Kiev (Based on Evreys'ki adresy Kyeva [Kyiv, 2001])

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(Ukr., Kyiv; classical Heb., Kiyov), capital of Ukraine. Jewish settlement in Kiev dates to the first years of the city, in the ninth century, when it was the capital of Kievan Rus’ and an important stop on the trading route between Europe and Central Asia. Although sources are few, in the ninth century there were probably both Karaite and Rabbinite Jews in Kiev. The communities included branches of Byzantine Jewry as well as Khazars.

Medieval Kiev was at the height of its power in the eleventh century, and approximately a century later there is mention of both a “Jewish gate” within its walls as well as a Talmudic scholar known as Mosheh of Kiev. After the Grand Duchy of Lithuania conquered the region from the Mongols in the fifteenth century, a short-lived expulsion of local Jews was followed by the reestablishment of the Jewish community and a century of peaceful coexistence. In 1619, however, Christian merchants successfully petitioned to expel the Jews again, and Jewish settlement was not restored until the late eighteenth century. By this time, the city had been under the control of Russia for more than a century and was now a destination for Jewish migration from the newly annexed territories of Belorussia and western Ukraine.

Students and teachers of the music school of the Kultur-lige, Kiev, 1926. (Centropa)

The establishment of the Pale of Settlement, with the inclusion of Kiev province, legalized Jewish residence in the city. Jewish population numbers gradually increased when the largest trading fair in the region was moved from Dubno to Kiev in 1797. In 1795, only about 100 Jews had lived in the city, whereas just six years later there were almost 700. As evidenced by surviving communal record books, a Jewish community with a cemetery, burial society, and several other institutions was established in those years. However, Kiev’s Christian merchants again successfully petitioned the government to remove the city’s Jews; they were forced out in 1827.

Jews were readmitted to Kiev after the ascension of Alexander II to the throne in 1855. Under his reforms, certain categories of Jews were permitted to settle outside the Pale, as well as in Kiev and other previously restricted cities. Kiev’s Jewish population then grew from about 3,000 in 1863 to 14,000 in 1872; it reached 32,000 in 1897 (representing 13% of the total population). Most of the city’s Jews engaged in trade, crafts, and carting, and tended to settle in two of Kiev’s poorest neighborhoods, although Jews lived throughout the city.

Rachel and Lisa Gorenstein, daughters of a Jewish banker, Kiev, 1906. Photograph by Kraiewski. (Centropa)

Some of the wealthiest Kievans were Jewish merchants and industrialists; several, such as Lazar and Lev Brodskii, were leaders in the sugar beet industry of the southwest (Ukrainian) region of the Russian Empire. These men played central roles in municipal as well as Jewish communal and philanthropic life. Kiev’s St. Vladimir University and other institutions of higher learning were attended by large numbers of Jews, many of whom settled in the city and formed the base of its small but significant Jewish middle class, composed of lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals.

War and revolution in the early twentieth century heralded many changes for Kiev’s Jews, as it did for East European Jewry as a whole. During this time span—which embraced World War I, the 1917 Revolution, and the ensuing civil war—Jews poured into Kiev, fleeing zones of conflict and pogrom-wracked towns and villages, even though the city was the site of some of the worst pogroms of the period. Amid the chaos, Ukraine, which remained independent until 1920 under the control of various governments and at times in a state of virtual anarchy, granted national autonomy to its ethnic groups, including Jews. Jewish political leaders and parties thus played a role in Ukrainian politics and the national government, which was centered in Kiev.

Under Soviet rule, Kiev served (as of 1934) as the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Jews who could no longer work as petty traders or artisans in the Soviet economy sought their fortune in the city. Many found employment in the state or party bureaucracy or in government jobs as managers, engineers, doctors, clerks, and office workers. In Kiev, as in other cities, many Jews were now part of the new Soviet middle class.

Celebration of Rosh Hashanah at the so-called Merchants’ Synagogue, Kiev, 1924. (The Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

By 1923, fully one-third of Kiev’s population of 400,000 were Jews. Cultural life took on new forms and rose in importance as Jews adjusted to their new postrevolutionary circumstances. In Kiev a system of Yiddish-language educational and cultural institutions called the Kultur-lige gained widespread popularity and expanded rapidly. But under the Soviet regime, Kiev’s two chief synagogues became “clubs for craftsmen,” and at an Evsektsiia show trial held in 1921, Judaism itself was found guilty of bourgeois oppression of the Jewish working class. Zionists who were active in Kiev were arrested and put on trial.

However, “proletarian” Jewish culture fared much better. The mass of the Jewish population spoke Yiddish and supported the revolution, and was championed by the Soviet government. Kiev was an important center for the new Soviet Yiddish culture, home to the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture, which was part of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and represented one of the leading Jewish academic institutions in the USSR. A state Jewish theater was founded in the city, and a great many Yiddish books, journals, and newspapers were printed in Kiev with government support. Renowned Yiddish writers such as Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh), Perets Markish, and Dovid Hofshteyn—who had been known as the Kiev Group in prerevolutionary Kiev—continued their literary activity during the Soviet period. Nonetheless, many Jews left the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Organized Jewish life in the USSR ended in the late 1930s with the Stalinist purges, which saw the murder of many Jewish cultural figures and the abolition of cultural autonomy for national minorities.

