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7 facts about the Jews of Vinnitsa

On Jerusalimka, Bershad modesty, the conqueror of tuberculosis, émigré literature, a historical shop and many other things.

The history of Vinnitsa Jewry encompasses over five centuries, which in the context of the historical realities of Eastern Europe is a long time indeed. The Jews of Vinnitsa, one of the centers of Judaism in Ukraine, passed through terrible ordeals – from the Haidamak uprisings to the Holocaust – but tragedies made a strong people even stronger. Many Jews of Vinnitsa emigrated and became famous abroad, but many also remained, realizing their talents in their de facto homeland. Read about the most interesting people and events connected with the Jewry of Vinnitsa in the new chapter of our project “Jewish Ukraine”

1. Jerusalimka

The first documents mentioning the Jews of Vinnitsa date to 1532. Of course, the following century did not help the growth of the community – in the Cossack uprisings a number of Jews were killed, but the Jews who survived were still able to return to the city and revive the community. In 1767, 691 Jews lived there, in 1847 there were 3,882 Jews, and in 1897 11,689 Jews (36% of the entire population). As in many other large towns, in Vinnitsa the Jews had a whole quarter to themselves, which was named Jerusalimka.

Credits: Sergey Moroz

The quarter began to form in the late 18th century – initially it was planned as the poor trade part of the city, but as the lion’s share of craftsmen were Jews, it automatically became Jewish. Incidentally, it would be incorrect to consider this district a place where only the poor lived – in Lower Jerusalimka there were indeed poor hovels, but in Upper Jerusalimka wealthier people lived. Today this quarter is one of the historical parts of the city, in which the Baroque color of a Jewish village has been preserved.

2. Bershad modesty

In the early 19th century, Bershad, a town in the Vinnitsa Oblast, became one of the centers of Hasidism – it was there that the Tzadik Rabbi Rafel of Bershad lived, who was one of the closest students of Rabbi Pinhas from Korets. The reputation of this rabbi was so impeccable and holy that it even spread to the townspeople – husbands and wives from Bershad were given preference in Jewish families as being extremely devout. It is said that people from Bershad were distinguished by their particular modest and preferred not to speak about their ancestry, even it was aristocratic.

3. Zavarkin and son

Vinnitsa has the museum shop “Pan Zavarkin and Son”, the history of which is directly related with Jewry. In 1900 the entrepreneur Moisei Fligeltub came to Vinnitsa with his family and rented an apartment on the second floor of the tenement building of the brothers Gelblu. He immediately realized that this was a lively place, there were a lot of people in this part of town and they would spend their money there. Some time later, Fligeltub bought an apartment which he lived in, and then acquired another apartment on the first floor, for a shop of colonial goods. Sales went very well, especially as this was the first establishment of its kind in the town, and the well-off bourgeoisie liked tea, coffee, foreign species and nuts very much.

Fligeltub also started to sell colonial goods wholesale – he signed contracts in Kiev, Moscow and Petersburg. But because of his religion not everything went as smoothly as he wanted – some important Christian merchants refused to do business with a Jew. In 1904, Moisei Fligeltub had himself christened on the advice of his friends (they say that he only changed his faith nominally and remained faithful to Jewish tradition) and became Matvei Zavarkin –so that nothing would stop him from developing his business.

Zavarkin even supplied tea, coffee and chocolate to the imperial court. Evidence has been preserved in the archives which confirms this fact, with letters of gratitude from “Her Majesty”. Before the revolution the Zavarkin family was one of the wealthiest in Vinnitsa, but then decided to emigrate – first to Paris, and in 1922 to the USA. Like all other shops and stores, the Zavarkin shop was nationalized, and nothing has remained of the family’s wealth in their former homeland.

Several centuries ago the new owner of this building, learning of its history, decided to restore justice and once more open a retro-style tea shop, which also became a museum – with a gramophone, old scales, kerosene lamps, numerous teapots, samovars and posters from the early 20th century.

