07 January 2014

Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Ukraine - my family

One of the unanswered questions in my family’s history was why so many Jews left Lithuania and moved to Ukraine in 1880-1925. Ukraine certainly had richer agriculture and a more tolerable climate, but I would have thought that no-one leaves their homeland easily. My grandfather offered only one clue; when passengers alighted from their commuter trains at central Lithuanian railway stations, they were often handed advertising pamphlets about moving to bigger, bolder, warmer, happier Ukrainian towns.


"The Study of the Jewish Agricultural Colonies in the Ukraine" was written by my cousin Chaim Freedman and published in Israel in 2005. Chaim wrote that in the late C18th, large areas of territories in south-east Ukraine came under the control of the Russian Tsarist regime. This area was then known as Novorussia (New Russia) and was divided rough­ly into 3 Guberniyas-provinces: Kherson, Yekater­in­oslav and Tavritch (including the Crimean peninsula and part of the adjacent mainland). By the C19th, the Russian government was anxious to develop this region by families moved from other parts of the Russian Empire. 

One of  my mother's uncles had this farm, Grafskoy. 1912.

At the same time the government sought a way to relieve itself of the so-called Jewish Question, particularly in what are now Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. With the accession of Tsar Alexander I in 1801, legislat­ion was pass­ed to define and partially relieve the situation of the Jews. One stated ob­jective of this legislation was to encourage Jews to leave the crowd­ed and economically poor cities in the north and est­ablish new agricultural settlements in Novorussia. Those Jews who qualified were promised financial support to set up agricul­tur­al colonies, with the added incentive of exemption from military service. This was a very well-motivated plan.

Initially, a number of agricultural colonies were established in Kher­son Guberniya. In 1846, when new colonies were established,  the first group of Jewish colonists set off from the rallying point in Mogilev and headed for a region in Yekaterinoslav Guberniya. This group was subdivided according to town of origin. Several convoys underwent the arduous journey by river and by wagon. The 285 families were divided into 6 colonies. Subsequently 16 other colonies were established by the late 1860s. By the late C19th the Yekaterin­oslav colonies comprised about 20,000 Jews.

The chosen region was just north of the Sea of Azov, and the col­onies were situated in two districts, Alexand­rovsk and Mariupol. Life in the colonies peaked during the period of the second half of the C19th, until the tragic destruction of Civil War Russia in 1917-1921. After the Civil War, Chaim said, most of the colonies were revamped by the Soviet regime and functioned as collectives, incorp­orated as the Nei-Zlatopol Jewish Autonomous Reg­ion. (This unique episode in Jewish history ended with the Nazis).

The Jewish urban communities in Yekaterinoslav Guberniya were estab­lished on a very small scale alongside the colonies. As time passed and many families found themselves unsuited to rural life, the urban communities were boosted by many who dropped out of the agricultural colonies. The major communities, aside from Yekaterinoslav the capital, included Alexandrovsk (Zaparozhe), Pavlograd, Orekhov, Tokmak, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Mariupol and others. In effect the original colonists drew in their wake significant numbers of their hometown relatives or neighbours from Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus who constituted the majority in the developing urban communities in Yekaterinoslav.

My grandfather (left front) and his siblings, 
Berdyansk, Dec 1913

Chaim Freedman found only a few sources about this region's Jewish population. English books refer briefly to the region. Most of the other sources are in Russian, particularly a very detailed history of the region which includes many statistical analyses. There is one book in Hebrew devoted to the subject, Khaklaim Yehudiim Bearvot Russia/Jewish Ag­ric­ulturalists on the Russian Steppe, Tel Aviv 1965.

The primary source is in Russian, Yevrei Zyemlyedeltsi-Jewish Agriculturalists 1807-1887 by Viktor Nikitin (Petersburg 1887). This mammoth work explains the sequence of events leading up to the establishment of the colonies, gives details of the organisation and financing of the initial settlement, and includes periodic reports on the development and achievements of the colonies. The reports were prepared by insp­ectors appointed to investigate conditions in the colonies and recommend action by the government. Since considerable funds were allocated by the government, exact statistics were constantly required.

