The Legend of Count Valentine Potocki, Who Converted to Judaism

The Hebrew word “ger” means an immigrant that lives among the Israelites and keeps to their customs and traditions. Later this word took on the meaning of a person of non-Jewish roots that converted to Judaism. There were basic rules that were formed for “giyur”, which is the conversion to or being accepting into Judaism. Judaism always viewed those of other nations who wanted to convert to Judaism in a skeptical or negative manner. This action was not encouraged, because Judaism was not a proselytizing religion. However, a number of everyday situations in the practice of Judaism are viewed in a strict manner by religious authorities.

Two mysterious manuscripts

Do You Know?

There was a legend of Count Valentine Potocki that spread through fiction, plays, theatre performances and local Jewish tales in Eastern Europe. He converted to Judaism and because of this was burned at the stake. The legend was to be a counterbalance to the growing number of Jews or their families that were being baptised, and at the same time was influenced by Christian tales about the conversion of Jews.

Despite the skepticism of the Jewish community and unambiguous bans of the Christian church to not only stay with Christianity, but even ban having friendly relations or communicate with Jews, there were those that always had an interest in Judaism, as well as those persistent enough who converted to Judaism despite barriers and intimidation. There was a legend of Count Valentine Potocki that spread through fiction, plays, theatre performances and local Jewish tales in Eastern Europe. The main character of this legend should not be tied to the real Potocki family, who were a family of GDL nobles who did not have the title of count. In addition, none of the men were given the name Valentine. The origin of the legend, circumstances of its appearance and need for such a story raise a number of questions, however one is inclined to believe that its popularity was determined by its religious apologetic manner of content.  The legend was to become a counterbalance to the growing number of Jews or their families that were being baptised, evidence that Judaism was a real religion, an example of how one’s faith was persistently preserved.

There are two sources that survive to this day that provide different variations of the legend.

One of them was published by Polish historian and writer Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812-1887) in his four-volume work devoted to the history of the city of Vilnius. He claims that he found a legend in an old Jewish manuscript, and that Jews had helped him to read it. The second version of the legend is known from a manuscript written in Hebrew and kept in Jerusalem. The differences in the details of these versions may have been due not only to the translatin, but also that the Polish version was for Polish readers, and not Jewish readers, while the Hebrew version was read within their community. In the legend published by Kraszewski, there was a part that was missing, where Catholicism was talked about in a negative light.

The story of the righteous proselyte

According to the legend, Valentine Potocki was sent by his parents to study abroad. He together with his friend Zaremba were in a wine shop in Paris and saw a Jew that was pouring over a book written in a strange language. After finding out that he was reading the Talmud, and becoming acquainted with its teachings, they wanted to not only learn Hebrew, but also become better acquainted with Judaism. Both made a promise to convert to Judaism, if they were convinced of the erroneous nature of Christianity. These two friends went their own separate ways. After a long spiritual search, Potocki went to Amsterdam, converted to Judaism and received the name of Abraham ben Abraham (the son of Abraham; in this way there is a connection that is created with one of the Jewish patriarchs), a name proselytes often received. However, Zaremba, having forgotten this agreement with Valentine, returned to his homeland and married the daughter of Tiszkiewicz, an influential noble. When a son was born to Zaremba, a rumour began spreading that the son of Count Potocki had converted to Judaism. Zaremba remembered the promise he had made to his friend from his youth and which he had broken. He left for Amsterdam, and afterwards his family followed him. At the beginning Zaremba and his five-year-old son converted to Judaism, and later on, not wanting to leave the family and having become accustomed to Judaism, his wife converted as well. According to the legend, Zaremba’s family most likely settled in Israel. However, Potocki, who had returned to Lithuania and settled nearby Vilnius, was betrayed.

After long and unsuccessful attempts by the clergy to get him to return to Catholicism, he was condemned to death.

He was burned at the foot of Gediminas Castle in Vilnius (in 1749 according to the Hebrew source in 1749, and 1719 according to the Polish source). Pretending to be a Christian, a local Jew named Leiser Zhiskes collected some of the ashes of the count (according to various sources, he also collected a finger that had not burned and the blood of the holy person) and buried them in the Jewish cemetery. Valentine Potocki became Ger Tzedek, the righteous proselyte, and the Jews of Vilnius began to commemorate the date of his death.

A response to the Christian messianism

What does this legend have to say? How should one understand it? The main idea of the legend is the story of conversion to Judaism. However, researchers of the topic have observed that the Vilnius legend is different than that of similar tales of Christians converting to Judaism. The legend is constructed in a way that it would create the greatest effect possible: three adults and one child having converted to Judaism who were from a privileged class of society (they were landed gentry or even counts), who consciously renounced their status and converted to a religion that was marginalized in society, which was that of the Jews.

The choice of these people and the plotline bear witness to a heartfelt belief, which leaves no doubt that it was a pragmatic choice (in changing one’s faith, one loses more than one receives), which was often a deciding factor for Jews to be baptised.

The legend experienced influence of Christian stories of Jews converting to Christianity – the sacrifice and suffering of Count Potocki, the miracles that were attributed to his relics (his finger and ashes), and esteem towards a matyr for his beliefs (this was traditionally depicted as being buried next to the most prominent Jewish thinker of the GDL, the Gaon of Vilnius). The uniqueness of the sacrifice of Ger Tzedek in the legend is shown by the well-chosen day of his burning at the stake – the second day of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is remembered as the day that the Torah was given to the entire nation of Israel on Mount Sinai. This Bible story is linked to the acceptance of Judaism, while the next day after Shavuot the Book of Ruth from the Old Testament is read. This is not a coincidence – Ruth, the stepmother of King David, is one of the biblical proselytes that convert to Judaism, and the day of her death in Judaic tradition is held to be on Shavuot.

There are a number of symbolic meanings that unite the Jewish tradition, Judaic apologetics and main accents of Christian stories about Jews converting to Christianity in this legend with a fascinating plot, which became a popular narrative about the Jewish community of Vilnius. It is not known what the Jewish community thought about this legend, but its creators gave future generations a story about the past of Vilnius that has continued to fascinate.

Literature: Teter, Magda, “The Legend of Ger Zecek (Righteous Convert) of Wilno as Polemic and Reassurance” (2005). Division II Faculty Publications Paper 50 http:// 

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė