could not stay there for a long time – in fact, he had to divide his life between Europe, where he wrote, and Kiev, where he had to control business of his aged father.

Since 1898, Schwartzman, who takes the pseudonym Shestov, begins to publish his works – it was then that his first book, Shakespeare and His Critic Brandes, was published. Soon other essays dedicated to works of different writers, among which were Tolstoy, Chekhov, Merezhkovsky and Sologub were published. However, the main work of Shestov appeared in 1905, and it became a real philosophical manifesto that provoked different evaluation of readers – it was called “The Apotheosis of Groundlessness (the Experience of Adogmatic Thinking).” He wrote: “…my entire task was precisely to get rid of all kinds of beginnings and ends once and for all, with such incomprehensible persistence imposed on us by all kinds of founders of great and not great philosophical systems.”

Shestov, who was extremely skeptical of autocracy, did not accept the revolution in tsarist Russia – he called the October Revolution reactionary and despotic. In 1920, he and his family moved to Switzerland and since 1921 resided in France. His views and opinions on the structure of the world and society were shared by many – by the way, Shestov belonged to the elite of Western thought of that era and was friends with Edmund Husserl, Claude Levi-Strauss, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, and also gave lectures at the Sorbonne, many of which were devoted to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, as well as Russian philosophical thought in general.

5. The Beilis case

One of the most high-profile trials – if not the most high profile – in the Russian Empire was the case of the Kiev Jew Beilis, a clerk at a brick factory, who was charged with the ritual murder of a 12-year-old boy. The victim of the crime on March 12, 1912, was a student of the preparatory class of the Kiev-Sofia Theological School Andrei Yushchinsky, and the motive for the murder was allegedly Beilis’s desire to prepare for Paysach and get blood of innocent Christian for matzo.

Kiev Jew Beilis

In fact, Mendel Beilis (1874 – 1934), although born in a Hasidic family, was not religious and maintained friendly relations with Christians – his local acquaintances even included a local Orthodox priest. Even for this reason, it would be strange to suspect him of a ritual murder.

Forensic examination found that the wounds on the boy’s body did not contribute to the abundant release of blood to the outside – which means that they were not made to collect blood. Nevertheless, apparently, the real killer (but still not accused) Vera Cheberyak had reasons to kill the boy – she, the mother of one of Andrei’s friends, kept a thief’s den, and the boy threatened his friend he would tell others about her affairs.

This murder was a trigger for a new round of the anti-Semitic campaign, which flared up in Kiev, and then even brighter in the Russian Empire. Despite the lack of evidence, the apparent connection of the murder with another person, the undisguised anti-Semitism of the court and the obvious fabrication of the charges, the defendant spent two years in prison, and the trial continued for more than one week. All this provoked a wave of indignation of the intelligentsia, which supported Beilis and opposed the initiation of “blood libel” – this movement even went beyond the borders of the country.

Oscar Gruzenberg, famous lawyer and advocate of the Jews (by the way, born in Yekaterinburg) won the case.

After his release, Beilis first immigrated to Palestine, and then moved to the States, where he wrote the book “The Story of My Suffering” in Yiddish – it was translated into Russian only in 2005.

6. Brilliant pianist and “son of revolution”

Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989) was born in Kiev in the family of Samoil Ioahimovich Horowitz, who owned a company selling electric equipment, and Sofia Aaronovna, who was a pianist. It was mother who gave a love of music to Vladimir (as well as the rest of her children). First, she taught Vladimir, and in 1912, he entered the Kiev Conservatory. However, Horowitz never received a diploma, because he did not have a certificate of completion of the gymnasium. Nevertheless, this did not affect the level of professional education – Horowitz was taught by first-class masters and he was simply magically talented.

Horowitz began his career early. To some extent it was out of despair – after the revolution, the Bolsheviks deprived his family of everything (and later the USSR took lives of some of his relatives), and the teenager needed to earn money. To feed himself and his relatives, Horowitz ends his studies ahead of schedule and begins to give concerts.

Famous Jews in Ukraine, Kiev

Those years many had nothing to buy food for, and there was even less money for tickets to music concerts. However, Horowitz’s performances were successful – first in Kharkov (Horowitz’s debut concert was held there in 1920) and Kiev, and then in other cities of Ukraine and Russia. He often performed with his sister Regina, and they possessed such a powerful musical temperament and incredible technique, and possessed such an amazing repertoire that in one of the articles Lunacharsky even called them “children of the revolution”.

However, Horowitz hated the October Revolution and at the first real opportunity, in 1925, he moved to Berlin under the pretext of training. Over time, he moved to Switzerland and, while living there, toured Europe from the late 20s to the mid-30s, and traveled to the USA with concerts. In the States, he met Sergei Rachmaninov and later performed his works and did it so good that the composer called the performance perfect. To describe Horowitz’s popularity in Europe, one can only note that when he gave a concert in Paris, excited audience broke chairs in the hall; they even had to call the gendarmes.

