The Shtetl: Vinnitsa Then and Now

by Nathan Roi

A wonderful example of cubist period art is a painting of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, by the avant-garde Jewish artist, Nathan Altman. When I visited Vinnitsa for the first time, few people, including the residents of Vinnitsa, knew that it was the home town of Altman before he left for Paris. From 1902 to 1907, he studied painting and sculpture at the Art College in Odessa and in 1906 had his first exhibition in the town. In 1910 he went to Paris where he studied at the Free Russian Academy, working in the studio of Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine, and was in contact with Marc Chagall, Alexander Archipenko and David Sternberg. In 1910, before the Russian revolution, he became a member of the group Soyuz Molodyozhi (Union of Youth).

When speaking to some of the young people attending the Limmud FSU conference in Vinnitsa, I mentioned the Nobel prizewinner for physiology and medicine in 1952, Selman Waksman – another one-time citizen of Vinnitsa; this time they knew a little more. Waksman was born in the village of Nova Prilyuka in the Vinnitsa Region in 1888 and studied in Vinnitsa and Odessa, from where he emigrated to the United States in 1910.

When I visited Vinnitsa for the second time, I met Natalia Yagorova. She and her film-maker husband are currently engaged on making a film about the Jewish shtetl in general and that of Vinnitsa in particular. She gave a fascinating lecture at Limmud FSU in Odessa earlier in the year about a film which took them ten years to make, on the demise of the Jewish shtetl in the province of Podolia, where Vinnitsa is situated.

This project began when the Hessed organization of the American Joint Distribution Committee, asked her to make the film. Among other things, in the shtetl of Shargorod, she and her husband photographed, Jews who were attempting to preserve the Jewish culture prior to the Second World War. She managed to track down one survivor who is the “hero” of the story, although he died before filming was completed. The film is moving but sad as it depicts a world that is no more. But even more sad was the situation in Natalia Yagorova’s own home town – Vinnitsa.

Jews arrived in Vinnitsa in 1532. They were traders who had been settled in the area and had constructed their home near the town’s walls away from the church that was constructed later. During centuries of pogroms and riots the Jews suffered greatly. At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, The Nazis erected a forward command bunker that was visited by Adolf Hitler. The entire Jewish population of Vinnitsa was slaughtered. One of the most widely-reproduced photographs from the Holocaust is of one of the last Jews in the town as he is executed on the lip of a ditch already filled with bodies. It was photographed by an SS soldier who witnessed the murder of the 28,000 Jewish inhabitants of the town.

During my second visit, I was shown around the town by the journalist Edvard Doks, who grew up here. The main street of the shtetl was lined with two-story houses, of which the lower part and the basement were shops and the upper part the living accommodation. Most of the shops are shuttered now, the inhabitants having left for the United States or Israel. The houses are collapsing but a few have been repaired by the locals. A large part of the area has been destroyed to make way for new municipal infrastructure.

We visited the main synagogue, which was built in 1903 by the leading architect of Vinnitsa. It was in this synagogue that Selman Waksman, his brother and father prayed before leaving for Odessa. Here in the heart of the area once known as Yerusalimka (Little Jerusalem) it is no longer a synagogue and there is no sign that it ever was. Today the building is a fitness center and where the ornate ark once stood there is floodlighting. Upstairs, parents can sit and watch their youngsters exercising without knowing that this was once the ezrat nashim, the gallery for female Jewish worshippers.

Images courtesy the author.