Nezhin :: нежин

by Herbert I. Lazerow

General History of Nezhin and Ukraine
Nezhin, pronounced NYEH-zhin in Russian (where the "zh" is like the "g" in "privilege"), NEE-zhin in Ukrainian, and NEH-zin by my grandmother, who left there as a small child, is a city in north-central Ukraine that has experienced its vicissitudes, but has generally been moderately important over the years. It is located at 51.03/31.53, 73 miles (109 km) northeast of Kiev, 40 miles (60 km) southeast of Chernigov (Chernihiv in Ukrainian), 62 miles (94 km) west-southwest of Konotop.

Nezhin currently has a population of around 86,000 persons. Chernigov, the oblast capital, has three times that number, though the Chernigov population was only 60% that of Nezhin in 1895 (27,000 in Chernigov, 45,000 in Nezhin). Throughout the 19th century, Nezhin was a uezd (district) capital in the Chernigov guberniya (province). The Oster River, today not much more than a stream, runs through Nezhin just north of the center of town.

Ukraine, which means "borderlands", enters history around 800 as the home of a people called the Rus, centered on Kiev. While it is likely that a Rus settlement existed on the site of Nezhin around the same time, the first mention of Nezhin is in the Hypatian Chronicle of 1147 under the name Unenezh. Around 1200, most of Ukraine was devastated by nomadic Mongols called either Tatars or Tartars, who leveled Unenezh in 1239. In the 13th century, Ukraine came under Lithuanian sway. The town was renamed Nezhin in 1514. Poland became the ruler in 1618, but attempts by Poland to convert Ukrainians to Roman Catholicism led to revolts in the 1630s. The 1648 revolt of Bogdan Khmelnytskii was successful with help from Moscow and the Tatar cavalry. Khmelnytskii established a regime known as the "Hetman state", because effective power lay in the hands of an elected (and frequently dis-elected) "Hetman" (headman). This regime lasted 1648-1782. During it, Nezhin was a regimental center. Meanwhile, however, de jure control of Nezhin was handed to Russia by the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667), and the distribution of actual control between the Tsar and the hetman probably varied considerably over the years, but the Tsar was usually firmly in control. The Tsar's rule over the area terminated in 1917, as Lenin and the Soviets extended their control to all of Ukraine. This was interrupted by the Nazi invasion. Nezhin fell in summer 1941. It was recaptured by the Soviets 15 September 1943. Nezhin was then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until its dissolution in 1991. It is now part of Ukraine which, in area, is the second largest country entirely within Europe (after Germany). Thus, an independent Ukrainian nation has existed for only a decade in the 1600s and a comparable period today.

An approach to thinking about early Ukraine would be to divide it at the Dnieper River between west (right-bank) and east (left-bank). In general, right-bank Ukraine was more heavily populated, and more administrative energies were spent on it. Nezhin and the rest of left-bank Ukraine was less populated and developed later. While not of mythic proportions like the Caucasus, Ukraine has long been regarded as akin to the Old West in the United States in that it was the frontier. While western Ukraine and the north-central portion along the Dnieper River were settled to somewhat south of Kiev early, settlement was sparse in the marshy areas further south and in the east. Both the Polish and Russian governments when they controlled Ukraine provided the equivalent of homestead inducements to people willing to colonize these areas, and the process of colonization continued from the 16th through the 19th centuries. It is entirely possible that Nezhin functioned (as did Jefferson City MO) as one of the last spots of civilization before leaving for the colonies.

Nezhin has always been an important trading location. Several trade routes cross here, and prosperity was increased by the coming of the railroad. That the town attracted numerous immigrants from all over western Russia is attested by the Jewish metrical records of the time showing large numbers of persons resident in Nezhin who were registered elsewhere in Russia. During the 17th century, Nezhin became an important manufacturing and trading center. A large Greek merchant colony grew, which was given the privilege of self-government, opening a school, and building its own church (St Michael's, 1731), which survives to this day. When Russian control was firmly established over Black Sea and Azov Sea ports in the 19th century, trade routes shifted and the rise of Odessa coincided with the decline of Nezhin. Because of the difficulties of travel, the 18th century saw the institution of commercial fairs, where people would gather for a week or more in certain left-bank cities, including Nezhin, to buy and sell goods. In 1786, Nezhin had 387 outdoor shops, 6 coffee shops, 29 smithies, 73 public houses (shynky), 124 taverns, 8 brickmakers, 2 sugar refineries and 15 windmills.

