Sunday 7 October 2018


The House of Potocki.

Valentin Pototzki[1] secretly converted to Judaism.  He was the son of one of the most respected and influential 18th century Polish Counts who, amongst other acquisitions, also owned the city of Vilna. He was later betrayed to the authorities by a fellow Jew, and was tried and burned alive on the second day of Shavuot in 1749. 

He was hailed as a martyr and it is said that the Vilna Gaon declared that from that moment on, all evil spirits had been banished from the world.

In this article, we are going to look at this episode as recorded within Jewish tradition as well as in historical literature, in order to try and ascertain how factual the story actually is.


There are different versions of the story but what follows is a popular account of the basic events:

Valentin Pototzki was born into a family of devout Catholics who belonged to the scholarly Jesuit Order which was founded in 16th century Spain.

At the age of sixteen, he enrolled in a Catholic seminary in Vilna, where he met his study partner Zaremba (or Zrodny). Both friends were quite scholarly and wanted to explore the ‘Old Testament’ in greater depth and find out more of people of the Bible.

They befriended a Jew in the market who was studying the Hebrew Bible and he turned out to be R. Menachem Mann. The rabbi, not wishing to offend the Pototzki family who had always been good to the Jews, agreed to teach Torah to the two friends who, ironically, were studying for the priesthood, on condition that the friends keep it a secret.

One thing led to another and soon the friends told R. Mann that they wanted to convert to Judaism. This was a dangerous and unusual idea in the Poland of the 1700’s. Nevertheless, R. Man suggested that they travel to Amsterdam which was considered more open and tolerant of such matters.

With a letter of recommendation from the rabbi, the young boys journeyed to Amsterdam but first stopped in Rome in order to meet the Pope. They were also very interested in seeing the extensive collection of rare Jewish manuscripts which are housed in the Vatican Library.

At this point, Zaremba decided to return home to marry the daughter of the Prince Radziville, but promised to meet Valentin later in Amsterdam.
Valentine arrived in Amsterdam and after some time he converted to Judaism taking on the name Avraham ben Avraham.

Later Zaremba and his new family did indeed go to Amsterdam and also converted. He became Baruch ben Avraham. They then went to live in the Holy Land.

Meanwhile, Valentin for some reason decided to tempt fate and he returned to his native Poland and settled in the town of Ilya, nor far from Vilna.
In Ilya he joined the Beit Midrash, apparently on the suggestion of the Vilna Gaon.

One day some rowdy children entered the study hall and began disturbing the scholars. One cheeky youngster refused to leave and Avraham ben Avraham became impatient and escorted him out in a rather rough manner.

The boy ran home and told his father, Chaim Yoshkes, who happened to be the tailor who made uniforms for the Polish soldiers. He associated with the nobility and was aware of the disappearance of Valentin the son of the Count. He put two and two together and reported Avraham ben Avraham to the authorities.

Avraham ben Avraham was then brought to Vilna, identified and offered great wealth if he returned to the faith of his youth. He refused and was sentenced to be burned at the stake.

Villagers brought wood for the fire and gathered in the square on the second day of Shavuot when the execution took place. That day corresponded to the 9th of June 1749.

The Jews were not permitted to collect the ashes but one Eliezer Zinkes disguised as a non-Jew managed to retrieve them. These ashes were later buried in the Jewish cemetery in Vilna.

According to popular accounts, many strange events occurred after the execution. A strange looking tree grew over the place of the burning. The houses from which people had taken wood for the fire had all burned down. A building adjacent to the town square had strange black stains which could not be removed no matter how often it was painted over, and it eventually had to be destroyed.

The grave of Avraham ben Avraham remained unmarked for many years although the Jews knew whose grave it was. The Jews were reluctant to speak about the grave and it was only a hundred years later before the story was first printed although the name of the writer and the publisher were withheld.

Eventually, in 1927 a tombstone was finally erected over the grave declaring it to be the burial place of the righteous convert Avraham ben Avraham who died after publically sanctifying G-d’s name.[2]

According to some accounts, the Jewish cemetery was destroyed during the Second World War and when it was restored sometime later, Avraham's ashes were interred in the grave of the Vilna Gaon where they remain till this day.


According to most secular historians, the story is regarded as a myth and a legend. 

They claim that the story is based entirely on secondary and not on primary sources. 

These scholars include Janusz Tazbir, Jacek Moskwa, Rimantas Miknys and Magda Teter.

