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The Ger Tzedek of Wilno

The Ger Tzedek of Wilno

(5509)

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A "Ger Tzedek" (true convert) is a gentile who became a Jew out of a sincere and deep conviction in the truth of the Jewish religion, without any other motivation whatever. Indeed, this is the only kind of conversion that the Torah recognizes.

For all such converts to Judaism it has always entailed supreme sacrifices; breaking off family ties, relationships with friends, giving up an easier life, perhaps also a promising future in the former society -- all in order to embrace a religion that has often been despised and persecuted by the world at large, and to join a people that has always been a small minority in a hostile world. In former days, throughout the Middle Ages, converting to Judaism meant risking one's very life. Yet despite all of this, there have been Gerei-Tzedek throughout the generations who freely chose to join the Jewish people, because they came to realize that it is truly "A Kingdom of G-d's Servants and a Holy Nation," and decided to become a member of this Nation and lead a life sanctified by the Divine Torah and Mitzvos.

The story we are going to tell you here is the story of Avorhom ben Avorohom, the Ger Tzedek of Wilno, who readily went to his martyred death, being burnt alive on the second day of Shovuos, in the year 5509 (1749).

I.

The family of Count Potocki (pronounced Pototzky) was one of the richest and most powerful in Poland of more than 200 years ago.

Count Potocki owned vast estates, which included also the city of Wilno. He and his wife were devout Catholics and devoted supporters of the Jesuit order and all church activities. They raised their only son Valentin in the same spirit, and their ambition was to educate him for the priesthood.

When Valentin reached the age of sixteen, the Count enrolled him in the Catholic academy in Wilno. Here he met another student, who came from a family of humble circumstances. His name was Zrodny, or Zaremba. The two became great friends and buddies. In Wilno, too, Valentin came in contact with Jews for the first time, for there was a large and flourishing Jewish community in Wilno at that time. It was related that, as he was walking one day in the street, he saw a group of boys attacking a few younger children. He went to their defense and saved them from further blows. Afterwards he asked them what they had done to provoke the attack. They replied, "Nothing, they wanted to beat us up because we are Jews."

Valentin had heard much about the Jewish people from his teachers, most of it very unkindly things. But he also learned about them from the Bible. Studying for the priesthood meant, of course, studying also the Five Books of Moses, the Books of the Prophets and Holy Writings (the so--called "Old Testament," as the Church refers to it). In it he learned about the origin and history of the Jewish people, from the days of the Patriarchs to the Babylonian Exile and the restoration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He was a serious, deep--thinking student, and he spent much time reflecting on all that he was taught. One of the basic things he was taught was that the Jewish people were forsaken by G-d, because they refused to accept the Christian Messiah and Christian faith. This explanation seemed rather strange to him, since the Bible itself declared very clearly what would happen to the Jews if they turned away from the way of the Torah with all its Divine commandments which G-d gave them at Mount Sinai. If they remained loyal to their faith and refused to accept another faith, a faith that did away with all the basic Divine commandments -- like Circumcision, the Dietary Laws, and so forth --that was being forced on them, it should make them all the more beloved to G-d, rather than be rejected by G-d, as the church claimed. Besides, he distinctly learned in the Bible that G-d assured the Jewish people that He would never break His Covenant with His people, and G-d is not a man to break His word. If the Bible were true, as he was certain it was, and as claimed also by his teachers, then all they taught him about the Jews could not be true.

These questions troubled Valentin's young and searching mind, and he confided his doubts to his friend Zrodny. They talked about these questions frequently, but they did not dare discuss them with their teachers.

Young Potocki decided to discuss these matters with a knowledgeable Jew and hear what Jews think about all this. But who should he talk to? One day he met a Jew in the park and engaged him in conversation. He told the Jew that he would like to discuss with him some religious questions.

"What is there to discuss?" the Jew answered. "You will not convince me to give up my religion, and I would not even attempt to persuade you to change yours..."

"That's not the point. I just want to clear up some questions in my mind," Potocki said earnestly.

"I'm sorry, we have nothing to talk about," the Jew cut him short, and moved on.

"Wait, please. Let me introduce myself. I'm Valentin Potocki, I mean no harm. I just have to talk to someone," he pleaded.

Well, the young Count could not be trifled with, and seeing how persistent he was, the Jew finally suggested to him to see the Rabbi, and told him where he lived in the Jewish Quarter.

"Rabbi Menachem Mann is a very learned man, and he knows about these things more than I do. But it would be wise that you go about it discreetly, " he added cautiously.

"Don't worry, I'll be careful. Many thanks," Potocki almost whispered, gratefully, as the Jew hurried off.

II.

The following evening, young Potocki made his way to the Rabbi's house. He was somewhat surprised by the humble circumstances in which the Rabbi lived, but he was immediately impressed by his venerable face and penetrating eyes, reflecting both wisdom and kindliness. Potocki politely introduced himself, told him frankly that he was studying for the priesthood, and wrestling with some serious questions. He said he would be very grateful to the Rabbi if he would help him clear up the doubts and questions that give him no peace.

The Rabbi was obviously reluctant to discuss religious matters with him. However, seeing his persistence and sincerity, and thinking that it would do no good to disappoint, or perhaps even anger, the young Count, he finally agreed to listen to him, provided their meeting was kept in confidence. This, the young Count readily assured him on his word of honor.

The questions and answers took longer than the Rabbi had hoped for. The more the young man listened to the Rabbi's answers, the more excited he became. When the Rabbi suggested to end the discussion, young Potocki pleaded for another meeting. The Rabbi had no choice but to agree to see him again.

