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Al Kiddush Hashem: R' Avrohom Ben Avrohom

By Rav Dov Eliach

The following material is from the book about the Gra of Vilna being prepared by Rav Eliach, entitled HaGaon. Shavuos is the holiday of converts, who follow the example of Rus. Also, the yahrtzeit of The Ger Tzedek is on the second day of Shavuos. He was martyred in 5509 (1749), 251 years ago.

Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom was one of the most admired and hallowed personalities in the eyes of Vilna Jews for generations. They called him "The Ger Tzedek," with a capital "T" -- he who, in his youth, answered to the name "Duke Valentine Pototzki," was named Avrohom ben Avrohom at his conversion.

A number of traditions remain about the man who attached himself to Klal Yisroel with such tremendous mesiras nefesh until that second day of Shavuos when he was burnt at stake al kiddush Hashem. From that day until Vilna was destroyed by the Nazis ym'sh, the Vilna Jews used to go to his kever to pour out their hearts. In the masses' opinion, the Ger Tzedek's tomb was almost as holy as the tomb of the Vilna Gaon zt'l.

The Jews of the city used to show the site where the Ger Tzedek was burnt at stake on a street called "the Wide Road." They said that the trees for the fire were brought by gentiles of Sapinikes, a suburb near Vilna. They paid dearly for their alacrity and devotion, because immediately after the Ger Tzedek was burnt a large fire broke out and destroyed the entire suburb.

The Vilna Jews also used to tell about the fact that when the Ger Tzedek was burnt, the smoke ascended onto the building next to it and a black stain remained there forever. The gentiles worked hard to remove the stain, but nothing, not even repainting the building, helped. They finally knocked down the building in great embarrassment.

Fear of the authorities and censure prevented the wondrous story of the Ger Tzedek from being written down when it happened. Only years later was anything written. The inscription on his grave, as well, is short. The memory of the fascinating story, therefore, was kept alive by tradition, passed down from father to son.

Due to the unique connections between the Vilna Gaon and the Ger Tzedek, we have devoted a short chapter on the matter in the sefer of the Gra's life story.

From "Valentine Pototzki" to "Avrohom ben Avrohom"

In the fifth century of the sixth millennium (the early 1700s), an extremely wealthy duke lived in Poland, son of the Pototzki family, a famous noble family that had held important political positions in the Polish government. They say that the Duke, or as he was called in Polish, the Graf, owned nine hundred and ninety-nine properties. He purposely did not buy another property so that when people were describing his vast wealth, they could not merely say that he owns a thousand properties. They would have to enunciate "nine hundred and ninety-nine properties." (See Shimusha shel Torah Maran HaRav Shach, page 68.)

One of the Graf's luxurious palaces is still standing and has become a tourist attraction. People point out that the Pototzki family coat of arms, which is engraved in the gate and contains a number of leaves, is missing one leaf as a sign of the lost son.

Graf Pototzki had one son, a smart, learned son named Valentine, and he had a friend named Zarembo, who studied with him in a theological seminary. The two planned to become Catholic priests and the Vilna Bishop sent them to study in Paris. There, while taking a stroll, they came across a Jewish Tanach. They began to learn with a certain rov in secret, until Pototzki's soul became attached to Judaism and he decided to convert, come what may. He traveled to Amsterdam, far from his devout Christian parents' home, and joined the Jewish nation.

Some say that even before he converted, Pototzki possessed a lofty soul. Every Shabbos he was overcome with a special excitement and he didn't know what it was. He used to walk back and forth in his room, in inner emotional turmoil, crying out in Polish, "Tzu ta za Sabato?" What is the nature of Shabbos?

(Much later, after the Ger Tzedek was burnt at stake, his friend Zarembo also converted and was called Boruch ben Avrohom. He traveled with his wife, who had also converted and was called Rochel bas Sora, to Eretz Yisroel where they spent their days involved in tzedaka and chessed.)

Valentine's parents, the Graf Pototzki and his wife, began a thorough search for their only son who was missing. They sent emissaries to the various lands from which he had sent them letters over the years, but they could not find him. On the other hand, "Valentine" began worrying that his parents would find him, so he left Amsterdam and went to Vilna dressed as one of the Perushim with a beard and payos. He settled himself into some small kloiz where he learned Shas and poskim day and night. Righteous women brought him meals.

They say that when the Vilna Gaon found out what was happening, he advised the Ger Tzedek not to live in a large city like Vilna but to move to a small village where no one would recognize him. He traveled to Ilia, where he stayed in the beis knesses wrapped in a tallis and tefillin and learned and davened with lofty deveikus. The Jews of Ilia respected him as an exalted, holy man, but with the exception of the village rov, no one knew who he really was.