  • According to Tazbir, certain historical legal provisions[3] guaranteed freedom of religion at that time. If this is correct, it would have made the Polish constitution to have been, at least in theory, one of the more liberal of the times.
  • Furthermore, had a Polish nobleman been executed in such a manner, it would have created a huge protest and outcry – and it would have been the only reported case of such an occurrence. 
  • Also, there is no record in the archives of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the episode.
  • According to Magda Teter the story is apocryphal. She suggests that it was created to offset a strong 18th-century movement to convince Jews to convert to Christianity.
  • Additionally, it could have been to counter the false-messiah Jacob Frank who together with a great many of his followers did indeed convert to Catholicism, including the descendants of very prominent R. Yonatan Eybeschutz.
  • Another suggestion is that the story was perpetuated by the followers of the Vilna Gaon who wanted to emphasize the importance of pure Torah study especially in the aftermath of the birth of the Chassidic movement which emphasized matters of a more ecstatic nature.

On the other hand, Professor Sid Leiman makes a strong case for the historicity of the story.[4]


Then there is the view that the Pototzki story is really a conflation of an entirely different story which occurred with one Avraham Isacowicz:

In the 1753 edition of The London Magazine, a tellingly similar story is told of a certain Christian Croatian, Rafhael Sentimany, who converted to Judaism and changed his name to Avraham Isacowicz. He was imprisoned in Vilna and then executed also on the 9th of June which was the second day of Shavuot. The similarities between both episodes are uncanny except that the Isacowicz story took place four years later that the Pototzki story.


As mentioned, many secular scholars dismissed the story because of a lack of primary sources. However, an account of the event was recorded by R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), also known as Yaavetz, who was a contemporaneous source (and a fervent anti-Sabbatean and Frankist).

In 1755, R. Emden wrote[5]:

“Some years ago, a prince from the house of Potolzki converted to Judaism. He was caught and incarcerated and encouraged to return to his original faith...He nevertheless was not afraid of dying...and died sanctifying G-d’s name. May peace be with him.”

Although some do seem to regard this account as a primary source, it does not really fit the technical definition of a primary source which is defined as: 
"Immediate first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it. Texts of laws and other original documents. Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did. Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote."


As to the question of why there is a scarcity of other written Jewish accounts of this story, it has been suggested that because the powerful Potolzki family was always well disposed towards the Jews, they did not want to anger or humiliate the family by publically drawing attention to their son.[6]

Notwithstanding the objections of some historians as to the historicity of the story, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) went so far as to even amend a Halachic practice in the immediate aftermath of the Pototzki event. Evidently, he took the story very literally and seriously:

Peninei Halacha, Tefillah 8:3 p. 110

According to Peninei Halacha (my translation follows): 

"The is an amazing tradition, relating to Count Pototzki who was the son of an aristocratic family of Poland, whose heart moved him to join the Jewish nation and convert (to Judaism). 

But the matter was forbidden during those times, he converted secretly and occupied himself with Torah (study).

Eventually, the Christians caught him and placed two choices before him; either to return to Christianity or be burned alive.

The righteous convert chose to die through fire and to sanctify G-d's name in public.

At that moment the Vilna Gaon declared that the impure (spiritual) spirits had lost their strength - and this especially so regarding the impure spirits of the morning (which require the washing of the hands by water three times alternately).
For this reason, the students of the Vilna Gaon are (no longer) strict not to walk more than four steps (in the morning) before washing the hands. (They regard the entire house as 'within four cubits'.)"

[For more on evil spirits and the views regarding whether or not they exist see KOTZK BLOG 171.]

Interestingly, the Vilna Gaon was so emphatic that this story is true that he was prepared to take the extraordinary steps of altering a long-standing Halacha because of it.

Perhaps the Vilna Gaon could be considered a Primary Source for this story?

It is, however, interesting that the embellished Chabad version of the story published by Kehot (see Note 2), for some reason, contains no mention of the Vilna Gaon reaction nor his involvement with the 'Ger Tzedek of Wilno'.

[1] Also spelt Potocki.
[2] For a grand recounting of this story see The Ger Tzedek of Vilno, by Nissan Mindel, published by Kehot Publication Society.
[3] The Warsaw Confederation and Neminem Captivabimus. (See, however, the account of the Vilna Gaon as recorded in Peninei Halacha where conversion to Judaism would have been illegal.)
[4] See: Who is Buried in the Vilna Gaon’s Tomb, by Sid Leiman.
[5] Vayakam Edut BeYaakov, p. 25b.
[6] See: Al Kiddush Hashem: R. Avrohom Ben Avrohom, by Dov Eliach.


  1. Amazing research as usual. However, I am surprised that you accept the testimony of the Peninei Halacha as to what the Gra said without challenging it... I am curious as to how reliable that report is.

  2. Thank you Lamden. Yes, you ask an interesting question. I think had I written that article today, being more conscious of the difference between history and hagiography, I might have done so.