Chaim Freedman believes that the phenomenon of Jewish agricultural settlement in an organised form is still of great importance; only thus can we under­stand the endeavours of many Jews to improve their social and economic situation under a sometimes oppressive Tsarist regime. Their efforts were part of a unique episode in the st­ruggle for Jewish survival in the Diaspora, at a time when the restrictive Pale of Settlement legislation was still in place.


Examine some results. In 1869 the Ministry of Domains instituted an inquiry respecting the Jewish settlers of the New Russian colonies, in order to ascertain how many of them really occupied themselves with agriculture and how many were indigent and worthless. As a result, in the course of ten years 10,359 men, women and children were expelled from the class of agriculturalists. In 1874 all reserve lands, which had been counted as part of the colonies, were taken away from them."

"These results were the more remarkable because it was in 1881 that the colonies received the greatest check to their development by the riots, which actually reached the colonies Kherson and Bessarabia and disturbed the sense of security in all the rest. Several of the best Jewish farmers in Bessarabia emigrated in that year to the USA and Palestine. "The May Laws of 1882 (put into application in 1891) influenced the development of the Agricultural Colonies of Russia only indirectly. They put a stop to all immigration of the Jewish inhabitants of the towns into the villages, and indeed sent no less that 50,000 form the villages into the towns. By this means the development of agricultural tastes among the Russian Jews was effectively arrested.

   Chaim’s family, and mine, settled in Mariupol, Berdyansk (both in red) 
and Grafskoy (marked G and now called Proletars'ke) in Central North Ukraine.
I have added cousin Ron's family's home in Andreevka/Donetz (in red)
Click on map to see the details

"But the Agricultural Colonies were particularly exempted from the operation of these enactments. In 1880 a fund to promote handicraft and agriculture among the Russian Jews was initiated, with a capital of 200,000 rubles. In 1887 the amount of this fund (1.1m rubles) was turned over to the general fund of the government treasury. In 1891 an agricultural school, affiliated with the Jewish Orphan Asylum was opened at Odessa. In 1899 the government granted Baron Gunzburg permission to found a Jewish Agricultural colony on his estate in the district of Bendery, government of Bessarabia. The colony is called Rossianka, and covers 500 deciatines of land, of which 400 are under cultivation, each farmer being entitled to 20. The remaining 100 deciatines are reserved for a common pasture and for futures enlargements of farms. All the settlers, except soldiers that have served their time, must be graduates of some agricultural school; and all storekeepers must be Christians. 

In 1900 according to the latest reports, there were more that 100,000 Jewish agriculturalists in Russia cultivating their own farms, 60,000 of whom are settled in 170 colonies. In South Russia, Jews in great numbers seek work on Christian estates and find employment there. In Siberia, especially in the district of Krasnoyarsk, there are numerous Jewish agriculturalists who have established themselves on single farms; and, except as to their religion, they differ little form the general mass of the peasants."

Not everyone was happy with the agricultural settlements. The worst anti-Jewish pogrom in the beautiful city of Odessa’s history happened in October 1905 when Christian Russians and Ukrainians massacred 400+ Jews and damaged or destroyed 1600+ Jewish homes, farms and businesses. In tiny Mariupol in October 1905, 21 Jews were killed in the town and many of the Jewish shops and houses were looted. Very close to Odessa, pogroms took place twice in Kishinev, then the capital of the Bessarabia province of the Russian Empire: once in April 1903 and a second time in October 1905. However I believe most of these pogroms were part of a much larger movement of 600 pogroms that engulfed the Russian lands after the October Manifesto of 1905.


Hermes said...

Absolutely fascinating Hhelen

Dina said...

Who knew! Thanks for all this.

So nice to have that family picture in your archive.