In 1939, Horowitz immigrated to the United States and actively gave concerts. When the war began, the great pianist gave concerts raising money for the defense fund, bringing it millions of dollars (no matter how amazing it may sound) while performing works by Soviet composers as well.

“The piano game consists of common sense, heart and technical means. Everything should be developed equally: without common sense, you will fail, without technology you are an amateur, without a heart – a machine. So the profession is fraught with danger,” said Vladimir Horowitz.

Although Horowitz was almost always at the peak of fame, he never compromised on quality and did not work when he felt that his strength was at its limit. For example, while still living in Europe, for 3 years – from 1939 to 1939 – he had a break after complicated operation to remove appendicitis and he did not perform. “I think that as an artist I grew up over these forced vacations. In any case, I discovered a lot of new things in my music,” he recalled. In 1953–65, he also paused due to overwork. Horowitz returned to concert activity, speaking in Carnegie Hall in 1965 – there was such an incredible queue for tickets for his concert in New York that they even talked about it in the news.

Such interruptions began to happen more and more often. In 1969–74, Horowitz did not perform again, but when he nevertheless returned to the stage, he toured and participated in the recordings of concerts with tripled enthusiasm. His last concert was held on June 21, 1986 in Germany; on November 5, 1989, Horowitz suffered a heart attack, and the brilliant virtuoso died.

7. Fazini the artist

Srul Arievich Fainzilberg, artist better known as Sandro Fazini (1892 – 1942), was born in Kiev in the family of a small bank clerk and was the eldest of four children (and one of his brothers was the future famous writer Ilya Ilf). His talent for drawing was clear since he was a child; having studied a little at a commercial gymnasium, he left it, which was a great disappointment of his parent. Instead, Sandro went to the Second Jewish State Art College in Odessa – in a city by the sea, where his family moved when the boy was a little over a year old.

Fazini the artist

When the boy was 15, he began to publish his illustrations in the magazines, and from the age of 18, he started working with legendary Crocodile magazine and made illustrations for poetry collections. Having become a painter and having chosen cubism as the main direction of his works, Fazini adjoins the Society of Independent Artists and actively participates in their exhibitions in 1917-1919.

The time was not easy then, especially for the creative intelligentsia, but Fazini managed to remain who he was under any authority. This was the case when a personal position was in the shadow of creative realization – Fazini’s works appeared in satirical magazines of both white and red military forces, as well as during the German and French occupation of Odessa. When the Bolsheviks came to power, Fazini painted propaganda posters in YugROST. For example, in the novel “Grass of Oblivion” by Valentin Kataev we read about “a huge billboard Matisse-style poster by the artist Fazini – two revolutionary sailors in flared trousers with Mausers on their side against a dark blue sea with armadillo”.

However, Fazini did not live long in the new regime. In early 1922, he decided to leave the “country of workers and peasants” and immigrated to Paris, where he exhibited as artist, working in the style of Cubism and surrealism, and a photographer. One of the main features of his creative style was top-down shooting. His photographs, signed by Al Fas. were regularly published in the Paris weekly magazines. Completing the orders of various companies, Sandro traveled throughout Europe.

Initially, Fazini was going to leave for the States, and wrote to his uncle who already lived there: “Unfortunately, you can’t make a choice now, and today choosing Russia means choosing death.”

Unfortunately, France did not become a salvation for him. The Second World War began, and on July 16, 1942, Sandro Fazini and his wife were captured by the gendarmes and were sent first to the Drancy transit camp, and then to the Auschwitz concentration camp. There they died same year.

8. The author of the legendary song

Yakov Davydov (1973 – 1940) was born in a Kiev Jewish family, but, alas, we will not be able to find out what position in society his family held and what education he has got – this data has not been preserved.

Jewish Kiev Tour

Yakov began his literary work in 1912, when he was almost 40. He was first published in the newspaper “Perviye Izvestia” and until the October Revolution published his satirical feuilleton in Nikolaev, Odessa and Kiev – both in Russian and Ukrainian – under a variety of pseudonyms, among which were Zhgut, Boatswain Jacob, Yakiv Otruta, Yakiv Boatswain and Bee.

The October Revolution happened, and Davydov moved to Odessa, where he quickly became friends with Valentin Kataev, Ilya Ilf and Konstantin Paustovsky; this is when he started working in proletarian newspapers, releasing his talented satirical works.

In parallel with journalistic sketches, Yadov (of all his 20s pseudonyms, he decided to dwell on this one) began to write feuilleton for pop artists and words for songs. In 1926, in the midst of the New Economic Policy, together with the pop songwriter Georgy Krasavin, who composed music, Yakov Yadov wrote poetry for the legendary song “Bubliki”.

