The Chmielnicki Massacres

In the 17th century, Poland held one-third of the world’s Jewish population and was considered the center of Jewish life. Meanwhile, Poland’s serfs were engaged in a revolution that gave rise to one of the most sadistic pogroms in Jewish history — led by a Ukranian nationalist, who, right up until the Holocaust, was considered the worst villain in modern Jewish history. He was so evil that Jews nicknamed him “Chmiel the Wicked.”

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. Who conquered Ukraine?
    • Spain
    • Italy
    • Cossacks
    • Poland
  2. What happened that made Bogdan Chmielnicki angry enough to organize the Cossacks into military groups against the Poles?
    • He was upset that the Jews were politically and economically thriving.
    • He was harassed by a local official and his estate was taken from him.
    • His involvement was consistent throughout his life.
    • He saw that his mother was being treated poorly because she was of Cossack descent.
  3. How long did Bogdan Chmielnicki’s revolution last?
    • 1 month
    • 9 months
    • 1 year
    • 9 years
  4. About how many Jewish communities were destroyed?
    • 15
    • 100
    • 300
    • 500
  5. What happened to Polish life after Chmielnicki’s destruction of the Jewish communities?
    • Jews never returned to Poland and had migrated to Western Europe.
    • Jews regained stability within Poland and slowly rebuilt. 
    • All of the Jews in Poland had been killed or converted, so the community died out.
    • Jewish life returned to normal after Chmielnicki died.
  1. Bogdan Chmielnicki was later nicknamed by Jews, “Chmiel the Wicked.” Bogdan Chmielnicki is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of Jews; however, the video also explains that he was only motivated to get involved after he believed his estate was stolen from him. Psychologists have grappled with understanding what evil is and why people make evil choices. Do you think people like Bogdan Chmielnicki are born wicked, or do they become wicked because of their life circumstances and how they are taught?
  2. Many Ukranians credit Bogdan Chmielnicki’s military leadership for liberating their country from Poland’s takeover and consider him a national Ukrainian hero. However, Bogdan Chmielnicki is also responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews. There are statues around the country which celebrate Chmielnicki, including this monument in Kiev. Rob Scheinberg wrote about his experience as a Jew visiting Kiev and how seeing the monument made him uncomfortable. He also drew a connection to contemporary conversations about statues of Confederate leaders in the United States. Do you agree with Scheinberg that these situations are connected, or are they inherently different from one another? Do you think the Ukrainian government should remove the monument of Bogdan Chmielnicki out of respect to the Jewish community, or do you think there are reasons why the statues should remain?
  3. As the video mentions, historians disagree on how many Jews were killed in the Chmielnicki uprising. On the low end, some estimate the number was at least tens of thousands of Jews, while, on the high end, some estimate the number reached 100,000 Jews. On the one hand, knowing the exact number of casualties gives us a greater historical understanding; on the other hand, the important takeaway is this was a massacre of many Jews because of the leadership of Bogdan Chelminicki. Does it change how we understand the Chmielnicki uprising if we knew with certainty how many Jews were killed, or would the way we remember this event be the same?
  4. The College Board’s AP World History exam suggests that the Cossack revolts be used as an illustrative example of local resistance against state expansion. While emphasizing the Cossack-Polish fight is understandable in the context of learning world history, it potentially omits the Chmielnicki uprising from being discussed in classrooms. Is this a topic that should be included in the general World History curriculum, or should it only be emphasized within the context of Jewish History classes?
  5. The Ukrainian town of Proskurov was the home of a flourishing Jewish community until the Nazis attacked during World War II. The Jewish community was destroyed with many Jews murdered and others were sent to labor camps. In 1954, Proskurov was renamed Khmelnitskiy after Bogdan Chmielnicki. When visiting Ukraine, do you think Jews should visit the city to remember the flourishing Jewish community that was once there and the Nazi attack, or should Jews boycott this city in protest of its name?
  1. Use a ready-made lesson plan about the massacre of the Jews of Poland.
  2. Shtetl life began during the 16th century and exploded in the centuries after. All students should read this article on What is a Shtetl? Then, students should each use this resource made by Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of the Polish Jews to choose an individual shtetl to learn more about life in that town. Students should each pick a different shtetl. At the end of their individual research, they should create a poster that features the history of their shtetl. The finished products should then be displayed for the group to appreciate how diverse and large shtetl life was for the Jews.
  3. The Chmielnicki uprising was one of the most violent episodes of Jewish history; yet, many Jews today have never even heard of this period. Use a Graffiti Board to allow students to process the question: How should we memorialize and remember the Chmielnicki uprising today? This teaching strategy allows students to reflect and engage in conversation about emotional topics.
  4. The New York Times published an article on the election of Ukraine’s newly elected Jewish President and the pushback from the Ukrainian Jewish community in 2019. Students should read this text and analyze it using the Save the Last Word for Me strategy. Using this strategy, students will be asked to write down the three lines which stood out to them on index cards and why they chose those lines. They will then be paired in groups of three to discuss the quotations. This strategy allows students to both reflect and discuss the text with peers.
  5. Play our Kahoot about The Massacre of the Jews of Poland!
  1. In response to the Chmielnicki uprising, leaders of the Polish Jewish communities convened and determined that the horrors of the decade were a wake-up call. They agreed that Jews should become more serious and banned most forms of Jewish entertainment. The only exception was the badkhan. He was known as a Jewish jester and often performed at weddings and parties at Purim. His type of humor was generally self-deprecating and incredibly sarcastic. Some credit the badkhan with beginning the movement of Jewish humor. It may seem ironic that Jewish humor began in one of the worst periods of Jewish history; however, it has also been observed that people use humor in the darkest times to help raise their spirits. How have you used comedy or humor to help you through something difficult?
  2. The video remarks how as Jews achieved more success in Poland, persecution against them also rose. On an individual scale, there is also a well-established connection that personal success is often not welcomed or celebrated by others. Entrepreneur Jonathan Zaback wrote an article, “Sorry, but Most People Are Not Happy to See You Succeed.” Have you ever experienced this, or have you felt this way towards someone else’s success? What lessons can you learn from this and apply to your life?
  3. Mark Twain once famously said, “What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin.” One of the reasons that Jews earned a negative reputation among the Cossacks was because of their role as tax collectors for the Polish government. This job is notoriously difficult as many people resent paying taxes. What are your feelings towards paying taxes?
  4. Fasting is a way in which Jews traditionally mourn and remember tragic events in Jewish history .The central Jewish authority in Poland designated a fast day on the twentieth of Sivan to remember the Chmielnicki uprising in 1650, and many communities then adopted this tradition. What does this say about the enormity of the tragedy, when even the Holocaust does not have a fast day associated with it?
  5. There are many people who close their eyes when violent imagery is shown on a TV show or in a movie. In this video, the Chmielnicki uprising is described graphically including the description of Jews’ skin being flayed off their bodies. Does it add to your understanding to have gory details described or does it detract from your ability to fully engage?

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