Artistically, Nezhin produced two masters of iconostasis (a screen or partition with doors and icons separating the bema from the nave in Eastern Orthodox Churches), S. Voloshenko and S. Bilopolskii, at the end of the 18th century.

In 1820, Count Bezborodko founded the Bezborodko Gymnasium (high school) on the north bank of the Oster River across from the city center. It was renamed the Nezhin Lyceum in 1832, and then the Nezhin Pedagogical Institute, providing college-level instruction. It is now called "The Institute" by locals. As one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Ukraine, it attracted students from a broad area, including Nikolai Gogol (1809-52), who left for St Petersburg and became famous as a playwright and writer of fiction.

During the past 150 years, Nezhin has developed as a transportation, manufacturing, and farming center. Both the main line railroad from Kiev to Moscow, and the elektrishka, a commuter train from Kiev to Konotop, pass through Nezhin. The train station is on the south extreme of the town, then the line skirts its eastern edge. Nezhin is the center of a rich, vegetable-producing plateau (truck farming). Its manufacturing plants produce farm machinery, rubber products, household chemicals, building materials, and clothing. In the early 19th century, Nezhin became a center of tobacco manufacturing in small shops which gave employment to many Jews. But toward the end of the century, a new method of collecting tobacco taxes favored the concentration of the tobacco industry in large manufacturing. Vsya Rossiya of 1895 notes Nezhin manufacturing in the areas of artificial mineral water, soap, beer and mead brewing, tobacco, printing, and vinegar making, as well as two steam mills. The 4 manufacturers in the surrounding uezd were 3 distillers and a sugarmaker. Retail commerce lists pharmacies, groceries, winestores, haberdashers, a hotel, hardware, books, leather, shoes, subcontractors, wood, fabrics, oil, butter, furniture, flour, fur, clothing, dishes and kitchenware, fish, and tobacco. Nezhin was famous in Tsarist times for its delicious pickles.

Jews in Nezhin
Nezhin has been an important Jewish center. The source of the Jewish population is lost in the mists of time. However, with the Lithuanian and Polish hegemony over the area, it is reasonable to assume that Jews, who had a substantial part in helping oversee the estates of the Lithuanian and Polish nobility in their homelands, were also employed in the same capacity when those nobles acquired lands in Ukraine. Even more so here than in Poland, as many Polish nobles preferred the luxuries of Warsaw and Krakow to the rigors of the Ukrainian frontier.

Lubovicher influence
In the 19th century, the Nezhin Jewish community was heavily influenced by the Lubovicher movement. This influence was so strong that in Philadelphia in the 1890s, a group of immigrants from Nezhin in Philadelphia established the Naziner Shul to provide worship according to the Rites of Ari. Lubovicher influence begins with the arrival in Nezhin of the tsadik Dov Ber of Lubavich, son of Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the middle rabbi. Dov Ber died in 1827 and is buried in Nezhin. Israel Noah Schneersohn lived in Nezhin from 1867 to 1882. So Nezhin became a center of Khabad Khasidim in Ukraine.

Other religious leaders
In the survey of Jewish religious personnel conducted in 1853-54, 4 synagogues are listed. In the first, a congregation of 143, the rabbi, at a salary of 150 rubles, was Yudka Mitenberg, who had been in the job since 1848. Yankel Khaikin is listed as Elder (Starosta) since 1835, and Yankel Vishnevskii is named treasurer (kaznachei) since 1835. In the second, a congregation of 113, no rabbi is listed. The elder is Zalman Gelfant; the treasurer is Shlema Golubev. In the third, a congregation of 95, the elder is Meer R...slavskii, the intervening letters being illegible; the treasurer is Volka Nosovskii. Neither congregation 2 nor 3 lists a rabbi, and the report is that both officers of both congregations held their offices since around 1835. No officers are listed for the fourth congregation (65 members), but it is noted that it meets "at the home of Shneerson".

From the Nezhin metrical records, it appears that the court rabbis were : 1854-59, Yudka Mininberg; 1863-81, Moisei Ettingin; 1886-88, Ya. Kharshak; 1884-88, E Mininberg (assistant rabbi, and once referred to as uchenyi, or scholar); Rabinovich 1901-03; Tvery, 1908; Arolazorov, 1909. Menakhem Mendel Hen was rabbi in 1919. Mohels listed on records I have examined are David Leib Barshevski 1852; Chavuski 1852; Denenberg or Dineburg 1852-80; Shneerson 1863-69; Grenits 1867-93; Tsorelson 1870; Burshtein 1879-1910; Tinavitskii 1884; Ryaboi 1893-1905; Dvorkus 1898; Lapin 1904; Basionok 1904; Zak 1905. One Agornyi is listed as "elder" in 1908.

