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Running from Ruzhin

Shedding light on one of the most historic moments of the chassidic movement: Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin’s daring escape from Russia to his rebuilding in Sadigura

Photos Kedem Auction House, Jerusalem

Shabbos parshas Bo, January 15, 1842. Iasi, Moldavia. The horse and carriage are ready for departure. The French passport issued that morning is in order, and the small party immediately hits the road, haste and secrecy the watchword of this daring escape. For the passenger is none other than one of the greatest chassidic tzaddikim of the time, Rav Yisrael Friedman, “the Heilige Rizhiner.”

The story of the Ruzhiner Rebbe’s escape from Russia and subsequent resettlement in Austria has always been something of a mystery. I was always intrigued by the dramatic tale, an anomaly in the annals of the chassidic movement. Much was known and yet much was missing, while an entire gamut of books attempted to reconstruct the story — with limited success.

The memoir of Reb Yosef Roth, the Rebbe’s loyal gabbai, Rabbi Dr. Menachem Brayer (the current Boyaner Rebbe’s father) in his The House of Rizhin, Professor David Assaf’s voluminous writings on the dynasty, and the writings of several others, all added significant, little-known details to the story of the Ruzhiner’s life and the glorious dynasty that followed.

And yet pieces of the puzzle were still missing. Imagine, for one of the most famous and important leaders in the history of chassidus, an entire chunk of his story is unknown: How did the Rebbe obtain the appropriate travel documents enabling him to cross the border? What did the Austrian officials want from him when they investigated him upon arrival? Why wasn’t he deported back to Russia? When exactly did the border crossing take place? How and when did the Ruzhiner come to choose the town of Sadigura as his new home?

Now, there’s been an information breakthrough. Being a known history buff, I recently received a phone call from Kedem Auction House. “Come down to the office, we have something of significant interest that we’d like to show you,” they told me. I was shown a large leather-bound file, with the word “Rizhin” emblazoned in gold on the spine. Inside were, among other papers, the detailed protocols of the investigation the Austrian officials carried out with the Ruzhiner Rebbe and those close to him, shortly after he entered Austrian territory.

The thick file contains pages and pages handwritten in German. Memorandums, protocols of the interrogations, travel papers, bureaucratic documents all written in dry official language, yet a veritable treasure trove, shedding light on one of the most historic moments of the chassidic movement:Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin’s daring escape from Russia to his rebuilding in Sadigura.

Among the technical words, something stuck out — a bold signature, another, and yet another. It was the Ruzhiner Rebbe’s own handwriting! I took out another document that caught my eye. It was a French passport. The custom official’s stamps were still legible. With rising excitement, I soon realized that I was holding the very travel papers the Ruzhiner held in his own holy hands and used for his escape across the border.

“The file gives us a unique glimpse into one of the most famous events in the chasssidic world in general, and in Ruzhin in particular,” explains Meron Eren, cofounder of the Kedem Auction House. “At the same time, it reflects the special, steadfast character of the Rebbe during one challenging period in his life. Items of this kind that incorporate such a significant historic-Jewish blend are particularly unusual as they include so many documents and details that were previously unknown.”

Buried in these aging papers is a fascinating story, a puzzle that historians, researchers, and chassidim have longed to resolve for close to two centuries. What was he interrogated about? What story would the Rebbe tell his new hosts? What secrets does this newly-discovered file contain? Will it yield some of the answers?

Determined to find out, I set out to reconstruct the narrative from the beginning. Very little of this priceless file has been properly researched, and the secrets contained therein may keep researchers busy for years to come.


A New Path

Few personalities in chassidic history evoke the awe and respect commanded by the Ruzhiner Rebbe, known to posterity as “the Heilige Rizhiner.” In order to properly understand the significance of his dramatic escape and subsequent resettling in Sadigura, let’s take a step back to the beginning.

As a direct descendant of the Maggid of Mezritch and his son Rav Avraham Hamalach, as well as Rav Nachum of Chernobyl, Rav Yisrael Friedman was born into chassidic aristocracy in 1796. Orphaned as a young child, he rose to prominence following his elder brother’s passing, and assumed a position of leadership at the tender age of 17. Following the passing of Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Apter Rav, in 1825, Rav Yisrael — by now having settled in Ruzhin — was to become the dominant chassidic leader in the southwestern districts of the Pale of Settlement.

He pioneered a new path in chassidus that was to become synonymous with the Ruzhin name — the “derech hamalchus.” The regal court included all the trimmings of the Russian aristocracy and carried over to the Rebbe and his family’s wardrobe and mannerisms. Every outward expression of nobility was incorporated into the chatzer of Ruzhin.

Yet his leadership characteristics differed from many of the other great tzaddikim of his time. As extravagant as the Ruzhiner court was in a physical sense, the advice he dispensed to the throngs who arrived to seek his counsel was simple, prudent, and wise. Word of his natural intelligence and statesmanlike observations quickly spread among Jews and non-Jews alike. (According to well-known legend, his solid gold, diamond-studded boots had no soles, and thus the Rebbe essentially walked barefoot — implying that all the opulence was purely for the sake of Heaven.)

His charisma, shining countenance, and genuine concern for those who sought his advice became legendary. The Ruzhiner was not one who gained fame with miraculous stories of healing or prophecies, but rather, his personality, exceptional leadership, astute perception, and keen awareness of responsibility for the overall needs of the community propelled him into becoming a representative and spokesman of all of Klal Yisrael.

In his role as influential chassidic leader in the Russian Empire, the Ruzhiner also headed the Kollel Vohlyn in Eretz Yisrael, which supported the chassidic community in the Holy Land. It was in this capacity that he instructed his loyal chassid Nisson Beck to hastily buy a piece of property in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem before the Russian Orthodox Church could purchase it to build a church. When the edifice was completed many years later, the Tiferes Yisrael shul, named for the visionary Rebbe, was a towering jewel and remained a center of Jewish life until its destruction by Jordanian forces during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

The years of Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin’s tenure coincided with that of Czar Nicholas I, known as the “Iron Czar.” For the duration of his 30-year reign (1825–1855), the Jews suffered from his reactionary policies, especially the cantonist decrees, which wreaked havoc on both the young boys and the families of those inducted into the Russian Army. Yet for all their misery, the cantonist decrees weren’t the only challenge faced by the Jews under Nicholas. In every sphere of life — economic, social, religious, and educational — the governmental authorities attempted to interfere with the internal structures of the Jewish community. Due to his wealth and influence, the Ruzhiner had the rare distinction of being accorded the status of Merchant of the Second Guild by the Russian government. This put him in a unique position to be able to lobby on behalf of his people to ameliorate their dire conditions under the Czar.

Under the Czar’s Boot

While at the peak of his influence in Russia, a certain sequence of events ushered in a period of trials and tribulations for the Ruzhiner, his family, and his loyal followers. It started in 1836 in the town of Ushitz (Nova Ushytsia), when two Jewish informers were found murdered.

In Czarist Russia, the worst form of betrayal within the Jewish community was to be a moser, someone who would report to the authorities when a fellow Jew would avoid the military draft or other such similar offenses.

These informers, motivated by money or the hope of leniency from the authorities for offenses they’d committed, wreaked havoc upon communities with their treachery, often causing innocent “offenders” to be exiled to Siberia or even sentenced to death.

The Czarist police implicated scores of Jews in connection with the case, and at a certain point, Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin was taken into custody as well. He remained incarcerated in prison in Kiev for nearly two years, suffering great humiliation and pain, before the chassidim were able to secure his release by utilizing a combination of lobbying efforts and the time-tested method of bribery. On Shushan Purim 1840, the Rebbe was released and able to finally return to Ruzhin and his chassidim.

But his challenges were far from over. The Ruzhiner returned home under surveillance, and the former bustling and busy court was eerily silent as he was no longer allowed to receive the usual stream of visitors as in previous times. Recognizing that the investigation was not yet over and that the Czarist officials had more in store from him, Rav Yisrael made the decision to leave behind his palatial home and court and head west to the city of Kishinev, where he believed that a more benevolent governor would allow him to live in peace.

