Konotop, Ukraine History of the Region, Town, and Jewish Community

Three fires destroyed Konotop during the 19th century resulting in the loss of the historical sites, including ten churches and four synagogues. Konotop recovered and built new schools. In 1812, two schools were opened for the wealthier children. By 1842, two private schools were added. In 1890, a technical school for the railroad was created. The government built a brick toll-road in 1869 to replace the old dirt road. It took 18 years to complete the project. In 1870 a new hospital was constructed. The town library opened in 1901, and a small fee was charged for book loans. In 1905 a commercial school was opened.

The Jewish community considered itself to be moderately religious. Most people attended synagogue at least on important holidays. Religious conversion to Christianity was forbidden and seldom occurred. Conversions usually resulted in shunning by the entire Jewish community. Rarely were there conversions to Judaism, which required circumcision for the men.

Circumcision and other religious practices were prohibited by the Soviets. Circumcisions were disguised by using of the misnomer, Red Christian.

The Soviet Revolution in 1917 devastated Konotop. Power was taken from the previous monarchy and landowners. Nobody tended to agriculture or industry. By 1925, however, the brick plant and brewery were rebuilt. Under the Soviet system, Jewish communities had more legal status, although elements of Jewish self-governance and taxation continued. Jewish communities could enact some civil measures, such as certification of births, marriages, divorce, and death. A governor, who was called a public ravine (rabbi), headed each civil committee. Another local rabbi assisted him. The regional Kahal selected both rabbis, who were mostly selected from the best graduates of the Yeshivot. Since the 16th century the public ravine was most often considered to be the noblest person in town. In the 20th century that person was Semanovich. He was frequently asked to sit as judge, even in cases of conflict between Christians and Jews. The regional Jewish committee was located in Nezhin, which is why immigrants from that area often stated that they came from Nezhin Gubernya, although there never had been such a political civil entity.

In 1932, Konotop and surrounding towns, which had been originally part of Chernigov Oblast, were incorporated within Sumy Oblast (Sumska) because the borders were changed. The population grew to 50,000. A new water supply, electric power system, and sauna were built. Fifteen new schools included 8 kindergartens, and 3 technical schools taught by a faculty of 360 teachers. By 1939 a Pedagogical Institute was created. After doctors came to Konotop two new maternity homes and two children’s clinics were opened.

The German army invaded Russia in 1941. A partisan’s movement developed; volunteers hid in the thick forests. Fascists created a ghetto to separate the Jewish community. Once isolated, the Jews were murdered and bodies buried in mass graves. Survivors faced famine. Konotop lost 2,870 people, another 27,000 became prisoners of war, and 1,100 died fighting the German army. Additionally identified, 349 Jews died in the Soviet army fighting the Germans. Konotop was liberated from the Nazis on 6 September 1943.

Within one year the railways, bakery, grain mills, and leather plant were rebuilt. Konotop became a center for small industry; goods were exported to Europe. A factory to produce oil for industrial equipment was created. This was follow by construction of a sewing factory, enabling products to be exported to the United States and Canada. Konotop also traded with Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Italy, and Vietnam.

Konotop now has 12 schools, 2 lyceums, schools for training medical personnel, and technical and pedagogical school. An Institute of Management and Business is run by cooperation between Ukraine and Finland. The city has a museum of local history, another museum of World War II, a library, and three centers of cultural history. The vital Konotop railway now operates seven lines.

After 1943, only a few tombstones remained in the Jewish cemetery, located within the urban town and maintained by the town municipality. A restoration project with a regular caretaker was begun in 1950. Mass graves are located on top of the hill.

By 1900 about 5,000 Jews lived in Konotop. The 1939 Soviet census listed 5,763 Jews. Continued economic benefits from railroads and commerce encouraged Jews to move to Konotop.

The Soviets instituted the “NEP” a new economic program in 1923—1928. Although they were not as prosperous, Jews were able to re-establish shops, plants, and factories and resume trade. Zionist organizations were revived, but remained illegal. By 1924 there were two major Zionist organizations, CZSP (Zionist Socialist Party) and CC-Yugend Ferband (Union of Youth), who distributed leaflets calling for emigration to Palestine.

In 1924, a Jewish section was created within the Communist Party. Stalin created an autonomous region to relocate Jews to the harsh area of Eastern Siberia along the Amur River near China. The capital was Birobidjan, which is located 180 km west of Khabarovsk. Birobidjan was opened for settlement in 1927, but in 1934 Stalin decreed that the area was to become the Jewish Autonomous Region. Most of the 43,000 resettled Jews came from Belarus and Ukraine. Additional voluntary settlers immigrated from Israel, Argentina, and America. Stalin began the collectivization program in 1929, which led to arrests and deportation of Soviet minorities including Zionists.

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