A city on the Styr’ River (a tributary of the Pripiat’), Luts’k (Pol., Łuck; Rus., Lutsk) is the administrative center of Ukraine’s Volyn’ oblast. Mentioned in the Ruthenian Chronicles of 1085, from 1320 it belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, from 1569 to 1795 it was a district center of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and from 1796 of the Russian Empire. Between 1921 and 1939 it was the provincial center of Volhynia in independent Poland.
The earliest references to Jews in Łuck date to 1409. In 1432, the town’s Jews were granted rights equal to those of their counterparts in Kraków and Lithuania. Although affected subsequently by the expulsion of Jews from Lithuania, both Rabbinite and Karaite communities were reestablished in 1503. In the sixteenth century, Jews leased the revenues of the Łuck customs house and the dues from boats passing the town on the Styr’ River. In 1552, 31 of the 229 householders in Łuck belonged to Rabbinites, and 25 to Karaites.
In 1626, Sigismund III granted Jews the right to construct a stone synagogue in the center of the Jewish quarter to replace one that had burned down. The instructions were to build it as a fortress with a parapet and cannons on its roof. This fortified synagogue with watchtowers became part of the town’s defenses, and Jews were responsible for maintaining it. On the eve of the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising, more than 300 Rabbinites and 100 Karaites lived in Łuck, in 55 and 20 dwellings respectively. As a result of attacks in 1648 and 1649, by 1650 only 29 Rabbinite and 3 Karaite residences survived.
In 1662, a poll tax was collected from 407 Rabbinites and 76 Karaites (together accounting for 50% of the town’s residents). The Jewish community was the second largest in the region, and it was regarded as one of the main communities of Volhynia. In addition to commerce, Jews engaged in handicrafts—chiefly tailoring, shoemaking, and fur dressing. A Jewish tailors’ guild was founded in 1721.
In 1696, four Jews from Łuck were executed as a result of a blood libel. In another case in 1764, Yehudah Ze’ev ben Toviyah chose execution rather than convert to Christianity.
In 1765, some 1,719 Rabbinites and 126 Karaites, including 607 of the former and 22 of the latter living in nearby villages, were registrated as members of the local communities. The town’s Jewish population grew as a result of Russian imperial legislation (in 1804) that evicted Jews from villages. Despite frequent fires and the threat of expulsion—Lutsk was included in the list of border towns prohibited to Jews in 1844—the community continued to grow in the nineteenth century. In 1802, there were 1,297 Jews in the town; by 1847, there were 5,010 (60% of the population); and in 1897, there were 9,468 (60% of the population).
Filling pails at a water pump, Łuck, Poland (now Luts’k, Ukr.), ca.1926. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)
By the end of the eighteenth century, several Hasidic groups had prayer halls in the town. In the 1830s, a small circle of maskilim was formed, which some Karaites also joined. In the second decade of the twentieth century, a private school and a Talmud Torah for poor children were established, as was a yeshiva. During World War I, the Jews of Lutsk, under threat of eviction, handed their relics over to the ethnographer S. An-ski. From 1918 to 1920, Jewish self-defense was organized to offer protection against pogroms.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Łuck was a provincial center, and all the large Jewish political parties were active there. Jews participated in municipal and regional government institutions; the Jewish public figure Lazarz (Eli‘ezer) Dal’ was elected to the Polish Sejm from the nonparty bloc. Voliner press, a weekly newspaper, was published in Łuck. In addition to schools under the aegis of Tarbut and the Kultur-lige, the town hosted a Bet Yosef yeshiva and about 50 synagogues and prayer houses belonging to various religious and professional groups. Rabbi Zalman Sorotskin, an active public figure, headed the Jewish community from 1929 to 1939. In 1937, there were 15,879 Jews in Łuck (about 40% of the population).
After annexing western Volhynia in September 1939, Soviet authorities closed down political, charitable, communal, and cultural institutions, arresting business leaders and political figures. When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, only a few Jewish families managed to flee Łuck. The retreating Soviets shot some political prisoners, among them Jews. German troops occupied the town on 25 June 1941, and the next day local inhabitants carried out a pogrom against the Jews. In June and July of that year, Nazis shot about 3,000 Jews. Having organized a Jewish labor camp, they forced the Jews of Łuck into a ghetto. In the spring of 1942, a group of youths was killed trying to escape, and in August and September of that year, more than 25,000 people in the ghetto were murdered. When the Nazis tried to destroy the labor camp on 12 December 1942, they met armed opposition from the 500 prisoners. It took artillery to suppress the resistance. Following the Soviet liberation of Łuck in February 1944, only about 150 Jews returned. By 1959, just 600 Jews were living in Lutsk. The fortified synagogue was turned into a movie theater and later into a sports hall. A residential area was constructed on the site of the Rabbinite and Karaite cemeteries.
In 1989, the Volhynian Jewish Culture Society was established for about 1,000 Jews of the town and the surrounding region (about 250 Jews lived in the town itself). In June 1990, a memorial was dedicated at the site where Jews from the town had been murdered. Nine years later, a building that had formerly belonged to the Jewish community was returned to the Jewish organizations of Lutsk. After the large wave of emigration in the 1990s, only about 160 Jews remained in Lutsk, most of them elderly.
Fanny Kraszyńska, “Żydzi Łuccy do końca XVII w.,” in Rocznik wołyński, ed. Jakub Hoffman, vol. 7, pp. 139–178 (Równe, Pol., 1938), includes English, French, and German summaries; R. Metel’nyts’kyi, Deiaki storinky evreis’koi zabudovy Luts’ka (Kiev, 2001), incl. summary in English; Y. Retseptor, Geven a shtot Lutsk: Geven un umgekumen (Paris, 1962); Naḥum Sharon, ed., Sefer Lutsk (Tel Aviv, 1961), in Yiddish and Hebrew; Shmuel Spector, ed., “Lutsk / Łuck,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 5, Vohlin ve-Polesieh, pp. 117–126 (Jerusalem, 1990).
RG 116, Territorial Collection: Poland 2, , 1939-1945 (finding aid); RG 904, Independent Lutzker Aid Society, Records, 1914-1976.
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson