About

Early History
Pochep, current population about 17,000, is a town in the Bryansk oblast of the Russian Federation. (The Bryansk oblast is a knob-shaped territory that extends between the Ukrainian and Belarussian borders.) Pochep is 52 miles southwest of the town of Bryansk and 250 miles southwest of Moscow.

Resurrection Church

Church of the Resurrection, designed by Antonio Rinaldi in the 1750s

The town was the property of various noblemen under the area’s feudal system of government. In 1750 it became the property of Hetman (leader of the Cossacks) Kirill Razumovsky, from whose time a palace and a baroque church remain.

20th Century Jewish Life as Seen Through the Perspective of One Family
(Much of the following is abbreviated from stories told by Chaya Levitin Amrami.)

The city was located in a low area, and during most of the year it was muddy. There were wooden walkways along the rows of houses, but they were mostly rotten and weak. A person would try to avoid the mud by jumping and balancing, often sinking in the dirt.

On the other hand, the town enjoyed a nice view. There was a river whose course created a small lake, surrounded by a pretty forest that stretched to the hill at the end of town. The forest was a favorite for romantic outings of youngsters.

Razumovsky Palace

Razumovsky Palace of Countess Kleinmikel

A large estate in Retchicha, a suburb of Pochep, was owned by Count Kleinmikel. He had a big mansion on a hill, with a beautiful tree-lined avenue leading to the river. Chaim Levitin, a Jew, was his trusted estate manager. He and his wife Esther, a midwife, lived in a spacious house on or near the estate, and their four sons built houses nearby. Chaim, known as “die Retchicher,” was greatly honored in the community.

The Chabad yeshivah in the town was headed by the local rabbi Joshua Nathan Gnessin. As young men two well-known Yiddish writers studied there: Uri Nissan Gnessin (the rabbi’s son), and Joseph Chaim Brenner. The Levitin family boarded many young men who studied at the yeshivah.

After the passage of a decree limiting Jewish landownership, Chaim’s son Eliezer moved the family to a country estate about 14 miles from town. The estate, known as Chuter Kalachova, was owned by another Russian nobleman, Vassily Vassilovitch Breshko Breshkovski.

It was a large farm [about 42,000 acres] with forests, lakes, mountains, and rivers. Rye, wheat, potatoes, linen and flax were grown.  There were horses and poultry. There was a herd of 100 cows, which were mainly raised for the fertilizer they produced. The family gathered dairy products to send to Pochep for needy families. Farm labor came from gentile peasants, and the family worked hard beside them.

One day a rider arrived from Pochep with the news that the landowner had a heart attack and died. His funeral would be held in three days, then his will would be read and his property divided. The family knew they would be thrown off the land. They sent to all the villages in the area, loaded hundreds of wagons with all their property— horses, cows, grains, tools and furnishings— and sent them to Pochep.

Pochep Market Square

Pochep Market Square ca. 1906

The family now lived on a large property at the edge of town. Its garden, with many fruit trees, was six acres. So was the courtyard, which included many buildings: an office, kitchens and homes. The Big House was at the center. It was spacious and elegant. The large porch was glazed with menorah-shaped windows. A Holy Ark containing three Torah scrolls was placed in the large dining room, and people gathered there on Shabbat and holidays.

Synagogue

Pochep once had five synagogues. This was one.

Food was cooked not in the house but in one of several kitchens in the courtyard. The largest of the kitchens was a complex of several rooms. It served for cooking the large meals. During weekdays, families ate separately; on Shabbats and holidays, they all dined in the big house.

Dirty laundry was kept in a closed room over the winter. In the spring when the river thawed, water would be carried up from the river, poured into tubs, and put over a fire to boil. Then the dirty clothes and sheets were washed by hand, using washboards, and spread on bushes to dry.

The family’s income was derived mostly from a factory that made oil from flax seed. To supplement this income they began a forestry operation, leasing forest land, cutting trees and selling them to be used for railway sleepers and scaffolds in coal mines.

Worsening Conditions
Between 1903 and 1907 pogroms increased in the area, and the young people of Pochep organized a secret self defense force and practiced using handguns. Of 10,000 residents of Pochep, one third were Jews. They did not live in a separate area; neighborhoods were mixed. The roofs were made of straw or wood, and it was clear that if the Jews were attacked and fire broke out it would spread from house to house. Fortunately for all this never happened.

Spurred by a worsening economic situation and increasing numbers of pogroms, Jews began to leave for America and what was then Palestine. In 1939 there were 2,314 Jews living in Pochep.

The Massacre of Pochep’s Jews
Yad Vashem reports that the Germans occupied Pochep on August 22, 1941. Only a few Jews succeeded in escaping after this. In November the Jews of Pochep were forced into two ghettos, each surrounded by barbed wire: one for men and the other for women and children. The conditions in the ghettos were appalling and the mortality rates high. Then over two days in mid-March 1942 about 1,800 people were shot to death by the Germans and their local accomplices.

According to one account 1,340 of Pochep’s Jews were slaughtered in the massacre. The victims were forced to dig their own graves, into which their bodies fell after they were shot.

There does not appear to be a Yizkor book to memorialize Pochep or its surrounding towns and villages.

chemical weapons

Site for destruction of chemical weapons

Pochep Today
The town is now mostly known as the location of one of six facilities designed to dismantle Russia’s stockpile of Cold War-era chemical weapons. It is still surrounded by beautiful forests of birch trees.

More Information Welcome
If you have additional information about Jewish life in Pochep, please comment below. Have you taken a trip to Pochep? Tell us about it.

For general information click here. For links to other websites click here. For maps click here.