A tailor who used to sew furs for the noblemen lived in this village. Through his gentile customers, he heard that Graf Pototzki was searching for his lost son and the rumor was that the son converted. The tailor suspected this Porush, who spoke Yiddish with a strange accent and also a perfect Polish -- a rare accomplishment among the Jews -- but he kept his suspicions to himself.

One day, the tailor's mischievous son teased the Porush and disturbed his learning. When he could not take it anymore, the Porush picked him up by ears and took him out of shul, saying that if a Jewish boy could act with such wickedness, he could become a meshumad. (Some say that the boy did become an apostate.) The tailor was enraged, and although the Ger Tzedek apologized, the tailor went to the authorities and informed on him.

Armed soldiers immediately came to Ilia, bound the Porush in chains and brought him to the capital city Vilna to the local bishop. In those days, when the Church ruled supreme, a gentile who dared convert to Judaism was sentenced to burning at the stake.

Some say that the Ger Tzedek was captured on the night of his wedding to the daughter of the miller of Ilia, 13 Adar 5509 (1749), about a year after he came to Ilia.

To Be Mekadesh Shem Shomayim

As soon as the imprisonment became public knowledge, the Ger Tzedek's parents came to the prison and tried to convince him to return home. They fell at his feet and cried and begged him to save himself from death and to return to Christianity. It was all for naught. Their former son now dwelled in other worlds, pure and holy.

The priests as well tried to convince him again and again to return to their religion. But he answered them bitingly, "I am willing to meet you, but why do you bring me `these dogs,' " and he pointed to the crosses they wore. He announced that he was prepared to die as a Jew, al kiddush Hashem. The many terrible tortures that they inflicted upon him were to no avail, and he remained faithful to Hashem.

One of the tactics his parents tried was to suggest that he renounce his geirus only outwardly. They said that when he was freed, they would build him his own palace where he could live secretly as a Jew. The answer to this too was absolutely no. He wanted to fulfill his strong desire to sacrifice himself as a korbon to sanctify Heaven's name.

Some say that his mother begged him to deny Judaism and he answered, "Dear mother, you are very dear to me but the truth is even more dear to me." His mother realized it was a waste of time to try further to convince him, and she quickly traveled to the Kaiser himself to plead for her son's life. She did obtain a special permit allowing her son to live, but the priests pushed the judgment up one day and burned him a day before the permit came.

They also say that before the decree was carried out, some of those who tortured the Ger Tzedek came and asked for forgiveness and asked that he not take revenge on them in the next world.

The Ger Tzedek answered them confidently and calmly, "It says in Tehillim (117), `Praise Hashem, all the nations, praise Him all nationalities, because His kindness has overpowered us.' The gemora (Pesochim 118: 2) asks why do the nations of the world need to praise Hashem because `His kindness has overpowered us.'

"However, it is compared to a prince who was hit by his friends while playing. The boy promised that when he becomes the king after his father, he'll pay back the one who hit him, double the pain. The years passed, the boy grew up, and he was crowned king. The friend who hit him remembered the promise and was afraid of what would happen now. How surprised he was when the king explained to him that from the heights of the throne, with all the honor he had, the entire incident of the slap was just a joke.

"So too, the Ger Tzedek said, when I reach the World of Truth, to the place set aside for me, all the tortures you caused me will be considered like a child's slap in comparison to all the honor and rewards promised me there. My mind will not even be thinking about small matters such as revenge on you and your wicked deeds. That is why the nations of the world, as well, need to give thanks that `His kindness has overpowered us.' Because of the fact we are so overcome with His kindness, all the problems they caused us will not be considered so terrible."

About the fate of the tailor who informed on the Ger Tzedek, some say that the Ger Tzedek calmed him with the same moshol and promised that he'll try to intercede on his behalf in heaven so he will be allowed into Olam Haboh. After all, the tailor brought about this tremendous zechus for him, to give his life al kiddush Hashem.

Another source relates that the Ger Tzedek cursed the informer that he and his children for ten generations would be malformed. Indeed, when a certain writer visited Ilia, he found descendants of this tailor who were malformed, generation after generation -- deaf or mute or such, and they had not yet reached the tenth generation. See the words of HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Farber, "It is a terrible lot to be like an informer, to tell everything he sees. How much bloodshed was caused through this in Yisroel, and the holy Avrohom ben Avrohom Ger Tzedek was burnt in Vilna al kiddush Hashem because of the story of one tailor to the government."

"Boruch Mekadesh es Shimcho Borabim"

The story of the Ger Tzedek took place in 5509 (1749), and the Vilna Gaon, who was then about twenty-nine years old, knew the Ger Tzedek and had secret ties with him.

They say that the Gra once came to visit the Ger Tzedek in prison and found him worried. Seeking an explanation, he said to the Ger Tzedek, "You should be happy, because in a few days you'll reach a very high madreigo, to sanctify Heaven's name in public, like the level of the tana hakodosh Rabbi Akiva."

The Ger Tzedek answered the Gra that he was worried for a different reason -- he did not have zechus ovos, for his father and mother were gentiles who did not believe in the Creator of the world. The Gra comforted him and said, "Hakodosh Boruch Hu says, `I am first and I am last;' Hashem is the father of all those who do not have yichus ovos."

HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz of Kaminetz told the story of the Gra's visit as follows: The Gra once visited the Ger Tzedek, the tzaddik Reb Avrohom, and found him crying. The Gra wondered why; after all you are going to sacrifice your life al kiddush Hashem. Why are you crying? You should go happily.

The Ger Tzedek answered that he was not crying because of that. He was crying because he was not zoche to put down roots in Am Yisroel, for he had no father or son in Yisroel.

The Gra said, "We find in the medrash of the posuk, `I am first and I am last etc.' (Yeshaya 44:6) `I am first for I have no father; I am last for I have no brother; And besides Me there is no power for I have no son' (Shemos Rabba chapter 29, 5. see also Yalkut Hameiri, Yeshaya 44). The words seem questionable. Why does it have to say something that everyone knows?

"However," Rabbenu answered, " `I am first' for someone who has no Jewish father and came to bask in My shade; `I am last' for someone who doesn't have a brother; `And besides Me there is no power' for someone who doesn't have a son. I am better for him than ten sons."

The Chofetz Chaim, who used to tell over the story of the Ger Tzedek often, related that the Gra offered to save him from being tortured and killed through sheimos kedoshim according to kabolo. But the Ger Tzedek told his rebbe that since he had recognized the Creator of the world, he was prepared to sacrifice his life al kiddush Hashem. He did not want to forgo the lofty merit of Kiddush Hashem and exchange it for a physical body.

And so, with these pure, lofty thoughts, the Ger Tzedek returned his holy soul al kiddush Hashem when he was burnt at stake a few days later. Before being put on the fire, he made the brocho of "Boruch mekadesh es shimcho borabim" and called out in a loud voice, "Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod."

The Chofetz Chaim also said that the Gra said that if ten Jews would have been present to answer omein to the Ger Tzedek's brocho, Moshiach would have come already.

Who was Bound upon the Mizbeiach

Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom made his way to the fire in song and dance. In Yeshivas Volozhin, they used to sing a special song that the Ger Tzedek sang when he was being burnt with the words from the brocho of kiddush Hashem: "But we are Your nation, bnei berisecho, sons of Your beloved Avrohom that You swore to him on Har Hamoria, seed of his only son Yitzchok who was bound upon the mizbeiach."

They say that when the fire grabbed hold of the Ger Tzedek's body, he called out, "Burn the body that ate treif," and so on. Even as the flames engulfed him, his voice was heard singing verses of Tehillim until his soul left him amidst terrible suffering.

One author of that generation dared write something about the happening, but only in a hint. He wrote, "And in our generation, I heard that some of the kedoshim who were killed al kiddush Hashem, zechusom yogein oleinu, used to go to their death as if they were going to a beautiful chuppah. And some used to say that their hearts are happy like one going with a flute and they would have wanted to hear musical instruments such as an ugov, harp and musical instruments, since they were zoche to give their souls as a present to Hashem yisborach and cling to the upper light and fulfill the mitzvo of ve'ohavto es Hashem Elokecho. And in their fervor for love of Hashem, they don't feel pain in their death."

It seems that due to the lack of authentic tradition on this story, great importance is placed on this source, because it is the earliest one we have.

A tradition is cited in the name of the Gra that on the day the Ger Tzedek sanctified sheim Shomayim, the klipo chitzonis was nullified and the power of tumo that rests on the hands in the morning (after sleep) was weakened. In the wording quoted in his name: with his [the Ger Tzedek's] ascent to Heaven, fear overcame all the klipos chitzonios and they all became mute.

