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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

Abyss of Despair

Rabbi Nathan Hanover

Bloch Publishing Company
New York, 5710‑1950

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please
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Chapter 5

 p34  IV

The brutal oppressions of Chmiel

[image ALT: A naïve engraving of a man in early middle age, whose short hair exhibits a marked widow's peak, and with a Hungarian-style mustache. He wears a plain tunic decorated only slightly by its lower hem, and over it a waist-length cape clasped at the throat by a small brooch but otherwise open. His hands are bent in front of his stomach: in his right, what appears to be a small fur hat or may be a feather; in his left a mace with a spherical orb. This portrait is enclosed in atondo of stylized laurel leaves, below which a much smaller register shows a highly stylized coat of arms surrounded by cannon and flags. The man is Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a seventeenth‑century Cossack leader.]

Vernadsky's Bohdan: Hetman of Ukraine, Yale University

Bogdan Chmielnicki

Now I shall begin to record the brutal oppressions caused by Chmiel (may his name be blotted out), in the lands of [Little] Russia, Lithuania and Poland, in the years '408, '409, '410, '411, '412,1 according to the minor reckoning.

In the year '408,2 according to the minor reckoning, the sixteenth year of the reign of King Wladislaw, there lived a Cossack in the city of Czehiryn,3 and his name in Russian was Chmiel (may his name be blotted out), while in Polish he was called Chmielecki.4 He was one of the officers of the hundreds of the Cossacks. He was very rich, possessing sheep and oxen, a very large multitude of cattle. He was wise to do evil; a man of sinister designs, and mighty in war. His place of residence was Czehiryn, which was under the rule of General Koniecpolski. The general was aware of this man and of his manner of speech. For, while he was soft spoken, he had "seven abominations in his heart;"5 a man plotting iniquity, in the manner of all the Ukrainians, who at first appear to the Jews as friends, and speak to them pleasant and comforting words, beguiling them with soft and kind speech, while they lie with their tongues and are deceit­ful and untrustworthy.

p35 The general was always apprehensive about this man and frequently spoke of him to his officers and counsellors. "I am fearful that out of this man will come misfortune to the kingdom of Poland." He often sought some pretext to kill him, but found none. For Chmiel was a very sly man and was aware of the thing. He was very cautious in warfare not to be suspected. When the general was about to die he instructed his son in all matters of warfare. The latter was at this time a "choronzhy," which is the Polish name for the King's banner bearer in time of war. Hence, he was called Choronzhy to this day. And thus spoke the general of Chmiel, may his name be blotted out, and he said: "You know this man Chmiel and his evil designs. Therefore, you must devise some pretext so that you will be able to remove him from the world."

One day, as the noble Choronzhy was comforted after the death of his father, he married a woman of noble descent, the sister of the nobleman Zamojsky. He lavished upon her much money, gold and silver, above his means (as this is the practice in the kingdom of Poland, both among Jews and Gentiles: When a marriage is arranged, one who possesses only one thousand gold pieces mortgages his property, and borrows additional money, so that he will be able to spend two thousand gold pieces). After the Choronzhy married this woman and spent all his money, he decided to take his wife on a journey beyond the Dnieper River, where the Cossacks lived, to be favored for her sake, and to receive many gifts from the people in honor of their marriage. Afterwards, he planned to have the  p36 Cossacks join him in a sudden attack upon the Tartars, where he would find an abundance of booty. This was their customary practice from days immemorial. And thus he did. Assembling his whole army, chariots and riders, he and his wife set forth on the journey to his possessions beyond the Dnieper. When the nobleman and his wife arrived in Czehiryn they received an enthusiastic welcome and were favored with many gifts. In that city lived the Jew Zechariah Sobilenki​a1 who was its governor and administrator. He was the nobleman's tax farmer, as was the customary occupation of most Jews in the kingdom of [Little] Russia. For they ruled in every part of [Little] Russia, a condition which aroused the jealousy of the peasants, and which was the cause for the massacres.

