Noble Soul: The Life and Legend of the Vilna Ger Tzedek, Count Walenty Potocki
By Joseph H. Prouser (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2005), pp. 226
Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Martin S. Rozenberg
The author recounts the fascinating tale of Walenty Potocki, also variously referred to as Graf Potocki, the Ger Tzedek (righteous convert), and Abraham ben Abraham, a Polish count who converted to Judaism and was martyred by the Church in 1749. The story remains shrouded in a mixture of fact and legend. Essentially the narrative relates how Potocki, a young Polish aristocrat, while studying in Paris, visited a tavern along with a friend. There they noticed the Jewish owner studying a religious text and requested of him to enlighten them about the Jewish religion. Persuaded by the truth of Judaism, the two subsequently rejected Christianity and determined to become Jews. Potocki travels to Amsterdam, where he was converted to Judaism and then returned to Lithuania and settled in a village near Vilna. His friend, somewhat later, also converted and ultimately settled in Eretz Yisrael. In Vilna, Potocki immersed himself deeply in Jewish learning and led the life of a devout Jew. Some accounts even make the claim that he became a rabbi and had contact with the Vilna Gaon. Sadly, Potocki was betrayed by a fellow Jew, a tailor with a grudge against him, and was arrested. At his trial, Potocki was offered his freedom on condition that he recant but he did not waver and remained devoutly committed to his adopted faith. As a result, Potocki was burned at the stake in Vilna in the year 1749. Various versions speak of a last-minute royal reprieve that unfortunately arrived soon after his execution, too late to save him. It is also related that his ashes and a remaining finger were gathered up at the site of his execution and buried in the Jewish cemetery. His grave became a site of pilgrimage and Jews honored him for his martyrdom with the appellation Ger Tzedek.
What makes the story of Potocki all the more remarkable, as the author emphasizes, are the times and circumstances surrounding his conversion. This is not just another simple tale of a convert to Judaism. Eighteenth century Poland was a very hostile place for Jews, who suffered cruel persecution. A convert to Judaism risked death at the hands of an intolerant and punitive Church. Also, in his choice to become a Jew, Potocki was giving up the life of an aristocrat with all the wealth, privilege, and security that such an existence implied. Despite all that Potocki stood to lose, he made his choice and demonstrated his utter devotion to his new faith by his willingness to die for it. Maimonides defines a Jew as one who enters into the tribulations of the Jewish people (shenikhnas b’tzarotam). Potocki thus lived up to the highest Maimonidean definition of behaving like a true Jew.
The story of the Ger Tzedek, however, is not without its problems. The dearth of corroborative contemporary sources tends to challenge its historicity. The first published account about the Ger Tzedek did not appear until 1841, almost a century after he was martyred. Yet this lack of historical evidence should not prompt us to conclude that the Ger Tzedek and his martyrdom are totally fictional. In the world of archaeology, as would apply here as well, it is often argued that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Prouser effectively demonstrates the important role played by oral tradition in reconstructing history. On this point, one need but refer to the wealth of Biblical and Homeric scholarship. Prouser skillfully analyzes a number of semi-historical and fictional literary publications from different periods of time to reveal the impact that the Ger Tzedek had, not only in his own time but on later generations of Jews. The details, in the various sources examined, vary and some are clearly fictional embellishments but the core of the narrative is sustained, thus arguing strongly that the Ger Tzedek and his execution were real. This strong collective memory shared by the Jews of Vilna moved them to recount the story from generation to generation, to visit the martyr’s grave, and to recite Kaddish for him annually. Such a living oral tradition, as the author correctly maintains, lends credence to the historical nature of the events surrounding the Ger Tzedek.
Prouser has performed a valuable service in bringing this fascinating story to the attention of today’s readers. His presentation keeps the interest of the reader, often with a sense of suspense, and his analysis is keen and informative. The book has inspirational value for it reminds us how Jews in the past were ready to die to choose their faith and how privileged we are to make that choice in freedom.