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This webpage reproduces a section of

Abyss of Despair

Rabbi Nathan Hanover

Bloch Publishing Company
New York, 5710‑1950

The text is in the public domain.

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 p1  Introduction

[image ALT: A schematic map of Ukraine and bordering areas, showing rivers and larger towns, plus towns where pogroms were recorded in the seventeenth century.]

Poland and Lithuania in 1564

[A larger version, in which all the map names are readable, opens here (1.8 MB).]

The years 1948‑49 mark the 300th anniversary of the dreadful Chmielnicki Massacres in Poland and the Ukraine, known as Gezeroth Tach Vetat. The pogroms which began in the spring of 1648 and which continued for several years claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews and the devastation of hundreds of communities and settlements.1 The period was one of the bloodiest in Jewish history. The fury of the slaughter, the unbridled cruelty, the unspeakable atrocities of the insurgents made the horrors of earlier days pale into insignificance. Only the recent extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis surpassed that in Poland of three hundred years ago.

The Jews of Poland lived rather tranquilly and securely prior to the outbreak of the hostilities. They enjoyed comparative autonomy and peace. Polish Jewry was well integrated, and its institutions flourished. Many Jews had been employed as overseers, administrators and tax farmers by the wealthy Polish land­owners. It was the task of the Jewish tax farmer to keep his master supplied with the necessary funds. This could be achieved only by taxing the peasants heavily and by increasing the burden of their labors. Gradually the Jews became the virtual masters of the peasants and the sole administrators of the large estates.  p2 The oppressive measures usually employed by the land­owner had to be employed by his Jewish lessee. The continuous demand for money by his employer forced the Jew to appear as the peasants' tyrant and oppressor. In reality, however, he was only carrying out the bidding of his master, the Pan. Thus contemporary historians relate that the Pans would levy a tax for the baptism of each peasant child, for the marriage of each peasant daughter, for the burying of their dead.2 These levies were collected by the Jewish stewards and delivered to the landlord.3

A strong animosity also existed between the bulk of the people of the Ukraine whose religion was overwhelmingly Greek Catholic and the Poles who were Roman Catholics. Thus the hatred which the peasants bore against their masters was caused not only by economic oppression but also by religious differences. They looked upon their Polish oppressors not only as tyrants, but also as infidels, and upon the Jew, as infidel and tyrant, and also as the master's tool.

It is no wonder then that under such conditions the attitude of the peasants toward the Jews was not a favorable one, to say the least. Even though they were fully aware that the Jew was merely an agent for the land­owner, the peasants could not but feel hatred towards him. The situation was intolerable and filled with ominous forebodings.

The impending catastrophe, however, received impetus from another source. The Cossacks in South Russia​a had always been a source of irritation to the Kingdom of Poland. They were a warlike group who  p3 lived in the Ukrainian Steppes bordering Crimea. They frequently attacked caravans of merchants headed for Crimea and points east. They consisted of a motley of diversified nationalities and religions. In due time they developed a sense of unity among themselves and became, so to speak, Ukrainian nationals. The Crimean Tartars, too, often attacked the eastern provinces of Poland and looted their settlements. The Polish government, therefore, encouraged the Cossacks to organize themselves into bands for the purpose of protecting the borders of the kingdom. Thus the Cossacks served a double purpose; they defended the southeastern border against the marauding Crimeans and at the same time forsook their banditry which had been of deep concern to the government. They organized themselves into divisions, each one numbering a thousand, and each headed by a captain. Their commander-in‑chief was known as the Hetman4 who was appointed by the King himself.​b Thus the erstwhile robbers received national recognition. Special privileges were conferred upon them, and some were honored with titles of nobility.5 This encouraged many riff-raff to join them. The Polish government, however, could not accommodate all of them into the Cossack divisions. Hence, two types of Cossacks came into being; those registered in the service of Poland and the unregistered who lived in a so called no‑man's land beyond the Dnieper Falls known as Zaporozhe.6 They maintained themselves mainly from piracy on the Black Sea, robbery, fishing and hunting. Frequently, the Polish government sought to convert  p4 these Cossacks into farmers but they preferred the life of adventure. They rebelled against governmental edicts only to be suppressed by force. At times the Cossacks appealed to the Ukrainian peasants to join them in their rebellion but they did not respond. Those who did join suffered retribution when the rebellion failed. Obsequious and penitent they would ask forgivness from the Polish government. It happened frequently that the registered Cossacks in the service of the government joined others in rebellion against the Kingdom of Poland. Their punishment was to have their number reduced to a minimum while the rest were forced to till the soil.

