Gzeyres takh vetat. Jewish communities affected, 1648–1649.

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Gzeyres Takh Vetat

Acronym referring to the “[Evil] Decrees of 1648–1649.” The Ukrainian lands were part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the first half of the seventeenth century. To the south, Crimea—a region bordering the Black Sea—was part of the Ottoman Empire and was populated largely by Muslim Tatars. Most of the land in Ukraine was owned by Catholic Polish magnates and nobles, while the peasants were mainly Eastern Orthodox Ukrainians. The urban centers were home to a mixture of Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and members of other groups. In the southern parts of Ukraine were groups known as Cossacks. They were Orthodox Christians and mainly—but not exclusively—of Slavic origin. They were not farmers but maintained themselves sometimes by hunting and fishing, and largely by warfare and the spoils of war. The Crimean Tatars often attacked the Slavic peasants in the north, taking booty and slaves, and in return, the Cossacks did the same to the Tatars. In the course of time, the Polish crown began to employ the autonomous Cossacks for the defense of the region.

Ukrainian territories experienced rapid population growth and economic expansion during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Polish nobility contributed to this development but also tried to maximize the return on their investments. Peasants were heavily taxed, repressed, and mistreated; on occasion, they revolted. Tensions between nobles and peasants were compounded by religious differences. The Poles also tried to repress the independent Orthodox church and to support the Uniate church that combined Orthodox traditions with loyalty to the pope. This factor only inflamed an already tense situation.

A significant percentage (perhaps one-third) of Polish Jewry in the mid-seventeenth century lived in Ukrainian lands. Many of them made a living by providing services, including tax collecting, to Polish nobles who had huge estates in the region. The peasants regarded Jews, who made a living by serving the nobility, as part of the oppressive governing system. At the same time, Jews were not formal allies of the nobles and were not automatically under the protection of Polish forces.

Given the political, economic, and religious conditions in Ukraine, it is quite understandable that peasant revolts were not a novelty in the region. There were a number of such uprisings before 1648, but they were put down relatively quickly. However, in the years 1648–1649 a large-scale uprising of Cossack and Ukrainian peasants swept through much of what is today Ukraine and was then part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. At the height of the uprising, the “rebel” forces, led by Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi, reached Lithuania and were poised to enter more central regions of Poland. In the course of the fighting, there were many Jewish casualties, and many Jewish communities were destroyed. According to the Jewish calendar, this took place in 5408–5409 and the acronym of these years (referring to the Hebrew letters that correspond to the numbers 408 and 409) is “Takh vetat”—hence the term gzeyres takh vetat.

To understand the significance of the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising for the history of Jews in Eastern Europe, it is necessary to consider two very different topics. One is to know what actually took place, and the other is to know what Jews—at that time and later—thought had taken place. In this case, as in many others, the image was more influential than reality. When the fighting began in 1648, Jews in Ukraine were not very concerned. In the areas first affected, Jews—along with Poles and others—headed toward cities and the protection promised by strong fortresses. In many cases, Jews took an active role in defending these cities. At first, the Polish forces often did not take the rebels seriously. This was a big mistake. Many major cities or towns and fortresses fell to Khmel’nyts’kyi, and he made an alliance with the Tatars that strengthened his position. Often when cities were captured, many or all of the Jews, together with Polish noblemen and Catholic priests, were killed. According to Jewish accounts, on occasion the Polish forces betrayed Jews, though in other cases they saved them. In the early stages of the fighting, a number of Jewish communities were totally destroyed by the Ukrainian forces. Among these were Nemyriv (Pol., Nemirów; 10 June 1648), Tul’chyn (Tulczyn), and Bar. All the fighting forces in the region killed civilians and innocent people. The counterattacks of Polish forces were bloody, and there were many civilian casualties on the Ukrainian side. Eliminating the Jews was not a central aim of the Cossacks, though Jews were certainly regarded as part of the enemy camp and, as such, not worthy of mercy. It should be noted that many of the Jewish casualties were at the hands of Tatar allies of the Cossacks and there was no consistent Cossack policy to kill all Jews.

As the fighting spread, the Jewish population in the region realized the seriousness of the situation and many fled north to Poland, Lithuania, and as far as Italy and Holland. In doing so, they abandoned properties, possessions, and the opportunities to collect debts. Flight was difficult because of the very limited absorptive capacity of the economies of the host countries at the time. Indeed, the combination of malnutrition and the hardships of wandering took many lives. Local Jewish communities made major efforts to help. Funds were raised in Western Europe, and in Turkey captives of the Tatars were redeemed by local Jews assisted by donations from Jewish communities in the Mediterranean. However, long-term integration was not feasible. Many Jews believed that the risks of flight were greater than the risks of remaining. A number of these Jews survived without fleeing because in many cases, cities in Ukrainian lands were successfully defended and Jews survived. In other cases, the results were the opposite. In August 1649, a treaty was signed in the town of Zboriv that reestablished Polish rule precisely in those parts of Ukraine with the largest Jewish populations. There were additional upheavals in the region, including a full-fledged revolt in 1768 led by a Cossack group called Haidamaks that led to the deaths of many Jews—especially after the capture of Uman. However, none of these were of the scope of Khmel’nyts’kyi’s uprising.