And so, the nobleman nonchalantly asked the Jew: "You are the governor of the city, pray, tell me, who are among the wealthy of this city?" His intention was to find a pretext to make them give him much money. The Jew Zechariah replied: "These and these are the rich" and he included also the oppressor Chmiel, who was very rich and possessed sheep and cattle, a very large flock. When the nobleman heard this he recalled his father's exhortation regarding this treacherous man: "Whence came to him all this wealth?" he thought. "Surely it was robbed from my serfs, the people of my estate. Hence, it is all mine." The noble Choronzhy, therefore, appropriated one shed containing many hundred heads of cattle which amounted to about half of Chmiel's stock. The oppressor Chmiel, however, remained silent, so that the nobleman might  p37 not become suspicious of him; also he would not dare to dictate to the nobleman what to do when the latter is regarded in his province as a King in his kingdom. But Chmiel subsequently proceeded to avenge himself on the nobleman. He informed the Tartars in writing as follows: "Be on guard, for our noble, the Choronzhy, together with his troops are about to attack you." The Tartars had been living tranquilly, unaware of the approaching attack. As soon as they heard of this they armed themselves with swords and with bows and went out to meet him. Realizing that his plans had been revealed and aware of his small number of troops as compared with those of the Tartars, the nobleman and his detachment retreated to his land in great shame. It was not known to him who was responsible for the evil that befell him.

It happened once that Chmiel and his friends, the Cossacks, sat together drinking wine at the inn of the Jew who was governor of the city. When they became intoxicated ("The secret goes out when the wine comes in")6 Chmiel boasted to his friends: "I took vengeance upon the nobleman, who expropriated my flocks," and he proceeded to relate the whole story. At the same time, the Jew, seated at another table busying himself with his accounts, heard the story. Forthwith he informed the nobleman, and Chmiel was put in iron chains and placed in prison awaiting his death. But, there lived another Jew in that city whose name was Jacob Sobilenski,​a2 a close friend of Chmiel who counselled the latter to have his friends bail him out of prison, so that he would subsequently appear before  p38 the nobleman in the church and on bended knees plead for his life; he should state that the Jew had spoken a falsehood because of his enmity toward him; that his friends would testify to the truth of his words. This he did and he succeeded. The nobleman released him this time.

After a thorough investigation of the case, the nobleman came to the conclusion that the Jewish governor had spoken the truth, and he placed Chmiel into prison a second time. After this the nobleman and his wife left the city and proceeded to his principal city of Brody, in Little Poland. He had instructed the officer of the thousand of that city, to decapitate Chmiel and to deliver his head to him. Should he fail to do so, his own life would be taken. What did the oppressor Chmiel do? When his friends, the officers of the hundreds, came to visit him in prison, he said to them: "Why are you keeping silent? Know that the people of Poland are becoming more haughty each day. They enslave our people with hard work. Not only are the nobles our masters but even the lowliest of all nations rule over us. Today this is being done to me; tomorrow they will do it to you. Afterwards they will plow the field with our people as one plows with oxen. If you heed my counsel, you will approach the officer of the thousand and plead with him to release me in your custody, on the occasion of their festival of baptism, which is to be held tomorrow. At night you and I will escape, together with our belongings, by way of the ferry boats behind the Dnieper. There we will take counsel together as to what to do against the Polish  p39 people." This they did. All the officers of the hundreds approached the officer of the thousand to have Chmiel removed from prison on their guarantee. At night all of them escaped behind the Dnieper to the wilderness. From there they dispatched letters to the settlements where the Ukrainians dwelt, urging them to join the rebels. The Ukrainians responded and some twenty thousand hoodlums joined them.

When the King and the nobles heard of this, they dismissed it with laughter, for they said: "They will fall into our hands again as they did in their previous attempts." Subsequently, two Polish generals, Potocki and Kalinowsky, together with a thousand trained troops, proceeded to the city of Korsun, where they prepared for battle. They encamped there to protect the river crossings, so that the enemy would not be able to cross to the other side. The beginning of the rebellion took place before Purim '408.7 There, behind the Dnieper Falls, Chmiel conferred with his troops. He said to his people: "You know well that the Poles are mightier than we. They have the strength of lions and leopards; their faces are aflame. Who ever succeeded in a rebellion against them? Therefore, give heed, my people, to my counsel. Come, let us make peace with our enemies, the Tartars, and together we will make war upon them." And they replied to him: "We will do as you say." Chmiel forthwith went to the King of the Tartars, together with all his troops, and made peace with him. They made a covenant together to wage war upon the Kingdom of Poland. They also made a pact between them to divide the booty. The  p40 Tartars were to appropriate the spoil in men and the prey in cattle,8 and the Cossacks were to take all the booty, such as gold, silver and clothes. (Midian and Moab made peace between themselves because of their hatred for Israel.)9 And the two went together,10 the Tartars and the Ukrainians. And they came by way of the desert, and by the way of forests, until they reached the Polish camp. One day preceding their arrival, they dispatched scouts to the Polish camp to discover the strength and the number of the Polish troops. The spies saw that the Poles were few in number; that they were encamped upon a hill, eating and drinking with abandon to the accompaniment of drums and dances. The scouts reported what they saw and said to them: "We should go up and possess it, for we are well able to overcome it. They are encamped securely and are unaware of us."11 The scouts were ordered to dig pits and ditches and other obstacles on the hill and in the valley to prevent a possible escape for the enemy.