But it was not to be. Soon after arriving in Kishinev, he received word of Czar Nicholas’s latest plans for him. The Czar wanted him banished to the cold, icy steppes of the Russian interior, far from the Pale of Settlement where Jews resided. It was thus time to flee once again, away from the long-reaching clutches of the Czarist police. His destination: Iasi, Moldavia, which was Ottoman territory under nominal Russian patronage. It was also near Botoshan, the city from where his wife, Rebbetzin Sarah, hailed and where she had some relatives.

Yet after only three months in Iasi, the Rebbe was again in danger. The governor of Kishinev had received expulsion orders from St. Petersburg, and was now demanding the extradition of the Rebbe from Moldavia. This left the Heilige Rizhiner with one option: to cross the border into Austrian-held Bukovina. But it was now winter, the ground was icy and snowy, and the Rebbe was already weak from his travels. Still, there wasn’t a moment to lose.

False travel documents were urgently obtained, and the very passport that I’d held in my hand at the auction house was now used by the Rebbe to cross the border. It is a French travel permit issued to Michel Goldenthal, who accompanied the Rebbe along with Shmuel Ber the wagon driver and Fishel the gabbai (Assaf’s Derech Hamalchut has the names Shmulik the Shamash and Yudel Landau the shochet.). On January 15, 1842 (4 Shvat), Shabbos parshas Bo, the Rebbe began his escape.

Two nights later, only the ice-covered Siret River stood between Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin and freedom. Austria beckoned in the distance. Enter another fellow named Nosson Shimon Horowitz, a worldly individual and well-known border smuggler who maintained a close relationship with the Austrian customs officials. Hailing from the nearby town of Shotz, he was also a chassid of Rav Meir of Premishlan who, perhaps more than any other tzaddik of his day, took to heart the painful situation of the Ruzhiner while he was in prison.

According to chassidic legend, midway through the midnight river crossing, the ice cracked under the horse’s hooves, and the small party was stranded on the ice. A moment later, the muscular Nosson Shimon lifted the Rebbe onto his shoulders and walked the remainder of the ice-covered river to the Austrian side. Mindful of his past actions and standing in the middle of the icy river with the great tzaddik on his shoulders, Nosson Shimon asked his illustrious passenger what his reward would be. The Rebbe promptly responded, “You are guaranteed a portion in Olam Haba.”

New Beginnings

Physically spent and weak, Rav Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin crossed the border, leaving the Russian chapter of his life and leadership forever behind. With his family back in Kishinev and his chassidim spread across Russia, he now set his sights on finding a place to resettle somewhere in the Austrian Hapsburg Empire.

Of more immediate concern, however, was to get the Rebbe to relative safety where he could recuperate from his arduous journey. The newly discovered file traces every step of his path to safety. For the next several weeks, the Rebbe, in a continuously weakened state, traveled with his small entourage from place to place, seeking somewhere to settle. In Kimpolung, he had the opportunity of presiding over a clandestine tish with a small group of select chassidim. He continued on to Galicia, where his host was his mechutan, Rav Chaim of Kosov. But a long-term solution still needed to be found, and it arrived soon enough — in the form of a messenger of the Baron Mustata who owned the town of Sadigura. An invitation was extended to Rav Yisrael to settle there.

The file provides new insight into the Rebbe’s final destination plans. One document states that in moving from Bukovina to Galicia, he would require an additional residence permit. A letter in the collection, dated a year later and sent from Nadvorna, implies that the Rebbe was considering additional destinations as well.

But beyond the issue of where to settle, the very legality of the Ruzhiner’s residence in Austro-Hungarian territory had to be resolved, as he had entered the country illegally. The bulk of the file is the detailed protocols of the full investigation that took place within the first few weeks of the Rebbe’s arrival in Sadigura. One protocol begins, “Due to the Rebbe’s weakness and poor health, the interrogation was conducted while the Rebbe ‘was lying in his bed… with the Ten Commandments on his forehead’ [tefillin].”

