He was born in Chigirin in the Ukraine, in the family of Polish noble immigrated to Ukraine from Masovia, and educated by Jesuits. However, unlike many of their other pupils, Chmielnicki did not embrace Roman Catholicism, but early in life became a indifferent for the faith. Later he seemed to belong to Greek Orthodox faith to which most of the Cossacks and the Little-Russian peasants belonged, but without an official conversion. While still in the subordinate position of a "sotski" (an officer over a hundred) of the Cossacks, subject to the Polish magnate Koniecpolski, he was deprived by Chaplinski, the bailiff of Chigirin, of his estate of Subotovo. Chaplinski availed himself of Chmielnicki's absence to make a raid on the place, during which the young son of the owner received injuries from which he ultimately died, and Chmielnicki's (second) wife was carried off. In this raid Chaplinski was aided by the leaseholder of Chigirin, Zachariah Zabilenki, who happened to be Jewish. At another time it is related that a Jewish citizen reported to the Polish government a secret treaty concluded by Chmielnicki with the Tatars. These personal indignities and injuries apparently embittered Chmielnicki against the Poles and the Jews.
Although his personal resentment influenced his decision to rid the Ukraine of Jews, it seems that it was his ambition to become the ruler of Ukraine which was the main motive that led him to instigate the uprising of the Little-Russian people against the Poles and the Jews. For years the people of Little Russia had felt oppressed by the Polish nobles and Jewish traders. Unwilling to attend to the details of administration himself, Chmielnicki made the Jewish citizens a go-between in his transactions with the peasants of Little Russia. He sold and leased certain privileges to Jews for a lump sum, and, while enjoying himself at the court, left it to Jewish leaseholders and collectors to become the embodiment of hatred to the oppressed and long-suffering peasant.
The accumulated store of animosity was utilized by Chmielnicki in inciting attacks against the Jews. He told the people that the Poles had sold them as slaves "into the hands of the accursed Jews." With this as their battle-cry, the Cossacks let loose their wildest passions; they massacred at least a hundred thousand Jews, with such cruelties as the world had seldom witnessed (1648 - 1649). The precise number of victims may never be known, but estimates range from a minimum of 100,000 to well over 1,000,000 Jews murdered.
These events also were the start of a series of campaigns that temporarily freed Ukraine from Polish domination. Successes at at ?ó?te Wody, Korsu? and Pilawce led to Chmielnicki being paid-off by the Polish king and gained numerous privileges for the Cossacks at the Treaty of Zborov. However when hostilities resumed Chmielnicki's forces suffered a massive defeat in 1651 at the Battle of Beresteczko and were forced at Bila Tserkva to accept a loser's treaty. A year later the cossacks had their revenge at the Battle of Batoh, after which Chmielnicki had all the high-ranking captives murdered . The Ukraine was still perilously weak and in 1654, Chmielnicki persuaded the Cossacks to ally with the Russian czars at the Treaty of Pereyaslavl, a treaty that had poor results for the Ukraine after Chmielnicki's death (the Polish-Muscovite Treaty of Andrusov in 1667).
Chmielnicki's war against Poland was described by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his novel Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword).
See also: Anti-Semitism