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General view of the castle in Medzhybizh.
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The town of Medzhybizh is situated between the rivers Buh (old name Boh) and Buzhok, hence the name (medzh - between, bizh or bozh - from the name of the rivers). The exact date of its foundation is not known but there is enough evidence to suggest that the fortress of Medzhybizh dates back to the early mediaeval times.
In the 15th-16th centuries, it grew to be a major fortress of the Grand Principality of Lithuania. In the mid-16th century the Polish noble family of Zaslavskys, which ruled the area, began building new fortifications turning Medzhybizh into an impregnable fortress. The Zaslavkys defended the then southern borders of Ukraine from the incursions of the Turks and Crimean Tartars.

The main objective of the Turkish and Tartar raids was to capture healthy and robust men, women and children later to be sold as slaves, rather than just to plunder. The slave markets in Turkey flourished, supplying beautiful concubines for seraglios, robust farm hands for toiling on the land, indefatigable oarsmen for the galleys and intrepid janissaries for the army. The fortress of Medzhybizh provided protection for a wide area, the population of which would otherwise be unable to defend itself against numerous hordes of bandits, slave traders and plunderers.

In the 17th century Medzhybizh continued to be a powerful stronghold which many warring parties of those times wanted to have as their own.

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The eastern tower and donjon.
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Medzhybizh Castle viewed from the south across the Buh river.   
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The north-east tower of the castle.
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A decorative vase at one of the corners of the 16th century palace.
Historical chronicles mention Medzhybizh in connection with the war of independence, in which the Ukrainian Cossacks, led by their Hetman (military leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky, fought against Poland. The Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian and Turkish troops contended for the possession of the mighty fortress. As a result of diplomatic scheming rather than of direct military actions a considerable chunk of Ukrainian territory with Medzhybizh as its pivotal point found itself under Turkish domination.

Medzhybizh stayed in the Turkish hands for 28 years. The local Turkish rulers and military commanders resided in the place of the Zaslavsky family. The Zaslavkys, before their downfall, were richer than kings of Poland. They adorned their palace with furniture and paintings from Italy, carpets from Persia, china from China. The Turks who moved into the Zaslavskys' residence, knew how to live in style.

They did not stay long enough to leave a considerable impact on the townscape or culture of Medzhybizh but some traces of their presence have remained up to the present day.

Unfortunately, in the Soviet times the architectural landmarks were not properly maintained or repaired and their dilapidation progressed at an alarming pace. In the now independent Ukraine, caught in the grip of a severe economic crisis, there is not enough money to be allocated for restoration work and once splendid mansions, majestic palaces and castle itself have turned almost into ruins, little suggestive of their former glory.

Jewish culture has left a greater impact. The jews made up a considerable part of the local population already in the 17th century and at the end of the 19th century out of 8,164 people living in Medzhybizh 6,040 were Jewish. There were several reasons why Jews settled down in areas similar to the one where Medzhybizh is situated. One of them was an outflow of the indigenous local population harassed by centuries of foreign invasions. The jews were encouraged to settle down in the areas vacated by the local population for which they were granted certain privileges. It was in Medzhybizh that the founder of Hasidism lived and died. Modern Hasidism, a Jewish spiritual movement characterized by mysticism and opposition to secular studies and Jewish rationalism, may be regarded as a mass movement, having a minimum of organization, using the methods of propaganda and preaching, and forming groups of acknowledged members.

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A tower adjacent to the donjon.
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A bell of a church (1586).
It is quite credible that Hasisdism can be traced back to a single founder, Israel ben Eliezer, known as Ba'alShemTov (acronym BESHT; "Master of the Good Name"; that is, a possessor of the secret of the ineffable name of God, which bestows an infallible power to heal.) Ba'al Shem Tov was born c. 1700, probably in Tluste, Podolia, and died in 1760 in Medzhybizh. He aroused controversy by mixing with ordinary people, renouncing mortification of the flesh, and insisting on the holiness of ordinary bodily existence. He was also responsible for I divesting Kabbala (esoteric Jewish mysticism) of the rigid asceticism imposed on it by Isaac ben Solomon Luria in the 16th century. The BESHT's life has been so adorned with fables and legends that a biography in the ordinary historical sense is not possible.
He came from humble and obscure beginnings in a village known to contemporary Jews as Okop or Akuf, depending on the Hebrew vocalization. As a young orphan he held various semi-menial posts connected with synagogues and Hebrew elementary religious schools. After marrying the daughter of the wealthy and learned Ephraim of Kuty, he retired to the Carpathian Mountains to engage in mystical speculation, meanwhile eking out his living as a lime digger. He befriended Ukrainian shepherds and loved to talk with them, enjoying their colourful language and words of wisdom.

During this period his reputation as a healer, or ba'al shem, who worked wonders by means of herbs, talismans, and amulets inscribed with the divine name, began to spread. He later became an innkeeper and a ritual slaughterer and, about 1736, settled in the village of Medzhybizh. From this time until his death, he devoted himself almost entirely to spiritual pursuits.Though the BESHT gained no special renown as a scholar or preacher during his lifetime, he made a deep impression by going to the marketplace to converse with simple people and by dressing like them. Such conduct by a holy man was fiercely condemned in some quarters but enthusiastically applauded in others. The BESHT defended his actions as a necessary "descent for the sake of ascent," a concept that eventually evolved into a socio-theological theory that placed great value on this type of spiritual ministration. The BESHT gradually reached the point where he was prepared to renounce the strict asceticism of his companions. In words recorded by his grandson Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh, he announced: "I came into this world to point a new way, to prevail upon men to live by the light of love of God. And there is no need to perform mortifications of the flesh." By renouncing mortification in favour of new rituals, the BESHT in effect had taken the first step toward initiating a new religious movement within Judaism.

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Ruins of the stables along the southern wall of the castle.

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The palace in the south-western part of the castle.

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Entry into the castle from the west.
The teaching of the BESHT concentrated on three main points: communion with God, the highest of all values; service in ordinary bodily existence, proclaiming that every human deed done "for the sake of heaven" (even stitching shoes and eating) was equal in value to observing formal commandments; and rescue of the "sparks" of divinity that, according to the Kabbala, were trapped in the material world.He believed that such sparks are related to the soul of every individual. It was the BESHT's sensitivity to the spiritual needs of the unsophisticated and his assurance that redemption could be attained without retreat from the world that found a ready response among his listeners, the common folk. He declared that they were, one and all, "limbs of the divine presence. "The BESHT and his followers were fiercely attacked by rabbinical leaders for "dancing, drinking, and making merry all their lives." They were called licentious, indifferent, and contemptuous of tradition epithets and accusations that were wild exaggerations, to say the least.
During his lifetime, the BESHT brought about a great social and religious upheaval and permanently altered many traditional values. In an atmosphere marked by joy, new rituals, and ecstasy, he created a new religious climate in small houses of prayer. The changes that had occurred were further emphasized by the wearing of distinctive garb and the telling of stories.

Medzhybizh, standing two kilometers away from the highway connecting the towns of Vinnytsya and Kmelnytsky, is a nice example of fruitful coexistence and beneficial mutual influences of different cultures.

By Victor KYRKEVYCH
Photos by Yuri BUSLENKO

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A church in the castle (1586).

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