Lament on the Ukrainian Massacre

Joseph Lipman Ashkenazi


[To the tune of “Adir ayom ve-nora.”]1

Come, dear friends, let us cry and lament

The horrible things that have happened in these times.
In the year that Messiah was expected amid tribulation [1648],
Cossacks pursued us with unspeakable cruelty.
Especially you, devout women and girls!
How our happiness has been destroyed!
How much reason to rend one’s clothes in mourning,
Cry “Oy vey!” for such tremendous pain.
Let us recall how, in the ancient community of great Nemirov,
It happened that, on account of our many sins,
The evildoers ran amok with their scythes as if reaping grain—
Better that they [the Jews there] had been attacked by Tartars.
Yoshke and Alexander,
The ringleaders, may [the memory of] both their names be blotted out,
When they saw how 17 Jewish communities had congregated [to take refuge] there,
Hurriedly rallied [reinforcements] from all over.
At first, the townspeople seemed content enough;
It was all one to them, they said.
But then, sad to say, they had a change of mind,
And on the 24th of Sivan disaster struck.
While they [the Cossacks, outside the city walls] mounted their horses,
As if they meant to ride away.
A shout was heard from the Polish soldiers,
That the Jews should hurry into the citadel, leaving behind any firearms or swords.
On account of our many sins their wicked plot succeeded:
Again there came a voice, [this time] that the Cossacks, the emissaries of Satan, were coming;
[At this] the [local] peasants took up arms against the Jews,
With axes and skewers, as if they had a barbecue in mind.
Our enemies, the pigs, charged toward the citadel,
With a malevolent yell, as if completely drunk;
Anyone who crossed their path, they killed.
Lord of the universe, help those who place their hope in you!
Finding a hole at the rear of the citadel,
Some of the Jews tried, unavailingly, to escape.
Being outside was no better than being inside;
There, too, things were bad as bad could be.
They gave chase and struck down all of them just the same.
Many drowned in the deep river;
Any who could swim were slaughtered on the far bank.
No one was spared—not young, not old, not poor, not rich.
The illustrious Reb Mikhl, one of the world’s greatest rabbis,
He, too, fell at their hands.
Terrible was the cruelty in the streets and in the fields,
More than I can write or tell.
What could be more devastating
Than that rabbis such as these should meet a death such as this?
The saintly Reb Yisroel and Reb Azriel—oy vey, how great the pain;
The saintly Reb ḥayim and Reb Shelomoh—the sunlight grows dim.
We may mourn with lamentation and wailing,
That we have lost such holy ones as these.
Surely, though, their souls will rest with such other godly folk as the ten [great early rabbis]
Martyred by the Romans, that the honor of the divine name might be maintained.
Now may one cry and rip one’s clothes
At what the boorish peasants ripped apart:
The sacred Torah scrolls that they tore up so diligently.
Cry, then, as a woman in the throes of childbirth [does].
They chopped Torah scrolls into scraps to piss on.
O holy Torah, how will you not be outraged by this?
Oy vey, how they have desecrated your sweet words!
Therefore my eyes shed tears as if a stream.
One should put earth and ashes on one’s head
For these misfortunes are beyond recording, even on many sheets of paper.
We cannot stir nor move ourselves for sorrow,
Lord God preserve us from their further bows and arrows.
“Have the holy letters flown back to heaven?”
I will have to put the question [directly] to the Torah,
To get an answer that is not a lie,
Now that its students have been killed with sword and bow.
To whom shall the holy Torah be given,
Now that the Jews have been butchered like animals?
Who will study it day and night,
So that it should receive the honor it requires?
Small and tall, young and old,
For our many sins, all were put to death ferociously.
How the finely formed bodies lay amidst the dung,
As many souls as trees in a forest.
Ravens and dogs devoured the corpses;
There was nothing left to be buried but bone fragments the size of wood chips
The living and the dead all mixed together—who can forget this,
How the [most] dignified were sitting on the earth?
Glorious sun, how could you still have shone
On the day when we lost all that was nearest and dearest to us?
Small children on their mother’s lap,
Pure women, by other women slaughtered.
Men of integrity were lying dead all over,
Their widows wailing, had prostrated themselves on top of them,
And there they [too] were slaughtered, as if so many ewes and rams.
How could we not go to pieces in such pain?

Translated by
Ruth von
Photograph of wooden building exterior with several layers of roofs.
Tooltip info icon
Wooden synagogues were a distinctive style of vernacular architecture that first developed in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the sixteenth century and then flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Gwoździec synagogue in Poland was known for its colorful wall decorations, as seen in surviving photographs. Almost all the wooden synagogues were destroyed in the Holocaust. Only a few, in Lithuania, have survived.


[The medieval Hebrew hymn “Adir, ayom” is an alphabetical acrostic, and each of the first twenty-two verses of this Yiddish lament for the Jewish victims of the Polish Cossack Wars of 1648–1649 also begins with one of the twenty-two characters of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order.—Trans.]


Joseph Lipman Ashkenazi, trans., “Lament on the Ukrainian Massacre” (song, Prague and Amsterdam, 1648). Published in: Max Weinreich, Bilder fun der yidisher literaturgeshikhte fun di onheybn biz Mendele Mokher-Seforim (Vilna: Tomor, 1928), pp. 198–218 (209–211).

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 5.

Engage with this Source

You may also like