Jaroslaw Pelenski  The Cossack Insurrections in Jewish-Ukrainian Relations
Bohdan Khmelnytsky
"Of all the Cossack insurrections, the famous or infamous Khmelnytsky uprising has become the focal point of contrasting interpretations in Jewish-Ukrainian relations.  What for Ukrainians of all socio-political persuasions has been one of the greatest nation-building events of their history, ... has become known in the annals of Jewish history as a great catastrophe, or the dreadful year of the Ukrainian massacre the Gezerah of 1648." Jaroslaw Pelenski
The excerpts below are from Jaroslaw Pelenski, The Cossack Insurrections in Jewish-Ukrainian Relations in Howard Aster and Peter J. Potichnyj (editors), Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in Historical Perspective, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1990, ISBN 0-920862-53-5, pp. 31-42.  The volume is based on papers originally presented at a conference held at McMaster University in 1983, and can be purchased from online book vendors.

Given that below are excerpts only, and given that footnotes have been omitted, a reading of the complete Pelenski article in the Aster and Potichnyj volume will provide a fuller picture, especially against the background of the many other informative papers contained in the volume.

"Abyss of Despair" or "Hanover Calumny"?

One particular value of Pelenski's paper is that it serves as an introduction to the question of the number of Jewish fatalities during the Khmelnytsky rebellion, though the article touches on the question only briefly, and the excerpts below constitute only a fraction of that brief treatment.  Pelenski's conclusion is that Nathan Hanover's Abyss of Despair estimates of Jewish losses have been inflated by a factor of between five and ten.  My own view is that this is a bold statement in a world that imposes heavy punishments upon significant deviations from political correctness, but that it nevertheless constitutes only the first step in exposing the Abyss of Despair as a calumny whose categorization should not be history, nor even historical fiction, but rather fantasy.

With respect to Hanover's Abyss of Despair, the modus operandi among some historians appears to have been to treat all of it as accurate with the exception of those few parts that independent verification has proven to be in error.  However, I would like to propose an alternative modus operandi.  It is to estimate the proportion of Hanover's verifiable assertions that have proven to be true, and then expect the same proportion of his non-verifiable assertions to be true as well.  For example, if none of Hanover's verifiable assertions have proven to be true, then historians' best guess might be that none of Hanover's unverifiable assertions would prove true as well were verification possible.  An even stricter criterion would hold that the discovery of a single glaring inaccuracy discredits the whole, according to which criterion Hanover's tale would long ago have been discredited, and from the multiple instances of such glaring inaccuracies might even have gained infamy as the Hanover Calumny.

In fact, what independent evidence is there that the Khmelnytsky rebellion particularly targeted Jews or that Jewish losses were high?  Perhaps not much.  Frank Sysyn writes in the same volume that Cossack sources pay scant attention to Jewish issues:

[I]n the early phase of the revolt, Khmelnytsky displayed little interest in the Jewish issue and ... he "almost parenthetically" made his first comment on the Jews in a letter to the Crown Great Hetman Mikolaj Potocki, complaining that his people "suffer even from Jews intolerable injuries and insults of a kind no Christians sustain in Turkish lands."  ...  [T]he Cossack statements and demands of 12 June 1648 deal almost exclusively with Cossack grievances as do those of 15 November.  The demands of 24 February 1649 differ because of their attention to Orthodox church matters and request for the expulsion of Jesuits.  It is only at Zboriv on 17 August 1649 that demand is made for the expulsion of Jewish leaseholders and even this has a codicile allowing the Jewish merchants to carry on trade.  It would seem that an anti-Jewish policy was not part of the Cossacks' original programme and that it was ultimately adopted to satisfy burgher and peasant supporters.
Frank E. Sysyn, The Jewish Factor in the Khmelnytsky Uprising, in Howard Aster and Peter J. Potichnyj (editors), Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in Historical Perspective, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1990, ISBN 0-920862-53-5, pp. 49-50.

