Eyewitness to the Chmielnicki Pogroms

On Saturday, while an assailant was holding Jews hostage inside a Texas synagogue, I was reading about the Chmielnicki pogroms.

Thankfully, the Texas synagogue assault ended with the safe release of the victims. And based on the limited information that’s been released so far, it seems to have been the work of a lone attacker. So I’m not comparing its details with the Chmielnicki pogroms, a 1648 uprising by decommissioned Cossack soldiers and Ukrainian peasants that killed tens of thousands of Jews.

It was just… unsettling to be reading about pogroms while Jews were being threatened with death RIGHT NOW inside a U.S. synagogue.

I’d heard mention of the Chmielnicki pogroms, the worst disaster in Jewish history between the Iberian expulsions and the Holocaust. But—like many American Jews, I suspect—I knew almost nothing about them. I was researching the pogroms as background for a potential novel set in the 1600s. But the book I was reading wasn’t a secondary source or historical work: It was a contemporary account by a rabbi who survived the pogroms, originally published in Hebrew in 1652.

It is stunning.

Abyss of Despair, by Nathan Hanover, is astonishingly readable for a work that is 370 years old. It’s only about 120 pages and straightforward in its style, almost conversational. In his summary of the history leading up to the pogroms, Hanover is surprisingly honest about the social position that Jews held in Polish-run Ukraine, and how that fed into the pogroms.

Excerpt from original manuscript of Abyss of Despair, or Yeven Metzulah / Courtesy of Wikipedia

Here’s my still-evolving understanding, based on Hanover’s book and some secondary histories:

At the time—early and mid-1600s—the kingdom of Poland extended far beyond today’s Polish borders to include much of Lithuania and the Ukraine. While there was a king, there were also many dukes and nobles who ruled chunks of territory and lived off of the labor and taxes of peasants there.

Jews were relative newcomers to Eastern Europe. Following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, many moved to Holland and what today is Germany. But the decentralized states of Germany had their own waves of expulsions, and by 1570 Jews had been expelled from nearly every German city. Many of these exiled Jews moved east: The Jewish population of Poland/Lithuania rose from about 30,000 in 1500 to between 100,000 and 150,000 in 1575, according to European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism by Jonathan I. Israel.

Map of Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth and surrounding states in 1648 / Creative Commons by Mathiasrex
Map of pogrom sites during the Chmielnicki upraising, from the Jewish Encyclopedia

The Polish kings and nobles welcomed the Jews, who filled a role of intermediaries between the nobility and the peasantry. Jews served as tax collectors for Polish noblemen and also ran estates, mills, and distilleries for them. (They also were innkeepers and engaged in crafts such as soapmaking and tanning.)

The Polish nobility tended to be Roman Catholic while the Ukraine peasantry tended to be Greek Orthodox. Hanover writes:

“King Sigismund [ruler of Poland from 1596 to 1632] raised the status of the Catholic dukes and princes above those of the Ukrainians…. and the masses that followed the Greek Orthodox Church became gradually impoverished. They were looked upon as lowly and inferior beings and became the slaves and handmaids of the Polish people and of the Jews….”

Meanwhile, the Polish king had recruited Ukrainian fighting men into a military force—called Cossacks—to guard the frontier with the Tatars, a Muslim people occupying the region of Crimea, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The Cossacks held privileges such as being exempt from taxes. But after several unsuccessful Cossack-led Ukrainian revolts, the king decommissioned tens of thousands of them—creating a powder keg of downwardly-mobile and unemployed armed men. 

A wealthy and charismatic Cossack named Chmielnicki launched another revolt against the Polish overlords in 1648. But this time there was a crucial shift in the power balance: Chmielnicki formed an alliance with Ukraine’s neighbor and traditional enemy, the Tatars. 

The rebel forces targeted Jews as well as Polish nobles and Roman Catholic priests. Hanover explains the dynamic when describing a particular Jewish man who “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.”

The title of Hanover’s book in its original Hebrew was “Yeven Metzulah,” which literally translated means “Deep Mire,” a reference to Psalm 69, which says, “Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck; I am sinking into the deep mire and find no foothold.”

Most of the book is a description of one massacre after another. 

