Miriam Margoshes 1


Anti-Semitic attacks against Jews has been going on for centuries.

In the Spring of 1648, the Cossacks under the leadership of Bogdan Chmielnicki massacred the Jews of Nemirov, Poland. The Jews of the town and the outlying areas had run for refuge to the fortified castle overlooking the town.

But the Cossacks, flying stolen Polish flags, deceived them into opening the castle gates. Pouring into the castle, swinging their swords, the Cossacks cut down men, women, and children without mercy. Women and girls jumped from the castle walls into the surrounding moat to drown, rather than be captured alive. Young men who could swim also jumped into the moat in a desperate attempt to escape, but they were pursued and killed. On that day, the moat ran red with Jewish blood. Estimates of the dead range from 3,000 to 10,000.

Nemirov was only one of 140 Jewish communities destroyed by the Cossack hordes. Some say there were as many as 700. The total number of victims will never be known for sure, since the killing machine wasn't efficient enough yet in those days to compile statistics -- but estimates range between 100,000 and 670,000 dead. Elegies ("Kinot") written by [great rabbis of the time] compare this tragic epoch to the destruction of the Holy Temple.



Early in the 16th century, the king of Poland (which then included both Lithuania and the Ukraine) offered economic privileges and some civil rights to Jews. As a result, Jews from lands where life had become difficult, like the provinces of Germany to the west, began migrating eastward to Poland.

For the next hundred years, the Jews prospered in Poland. The Jewish population reached between one and 1.5 million; Jews made up nearly a majority in many of the smaller towns. The Jews were mostly business people -- merchants and traders. Many became agents on the noblemen's estates, collecting taxes, rents and road-tolls for the noble landowners.

This was an excellent source of income for Jews, although it had an unfortunate side effect: It caused the lower classes -- the peasants and the craftsmen, who had to pay those taxes and tolls -- to transfer their hatred of the oppressive noblemen to the Jewish agents. Frequent attacks by the clergy, competing merchants, and envious peasants were a part of life for the Jews. However, the king did provide them with some protection.

That era was a radiant time for Torah in Poland. Many Jewish sages lived there and produced immortal works in that period, amongst them the Rama -- the codifier of all Jewish law for Ashkenazi Jewry



But the good times were not destined to last.

Across the Dnieper River from Poland proper, in what is today the eastern Ukraine, there lived a tribe called the Cossacks, a proud and nationalistic people who were legendary horsemen. Although they were subjects of the king of Poland, the Cossacks had their own chief (the "hetman"), whose name strikes terror into every Jewish heart to this day: Bogdan Chmielnicki.

Chmielnicki was a man of large ambitions. One day, he revealed that he was in secret contact with the Khan of the Crimean Tartars, planning a revolution against Poland. The Jewish agent of the Polish landowner overheard and reported the plot; Chmielnicki was led to prison in chains and sentenced to death for treason.

It was 1648. In that fateful and terrible year, before the verdict against Chmielnicki could be carried out, King Vladimir of Poland suddenly died. Chmielnicki escaped with his life and the Cossacks rebelled against their Polish overlords, defeating the Polish army and even capturing the commanding general, Graf (Count) Potocki.

The Cossacks soon crossed the Dnieper and penetrated Poland proper, raiding every town and village in their path. Supposedly, they were out for revenge against the detested Polish noblemen and their families, and against the Catholic priests who had persecuted them for their Greek Orthodox faith. But wherever they rode, in town after town, the Cossacks swooped down and attacked the defenseless Jews.

Thousands of Jews fled from their homes before the violent Cossack hordes, leaving everything behind. But where could they go? They hid out in forests; they tried to reach some border. While on the run, families were split up -- many fathers and mothers lost track of their children, and even of one another. Whoever managed somehow to sneak across the border into Germany, Bohemia, Austria, Holland or Italy was a broken, penniless refugee, dependent on the local Jewish communities for bread.



Two historic enemies of Poland had joined Chmielnicki in his rebellion, the Crimean Tartars and the Turks. Those Jews who fell into Turkish hands were lucky, relatively speaking; they were "only" carried away on ships to be sold as slaves in Constantinople and Salonika, where the Sephardic communities would come to their rescue and redeem them from captivity.

But whoever fell into the clutches of the Cossacks themselves was doomed. The Cossacks massacred Jews with grisly tortures that read like a handbook for Hitler. Scholars and laymen, rich and poor, old and young, women, even children, were mutilated and killed. The Cossacks also ran their swords through Torah scrolls and tefillin, and plundered and burned down the houses...

"Tach V'Tat" is the transliteration for the Hebrew years 5408 and 5409 (1648-9). It remained the most bitter time for Polish Jewry for 300 years... until 1942.



1.  Jewish Observer, Summer 1999; published by the Agudath Israel of America: INNERNET MAGAZINE; [ ]