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Bogdan Chmielnicki

(1595 - 1657)

Bogdan Chmielnicki, leader of the Cossack and peasant uprising against Polish rule in the Ukraine in 1648 which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities; later hetman of autonomous Ukraine and initiator of its unification with Russia. The son of a minor landowning official of the lower aristocracy, in 1646 Chmielnicki became involved in a quarrel with the lettgovernor of the province where he lived. He was arrested, released on bail, and in 1647 fled to the Cossack center of Zaporozhye on the Dnieper, from where he began to foment rebellion against Polish rule. His propaganda fell on the soil of social-religious unrest, accompanied by repeated uprisings. Having gained experience from the failure of former rebellions, Chmielnicki sought the assistance of the Tatar khan of Crimea, who authorized one of his military leaders to join Chmielnicki. With varying luck and several interruptions he waged war against the Poles until his death; in 1654 his followers took the oath of allegiance to the Muscovite Czar.

In the course of their campaigns Chmielnicki's followers acted with savage and unremitting cruelty against the Jews. Chmielnicki aimed at establishing an autonomous Ukraine, if not under Poland, then under the Ottoman Empire, Moscow, or Sweden. After his death, this plan ended with the annexation of eastern Ukraine to Muscovite Russia (1667). Chmielnicki was bent on eradicating the Jews from the Ukraine. From the social aspect, he aspired to transform the Cossack leaders into the ruling aristocracy of the principality while returning the peasantry to serfdom. His activity brought destruction and ruin to the land and did not assure its independence. Nevertheless, the members of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in recent generations have come to see him as a symbol of the awakening of the Ukrainian people, while Russian nationalists regarded him as a "great patriot" who brought about the unification of Ukraine with Russia. During World War II, a military decoration was named after him, and in 1954 the town *Proskurov was renamed Khmelnitski; the name of Chmielnicki was also added to that of the town Pereyaslav (Pereyaslav-Khmelnitski).

In the annals of the Jewish people, Chmielnicki is branded as "Chmiel the Wicked," one of the most sinister oppressors of the Jews of all generations, the initiator of the terrible 1648–49 massacres (gezerot ta ve-tat). Chmielnicki has gone down in history as the figure principally responsible for the holocaust of Polish Jewry in the period, even though in reality his control of events was rather limited. The Jewish population of Ukraine had been an active factor in colonizing the steppes before the massacres. Many Jews settled in the villages, and were occupied as lessees (see *arenda ) or administrators of the estates of the nobles; they also played a role in developing the towns and in their armed defense at times of danger. However, as agents of the Polish nobles and Polish rule, they incurred the hatred of the Ukrainian serfs. Both Polish and Ukrainian modern antisemitic historiography has attempted to attribute the overwhelming responsibility for the terrible bloodshed during the rebellion on the Jewish lessee and agent, thus justifying the singular cruelty directed against the Jews. But the reports of Jewish persecution of the peasants, or offenses against their religious feelings caused by the lease of churches to the Jews, find no confirmation whatsoever in the sources.

It was during the months of May to November 1648 that most of the massacres took place. At the beginning of the uprising, the communities east of the Dnieper were immediately destroyed. Those Jews who did not manage to escape or join the Polish army of Wisniowiecki on its retreat westward met violent deaths; some converted to Christianity to save their lives; many were seized by the Tatars and sold into slavery. During the summer, the persecutions spread to the western bank of the Dnieper and by the middle of June there were no more Jews in the villages and the open cities. The overwhelming majority, with the exception of those who had been murdered while fleeing, crowded into several fortified cities which were also occupied by Polish garrisons. Even these however were unable to sustain the siege of the peasant hordes, and after the towns were taken, most of the Jews were butchered.

The first large-scale massacre took place in Nemirov , into which the Cossacks penetrated in the disguise of Polish soldiers. Jews died en masse as martyrs when faced with the demand that they convert to Christianity: "They arrived … as if they had come with the Poles … in order that he open the gates of the fortress … and they succeeded … and they massacred about 6,000 souls in the town … and they drowned several hundreds in the water and by all kinds of cruel torments. In the synagogue, before the Holy Ark, they slaughtered with butchers' knives … after which they destroyed the synagogue and took out all the Torah books … they tore them up … and they laid them out … for men and animals to trample on … they also made sandals of them … and several other garments" ( *Shabbetai b. Meir ha-Kohen , Megillah Afah). In 1650 the leaders of the *Council of the Four Lands "took upon themselves and their children after them to fast in the Four Lands every year on the 20th day of the month of Sivan, the day upon which the calamity began in … Nemirov." The fortified city of *Tulchin fell at the end of June, after the Poles agreed to surrender the Jews to the rebels in exchange for their own lives. There is information on prolonged resistance by the Jews after they had been driven out of the fortress. At that time, all the Jews in the towns bordering upon Belorussia were massacred; only those living in the surroundings of *Brest-Litovsk succeeded in escaping. At the end of July, *Polonnoye fell into the hands of a band led by the hetman Krivonos and there was a frightful massacre. The remaining Jews in Volhynia left their towns and fled westward. In the important fortress of *Bar , where the Jews had stayed behind, they were slaughtered after its capture. During the months of October and November, the persecution also overtook the Jews living in the region of *Lvov ; in this area a terrible slaughter took place at *Narol . In the town of Lvov itself, Jews took an active part in its defense and contributed a considerable share of the ransom paid for lifting the siege. Most of the Jews of this region who were saved fled to the areas beyond the Vistula.