The second discussion inevitably led to a third, and a fourth. Potocki kept his word and told no one about his conversations with the Rabbi. Finally the decision, which he had contemplated for some time, ripened in Potocki's mind. More than-- anything in the world he wanted to become a Jew. He told the Rabbi about it and begged him to help him become a Jew.

The Rabbi tried hard to dissuade him from this idea. He told the young Count that according to the Torah, a gentile can find true spiritual fulfillment and eternal life by living up to the Seven Precepts which G-d gave to the children of Noah, for all mankind, and there was no need for him to take upon himself the tremendous responsibility of observing all the Torah with its 613 Mitzvos which G-d gave to the Jewish people. He told him further that if he felt a sense of guilt for all that the world has done and is doing to the Jews, he could do more for them by retaining his exalted title, wealth and influence, and living a decent and moral life, in keeping with, and promoting the Seven Noahide Laws for a better world for both Gentiles and Jews. Finally he told him also of the danger that he may well bring upon himself if he were to carry out his decision, as well as on those who helped him to do so. To all these arguments, which he knew were true, the young Count had one answer: “I feel it in my soul that it will not rest until I become a Jew, and live as a Jew, to my last breath.”

Seeing that it was useless to try to make the young count change his mind, the Rabbi finally agreed to help him realize his ambition. He told Valentin that the only place where he could become a Jew was the city of Amsterdam, in Holland, where Jews lived in greater freedom. But even there the utmost secrecy was necessary. However, it would be up to him, Valentin, to work out a plan as to how to make his way to Amsterdam without arousing his parents’ suspicion.

“But how can I be sure that the Rabbi of Amsterdam will accept me?” Valentin asked anxiously.

“I will send him a letter of recommendation, but, of course, the final decision will be his. If by the time you get to Amsterdam -- and this will surely take quite some time -- you will still be as determined to become a Jews as you are now, I believe that my colleague in Amsterdam will help you become a Ger Tzedek, a true convert to our Jewish religion. Now, go in peace, and may G-d be with you.”

The young count kissed the Rabbi’s hand gratefully and departed, his heart singing within him for joy.

Young Potocki confided to his friend about his determination to become a Jew. He told his friend that he had at last found answers to all his doubts and questions, and he shared his newly acquired knowledge with him. Zrodny eagerly replied that he, too, wished to become a Jew, and the two friends embraced each other affectionately, their bond of friendship now strengthened more than ever by their mutual resolve. All that was now necessary was to think of a good and safe plan. After much deliberation they decided that Valentin would beg his parents to let him go to Paris, Berlin and Rome to study as well as to see the world. And since they would no doubt be reluctant to let him go alone, he would suggest to them to ask Zrodny to accompany him. Then, after completing their travels, they would “disappear” somewhere on their way home, and secretly make their way to Amsterdam… All this needed careful planning and preparation, but they were confident that, with G-d’s help, everything would work out according to plan.

III.

The very thought that his ambition to become a Jew was no longer a dream, but a distinct possibility, excited Valentin no end. He could think of nothing else; he lost interest in his studies at the Wilno seminary; he lost his appetite, and spent many sleepless nights. The young count took no part in any of the distractions in which young men of his position spent their leisure. He was completely wrapped up in himself. The inevitable delay until his plan came to fruition made him impatient and frustrated.

Valentin's parents did not fail to see the change in their son's mood. Anxiously they questioned their beloved son what was wrong. Valentin told them that his studies at the seminary bored him; the seminary was too cloistered for him. He would like to travel for a while abroad, to see the world and perhaps continue his studies in Rome or Paris.

There was nothing Valentin's parents would not do for their one and only son whom they loved very much, but they hesitated to let him go abroad alone.

"Don't you think, Valentin, that you are somewhat young to travel abroad on your own? Perhaps I ought to come with you?" his father suggested.

This was the last thing Valentin wanted, but he had a ready answer.

"There is no need, dear father, to trouble you and take you away from your affairs for such a long time. I am sure that I can persuade my good friend Zrodny to accompany me. The only thing is that his parents cannot afford the expenses. So, if you would be willing to provide the money for him also, there would be no problem..."

The senior Potocki knew Zrodny as a serious and responsible young man who was devoted to Valentin. He was also older than Valentin, and he couldn't think of a better companion for him. And since money was no problem, he agreed.

So far everything worked out according to Valentin's plan. Zrodny's parents were delighted that their son should have such an opportunity to travel abroad, all expenses paid. Thus, the two companions set out on their journey with their parents' blessings.

IV.

The two young Polish noblemen first went to Rome. Armed with a letter of introduction from his father, the renowned Count Potocki, Valentin and is inseparable companion were welcomed in the highest spheres of the Vatican. All the doors were open to them. They were fascinated by the tremendous Vatican Library, bursting with rare books, ancient manuscripts, and relics of bygone ages. They were allowed to see treasures rarely seen by others. They were particularly impressed, by the wealth of Hebrew books and manuscripts, filled with the wisdom of Jewish sages who flourished in different parts of the world for countless centuries, long before the Vatican itself came into being.

Though they spent long hours in the Vatican Library, Valentin and Zrodny had ample time to meet with, and observe the Cardinals and other churchmen. They became frequent visitors to the homes of these dignitaries, and were able to observe them also in unguarded moments. Some of them, they discovered, lived in two worlds, one public, the other private, and these two worlds were not made of the same cloth.