They also say in the name of the Gra that when he was praising the Ger Tzedek of Vilna he said, among other things, that the level of a ger is higher than the level of a Yisroel. It is known that a Yisroel is higher than a mal'och, for a mal'och may only say "Hashem" after three words, "Kodosh, kodosh, kodosh Hashem," and a Yisroel says after two words "Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu" (see Chulin 91:2). The ger says after one word, like it says, "And Yisro said `Boruch Hashem . . . '"

The Chofetz Chaim used to repeat an explanation that he heard in the name of the Ger Tzedek about the origin of geirim. The words of Chazal are well-known that before Hashem gave the Torah, He went to every nation and they all refused to accept it. However, the overwhelming majority of each nation refused, but there were individuals who did want the Torah. Those individuals are the source of the souls of geirim.

A Jewish Burial

After the Ger Tzedek was burnt at stake, the priests forbade gathering his dust to be buried. But the Gra decided that they were obligated to try to give him a Jewish burial, and that is what happened. A Vilna Jew by the name of Reb Eliezer Meir Sirki (or Leizer Siskes according to another version) did not have a beard which made it easy for him to disguise himself as a gentile. The Gra chose him to fulfill this mitzva.

Reb Leizer dressed up in gentile clothing and went to bribe the gentile appointed to temporarily guard the ashes. After offering a large sum of money, Reb Leizer received some ashes and two pure fingers, which he buried in an earthenware vessel -- a proper Jewish burial.

For his great devotion, the Gaon gave him a brocho that he should live a long life. Indeed, he lived to the ripe old age of one hundred and twelve. They say that engraved on his tombstone are the words, "The Gaon's brocho -- the number of years of his life: one hundred and twelve years."

They also say that when they found out that the Gra instigated saving the Ger Tzedek's ashes, the authorities imprisoned him for some time. The chapter of this imprisonment, however, is shrouded in darkness, and details of two later prison stays, which happened in his old age for other reasons entirely, are mixed into it.

A wondrous phenomenon occurred at the grave of the ashes of the Ger Tzedek in the ancient cemetery in Vilna. A thick tree grew on top of it, shaped like a human body stooped over the grave, covering it, as if to protect it. At the bottom of the tree, two branches grew like two legs and two branches crossed on top like two arms. Whoever saw it was frightened by the tree's awesome appearance, which rose from the ashes of the holy and pure one.

Stories abound about the tree, mostly about repeated attacks from the gentiles even as late as one hundred and fifty years after the Ger Tzedek's demise. They say that during World War I, a soldier shot the tree and suddenly there were drops of blood coming out of it. Another time, a soldier tried to cut down the tree, and when he hit it with his ax, the ax slipped out of his hand and killed him. The fact that this "rebel to their religion" merited a remembrance and a place for many Jews to daven infuriated the gentiles. In any case, during World War I, German soldiers succeeded in cutting off the upper part of the tree.

Due to the circumstances, the grave did not have a proper ohel until 5687 (1927) when the "great tzedaka" of Vilna erected an iron ohel to protect the grave and a stone fence to protect the rest of the tree. The following wording is engraved on board on the black ohel:

The tombstone of the Ger Tzedek / To a dear pure and holy soul / The kodosh Avrohom ben Avrohom / He was mekadesh Hashem in public on beis Shavuos / 5509

Yizkor

The anniversary of his death was a special yahrtzeit for the overall Vilna community, and they used to remember his neshomo and speak about his strength. Reb Eliyohu Gordon, a maggid in Vilna, raised the memory of the Ger Tzedek on the bimah of the Beis Knesses Hagodol on the second day of Shavuos 5679 (1919) before Yizkor.

He concluded his hesped with the following words: "Who of us has not seen this frightful tree; who of us has not stood there bent in great admiration before the remains of the saintly man, who sacrificed his life al kiddush Hashem."

He also added that on the day Vilna remembers the Ger Tzedek's neshomo, from then until today, they tell stories upon stories about his life, because in his generation it was forbidden to publicize the details of his strength.

We cannot end the description of this chapter until we mention another thing told about the Gra's connection to the Ger Tzedek. Once, Rabbenu went to comfort one of his students whose son died in infancy. While comforting him, he revealed the secret of why the infant was taken so young. The Ger Tzedek, Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom, purified himself with all kinds of holiness, but there was one thing he could not rectify -- that he was not born in kedusha, because he had a gentile mother. His soul therefore came back down to earth in the form of that baby, and when his tikun was complete, he returned to his eternal home.

Further Research on the Story of the Ger Tzedek

By Rav Avishai Beir

Rav Avishai Beir invested much work in compiling and verifying the historical facts from writings and testimonials divulged over the years, and he has now published his findings for the first time. He found various old source material that sheds light on further details.