It is impossible to determine accurately the number of victims who perished, but it undoubtedly amounted to tens of thousands; the Jewish chronicles mention 100,000 killed and 300 communities destroyed. The problem of refugees was a severe one: "for many of our people have left their countries and have been expelled from their places and properties; they have not yet gained rest and security, because the country has not found peace so that the distant ones can once again return to their possessions" (Pinkas Medinat Lita, ed. by S. Dubnow (1925), no. 460). The Jews also suffered during the military activities which continued subsequently. The blow struck at "the whole of the House of Israel, when … the hand of God went out against us and many myriads of Israel fell … and they were strewn over the fields as prey for the birds of heaven and were not even buried. The hand of the enemy also prevailed and they stretched out their hands against the synagogues." Under the impact of the calamity, the Council of Lithuania, at its meeting of 1650, decreed three years of consecutive mourning. This took the form of a prohibition on wearing elaborate clothes or ornaments during that time, and it was decided that "no musical instrument be heard in the House of Israel, not even the musical entertainment at weddings, for a full year"; "suitable measures were to be taken to limit feasts as much as possible" (ibid., nos. 469–70). Authors of that generation also mention regulations which sought to prevent the increase within the community of the children born to women ravished by the Cossacks. A great effort was then made to ease the plight of thousands of agunot (wives of missing husbands), and the overwhelming majority of the women who escaped were freed from their marriage bonds by halakhic decisions; many precedents in agunot regulations were then established. A new wave of massacres occurred at the time of the joint campaign of the Muscovites and Cossacks in 1654, and the cruelty of the Muscovites toward the Jews (in *Mogilev and *Lublin ) was no less than that of the peasants several years earlier. In Vilna, R. Shabbetai b. Meir ha-Kohen wrote: "The anger of God the King of Hosts is not yet appeased … the anger of the hand … of the oppressor … is yet outstretched with swords and spears; they continually invade the land and are prepared for war; wherever they find Jews, they kill them … a great multitude of the empty-headed have gathered with weapons and dressed in coats of mail; a large number of the Kedars [= the Tatars] have joined them and are encamped around them and they say: come let us destroy Israel" (Megillah Afah). The massacres of 1648–49 came as a deep shock to that generation, and R. Shabbetai Sheftel *Horowitz speaks of "the Third Destruction which occurred in the year 408 of the sixth millenium [1648] … which was just the same as the First and Second Destruction."

The Jewish settlement in Ukraine west of the Dnieper nevertheless continued. The Polish king authorized the forced converts to return to Judaism. The Councils of the Lands concerned themselves with the redemption of captives and the salvation of converts: "Many souls of Israel which were taken into captivity assimilated among and were almost lost among them … we have written an authorization to all the communities and to every place where there is a minyan [quorum] of Jews … to redeem every soul"; various tariffs and the share of the different communities in the acts of redemption were also established (Pinkas Medinat Lita, no. 452). Jews began to return to their localities in Volhynia at the end of 1648, and a short while later were again living throughout the territory up to the Dnieper. Despite the memory of the holocaust of 1648–49, this region was one of the most densely populated by Jews during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The horror of the massacres of 1648–49 is expressed in Hebrew literature; many liturgical poems and laments were composed on this subject, as well as many works of poetry and prose, including the ballad Bat ha-Rav ("The Daughter of the Rabbi") of Saul *Tchernichovsky . It also holds a most important place in popular folklore. Scholars differ as to the measure in which these massacres influenced the development of the Shabbatean movement.


N.N. Hannover, Yeven Me?ulah, ed. by I. Halpern (1945; Abyss of Despair, 1983); H.J. Gurland, Le-Korot ha-Gezerot al-Yisrael, 1–2 (1887–89); S. Bernfeld, Sefer ha-Dema'ot, 3 (1926), 109–84; J. Israelsohn, in: YIVO – Historishe Shriftn, 1 (Yid., 1929), 1–26; J. Shatzky, Gezerot 1648 (1938); Graetz, Hist, 5 (1949), 1–17; Dubnow, Divrei, 7 (19586);-Dubnow, Hist Russ, index, S.V. Khmelnitzki; J.S. Hertz, Di Yidn in Ukraine (1949); N. Wahrman, Mekorot le-Toledot Gezerot 1648 ve-1649 (1949); M. Hendel, Gezerot 1648–1649 (1950); S. Ettinger, in: Zion, 20 (1955), 128–58; 21 (1956), 107–42; I. Halpern, ibid., 25 (1960), 17–56 (= Yehudim ve-Yahadut be-Mizra? Eiropah (1969), 212–49); idem, in: Sefer Yovel … Y. Baer, (1960), 338–50 (= Yehudim ve-Yahadut be-Mizra? Eiropah (1969), 250–62); J. Katz, ibid., 318–37; M. Wischnitzer, in: Istoriya Yevreyskogo Naroda, 11 (1914); M. Grushevski, Istoriya Ukraini-Rusi, 8 pt. 2 (1956); 9 pts. 1, 2 (1957); J. Borovoi, in: Istoricheskiye Zapiski, 9 (1940); G. Vernadsky, Bohdan, Hetman of Ukraine (1941); Vossoyedineniye Ukrainy s Rossiyei, 3 vols. (1953); I.P. Kripyakevich, Bogdan Khmielnitski (Rus., 1954).

[Shmuel Ettinger]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.