Hels said...


The agricultural colonies were an amazing story!! That the Russian government should provide land, houses and wagons to families to leave Lithuania and Latvia.. served two goals:

1 The Russian government wanted, for its own urgent reasons, to develop the south and
2. Families in the crowded northern cities would have faced a miserable future, if the programme had not helped relocate them.

Hels said...


The more we learn about our own parents and grandparents, the more we learn about general history. I love this stuff :)

Did your parents and grandparents come from this part of the world?

Marta O said...

Dear blogger,

There is no definite article (“the”) before Ukraine.

Marta D. Olynyk

Hels said...


you are right of course! "The Ukraine" was mainly used before independence in 1991 and since I was talking about the period up until 1925, I felt I could use the old language.

In the early days, the old Russian records just called the area Novorussia.

Train Man said...

My parents came from the Carpathian Mountains, at the western end of Ukraine. But there was no agricultural colony there and the region was not part of Russia.

Hels said...

Train Man

True *nod*. Over the years, the various parts of the Carpathians have belonged to the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia. But not to Russia. So although your parents lived not a million ks away from the Sea of Azov, they would not have been part of the agricultural colonies.

Avigdor said...

Hi Helen, That was very interesting. A couple of questions. I remember that someone eventually found the little sister who stayed in Russia (Chaya?)- is anyone in contact with her descendents?

Hels said...

Hey Avigdor :)

After both her parents died, our aunt Chaya had been adopted as a young child and never lived with her siblings again. She would have loved to have gone to Australia with her siblings, but according to her own published and translated biography, she owed her adoptive parents loyalty for saving her life. Aunt Chaya married her cousin, had one baby son and was deserted by her nogoodnik husband when the baby was still in his carry cot. She never married again and lived out her life from 1942 in Tashkent, working as a teacher. Our cousin Moshe L was certainly still in contact with Aunt Chaya and her son when I was in their home in 1971.

Ann ODyne said...

Wonderful that you have those photographs Hels. When doing a family history for my friend born Riga 88 years ago, I was shocked to learn that "Empress Catherine gave him the land and it's 1600 serfs, in gratitude for his help". No wonder that people who could be gifted like an animal resented the rulers of Russia. No different to Britain and the USA 'owning' people they kidnapped from Africa.
The Riga forest my friend played in was later the location of a truly horrible murder of many Jewish people. Nobody is innocent though, in England until 1850's it was illegal to 'be' Jewish. Mine were the Cowells of Waddesdon.

My friend's aristocratic ancestors were very benevolent to their serfs though. One of the family founded the anti-royal Decembrists and was sent to the gulag for his trouble, his wife following, and once there, demanding and getting education for the gulag children.
Russia is an amazing history and that recent Dimbleby series on TV only showed a small slice of it.
The Hermitage has 74 resident cats as rodent control and a woman has a fulltime job wrangling them, now a tourist attraction in their own right.

Hels said...


your friend's story certainly proved one thing, if you ever had any doubt. The majority of people in the Russian states struggled just to survive, while the minority lived cultured, elegant lives. Of course that was true in every western nation, wherever there was a vast divide between the haves and have nots.

1600 serfs were A LOT of workers!! Serfs were required to work for estate owner who owned that land, and in return were guaranteed protection and the right to exploit land within the manor to maintain their own grotty lives. They were liberated across the Russias in 1861 - just a decade or two after Croatia, Austria, Hungary and most of the German states.

Hels said...

For reports on 20th century Jewish communities, see "The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917", edited by Lionel Kochan and published by Oxford University Press in 1978. Look up Ukraine, Jewish Land Settlements in the index.

Craig Harris said...

There's very little on the jewish kolonies. Jewishgen today indicated it would be publishing a list of 3300 who moved from Courland in the first wave to Kherson sometime in 2015. I came across this posting in seeking more information. Many of the colonies had Hebrew-biblically based names. My ggm was from Ger Shobar/HarShobar, now Inguletz. Some more information on the colonies will soon be available.

