Kelman Gottmann, a Jewish wood merchant from Kharkov (now Khar’kiv, Ukr.) with two associates in one of his firm’s timber forests, ca. 1914. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the


In 1734, the Russian state permitted Jewish merchants to visit Kharkov (more properly Khar’kov; Ukr., Khar’kiv) to engage in retail and wholesale trade. Jewish residence in this city outside the Pale of Settlement, however, remained under strict control throughout the imperial period. In 1821, Jews lost their right to enter the city but regained this privilege in 1835 when the governor complained about the loss of more than 10 million rubles in trade revenue.

During the period of Alexander II (1855–1881), the policy of selective integration facilitated the migration of “useful” Jews to Kharkov. In 1858, well-established (guilded) Jewish merchants were permitted to trade in wholesale international merchandise—an arena from which they had been barred previously. Efforts by the governor of Kharkov to relax restrictions resulted in the steady growth of the Jewish community. In 1867, official registers reported 12 merchants, 14 students, 12 gymnasium students, 28 artisans, and 68 low-ranking soldiers; this number swelled to some 3,000 during the annual fairs. Jews were permitted to build a synagogue and communal institutions (including 5 heders and an inexpensive cafeteria, which opened in 1880). The architecture of Jewish buildings in Kharkov won great renown, including the Great Synagogue designed by Jacob Gevirts, a Jewish architect from Saint Petersburg. The opportunities for higher education drew many Jewish students to the Imperial Kharkov University, where they totaled 28.3 percent (414) of the student population in 1886. According to the 1897 census, there were 11,013 Jews in Kharkov out of a total population of approximately 175,000.

By the late nineteenth century, Kharkov had become a major center of the Zionist movement. A circle of Kharkov university students led by Yisra’el Belkind formed BILU, the first pioneer group to immigrate to Palestine in 1882. Ber Borokhov echoed BILU’s commitment to Palestine when he organized the Kharkov Conference in October 1903 and rejected any alternatives to a homeland in Zion. During World War I and the Civil War (1918–1920), Kharkov served as a haven for Jews fleeing pogroms and expulsions from towns and villages in western Ukraine; the pedagogic seminary of Grodno with its entire faculty and students had to be transferred to Kharkov during this time.

The Soviet period witnessed a significant increase in Jewish migration to Kharkov, which served as the capital of Ukraine from 1919 to 1934. The Jewish population doubled from 65,000 to 130,000 between 1923 and 1939, though their proportion of the total population diminished from about 20 percent to 15 percent. According to the 1939 census, the four main raiony (administrative districts) of the city were inhabited by about 80 percent of its Jews, who represented almost every fifth resident: these “Jewish” districts included Kaganovichskii, 32,840 (23.1%); Oktiabr’skii, 27,946 (22.8%); Leninskii, 24,069 (13.1%); and Dzerzhinskii, 20,890 (19.9%). The census also showed that 36.7 percent of the Jews in Kharkov were university educated, and included numerous professionals such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, bureaucrats, and writers. The Yiddish poet Leyb Kvitko, who later served on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, settled in Kharkov after living in Berlin.

Table: The Jewish Population of Khar’kiv

The city became a vibrant Jewish center with the establishment of Hebrew schools, printing presses, and political organizations. Conferences of He-Ḥaluts (1920), Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir (1923), and other Jewish political groups took place there despite the anti-Zionist campaigns of the Evsektsiia (Jewish Sections). When the Bund split at its Twelfth Conference in 1920, the Kharkov Kombund (the left majority) claimed to have at least 24 members.

As the new Soviet government consolidated power, it aimed to modernize and integrate Jews through a “revolution in the Jewish street.” In August 1919, the Ukrainian Communist Party resolved to dissolve the newly created Evsektsiia to avoid a separate Jewish system of authority; instead, it established Jewish divisions in the agitprop departments. This reorganization meant that Jewish Communists were not allowed to have separate clubs, instructors, publications, and activities. Disillusioned with these decisions, Jewish activists met in Kharkov at the Third All-Russian Conference of the Evsektsiia in November 1920 to articulate their protest; the Ukrainian Communist Party yielded in January 1921 and recreated the Sections, which nonetheless remained subordinate to the agitprop departments.

