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Chapter 6

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
let me know!


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Chapter 8

 p62  VII

The massacres in the holy community of Ostrog
and in the holy community of Zaslaw​a

And it came to pass on Tuesday, the first day of the month of Av,1 that the Tartars and the Ukrainians besieged the city of Polannoe. They prepared the attack against this city in which were nobles and Jews. The sentries on the wall, however, shot at them and they were unable to come close to the city, for there were among the defenders some two thousand Polish nobles, seasoned warriors, and some twelve thousand Jews who were also mighty fighters. This city, in which the nobles and the Jews took refuge, was fortified strongly with a double wall, and a moat surrounded it. Hence, there was no need to guard it except from that side which was adjacent to two settlements inhabited by some Ukrainians. The nobles, therefore, placed their strongest serfs to guard the side which needed most protection against the enemy. "The protectors of the city, however, became the destroyers of the city,"2 for among the serfs of the nobles who stood guard on the wall were also Ukrainians. They were known in the Polish language as Haiduki (mercenaries) and they turned traitors.

On Wednesday, the second day of Av, the enemy  p63 captured the two settlements which were inhabited by Ukrainians. These agreed to lend their assistance in the attack against the fortified city of the nobles and the Jews. The attack lasted all that Wednesday. On Thursday, the enemy called to the serfs of the nobles who were standing guard on the wall: "Behold we are brothers. Why are you aiding the nobles to fight against us? Is it not to your advantage to serve us than to serve those who are not of our people?" Subsequently, the serfs rebelled and only pretended to fight against them but permitted the Ukrainians to place ladders on the wall. Thus on Thursday the fortified city was captured. At once thousands of Ukrainians with drawn swords entered the city and began to massacre the people. When the nobles and the Jews saw that there was evil determined against them, and that the city was captured, those nobles who were horseriders fled to one side but the unfortunate Jews guarding the city were not permitted to escape, and they were killed for the glorification of the Name. Some ten thousand souls perished by the most terrible deaths the world has ever witnessed. They stretched their necks to the slaughter. A single Ukrainian invading a dwelling which housed several hundred Jewish persons would kill all of them and would meet no resistance.

Among them was a wise and understanding and divinely inspired Kabbalist whose name was, Our Teacher and Master Rabbi Samson of the holy community of Ostropole.3 An angel would appear to him every day to teach him the mysteries of the Torah. This mystic composed a commentary on the Zohar  p64 based upon the Kabbalah of the Ari,4 of blessed memory, but it was never published. The angel had told him prior to the massacre, to indulge in sincere repentance so that the evil decree will not come to pass. He preached frequently in the synagogue and exhorted the people to repent so that the evil would not come to pass. Accordingly all the communities repented sincerely but it did not avail, for the evil decree had already been sealed.

When the enemies and the oppressors invaded the city, the above mentioned mystic and three hundred of the most prominent citizens, all dressed in shrouds, with prayer shawls over their heads, entered the synagogue and engaged in fervent prayer. When the enemies arrived they killed all of them upon the sacred ground of the synagogue, may God avenge their blood. Many hundreds who managed to survive were forced to change their faith and many hundreds were taken captive by the Tartars.

We were informed in the holy city of Zaslaw that the Tartars and the Ukrainians were besieging the holy community of Polannoe. For, a messenger would be sent daily to observe the developments there. On that Tuesday he was unable to reach the city because of the besieging enemy. On Wednesday the messenger returned to us with the evil tidings that the enemies were besieging the holy community of Polannoe. And Zaslaw was only six miles from Polannoe.​b On that Thursday, whoever was able to flee, fled. We abandoned our homes which were filled with all sorts of valuables such as merchandise and books, and other  p65 good things. We did not spare our possessions. We only thought of saving ourselves and our sons and daughters. Some escaped to the capital city of Ostrog which was the metropolis of [Little] Russia; a city famed for its scholars and scribes; one which combined scholar­ship and wealth. I, and my family and my father-in‑law, his honor, the master, Rabbi Abraham of the holy community of Zaslaw, together with his family and relatives, fled to the holy community of Miedzyrzecze, two thousand ells distance from Ostrog the capital.​c In the community of Ostrog and its adjacent community Miedzyrzecze lived more than ten thousand householders, each with his family. We wanted to tarry there for Sabbath Hazon5 so that in the interim we would be informed of the situation in Polannoe, how things stood. When on Friday afternoon we arrived in Miedzyrzecze, a messenger came to us and related that the Duke of Zaslaw, General Dominik, is expected to arrive on that day, together with a large army, to aid Duke Wiśniowiecki in Polannoe against the besieging enemies. And thus it was. The Duke and one thousand warriors arrived. The great hero Laszcz and the rest of his army followed behind him. There was great rejoicing among us. After Sabbath Hazon we would return to our homes, we thought, for, we were only four miles distance from the holy community of Zaslaw. We also thought that he would be able to free our brethren, of the house of Israel, in the holy community of Polannoe, of their troubles.

On Sabbath eve we were stunned by the evil tidings  p66 which reached us through the noble Wiszowaty, who was the governor of Polannoe. He and many other nobles had fled. He said: "Polannoe has been captured. All the nobles and the Jews therein were murdered and the enemy's onslaught is reaching Zaslaw. Duke Wiśniowiecki, together with his troops, fled to Konstantynow, and the Tartars and the Ukrainians are pursuing them. Some of them are marching toward Ostrog and Miedzyrzecze."

Then were the chiefs of Edom affrighted6 and a great fear fell upon the Jews. No one was able to summon courage. Everyone's eyes were directed toward the general, Duke Dominik. What will he do?

