(Pt. 2) Jewish communities on the territory of Ukraine in the 16th–17th centuries: An interview with the researcher Natalya Starchenko

Natalya Starchenko. (Photo Facebook)

What was the cause of conflicts between Ukrainians and Jews? Did they take each other to court? How did trials take place?

We are continuing our conversation about the life of Jewish communities in the Ukrainian lands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Our guest today is Natalya Starchenko, Doctor of Historical Sciences, who is a senior scholarly associate at the M. S. Hrushevsky Institute of Ukrainian Archeography and Source Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a researcher of the history of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period in Ukraine.

Vasyl Shandro: So, Ukrainians could take Jews to court, and Jews could take Ukrainians to court, and the law was the same?

Natalya Starchenko: Yes, the law was the same wherever relations between various categories of the population were regulated. As stated in the Second Lithuanian Statute, the law was supposed to be the same for all citizens of the state. In other words, self-governing units—Jewish communities, communities under Magdeburg Law, individual nobiliary locations—had their own law, but the Statute applied mostly to relations between the representatives of these groups.

Vasyl Shandro: How were these conflicts usually settled? Were they resolved, or were these confrontations serious and protracted? How important was the religious or national element here?

Natalya Starchenko: Without doubt, various factors were at play in identifying oneself. There was an abundance of identifications, like today; you say who you are depending on various circumstances.

Of course, a Jew on the streets of Ukrainian cities looked “different” because he spoke another language. He stood out by his outward appearance. According to the Second Lithuanian Statute, Jewish men were supposed to wear yellow berets, and women—yellow kerchiefs, so that they could be recognized. But according to the Third Lithuanian Statute, which was enacted in 1588 for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, there is no longer any requirement to wear special clothing. But Jews were forbidden to have silver on their swords. In other words, this was a ban on dressing “richly,” like the nobility. Similar requirements pertained to burghers.

On the one hand, the issue was about the “Other.” Yet that world did not have thick walls, especially mental and cultural ones. Let us examine the oath, a widespread method of establishing the truth in court. It was ordered by judges in contentious cases for Christians and Jews alike.

A particularly good example is the case of the city of Volodymyr, when an Easter procession in 1590 was making its way from one church to another. As clergymen claimed, two Jews threw stones at the marchers on Zhydivska Street. They were jailed at once, and the clergy demanded a speedy trial. The deputy of the royal vicegerent was in no hurry to prosecute because he realized that something was not right. Finally, the trial took place, and the Jews declared that they had not thrown stones and were not involved in the incident.

Then the judge ordered them to swear an oath—not just them but also three elders from the Jewish community. The two accused, their fellow defendants, and the clergymen came to the synagogue. The accused swore an oath and were cleared of charges. But the Orthodox clergymen waived the oath for the three others, who were supposed to swear an oath together with them. It is believed that forcing a person to swear an oath is a sin, and in this situation, the Christians did not want to commit the sin of compelling their fellow citizens to swear an oath.

In reading such accounts, we must always remember that we are dealing with a specific source: judicial acts. We must consider not the fact that there was a conflict, but its finale and the forms of mechanisms of resolution created by that society. In the given situation, we have no idea whether “there was a little boy” and whether the incident took place the way it was described in the complaint. Conversely, similar accusations cropped up when Jews accused their fellow members in the urban community space, and it was also difficult to say with certainty what happened.

Vasyl Shandro: What was the nature of the lawsuits?

Natalya Starchenko: They were mostly domestic disputes. In fact, there were not that many conflicts like the one that took place in Volodymyr. Some incidents were provoked by the clergy. This also has to be mentioned because the second half of the sixteenth century marks the beginning of the disciplining of the Catholic Church, which enters the period of the Counter-Reformation and rivalry intensifies among various religious confessions for the souls of believers. Hence, a Jew is treated as someone who has perverted the question of religion and must be led back to the right path. Quite a few anti-Jewish tracts appear, but this was typical of the Catholic Church.

The Counter-Reformation affected the Orthodox Church around the 1630s–1640s. The first anti-Jewish decrees appear in 1640: a ban on hiring female Christian servants to take care of Jewish children and a ban on the purchase of meat from Jews. However, on the other hand, this is very much a society operating within the rule of law. Therefore, in 1647, when a priest in Volyn tried to put these prohibitions into effect, a local nobleman took him to court and won his case.

We have a hard time imagining how strict the legal mechanisms were by which that society was governed, to which were added self-governing traditions and methods of coexistence. People of that time coped quite well with various conflicts, resorting to the mediation of different people. There are many references in court books to the friendly, third-party resolution of relations, particularly between Christians and Jews.

Vasyl Shandro: What happens during the first decades of the seventeenth century?

Natalya Starchenko: This is a complex topic, and it is understudied. When we begin to analyze Cossack phraseology, we actually find statements about the crucial need to purge the Ruthenian land of the liakh and the Jew.” However, we truly do not know who the liakh is here because there were not that many Poles in the Kyiv region and the bulk of the nobiliary population consisted of Orthodox ethnic Ruthenian-Ukrainians. Thus, the word liakh refers to the social, not the ethnic, dimension. But when and in what connection this social term, which is used for “othering,” appears is a question necessitating a deep investigation through all the documents.

I think that it is crucially important to see in what contexts the word “Jew” appears in Cossack sources.

Serhiy Plokhy’s book, The Cossacks and Religion in Early Modern Ukraine, discusses studies that have been done on similar phraseology. They prove that the main enemy is this unknown liakh and only later did “the Jew” emerge as a derivative concept.

The question of war must be examined within the categories of war. We understand that during a war, when there are no authorities, and the preponderant majority of peoples’ strategies is aimed at survival. I agree with Timothy Snyder, who says that the question of the pogroms is not so much a question of anti-Semitism as it is about the absence of power or the fostering of similar excesses by the authorities.

During Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s war, we have a power vacuum. This means that everything is permitted, and the weakest element turns out to be the least protected. All the mechanisms for resolving conflicts, which functioned in the situation of peaceful coexistence, ceased operating during war; they are disrupted. The events of the war led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky should be examined from this standpoint.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.