Valentin and his friend took time out to visit the ruins of the ancient glory of Rome. They roamed through the Colloseum, where captive defenders of Jerusalem were made to fight hungry lions to entertain the triumphant emperor and the Roman populace. They gazed upon the Arch of Titus, the memorial to the Roman emperor who Destroyed Jerusalem and its Holy Shrine. It still depicted quite clearly the scene of chained Jewish heroes carrying the golden table, golden Menorah and other sacred vessels from the Temple.

"How strange," Valentin remarked thoughtfully. "Here Titus boasted that he had completely vanquished the tiny Jewish nation. It had taken the best Roman legions three years to overcome the heroic Jewish resistance, yet all they achieved was to destroy wood and stone. The Jewish spirit was never broken; it seems to be as strong as ever, if we are to judge by what we have seen in Wilno and here, in the Jewish ghetto of Rome."

"I couldn't agree with you more," replied Zrodny. "Look, what we see here are the remnants of the ancient Roman Empire. True, Old Jerusalem is also in ruins, but the Jewish people are very much alive, and they are looking forward to the restoration of their Temple and of Jerusalem, whereas of ancient Rome there are left only crumbling dead monuments..."

"Come, my friend, let's go to the Jewish Quarter and refresh ourselves by the sing--song of Jewish children learning Torah. I cannot begin to tell you how it affects me; I feel so much more at home there than anywhere in the world." Saying which, Valentin put his arm through his friend's as they they strolled off to the old ghetto.

V.

Young Count Potocki and his friend Zaremba were beginning to get bored with Rome. They had seen all they wanted to see and had learned all there was worthwhile learning. Now they had to decide what to do next. Valentin's resolve to become a Jew had not been weakened; on the contrary, his determination was stronger than ever. Zaremba, on the other hand, was not quite so certain. Back home he had left a young lady, with whom he was all but engaged to marry. She was the daughter of Prince Radziville.. Should he marry her, a brilliant future awaited him. He had never told her that he was seriously considering the idea of embracing the Jewish faith. Before he could confide in her, he had to be sure what her feelings were: Would she be prepared, like him, to give up her family and a life of ease and luxury in order to become his Jewish wife; or, if she was not prepared to make the sacrifice, would she, at least, not betray his secret? Zaremba felt, therefore, that he had to return home and clear up the situation before he made a final decision. He explained his position to his friend, informing him that he would return home for the time being, at any rate.

Valentin did not attempt to influence his friend one way or another. "My dear Zaremba," he said, "I am sorry that we must part, but you must, of course, make up your own mind in such an important decision. Should you wish to meet me again, you will find me in Amsterdam. I know you will not breathe a word about it to my parents or anyone else. I will give you a letter to take to my parents, and you will, on your part, further reassure them both not to worry about me."

Thereupon Valentin wrote a fairly short letter to his parents, in which he assured them that he was well and happy; that the city of Rome had made a lasting impression on him, and that the added maturity he had gained would stand him in good stead. He further told them that he would continue with his plans to visit Paris and Berlin, and he begged them not to worry about him. In a P.S. he added that Zaremba would fill them in on the details of their interesting experiences.

Zaremba returned home. After a brief visit with his parents, he went to deliver Valentin's letter. The count and countess received him very warmly. They were, of course, disappointed that their son. had not returned, too, but Zaremba assured them that Valentin was no longer the young lad they had known, and that he had matured a great deal and could well take care of himself.

Zaremba then went to pay his respects at the home of Prince Radziville, where he was received with honor and affection. It was not long before he received the Prince's blessing to marry his daughter.

VI.

In the meantime, Valentin left Rome soon after his friend and went to Paris. Upon arrival, he wrote a short letter to his parents, telling them of his safe arrival. This was the last letter he wrote to his parents. After spending a few days in the glittering French capital, Valentin decided that there was no point in prolonging his visit there. Besides, his money was running low. He had just enough money to take him to Amsterdam. So he quietly left Paris and made his way to Amsterdam. There he went straight to the Rabbi and, in the privacy of his study, with no other person present, Valentin introduced himself. The Rabbi had already received word from his colleague in Wilno about a young Polish nobleman who intended to visit him.

"So you are the young man about whom my colleague wrote to me," the Rabbi said in a serious but not unfriendly manner.

Valentin thought that since he had a recommendation from the Rabbi of Wilno things would go smoothly for him, but he soon discovered that it was not as simple as all that. He had to go over the same ground that he covered with the Rabbi of Wilno -- how he had come to the conclusion to become a Jew and was more than willing to give up his parents and family and his noble station in life in order to dedicate his remaining years to a life of holiness, Torah and Mitzvos as a true son of the Jewish people.

The Rabbi questioned him closely at great length to test his sincerity and determination. When he was finally convinced that the young Polish nobleman was unshakable in his resolve, he agreed to prepare him for the conversion by informing him, first of all, of what this would entail in terms of strict observance of all the precepts of the Torah that regulate the everyday life of a Jew. Valentin assured the Rabbi that he would observe every law, regulation and custom with all his heart and with the greatest joy, for this was his greatest desire in the world. Then Valentin underwent circumcision, and when he was fully recovered he underwent Tevilah (immersion in a Mikveh). Everything was done under supervision of the Rabbi and two other qualified aides, in strict accord with the Halacha.

The dream which Valentin had nurtured for a long time had now become a reality. He was now like a newborn Jew, whose name was Avrohom ben Avrohorn -- named after the father of the Jewish nation, and the father of all Gerei-Tzedek.

