After the expulsions from Western Europe, Ashkenazi Jews found a new home in Poland. In the 17th century, Poland was home to one third of the world’s Jewish population, and was considered the center of Jewish life. Polish Jews became prosperous economically and religiously, but also faced escalating persecution.
Jews were blamed for the Black Plague and the destruction of church property but the worst was yet to come with the rebellion of the Cossacks, a group of Eastern Europeans made up of runaway serfs, bandits and traders.
The organizer of this rebellion was Bogdan Chmielnicki, or “Chmiel the Wicked,” who banded the Cossacks and peasants of Ukraine into armies that led pogroms, savagely destroying more than 300 Jewish towns and massacring thousands of Jews over nine years.
Despite these atrocities, Polish Jewish life was slowly rebuilt, but Chmielnicki will forever be remembered as one of Jewish history’s unforgivable villains.