Perhaps, though, there is confirmation of Hanover's stories in non-Cossack sources?  It would appear that there isn't:

It is, of course, the lack of contemporary discussion that makes the Jewish factor so difficult to discuss in the Khmelnytsky uprising.  The Jewish suffering went on largely without commentary by non-Jews in the midst of the Polish-Ukrainian struggle.
Frank E. Sysyn, The Jewish Factor in the Khmelnytsky Uprising, in Howard Aster and Peter J. Potichnyj (editors), Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in Historical Perspective, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1990, ISBN 0-920862-53-5, pp. 49-50.

A conclusion that perhaps has been insufficiently investigated, then, is that Hanover's chronicle is mostly contradicted by independent evidence, or unsupported, and that his work would be best titled not the Abyss of Despair but the Hanover Calumny.

Rebellion Against Oppression or anti-Semitic Holocaust?

Perhaps a more important contribution of the Pelenski paper is its pointing out the shift within Jewish historical writing concerning the meaning of the 1648 Khmelnytsky rebellion: before the Second World War, the 1648 violence was acknowledged to be primarily a rebellion of Ukrainians against Polish oppression in which Jews were targeted only incidentally as one of the several instruments of that oppression; after the Second World War, however, the 1648 violence was increasingly held to be an expression of anti-Semitism within a Ukrainian-perpetrated holocaust.  The significance of this paradigmatic shift cannot be overestimated, for it identifies Ukrainians within Jewish thinking as early Nazis, and identifies Khmelnytsky as an early Hitler.  In many historical contexts, this paradigmatic shift would have had no worse effect than damaging Ukrainian-Jewish amity.  However there happened to arise a historical situation which resulted in this paradigmatic shift helping to rain death blows upon Ukraine.

Contemporary Jewish Revenge for the Khmelnytsky Rebellion?

That is, following the proclamation of a nominal independence in 1991, a weak and vulnerable Ukraine placed itself under the protection of the United States, and this at a time when Jews exercised unprecedented influence over American foreign policy.  In effect, then, Ukraine was placing itself under the care and protection of Jews at a time when Jewish history had for several decades inculcated that Ukrainians were virulent and violent anti-Semites.  If anyone doubts the ferocity of the Jewish hatred of Khmelnytsky, or doubts the Jewish stereotype of Ukrainians as contemporary clones of a Khmelnytsky caricature, or doubts that these hatreds and these stereotypes permeate the highest levels of the Jewish power structure, then reading the words of Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset Dov Ben Meir may prove eye-opening.

Thus, to some advisors influencing American policy toward Ukraine, whether Ukraine's capital features a statue of Khmelnytsky in its city center (which it does), or a statue of Hitler (which of course it does not) may seem a difference only of whether it features a statue of the first Hitler or of the second Hitler.  In either case, the presence of the statue (shown at the top of the present page), and of the sentiments which the statue reflects, may serve in some influential minds to define Ukraine as a nation to be despised and undermined.  The result of such evaluations by such influential advisors, together with a confluence of other forces pressing in the same direction, may have contributed to American treatment of Ukraine ranging from unsympathetic and unsupportive to contemptuous and destructive, and thus to Ukraine's being not nurtured and strengthened but systematically plundered.  A corollary of this view is that Ukraine will never receive equitable treatment so long as it places its fate in the hands of the United States, because in doing so it places its fate in the hands of Jews.

A Profound Impact

No other historical event, or combination of historical events, has had such a profound impact on the relations and, what is more important, on the mutual cultural perceptions and socio-political assessments of the Jewish and Ukrainian peoples and their elites, and especially on the Jewish image of Ukraine and the Ukrainians as the Khmelnytsky uprising or revolution, in combination with the Haidamak rebellions in particular, and the Cossack insurrections in general.  (Pelenski, 1990, p. 31)

Great Nation-Building Event or Great Catastrophe?

