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The Holy Raitzes Brothers Hy”d

The Kedoshim of Lviv

Here we have the riveting story of the “Holy Raitzes Brothers,” whose yahrtzeit is Erev Shavuos.1This article is based on the writings of the Jewish historian, Majer Bałaban (1877–1942). Ein Autodafé in Lviv im Jahre 1728, Skizzen und Studien zur Geschichte der Juden in Polen, Berlin 1911, Pages 72–76; Auto-da-Fe w Lwowie e r. 1728, Studja Historyczne, Warsaw 1927, pages 134–140.

The Queer Minhag

One fine Erev Shavuos morning, a young boy named Mayer Balaban (who would eventually grow up to be a famous Jewish historian) found himself walking with his grandfather down the quiet Schotten Gasse (today Ulica Serbska) in the Jewish Quarter of the old city of Lviv, known in Polish as Lwów and in German and Yiddish as Lemberg. Schotten Gasse is a long street that stretches from the Rynek marketplace in the center of town until the Neue Judengasse (today Stara Jevreiska). Mayer turned into a narrow alleyway in one of the houses. There before his eyes lay one of the most breathtaking shul edifices in Poland in that period of our colourful history. This is not to say that the Jewish nation lacked beautiful synagogues all over Europe. This one, however, the ‘Gildne Royze Shul,’ was outstanding. It was also known as the Altneu Shul, the Nachman Shul, and the Turei Zahav Shul.

The young boy entered the shul. In anticipation of the upcoming Yom Tov, he expected to find it bedecked with greenery and flowers of all shades, the congregation in a festive mood and the aron kodesh outfitted with the special Yom Tov paroches. Imagine his surprise as it slowly dawned on him how different this Shavuos would be. No flowers could be found, the mood somber and the paroches was removed altogether! He could not make up his mind. Was it Erev Shavuos, or… Erev Tisha B’Av!?

This setting was in itself very bewildering. But the surprises were far from over. The chazzan, the famous Cantor Baruch Schorr, started a mournful melody to the words of El Malei Rachamim, leaving our young boy even more confused. Here you have a congregation that came to daven Minchah all dressed and ready for the upcoming Yom Tov, following along with the chazzan as if it were Tisha B’Av.

The young boy listened carefully as the chazzan continued. “The souls of the kedoshim who gave up their lives al kiddush Hashem. As well as the souls of the holy brothers who sacrificed their lives with love, in holiness and sanctity, our beloved rav and rosh yeshivah Rabbi Chaim, along with his holy younger brother Rabbi Yehoshua…”

The truth is that anyone who would witness this bizarre scene would share the same confusion and curiosity. The question is, what was this all about? There must have been something of grave and great consequence behind this perplexing behaviour.

The short answer is that the chazzan was reciting El Malei Rachamim for the holy Raitzes brothers who had been murdered by bloodthirsty priests in a gruesome manner, al kiddush Hashem, because of a false libel concocted and presented by a wicked heretic.

The Queer Minhag Explained

The following story presented here is well-known. It appears quite frequently across the spectrum of Jewish literature. Unfortunately, however, many facts that do not appear in the proliferated version tell us that the commonly known version is either not entirely true or is completely false. This is because the story that is told relies heavily on either the version recorded in the register of Lviv or facts correlated from tombstones and other bits and pieces.

The Missing Links

This explains why, when this story is studied and analyzed, many details do not fit and many facts do not connect. Therefore, we took the trouble to research this story, both in its original version as well as through the lenses of official documents, archives, and other publications of the time, Jewish and otherwise. This provides a much broader panoramic view, connects the dots and fills in the missing pieces.

Bloodstained Guilt

There is another reason why there are important facts missing. This is because this horrible episode is a dreadful stain on the fabric of Christianity in general and Catholicism and Jesuits in particular. These entities took great pains to cover up the tracks of the heinous crimes committed in the name of religion. This is a general truism that must be kept in mind when studying the history of the Jews of the Middle Ages in Europe. Knowing all this, we can proceed to elaborate on the story at hand.