The following article was first published in the sefer hazikoron of the great mashgiach of the Lakewood yeshiva, HaRav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel zt'l, published this year in 5760 (2000), by Lakewood alumni and entitled Nit'ei Ne'emonim. The sefer is a two-volume compilation of unique, Torah articles and surveys as well as speeches of gedolim of previous generations, some of which were previously unpublished. Accolades to the publisher, Machon Mishnas Reb Aharon and the editors.

The story of the Ger Tzedek shook up the Jewish world at the time and until today, and it still makes the hearts of anyone who reads it tremble.

Very little was written about this story at the time, and we must rely on a combination of rumors and bits of tradition. There are a few reasons why there are so few contemporary sources about the ger tzedek story. It can be assumed that the noble Pototzki family, which was a religious Polish- Catholic family, was not happy that one of their sons defected to Judaism. The Pototzki family was said to have generally dealt kindly with the Jews living on its lands. Mentioning the conversion would have been interpreted as an open provocation of the area's ruler, which would have not resulted in any good. In addition, undoubtedly the conversion of one of the upper- class gentiles aroused great interest among the populace, and his refusal to return to their faith caused them great embarrassment.

Sources of Confusion

The sefer, Ir Gibborim relates a blood libel that happened in Horodna: A Christian girl disappeared and her scarf was found in the possession of Reb Eliezer ben Reb Shlomo of Verbloi. That was enough evidence for some to testify that they saw with their own eyes how the Jew killed the girl and used her blood. All efforts to save him did not help, and he was sentenced to a cruel death. His body was cut into four pieces, which were hung in four corners of the city. The decree was carried out on the second day of Shavuos 5550 (1790). It seems that the fact that this kodosh, Hy'd was also killed on the second day of Shavuos caused some vagueness in the story of the ger tzedek.

The sefer Amudei Beis Yehuda, tells about "a certain kodosh Hy'd, Morenu HaRav Man, a seventy-year old man and great talmid chochom who was killed al kiddush Hashem in Vilna." This story could have also caused a confusion in tradition.

Someone named Litwin in an article, "Graf Pototzki, the Ger Tzedek," wrote that he made a special trip to the village Ilia, about thirty-seven kilometers from Vilna, where Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom hid and subsequently was given over to the authorities. Litwin asked the community's secretary permission to see the "ledger" in case anything was written about the story of the Ger Tzedek. The secretary absolutely refused.

Litwin related that his efforts to find documentary evidence on the Ger Tzedek were not very successful and only after much toil did he find even a pamphlet of a few pages entitled "The Story of the Ger Tzedek," written by a Vilna Jew. The handwritten story was in Yiddish, according to his guess from around 5560 (1800), and was only a copy, not the original. Litwin only published a few paragraphs of that pamphlet.

The handwritten paragraphs that Litwin quoted, relate that Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom always had a burning desire for learning, and especially a strong desire to know what is the true faith. "The noble's son's main desire in learning was to clarify which faith is the true one." For this purpose, he traveled to Paris and there "he put his body and soul into investigating all faiths."

Litwin wrote that the writings before him related that after the Ger Tzedek found out that he had been informed upon, he fled to the "Starinke" area, about nine kilometers from Ilia. The area's owner, out of fear of the local poritz, handed him over to the authorities.

The article goes on to relate that when the author visited Ilia, a local Jew told him that the Jews of Ilia have the following tradition. When the Ger Tzedek was brought to Vilna in chains, he cursed the informer, his sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren until the tenth generation, that none of them will be physically whole men and that none of them will die in their beds. The same Jew added that the Ger Tzedek's curse was fulfilled and the informer's descendants, who from then on bore the derogatory title "Di Yoshkes," were never physically whole. One was deaf, one mute, one crippled, etc. and it was rare that any of them died a natural death. The family members were stamped with a kind of sign of Cain, and they were always met with looks of fear and suspicion.

A curse fell as well, the Ilian Jew added, on the pub where the Ger Tzedek hid and was chased out by the owner. Not a single barman finished his years of tenancy there alive.

Descendants

In the book Converts to Judaism in Russia and Other Countries, the author relates that in 5645 (1885), when he was in Charson, he met a forty-year old Jew in a hotel who used to say vidui every single night before he went to sleep, as if he were prepared to die that night. When he was asked to explain this custom, he said, "I am a descendant of that tailor, the one who handed over the Ger Tzedek zichrono livrocho to the authorities, since he rebuked him and his wild son. When he [the Ger Tzedek] was imprisoned, he cursed him with the same curse that was placed on the high priest Eli's family: `There will not be an elderly person in your house all the days . . . and all of the majority of your house will die [young] men.' Because of this we, his descendants, say vidui every night . . . Only in rare cases do we cross the border of `their days will not reach half.'"