21 Responses to About

  1. Am I right guessing that the name of the Synagoge was Grey Stone Synagoge? Do you have more information about the other synagoges? Actually, I am looking for information about a Jewish family Bernstein who went from Pochep to Surasz in 1906, it seems. Thanks.
    Best wishes, Gerrit Van Oord.

  2. Hagit Matras says:

    Thanks. Is it still possible to find any sign of the Jewish life of the past? A cemetery, Synagogue etc?
    to-day? where and how can one look for those?

  3. Beth Galleto says:

    I’m sorry that I don’t know the answers to the questions from Gerrit and Hagit. If anyone out there knows, please respond.

  4. Tim Levenson says:

    I would be interested in any information about Jewish life in Pochep. Has anyone out there visited Pochep ?

  5. Louise Kantrowich Yim says:

    We are descendents of brothers, Hillel and Oscar Edelstein, who lived with their families In Pochep and subsequently immigrated to the US around 1910. Hillel’s wife was named Frayda Bresky [Edelstein] Most likely there were many family members living in Pochip, as well. Hillel Edelstein and family settled in St.Paul, Minnesota. Oscar Edelstein first settled in St. Louis but eventually relocated to Colorado.
    I regret we don’t have more information about our family background. . Any information readers of this post may have, please do contact me.
    Thank you., Louise Kantrowich YIm

  6. Steve Arloff says:

    My grandfather Mosei Orlov was born in Pochep around 1875 and most of his family were also born there too. He and his wife and family, including my father, left first for Perm where they had relatives and finally for the UK, in 1910, due to the increasing frequency of the pogroms. Several brothers and sisters went to the US. Does anyone know of the family and any other information that may help when I visit there next year?
    Thanks
    Steve Arloff (UK)

  7. Meggan says:

    I currently live in Pochep, I don’t speak much Russian, but if anyone needed current photos or information, I could see what I could do…

    • Steve Arloff says:

      I was very interested to read your post and to learn that you actually live in Pochep. My friend and I intend to visit there in September this year (we couldn’t come in 2015 as planned) and would love to meet you so you might show us around. Do you think that would be possible?

    • Tim Levenson says:

      Dear Megan, I would very much like to visit Pochep. I hear that there is a municipal museum. Would it be possible to look at town archives, photos? Do tell me something about accommodations in the town. Thanks in advance !

  8. I am researching pochep Astor a friend. Last names include MELIKHOV, Markova, gerst, gerstein, and cirlin thank you

  9. johnnyfriend says:

    I’ve been in Pochep, cause my aunt lives there and my family comes from surrounding villages. Now it is a very small town… By the way, it is a birthplace of Matvey Blanter, a composer of the famous song “Katyusha”, you can see the house of his childhood in Pochep. Also there is local history museum, you can contact it, but I’m afraid the staff don’t speak English…

    • Tim Levenson says:

      Hello johnnyfriend,
      I read your message with interest. I speak Russian and would be able to communicate with the locals. I’d be particularly interested in the history museum. Would you have any advice about visiting Pochep ?

      • johnnyfriend says:

        Hello, Tim,
        What kind of advice do you need? I know, how to get there from Moscow. Also I know only one hotel there. The history museum is very small, it takes less than an hour to watch all the artifacts. And you’d better go there in summer, cause in autumn and winter the town is grey…
        And I suppose there is no jewish life in the town, just some artifacts from the past in the museum…

  10. Eleonora Poyner says:

    Is any one out there knows anything about Sverdlov family from Pochep?

  11. Tim Levenson says:

    Hello johnnyfriend,

    Thanks for your reply.
    Here are my questions. Is there a direct train? Should I take a train to Bryansk and a bus from Bryansk to Pochep ? What is the name of the hotel ? And what about restaurants ? I’ve read that there is an outstanding church built in the 18th century. Has the town preserved any historical character? And what about nearby towns ?
    Best,
    Tim

    • johnnyfriend says:

      Hi, Tim,
      I wrote you some comments, but they are “awaiting moderation”. Probably the owner of the blog is not visiting admin’s panel. You can write me on facebook, if it is convenient for you: www facebook com /katerina.zhilina/

    • johnnyfriend says:

      Hi, Tim,
      You can take a train from Moscow to Bryansk (travel time about 4 hours). And then take a train from Bryansk to Pochep (but this train goes 3 times a day). Also you can go to Pochep by bus, the buses go more often then the train. But the buses are rather old and the drivers may not be very accurate on the road.
      The other option is train from Moscow to Pochep, but it’s not the direct train (Pochep is not the final station). The timetable, tickets and prices you can see here: pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en (web-site of Russian railways, English version)

    • johnnyfriend says:

      The hotel name is Russkiy Dvor (which is translated like “Russian Courtyard”): rusdvor32.ru There are, probably, the other hotels, but I don’t know them.
      There are some restaurants (they are more likely cafes), but I’ve never been there and can’t recommend.
      The outstanding church is the Resurrection Church. It was built by Antonio Rinaldi (the architect of St. Petersburg) and, yes, it has a wonderful wooden iconostasis inside.
      About historical character of the town: a lot of individual houses, some of them are old, some new, the town looks like a big village. You can see these houses on google-streetview.

    • johnnyfriend says:

      If you go to Pochep I would also recommend to see Bryansk, may be Ovstug (the birthplace of Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev), Novozybkov: novozybkov.ru/gallery/photo/
      If you like nature (landscapes in Bryansk oblast are very beautiful), you’d probably like to visit biosphere reserve “Bryansk forest” (“Bryanskiy les”): en.bryansky-les.ru/

    • johnnyfriend says:

      Some video for you: I’m not a fan of such kind of music, but the video is great, you can see how Pochep looks like in summer: youtube.com/watch?v=UIgQfyDLPoY

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