The Crusades, and Chmielnicki. Rabbi Yonason Goldson writes in “This Week in Jewish History”:
n 1096, a mere three months into the First Crusade, the ragtag army of Urban II obliterated Jewish communities up and down Germany’s Rhine River, communities guilty of nothing other than lying in the path of Crusaders who sought distraction from the tedium of the road. Two centuries of Crusading, undertaken to free the Holy Land from heretical Moslems, inflicted a steady fallout of collateral damage upon Jews from Paris to Jerusalem.
In the 14th Century, the Black Plague that wiped out over a third of Europe struck Jews less than half as often as gentiles, ostensibly because of Jewish dietary standards and hygiene. Knowing nothing of germ theory, however, superstitious Europeans assumed that the Jews had poisoned or cursed their well water and responded, predictably, with violence. Blood libels, pogroms, and expulsions left tens of thousands of Jews dead, with the survivors emotionally and spiritually traumatized.
In 1648, a leader rose up among the Cossacks in the person of Bogdan Chmielnicki, who unified a band of former serfs, robbers, and escaped criminals into a devastating military force. Assuming the title of Hetman, or Captain, Chmielnicki allied himself with his former adversaries, the Tartars, then launched a revolt against the Polish nobility, routing 8000 soldiers of the Polish army.
A wave of massacres broke across Poland as the Cossacks drove the uprising from town to town and subjected their victims to almost unimaginable brutality. The historian Nathan Nata Hanover in Yeven Metzula records: “Some were skinned alive and their flesh thrown to the dogs. The hands and feet of others were chopped off and their bodies flung into he roadway where wagons ran them over and they were trampled by horses… Children were slaughtered at their mothers’ breasts, and they were sliced open like fish… no form of unnatural death in the world was not inflicted upon them.” And although Jews were the primary target of violence, the rebels ravaged and beheaded Roman Catholic clergy, while churches were pillaged and set aflame.
In what has become known as the Gezeiras Tach V’Tat (the evil decree of the Jewish years 5408 — 5409, but which continued for an additional three years), an estimated hundred thousand Jews lost their lives, and hundreds of communities disappeared. But amidst the long travail of savagery, one day stands outs beyond all the rest.
On the twentieth day of the month of Sivan, 1649, the rebels fell upon the Polish town of Nemirov. In a single day, Chmielnicki’s Cossacks slaughtered 6000 Jews until the Bug River turned red with Jewish blood. The following year, the Council of the Four Lands, an autonomous Jewish governmental body over Eastern Europe, established the date as a day of fasting and lamentation. In some communities, the mournful Selichos prayers are still recited in commemoration of the massacres.
And Chmielnicki is, to this day, considered a national hero of the Ukraine. There is a memorial with a big statute of him in Kiev.