Avrohom, the Ger-Tzedek of Wilno, was filled with an inner happiness he had not known before. He immersed himself completely in the study of Torah and was most meticulous in the observance of the Mitzvos. Except for a few hours of sleep at night, he spent every minute in Torah study, feeling that he had to make up for all those wasted years of his youth. Otherwise, all thoughts of his past were completely erased, for he felt like a newborn child who had no past life, but only a future life ahead, a life dedicated to Torah and Mitzvos; and he was determined to make the most of it.

VII.

The disappearance of the young Count Valentin Potocki was a tremendous shock to his parents. It would have probably been an even greater blow to them had they known that their beloved only son and heir had become an ardent Jew. Even in Amsterdam, where Valentin had become a Ger-Tzedek, no one beside the Rabbi and Beth--Din knew that the young Ger, Avroharn ben Avrohom, had belonged to the highest Polish aristocracy.

Back home in Wilno, Valentin's trusted friend Zaremba was the only one who knew the secret of Valentin's disappearance, and he faithfully kept it to himself.

Though of more humble descent, Zaremba had been well received into the circle of Polish nobility through his marriage. Anyone else in his place would have been a happy Polish nobleman, that with his wife having borne him a son, and the luxuries of aristocratic life. Yet, deep in his heart was a gnawing sense of unfulfillment and frustration. Like his erstwhile classmate and friend Valentin, his greatest desire was to become a Jew, but unlike his friend he had not been able to fulfill it. As time went on, it was becoming ever more difficult to cut his ties with his wife and family. All the attractions of aristocratic life could not distract him from the one uppermost thought in his mind -- to join his friend as a fellow-Jew. He was beginning to run out of excuses to explain why he participated so seldom in the hunting parties and other frivolities of his peers, and never seemed to have his heart in them. His wife sensed that something was troubling him, but he could not be sure how she reacted if he told the truth.

Finally Zaremba decided on a plan of action. He confided in his wife that the aristocratic life bored him; he was not cut out for it. The years he had spent at the Catholic seminary preparing him for the priesthood had made him aware of the higher values in life. He wanted to get away from his present surroundings, and would like to move to Koenigsberg, where, he felt, the maritime climate would also be beneficial to his health. Since her parents owned an estate near that city, they would tell her parents that they wished to go there for reasons of health.

Zaremba's wife readily agreed, hoping that the change would do her husband a lot of good. She adored her husband and wanted nothing better than making him happy. Actually, she had been deeply influenced by her husband's serious--mindedness, intelligence and fine qualities of character, and the change of life--style would suit her fine.

When Zaremba told his in--laws about his plan, they were saddened at the thought of parting with their son-in-law, whom they had grown to love and respect, not to mention their daughter and grandson. But they raised no serious objections; on the contrary, they promised to do everything to help them settle in Koenigsberg and wished them all the happiness in the world.

Thus, Zaremba was able to accomplish the first phase of his plan more easily then he had anticipated. In their new surroundings they lived a modest life, and were able to save a substantial amount for the future.

The next step would be more difficult, and Zaremba carefully worked to prepare his wife for the inevitable shock.

Finally the time came when Zaremba decided to tell his wife of his decision. He knew, he was placing his life in her hands.

Zaremba told his wife how he had come to the conclusion that the only life he felt worth living was the life of a Jew, with all the sacrifices that it entailed. But because he was engaged to marry her, he did not have the strength to break the engagement and give her up. This was a sign to him that perhaps his conviction was not so strong after all. However, with all the good things that came into his life -- a loving wife, an adorable son, and all the riches and pleasures, which would' have made anyone else in his place blissfully happy -- he could find no, happiness, and could therefore not make her happy, because his soul had been restless, and his desire to become a Jew had become more. overwhelming than ever. Therefore, there is only one thing for them to do -- to part ways...

However much the good woman had steeled herself against precisely this kind of blow, it came down heavily on her. She covered her face with her hands and wept quietly, shaking her head while her husband tried to console her that she was still young and beautiful, and many a nobleman would vie for her hand, one that could truly make her happy. She would hear none of it. Finally she said, "Give me a little time to think about it."

The following morning, after breakfast, with her eyes red from weeping and a sleepless night, she said to her husband:

"My dear Zaremba, remember you read to me not so long ago the Book of Ruth. My answer is the same as hers: 'Entreat me not to leave you...whither you go, I will go; your people shall be my people, and your G-d, my G-d; only death will part us...'

"This is very noble of you, my dear," Zaremba replied, not a little taken aback by her answer. "But let me explain why it would not be a good solution. First of all, to embrace a new religion for the sake of a person one loves, is not a good reason, nor an honest reason. I know you to be too honest to do such a thing. Secondly, how could you commit yourself to obligations --and they are many and difficult -- without having the slightest idea what they are? Thirdly, it is not up to us to convert ourselves and become Jews by a simple declaration to that effect. The Jewish religion is quite different from any other religion; Jewish law is very strict about accepting converts, and will accept one for one reason only, pure conviction, and for no other motive. Furthermore, if we were accepted, our former relationship as husband and wife, indeed all former blood relationships, become null and void. To be sure, we could remarry later in full accord with Jewish law, if we wanted to, but then, having become Jews because our love for Judaism is stronger than any other love, we may not think it such a good idea to marry each other; we may prefer to marry a spouse that has been born and brought up as a Jew, since we have so much to learn about being Jewish, and perhaps we were not meant for each other. Finally we could not, the three of us, disappear and become Jews, for you know what would happen to us if the authorities would find out about it."

