The Great Jewish Refugee Crisis of the 17th Century

April 14, 2020 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

In his book Refugees or Migrants: Pre-Modern Jewish Population Movement (reviewed in Mosaic here), the medievalist Robert Chazan argues that for much of history Jews were more likely to leave their homes in exile not because of expulsions, or to flee violent persecution, but to seek new economic opportunities. One of the many examples Chazan cites is the wave of massacres of Jews in Ukraine—then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—carried out by the followers of the Cossack leader Bodgan Chmielnicki in 1648 and 1649. While the violence inflicted on Jews during the Chmielnicki uprising and the subsequent period of unrest would not be matched until the Holocaust, Chazan notes that the affected communities quickly reconstructed themselves.

In a recent book on this period of East European Jewry, Adam Teller doesn’t disagree with Chazan’s overall conclusion, but calls attentions to the enormous impact that the massacres did have. Allan Arkush writes in his review of the two books:

Relying, like Chazan, on the research of Shaul Stampfer, Teller reports that of the 40,000 Jews in Ukraine, some 18,000 died between 1648 and 1654, in addition to an indeterminable number of others who were massacred in other parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Refugees who remained within the borders of the Commonwealth must have numbered at least 15,000, and another 10,000 seem to have migrated beyond them. Contemporary but unreliable reports refer to 20,000 to 30,000 Jews who were sold [into slavery] or redeemed [by local Jews] in Istanbul, yet “the best we can say is that many thousands of Jews were captured and swept up in the slave trade” between 1648 and 1667.

The overall numbers may seem small by modern standards, but they weren’t then. The total world Jewish population at the time numbered only around one million. Jews in other parts of the world collected money to care for the newly homeless and ransom the captives. For the Lithuanian communities outside Chmielnicki’s reach, already in 1651 the burden was huge, “and under its pressure, communal organizations began to unravel.”

In Teller’s eyes, however, the long-term significance of the refugee crisis lies mostly in the way the Jewish world responded to it: strengthening intercommunal connections, improving channels of communications, and expanding the range of Jewish philanthropy. In addition to these positive developments, the crisis also contributed to the centuries-long tension between German Jews and their coreligionists to the east.

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