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Ickowicz Brothers

Extremely wealthy Jewish dzierżawcy (estate lessees) in Lithuania. Presumably born at the turn of the eighteenth century, Shmuel (known in Polish as Szmojło) and his younger brother Yoysef Gdalye (known as Gdal), were the sons of a businessman from Ołyka on the Radziwiłł estates in Volhynia. In 1726, they moved to the town of Biała Podlaska, and began to lease estates from Anna Radziwiłłowa.

By 1733, the leases had grown extensively and the brothers moved to Słuck in Lithuania. According to Hasidic legend, the Ba‘al Shem Tov visited Shmuel in Słuck at this time to advise him on the move. The Ickowicz brothers’ role in maintaining the Radziwiłł estate economy increased, until in 1736 Shmuel was granted the unusual title of general cashier. The annual value of the leases reached 650,000 zlotys in 1738, allowing the brothers to develop an extensive network of trading ties throughout Poland and Lithuania, reaching to Moscow, Riga, Königsberg, and Berlin. When Anna Radziwiłłowa retired from estate management, the brothers began to work for her younger son, Hieronim Florian, eventually leasing all his estates.

The brothers’ economic success was largely based on their willingness to disregard accepted custom and traditional economic arrangements in order to make their holdings more profitable. Their often haughty bearing, as well as the economic pressure they brought to bear on all levels of estate society (including Jews), made them extremely unpopular. This hostility found violent expression in the peasant rebellion led by Wasko Woszczyłło against them in the Krzyczew starostwo in eastern Belorussia (1740–1744). With the support of Hieronim Florian, the rebellion was cruelly suppressed and the brothers continued their activities, though after 1740 Gdal withdrew from estate leasing to concentrate on his connections in Königsberg, where he was appointed to be a court Jew.

As their wealth and influence grew in the early 1740s, the brothers developed extensive connections in non-Jewish society, including with the magnate Czartoryski and Sanguszko families as well as with the king of Poland and the Russian court (through its court Jew, Lipman Levi). Within Jewish society, Shmuel purchased the rabbinates of Kraków and Vilna for family members and contracted a marriage for his daughter with the Berlin court Jew, Veitel-Heine Ephraim. In 1745, Hieronim Florian ran into serious economic difficulties and ordered the arrest of Shmuel for corruption, confiscating all his property and using the wealth to cover his debts. Shmuel died in prison in Słuck in 1747. Gdal fled to Prussia.

The Ickowicz brothers held a place in Jewish culture due in large part to the story of the Ba‘al Shem Tov’s visit, a tale preserved in the popular collection of legends, Shivḥe ha-Ba‘al Shem Tov. The brothers’ business papers are scattered throughout the Radziwiłł family collections in archives in Warsaw, Minsk, and elsewhere.

Suggested Reading

Martin Buber, The Legend of the Baal-Shem, trans. Maurice Friedman (New York, 1969); Karl-Erich Grözinger, Shivḥe ha-Besht (Wiesbaden, Ger., 1997), in Hebrew and Yiddish sections with facing-page German translations; Israel Halpern, “Gezerot Voshchilo,” in Yehudim ve-yahadut be-Mizraḥ Eropah, pp. 277–288 (Jerusalem 1968/69); Marian Lech, “Powstanie chłopów białoruskich w starostwie krzyczewskim (1740r.),” Przegląd historyczny 51 (1960): 314–329; Adam Teller, “Masoret Slutsk ‘al re’shit darko shel ha-Besht,” Meḥkere ḥasidut, ed. Immanuel Etkes, David Assaf, and Yosef Dan, pp. 15–38 (Jerusalem, 1999); Teresa Zielinska, “Kariera i upadek żydowskiego potentata w dobrach radziwiłłowskich w XVIII wieku,” Kwartalnik historyczny 98.3 (1991): 33–49.