City on the Teterev River (a tributary of the Dnieper); administrative center of Ukraine’s Zhytomyr oblast. In existence since the ninth century, Zhytomyr (Rus., Zhitomir; Pol., Żytomierz) was from the 1330s attached to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and from 1569 it was a district center of Kiev province in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. From 1793, it belonged to the Russian Empire, and from 1795 it served as a provincial center.
Although Jews are mentioned in the town’s records as early as 1486, they appear regularly in judicial records after 1580. In 1648, Cossack and Tatar forces ravaged the town, but the community reestablished itself thereafter. A century later, in 1753, 14 Jews from nearby towns were executed in Zhitomir after being tried for ritual murder; this event was accompanied by anti-Jewish actions. In 1765, some 460 Jews, including 114 living in neighboring villages, were registered as members of the Jewish community. In 1787 more than 70 of 175 Jewish dwellings were located near the market square, where the synagogue was constructed.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community of Zhitomir was the largest in the Volhynian province. Among the first preachers of Hasidism in the town were Aharon of Zhitomir (d. 1815) and Avraham Dov Ber of Ovruch (rabbi of Zhitomir, 1826–1830). The town’s first two Jewish printing presses were founded between 1802 and 1804, and with the 1847 opening of the Shapira brothers’ press—formerly of Slavuta, one of the two authorized Jewish presses in Russia—Zhitomir became a center of Jewish book publishing. By 1851, the community numbered 10,459 Jews and boasted a synagogue, 30 prayer houses, 54 heders, and a hospital with an almshouse (from 1854). In the 1860s, Jews constituted more than 90 percent of the town’s population engaged in trade, and more than 70 percent of its artisans.
In the 1830s and 1840s a significant group of maskilim emerged in the town. In 1847, with their support, the government opened a rabbinical seminary, which became a Jewish teachers’ institute between 1873 and 1885. Several prominent Haskalah figures were among the institution’s teachers, including Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski, Avraham Ber Gottlober, Lazar (Eli‘ezer) Zweifel, and others; Lev Binshtok, crown rabbi of Zhitomir from 1860 to 1880, was a student there.
From 1862 to 1884, the first Jewish vocational school in Russia was in operation, and from 1898 there was a Jewish vocational school for girls. In the 1870s and 1880s, Zhitomir’s economic and cultural significance declined in part because of the town’s distance from railroad lines, but also because the rabbinical seminary and the Jewish vocational school were closed.
In the early twentieth century, there were two synagogues, about 50 prayer houses, a public library, and a Jewish bank. The town’s Jews, numbering more than 30,000, constituted about 47 percent of its total population. The Bund and Zionist organizations were active politically, and in April 1905 Jewish self-defense units defended the community in the face of a pogrom.
During Word War I, refugees crowded into Zhitomir, and Rabbi Yosef Hurvich of Novogrudok established a Musar yeshiva there. Subsequently, in early 1919 and in June 1920 (during the Civil War), more than 400 local Jews were killed in pogroms. In the early Soviet period, various Jewish schools were established in the city but were liquidated in 1937 and 1938. Until the mid-1920s local Zionist organizations operated clandestinely, while illegal teaching in heders and yeshiva continued until 1937.
On the eve of World War II, about 30,000 Jews lived in Zhitomir. The Nazi occupation lasted from July 1941 until December 1943. About 400 Jews were shot soon after the Germans’ arrival; in August more than 1,000 Jews were murdered; and in September all remaining Jews were forced into a ghetto isolated from the town. Many died of starvation and disease. All the others, about 6,000 persons, were shot in September–October 1941 outside the town.
After the war, several thousand Jews settled in Zhitomir. In 1945, a local synagogue was officially registered, headed by Rabbi Motel Voshilo, and in 1955 the baking of matzo was organized. Some 14,800 Jews lived in Zhitomir by 1959. After the authorities closed the synagogue in 1963 the Jews held illegal prayer services in private dwellings; in 1975, with opening of the common city cemetery, burials in the Jewish cemetery were suspended. The synagogue was reopened in 1981.
A Jewish cultural and educational society was organized in Zhitomir in 1989, and at the beginning of the 1990s a Jewish Sunday school and an evening school were opened. In 1992, a Lubavitch community was officially registered. It united more than 100 faithful, obtained the return of the synagogue building, and organized a yeshiva, a school, a kindergarten, a library, and a dining hall. In the early 1990s, an information center was available for persons contemplating moving to Israel, a Shaḥar young persons’ club was established, and a local office of the Jewish Agency was opened. In 1996, the Joint Distribution Committee sponsored the establishment of the Ḥesed-Shelomoh welfare center. By 1997, about 5,500 Jews lived in Zhytomyr, including more than 2,300 pensioners.
A. A[vti]khai, “Zitomir (Sof),” Yalkut Vohlin 16–17 (1953): 25; Iosef Hukfeld, “Zitomir,” Yalkut Vohlin 6–7 (1947): 7–12; Efim Melamed, “K istorii poseleniia evreev v Zhitomire,” Materialy vos’moi ezhegodnoi mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii po iudaike 8 (2001): 206–213; Efim Melamed, “The Zhitomir Rabbinical School: New Materials and Perspectives,” Polin 14 (2001): 105–115; Mendel Osherowitch, “Zhitomir,” in Shtet un shtetlekh in Ukraine, vol. 1, pp. 269–278 (New York, 1948); Iosef Tabachnik, “Shilton Petlura be-Zitomir,” Yalkut Vohlin 21 (1967): 6–8; Iosef Tabachnik, “Kibush ha-‘ir be-yade ha-polanim. Pirke Zitomir,” Yalkut Vohlin 22 (1967): 5–6; Iosef Tabachnik, “Yeme ha-sho’ah be-Zitomir,” Yalkut Vohlin 23 (1968): 10–11; Yizkor dem andeynken Zshitomirer kdoyshim (New York, 1921).
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson