Unfortunately, no one can argue with the statement that Jewish history is filled with tragedy. Few of these tragedies, excluding the Holocaust, were as devastating and catastrophic for Eastern European Jewry as the Chmielnicki Pogroms (1648-1649).

Bogdan Chmielnicki was a Ukrainian Hetman (nobility/military leader) who led his fellow Cossacks in an uprising against the Polish rulers of the Ukraine. Chmielnicki’s initial agitation against the government was due to a property dispute with a neighboring (Polish) nobleman who tried to steal Chmielnicki’s estate. When the government did not respond as Chmielnicki hoped, his role in the Ukrainian national movement took a dramatic turn. When the Cossacks revolted against Poland, Chmielicki’s political and military know-how was critical to its success. (The independent Cossack state that resulted was absorbed by Russia within a few years of its creation.)

During the uprising, the Jews were easy targets for the Cossacks. Since the Jews were usually well educated, knew mathematics and how to read and write, a substantial number of Jews served as representatives of the Polish nobility and ran their estates. However, the entire Jewish population, not just those employed by the Polish nobility, were targeted by Chmielnicki, and tens of thousands of Jews were brutally and viciously murdered. More than three hundred Jewish communities were destroyed.

The Chmielnicki Pogroms are significant beyond the horrific number of deaths. They had a marked effect on the psyche of European Jewry. Many Jews came to believe that these severe and catastrophic pogroms could only be the wars that herald in the era of the Messiah (called the War of Gog U’Magog/ “Armageddon”) as discussed in the prophetic writings. This intense anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah became the basis for the success of the infamous false messiah Shabbetai Zvi.

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