Famed Hasidic Rabbi’s daring escape from Tsarist Russia revealed in rare file
The file clarifies details about the Rebbe’s interests, his escape from the Russian Tsar’s rule, and most uniquely has three of his handwritten signatures
By ILANIT CHERNICK
The story of famed Hasidic Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhin’s escape from Russia and Tsar Nicholas I in 1842 is well-known.
But how he did it was never clear, until now.
A rare investigation file from his early days in Sadhora, today a Ukrainian city that was once part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and where he found refuge from Russian Tsarist rule, was recently revealed at Jerusalem’s Kedem Auction House.
It clarifies details about the Ruzhiner Rebbe’s interests as well as his escape from the Russian Tsar’s rule, “which not only involved crossing the border into the Austrian empire but also creating a cover story in order to be able to do so,” the auction house explained in a statement released on Monday.
Other fascinating details in the file also reveal how the Rebbe integrated into Sadhora’s communal life, the exact dates of the Rebbe’s escape, as well as previously unknown details regarding his family, their arrival in the Austrian Empire and their reunion with the Rebbe.
“Most unique in the investigation file are perhaps three handwritten signatures from the Rebbe, which is a very rare find,” it added, making it clear that this has important significance because the Rebbe struggled with handwriting.
Meron Eren of the Kedem Auction House, said that “the investigative file on the Admor of Ruzhin is an exclusively unique item” because “it gives us a one-time glimpse into one of the most famous events in the Hasidic world in general and to the Ruzhin Hasidic sect in particular.”
According to documents in the file, the Rebbe made his escape on the Jewish Sabbath dated the 4th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat in the Hebrew year, 5602, which is equivalent to January 15, 1842.
“Although traveling necessarily involved the performance of traditionally forbidden actions on the Sabbath,” the auction house continued, “the Rebbe found himself in such a dire and dangerous situation that he felt compelled to abide by the established principle that places the preservation of human life above the Sabbath.”
But, what were the events that led to his bold escape?
In 1838, the Rebbe was arrested for allegedly attempting to kill two Jewish informers. But these accusations were completely falsified and there are claims that Tsar Nicholas I ordered the trumped-up charges and his imprisonment because he was jealous of the Rebbe’s wealth and influence.
The Rebbe was imprisoned without a trial for about two years, but even after his release, the authorities continued to monitor him. Sensing danger, it was then that he finally decided to flee Russian territory.
His escape was complicated, during which he left for Moldova where he was nearly arrested and later had to adopt the identity of a Jewish man from Sadhora who had disappeared nearly 40 years earlier to make it across the Austro-Hungarian border.
At the border crossing, he claimed to be that very same person and subsequently moved into the home of the missing Jewish man’s parents.
Following his daring escape, the Tsarist authorities issued a request for the Austrian authorities to extradite him.
The local authorities then opened an investigation into the Rebbe from Ruzhin as well as several individuals involved in smuggling him across the border.
“The investigation, which lasted a month and included over 170 questions, was dealt with by the highest echelons among Russian and Austrian officials,” the auction house pointed out. “Although the Austrian authorities concluded that the Rebbe had been illegally smuggled across the border, they found extradition to be unnecessary on condition that a nominal sum of 10,000 fluorine coins was transferred.”
This allowed him to obtain a residency permit in accordance with Austrian law.
Eren explained that this rare investigation file “reflects the special, steadfast character of the Admor during one challenging stint of time 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,” he concluded.
Although the Ruzhiner Rebbe died in 1850, his sons and grandsons founded their own Hasidic dynasties, which are collectively known as the “House of Ruzhin.”
Today, the most well-known of these is the Sadigura dynasty, which is mainly centered in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak.