Monday, September 26, 2022

The 20th of day of the month of Sivan (chof Sivan) has been designated by sages to be a day of fasting and commemoration of tragedies that befell the Jews of Western and Eastern Europe in different eras.

In 1171, tragedy struck the Jewish community of Blois France. A horrific blood libel accusation which had been leveled on several occasions in England had made its way to France. A local Christian claimed that he saw a Jew throw the corpse of a child into the river Loire. The corpse was never found, but the testimony was accepted. The town’s approximately 40 Jews were arrested and offered the choice of accepting baptism or death. Despite threats and torture, they did not yield. On the 20th of Sivan, 32 Jews, 17 of them women, were burnt at the stake.

Rabbi Ephraim Ben Yaakov of Bonn wrote that the 20th of Sivan was decreed by the greatest Torah sage of that era, Rabbi Yaakov son of Meir Tam (Rabbeinu Tam), as a fast day for Jews living in France, the Rhineland (Western Germany) and England. Rabbeinu Tam wrote letters to Jewish communities declaring that day to be one of “atonement.”

Many more such tragic events followed causing immense suffering and torment to Jewish communities throughout Europe. Many Jews fled to Eastern Europe where they continued to observe that fast day. Tragically, blood libels eventually made their way to that region as well.

The Jews of Eastern Europe soon observed this date of remembrance for tragedies in their own region. In 1648, the Ukrainian Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnizki incited a rebellion against Poland. Chmielnitzki’s forces combined with Tartar allies of Mongolia routed the Polish army at Yellow River on May 19, 1648, and Hard Plank on May 26. The Polish defeat was a disaster for the Jews of the Ukraine. During the revolt, Chmielnitzki’s Cossacks unleashed their fury against the Jews of the Ukraine and surrounding areas. In the ensuing pogroms, many Jewish communities were wiped out. Hundreds of thousands were murdered, severely wounded, or faced with starvation and disease.

Rabbi Nathan Neta Hanover , a contemporary chronicler of the events of this era known as Tach VeTat, an acronym for the years (1648-1649), reported that the first attack against a large Jewish community was in the city of Nemirov, where Jews from surrounding villages had gathered from smaller villages for refuge.

Just days earlier on the Sabbath, the head of the city’s yeshiva, Rabbi Yechiel Michael son of Rabbi Eliezer, told the community that if the enemy should arrive, the people must defy them if they demand baptism, even at the cost of their lives.

As Cossacks troops neared Nemirov, its Jews trembled in fear as they locked themselves within the city walls. As the soldiers drew nearer, they unfurled Polish flags to give the impression that they were Polish troops coming to their rescue. The Poles within the city were notified of this ruse and collaborated with the Cossacks in order to save their own lives. They falsely informed the Jews guarding the gates that the approaching soldiers were indeed Polish and that they should open the gates. As the Cossacks entered the city with drawn swords, slaughter ensued. Over 6,000 Jews were martyred that day.

From Nemirov, the Cossacks attacked the cities of Tulshin, Polannoe, and then Ostrog and Zaslow. At each city, horrors followed. After less than two years, the Tartar allies withdrew from the conflict, forcing Chmielnitzki into a truce which lasted for 18 months followed by more violence which continued intermittently until his death in 1657.

In the winter of 1650, rabbinic and lay leaders, known as the Council of the Four Lands, gathered in Lublin and declared the 20th of Sivan—the day the city of Nemerov was attacked—as a day of fasting and commemoration for the many martyrs of the Chmelnitzki pogroms.

The massacres by Ukrainian nationalists did not end with Chmielnitzki’s death. There were a series of attacks in the 18th century, including the Gonta massacres of 1767-1768, in which the Jewish community lost tens of thousands in and around the city of Uman. In 1881, and again in 1903-1905, pogroms were unleashed in which Ukrainian nationalists participated. During the First World War, Ukrainian Cossacks initiated pogroms against Jewish communities in Poland and Galicia causing massive devastation. In 1919, a civil war positioned Ukrainians in pursuit of independence and Russian nationalists against the revolutionary Red Army. Again Ukrainian Jewry was caught in the middle and forced to suffer horrific massacres. Hundreds of thousands of the over one million Jews of the Ukraine were again devastated by massacres, starvation, disease, and homelessness. Again, in 1941/1942, Ukrainian Nationalists assisted the Nazis in conducting horrific aktions against Jews.

Most Ukrainians did not take part in these many attacks. There were also Ukrainians who saved Jewish lives, sometimes at great personal risk, but those who did participate caused untold suffering.

The tragic events between France, and the Ukraine are 500 years apart, but famed rabbinic scholar Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller. also known by his pen name Tosafot Yom Tov, the name for his commentary on the Mishnah, ordained that those selichot prayers composed in commemoration of the victims in France in the 12th century be recited also for the victims of the Chmielnitzki massacres. Today, there are some prayer books that contain those memorial prayers for recitation on the 20th of Sivan. Rabbi Lipmann stated in the context of the tragedies encountered by European Jewry, “What has occurred now is similar to days of old. All that happened to the forefathers happened to their descendants.”

Although the 20th of Sivan is not observed on a wide scale and the memory of the many victims may have diminished somewhat in the passage of time, this commemorative day is an opportunity to pay homage to those who died al Kiddush Hashem..

Larry Domnitch is a freelance writer and Jewish educator with an MA in Jewish history from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School.

By Larry Domnitch

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