After much discussion Zaremba and his wife agreed on the following plan: First, Zaremba would "disappear" and go to Amsterdam to become a Jew there. His wife would wait for his "return" for at least one year. Then, if she still wished to follow him, she would take their son and would set out to "search" for him. Leaving no trace of her whereabouts, she would eventually make her way to Amsterdam, with a view to becoming Jewish, too, she and her littly boy, and Divine Providence would take care of the rest.

VIII.

According to plan, Zaremba made his way to Amsterdam. He went to the Rabbinic Court, where he introduced himself as a friend of the young Polish Count Valentin Potocki. Zaremba told the Rabbis how he and Valentin had decided a number of years earlier, while both were students at the Polish academy in Wilno, to become Jews; that Valentin did in fact go to Amsterdam, while he, Zaremba could not go with him at that time, for reasons which he explained to the Rabbis. "If Valentin did in fact become a Jew in this very Beth--Din, the Rabbis must surely know his whereabouts, and could invite him to attest to all that I told you. I assure you," Zaremba concluded, "that in all these years, and in the face of all that I had to sacrifice, my resolve to become a Jew remained as unshakable as my friend's, and I beg you to accept me into the Jewish fold."

"The Ger-Tzedek Avrohom ben Avrohom has left Amsterdam only a few days ago," the Rabbis told Zaremba, who was quite shaken by the news. But Zaremba cheered up as the Rabbis assured him that they were satisfied about his complete sincerity and determination to become a Jew.

After undergoing circumcision and all procedures in accordance with Jewish Law, Zaremba became a Ger-Tzedek in a happy and auspicious hour. He was given the Hebrew name Boruch ben Avrohom.

A year later, much to his surprise, his former wife and child came to the Beth Medrash where he was ardently studying Torah. She barely recognized her husband with his full--grown beard and side-locks, dressed in Jewish garb. He had lost a great deal of weight and looked pale, but there was serenity and saintliness in his eyes that she had never seen in him before.

They had a heart--to--heart talk, during which she told him that she had been counting the days until she could come and join him in the Jewish faith, so that they could all live together as a happy Jewish family. But the man who was her former husband had other ideas.

"Do you remember our discussion before I left you? I will not go over it again, but I must tell you quite definitely that I have no intention of marrying you even if you should become Jewish. I have nothing to offer you. My soul thirsts for Torah; I have so much to make up for all my wasted years. Take my advice, go back home; you have an easy and comfortable life ahead of you..."

She rose, took her son, and with deep sadness in her voice said, "Keep well."

"Take care of the boy," he said as they walked out.

Several weeks later a woman and a boy walked into the Beth Hamedrash where Boruch (Zaremba) was learning Torah. As he looked up in astonishment, the woman introduced herself with a smile: "I am Rachel bat Sarah, and this is little Avrohom... . "

"I thought you had gone back to your parents?"

"You should know me better than that," Rachel said. "I just wanted you to know that I will take good care of our son and see to it that he grows up to be as good a Jew as you. I really came to say goodbye..."

There was an awkward pause as Boruch considered the new situation. Then he said very earnestly, "Rachel, will you be my wife?"

Rachel's eyes welled up as she hugged her son and eagerly nodded her consent.

The Beth Din that had brought them under the wings of the G-d of Israel also joined them in marriage in accordance with the Law of Moses and Israel. Soon afterward Boruch and Rachel and little Avrohom left quietly for the Holy Land, where they lived a holy life of Torah and Mitzvoth and good deeds ever after.

Boruch had but one regret, that he had not had the opportunity to meet his younger friend, but older Ger-Tzedek, to whom he felt an eternal debt of gratitude for showing him the way of truth and light of life.

IX.

We now return to Valentin, the young Count Potocki, or rather the Ger-Tzedek Avrohom ben Avrohom, whom we left in Amsterdam, deeply immersed in Torah study and in prayer day and night. Every waking moment was absolutely precious to him. "My first birthday" -- he often reminded himself -- "was when I was twenty years old; I do not know how many birthdays G-d has in store for me; I cannot afford to lose a minute!"

After years of avid Torah study, he decided it was time to carry out the instruction of the Sages, "Go into exile to a place of Torah, and do not say that it will come after you" (Mishnah, Ovos 4:14). So he left Amsterdam and wandered from city to city, stopping in the local Yeshivah to listen quietly to a lecture in Talmud, occasionally to participate in a Talmudic discussion. Most of the time, however, he sat in a corner of the Beth-Medrash and studied for himself. When he was called up to the Torah by his name "Avrohom ben Avrohom," a name usually given to a Ger, after the Father of our Jewish people and the Father of all Gere-Tzedek who enter the Jewish fold, there was no longer any secret about his Jewish identity. But this was a matter that was only whispered about, and, in any case, it was highly unlikely that anyone in the Jewish community would connect him with the mysterious disappearance of the young son of Count Potocki some ten years earlier.

Eventually, his wanderings brought him back to his native country, and he settled down in a small town, Ilya, not far from Wilno.

Was it thoughtless of him to return to his native country? Did it not occur to him that he might be recognized and be seized by the authorities? Most likely he was fully aware of such a possibility, yet not only had he no fear in his heart of the grave danger to his life, but apparently welcomed it. Like Rabbi Akiva who, upon reading the daily Shema, in which a Jew expresses his readiness to die for the Sanctification of G-d's Name, longed for the opportunity to carry it out in actual practice, so the Ger-Tzedek of Wilno was filled with an all--consuming love for G-d, reaching a point where his soul was straining to take flight from the body and return to its Heavenly Father. Be it as it may, he was ready for any eventuality, and this was not late in coming.

One day, as the Ger-Tzedek was engrossed in his solitary study in the Beth-Medrash, several children burst in playfully, and began to run around noisily. The Ger-Tzedek reminded them that they were in a holy place, and asked them to play outside. All the boys meekly and shamefacedly walked out of the Beth-Medrash, except the oldest of them, who was evidently their leader. He stayed on and defiantly continued to jump up and down on the benches, until the Ger-Tzedek grabbed hold of him and forcibly led him out, shutting the door, behind him.

The boy ran home crying, and told his father: "That strange man, who sits all day in the Beth Medrash in his Tallis and Tefillin, hit me and threw me out of the Beth--Midrash."

Now, the boy's father, whose name was Chayim Yoshkes, was an unlearned, crude! individual, a tailor by trade. Most of the --time he worked for the landed gentry in the vicinity of the town, where he acquired also a drinking habit. He took little interest in his son's education and behavior, but when his boy came home crying and complaining against that man, the tailor swore that no one was going to hit his boy and get away with it! Being under the influence of drink made him even angrier, and he lost no time in carrying out his threat.

The tailor, whose work brought him into the homes of the local Polish gentry, had heard about the tragedy that had befallen the Count and Countess of Potocki in the disappearance of their only son Valentin. The story that was long the talk of the Polish nobility, eventually faded and was almost forgotten. When the Ger-Tzedek quietly came to town and settled down in the Beth Medrash, as a saintly recluse, the tailor, like some of the other Jews in town, was a little curious as to who he was and where he came from, but after a few days, since no one knew the answer, and he, the Ger, wasn't talking, the Jews got used to his presence and went about their business. The good women in town took turns in providing the saintly Tzaddik, as he was soon referred to, with his daily fare, which wasn't much, a glass of warm goat-milk and dry cookies in the morning, and the same in the afternoon. When the tailor's wife wanted to take a turn in serving the Tzaddik, the other women didn't let her; they probably thought her goat--milk could not be trusted.

Well, now Chayim Yoshkes decided to get even on both scores. He had for some time suspected that the mysterious Ger was none other than Valentin, the missing young count Potocki. All he had to do was to inform the authorities of his "discovery."

This the tailor did, whereupon the Ger-Tzedek was arrested immediately. The prisoner was brought to Wilno, where a court of high--ranking church officials began an inquiry.

The Ger-Tzedek readily admitted that he was, indeed, the missing son of Count Potocki; that he became a Jew out of sincere conviction that the Jewish religion was the true faith and way of life.

The church officials knew full well that it would be a disgrace for the church if it became known that the young Count Potocki had disappeared to become a Jew. They were most eager to cover up the matter. If the young count would express some regret and declare himself a christian again, they promised that he would avoid any kind of penalty. On the contrary, he would be returned to his family, and his rank, together with all the riches and honor that would be his as the heir to the Potocki title and fortune. On the other hand, if he refused to admit that he had made a mistake, he could not avoid the highest punishment for heresy and blasphemy, and that meant being burnt alive at the stake.

The Ger-Tzedek made it quite clear to his inquisitors that neither promises nor threats could make him give up his Jewish faith. He told them that he had given up precisely the kind of life they were now offering him, because to be a Jew and live like a Jew was more important to him than anything in the world. Moreover, he knew the risk he was taking, and he was prepared to die for the Sanctification of G-d's Name.

Then the churchmen, some of whom were his past teachers at the Catholic seminary, engaged him in debate. They held long religious discussions with him in an effort to weaken his Jewish faith. Again, they were unsuccessful; they were no match for him in Biblical or Talmudic knowledge, for he had spent all his years since his conversion in ardent Torah study, day and night, and his convictons were unshakable.

In all these discussions the Ger-Tzedek conducted himself with dignity and pride in his Jewish faith. He insisted on being called by his Jewish name. "My name is Avrohom ben Avrohom. I will answer to that name only," he declared.

There was nothing left to do but to put him to all sorts of torture in an effort to break his spirit. But the saintly Ger-Tzedek welcomed the pain and torture as a way of purifying his body and soul from the impurities that had clung to him during the years of his youth.

Finally, the old Count and Countess Potocki were informed by the authorities that their long lost son Valentin had turned up as a Jew. They were also told that their son obstinately clings to his Jewishness, and that every effort made so far, failed to bring him back to his senses. Therefore, the only way to save him from the penalty of death would be if they, the parents. would somehow convince their son to acknowledge his mistake.

The Potockis were, understandably, overwhelmed by the news of their son's return. Unfortunately, their joy of being able to see their only son again was mixed with the feeling of shame and pain that he had become a Jew!

They hurried to the place where they were to meet their son, and waited for him with anxiety and confused emotions. Presently he was led into the waiting room by two guards, who promptly left the room.

For a moment the old Count and Countess remained stunned. Could that old--looking, emaciated Jew, with the long beard and side curls, be their beloved son Valentin? But the eyes they were surely his, and there was a strange softness in them. Evidently, he felt sorry for the old couple who were his natural parents, as he saw the look of shock, despair and confusion in their faces.

The old Countess, who had dreamed of flinging her arms around dear Valentin's neck with motherly love and tears of joy, remained seated near her husband, as in a daze. It took a few minutes before the Potockis regained Their composure and were able to exchange polite greetings with their son. Then the Count and Countess took turns in pleading with him to have mercy on himself, on them, and come back to them. They promised to forgive him for everything, and let him conduct his life the way he wished, as long as he formally renounced his conversion. They were old, ready to transfer their title and all their wealth to him, and everything would be made easy, if only he will say the word...