Yitzchak and Raitze

Let us back up a bit to the year 1687. A Jew named Yitzchak Halevi, married to a woman named Raitze, gave birth to a boy named Chaim. He was named after his mother’s father who was Rabbi Chaim, the rav of Kolomaya. About ten years later, another boy was born. He was named Yehoshua, after Rav Yehoshua Charif of Krakow, the father of the aforementioned R’ Chaim and author of the sefer Maginei Shlomo. Yitzchok did not live to see much nachas from his sons because he died at a young age. They were left to be brought up by their widowed mother Raitze; hence, they became known as Chaim Raitzes and Yehoshua Raitzes.

R’ Chaim – Rosh Yeshiva and Rav

When the time came, Chaim married a young woman called Lieba. Chaim was eventually appointed rosh yeshivah in Lviv. He also saw to the education of his younger brother Yehoshua. He hired the best teachers and took great interest in his progress. When R’ Chaim heard that Rabbi Yaakov Emden, the illustrious son of the Chacham Tzvi, was in the area of Lviv, he lost no time in contacting him to teach his younger brother. R’ Yaakov Emden himself mentions this in his memoir Megilas Sefer, “The holy rav, Rabbi Chaim Hy”d, contacted me to come and teach his younger brother, the holy rav Hy”d.”

R’ Chaim was then called to serve as rav in the town of Kamminka, which is near Lviv.

The brothers were great in Torah and kedushah as well as in wealth. Their business connections brought them in contact with the upper echelons in the business world as well as the royal family. The priest and other members of the clergy could not swallow the fact that these great individuals remained so faithful to their religion and people despite being so well connected in society. Their jealousy knew no bounds. They were continuously scheming ways to bring the success of these great men to an end. Before long, the opportunity presented itself.

A New Fellow in Town

In 1728 or perhaps slightly earlier, a new person appeared in Lviv. This individual had a shady, ambiguous past. He therefore chose to remain anonymous so that he could turn over a new leaf and begin anew. He was a Jew who had converted to Christianity and assumed the new name of John Filipowicz. It seems that he regretted his actions more or less straight away and was looking to return to the ways of his forefathers. But this was no simple matter. To do so with the knowledge of the church was the worst sin that could be committed and carried with it a punishment of the worst kind. The same would be for anyone who assisted the convert to return to the fold, as we will see later on.

The Jesuits

In the Polish churches of those days, there was a group of Christians known as Jesuits, a group that was the most hell-bent in terms of anti-Semitism and just mean in general. In fact, they were the ones who were in a great part responsible for the difficulties that our ancestors faced with the churches in Poland and the atrocities that accompanied them.

In the year 1641, the Jesuits completed the Church of Lviv. This particular church was the cause of much anguish for the Jews of Lviv and its environs. The following story was by no means the first and unfortunately not the last either.

It happens to be that the Jesuits in Lviv harboured a particular animosity against the Jewish citizens of the town. The reason was that for quite some time, the Jesuits cunningly managed to annex the newly built ‘Gildne Royze Shul.’ However, before they were able to carry out their wicked plan of a total takeover, the Jews of Lviv managed to wrench it out of their clutches and return it to the rightful owners.

The Jesuits, therefore, had no choice and were forced to build an entirely new structure at the other end of town.

Some historians maintain that it was this church that was the breeding grounds for the infamous mass murderer Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the one who led the Cossack rebellion known as the Chmielnicki Uprising, a bloody massacre that led to the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities and the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews across Europe in the year 1648.

Back to our baal teshuvah. He knew quite well what his decision to abandon Christianity entailed. But that did not hinder him from wanting to return to the religion of his youth and in his heart of hearts, he longed to do teshuvah. The only way he could fulfill his dream and hopefully avoid terrible backlash was to forsake his homeland and place of birth and to travel to a far-off land where his history would not be known or remembered.  That is exactly what he did, and so he came to Lviv.

It remains unclear if the leaders of the Lviv community knew the history of this individual. It stands to reason that they did not totally realize the entire situation, because if they had, they would most probably have not agreed that he settle there as a member of the community or they would have taken great precautions, knowing the great danger this could bring on the entire congregation.

