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Abyss of Despair

Rabbi Nathan Hanover

The Author and the Book

Rabbi Hanover's life is reasonably well known to us from various sources, and the editor has provided us with a straightforward biographical sketch of the man.

The content of our book is more problematic.

There is no question but that horrific pogroms occurred at the hands of partisans of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky over a wide area now spanning parts of modern Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus, in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered: that much is clear and undeniable fact, to which Abyss of Despair bears a most valuable witness.

On the other hand, as has been pointed out by modern Jewish scholars (see for example the excellent article by Rabbi Aviad Tabory) and by Rabbi Mesch himself, the translator and editor of this book, both the numbers of people killed and some of the details of these massacres as given by the author are unreliable. Mind you, nowhere does he give us a precise aggregate number of those killed, and to be sure, it would have been quite impossible for anyone to do so under such chaotic conditions, reporting mostly second- or third-hand: but from the author's repeated use of the phrase "thousands and tens of thousands" some have made the case for several hundred thousand Jewish victims, which seems out of the question given that in 1648 there were only something like 50,000 Jews total in what may be called Ukraine, according to the online Encyclopedia of Ukraine.

Nor can it be securely determined from this book who exactly perpetrated these pogroms, nor their motivations. Rabbi Hanover does clearly identify people native to the area as responsible for the massacres, and he is also quite clear that they were partisans of Khmelnytsky. But as with the numbers, he is vague as to whether these were just some relatively few people, or the mass of the population; and while he paints Khmelnytsky in the darkest of colors, as an evil tyrant on whom the blame for the pogroms is to be laid, he never once actually states that Khmelnytsky ordered any of them, nor that they were part and parcel of his policy, nor even that he approved of them.

Furthermore, the translator may have muddied the waters a bit more by consistently translating "the Ukrainians" and "[Little] Russia". The former is an outright anachronism — see Prof. Brian Bock in Harvard Ukrainian Studies, 27:33‑65 (2004‑2005) — and I suspect, while hamstrung by my ignorance of Hebrew, that the word used means "the Rus′ people" or possibly "the Cossacks". Furthermore, the book itself is clear that there were natives of these localities who were decent folks, did not participate in the pogroms, and on the contrary helped the Jews escape and relieved their sufferings (p47p58).

A similar difficulty attends "[Little] Russia": the text refers to the region as something which is translated "Russia" — another anachronism, probably Rus′ is meant — then 'fixed' by the translator by prefixing "Little" to it, introducing a further ambiguity, if not in the 17c, in our time at least since the rulers in 19c Moscow extended the term "Little Russia" to mean pretty much all of what is now Ukraine. Our best guide here is to pay more attention each time to the actual named localities, which lie in a swath of land extending from Podilia thru Volynia (now west-central Ukraine) into the fringes of what are now Belarus and Poland. The country we now call Russia has in fact nothing whatsoever to do with the horrors of 1648, although a few scant years after Khmelnytsky's death there would eventually be some Russian pogroms as well, if much smaller.

In sum it seems reasonable to conclude, if it is at all possible at a remove of nearly four hundred years, that in Abyss of Despair we are reading the account of an ungovernable mob spreading across a large territory and slaughtering tens of thousands of people, whoever was part of the Polish power structure: Polish nobles (pp47, 57, 60, 66, 76, 8095), Catholic priests (pp70‑71), but mostly Jews, many of whom had the misfortune to be the day-to‑day superintendents and tax collectors of large Polish estates worked by serfs. That the Jews were targeted because they were part of the power structure is made amply and repeatedly clear by Rabbi Hanover: Chapters 4, 6, 7, 12, and 15 for example go on at length about the natural community of interests and effective alliance of the Polish nobles and the Jews, which faltered only when the nobles found the means to escape (while the poorer Jews had their backs to the wall and were forced to stay put), or in one terrible instance, when the Poles thought they could save their skins by handing the Jews over to their common enemy.

Contemporary accounts of the Cossack pogroms were few. And while Abyss of Despair is said to be the best, its vagueness, occasional errors (editor's introduction, p10), and literary hyperbole due in part to uncritically repeated third-hand reports — no one ever crossed on a bridge built of the corpses of babies, nor would cats tamely submit to be sewn up inside people's bellies (both are claimed on p43) — while completely understandable given the chaotic circumstances, have provided some with an excuse to deny that anything happened. Others, seeing in Khmelnytsky the restorer of the submerged nationhood of the Ukrainian people, have preferred to look the other way, or when acknowledging the pogroms, to dismiss them as due to how some Jews earned their living: which comes perilously close to blaming the victims for what happened to them, as in Doroshenko's History of the Ukraine, pp230237.