The author adds that he spoke to the rov of Dimasa, Reb Gershon Pinsker, who told him that he also knows some of this tailor's great-grandchildren and grandchildren and not one them lived a long life.

The Sefer Gerei HaTzedek

In 5622 (1862), M. Dik in Johannesburg published a small pamphlet called Gerei Tzedek, which contains the story of the Ger Tzedek and his friend. The book's style is smooth and gushing; it is obvious that a storyteller embellished the story. It seems, however, that M. Dik never claimed that all details of the story are true. We will quote a story that appears in the pamphlet:

"One gentile woman twisted her mouth in laughter while they judged him, and immediately screamed in a bitter voice and remained that way, with her mouth twisted and opened, and she became mute and had harsh tribulations."

At the end of the book, M. Dik cites two stories in the name of "HaRav HaGaon of Ilia." We are unable to cross verify who exactly this was and if he truly told Dik or this is one of his "improvements." We'll cite them as is:

"HaRav HaGaon of Ilia told me that the tzaddik cursed the wicked tailor who handed him over to the authorities, that from all of his house, none will be a talmid chochom forever, and if one of his family members desires the Torah of Hashem, he will die in adolescence. When he was appointed rov there, he said a shiur in gemora every day in the beis medrash. A good, smart boy sat in the shiur, and the rov drew him close because he was also diligent in his studies. One time his mother came, grabbed him by his payos and dragged him out of the beis medrash and cried a great, bitter cry saying to the rov: Go out, go out murderous man, heretical man, have pity on yourself.

"The rov was very angry and asked about this outburst. And they answered him that he [the boy] is from the wicked family and his mother is scared that if he learns Torah of Hashem he'll die, so she doesn't want him to learn.

"The aforementioned rov also told me that when the wicked tailor died, they buried him in "a donkey's burial," thrown outside the cemetery's gates. After a few years, members of his family were appointed to the Chevra Kadisha and it was a disgrace to them that their relative was buried outside the gate. What did they do? They bought another piece of ground for graves from the city's prince so that he would be buried in the middle of the cemetery. In that year, anyone who was involved in this died."

A New Manuscript -- Kuntrus Ger HaTzedek

The collected manuscripts, Kehillas Moshe of Arye Leib Freidland, today found in the Leningrad library, contain a nine-page kuntrus, which tells the story of the Ger Tzedek in more detail than was previously known. Undoubtedly, this manuscript is not the one Litwin had, because his was written in Yiddish and this one in loshon hakodesh. It was also not translated from Litwin's, because Litwin related details that it does not contain. These details themselves are unimportant, but they do determine that there are two entirely separate manuscripts.

The author's literary style is very nice. It seems, however, that he was not so educated, because his manuscript is strewn with blatant spelling mistakes and he undoubtedly skipped portions of the story. At the same time, there is no attempt to polish up the story and fill the gaps with details from the author's imagination. Perhaps this fact, as well, gives the manuscript a certain ring of authenticity.

In his aforementioned article, Litwin complains that there are not enough details about the Ger Tzedek. The manuscript before us also does not elaborate much about the Ger Tzedek, but it does speak about his friend Zarembo at length.

The Ger Tzedek's Ties with the Gra ztvk'l

In spite of all our traditions that speak about the Ger Tzedek's ties with the Gra, the manuscript does not say anything about it. It seems quite certain that Litwin's manuscript did not mention it either, because if so he would have cited it. Dik, as well, does not say anything about it.

Nevertheless, we believe the words of our rabbonim, which clearly indicate that there was a connection between the Gra ztvk'l and the Ger Tzedek.

We will discuss one point: Did the Gra ztvk'l himself visit the Ger Tzedek in prison?

In the sefer, Ruach Eliyohu, Rav Eliyohu Moshe Bloch relates that he heard from HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l that the Chofetz Chaim told him that the Gra ztvk'l sent a message to the Ger Tzedek that "he is prepared to save him through a mofes, and he answered that he doesn't want that."

In the sefer, The Life and Deeds of the Chofetz Chaim, the author relates this very story in the name of HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Levinson, the Chofetz Chaim's son-in-law -- that the Gra ztvk'l sent a message -- implying that he did not meet him personally. The same is written in Shimusha shel Torah. The only one who wrote that the Gra did meet the Ger Tzedek in prison was Reb Chaikel Lunski in his aforementioned article, but he was careful with his words and prefaced the incident with, "The story goes." It seems that there is no reliable source for this detail.

The fact that the Gra was buried in the same ohel as the Ger Tzedek also proves that they did have ties with each other.