According to Jewish historians, the first serious anti-Jewish outbreak perpetrated by the Ukrainian Cossacks occurred during the so-called Pavliuk insurrection of 1637-9, in the course of which approximately two hundred Jews were allegedly killed.  The only evidence in support of this contention is to be found in the famous Jewish chronicle, the Yeven Metzulah ("the Deep Mire" or "the Abyss of Despair") of 1653 by Nathan Hanover, about which much more will have to be said in the future research on Jewish-Ukrainian relations, and which will be discussed briefly in this presentation.

Of all the Cossack insurrections, the famous or infamous Khmelnytsky uprising has become the focal point of contrasting interpretations in Jewish-Ukrainian relations.  What for Ukrainians of all socio-political persuasions has been one of the greatest nation-building events of their history, regardless of how they have evaluated the second epochal act of the Khmelnytsky period, the Treaty of Pereiaslav of 1654, has become known in the annals of Jewish history as a great catastrophe, or the dreadful year of the Ukrainian massacre the Gezerah of 1648.

What then are the principal realities, myths, conceptual paradigms and symbols of the revolution that has continued to exert such a traumatic effect of practical Jewish-Ukrainian relations and on the peoples' mutual perceptions?  Let us begin with the most difficult and the most painful problem, namely the magnitude of the losses of Jewish population in the fatal years of 1648-9.  The average figure for Jews who perished in the Khmelnytsky revolution offered by Jewish scholarship until the early 1960s ranged from approximately 100,000 to 250,000 victims.  Even conservative estimates provided in traditional encyclopaedias fluctuated between 100,000 and 180,000 persons.  It should be noted that these figures represent revised estimates of those used in Jewish literature at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the number of Jewish victims suggested by Jewish scholarship ranged from a quarter to a half million.  In a doctoral dissertation devoted to this subject and published in 1912, a Jewish scholar proposed a round figure of 250,000 Jewish losses.  (Pelenski, 1990, p. 32-33)

Hanover Most Influential

Of all the Jewish chronicles on the Khmelnytsky uprising the one by Nathan Hanover deserves special attention.  It provides the least inflated figure of Jewish victims; it has had a tremendous impact on the Jewish historical consciousness and national ideology, and it has remained one of the most, if not the most, influential works in the history of Jewish-Ukrainian relations.  Nathan Hanover was born in Ostrih, Volhynia, in the 1620s.  He lived in Zaslav, whence he fled in 1648.  He apparently left Poland in 1649 for Germany, Holland and Venice, where he published his famous chronicle in 1653.  He probably had personal knowledge of the historical events up to 1649; his chronicle covers the time-span until 1652.  Of the five extant Jewish chronicles, Hanover's is the most comprehensive and evidently the best.  (Pelenski, 1990, p. 34)

In-Built Mechanism to Exaggerate

Hanover centered his account on the massacres in various communities and offered concrete figures, always in round and even numbers.  One example will suffice to illustrate Hanover's approach.  In the case of Polonne, Hanover proposed a figure of 10,000.  According to a contemporary official Polish source, 2,000 Jews were killed in Polonne.  While working on similar problems in Slavic-Turkic relations (particularly on the problem of captives), this author has concluded that there was an in-built mechanism to exaggerate the number of captives and those killed by five or ten-fold in order to magnify the sufferings of the victims and the dangers that beset them.  Therefore, on the basis of comparative analysis, I wish to suggest that the number of Jews killed in the Khmelnytsky revolution amounted either to a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000, one-tenth of the figure offered by Hanover, or to a maximum of 12,000 to 14,000, approximately one-fifth of the figure claimed by Hanover.

Hanover stated that 10,000 people perished of starvation and disease in Lviv.  His figures concerning the epidemics cannot be taken into consideration, because there is no evidence of any major epidemic in Ukraine or Poland at that time.  Concerning the 20,000 who were taken prisoner by the Tatars, two observations can be made.  First, the figure is greatly inflated and should be substituted either by 2,000 or 4,000.  Second, it should be noted that Ukrainians also were taken into Tatar captivity, even during the period of the Khmelnytsky alliance with the Tatars.  Thus, if one were to rely on a critical analysis of Hanover's figures, which are, with qualification, the only dependable figures, then one arrives at an approximate minimum/maximum figure of 7,000 to 13,000 and a median figure of 10,000 Jews killed in the Khmelnytsky revolution.  Even if one accepts the revised median figure of 10,000, it still indicates a waste of 10,000 precious lives, and a testimony to man's everlasting inhumanity.  On the other hand, the amount does not represent an unusually high number of victims in the context of the upheavals and wars of the period under consideration.  If one were to take into account the fact that 1648, the opening year of the Khmelnytsky revolution, was the last year of the protracted Thirty Years' War, and compare its material and particularly human losses to those suffered in the Khmelnytsky revolution, then the median figure of 10,000 Jewish victims would be not only within the range, but even below the average of human losses suffered by the contestants and bystanders of the Thirty Years' War.  (Pelenski, 1990, p. 35-36)

Rebellion or Holocaust?

Now let us turn to the use of conceptual paradigms as applied in Jewish scholarship with regard to the Cossack insurrections.  Regardless of its shortcomings and numerical exaggerations, until the Second World War Jewish scholarship tended to view the Cossack insurrections and the resulting massacres of the Jews in their own historical context.  Thus, the Cossack insurrections and the Jewish calamities were regarded as part of medieval and early modern history and were put into the category of medieval persecutions of the Jews, such as those that occurred in connection with the catastrophes of the Crusades and the black death in Western Europe.  Its representatives explained the social, economic, national and religious antagonisms in historicist terms and spoke openly of the Jewish elements who served as "the more conspicuous subordinates" in the Polish latifundia economy which exploited the Ukrainian population.  They also refrained from using the modern concept of "anti-Semitism," and in speaking of anti-Jewish excesses and massacres employed the historically correct form of "anti-Jewish pogroms."

After the Second World War, however, an ominous and ideologically loaded concept of "holocaust," as applied to the Cossack insurrections and, in particular, to the Khmelnytsky revolution, entered Jewish scholarly terminology.  Contemporary Jewish historians and social scientists not only freely apply the term holocaust to the Khmelnytsky era, but also make the hetman personally "responsible for the holocaust of the Polish (or the Ukrainian) Jewry in that period."  According to Howard Aster, "this period is recognized as having a status equivalent to the Holocaust of the Second World War."  Even more troublesome is the fact that this statement precisely reflects the mood of Jewish scholarship and the opinion of the educated Jewish public.  As of today, only one well known Jewish specialist on the problem in question has clearly dissented from this unhistoric and highly emotional assessment.  I have in mind Bernard Weinryb, who has expressed a more sober and balanced opinion as far as the historical classification of the Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the Khmelnytsky revolution is concerned.  According to Professor Weinryb, "Writing today about the killings in the seventeenth century one must clearly distinguish between the Nazis, for whom total extermination of the Jews became a goal and a policy in the 1940-45 holocaust, and the seventeenth-century Cossacks, who had no such policy.  That was a period of frequent murder, violence, and brutal revenge.  The Cossacks also originally wanted to bar Jews from their region.  But they were neither interested in nor desirous of totally exterminating Jews in Europe or Poland.  Nor did they possess the technical means to establish death factories like those of the Nazis.  The Cossacks were not racially oriented.  This explains the high rate of survival in the seventeenth-century catastrophe as compared with the holocaust in the twentieth century."

The use of the concept of holocaust as applied to the Cossack insurrections is particularly unjustified because it is based on inadequate quantitative evidence.  Although the Khmelnytsky revolution was a tragic and devastating experience for Ukrainian Jewry, its primary objective was not the extermination of the Jewish population, but the abolition of the Polish system, represented by the latifundia economy of the Polish magnates, of the rule of the szlachta, of the domineering position of the Polish Catholic Church and even of the Ruthenian Uniate Church.  The Jews suffered because they had been an integral part, that is, the lower strata representatives of that system and because of the traditional Christian, in this particular case Orthodox Christian, hostility toward what has been perceived as an alien religion.  (Pelenski, 1990, p. 37-38)