When this baal teshuvah came to Lviv, he settled in an apartment belonging to a gentile artist with the name Lucas Wiszniowski. He learned the art of painting from his landlord. He did not, however, stay for long. It is possible he had an inkling that his cover was blown. He moved on to Dobromil, then to Drohobych and after that, he settled in Strzyżów.

The National Convention in Lviv

Before Pesach in the year 1728, a “Reussische Judenlandtag” (Jewish Convention Day) took place. The guests at this event included nearly all of the rabbinical as well as the lay leaders of all areas of Red Ruthenia, Ukraine and Lesser Poland. A full list of all those who attended is not available. However, it is apparent from the archives that record those arrested later, as we will see soon, were as follows:

  1. Moszko from Lviv, who resided on the Zarwanskagasse
  2. Chaim, the rabbi of Kamminka
  3. Chaim the son of Leizer, the chief rabbi of Lviv
  4. Yehoshua, the brother of Chaim, rabbi of Kamminka
  5. The rabbis and leaders of the communities of Drohobych, Przemyśl, Stryy and many others.
  6. Let us try to formulate at least a partial list of those who possibly could have been candidates to attend this particular event.
  7. The Kamionker Rav, Rabbi Chaim Raitzes, previously rosh yeshivah in Lviv
  8. The Lviver Rav, Rabbi Moshe Chaim, who was then known as Reb Chaim Leizer’s
  9. The rabbi of Drohobych, Rabbi Yekusiel Zalman Halevi, son of Rabbi Yosef Charrif
  10. The rabbi of Przemyśl, Rabbi Samuel, the son of Rabbi Mendel Potiker, rabbi of Berezhany
  11. The rabbi of Stryy (it is not clear who held the rabbinical position at that time)
  12. The rabbi of Belz, Rabbi Yitzchok
  13. The rabbi of Hrubieszów, Rabbi Shmelka Margalis
  14. The rabbi of Zaliztsi and Zboriv, Rabbi Aharon Baal Mofes
  15. The rabbi of Narol (It is unclear who this was at the time. There is a possibility that it was Rabbi Asher, son-in-law of Rabbi Meir Horowitz of Tiktin, the grandfather of Rabbi Asher of Ropczyce.)
  16. The rabbi of Żółkiew, Rabbi Avrohom Abele, a brother-in-law of the Tevuos Schorr
  17. The president of the Żółkiew community, Isserl
  18. The rabbi of Tysmenytsya, Rabbi Yosef Hollis
  19. The rabbi of Lesko, Rabbi Hirsch, a son of Rabbi Chaim of Kolomyya, hence a brother-in-law of the Raitzes brothers

The Arrest

The secret of the history of our baal teshuvah did not remain as such for very long. A certain gentile cobbler from Jaryczów deemed it extremely important to notify the Christian authorities in Strzyżów of the whereabouts and history of our baal teshuvah. When the priests heard this, they opened an investigation, made their inquiries, and examined it from all angles. They concluded with the verification that the story is sound and true.

The priest then had this baal teshuvah arrested and transferred him to Uniejów. From there they transferred him to the Jesuit church in Lviv where a local inquisition was functioning at the time.

The news of the newly arrested individual became known at the aforementioned convention. As soon as the rabbanim and lay leaders of Lviv and the surrounding communities realised the seriousness of the situation and that they were next to be taken in for inquiries or worse, they immediately suspended the convention and quickly disbanded. They understood that it was a better idea to go into hiding until the storm blew over.

Meanwhile, the inquisitors went ahead with their gruesome task and impressed upon this baal teshuvah that he better return to the Christian faith or else…. Being under great duress, he broke down and gave in. He declared himself a full-fledged Christian with the name John Filipowicz.

If he thought that this was the end of the saga, he was mistaken. The inquisitors were really looking for a greater catch. Their dream was to get the rabbanim to convert and hopefully, the entire community will follow suit. Even if their grand plan would not materialize, at least they could torture and murder the rabbanim, thus breaking the morale of the Jewish people of the city.

They, therefore, turned back to John and wanted to know what had inspired him to commit his “grave sin” of returning to his people. John, for his part, claimed that he was on his own and acted of his own free will. The priests were of course not interested in this response. They were not going to settle for anything but what they wanted to hear.

So the inquisitors took John down to the dungeons and into the torture chambers and began their sadistic work. Before long, John broke down and said that “a certain Moshe helped him. He took him down to the cellar of the community, anointed him with ‘holy oil’(?), and washed a red cross off his body.” He also broke the cross necklace that was hanging around John’s neck.

Which Moshe? What Moshe? The inquisitors obviously had very little interest in some anonymous “Moshe.” When they subjected him to some additional sadistic tortures, John suddenly “remembered” that yes! The Jewish rabbis assisted in his return to Judaism and in fact, forced him to do so.

As soon as the mayor of Lviv, Starost Stephen (from the famous aristocratic Potocki family), heard this, he lost no time in ordering the arrest of all the “guilty rabbanim” with immediate effect. But alas! There was no one to be found. They all had managed to slip away into hiding. But they did not stop there. They searched the entire surrounding area for the local rabbanim, leaving no stone unturned, but they found nothing. They were, however, not ready to give up so easily.

There was one official by the name of Zdrojowski who decided to make his way to Zólkiew to search for the rabbi of Lviv, Rabbi Chaim Leizer’s, who was reported to have escaped there. By the time he got there, however, Rabbi Chaim had already moved on. It was beneath his dignity to come home empty-handed, so he arrested Isserl, the leader of Zólkiew, as well as Rabbi Chaim Leizer’s mother. He also confiscated all their finances, jewelry, and belongings including promissory notes, all in all, totaling 6,000 guilders.

Meanwhile, having no choice, as the bloodthirsty hounds in the form of Jesuit priests and their cohorts were snapping at their heels, the rabbi of Lviv escaped to the town of Khotyn in Basarabia, which was at that time under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Rabbi Chaim Leizer’s was later on sentenced in absentia, and therefore never returned to Poland. Reb Moshe from Lviv, mentioned before, also escaped to the Turkish empire.

In total, they only managed to arrest the rabbi of Kamminka, Rabbi Chaim Raitzes, his brother Rabbi Yehoshua, and the rabbi of Shchyrets.

International Reports

The news of these arrests did not confine itself to Lviv alone. This “important investigation” spread across the world like wildfire. The Berlinische Privilegierte Zeitung added some “facts” that never really took place but definitely dramatised the “crime” to allow for the ensuing punishments to be somewhat more palatable.

Therefore, the writers “broadened” the subject with more “important details.” They reported as follows: “Certain Jews – including the Rabiners, were arrested for ‘robbery’ as well as for allegedly smuggling a convert to Christianity to Khotyn, Turkey, and reportedly manipulated him to return to Judaism.”

Because of lack of evidence, they were forced to release Rabbi Chaim Leizer’s mother. Also, the rabbi of Shchyrets managed to abscond from prison, and of course fled Lviv altogether.

The Torture of the Holy Brothers

Now the inquisitors faced the task of formulating, or more correctly, fabricating, a story for the crime that never took place. Formidable indeed. For they knew full well the authenticity of Filipovic’s story. Therefore, the modus operandi would have to be to get the Raitzes brothers to confess to a crime that they never committed. They thought that with their sadistic tricks and toys in the torture chamber of the Lviv underground, their job would be a quick and easy one. How mistaken they were.

With sadistic brutality they beat and tortured these holy souls for forty days, trying to eke out a confession. But to no avail. In no way were they ready to admit or confess to a crime they never perpetrated or even had a part. In fact, it never happened in the first place.

On Pesach night in the prison cell, between all the horrible tortures and beatings that these holy brothers endured, Rabbi Yehoshua asked his older brother Rabbi Chaim, “Why is it that while all the other Jews are celebrating the Yom Tov of Pesach we are suffering so greatly down here in these wretched  chambers?”

Rabbi Chaim replied based on a midrash that Yetzias Mitzrayim took place with the condition that one should be ready to sacrifice his life for kovod Shamayim. Rabbi Chaim concluded, “We are fortunate to be the ones to fulfill this condition.”