The Ger-Tzedek explained to them as kindly as he could that the Valentin they knew ceased to exist since they saw him last. "The person that stands there before you is not Valentin, your son, but quite a different person, Avrohom ben Avrohom, a jew, living in a different world; there is no way in which this Avrohom ben Avrohom can become Valentin Potocki again. Valentin was deeply sorry that his disappearance caused you grief; but you need not feel sorry for him, for he does not exist. As for me, just think of me if you must -- as just another jew, who is deeply and blissfully happy to be a Jew..."

Sadly, the Count and Countess returned home. They could get over the feeling that they had lost their one and only son, but they would now have to learn to live with the knowledge that their son had become a Jew and -- as it seemed certain --would die as a Jew. Inwardly they could not help but admire his extraordinary courage.

Count and Countess Potocki made one last desperate attempt to save their son. They induced their doctors to declare that Valentin Potocki had lost his mind from too much study, and his conversion to Judaism had no validity, since he did not know what he was doing. They further said that the young nobleman needed complete rest and cure, and they believed that when he regained his sound mind, he would renounce his conversion and be a good catholic again. Thus the Potockis prevailed upon the local authorities to release the prisoner in the custody of his parents.

The Ger Tzedek was brought to his parents' castle. However, he rejected every effort of his parents to restore him to robust health. All the tasty dishes that were brought to him were left untouched; he subsisted only on bread and water.

Many distinguished visitors came to the Potocki's castle, and some of them were curious to see and speak to Valentin, who lived in seclusion in his room. Those who managed to do so, could see at once that all this talk about Valentin's being of unbalanced mind was only a pretext and a sham. Even a brief conversation with him made it plain that his mental faculties were as sharp and clear as they could be. He made no secret of his deep convictions and that he was ready to prove it by giving his very life for his Jewish faith.

Word reached the king and higher church authorities that the Potockis were shielding their son from the law of the land. The Ger Tzedek was returned to prison and condemned to be burned alive. The day on which his public execution was to take place was the second day of Shovuos, in the year 5509 (1749).

A terrible fear gripped the Jews of Wilno as the Festival of Shovuos drew near. They feared that the public execution of the saintly Ger Tzedek would inflame the mob to an outburst of violence against the Jews, as it had often happened in similar situations throughout the Middle Ages. On the second day of Shovuos they all stayed indoors and prayed for G-d's mercy, hoping that the merit of the saintly Ger Tzedek would protect them.

In the center of the town, facing the Town Hall, preparations were made for the public burning of the Ger Tzedek Avrohom ben Avrohom formerly Valentin Potocki, only son of Count and Countess Potocki, who dared to give up his title and wealth in order to become a Jew. Most of the non-Jewish population in Wilno and peasants from surrounding villages gathered to witness the execution. Some of them were eager to have a hand in it and brought with them a piece of wood to add to the pile that had been heaped together around the stake.

On a specially erected platform were seated church dignitaries and government officials. Presently, the prisoner was led to the stake amid the sound of beating drums and the hissing and howling of the mob. He was tied to the stake, and before the torch was put to the pile of firewood, he was asked for the last time if he would renounce his Jewish faith.

The Ger Tzedek, his face glowing with saintliness, answered in a loud clear voice that kept the audience spellbound. He denounced the blindness and hatred of his tormentors who claimed to act in the name of a merciful religion. He, too, had been brought up in this fanaticism and intolerance, until he was fortunate enough to discover the truth and see the light, and now he was ready to die for the sanctification of G-d's Name. But, he warned, G-d will surely avenge his innocent blood, as He has avenged, and will avenge for every drop of Jewish blood spilled by the enemies of the Jewish people. Turning to the church dignitaries, he exclaimed, "What kind of religion do you preach that demands human sacrifices? What kind of truth do you possess that has to be defended by fire and sword? But you have power only over my mortal body, which was going to die anyway, sooner or later; you cannot harm my immortal soul, and it will continue to proclaim for ever, 'G-d. is One!'...

The infuriated churchmen did not want to hear any more. The sign was given to the henchman, and the next moment the flames began to engulf the Ger Tzedek. He began reciting the Shema and kept on repeating G-d is One until his last breath.

A strict order was issued by the authorities forbidding the Jews to gather the ashes of the Ger Tzedek for burial. A guard was posted to keep watch. However, a certain Jew of Wilno, whose name was Eliezer Zinkes, disguised himself as a non-Jew and told the guard that he was sent by the old Countess, with a large sum of money, to collect the ashes secretly. The guard readily accepted the money and allowed the Jew to gather up the ashes and charred remains of two fingers, which were buried in the old Jewish cemetery of Wilno.

Long thereafter, the story of the Ger Tzedek of Wilno was told and retold in whispered voices. The elder Jews of Wilno, who lived at the time of the Ger Tzedek's martyred death, also knew to relate about some strange happenings in connection with that event. It so happened that everyone who had anything to do with the Ger Tzedek's death came to a sorry end. The peasants of a village near Wilno, who gleefully added wood to the pile, became the victims of a raging fire that burned down their homes and barns. A woman who made a jeering grimace at the Ger Tzedek, suffered a stroke that left her face distorted for the rest of her life. A building adjoining the Town Hall, facing the place of execution, was blackened by the smoke of the pile and no amount of washing could erase the black stains. It was then painted over, and the black stains reappeared. It was given another coat of paint, of a different color, and the black stains came back again -- a silent reminder of the horror that had been perpetrated there. This struck fear and shame in the hearts of the Wilno inhabitants, until the authorities finally had to pull down the building.