The Evsektsiia mobilized its efforts in Kharkov to break down primordial Jewish ties through its antireligious campaigns. It organized show trials (such as the 1928 “Trial of Circumcision,” which sought to demonstrate the primitive nature of the ritual through mockery); published numerous antireligious pamphlets (e.g., Hillel Lurye’s Yom Kiper in 1923; Peysakh in 1924; and Toyre in 1923) and newspapers, including the Communist daily Der shtern (1925–1941); and attacked religious functionaries. The Evsektsiia’s activities also included the establishment of Soviet Yiddish courts and schools in Kharkov, including one whose banner read “Children’s Home: The Home of Communist Culture.” The Yiddish writer Der Nister captured the vast socialist reconstruction in his novel Hoyptshtet (Capital Cities; 1934), which described the campaigns in Kharkov, Leningrad, and Moscow.

On the eve of World War II, the Jews of Kharkov were highly assimilated, with a greater rate of intermarriage (especially among men) than their coreligionists in the former Pale of Settlement. For example, in 1938, out of 1,715 marriages of Jewish men, 524 were with non-Jewish women. The majority of Jews (76.3%) also listed Russian as their mother tongue in 1939, while 22.8 percent listed Yiddish and 0.9 percent reported Ukrainian. The youth were integrated through their education: Jewish high school students in Kharkov in 1938–1939 numbered 10,802, or 20.7 percent of the total student body.

During World War II, the German army forced all Jewish residents of Kharkov to occupy huts of a lathe factory on the outskirts of the city (decree of 14 December 1941). Jews were deprived of food, water, and heat in these huts designed for 60 to 70 people, now overcrowded with some 100 occupants. Anyone who attempted to escape was shot instantly. Eyewitnesses recalled that the Germans also poisoned and burned many of the children in the huts. Those who survived were taken by car or foot and shot near the village of Rogan at the valley of Drobitsky (8 km from Kharkov). Observers saw piles of bodies in deep trenches. Those who were unable to reach the valley by foot—namely the elderly, disabled, and young children—were forced into a synagogue on Meshchansky Street, where they died of hunger and cold. When the Soviet army liberated the city, they found more than 15,000 bodies in the mass grave at the valley of Drobitsky. Today, there is a nine-foot menorah and memorial beside the highway at the site (Drobitsky Yar).

The postwar years saw the renewal of the Jewish community: by 1959, there were some 84,000 Jews (9% of the total population). However, religious and cultural repression led to the liquidation of the Jewish theater in 1949, the suppression of literary expression, the closure of the last synagogue in 1948–1949, the arrest of religious figures including the Kharkov rabbi Shmuel Lev in 1950, and the harassment of Jews who attempted to observe the High Holidays in the 1960s and 1970s.

A revival of Jewish life in Kharkov began under perestroika. In 1990, the government returned the Kharkov Choral Synagogue, which had been turned into a sports club. In 2000, there were approximately 50,000 Jews living in the city, with numerous organizations and institutions to serve their needs including Lubavitch, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Kharkov Hillel, the Orthodox Union, and various Israeli and other groups. Beginning in the early 1990s, the community established schools, welfare programs, and cultural centers. In 1999, the Khar’kiv Klezmer Band was created to foster Jewish culture and identity. Strong ties to Israel and the American Jewish community on the one hand, and the search for its Jewish past in Russian history on the other, have influenced the character of the post-Soviet Khar’kiv Jewish community. Communal leaders such as Grigory Shoikhet (director of the Jewish elementary and high school in Khar’kiv), Moshe Moskowitz (chief rabbi of Khar’kiv), Miriam Moskowitz (director of the mikveh), and others have organized new educational opportunities, synagogue services, and guidance for religious observance both at home and in public. The Khar’kiv Hillel has also been active in supporting study groups, a satirical theater group, and an Israeli debate club.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, Soviet Jewry on the Eve of the Holocaust (Jerusalem, 1998); Yitzhak Arad, T. Pavlova, I. Altman, et. al, eds., Neizvestnaia chernaia kniga (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 86–96; Dokumenty obviniaiut, vol. 2, pp. 307–312 (Moscow, 1945); Iurii M. Liakhovitskii, Poprannaia mezuza: Kniga Dobritskogo Iara (Khar’kiv, Ukr., 1991); Mendel Osherowitch, Shtet un shtetlekh in Ukraine (New York, 1948), pp. 24–35.