And it came to pass on Tuesday, the fourth day of the month of Sivan, '408,12 that the Tartars and the Ukrainians attacked by way of the forests, from two sides. The Tartars attacked from one side and the Ukrainians from another. When the Poles realized that evil had been determined against them; that they were also being attacked by the Tartars; that they were few in number compared with the Tartars and Ukrainians who numbered more than sixty thousand, they attempted to escape through the forest, the hill and the valley, but they fell into the ditches which were  p41 dug for them. The Tartars and the Ukrainians had completely surrounded them. The Polish generals then implored them not to spill their blood on the earth but to take them captive. The Tartars granted their request and took captive the whole Polish army together with its two generals. They tortured them and placed iron chains upon the feet of the two generals, Potocki and Kalinowski.

When many of the Polish magnates became aware of Chmiel's success, and that his plans held out promise for future successes, they too, rebelled against the Kingdom of Poland, and made an alliance with Chmiel. They vowed to serve him as faithfully as they had served the King of Poland. Among them was the Choronzhy's captain who had been instructed to behead Chmiel. Chmiel appointed him captain over his own troops. Also the personal secretary and scribe to general Koniecpolski, who had since died, became the scribe of Chmiel. This scribe was a very clever man. He had knowledge of all the war strategy of the Kingdom of Poland. Thus he, together with other Polish nobles, now became the advisers of Chmiel. These became the foes of the Kingdom of Poland. "From the very forest itself comes the handle of the axe that fells it."13 The same day on which the Polish army and its two generals were captured, also brought the evil tidings that King Wladislaw died, and the whole Kingdom of Poland became as sheep which have no shepherd. When the dukes and the nobles heard that their king had died, and that all the Polish nobles, the mighty warriors, and also the two generals were  p42 captured, they became disheartened. The hearts of the Jews melted like wax before the fire, for fear of the enemy. All the nobles, who governed the provinces beyond the Dnieper, and west of the Dnieper up to the City of Polannoe, fled for their lives. Had not God spared us one, all Jews would have perished as did the city of Sodom. In the midst of all the confusion Duke Wisniowecki, of blessed memory, with his army were stationed beyond the Dnieper. He was a friend of Israel, and unsurpassed as a war hero. He and his people escaped by way of Lithuania, and with him escaped some five hundred Jewish citizens; each one with his wife and children. He carried them as on the wings of eagles until they were brought to their destination. If danger lurked behind them, he instructed them to proceed ahead; and if the danger was in front, he went before them as a shield and a buckler, and they followed him.

The Jews on this side of the Dnieper were informed of these dreadful events on the first day of the festival of Shabuoth.14 All of them took flight on that day, unmindful of their gold and silver. They ran for their lives. All those in the province of Ostrog, as well as those over which Ostrog15 had jurisdiction, such as Biala Cerkiew, Pawolocz, Cudnow, and Lubartow, and also the communities over which they had jurisdiction — all of them fled. Some ran to Polannoe, some to Zaslaw, some to Ostrog, the Capital, and Stary Konstantynow, for these were fortified cities. All the provinces of the city of Lwow, in the Kingdom of [Little] Russia, and the communities belonging to them such  p43 as the environs of Nemirow, escaped to Nemirow, and those of the environs of Tulczyn fled to Tulczyn, and those of the environs of Bar, such as Winnice and Starygrod, and Krasne together with the communities adjacent to them, fled to the city of Bar. Whoever failed to escape or was unable to flee was killed. Many communities beyond the Dnieper, and close to the battlefield, such as Pereyaslaw, Baryszowka, Piratyn, and Boryspole, Lubin and Lachowce and their neighbors, who were unable to escape, perished for the sanctification of His Name. These persons died cruel and bitter deaths. Some were skinned alive and their flesh was thrown to the dogs; some had their hands and limbs chopped off, and their bodies thrown on the highway only to be trampled by wagons and crushed by horses; some had wounds inflicted upon them, and thrown on the street to die a slow death; they writhed in their blood until they breathed their last; others were buried alive. The enemy slaughtered infants in the laps of their mothers. They were sliced into pieces like fish. They slashed the bellies of pregnant women, removed their infants and tossed them in their faces. Some women had their bellies torn open and live cats placed in them. The bellies were then sewed up with the live cats remaining within. They chopped off the hands of the victims so that they would not be able to remove the cats from the bellies. The infants were hung on the breasts of their mothers. Some children were pierced with spears, roasted on the fire and then brought to their mothers to be eaten. Many times they used the bodies of Jewish children as improvised bridges upon  p44 which they later crossed. There was no cruel device of murder in the whole world that was not perpetrated by the enemies. All the four death penalties: stoning, burning, beheading and strangling16 were meted out to the Jews. Many were taken by the Tartars into captivity. Women and virgins were ravished. They lay with the women in the presence of their husbands. They seized comely women as handmaids and housekeepers, some as wives and concubines. Similar atrocities were perpetrated in all the settlements through which they passed. Also against the Polish people, these cruelties were perpetrated, especially against the priests and bishops. Thus, westward of the Dnieper several thousand Jewish persons perished and several hundred were forced to change their faith. Scrolls of the Law were torn to pieces, and turned into boots and shoes for their feet; the straps of the phylacteries served as laces around their feet. The leather boxes of the phylacteries were cast into the streets. Other sacred books served to pave the streets. Some were used for kindling purposes, and others to stuff the barrels of their guns. The ears ring at the hearing of this.