It is very difficult to determine the totals of Jewish casualties in the years 1648–1649. There is little hard data on the number of Jews in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth even for the occasional quiet years of the seventeenth century. In the great confusion and turmoil of the war years, certainly no one had time to keep careful demographic records, to note the numbers of deaths in each location, or to record the circumstances. It seems that at the beginning of 1648, there were about 40,000 Jews in the affected regions. It is clear that thousands were killed, thousands fled, and possibly several thousand were captured and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire. Some Jews converted to Christianity and saved their own lives. What is not clear is how many fell into each category.

Even though we have no hard data on the number of refugees, we do know that there had been enough time to flee and good reason to do so. Only if most Jews had miscalculated the risks could a very high percentage of them have been killed. This was not very likely. It appears to be safe to say that most Jews fled and less than half, or fewer than 20,000, died—very possibly much less than half. We do know that the process of reconstruction and revival of Jewish life in many parts of the region in the years after the uprising was relatively rapid. It seems that this recovery was carried out by Jews who had survived in the region and by Jews who, having fled, found it difficult to be successfully absorbed in their place of refuge and returned to their previous homes when quiet was restored. The large Jewish population of subsequent generations also suggests that a large number of Jews survived.

The massive number of deaths and destruction of Ukrainian Jewry in 1648–1649 had an immense impact on East European Jewry. This can be seen in the following passage recorded in the minute book of the community in Kraków:

Immediately after the death of the pious King Władysław [1648] tens of thousands of villains, among them Cossacks of the Greek rite and the people of the religion, went forth and committed many murders in the holy communities of Niemirów, Tulczyn, Machnówka, and other holy communities who congregated in order to save their lives from the Greek sword. . . . Since the destruction of the Temple no other cruel murder like this one was committed for the sanctification of the name. (Raba, 1995, p. 37)

A fast day (20th of Sivan) was enacted and special prayers in memory of the victims were written. Some in Ukraine apparently still observed this day even after the Holocaust. Although other contemporary works describing the events appeared, such as Me’ir ben Shemu’el of Szczebrzeszyn’s Tsuk ha-‘itim; Gavri’el ben Yehoshu‘a Schossburg’s Petaḥ teshuvah; Shabetai ha-Kohen’s Megilat ‘efah; Avraham ben Shemu’el Ashkenazi’s Tsa‘ar bat rabim; and Shemu’el Faivish’s Tit ha-yaven. Most of what most Jews knew in later years about the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising was from the vivid descriptions in a book, Yeven metsulah, written by an eyewitness (Natan Note Hannover) to some of the events. His goal was not to provide an objective history but to preserve the memory of the holy communities that had been destroyed, to arouse sympathy (and enlist support for survivors like himself), and to clarify the practical lessons that could be learned from the events of those years. Hannover described in stirring prose and with colorful detail the cruel massacre of the Jews of Nemyriv and the perfidy of nobles in Tul’chyn who turned Jews over to the rebels. He provided detailed accounts of the cruel deaths of Jews in other locations. However, Hannover also wrote with sympathy about the suffering of the Ukrainian peasants and cases of individual friendship between Jews and Ukrainians. He wrote as if he had seen the events, but recent scholarship has shown that his descriptions are often inaccurate, that he used the works of others creatively to build his narrative, and that his estimates of casualties were highly exaggerated.

The image Jews had from reading the book was one of total destruction. Hannover suggested that the cases he described were typical. The fact that many once-thriving communities had ceased to exist during the uprising supported this picture. It was easy for readers to conclude that Ukrainian peasantry had stronger anti-Jewish feelings than did other populations in Eastern Europe, even though this was not substantiated. The devastation did not last long, however; many Jewish refugees returned after quiet was restored, and the Jewish communities of the Ukrainian lands regained their importance in Polish Jewry within half a century.

Suggested Reading

Edward Fram, “Ben tatnav [1096] le-taḥ–tat [1648–1649],” Tsiyon 61.2 (1996): 159–182 (see also the follow-up exchange between Jacob Katz and Edward Fram in Tsiyon 62.1 [1997]: 23–46); Nathan Nata Hannover, Abyss of Despair: The Famous 17th Century Chronicle depicting Jewish Life in Russia and Poland during the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648–1649 / Yeven metzulah, trans. Abraham J. Mesch (New Brunswick, N.J., 1983); Jewish History 17.2 (2003), special issue devoted to the topic of Jews, Cossacks, Poles, and Peasants in 1648 Ukraine; Joel Raba, Between Remembrance and Denial: The Fate of the Jews in the Wars of the Polish Commonwealth during the Mid-Seventeenth Century as Shown in Contemporary Writings and Historical Research (Boulder and New York, 1995); Chone Shmeruk, “Yiddish Literature and Collective Memory: The Case of the Chmielnicki Massacres,” Polin 5 (1990): 173–183.