Here is how composer recalled the story of the creation of this work: “Arriving on a tour in Odessa, I was amazed that while I was driving from the station to meet Yadov on Sumska Street, I was accompanied all the way by exclamations “buy bagels!” (rus. bubliki). I thought it would be nice to have a song with this chorus. I told Yadov about my desire and played the violin, with which I usually performed, a melody that sank into my memory. Yakov Petrovich burst out in his usual violent laugh and told his wife Olga Petrovna in his hoarse voice: “Make tea for the artist. And I will bake bagels…” I heard him typing for about half an hour in the next room. That very evening I performed Bubliki in Gambrinus. The next day, the entire Odessa was singing Bubliki…”

In addition to Bubliki, Yadov created many more “folk” masterpieces – “Laugh, laugh louder than all…”, “Limonchiki” (performed by Utesov), “Flashlights”, and some even say he is author of iconic “Murka” and “Chicken fried”

For some time, the “anonymous” status of the songs saved Yadov from criticism of his “colleagues”, but one day all the secrets become known. For the low literary level, writers from RAPP actively criticized him and even suggested to “liquidate” Yadov. They got their way. After this statement, Yadov had a brain hemorrhage; he was expelled from the members of the Literary Fund. After some time, Yadov died.

9. The Queen of Trance Film

Eleanora Derenkovskaya (1917 – 1961), better known under the pseudonym Maya Deren, became one of the most unusual and original representatives of the American arthouse. She was born in Kiev in the family of a psychiatrist, but when she was five, the family (like many other Jewish families in those days) moved to the United States.

Derenkovskaya had incredible strength of character, was quite original (in the 40s she even looked like hippies, although they appeared later) and was always looking for something new, unrecognized, but with great potential. She studied literature at New York University and Smith College, but did not become a writer. Since the beginning of the 1940s, Derenkovskaya was the personal secretary of the founder of the “black dance”, ballerina and choreographer Katherine Dunham, and it was this experience that inspired Maya to get to know the world of African and Haitian voodoo rituals – later, in the 50s she even lived in Haiti.

In 1943, Derenkovskaya began working on the production of films – this was inspired by her second husband Alexander Hackenschmid, Czech avant-garde photo artist and film director; their marriage lasted only 3 years. By the way, it was he who invented the pseudonym Maya for Eleanora – he said that this was the name of the mother of Buddha.

“I was a poet; I always transferred my visual images in words. When I started making movies, it was like returning home. I no longer needed to translate the images into words, she recalled. – If I were not a director, I would probably be a dancer or singer. Nevertheless, cinema is a wonderful dance. In the movies, I can make the world dance. ”

Deren worked under the influence of surrealists and avant-garde artists (and amphetamines, which she began to take in the early 40s). In 1947, her film “Midday Networks” (1943) won the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival in the category “Best Experimental Film”. However, her works were different from what the public wanted to see – they had no plot, only feelings, trance and optical illusions – therefore, she was not popular in the United States or Europe either during her life or after death. Maya Deren made 8 films, but not all of them are known even to fans of the American avant-garde cinema.

Maya Deren died at age 44 from a brain hemorrhage caused by extreme exhaustion and use of narcotic substances. Her ashes were scattered over Mount Fuji.

10. Laureate of the UNESCO Science Award

Marcos Moshinsky (1921 – 2009) was born in Kiev; when he was 3 years old, the family immigrated to Palestine, and from there moved to Mexico. There, a former Kiev student studied and became a bachelor in physics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and then got his doctorate degree at Princeton University – his research advisor was Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner, also a Jewish emigrant.

Jewish history in Ukraine

Moshinsky chose nuclear physics, which at that time was gaining incredible popularity, as the main topic of his research. In the 1950s, he studied nuclear reactions and the structure of the atomic nucleus, working with other prominent physicists of his time. He completed postdoctoral studies at the Poincare Institute in Paris, but did not stay in Europe and returned to Mexico City.

In addition to conducting research in the field of nuclear physics, Marcos Moshinsky wrote scientific books and monographs (over 200), and also became president of the Mexican Physical Society. Although Moshinsky did not make discoveries worthy of the Nobel Prize, he had many professional awards – he became a laureate of the Mexican National Science Prize (1968), the Luis Elizondo Prize (1971), the Prince of Asturias Prize (1988), the UNESCO Prize in Science (1997), as well as the Yuchiman da Plata Prize (1997).

Physics was not Moshinsky’s only hobby – he was also well versed in politics and even wrote a weekly column on political events in Mexico in Excelsior newspaper.

Thus, we can understand that the history of Kiev and Ukraine is not possible without the participation of Jews.

Get to know more about Jewish Kiev – on our private excursions – Jewish Heritage Tour.

Contact to order Jewish Heritage Tour in Kyiv:

Kate Dobromishev

Tour Guide in Guide me UA / English language / Private Tours in Kyiv

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