Abyss of Despair (Yeven Metzulah) by Nathan Hanover
By Mark Heckman
Related to: Volhynia (Province)
, Book Reviews
Author: Hanover, Nathan; [translated by Abraham J. Mesch].
Publishing information: Transaction Books, New Brunswick: 1983
Three hundred years before Hitler, Jews in Poland and Ukraine suffered an attack unprecedented in its brutality and scale, and exceeding anything experienced until the 20th century Holocaust. Beginning in 1648, and continuing until the mid to late 1650s, Ukrainians led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky waged a revolution against Polish rule. In every town they entered, however, not only did the Ukrainians attack the Poles, but they massacred all the Jewish inhabitants. Tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of Jews were slaughtered in the most horribly cruel ways.
Abyss of Despair is a first-hand account of this tragedy. Rabbi Nathan Hanover was born in Ostrog in the 1620s, when it was the leading city of Volhynia and a major center of Jewish scholarship. He later moved to Zaslaw, from whence he fled in 1648 when Khmelnytsky sacked the town and killed most of the Jews there. He managed to escape west, wandering with his family to Germany, Holland, Italy (Abyss of Despair was published in 1652 in Venice), and Wallachia, where he became the Rabbi of Iasi and Focsani. By 1670 he was Dayan of Brod, in Moravia, where he was killed by Hungarians who were in revolt against the Austrian Empire.
In the course of his life, Hanover produced several major scholarly works, ranging from Abyss of Despair to books of prayers, sermons, and even a four-language dictionary: Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin, and Italian. Abyss is considered to be the most authentic, as well as popular account of the events of that period. Hanover describes the harsh oppression of the Ukrainians under Polish rule, the details of the revolution, and the politics of that time. He also puts a human face on the suffering, describing how some Jews converted, but how many resisted at the cost of their lives. Hanover also includes a final chapter in which he describes some of the details of the (normal) life of jews in the Kingdom of Poland.
Valuable not only for the historical events that it relates, this translation includes a fascinating account of Hanover's life, an introduction that gives the historical background of the times, and a foreward that explains how the effects of the Khmelnytsky-led pogroms contributed to the development of Hasidism and the Haskalah. Hanover relates the events in a large number of towns, including (using the spelling in the book) Ostrog, Zaslaw, Lviv, Nalevaiko, Pawliuk, Nemirow, Tulczyn, Polannoe, Miedzyrzecze, Konstantynow, Brest-Litovsk, Pinsk, and Zamosc. Few books from this time and place are as accessible as this translation of Abyss.
Jewish Genealogists whose ancestors come from Volhynia will appreciate the insight it gives into Volhynian Jewish life in the 17th century. I obtained this book from the library at the University of California at Davis, call number DS 135 P6 H313 1983. -- Mark Heckman