And it came to pass in the middle of the night that the general Duke Dominik retreated through the very gate by which he arrived from Poland, for he feared to go through the main road to Konstantynow by way of Zaslaw because a large army of Tartars and Ukrainians were there while his men were few in number. He, therefore, followed a circuitous route and went to Krzemieniec, a distance of nine miles, by way of the woods. There he waited to be reinforced by additional Polish troops, in order to go to the city of Konstantynow. The mass of people, however, were under the impression that the general escaped to the Kingdom of Poland. They all said: "If a flame among the cedars fall, what avails the lichen on the wall?"7 in other words, if the general flees, what is left for us to do? The heads of the community of Ostrog announced that no Jew should dare to remain in that community, nor  p67 for that matter, in the community of Miedzyrzecze, for the enemy is only two miles distant from us. We cannot put any trust in the inhabitants of the city who are Ukrainians, that they themselves would not harm us. All the people fled in accordance with the announcement. Whoever had a horse and cart traveled in it. Those who did not possess a horse and cart, even though they had sufficient money to buy them, would not wait, but took wife and children by the hand and fled on foot, casting away all belongings. Also, he who possessed a horse and wagon but was burdened with a heavy load of articles, books or other valuables, unloaded them from the wagon at the inn and handed them to innkeeper in order to be able to travel lightly.

On that Sabbath Hazon three rows of horses and carts, moved along one next to the other in width, and for a stretch of seven miles, the entire distance between Ostrog and the holy Community of Dubno in length, the road was cluttered up with horses and carts, one behind the other and innumerable pedestrians. Within two hours on that Sabbath Hazon, three horseriders, one Jew whose name was Moses Tzoref of Ostrog, together with two nobles, ran after us. They said to us: "Why are you marching so slowly? Behold, the enemy is close behind us. They are now in Miedzyrzecze. We escaped with difficulty." Immediately there was such confusion and panic among our brethren of the house of Israel that it is indescribable. Everyone threw from his cart silver and gold, vessels, books,  p68 pillows and bed covers in order to be able to escape more quickly, to save the lives of his family. The field was cluttered with gold, silver and clothes, and no Jew paused to take them. This time the admonishing words of the Prophet came true: "They shall cast their silver in the streets."8 Some cast away everything: horse and cart and all that was in it, and with only wife and children fled for their lives into the woods. Many women and men who had led their children by the hands, released them when this panic seized them, and ran for their lives into the woods and into the pits. This time the verse of Leviticus came true "And ye shall flee when none pursueth you,"9 for it was all a falsehood; the enemies, the Tartars, did not pursue us. The fear, however, was so great upon all of us that Sabbath Hazon that everyone thought the Ukrainians were pursuing him.

On the Sunday following Sabbath Hazon the truth became known to us. The general had not fled to Poland, but only journeyed to the city of Krzemieniec. Then the anxiety was relieved, and from that day on everyone slackened his pace. We walked from place to place through cities and villages, sleeping in the streets. And even then we found no rest for our weary souls. We were robbed and crushed, despised and hated. The admonishing verses of Scripture: "And among these nations shalt thou have no repose, and there shall be no rest for the sole of thy feet,"10 etc. . . . "and thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear night and day and shalt have no assurance of thy life," for every night that we spent in  p69 a Ukrainian inn we feared that the innkeeper would kill us in the night, because they were all rebels. When we arose in the morning alive we recited the prayer, "Blessed art Thou who quickenest the dead."

The Editor's Notes:

1 July 20, 1648.

2 p. Hagigah I.7.

3 A Kabbalist. Some of his mystical writings were published posthumously.

4 Rabbi Isaac Luria, founder of a new trend in Jewish mysticism known as the Lurianic Kabbalah lived in Safed, Palestine, in the 16th century.

5 July 26, 1648. The Sabbath on which the first chapter of Isaiah is read in the Synagogue precedes the Fast of Ab, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple. "Hazon" is the opening word of the chapter.

6 Exodus 15:15. "Edom" — the Catholic rulers.

7 b. Moed Katan 25 b.

8 Ex. 7:19.

9 Lev. 26:17.

10 Deut. 28:65, 66.

Thayer's Notes:

a Such is the title of this chapter as printed, almost identical to the title of Chapter VIII. It is probably a proofreading error, since in the Table of Contents the title of this chapter is given as "The Massacres by Polannoe", a much better fit.

b The straight-line center-to‑center distance from Polannoe (modern Ukrainian: Polonne) to Zaslaw (Iziaslav) is 48 km, or 30 English miles. "Six miles" must be a translation of the Hebrew original — which I have not seen — referring to the long Cossack mile, which according to Sigismund von Herberstein, writing about a century before the events recorded by Rabbi Hanover, as cited by Mykola Zharkikh, was about 8 km: note especially the chart on that page of Ukrainian miles against kilometers, where 6 miles in Paul of Aleppo (who traversed Ukraine in 1654 and again in 1656) can be determined as equal to 50 km almost on the nose.

c In modern Ukrainian spelling, Ostroh the larger city — the seat, whence "capital", of the eponymous princes Ostrogski — and Mezhyrich its neighbor, about 4 km SW. The ell in the text (Polish: łokieć) was 2 Polish feet, very close to 2 English feet, making the distance only about 1200 m. The discrepancy can be adjusted, if one likes, by taking into account only the open countryside between the edges of the two places; alternatively by bearing in mind that the standard Polish ell was not necessarily the unit most familiar to Rabbi Hanover: several regional variants existed, including one used in nearby Galicia. As famously pointed out by De Sanctis, metrology is not a science, it's a nightmare.

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