As Chmielnicki’s army advanced, Jews fled from small towns and the countryside to the fortified cities held by Polish nobles. But in one city after another, they were slaughtered. In one case, the Polish defenders of the city struck a deal to hand over the Jews to the rebels. In another, the Ukrainian rebels gained entrance by waving Polish flags and pretending to be Polish reinforcements. In yet another, Ukrainian peasants working as guards along the city walls let their countrymen ford the walls with ladders. In other cases, cities were stormed and burned. 

Hanover’s descriptions of what happened in captured towns are stark and appalling. Even if we allow that some of the atrocities were exaggerated, as often happens in war, there is still enough to horrify:

“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 their 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 sew up with the live cats remaining within. They chopped off the hands of the victims so they would not be able to remove the cats from their bellies…

“Women and young girls were ravished but some of the women and maidens jumped into the moat surrounding the fortress in order that the uncircumcised should not defile them. They drowned in the waters. Many of them who were able to swim jumped into water, believing they would escape the slaughter, but the Ukrainians swam after them with their swords and their scythes, and killed them in the water… till the water became red with the blood of the slain.”

Print of massacre of Poles by Ukrainian rebels after a 1652 battle / Wikipedia

These descriptions sound histrionic, but Hanover’s narrative is more nuanced than that. He describes rivalries among the Polish nobility that hampered them from putting down the rebellion. He notes a successful survival strategy of some Jewish communities: Letting themselves be captured by the Tatar troops, who would enslave rather than kill them. (The enslaved Jews were sold south to the Ottoman Empire, where Jewish communities in Constantinople and Venice ransomed at least some of them.) Hanover pens a dramatic narrative of the rebels’ advance over time—one city falling, news arriving at the next town, those inhabitants fleeing to the next fortified city, which in turn falls, and so on.

Really, it is worth reading. 

But what are we to make of these horrific events today, over three centuries later?

Some initial thoughts, still evolving:

The Chmielnicki pogroms are a reminder that anti-Semitism didn’t begin with the Nazis. The Holocaust was unique in its vast scale, its technology of death, and its systematic approach to wiping out Jewry, but it was one of many, many expulsions and massacres that Jews faced in Europe over the past millennium. There were multiple centuries when Jews were not allowed to live in countries like England that today we view as icons of liberal tolerance. The saga of one forced exodus after another—from Spain to Germany, from Germany to Poland, from Poland back to Germany— is sobering.

Yet the fatalistic conclusion that “everyone will always hate us, no matter what we do” is not necessarily warranted. Granted, Christian theologians and clerics vilified Jews as despicable Christ-killers for much of European history. But Hanover’s account spotlights the vulnerability of Jews’ position in the Ukraine—as the most close-at-hand and thus most easily hated representative of an oppressive, foreign overclass. The pogroms grew out of specific economic and social circumstances, not pure religious dogma.

Those 16th century Jews threw their lot in with the Polish nobles and counted on the nobles’ protection. That protection turned out to be absent or inadequate once faced with a massive peasant revolt. Jews living in the Diaspora will always be a minority, and faced with a similar choice of where to place their allegiance—the current regime? the regime’s challengers? the suffering masses? 

Would it have been wiser to ally with the masses of impoverished Ukrainians? Would it have even been possible? 

One of the founding visions of Zionism was a society where Jews would not be at the mercy of a host regime—would not be at risk of expulsion, would not be limited in their professions, would not have to be landless, powerless “middlemen” trapped between powerful nobles and angry masses. How has that worked out? That’s a complicated discussion for another day.

No answers here, just questions. I’m a novice when it comes to pre-modern Jewish history. If you’re someone with more expertise, feel free to weigh in via the comments! I welcome corrections, additions, or simply more questions. 

And in the meantime: read Abyss of Despair. (I was lucky enough to find an inexpensive used copy online.) It’s gripping, sobering, and documents a piece of history that deserves to be known and discussed.

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One Response to “Eyewitness to the Chmielnicki Pogroms”

  1. leonardbondchapman Says:

    Thanks for the history lesson—as we see time and again, real life is more complicated than the stories we tell and have been told, to teach us who we are and why things are the way they are. Ending with questions is absolutely the correct way to do it. Thanks Ilana.

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