Meanwhile, the priests found themselves in a complex situation. Without their confession, there remained no guilty party aside from Filipowicz. Besides, they had the additional problem that Filipowicz had no idea which rabbanim and other individuals the priests managed to arrest. This made his identification of the “guilty party” nearly impossible. They realized that they would have to somehow bring together Filipowicz and the arrested so that there could at least be some semblance of identification.

The Line Up

Upon witnessing the difficult situation in which the inquisition had found themselves, it was the bishop’s turn to come up with a solution. They would get all the important men of Lviv to line up in two rows, and the convert would go through them to see who he recognised. And so they did. Of course, to their deep disappointment, he recognised no one.

At that point, Rabbi Chaim Raitzes got up and declared in Latin, addressing the bishop, “If this is all your hard work has led to – nothing – why have you tortured us so terribly?!”

As soon as he said these words, suddenly the convert “remembered” that it was these two brothers who were the guilty parties in his return to Judaism. The officers immediately pounced upon the two brothers and beat them mercilessly. They then bound them in chains and put them back into prison.

The Sentencing

Now that Filipowicz “knew” who the guilty party is, the priests were ready for a trial. Of course, they did not go to the civil court. Rather, the priests set up their own court. This kangaroo court consisted of the worst sadists of the day:

  1. Johann Stanislaus Jablonowski – Voivode of Ruthenia
  2. Janusz Wiśniowiecki – Castellan of Krakow
  3. Stephan Humiecki – Governor of Podolia
  4. The previously mentioned Stephan Potoczi – Mayor of Lviv

The accused list included the following:

  1. The convert John Filipowicz
  2. Rabbi Chaim Raitzes
  3. Rabbi Yehoshua Raitzes
  4. Rabbi Chaim Leizer’s, the rav of Lviv
  5. The rabbi of Shchyrets
  6. The Lviv resident Moshe (mentioned previously)

Although the last three were not present, they were nevertheless sentenced in absentia in case they would ever be caught.

Being that these “justices” were rabid anti-Semites to put it mildly, they of course recognised the guilt of the defendants. They therefore passed the following sentences:

The convert John Filipowicz was sentenced to hanging, and his corpse was to be burnt.

Rabbi Chaim Leizer’s hands were to be burnt, his feet were to be chopped off, he was to be beheaded and then burnt on a high platform.

The Raitzes brothers, the rav of Szczerzec and Reb Moshe – their tongues were to be ripped out with forks, their bodies cut to pieces and be burnt on a high platform.

The sentence was designated to be carried out on the Christian holiday of Pentecost, 13 May 1728, which was Erev Shavuos 1728.

Rabbi Yehoshua died in prison from his wounds. A Jesuit priest of that time related that three days before the sentence was to be carried out, a priest by the name of Zółtowski came to visit Rabbi Chaim in prison and for the next three days tried to persuade Rabbi Chaim to convert and thereby ease the pain of death. But this priest later commented in wonderment, “Nothing worked to persuade that heart of strength.”

“Are You Embarrassed, my Brother?!”

On Erev Shavuos, a high platform was set up on the corner of Rosko Str. and Serbsko Str. on the east side of the Lviv marketplace, so that all the townspeople of Lviv and the surrounding towns should be able to participate.

After all, was said and done, there was only one individual left on whom to carry out the sentences – Rabbi Chaim Raitzes. His brother Rabbi Yehoshua was not alive anymore and the others were out of reach of the tentacles of the notorious and wicked Jesuit priests. However, they also had the dead body of Rabbi Yehoshua, and they decided to vent their anger against his holy body as well. These barbarians drilled a hole through the soles of his feet and tied his body to the tails of horses. They dragged his holy body all across town, over stones and gravel, through the mud and dirt.

The present Bobover Rebbe once related in the name of his father that as Rabbi Chaim was being led to his death, he saw the body of his younger brother being dragged along the streets of Lviv, the body face-down. When Rabbi Chaim saw that he exclaimed, “Yehoshua! Are you ashamed to show your face? Holy brother, do not be embarrassed!”  No sooner than he had uttered those words did the holy body turn upright.

