KOVEL , town in Volhynia district, Ukraine; within Poland until the end of the 18th century, passed to Russia until 1918, and within Poland again until 1939. A Jewish community is known to have existed there from 1536, when Kovel received Magdeburgian rights (city rights). In 1540, representatives of Kovel Jews, together with other Volhynian Jews, participated in a delegation to King Sigismund i, to respond to the accusation of kidnapping or buying Christian children, converting them to Judaism, and smuggling them to Turkey. The owner of the town, Queen Bona, usually made the rights of the Jews there equal to those of other citiziens. In 1609 Jews took part in fortifying the town and defending it against invaders. Kovel suffered severely during the *Chmielnicki massacres of 1648–49 when most of the poor Jews there, as well as Christians, were murdered; some were drowned in the river. The community was reconstituted in Kovel under the protection of King John ii Casimir in 1650. Around the 1680s the Kovel community became a main community in the Volhynian Land. From the end of the century a Kovel representative was elected to the Four Lands Council, and even represented this body.
In 1765 the Jews of Kovel numbered 827. Under Russian rule in 1799 there were 11 merchants, all Jews, and 811 Jewish citizens, as against 1,308 Christians. The Russian authorities permitted the Jews of Kovel to select the deputy mayor. Kovel became a commercial center during the 19th century. The Jewish population numbered 2,647 and grew to 8,521 in 1897 (48%). In 1857 a fire destroyed many Jewish houses and most of the synagogues, but the town was quickly restored. Among others, the Russian soldiers stationed in Kovel were an important source of livelihood. At the end of World War i, the Jews suffered severely at the hands of *Haller's Polish army which killed two Jews. In 1921 there were 12,758 Jews (61.2%) in Kovel. They predominated in light industry, in the production of such commodities as beer and leather, in building construction, and ownership of workshops. They were also active in the wholesale and retail trade. Half of the members of the municipal council were Jews. There was a Hebrew high school, and two primary Hebrew schools with Hebrew kindergartens, all affiliated to *Tarbut. There was also a Yiddish cysho-affiliated primary school.
Among the rabbis of Kovel in the 17th century was Judah Idl, son of Moses Idl, a descendant of *Judah Loew b. Bezalel. Its last rabbi, Nahum *Twersky, perished in the Holocaust. Between the two world wars, the *Bund organized trade unions and had a significant influence on Jewish life in Kovel. Among the Zionist parties, the Ereẓ Israel Workers' Front gained the majority during the elections held in Kovel in 1939 for the 21st Zionist Congress. In the municipality elections in 1939 the Jews obtained ten seats (eight Zionists, and two members of the Bund). The Yiddish periodicals Di Kovler Shtime and Unzer Lebn were published in Kovel in the 1930s. A dramatic circle was also a focus of literary activities. The Jewish population in 1939 numbered approximately 17,000 (out of 33,000).
[Shimshon Leib Kirshenboim /
Shmuel Spector (2nd ed.)]
Holocaust and Postwar Periods
Soon after the Soviet occupation of Kovel in September 1939, organized Jewish public life was discontinued. Factories were nationalized, private commerce almost ceased to exist, and craftsmen were organized into cooperatives. However, the Jewish high school, elementary schools, and four kindergartens, whose language of instruction was Yiddish, continued to function, and the teachers clandestinely continued to give a Jewish national character to their educational work.
Kovel was occupied by the Germans on June 28, 1941, on which day 60 to 80 Jews belonging to the intelligentsia were shot. During the first month of occupation some 1,000 Jews were executed. A few weeks later the Germans collected some 200 Torah scrolls from all the synagogues and burned them. Under most difficult conditions the Judenrat endeavored to assuage the suffering of the Jewish population. By the end of 1941, thousands of Jews had been murdered in the nearby forest of Czerewacha. By German order the ghetto was established on May 25, 1942, in two sections: one within the city limits and the other in the suburb of Piaski. The Germans separated the able-bodied (about 8,000) from the elderly, the sick, and the children (about 6,000), and the latter were earmarked for immediate annihilation. The Jewish population in both ghettos numbered approximately 24,000, including refugees from the neighboring small towns and villages. On June 2, 1942 the city section of the disabled was liquidated, and the inhabitants were taken to the Bykhava quarries and killed there. On August 19, 1942, the liquidation of the ghetto of the able-bodied began in the Bykhava village. About 1,000 Jews tried to escape, but most of them were captured and kept in the Great Synagogue, whence they were taken to their death. Many of them wrote their names and wills on the walls calling to be avenged. The inscriptions were found after the liberation and were copied, but later were painted over. The liquidation lasted until October 6, 1942. In May 1942 the Kovel ghetto was visited by two messengers of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw – Frumka Plotnicka and Temi Shneiderman. Kovel Jews belonged to partisan units which were active in the Cuman forests, most of them in the Linkov division, and helped carry out acts of sabotage and retaliation against the Nazis and their collaborators among the local population. The Soviet army reentered Kovel on July 6, 1944, and in the following months about 40 Jewish survivors returned to the city. Jewish life there was not reestablished and the survivors soon left for Israel and other countries. In 1959 plans were announced to convert the Jewish cemetery into a site for an industrial plant. In 1970 the Jewish population was estimated at about 250 (50 families).
[Aharon Weiss /
Shmuel Spector (2nd ed.)]
S. Leoni-Cuperfein (ed.), Kovel, Sefer Edut ve-Zikkaron (1957).