View of the castle and church, which were connected by an underground passageway to the Maharsha synagogue at the other end of town, Ostrog, ca. 1920s. The synagogue was built in the mid-seventeenth century and named for Shemu’el Eli‘ezer ben Yehudah ha-Levi Edels (known as Maharsha). The tunnel was part of the city’s defensive system, built when Ostrog was one of the strategic bulwarks against Tatar raids in Volhynia. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)

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(Pol., Ostróg; Yid., Ostre), town on the Goryn’ River (a tributary of the Pripyat’), a district center of Ukraine’s Rovno region. From the 1320s, Ostróg was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and from 1569 it belonged to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. After 1793, it was in the Russian Empire, from 1796 a district center of Vohlin region; in 1921 it reverted to Poland and remained a part of that country until 1939.

The first documentary evidence and tombstone inscriptions of Jews in Ostróg date back to the 1440s. In the sixteenth century, the town’s Jewish quarter, with a synagogue and hospital, began to develop southeast of the market square. In 1603, records listed 73 Jewish dwellings, growing to 229 in 1629. The large Jewish population (about 1,500 persons in 1648) led people to refer to the town as New Jerusalem. Similarly, a pun on the town’s Yiddish name, Ostre, read it as os Toyre (“a letter of the Torah”).

An intersection at the center of town, Ostróg, Poland (now Ostrog, Ukr.), ca. 1920s. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)

Among the leaders of the community were a number of distinguished rabbis, including Shelomoh Luria (Maharshal), the founder of the local yeshiva (from 1553), and Shemu’el Eli‘ezer Edels (Maharsha; d. 1631). A stone synagogue named in honor of Maharsha was constructed, evidently by the Italian architect Giacomo Madlena, in about 1627. Ostróg was a major community in Volhynia, and it was represented on the regional council and the Council of Four Lands. During the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising, the town was invaded twice, in July 1648 and March 1649, and Cossacks murdered any Jews they found. Among those who fled was Rabbi David ha-Levi (Taz), author of a commentary on the Shulḥan ‘arukh. At the beginning of the 1650s, only five Jewish dwellings were recorded in tax records.

Ostróg had been divided between two owners in 1603, and two Jewish communities were subsequently formed, administered by eight elders—four from each part of the town. In 1765, these sections registered 213 and 202 Jewish dwellings, with 934 and 843 Jews living in them respectively. An additional 652 Jews lived in neighboring villages.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, students of the town’s Jesuit college repeatedly harassed the Jews of Ostróg. In the 1730s, Jews, aided by Tatar neighbors, succeeded in preventing an attack by Haidamaks (Cossacks)—a reprieve commemorated annually in Ostróg on the day after Passover ended. Another local “Purim” holiday was celebrated on the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, marking the anniversary of a day on which the Ostróg community was saved from a Russian military attack in 1792. To celebrate, a special scroll (called the megilat Tamuz) was read in the synagogue.

One of the first Hasidic communities was founded in Ostróg by Yehudah Leib (d. 1765; a disciple of the Ba‘al Shem Tov) and his son Ya‘akov Yosef, the founders of the Ostre Hasidic dynasty. At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ostróg became the largest center of Jewish book publishing in Russia: between 1794 and 1824, seven Jewish presses were founded there. Also at the beginning of the nineteenth century, maskilim were centered at the Zuzman Bet Midrash; they later founded a Talmud Torah and hospital. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a state Jewish school, soup kitchen, home for the elderly, library, and private boys’ school all operated. By 1897, there were 9,208 Jews in Ostrog (62% of the total population), and in 1910 there were 11,838 (forming 65%).

In the 1920s and 1930s, Ostrog was a Polish border town in which Jews were engaged mainly in commerce and in processing agricultural products. Zionist organizations of various leanings were active there as well. The town also boasted a Tarbut school, a library with books in Hebrew and Yiddish, an orphanage, and from 1933 a yeshiva named after Maharsha, in addition to one founded in 1910.

Vitaly Chumak and Larisa S. Mazurenko holding a Torah, one of dozens held by the local museum in Ostrog, Ukraine, 1993. (Photo Archive, Miriam Weiner)

When the Soviet Union annexed western Volhynia in September 1939, all Jewish institutions in Ostrog were closed. The Nazis seized the town in July 1941 and organized a Judenrat. By September 1941, approximately 5,500 Jews had been murdered. Those who remained were forced into a ghetto in the destroyed section of town, and on 15 October 1942, the Nazis murdered the remaining 3,000. After Ostrog’s liberation in February 1944, several dozen Jews returned, including some who had fought as partisans, but most emigrated to Poland during the late 1940s, and from there to Israel and other countries.

In the 1980s, about 100 Jews lived in Ostrog—members of families that had settled there after the war. In 1992, memorial plaques were placed at three mass murder sites near the town. A year later, the Jewish community registered as an official organization; its main concern was to render social services to the elderly. In August 1995 a memorial designed by architect Zalman Shokhat, a native of Ostrog, was dedicated at the main Holocaust mass murder site. After the mass emigrations of the early 1990s, only about 30 elderly Jews remained.

Suggested Reading

Yitzhak Alperowitz, ed., Sefer Ostra’ah [Vohlin]: Matsevet zikaron li-kehilah kedoshah (Tel Aviv, 1987); Benzion Ḥayyim Ayalon-Baranick, ed., Pinkas Ostr’ah: Sefer-zikaron li-kehilat Ostr’ah (Tel Aviv, 1960); Menachem Mendel Biber, Mazkeret li-gedole Ostraha (Berdichev, Ukr., 1906/07); Judah Leib Fishman (Maimon), “Ostraha,” in ‘Arim ve-imahot be-Yisra’el, vol. 1, pp. 5–40 (Jerusalem, 1945/46); Shmuel Spector, “Ostrug (Ostr’oh) / Ostróg,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 5, Vohlin ve-Polesyah, pp. 34–40 (Jerusalem, 1990); Yalkut Vohlin 1–2 (1945), 3, 5–6 (1946), 9 (1948), 10 (1949), 37–38 (1984), 55–56 (1998).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1071, Boruch Mordechai Rabinovitch, Papers, 1930-1939, 1960s.



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson