Section: Moadim   Category: Around The Year
20 Sivan - The Day The Cossacks Cast Darkness On The World
Bogdan Chmielnicki was a wealthy Cossack leader in what is today Ukraine, but in 1648 was under control of the Polish King Vladislov.  While the Cossacks long dreamed of independence and pushing off the Polish yoke, their numerous attempts to fight the far stronger Polish King were always unsuccessful.  Chmielnicki however persuaded the Crimean Tartars to ally themselves with him and together they proved to be a formidable force against the Polish King.  Theri stated goal was to wipe out the Polish aristocracy and the Jews.

Although commonly referred to as Gezeiros Tach V'Tat (1648-9) for the years the brunt of the massacres took place, it actually raged on and off for the next 12 years, even after Chmielnicki's death.  With shifting alliances and no shortage of political intrigue, with the main players being the Poles, Russian, Crimeans, local Ukrainians, and the Swedes.

For the Jews it officially began on Wednesday, 20 Sivan 5408/1648 when Chmielnicki and his murderous bloodthirsty 60,000 strong army entered Poland.  Their first conquest was the city of Nemirov.  The Rav of the city, Rav Yechiel Michel, passionately implored the people to keep their faith and die Al Kiddush Hashem.  For three days the Cossacks rampaged through town murdering 6,000 Jews, including Rav Yechiel Michel, who was caught and murdered before his mother's eyes and then murdered in turn.  The Shul was destroyed and all the Sifrei Torah were torn to pieces and trampled.  Their parchment was then used for shoes and clothing according to the Shach.

To compound the tragedy, on the first day of the Nemirov massacres, the benevolent King Vladislov of Poland, who had always shown kindness to the Jews, died leaving Poland leaderless for the next four months until King Kazmir was crowned.  During this time Chmielnicki and his men murdered and plundered town after town with nothing and no one standing in their way.

In the tragic events of the next several years, hundreds of Jewish communities in Poland and Ukraine were wiped out, although the number of actual victims is said to be anywhere from ten of thousands to half a million Jewish souls.  Notable victims include Rav Shimshon MiOstropolia, Rav Nosson Nata Hanover, two sons of the Taz, and well as many other Gedolim who perished during the siege of L'Vov.  These events were chronicled in several famous works, including Rav Nosson Nata Hanover's,  Yiven Metzula  and  by the Shach, who spent the difficult years on the run, in his chronicle Megilas Eifa.

In 5411/1651 the Chachomim of the time declared 20 Sivan to be a fast day and Selichos were composed by the Shach and the Tosfos Yom Tov.  While the world remembers the barbaric cruelty and the atrocities that were part and parcel of the vicious Cossack character, on this day we remember the Mesiras Nefesh of our forefathers who chose to die a brutal death at the hands of a merciless enemy rather than trade their faith.  They died knowing that their troubles were orchestrated by an all merciful Hashem and they would not betray him even in their dying breath.  It is said that after this tragedy Hashem promised never to make Klal Yisroel choose between their religion and death, ever again.  Our fathers passed the final test for us.  Yehi Zichram Baruch!