Rabbenu Menachem Azarya of Panno writes that there is a strong link between gerei tzedek and gedolei hador, in sefer Olom Koton. He says that the gedolei hador must take care of gerim like Moshe with Yisro and Naomi with Rus.

As far as is known, the story of the Ger Tzedek is not mentioned in the seforim of the Gra's disciples. Perhaps there is a hint in the sefer Toldos Odom, which says that Reb Zalman once mentioned the words of the gemora in Brochos: When they took Rabbi Akiva out to be killed, it was time for krias Shema. They raked his skin with iron combs and in spite of everything, he accepted upon himself the yoke of Heaven with love and happiness and was not affected by his body's suffering. And he concluded with the following, "In this golus as well, Yisroel does not lack chachomim who suffered tortures more bitter than death, with happiness and joy like one going out with a flute to celebrate a holiday."

The Ger Tzedek, Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom was burned al kiddush Hashem on the second day of Shavuos 5509 (1749). Until the Holocaust, all the batei knesses of Vilna commemorated his yahrtzeit le'iluy nishmoso.

In 5712 (1952), the Russian government destroyed the ancient cemetery of Vilna. Only seven graves were moved to the new cemetery, including the Gra's and the Ger Tzedek's.

A monument stands at the site of the old cemetery containing the following words in Yiddish:

Here were buried in the dust / Gedolei Yisroel / Including: / The Vilna Gaon -- / Eliyohu bar Shlomo Kramer / The Ger Tzedek -- / Graf Valentine Pototzki

Reb Chaikel Lunski Hy'd related that anyone who was in pain or suffering used to come to pour out his heart at the kever, to ask him to be a meilitz yosher for the nation for whose belief he sacrificed his life.

Ger Tzedek

One tradition brings the following account of an incident in the life of the Ger before he converted.

One day the two friends (Pototzki and Zarembo) went for a walk in the city, and they got very thirsty. They went into a vineyard to drink, saw a small hut and heard the voice of someone learning within. They went closer to see who was learning there and found an elderly man learning with a young boy. The friends went into the hut to see what he was learning. They looked at the sefer and could not understand anything.

The Duke's son asked his friend, "Can you read the book?"

The friend said, "I have never seen or heard this language until today."

They asked the old man, "Which book is this?"

The old man said, "This book is called Talmud Bavli and its language is loshon hakodesh."

They asked him to tell them what was written there. He told them a few paragraphs, explaining them well. And they liked this sefer. They asked the old man if everything written there is true. The old man answered, "It is very true."

And they said, "If it is true, why don't you teach us from this book; why do you read from it in secret?"

The old man answered, "You are Christian. The one who turns you from the proper path put a ban on anyone teaching his son from this sefer. Therefore, I learn in secret, and I'll learn our Shas with you from this sefer."

They urged the old man to learn with them from the sefer for some time every day and paid him well. He began to teach them from the sefer and [behold] after a half a year they learned the entire Chumash. The words of Torah entered their hearts, and they became different people. They also learned Tanach in this room. They didn't keep up with their academic studies and didn't go to pray. Their priest rebuked them and the Duke's son answered sharply.

One day, the two friends went for a walk in the field, with their servants following. They sat down and the Duke's son said to his friend, "Tell the servants to go away, because we need to speak in private."

The servants left. The Duke's son said to his friend, "I will reveal all the secrets of my heart to you, but do not tell any of these words to anyone."

"Heaven forbid that I should do such a thing."

"I decided to flee from here to Amsterdam to convert to Judaism, because their religion is the true one, as we know."

His friend answered, "I am like you, I will also do so if I have the means."

The two swore and made a treaty together and said, "G-d will be a witness between us." They got up and went back to the city.

They discussed it with each other, because they were still wavering from one side to the other -- to the G-d of Yisroel or the opposite chas vesholom. They decided to draw lots, and the lot fell that they should convert to Judaism. The Duke's son wanted to travel to Rome, and there in Rome he could discover for sure if there was anything to their faith. He wrote a letter to his father, the Duke, asking him to send a lot of money because he wanted to travel to Rome. And his father sent him a lot of money.

He came to Rome. They greeted him with much honor and the Pope taught him in their academy. Every week, he used to make a big feast for all the ministers and servants and he gave the ministers many presents. Once the Duke's son asked the Pope's attendant, "How does he go up to heaven?" He begged and pleaded that he should tell him the truth.

The attendant said, "If you give me a good present, I'll tell you the truth."

He agreed. The servant told him, "You should know that everything is a lie; he never went up to heaven. On their day, they say he sits in an inner room in great poverty and afterwards they say he went up to heaven, but it is not true."