When the Jews of Pogrobiszcze, of Zywotow, of Baziowka and Tetjew and their surroundings heard of what the Ukrainians perpetrated against our brethren beyond the Dnieper; that the Tartars and the Ukrainians surrounded them, the Tartars on one side of the city and the Ukrainians on the other, they said: "If we wait until the Ukrainians invade the city we will all either perish or we will be forced into baptism  p45 (God forbid). It is profitable that we fall captive to the Tartars. For, we know that our brethren in Constantinople and in other Turkish communities, are very compassionate and they will ransom us." This they did. The four above mentioned communities, surrendered to the Tartars, men, women and children, some three thousand souls. Among them there was a cantor, Reb Hirsh of Zywotow. When the Tartars came into the city, he began to chant mournfully the Memorial prayer, El Malech Rachamim (O God full of compassion) on behalf of our slaughtered brethren of the house of Israel. All the people burst forth with intense weeping. Apparently, their cries ascended on high, for the compassion of their captors was stirred. They consoled them with expressions of sympathy and said to them: "Do not despair, and do not deny yourselves food or drink. There are ritual slaughterers among you; let them kill an abundance of sheep and oxen for your need, and forthwith we will bring you to your brethren in Constantinople to be ransomed." The Tartars kept their promise. Our brethren in Constantinople, the Lord preserve them, redeemed them, together with other Polish captives, numbering approximately twenty thousand souls. They expended vast sums of money, all that was asked of them. They provided food and shelter for them to the present day; they favored them with many services without limit. The entire land of Turkey manifested such generosity, especially the people of the city of Salonica, may the Lord preserve them. They ransomed a large number of captives. The renowned city of Venice, the crown  p46 city of Rome, and the beloved and laudable city of Livorno, as well as other holy communities of Italy contributed many thousands and tens of thousands of gold pieces which were forwarded to greater Constantinople (the Lord shield her) for the ransoming of the captives. The Lord recompense these good people for the kindness shown to our brethren of the house of Israel, and keep them from evil until the coming of the Redeemer.

Following these events, the Tartars returned to their land with all their prize, and the oppressor Chmiel, together with his Cossack troops and many thousands of Tartars, who had remained with him, went to his city of Czehiryn. They approached the city with triumphant fanfare. All the people of the city came out to welcome him with timbrels and dancing and with great rejoi­cing. They blessed him and hailed him as prince and leader over them and their children after them. And they said to him: "You are a prince of God17 and our liberator. You have redeemed us from the Polish nobles who oppressed us with hard labor."

And it came to pass when the oppressor Chmiel reposed in his home, he addressed himself to his servants, ministers and advisers, and said to them: "Come let us take counsel together, so that we will not be regarded with shame and derision by our enemies, for we are abhorred by the inhabitants of the land of Poland, and when the Catholic kings will hear of the evil we have perpetrated they will make war upon us, and we are but few in number." And they replied to him: "This is the counsel we offer; that you send letters to  p47 the Polish nobles and dukes, words of peace and truth,18 words of comfort and sympathy. Tell them that you regret all you have done; that all was imperative in order to save yourself. This you must do so that they will not mobilize troops against us speedily. Meanwhile, send messengers to the King of the Tartars to supply you with additional troops. Also, send letters to all Ukrainians in the Kingdom of Poland to be prepared for the appointed time to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to avenge themselves on their enemies, the nobles and the Jews." This he did. He sent secret messages to all the provinces, and to every place where groups of the Ukrainian people lived to be prepared for the appointed time, to gather themselves together and to stand for their lives,19 to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish all the Jews, and all the army of Poland that would assault them; their little ones and their women, and to take their spoil for a prey. When the thing became known to the Jews through their friendly Ukrainian neighbors, and also through their own spies who had been placed in all their settlements, they notified their lords, the nobles. Immediately messages were sent forth from community to community by means of horse riders, informing the Jews and the nobles of daily developments. In recognition of this the nobles befriended the Jews exceedingly and became united with them in one band, like one soul. For the Holy One blessed be He, sends the cure before the plague. Had it not been for this action there would have been no escape for the remnant of Israel  p48 (God forbid). And in every province whithersoever the oppressor's command and his decree came20 there was great rejoi­cing among the Ukrainians, and great mourning among the nobles and Jews, and fasting and weeping and a bitter cry, and repentance and prayer and charity. All this notwithstanding, His anger did not abate and the oppressor's hand yet remained outstretched. The Lord have compassion upon them.