Deprived of their privileges and military standing, angered and disappointed, the Cossacks in the Ukraine were in a continuous state of rebellion. They were looking for a leader who would initiate the revolt against Poland. Such a leader appeared in the person of Bogdan Chmielnicki.

Chmielnicki's place of residence was Chigirin. He was the son of a wealthy land­owner and received a fairly good education. He participated with his father in a war in Wallachia where the elder Chmielnicki was killed while the son became a prisoner of the Tartars. After two years of imprisonment he was ransomed and returned home to become heir to his father's estate. He considered himself a loyal subject of Poland and never joined the sporadic Cossack uprisings.

In 1639 Daniel Czaplinski became assistant governor of Chigirin, a position formerly occupied by Chmielnicki's father. Both Chmielnicki and Czaplinski  p5 were widowers. A quarrel resulted between them over a comely young maiden, Helena, whose hand both sought. Chmielnicki, however, emerged the victor in this rivalry. The disappointed Czaplinski then attacked Chmielnicki's estate, seized a good portion of his property, and also the beauti­ful Helena. Chmielnicki appealed to the Polish government but received no satisfaction. He appeared personally before King Wladislaw IV and the king granted him an official document establishing his right to the estate, but upon his return to claim it, he found that Czaplinski had, in the interim, appropriated his entire estate and also married his beloved Helena.

The clash with Czaplinski, the loss of his estate, and the marriage of his beloved to his rival left him embittered and filled his heart with vengeance. Chmielnicki was now prepared to join other Cossack leaders in a revolt against the Kingdom of Poland. Apparently, the plan that such a revolt was in preparation reached the governor Koniecpolski and Bogdan was imprisoned. He denied the accusation that he was plotting against the government and was released in the custody of the Cossack officer, Kriczewski, who was a personal friend of Chmielnicki. No sooner did Chmielnicki breathe the air of freedom than his friend permitted him to escape to Zaporozhe, beyond the Dnieper Falls.

It was there that Chmielnicki called upon the Cossacks to rise against the Polish oppressors and to enlist the help of the general Ukrainian populace in the effort to throw off the yoke of Poland and of the Jews. Chmielnicki was elected the Hetman of the Cossacks  p6 and proceeded to conclude an alliance with the Khan of Crimea. The Khan promised to send a large number of Tartar troops to aid the Cossacks in their rebellion.

Chmielnick's offensive started in April of 1648. He left his camp beyond the Dnieper Falls and moved to the borders of the Ukraine to attack the Polish army. With a combined force of Cossack and Tartar troops he engaged a small force of the Polish army and defeated it. Ten days later he engaged a larger Polish army under the leader­ship of Mikolai Potocki, near Korsun, and was again victorious. The two victories made a deep impression upon all of the Ukraine. The confidence in the invincibility of Poland was shattered and skepticism regarding the strength of the Cossacks disappeared. The defeat of the Polish armies served as a signal to all the Ukrainian peasants and villagers to leave their homes and join the Cossacks and the Tartars in the rebellion and avenge themselves on the Poles and the Jews. The Cossack rebellion was turned into a general national uprising against the Kingdom of Poland.

Mad with lust for blood Chmielnicki and his hordes attacked the estates of the Pans and devastated them, killing the Jewish administrators. Thus in the towns of Pereyaslav, Piratin, Lochwitz and Lubny thousands of Jews were brutally murdered and their property looted. Only those who were willing to join the Greek Orthodox church were spared. Many fled to the camps of the Tartars hoping to save themselves by being sold as slaves and if fortunate enough, to be ransomed by fellow Jews in neighboring Turkey. The Jews of  p7 Poland ran for their lives. They crowded the highways seeking escape from the sword. Many sought shelter in the large and fortified cities but the Chmielnicki hordes followed them and murdered them.

The great tragedy that befell Polish Jewry stirred the Jews of the rest of the world, and united them in the resolve to bring succor to the Chmielnicki victims. Most communities organized special councils for the purpose of ransoming those held captive by the Tartars, and for the resettlement of those who managed to escape. Appropriate penitential prayers and dirges were composed in memory of the martyrs, and a public fast was instituted. Conferences were called together to deal specifically with the problem of the survivors. Each community was asked to contribute to the maximum of its ability to relieve the plight of the victims, among whom were eminent scholars, Rabbis and preachers. A number of these were later elected to serve important communities in Germany, France, Moravia, and others.