Poet Mani Leib
Nezhin is also the birthplace of the Yiddish impressionist and neo-romantic poet Mani Leib (born Braginsky) 1883-1953, a member of Die Junge.

Interaction of the Jewish and Ukrainian communities
There were five principal incidents of violence against Jews. The first occurred around 1648, but its antecedents were laid in the 1630s, when Ukraine revolted against its Polish overlords. This revolt was severely repressed by the Polish military nobility (szlachta), with much loss of life in Nezhin. As Jews provided the administrative arm of the szlachta, they were perceived as being responsible. Khmelnytskii's May 1648 victory at Zhovti Vody annihilated the Polish army and electrified Ukrainians. Some rushed to join Khmelnytsii's army; others rioted. The "Eye-Witness Chronicle" reports: "Wherever they found [Polish] szlachta, royal officials, or Jews, they killed them all, sparing neither women nor children. They pillaged the estates of the Jews and szlachta, burned [Roman Catholic] churches, and killed their priests, leaving nothing whole. It was a rare individual in those days who had not soaked his hands in blood and participated in the pillage." Jewish losses were especially heavy because they were the most numerous and accessible representatives of the szlachta. Wildly varying estimates have been made of Jewish losses during this 1648-56 period of minimal record-keeping. Scholars best estimates are that Jewish deaths in Ukraine numbered in the tens of thousands. We have no specific details about these riots in Nezhin, but we know that they occurred there.

The Treaty of Zborov (1649), which gave the hetman de jure powers over Chernigov, Kiev and Bratslav provinces, also provided for expulsion of all Jews and Jesuits from that territory. While it is doubtful that this portion of the treaty was fully implemented, it is safe to say that the last half of the 17th century was a period of Jewish eclipse in Ukraine. While Jewish resettlement of the area was not officially permitted until 1794, the continual references during the 18th century to Jews there make it clear that there was a continuous, though small, Jewish population.

Nezhin was not immune from the waves of pogroms in 1881 and 1905. There were anti-Jewish riots July 20-22 1881 in which most Jewish houses were destroyed, and the military was called out resulting in the death of 10 anti-Jewish rioters. There is even a story that the ancestor of a JewishGener had previously dug an underground tunnel from his house to that of a neighboring Russian Orthodox priest, who sheltered his family whenever the riots occurred. On October 19 1905, 30 Jews were severely beaten by a group of rioters.

During the period following the October Revolution in 1917, many groups contended for power in Ukraine, and most of them made life miserable for Jews. The principal contenders were the "Whites" and the "Reds". It was popularly believed that most Jews were Bolsheviks. This was not in fact true, but there were several Jews in prominent Bolshevik positions, and many involved in the Red tax-collecting and grain-collecting operations. In August 1919, Anton Denikin's "White volunteer army", including Russian officers, Cossaks and peasants, attacked the Nezhin Jewish community, killing among others Rabbi Menakhem Mendel Hen. Throughout Ukraine, an estimated 35,000-50,000 Jews were killed 1919-20.

During the Nazi occupation 1941-43, all Jews who did not escape were exterminated. A grisly document exists in the Archives entitled, "List of Persons to be Killed". It is a list of more than 100 names, mostly Jewish-sounding, with addresses, and ages. Most on the list were over the age of 60. All perished. Diligent search has turned up none of the mass, public atrocities that occurred outside Kiev at Baba Yar or in Berdichev, but the result was the same: Jews either escaped to the east, became partisans in the forests and swamps of Chernigov province, or were killed.

The Nazi plan for Ukraine was to kill the Jews, starve the Slavic townsfolk by providing the cities with minimal rations, and keep the peasants at a subsistence level by skimming off most of their produce. When some German officials asked how this would produce a surplus that would contribute to the war effort, they were ignored. (If anyone within the German government raised the human rights question, history has not recorded it.) The plan was for a quick victory in Ukraine followed by a turnover of government from military to civilian (German) hands. However, perhaps due to the defeat at Stalingrad, or the presence of the forest-based and swamp-based partisans, the Nezhin area remained under military rule for the entire German occupation.