Some loyal chassidim who worked in the Sadigura civil registry, however, discovered a fact that could be used as the Rebbe’s cover. It turned out that 40 years earlier a young boy maned Yisrael Donnenfeld had disappeared without a trace. As the age matched the Rebbe’s, it was decided that the Rebbe would assume this identity.

And so, Rav Yisrael informed his interrogators, when he was eight years old, the family’s dire poverty led him to be adopted by his rich uncle, Shalom Friedman of Prohbishta, across the border, and now he was returning home. His claim was accepted, and he was recognized as an Austrian from birth!

Things got more complicated when the Russian government discovered his escape and demanded his extradition from the Austrian authorities. The formal extradition request, another important paper in the file, sheds new light on the Ruzhiner’s attempt at resettlement in Sadigura.

From the Czarist official’s point of view, he was a fugitive, and this was a matter of prestige and, of course, a loss of revenue. And although the Austrians discovered that he wasn’t Donnenfeld after all, they accepted the story to be used as a response to the Russian extradition demands. The protocol contained within the file is unique in that it details the Heilige Rizhiner’s answers to his interrogator, as he gives over particulars about his life, family, and journeys.

Ultimately, it took until 1845 for the Austrian government, following their refusal to accommodate the Russian demands, to provide the Rebbe with a residence permit signed by Emperor Ferdinand I himself. Though he was stripped of his Russian citizenship and barred from ever returning to Russian territory, it seems that he didn’t receive Austrian citizenship either, right up until his passing in Sadigura on 3 Cheshvan, 1850.

Full Circle

The Ruzhin dynasty flourished in its new Sadigura home. The Rebbe was able to rebuild his court, which even overshadowed in opulence and wealth the former court in Ruzhin. But for the first few years of his stay, his family was still stuck in Kishinev. They were finally allowed to leave Russia in 1844, but in the interim, the Rebbe missed the weddings of two of his children. When his son Rav Dovid Moshe (later the first Rebbe of Tchortkov) got married, they made the chuppah right near the border, so that the Rebbe could at least be in close proximity, as he watched from up on a hill on the Austrian side.

The descendants of Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin built courts reflecting the regal way of their illustrious forbear. With multitudes of chassidim distributed over a wide geographical area that included Bukovina, Romania, and Galicia, the dynasty was to have a tremendous influence on chassidus for the next century and beyond.

Meanwhile, over seven decades after the midnight ride, the Ruzhiner’s descendants were to complete his journey. The mayhem of World War I brought the battlefield to the shtetls of Galicia and its environs. The Czar was fighting the Habsburgs, and the great courts of the Sadigura branches were in the line of fire. Though many Jewish refugees fled west at the time, the rebbes of the Ruzhin dynasty had another reason to go — they still had the collective painful memory of so many years prior, when the Rebbe fled from the clutches of the Czar.

And the travel document held by the Heilige Rizhiner on that fateful night of the border crossing asserted that the final destination was to be Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Continuing the journey that had been commenced by their legendary ancestor, the tzaddikim of the dynasty fled to Vienna where several of them set up courts in the capital city, including Boyan, Tchortkov, Kopyczynitz, Husyatin, and more. Now the journey was complete: Ruzhin had made it full circle. —

Finding the Friedman Family

Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin left a veritable empire among his sons, who spread the House of Ruzhin across Europe.]

Sadigura — For many years, the central branch of the dynasty was led by the Rebbe’s oldest surviving son, Rav Avraham Yaakov, who in turn was succeeded by his son Rav Yisroel. During World War I, the court moved to Vienna, and following the Anschluss in 1938, it was reestablished in Tel Aviv.

Tchortkov — The longest surviving son of the Ruzhiner was Rav Dovid Moshe of Tchortkov. Following his passing, his son Rav Yisroel became rebbe and emerged as one of the primary activist leaders of interwar Jewry. Through his famous chassid, daf yomi founder Rav Meir Shapiro, his influence is still felt today.