Of the few chronicles which recount the events of this tragic period Nathan Hanover's Yeven Metzulah (literally: The Deep Mire) is by far the most popular and the most authentic. While other chroniclers only list the names of the victimized communities and the number of their slain, Hanover attempts to give us an objective account of the events which led to the massacres as well as a realistic description of the bloody attacks. So popular did Hanover's chronicle become that in some communities it was customary to read it annually during the "Three Weeks." 7 Historians like  p8 Heinrich Graetz and others regard his account as reliable and trustworthy.

The Yeven Metzulah is not a dull and monotonous record of ghastly incidents. It is a graphic delineation of a great tragedy that came to pass to an unsuspecting Polish Jewry. Hanover was a gifted historian who knew the intricate workings of history. Thus the reader gleans an understanding of the causes which led to the Cossack uprising and a detailed account of the perpetrations in each community. In order to achieve this aim Hanover begins his tale of woe with the year 1592 when the Poles forced the Greek Orthodox Ukrainians to embrace Roman Catholicism. He records the aborted rebellions of Nalewaiko in 1602 and Pawliuk in 1639,8 during which many synagogues were destroyed and some two hundred Jews murdered, as the overtures to the Chmielnicki uprising of 1648.

Many historians have attempted to characterize Bogdan Chmielnicki as the national liberator of the oppressed Ukrainian masses, the hero of the downtrodden and the benefactor of the exploited peasants. Hanover, however, pictures him as a ruthless oppressor, a merciless cut‑throat and a blood-thirsty tyrant. At each mention of his name he adds the phrase, "May his name be blotted out." Yet, Hanover does not fail to emphasize the miserable plight of the peasants whose suffering at the hands of the Polish nobles may have justified their retaliation. Nor does he absolve the Jews of any guilt when he says: "Even the lowliest among them (the Jews) became their over­lords."9

Hanover was an eye witness to the massacres during  p9 1648. The account of those events shows his personal reaction to them. Information regarding events that occurred in 1649, he collected from new arrivals who fled from the sword of the Cossacks. For at this time he himself had already been a homeless wanderer.

It was from these survivors that he obtained various versions of the massacres. In fact, the report of the massacre in Narol he received, as he states, from a woman who survived the carnage. Hanover also made use of several publications which narrated the events of 1648‑49. Chief among these was the Tzok Ha‑itim ("Troublous Times") by Meir of Sczebrzeszyn, published in Krakow in 1650. Some historians do not attribute much reliability to a number of incidents related in the Yeven Metzulah. They find them irreconcilable with historical fact. Thus for instance, Hanover tells that two Jews, Zechariah and Jacob Sobilenki, played an important and decisive role in the conflict between Chmielnicki and Alexander Koniecpolski and that the Chmielnicki uprising was a result of Zechariah Sobilenki's betrayal. This story is indeed unlikely. It is hard to believe that the governor had to depend on a Jew's information in order to determine the extent of Chmielnicki's wealth. It is also hard to believe that Chmielnicki sought advice from Jacob Sobilenki as to how to extricate himself from his plight after his imprisonment. Hanover does not touch upon Chmielnicki's conflict with Czaplinski. The story of Helena, the chief source of trouble between the two, seems to have been completely unknown to him. Similarly, the incident with Count  p10 Czwierczinski, who together with his wife and two daughters were murdered by the Cossacks, also seems improbable for it is an historical fact that the Count had no children.10

There is definitely a tendency on the part of Hanover to exaggerate when recording the number of both the Polish and the Cossack-Tartar forces. Everywhere he adds, "their number was like the sand on the shores of the sea." Equally doubtful and incorrect are some of his geographical designations. Having lived in Zaslaw, Hanover may not have been sufficiently acquainted with the proximity of the various communities which he discusses.

His sympathetic appraisal of Count Jeremy Wiśniowiecki has also been the object of historical criticism. Hanover portrays the Count as a kind-hearted and noble person, a man who had the interest of the persecuted Jews at heart and who sought to protect them at the risk of his own life. They claim that Wiśniowiecki was representative of the autocratic and imperialistic Polish nobility, and that he was not the benevolent person he describes him to be. However, other chroniclers, such as the author of Tzok‑Ha-Itim, also give the same favorable and sympathetic appraisal of the Count.