In general, ethnic Ukrainians were neither town dwellers nor merchants nor professionals. There were wealthy landowners and peasants, but only a small percentage of the professionals, industrialists, or shopkeepers were Ukrainians. During the 19th century, there was much migration throughout the Russian Empire. People tended to move from the country to the city, from small towns to larger towns, and from north to south. This resulted in a great expansion of Ukrainian cities during the 19th century, and most of that expansion came from increases in the population of Russians and Jews. While Ukrainians were a majority in Ukrainian cities at the beginning of the century, by 1897 they constituted only 1/3 of the urban population. In that year, Kiev was only 22% Ukrainian, while Odessa was only 6%. Subtelny writes (at 277-78): "For centuries, [Jews and Ukrainians] found themselves in structurally antagonistic (yet mutually dependent) positions. To the Jew, a Ukrainian represented the backward, ignorant village; to a Ukrainian, a Jew epitomized the foreign exploitative city that bought his produce cheaply and sold him goods dearly... Culturally, the Jew and Ukrainian had little in common, and their religions only widened the gap between them.... Thus, the two communities continued to live in close proximity but in almost total isolation from each other. Moreover, many of their members were more inclined to harbor old resentments than to cultivate common interests and mutual understanding."

Population: One should not have excessive confidence in the accuracy of the following figures, as they are not entirely consistent. For approximation purposes, it has been reported that there were 1,299 Jews registered in Nezhin in 1847, but there were also Jews living there who were registered elsewhere, including two of my great-grandfathers. In 1897, there were 7,631 Jews, 24% of the 32,108 population. There were 6,131 Jews in 1926, 16.1% of the population. The 1939 Jewish population was 6,131. 1959's Jewish population was 1,400, 3% of the total.

Less than 15% of the population of Chernigov guberniya was urban: that is, resident in one of the 34 cities (gorod) or 49 towns (mestechko) of the guberniya, while the percentage for the Nezhin uezd was closer to 25%. Still, this is an agricultural society, producing rye, winter wheat, wheat, oats, barley, peas, buckwheat, and potatoes principally, as well as lumber. Even the industries seem agriculturally oriented, such as production of sugar, liquor, butter, rope, flour, and leather. Also prominent were wood crafts, trade, transport, matches, fabrics, brushes, candles and bricks.

During the Polish period, the szlachta had a monopoly on the production of alcoholic beverages, while Jews enjoyed a monopoly on their sale. By 1872, Jews owned 90% of Ukraine's distilleries, 56% of her sawmills, 48% of tobacco production, and 33% of sugar refineries.

Around 1900 in Nezhin, Jewish artisans numbered 980. There was a Talmud Torah with 98 pupils; 3 Jewish private schools with 59 students; and thirty khaderim with about 350 students. 142 Jewish students were enrolled in the general schools of the community, including both the boys' and girls' classical gymnasium. A Jewish savings and loan association was founded in 1895. There was a dispensary, and a bikkur kholim, which I would translate as a hospital.

Metrical Records
The Jewish community of Nezhin kept records of its births, marriages, deaths and divorces from 1851 to the consolidation of Soviet rule around 1920. Those records were kept by someone hired by the Russian government and called a court rabbi, though it appears that this person was not considered a rabbi, or not considered the rabbi, by the Jewish community. The records were kept on looseleaf sheets on forms supplied by the Russian government. At the end of each month, the court rabbi did a count and review, certified that the month's records were complete and accurate, and sent one copy to the uezd (district) administration in Nezhin, and a second copy to the guberniya (provincial) administration in Chernigov. A relatively complete set of these records are in the Nezhin Branch of the Chernigov Oblast Archive, 1 vulitsa Bogushevicha, which is housed in the Church of St. John the Baptist (1752). I believe that these are the copies sent to the uezd administration, as there is also a set in the main Archive in Chernigov, which is probably what was sent to the guberniya authorities. The records are kept in Russian and Hebrew, though neither version is particularly easy to decipher. It is very helpful that the dates are given both in Julian and Jewish calendar versions, as they can be cross-checked.

In terms of numbers, the Jewish community experienced roughly 250-300 births, 150 deaths, 70-80 marriages, and a handful of divorces (usually less than 20) in the course of a year. Infant mortality was a serious problem. In an admittedly unscientific study (I counted the 38 death records I had), 26 (68%) died before reaching age 18. More striking, 23 (61%) died by age 10, and all but one of these died by age 5. (For the curious, 3 died ages 11-20; 2 died ages 31-40; 1 died 41-50; 3 died 51-60; 1 died 61-70; 2 died 71-80; 2 died at age 90; and one died at 95.) As to marriages, it is hard to generalize from the small number I examined, but it appears that as time wore on there was a tendency to marry at a later age. Of 27 persons marrying 1854-1869 for the first time, the average age was 19.5 for men and 18.8 for women; for 18 persons 1878-1889, the averages are 23 for men, 20.3 for women; for 10 persons 1901-1909, the average age of first married was 25 for men, 23.8 for women. Similar changes have been observed in other Jewish communities in Russia.