For many years the grave of the saintly Ger Tzedek remained unmarked. But it had become well known to the Jews of Wilno, and many came to pray at his grave. The grave of the saintly Ger Tzedek of Wilno became especially well known, when, in the course of time, there grew over it a strange looking tree that had a remarkable resemblance to a person bending over the grave, with outstretched arms and clasped hands. A small stone, with an inscription in Hebrew, stated only, "Here rests the Tzaddik Avrohom ben Avrohom, Second day of Shovuos, 5509" -- no mention that he was the Ger Tzedek who died a martyr's death for the sanctification of G-d's Name.

So great was the fear of the Jews even to talk publicly about the saintly Ger Tzedek that it took more than a hundred years before the story of the Ger Tzedek was first published (in Hebrew, in 1862, but without the name of the author or publisher, or the place where it was printed).

Not until 1927 did the Jewish community of Wilno erect a tombstone over the grave of the Ger Tzedek, with an inscription in Hebrew stating that it was a "Memorial to the Pure and Holy Soul of the Ger Tzedek, the Saintly Avrohom ben Avrohom, Who Publicly Sanctified G-d's Name on the Second Day of Shovuos, 5509. May His Soul Be Bound Up in the Bond of Everlasting Life."

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Discussion (9)
June 30, 2013
On the tribes of Israel and why the term 'Jews' is a significant source of confusion
A Ger Tzedek also means the person's tribe is not the tribe of Benjamin, tribe of Yehuda or of Levi, etc. This title is about the tribal origin and not the level of sanctity, dignity and praise. An Israelite born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father has no tribe, like a Ger, and certainly is not from Yehuda. Tribal distinctions are nowadays overlooked, but it was one of the motives behind separate category of the Ger Tzedek. The '13th and 14th tribes', Gerim and the non-tribal Israelites born of non-Jewish fathers but born as Israelites nevertheless (and not 'Jews', which is a misnomer originally referring to the members of the tribe of Yehuda; Samaritans which are considered Bene Israel do not call themselves 'Jews'; 'Jews' as a name for the whole Israel is an alien term, used by Israel's ignorant enemies; in Talmudic times people still knew their tribe). A Ger would follow the custom of the tribe where he/she lived, but they were not of any one tribe, they were 'only' of Israel
Michoel
Europe
December 23, 2012
TO ANONYMOUS, MILAN, ITALY
here is what someone wrote in another forum in regards to Gerim:
[5:50:42 PM] sarah t: Yehudi and ger are not mutually exclusive terms. Yehudi means a Jew. Ger is a certain type of Jew. Likewise the terms Kohen, Levi, Nazir, Mamzer, Almona, Melech, Rav, etc. are all terms that describe certain types of Jews with specific rules that apply to them (both good and bad).

A ger, as previously mentioned, has certain protections put in place to ensure that they should not be ostracized or reminded that they needed to go through the process of giur, and also certain restrictions that apply such as female converts not marrying a kohen.

He is a Jew in every respect and should only be referred to as such. The laws pertaining to loving the ger, etc, come to balance the possibilty of any patronizing behavior on the part of born Jews.
For instance, one of the halachot of lashon hara is not to report to others that a person is a convert (even a complete ger tzedek) and one of the halachot of ona'at devarim (hurting people with words) is never to remind a ger of his background - because no distinction should ever be made between born Jews and those who have converted.
sarah
SYDNEY
December 7, 2011
Unfortunately a rabbi I know plainly told his ghiur class (of which I am a member) that a gher is NOT a Jew, but a gher.....
Anonymous
Milan, Italy
December 7, 2011
To Anonymous, Milan, Italy
To Anonymous, Milan, Italy: A person is not considered a "Ger" for life. They are considered a "Ger Tzedek" & that is a much higher level than an "ordinary" Israelite.

The term "Tzedek" that is attached to the term "Ger" means that they are not an "ordinary" person, or even an "ordinary" Jew, but rather, they are person that has shown that he has proven that he has the makings of a Tzadik! Tzadik is a very coveted title....so why, would someone complain of being called it?
Yosef
Jerusalem
July 8, 2011
The only sad thing in this heroic and beautiful story of martyrdom is that,even after conversion,one remains a Ger for life and not an ordinary israel.Quite frankly,I think it's not fair.
Anonymous
Milan, Italy
December 20, 2010
Wow... I love it!!
Thanks for sharing this wonderful story!!! Shalom
Anonymous
Rome
May 19, 2010
Lima, Peru
After Rosh HaShana last year, I went to Lima and inquired about Count Potosky's only surviving relative. I did try but not to avail. Three years ago I visited Poland and Count Potosky's Palace and synagogue. I would like to know more details about the family emigrating from Poland to Peru.

This is a fascinating history!!
Yael Rachamim
Ashdod, Israel
October 11, 2009
Excellent story
A truly moving and beautiful story. Every Jewish person should read this. It is a wonderful story of Gd's eternal love for his people.

People erroneously say that Jews pray to the Gd of Israel. Rather, Jews pray to the Gd of the universe, for everything that exists belongs to Him.

One day all souls will worship Him, who blessed all humans with the Torah at Sinai. May that day come soon.
Anonymous
Chicago
February 27, 2008
Beautiful story
The story of the Ger Tzedek is an awesome one full of courage and faith in the face of opposition.
Anonymous
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