4. The conqueror of tuberculosis

Zelman Abraham Vaksman (1888–1973) was born in Novaya Priluka into the family of the small-time landlord Yakov Vaksman. His parents valued a good education, and so firstly they hired home teachers for their son, and then sent him to the Odessa high school.

When Vaksman turned 22, he emigrated to the USA and continued his education – he graduated from an agricultural college, gained a master’s degree in science (in 1915), and then began to study the chemistry of enzymes at Berkley University in California and received the title of doctor. After this he began to work with Rutgers University in New Jersey – in 1925 he was appointed to the position of associate professor, and in 1931 became a full professor.

In 1932, the American national association for fighting tuberculosis asked to Professor Vaksman to study the process of the destruction of the Koch bacillus in the soil. It was this task that was the beginning of a grandiose scientific study which ended with the discovery of the streptomycin antibiotic.

In 1952, for “the discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective in treating tuberculosis”, Abraham Vaksman was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine. The preparation itself was discovered by Albert Schatz, who worked under Vaksman’s leadership, but Vaksman developed the method for finding this medicine, which was taken into account by the Nobel committee.

5. “…looks like Marlene Dietrich, and writes like Virginia Woolf”

Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) was born into a Jewish family in Chechelnik in difficult times for the formation of the new country (and for Ukraine they were especially difficult). When she was just two months old, her parents emigrated to Brazil, where Clarice spent her childhood. In her youth she lived in Europe, from 1944 to 1949, and in the 1950s she moved to the USA for several years. Lispector devoted herself fully to literary work – she worked as a journalist and translated Agatha Christie.

Clarice Lispector was incredibly beautiful, and many artists painted her portrait, including Carlos Skliar and Giorgio de Chirico. She had at least 10 portraits of herself in her house, but she didn’t like to be photographed. The American translator Gregory Rabassa, who translated works by Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Lispector, said of her: “I was amazed to meet this rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”

6. The last Jew

The extermination of the Jews by the Nazis is one of the most tragic chapters in Jewish history. It also left its mark on Vinnitsa… Many historical documents are preserved connected with this period, and this photograph of the shooting of the last Jew of Vinnitsa is one of them. The photo shows a nameless person, one of the millions of victims of the Nazis, a few seconds before his death. The photo was taken by an officer of the German Einsatzgruppe, who was responsible for executing people subject to extermination (which primarily meant Jews). On the reverse side of the photograph it states that this is the last Jew of Vinnitsa. It was planned that in Vinnitsa Hitler’s new headquarters would be located, and the Germans wanted to exterminate all the Jews – the last 150 people of Jewish blood from the ghetto were executed on 25 August 1942. But the Nazis did not succeed in exterminating all the Jews of Vinnitsa. The Jews who survived against the odds went into the underground and joined the resistance – there were at least 17 of them among the partisans.

7. The photographer who used to be a musician

Zory Fain was born in Vinnitsa in 1972 and initially chose a musical career – in 1987-1990 he studied piano at the Leontovich musical academy in Vinnitsa, and from 1990 to 1995 he studied composition at the Gnesin music academy. But then he made an unpredictable career change – he switched to the profession of photographer. Over the last 20 years Zory Fain has tried himself out in different genres – he has worked as a parliamentary photo reporter, covering the work of the Supreme Rada of Ukraine, prepared illustrations for the books “Oblast cities” (Vinnitsa and Lviv), and also covered events of the Orange Revolution. Fain’s works have been published in Ukraine and abroad, including in “The Ukrainian”, “The Washington Post” and “The Ukrainian Weekly”.

Zory Fain now reads lectures to students, holds training sessions about social photo journalism for university students, and recently took part as a trainer at the National Geographic Photo Camp Kharkiv 2015 – photographers from NatGeo taught 20 young migrants to look at the world through a camera.

In April 2015, Zory Fain’s book “A Coffee Break with His Royal Highness: Thoughts, essays, notes”, excerpts from which are freely available here.

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