After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, some of the city’s Jews (of which there were 224,000 in 1939) managed to flee eastward, but tens of thousands remained when the German army captured Kiev in September. More than 33,000 were murdered in just two days (29–30 September, the eve of Yom Kippur) at the Babi Yar ravine by members of the Einsatzgruppen, aided by Ukrainian militiamen. The mass murder of civilians and prisoners of war—both Jews and non-Jews—continued at Babi Yar for the duration of the German occupation of Kiev. 

Award issued by the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture to visiting scholar Kalman Marmor "for exceeding the production plan," Kiev, 1930s. (YIVO)

With the liberation of the city, the return of Jewish refugees, and the continuing Jewish migration to large metropolitan centers, Kiev’s Jewish population regained much of its former strength, numbering 150,000 by the late 1950s (representing 14% of the total population and almost one-fifth of the Jewish population of Ukraine). Unofficial numbers put the actual total at more than 200,000. By either count, Kiev was the third largest Jewish city in the USSR after Moscow and Leningrad. Census data confirm that Jews were still concentrated in the city’s historically Jewish neighborhoods. At the same time, tensions between Jews and non-Jews continued to play a role in the life of the city, especially since the latter had been given jobs and apartments that had once belonged to Jews. Tensions surged again around the time of Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot in 1953.

The postwar anticosmopolitan campaign and continued government hostility toward organized Jewish activity meant that Jewish life in Kiev was limited to one synagogue and occasional cultural events, though circles of Yiddish writers and actors continued to be active. As in other cities, Jews would often gather inside or in front of the synagogue on Jewish holidays—notably on Yom Kippur—often filling an entire street. Several private prayer quorums were also in existence (as many as 16 in 1951) but were closed down by the authorities. Periodically, Kievan Jews would be arrested for engaging in “Zionist activity,” although not all of them were Zionists in either thought or deed. Eight such people were apprehended in 1952–1953. In 1956, another group of young Jews who had protested Soviet antisemitism and anti-Jewish discrimination was brought to trial. A third group consisting of four elderly Jews—who were Zionists—was tried in 1957. The fact that just 13 percent of the city’s Jewish residents claimed Yiddish as their native tongue in the 1959 census, however, pointed to a continued but rapidly declining Jewish identity among Kiev’s Jews.

Students in the first post-Soviet Jewish school in Kiev, 1990. Classes were initially conducted in an old boat rented by the synagogue. Photograph by Dmitry Peysakhov. (© 2006 Dmitry Peyshakhov)

Despite this decline, in the 1960s Jews in Kiev were still engaging in underground Zionist activity, with this trend gaining momentum toward the end of the decade. Zionist as well as other Jewish activity in Kiev was often focused on Babi Yar in an attempt to force the Soviet government to acknowledge the specific Jewish tragedy that had occurred there. The government’s refusal to erect an appropriate memorial thus became symbolic of its attempt to suppress Jewish culture. Participants in annual memorial services and other activities at Babi Yar were subject to arrest and even to jail sentences (this participation widened and became particularly emotionally charged in the years following Israel’s victory in the June 1967 War). Historical evidence points to stronger official and unofficial expressions of anti-Jewish hostility in Kiev than in other Soviet cities or regions.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of Kievan Jews have immigrated to Israel and Western countries. Significant numbers of those remaining in Kiev are involved in the ever-expanding circle of Jewish organizations and activities in the city, ranging from four active synagogues to Jewish community centers, the Instytut Iudaiky (Institute of Judaica; a research center for academic Jewish Studies), an Israel Cultural Center, and Jewish theater, dance, and literary festivals.

Suggested Reading

Henry Abramson, A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917–1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); Mordechai Altshuler, Soviet Jewry since the Second World War: Population and Social Structure (New York, 1987); Mordechai Altshuler, Soviet Jewry on the Eve of the Holocaust (Jerusalem, 1998); Eliezer Elijah Friedmann, Sefer ha-zikhronot, vol. 2 (Tel Aviv, 1926); Zvi Y. Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917–1930 (Princeton, 1972); Michael F. Hamm, Kiev: A Portrait, 1800–1917 (Princeton, 1993); William Korey, “A Monument Over Babi Yar?” in The Holocaust in the Soviet Union, ed. Lucjan Dobroszycki and Jeffrey S. Gurock (Armonk, N.Y., 1993); Yekhezkel Kotik, Mayne zikhroynes, vol. 2 (Warsaw, 1914), translated into Hebrew as Na‘ va-nad: Zikhronatav shel Yeḥezkel Kotik, trans. and ed. David Assaf (Tel Aviv, 2005); Natan Meir, Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: A History, 1859–1914 (Bloomington, 2010); Mikhail Mitsel’, Obshchiny iudeiskogo veroispovedaniia v Ukraine: Kiev, L’vov, 1945–1981 gg (Kiev, 1998).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 118, Theater, Yiddish, Collection, 1890s-1970s; RG 1218, Nodar Djindjikhashvili, Collection, 1978-1979; RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language, Collection, 1870s-1941; RG 37, Jewish Music Societies, Records, 1908-1931; RG 500, Alexander Pomerantz, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 80, Mizrakh Yidisher Historisher Arkhiv (Berlin), Records, 1802-1924.