Denying or whitewashing the Cossack pogroms of 1648 is untenable, however. There are other first-hand accounts, and the pogroms were horrific enough to cause contemporaneous Jewish religious authorities hundreds of miles away to declare fasts, and even a three-year period of mourning (Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v. Bogdan Chmielnicki). And though neither Ukrainians as a group, for sure, nor probably Hetman Khmelnytsky personally can be blamed for specifically targeting Jews, the pogroms did occur under Khmelnytsky's watch, and a strong word from him — which, as far as I know, is not recorded — could have prevented them.

At the same time, in the absence of better information, these massacres were not official policy, in which they differ not only of course from the abominations of the Holocaust (with which many Poles, Russians, Belarusians, and others thruout Europe colluded, again without making any of these national groups in some way collectively responsible), but also from the institutionalized and official persecutions of Jews in czarist Russia in the nineteenth century. About the only thing we can say is that these pogroms and the attitudes underlying them are a blot on our shared humanity.

For technical details on how this site is laid out, see below, following the Table of Illustrations.

 p. xiii  Table of Contents



Preface by Dr. Solomon Grayzel






A Biographical Sketch of Nathan Hanover


Author's Introduction


Abyss of Despair


The Massacres of Nalevaiko


The Massacres of Pawliuk


The Brutal Oppressions of Chmiel


The Massacres of Nemirow


The Massacres of Tulczyn


The Massacres by Polannoe


The Massacres of Ostrog and Zaslaw


The Massacres of Konstantynow


The Massacres of Lithuania


The Massacres of Bar


The Massacres of Lwow


The Massacres of Narol


The Massacres of Zamosc


The Second Massacre of Ostrog


The Inner Life of the Jews in the Kingdom of Poland


Notes [I've folded these endnotes into their chapters as footnotes.]


 p. xv  Illustrations

Map. Poland and Lithuania in 1564


Traditional Drawing of the Maharsha


Bohdan Chmielnicki


Synagogue in Zolkiew


Synagogue in Szaragrod


Typical Clothes of Polish Jews During 16th and 17th Centuries


Technical Details

Edition Used and Copyright

I am grateful to The Styberg Library of Garrett Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois, and their staff, for access to a copy of the rather rare book which I transcribe here: the first English-language edition, published by Bloch Publishing Company, New York, 1950. It was printed in the United States and marked "Copyright, 1950, by Abraham J. Mesch" but the copyright was not renewed in 1977/78 as then required by American law to maintain it, so that the book is now in the public domain: details here on the copyright law involved.

A transcription of the original Hebrew text can be found at דעת - לימודי יהדות ורוח.

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is shown in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this line); p57  these are also local anchors. Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if success­ful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

My transcription has been minutely proofread. In the table of contents above, the sections are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the text of them to be completely errorfree; a red background would mean that the page had not been proofread. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.

The printed book was very well proofread. There were no serious mistakes (bearing in mind that I'm not an expert in Slavic geographical or personal names, nor do I read Hebrew or Yiddish); the few errors were trivial, and I marked them with a dotted underscore like this: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the underscored words to read what was actually printed.

Similarly, glide your cursor over bullets before measurements: they provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles. You should, however, be wary of the book's indications of distances in what the editor translated as "miles": the English mile is not meant, but any of several units in use in the 17c in various regions of Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. Because of the uncertainty and ambiguities involved, I've avoided guessing at equivalents, but generally speaking, when we compare the distances given by Rabbi Hanover with modern maps, these "miles" appear to be more on the order of leagues, something like 5 to 10 km: probably the long Ukrainian mile is meant.

Some odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, etc. have been marked <!‑‑ sic  in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked. They are also few.

Any over­looked mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have a copy of the printed book in front of you.

[image ALT: The Hebrew phrase 'Sefer Yeven Metzulah', in Hebrew characters. The image serves as the icon on this site for the book 'Abyss of Despair' by Rabbi Nata Hanover.]

Since none of the printed book's six illustrations is sufficiently relevant or general for the purpose, the icon I use to indicate this subsite is the book's Hebrew title, as found on its first edition:

ספר יון מצולה, Sefer Yeven Metzulah.

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Site updated: 10 Jan 23