Many of the stories depicted in the Yeven Metzulah have become classical examples of Jewish heroism. Some of the episodes served as inspiring themes for modern novelists.11 They are written with dramatic force and skill. The readiness of the young maidens to die for the sanctification of the Name is described with  p11 tenderness and pathos. Some were drowned, others let themselves be stabbed or shot in order not to be defiled. They remained impervious to the offers by the enemy to spare their lives in exchange for baptism. They defied their persecutors and bravely met their fate.

The final chapter of the book is devoted to a detailed description of the social, religious and economic life of Polish Jewry during the 17th century. Here we have a concise but color­ful account of Jewish community life, its educational system, its reverence for the scholar, its institutions and organizations. It was a well integrated and peaceful life the Jews of Poland had. Hanover prefaces his description of Polish Jewry with the remark that it was "founded on principles of righteousness and justice."

As a Rabbi and a Kabbalist, Hanover employs a style typical of his day. He was primarily influenced by the style of the Book of Esther. Here and there phrases and sometimes complete verses are lifted out of that book and used appropriately in the Yeven Metzulah.

It is no wonder then that of all the chronicles which tell of the massacres of the Jews, the Yeven Metzulah was the most popular. It was translated into many languages. A Yiddish translation appeared while the author was still alive. Each time the Jew experienced a new wave of persecution, pogroms and massacres, a new edition of the Yeven Metzulah appeared. Thus, following the pogroms of Denikin and Petliura during the first World War, a popular edition of the Yeven Metzulah was published and circulated. As late  p12 as nineteen hundred and forty-five, immediately following World War II, "Hakibutz Hameuchad" in Israel published a popular annotated edition of the book by Israel Hailpern with an introduction by the Hebrew poet, Jacob Fichman.

The perusal of the pages of Hanover's chronicle which depicts the tribulation and misery of Polish Jewry in the middle of the seventeenth century, thus served as a source of hope to suffering Jewry in succeeding generations.

The Editor's Notes:

1 There is considerable controversy among chroniclers and historians with regard to the number of communities that were devastated and also with regard to the number slain. Rabbi Sabbathai Cohen in his brief account of the massacres records that approximately 300 communities were destroyed and a little more than 100,000 people slain. Most likely his figures represent a minimum. According to another record, 744 communities were destroyed and 650 thousand persons were slain. See Jacob Schatzki'sº introduction to the Yiddish translation of Yeven Metzulah, Yivo Wilno, 1938, 83 ff.

2 Shatzky,º ibid., 45 ff.

3 See Di Yidn in Ukraine by I. S. Hertz, New York, 1949, 197. Following the massacres of 1648 and 1649 a number of accusations against the Jews became current among the people which attempted to justify the slaughter. Foremost among these was the one which stated that the Jews leased Christian churches thereby offending the religious sensibilities of the Ukrainians and arousing their anger. Hertz discusses fully these accusations and concludes that they have no historical basis and that no conscientious historian will subscribe to them. They were originally written for propaganda purposes. Shatzky maintains that such procedure was quite normal in those days, and disagrees with Hertz that the accusations were unfounded. See Shatzky's article in the "Zukunft," New York, December, 1949.

4 From the German, Hauptmann.

5 See Hertz' Di Yidn in Ukraine, New York, 1949, 104.

6 From the Russian word Za porogi, meaning, "beyond the Falls."

7 The "Three Weeks" beginning with the 17th day of Tammuz and concluding with 9th day of Av are observed as a period of mourning commemorating the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

8 Hanover gives the date of the Pawliuk rebellion as 1639. Actually it started in 1637.

9 See Abyss of Despair, p28.

10 Shatzky's introduction to Yeven Metzulah, Yivo Wilno, 1938.

11 Sholem Asch's Kiddush Hashem.

Thayer's Notes:

a In terms of the period before Khmelnytsky's revolt, an anachronism; and even now, an inaccuracy. In the 17c, "Russia" was an occasional informal synonym for the official "Muscovy", which designated a territory that stopped short of the lands controlled by Poland. Southern Rus′ is meant.

b The hetmans were elected by the Cossacks themselves; during the period of the Polish dominion, the Polish king merely confirmed the election as regards the hetman's status as the official head of the registered Cossacks.

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