He [Pototzki] investigated the matter and found that it was true.

He thought, now it is time for Hakodosh Boruch Hu to take me out of falsehood and bring me to truth. Blessed is Hashem Who led me on the true path.

He fled from Rome to the seashore, went onto a ship and came to Amsterdam, where he converted to Judaism. He lived there for a few months.

His friend (Zarembo) did not hear anything from the Duke's son; he could not write him letters in a way that no one would find out their secret. He stayed in Paris for thirty months, studying well, and then traveled to his father in Lithuania. He passed the palace of Tishkevitz, his father's friend, and the Tishkevitz ruler greeted him with great honor. He stayed there for a month and then wanted to travel to his father.

The Tishkevitz minister said, "I'll reveal my heart's secret to you. I want to give you my daughter for a wife because I like you."

And he bowed before him and said, "Why have I found favor in your eyes; my father is from the poorest of nations, Lithuania, and my master is great among the nations."

He said, "If you are small in your eyes, you are great in my eyes." He sent a letter to his father and his father came to Tishkevitz. They made a big feast and conducted the wedding, and he took the Tishkevitz daughter for a wife. The lad became great among all the ministers and officers of the kingdom. After a year, his wife gave birth to a son and they made a big feast for all his ministers and servants and the Lithuanian ministers for a month. And behold, due to his great success and happiness, he forgot the pact he had made with the Duke's son.

In those days, letters arrived from Poland saying that the Duke's son disappeared -- his name is Pototzki, who went to Rome, and no one knows anything about him. When his friend heard the news, he trembled greatly. He was very pained over the fact that he had forgotten about their promise and understood that he had definitely fled to Amsterdam to convert to Judaism there. He also had sworn to convert like him. He did not want to separate from his wife and son and all his glory; but he also did not want to break his promise, because he knew from what he and his friend had investigated that their religion was nonsense and empty. And he was very worried about this and he became depressed.

His father-in-law realized that he was worried and in pain and asked him what was with him. He said that he was not feeling well and asked for a horse and buggy. His father-in- law gave him two horses and a carriage and two servants, and he and his wife and son went to his father and stayed there for a month.

He wrote a letter to his father-in-law asking for money because he wanted to tour Konigsburg. They liked the customs of the people there, because their faith was much better than the officers of Lithuania. They stayed there a few months. He said to his wife, "Write a letter to your father that he should send us a lot of money and we'll buy property here."

The wife agreed and wrote to her father to send them a lot of money. When the money arrived, he said to his wife, "I want to travel to Holland for two or three days. Perhaps there is a boat to Holland from here."

She said, "I will also come with you and see the country's beauty." They boarded a ship and reached Amsterdam, where he rented a palace and lived there.

The next day, he went to the rov of the city and told him that he wanted to become a ger. He gave them a special room to circumcise himself and his five-year old son. And his wife was waiting for her husband to come and he didn't come. In the evening, she and her servants went to find him and her son. He sent her a message that she should not look for him because he had converted.

When his wife heard this, she fainted. The women said to her, "What's with you?" She told them that her husband became a Jew. They said that there is freedom to do that here. She went and came and begged him and cried before him a great cry and said to him, "I will also convert like you."

Her husband said to her, "It is very good, but before you convert, you must learn (Judaism) and see how many mitzvos there are. It is not like the Christian faith where everything is permissible. And when you learn the Jewish religion, if you want to convert, I will accept you."

The matter found favor in her eyes. She went to wise, righteous women and they taught her the Jewish religion. Afterwards she went to a beis din and they informed her of the severity of the mitzvos, their punishments and rewards. They took her out to tovel and she became Jewish.

She came with great happiness and said to her husband, "Now I am like you."

He said, "You did a good thing, but one thing I want to tell you -- I want to marry another woman who knows more and could teach me Judaism, and you should marry another man who will teach you the Jewish religion."

When his wife heard this, she was very pained. She said, "I will tell you what I read in a history book. Two people were walking on one path and they wandered in the forest for three days and could not find the right way. They cried and davened to Hashem and He made a miracle for them and they found the proper path. When they were on the right path, one said to the other, "Now let us separate; I will go one way and you will go the other way."

The other answered, "Is it right that when we were lost in the forest we went together, and now that we found the right path we should separate? Is that right? Rather, let us go together and rejoice over the great miracle Hashem did for us."

When her husband heard her good words, he took her as a wife. They lived in Amsterdam for a long time and then traveled to Eretz Yisroel.

May his merit and the merit of all tzadikim help us and may we all be zoche to see the comfort of Tzion and Yerushalayim.

 

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