Hels said...


Delighted to meet you! Read
1. "The Study of the Jewish Agricultural Colonies in the Ukraine" in English,
2. Yevrei Zyemlyedeltsi-Jewish Agriculturalists 1807-1887 in Russian and
3. Khaklaim Yehudiim Bearvot Russia-Jewish Ag­ric­ulturalists on the Russian Steppe in Hebrew. All very well worth while.

When more publications come out, I hope you will drop me a note. I will read it all. Happy 2015 to you and yours!

The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917 said...

The book "Jews in Soviet Russia Since 1917" (ed Lionel Kochan) tells only that the total number of Jewish collective farms in the mid 1930s amounted to 500; almost all the 225,000 Jewish farmers were in Byelorrusia, Crimea and the Ukrainian republic. The Nazis destroyed the settlements during WW2.

There is far more written about the Biro Bidzhan Jewish agricultural project, however.

Hels said...

My grandfather's parents died in 1907 (within 10 months of each other) in Andreevka, north of Mariupol. Two of their children were old enough to look after themselves, but the youngest four were still in primary school.

Aunts or uncles, already with big families of their own, took the four children in but did not have enough money to feed and clothe the additional responsibilities. My grandfather and his younger brother were put to work in a Singer Sewing Machine business, the 9 year old sitting on a seat working on the top of the sewing machine and the 7 year old pushing the the treadle up and down.

The owner of the business was a wonderful woman called Mrs Quinn who took pity on my grandfather and uncle, and despite being a stranger to the family, took the two children into her own home. She already had 10 children of her own and believed another 2 would hardly be noticed. For my grandfather's bar mitzva/13th birthday, Mrs Quinn gave the two brothers the day off so they could have a religious service in the morning and could run around in the forest in the afternoon. Even at 70, my grandfather was still grateful to the wonderful woman who had saved him.

iODyne said...

what a wonderful story of wonderful people making the best they can out of the life they were dealt. My 88-y-o dear friend born in Tblisi tells me 'the forest' was a huge part of her childhood, with wolves of course. The whole European fairy tale vibe so different to our beachy life. She also has her own magic stories. Her brother in a camp when very young had a miraculous saviour due to speaking several languages [as she does]. She didn't see him for 40 years when she travelled back there from Australia. so awful. I am very pro refugee and just wish our dopey Kafkaesque government would process them sensibly. sigh.

Hels said...


I am so outraged by our own government and half the other governments in the world; we turn asylum seeker boats back out to sea or put the victims on isolated and barren Pacific islands.

There would not be too many families in Australia today if we had rejected the parents or grandparents escaping wars last century. Including mine, and my husband's.

Hels said...

I received this request yesterday.

My branch of the family lived in Andreevka, almost part of Donetsk. Could you please add Andreevka to the map.

Cousin Ron

Absolutely Ron!
Andreevka comes up in every family history document.

Loren Rosenzweig said...

I found your blog by googling "Orekhov" which is where my maternal grandfather's family was from. I always wondered how they ended up there being Litvaks...now I know how. I would welcome any other sources for Orekhov if known. Best, Loren Rosenzweig

Hels said...


Verkhnyaya Orekhovka (as it is called now) is is a small town located 2ks from Donetsk and 90 ks Rostov on Don. The town's Jewish history is often mentioned but the community was half destroyed during the Pogroms of 1881-2. Alternate names in Latin letters include Orikhiv [Ukr], Orekhov [Rus], Oriachov [Yid], Orichiw [Ger], Orechow [Pol], Orichiv, Orjechow, Orechowka and Orechoff.

Settlers from Lithuania brought their Litvish Yiddish, cuisine and names with them from the northern lands. Plus they married other Litvaks in Ukraine to keep their traditions going. In fact your grandfather, my grandmother and my grandfather were probably first cousins to each other :)