Bohush — Founded by a grandchild of the Ruzhiner, Rav Yitzchak brought chassidus south to Romania. Succeeded by his son, Rav Yisroel Shalom Yosef Friedman, the chassidus eventually moved to Tel Aviv.

Boyan — As a child of the Sadigura Rebbe, the Pachad Yitzchok settled in another suburb of Czernowitz called Boyan, before fleeing to Vienna during World War I. His four sons continued the Boyan dynasty following his passing, including Rav Yisrael in Leipzig, another branch in New York under the leadership of Rav Mordechai Shlomo, and grandson by marriage Rav Moshenyu, who was one of the leaders of Polish Jewry in the interwar period.

Husyatin — The youngest son of the Ruzhiner, Rav Mordechai Shraga Feivush, established himself in the Galicia town of Husyatin, where the regal court attracted a large following. Following his son Rav Yisroel’s escape to Vienna during World War I and moving to Tel Aviv in 1937, he was the elder of the Ruzhiner Rebbes at his passing at the age of 92.

Shtefanesht — When the Ruzhiner Rebbe’s son, Rav Menachem Nochum, passed away at a young age, his son, Rav Avraham Matisyahu Friedman, assumed his role and became the rebbe in the Romanian town of Shtefanesht for the next 64 years. In 1969, his body was transferred for a reburial in Eretz Yisrael, where his kever remains a popular destination of tefillah till today.

Vizhnitz — The Ruzhiner’s daughter Miriam married the scion of the Kosov dynasty, Rav Menachem Mendel Hager (the Tzemach Tzaddik), and with his eventual move to Vizhnitz, a new and important chapter in chassidus was created.

Vasloi — Founded by a grandson of the Ruzhiner, Rav Shalom Halperin, this Romanian chassidus transferred to Eretz Yisrael after the war. It today is one of the last remaining active chassidic enclaves in Tel Aviv.

Kopyczynitz — Scions of the Apter Rav, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, it transformed into a branch of Ruzhin with the marriage of Rav Yitzchak Meir into the Husyatin dynasty. With the Nazi entry into Vienna in 1938, the legendary paragon of chesed, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, transferred Kopyczynitz to Brooklyn.

Riminov — Following his wife’s passing, Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin married the widow of Rav Hirsh, the meshares of Riminov, adopting his young son Yosef. As an adult, Rav Yosef, with the Friedman name of his adoptive father, returned to Riminov, building a Ruzhin-style court in the heart of Galicia.

All for the Rebbe

Chassidic lore contains many stories about tzaddikim who were jailed by the authorities on trumped-up charges. Yet, this incident was one that enveloped the Pale and united Jews of all stripes in an effort to get the Rebbe released and out of harm’s way. Everyone from the great philanthropist Moses Montefiore to local governors and commissars were said to be involved in the campaign. The stories of the pain suffered by the Rebbe’s holy contemporaries at the time add credence to the reverence that they shared for the Heilige Rizhiner. The first leader of the Belz dynasty, Rebbe Shalom Rokeach, better known as the Sar Shalom, once said that he went blind in one eye because of the many tears he shed while the Rebbe was imprisoned.

Even the Chasam Sofer, who was wary of some of the changes instituted by chassidim at the time, was particularly sensitive to the suffering of his fellow Jews in Russia. In a response to a plea for help by the Yismach Moshe, Reb Moshe Teitelbaum in Ujhely, Hungary, the Chasam Sofer testified to the “many thousands of Jews walking around with broken hearts because of the situation.”

Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of kinship was the measure taken by Reb Meir of Premishlan, who took a vow to sit in darkness during the time the Rebbe was sitting in prison. This story was related by a son of the Maharsham, Rav Sholom Mordechai Schwadron, who wrote of his father witnessing the Rebbe sitting on a low bench in complete darkness when visiting the Rebbe as a boy. It was also said that he did not sleep on a bed and avoided the use of silver vessels during those dark days.

— based on Menachem Brayer, The House of Rizhin & David Assaf, Derech Malchut (The Regal Way)


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 816)

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