Title page of a Yiddish version of the New Testament published by Paul Helicz, Kraków, 1540. (Jagiellonian Library, Kraków)

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Helicz Brothers

The first printers of Hebrew and Yiddish books in Poland (fl. 1530s–1550s). Shemu’el, Asher, and Elyakim were the sons of Ḥayim Helicz. After learning their trade in Prague, the three brothers began printing Hebrew and Yiddish books in Kraków in 1534. By 1537 they had published a Hebrew–Yiddish dictionary of biblical words (Merkevet ha-mishneh), a legal guide to the laws of kashrut (Sha‘are Dura’), a Yiddish legal handbook for women (Azhores nashim), a Yiddish ethical text (Muser un hanhoge), and perhaps a second such text (Ka‘arat kesef).

Title page of Merkeves hamishne (Kraków: Helicz, 1534-1535), the earliest Yiddish book published by the first Hebrew printing press in Poland. (Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

The brothers clearly misjudged the potential of the local book market and fell into debt. In 1537, they converted to Catholicism and assumed new names: Paul, Andrzej, and Johannes. After their conversion, they were relieved of their debt, and Paul and Andrzej were granted the rights of citizens in Kraków. They also received a privilege from King Sigismund I, dated 28 March 1537, giving them a monopoly on the printing and sale of Hebrew books in Poland. They acquired a house within the city limits and continued producing books, although only Johannes was listed as the printer. Among their editions was a Maḥzor (1538), Arba‘ah turim (Oraḥ ḥayim and Yoreh de‘ah; 1538–39), Seliḥot (incorrectly dated 1532), and Shalom Shakhnah’s Pesakim (1540?).

The Jewish community, however, refused to purchase books from the Helicz brothers, and the printers again fell into debt. They turned to Kraków’s cathedral chapter in July 1539 for assistance, after which they received a monetary grant and a promise that the cathedral chapter would approach Archbishop Piotr Gamrat of Kraków and the king for help on their behalf. The result was a royal decree of 31 December 1540 that forced the Jewish community to purchase the brothers’ remaining stock of Hebrew books.

After his conversion, Johannes published books for the Christian community as well. Among these were Gregorius Libanus’ De Musicae Laudibus oratio (1540), Ambrosius Catharinus’ Speculum haereticorum (1540), Castanedulo’s (Dominicus de Castan) Officium beati Iacinti (1540), Hippocrates’ Epistola moralis (1540), and Franciszek Stancar’s Gramatica Institutio linguae Hebreae (1548). Paul published a German translation of the Lutheran version of the New Testament in Hebrew characters in 1540 that ironically was dedicated to Archbishop Gamrat. After leaving Kraków for Breslau (Wrocław), Paul printed a manual for Christians conducting business with Jews, Elemental oder Lesebuchlein (1543). Andrzej abandoned the printing business but remained in Kraków to become a merchant. He died in 1560.

Of the three brothers, only Shemu’el (presumably Paul) is known to have left Poland and returned to both Judaism and Hebrew printing. Between 1548 and 1553 he published Yonah Gerondi’s Igeret ha-teshuvah (1548), the Hebrew Bible (1550), Ma‘aseh yehudit (1552), and Sha‘are Dura’ (1553) in Constantinople.

Suggested Reading

Majer Balaban, “Zur Geschichte der hebräischen Druckereien in Polen,” Soncino-Blätter 3.1 (July 1929): 12–50; Edward Fram and Magdalena Teter, “Matai nosad ha-defus ha-‘ivri ha-ri’shon be-Krakov?” Gal-Ed 20 (2005): 144–149; Abraham Habermann, “Ha-madpisim bene Ḥayim He‘lits,” Kiryat sefer 33 (1958): 509–520; Martin Rothkegel, “Eine jüdisch-deutsche Handschrift des Buchdruckers und Konvertiten Johannes Helicz, Breslau 1537,” Communio Viatorum 44.1 (2002): 44–50; Magda Teter and Edward Fram, “Apostasy, Fraud, and the Beginnings of Hebrew Printing in Cracow,” AJS Review 30.1 (2006): 31–66.