Meanwhile Chmiel sent messages to the dukes and nobles, words of peace. He wrote to them words of comfort and sympathy. Everything that he had done had been inevitable in order to save those who were condemned to death. "If one comes to slay thee, forstall and slay him,"21 and "The persecuted are not accountable for their deeds."22 He also advised the nobles to return to their homes, and he would return their estates to them. But the nobles paid no heed to his messages, for they understood that all this was falsehood and deceit; that he was merely seeking to ensnare them. They instinctively felt that all this was misrepresentation and deception; that it would be a "dark peace," indeed. For while he was offering them peace, he proceeded to put all of [Little] Russia under his rule and he received taxes from all the estates that formerly belonged to the nobles. They also recalled his deeds beyond the Dnieper against the Jews and the nobles; how he destroyed their churches and slew their priests. All this he did after capturing the Polish army. Consequently, they did not believe his words. They sent letters to the Archbishop, or as he was known in Italian, the Cardinal, whose seat was in Gniezno, and who was  p49 regent because of the King's death so that Poland should not be without a government. "But for the fear of it man would swallow each other alive.23 At this time the Cardinal of Gniezno was one Casimir, may His glory increase, who caused his enemies to fall under him. All the dukes and nobles notified him that they had unanimously agreed that he be appointed commander, so that the Kingdom of Poland will not be like sheep without a shepherd. Immediately Cardinal Casimir handed the ruler's wand, which is called in Polish Bulawa into the hands of Duke Wladislaw Dominick, may His glory increase, the Archduke of Zaslaw. This duke brought additional distress to Israel, and to the Kingdom of Poland. He was famed for his great wealth but was never experienced in warfare. For he was fearful and faint hearted, and only because of his tremendous wealth did the Cardinal appoint him as general. "When the shepherd is wroth with the sheep he blinds their leader."24 This was the case in Poland (because of our many sins). The Cardinal also announced, under threat of punishment, throughout Poland, that all nobles should mobilize to wreak avengeanceº on their enemies. Unfortunately, they assembled very slowly, as was characteristic of the Kingdom of Poland. Whenever they engaged in war they always proceeded slowly and without dispatch. The contrary is the case with the Tartars and the Ukrainians. They proceed with haste, not with indolence.

The Editor's Notes:

 (p124)  1 1648, 1649, 1650, 1651, 1652.

2 1648.

3 West of the Dnieper.

4 Really Chmielnicki.

5 Proverbs 26:25.

6 b. Erubin 65 a.

7 March 9, 1648.

8 Numbers 31:12.

9 Numbers Rabba XX. The two had been perennial enemies but united against Israel, on its way to the Promised Land.

10 Gen. 22:7.

11 Numbers 13:30.

12 May 25, 1648.

13 b Sanhedrin 39 b.

14 May 27, 1648.

15 The foremost community of Volhynia.

 (p125)  16 Sanhedrin b. Sanhedrin 49 b.

17 Gen. 23:6.

18 Esther 9:30.

19 Esther 8:11.

20 Esther 4:3.

21 b. Sanhedrin 72 a.

22 b. Sanhedrin 74 a.

23 Aboth 3:2.

24 b. Baba Kamma 52 a.

Thayer's Note:

a1 a2 Stories of Khmelnytsky • Competing Literary Legacies of the 1648 Ukrainian Cossack Uprising (Amelia M. Glaser, ed., Stanford University Press 2015), note 23 to Chapter 1 addresses the discrepancy of names:

The English translation tried to differentiate between the two by calling the first Zechariah Sobilenki and the second Jacob Sobilenski. This is not, however, borne out in the original text, in which both are called Sobilenki.

It seems much simpler, however, to attribute the difference in names to a mere typo on p37: in his Introduction (p9), the translator and editor of the book himself refers to them both consistently as Sobilenki.

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