The Archive in Nezhin functions administratively as a branch of the Chernigov Oblast archives, headquartered in Chernigov. The reading room and offices in Nezhin are housed in an outbuilding of the 1752 church of St. John the Baptist which fronts on the vulitsa Gogolya. I suspect that the collection is housed in the considerably larger church.

We were welcomed by the Archivist and, after a brief conversation in her office, we were shown into the reading room. The reading room is perhaps 40' x 20'. A table runs down the middle of it the long way. There are windows along one long wall and a short wall.

On the desk the Archivist had piled the metrical records for the Jewish community of Nezhin for the 1870s and 1880s. They were not consistently bound. The divorce records, which contained few pages, were bound together in ten-year groups. Birth records, which contained the greatest number of pages, were generally bound as individual years, though sometimes several years were bound together. The years bound together were not necessarily in chronological order.

The competent and helpful chief archivist in Nezhin is Kamilla Vtorushina. Her assistant is Vera Chuiko. The mailing address is vul. Bogushevicha 1, 251200 Nezhin Ukraine. The phone number is 2-20-52. I am unaware of any fax or e-mail access. For a reasonable fee, the Archivist will do searches of Jewish vital records while they remain in Nezhin. Records 1862 to 1918 have been microfilmed by the Mormons and are available at your local Family History Center. The Archive in Chernigov is at vul. Frunze 2, Chernigov 250006.

The Nezhin Archive currently holds birth records 1852-75, 1877-85, 1887-89, 1891-1918; death records 1854-69, 1880-1918; marriage records 1854-89, 1900-18; and divorce records 1859-1918. All records after 1877, marriages after 1870, and all divorce records are in fonds 1249 opis 1; earlier birth, death and marriage records are in fonds 1333 opis 1. In the Chernigov Archive, Jewish records have been located in the Orthodox consistory records for Chernigov. Records reported there are deaths 1875-94 in fonds 679 opis 10 item #1246; deaths 1884, 1896, 1899, 1903, 1906, 1909 in fonds 679 opis 10 item #1256; births 1875-79 in fonds 679 opis 10 item #1244; births 1880-83 in fonds 679 opis 10 item #1252; births and marriages 1875-88 in fonds 679 opis 10 #1245; marriages 1898-99 fonds 679 opis 2 item #4988 (14 AVOTAYNU #2 p.23 (Summer 1998).

Leaving Nezhin
Bernard Levin writes of his grandparents' departure: "When my mother's parents made the trek from the Pale..., they fetched up in Szczecin (Stettin) [Note: a port city in western Poland on the Baltic, close to 1,000 miles from Nezhin.].... Where they were sailing to was for them of no consequence; the only thing they knew was that they were going somewhere where there were no pogroms, no Cossacks, no restrictions as to where they might live, no tiny list of trades they were allowed to practice." "My grandparents boarded the next ship; it was going to the United States.... Just before the ship sailed, my grandmother [nee Nemkovsky] fell ill and could not go; she, and her young husband, disembarked. Her illness was found to be nothing serious, and she recovered in a few days, but the ship that was going to New York had sailed. No matter; where was the next one going? England, they were told. But that left them none the wiser, because they had never heard of England." "[M]y grandmother could neither read nor write in any language; my grandfather could read Hebrew, and struggled with just about enough English to read a newspaper, but not enough to read a book." "Apart from the clothes they stood up in, my grandparents brought only two things from Nezhin: the samovar and the mortar-and-pestle. The latter was a fine bronze one, wielded with effortless skill by my grandmother; but the samovar was the great prize of the family. My grandmother polished it weekly..." Bernard Levin, Pedigree, what pedigree?, The Times, Friday 23 July 1993.

12 Encyclopedia Judaica 1131 (1996); 9 Jewish Encyclopedia 296-97 (1905); 3 Ukrainian Encyclopedia 602-03 (1993); The Times, Friday 23 July 1993; Lonely Planet Guide to Russia, Ukraine & Belarus 986 (1996); George Vernasky, Bodhan Hetman of Ukraine (1941); Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History (1988); Dmytro Doroshenko, A Survey of Ukrainian History (1975); David Kratsow, History of the Neziner Synagogue (unpublished); Gary Mokotoff & Sallyann Sack, Where Once We Walked 228 (1991). Acknowledgments: In the preparation of this website and in gathering materials for it, I very much appreciate the help of Elaine Kolinsky, and Col. James S. Becker.

Copyright 1998 Herbert I. Lazerow



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