Rabbi Chaim’s Hesped

Meanwhile, they led Rabbi Chaim on his last journey to the stake. By that time, it was already late in the afternoon. Rabbi Chaim wanted to recite his last prayers, so he started to daven Minchah. They were passing the Jewish cemetery, and Rabbi Chaim called out in a loud and awesome voice the brachah of Atah Gibor, which is based on the emunah of techiyas hameisim. It is incidentally also the brachah that is recited when visiting a cemetery.

When the sadistic murderers brought Rabbi Chaim up to the platform and he saw what the barbarians had done, Rabbi Chaim delivered the following eulogy.

The Gemara (Menachos 29b) states that when Moshe Rabbeinu was shown a prophetic vision of the future generations, he was intrigued by the life story of Rabbi Akiva and his subsequent gruesome death. Moshe Rabbeinu was so surprised that he inquired, “This is the just reward for such an eminent Torah scholar and teacher?!”

Hashem responded, “Quiet! This is what occupies My Mind!”

Rabbi Chaim explained this perplexing statement with the following enlightening thought. The Gemara (Moed Kattan 17b) states that although Hashem passes judgments as to what should transpire, nevertheless, a tzaddik has the power to annul it.

Rabbi Chaim continued that the verse in Koheles (10:20) states, “For a bird of the air may carry the utterance.” This denotes the phenomenon that the words of Hashem are delivered to their target. Therefore, the tzaddik reserves the ability to intercept the verdict en route. If, however, the verdict is not released but stays in “Hashem’s Mind” so to speak, then there is nothing to intercept. This is what Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, “Because this edict stayed in My Mind, therefore there is no option to annul it.”

Rabbi Chaim then continued to say Vidui and confess to Hashem with tziduk hadin. “The reason they ordered my hands to be amputated was that I paid money to gentiles for my rabbinical position. The reason they passed judgment to remove my tongue was that I learned to speak Latin. The reason they decided to smash my head was because I had other thoughts besides divrei Torah. This is also the reason they sentenced me to have my heart removed alive. And finally, the reason why my body is to be burnt is because it is responsible for everything!”

Rabbi Chaim then wrote his will and signed with the title Hakadosh, which is reserved for those who die al kiddush Hashem. He requested that the hangman be paid thirty-five guilders to ensure that his blood should intermingle with the blood of his holy brother.

After all the tortures were carried out, they took Rabbi Chaim who was barely alive along with the body of his brother up to the auto-da-fé. The spectacle was witnessed by thousands of goyim who came from all the surrounding villages to watch. With his last ounce of strength, Rabbi Chaim uttered Shema Yisrael and returned his holy and purified soul with the word “Echad.”

A Worried Mother

A grandchild of Rabbi Yehoshua related that their mother Raitze was adamant that there be a minyan of Jews present at the time he expired. She gave each one a gold coin and a bottle of wine to drink (probably to dull their feelings and fears), and told them to stand as close as possible to the fire until the yetzias neshamah.  No wonder they were known by the name of their pious mother!

The Berliner newspaper gives the account as to how the sentence was carried out: “We hereby announce the end of the saga that two old Rabiners had their sentences carried out. One was tied to the tail of a horse and one was quartered and burnt. Two other Jews escaped to Chotin.”

It was also reported by the Warsaw correspondent of the Paris newspaper A Paris as follows:

On mande de leopold quon y avoir écartelé et brulé l’un de deux Rabins, qu’on y avoir arrêtez, pour y avoir fait abjurer le Christianisme au Juif dont on parle dans les dernières nouvelles

“To be known, in Leopold (=Lviv), that we had one of two rabbis arrested, quartered and burned, for denying Christianity to the Jew we were talking about in the latest news.”

The community of Lviv paid a handsome price to have the ash of the holy brothers be brought to a Jewish burial. They were laid to rest in the vicinity of the burial site of the Chacham Tzvi and Reb Nachman Schrentzlis, the husband of the famous woman known as “The Golden Royze.” May these great men be remembered along with all the other kedoshim who remain our torches to light the way with emunah, bitachon and strength.