Tomb of the Ger Tsedek, Vilna, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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Ger Tsedek

(Also Walentyn Potocki, Graf Potocki), legendary son of a duke who converted to Judaism and died a martyr’s death in Vilna (Wilno). In the late eighteenth century, a well-crafted legend of a nobleman who converted to Judaism attained popularity. (The term ger tsedek refers generally to a righteous convert to Judaism.) The story maintained that Walentyn Potocki had become Jewish and was subsequently burned at the stake in Vilna. A subplot mentions the conversion of Potocki’s friend, Zaremba, who similarly converted along with Zaremba’s wife.

According to the legend, Potocki was enrolled at an academy in Paris and became fascinated by Judaism when he and Zaremba encountered a Jew studying the Torah. The two quit the Paris academy and began to study with the Jew, and in the process, they questioned the validity of Catholicism. To clarify his new beliefs, Potocki went to Rome, where he found the papal court to be a den of immorality and corruption. He then left for Amsterdam, a city reputed to be a safe place for converts to Judaism, and embraced the Jewish religion. Although Zaremba could not join him in Rome, the two had pledged that they would reunite shortly and convert; however, Zaremba instead returned to Poland, where he married a daughter of a wealthy nobleman. When news of Potocki’s disappearance reached Poland, Zaremba recalled his promise and tried to locate his friend, leaving for Amsterdam with his wife and son. There, he too converted to Judaism; his wife followed, although not without a struggle. After converting, Potocki and Zaremba left for the Land of Israel.

After his travels, Potocki returned to his homeland, Lithuania, where he was arrested for apostasy. When it was discovered that he was the missing son of a duke, noblemen tried to save him, and, together with a bishop, sought to persuade him to return to Catholicism. But Potocki adamantly refused. He was convicted and sentenced to death by burning. The execution, according to the legend, took place on Shavu‘ot and was followed by God’s vengeance on the killers: the houses of those who had brought the wood for the stake were “burnt to the ground.” The legend ends with an assertion that the Ger Tsedek was received by heavenly angels, Abraham, and righteous rabbis; the story also expresses hope for a prompt coming of the Messiah. The folklore has it that there was a grave of the Ger Tsedek at the Jewish cemetery in Vilna.

Although the legend of the Ger Tsedek has its roots in the eighteenth century, the story was developed more fully in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is probably grounded in a true case of a Croat Catholic, Rafał Sentimani, who was burned at the stake for apostasy in Vilna in 1753. The tale became part of Vilna folklore and entered the corpus of Jewish literature in many languages, including Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and English. Three known sources for the legend exist: a Hebrew manuscript, whose original is in Saint Petersburg; a Polish translation of another Hebrew manuscript (published in 1841 by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski in his Wilno: Od początkow jego do Roku 1750); and a Yiddish version published by Ayzik Meyer Dik in Di yudishe velt in 1913. The dates of the Ger Tsedek’s execution are variously cited as 1719, 1749, and 1751.

The texts differ slightly. The Hebrew version contains invectives against Catholicism, which are missing from the Polish version. Not only is the pope in the Hebrew account characterized as the “man who leads you astray,” but he also keeps prostitutes in his “innermost chamber.” By contrast, the sacred texts of Judaism are depicted as unquestionably true. The anti-Catholic polemic should be seen in the light of increasing Catholic overtures to Jews and the movement of Jakub Frank.

Elements within the legend suggest that it may also have been a response of Lithuanian Jews to the early challenges of Hasidism and the Haskalah. A version claims that after visiting several German towns, Potocki was impressed neither with the ways in which German Jews behaved, nor, upon his return to Lithuania, with the dancing and screaming of a boy in a synagogue. The legend as a whole is an affirmation of Judaism and its ethos of study of the sacred Jewish texts.

Even today, the legend is popularly believed to be “a true story of a Polish hrabia [count] who descended from a long line of noble Christian rulers, sacrificed wealth and power in order to convert from Christianity to Judaism” (as found on one Web site, for example). The legend inspired a number of novels and plays, including I. Kagan (Yakov Kopl Dua)’s Graf Pototski (1930), Saul Saphire’s Der Ger Tsedek fun Vilna (1942), Yisra’el Ḥayim Ben-David’s Graf Pototski o Ger ha-tsedek (1940), and Sholem Zelmanovitz’s Ger Tsedek: Vilner Graf Pototski (1934).

Suggested Reading

Israel Cohen, Vilna, Jewish Communities Series (Philadelphia, 1943), pp. 73–74, 484–486; “Ger Zedek,” anonymous manuscript, Jewish National Library, microfilm F 52930; Adam Kaźmierczyk, ed., Żydzi Polscy, 1648–1772: Źródła, vol. 6, Studia Polono-Judaica (Kraków, 2001), pp. 187–189.