One of the greatest stories of Jewish strength and endurance that has been passed from mouth to ear down the generations is undoubtedly that of the heroic conversion to Judaism and subsequent burning at the stake of the Ger Tzedek of Vilna.
Valentin Potocki was the son of one of the wealthiest Polish nobles, the Graf Potocki. His grand estate in the town Landtsit can be seen to this day, attracting tourists both Jewish and gentile.
Young Valentin was the apple of the eye of his parents and, after completing his studies locally in Poland, they sent him with a friend to pursue an even higher education at the university of Amsterdam. There he became acquainted with the works of Tanach and, soon enough, recognized the truth therein. The more he delved into Torah, he more convinced he became that he wanted to live by its ideals. The idea gave him no rest and, as HaRav Michel Feinstein relates, the Shabbos before Valentin converted to Yiddishkeit he spent the entire day pacing back and forth without a moment's peace of mind.
Meanwhile, during his inner searching, Valentin had severed all contact with his parents so that by the time he was misgayer as Avrohom Ben Avrohom, they were sending out numerous messengers to track him down. Avrohom decided to flee Amsterdam and, dressed already as a regular Jew, he arrived in Vilna, where he mingled with the Yidden unobtrusively.
Upon the advice of the Vilna Gaon, who became aware of who he was, he moved to a small hamlet, Ilea, where he would be even more inconspicuous.
The tailor of Ilea scratched his head in puzzlement once again. A simple but naturally curious person, he had been intrigued by this newcomer to the village. A Jew who sat all day and night in the Kloiz, learning and davening — but there was something more to it. His accent and pronunciation of the tefillos were strange and he spoke a refined, high-class Polish. An interesting combination for such a devout and pious Jew.
As time went by, word spread that the wealthy Graf Potocki was searching for his son, whom rumor had it had converted to Judaism.
The simple tailor put two and two together, but kept his suspicions to himself.
One day the tailor's mischievous young son came home crying. He had for several days been bothering the Jew who sat and learned in the Beis Medrash and today, R' Avrohom got up from his studies and drove the bothersome boy out and away from his sanctuary.
Furious on behalf of his son's dignity, the tailor decided to reveal his suspicions to the authorities and denounce R' Avrohom as Valentin Potocki.
R' Avrohom was arrested and brought before the bishop of Vilna, where his identity was confirmed.
Immediately, the bishop ruled that he be put to death by burning alive for so grave a crime as deserting his faith and becoming a Jew!
When the news became known, the Graf Potocki and his wife rushed to Vilna from Landtsit to try to persuade their only son to forsake his new religion and reembrace his old faith. With tears and pleas, his mother entreated him to save himself from death, in vain.
"Mother," declared R' Avrohom, "you are truly dear to me, but the truth is ever more precious to me!"
All the threats and persuasions of the bishops, priests and other members of the clergy fell on deaf ears. Avrohom Ben Avrohom was prepared to die for his beliefs.
When the Vilna Gaon came to visit him in prison, he found R' Avrohom crying. "Don't cry," the Gaon comforted him. "In a short while you will merit to reach the madreigoh of Rabbi Akiva, who too gave his life as you, al kiddush Hashem."
Replied R' Avrohom, "My tears are not those of fear or regret, chas vesholom. I am crying over the fact that I didn't have Jewish parents and wasn't born a Yid."
The Gaon placated him with the consoling words, "Concerning you and those like you, HaKodosh Boruch Hu says, `Ani rishon ve'Ani acharon — I am the Father of those Yidden who don't have Jewish parents!"
As he walked bravely to his death, some of the guards who had tormented him during his interrogations and incarceration asked his forgiveness. R' Avrohom smiled.
"You remind me of the small children who were friends of the Prince. During their play they hit him and the young boy vowed that when he grew up and became king he would take revenge. The years passed and when the prince was crowned king his former friends, afraid of the avowed punishment, came to ask his forgiveness. Laughing, the king replied that those small misdeeds were of no significance now that he had been raised to his present position."
"I too," continued R' Avrohom, "will soon be in Gan Eden next to the King of Kings where your insignificant misdeeds will have no effect on me at all."
The date of the public burning was fixed for the second day Shavuos. On that day, the Jews of Vilna barricaded themselves in their homes, fearing a pogrom or outbreak from the goyim.
As R' Avrohom was led through the streets towards the public square, the procession passed the house of the Vilna Gaon. The latter opened the window and called out, "R' Avrohom, go with zerizus."
The talmidei HaGra later explained his words. R' Avrohom was undecided as to how he should walk towards his death. Should he walk slowly to delay the time and lengthen his life, for every moment of life is so precious, or was he duty-bound to hurry towards the holy mitzvah he was about to fulfill. The Gra, understanding what was going on in his mind, advised him to go with zerizus to the mitzvah of sanctifying Hashem's Name.
R' Isser Zalman Meltzer, zt"l, one of the great talmidim of Volozhin, related that in the Volozhin Yeshiva they would sing with inspirational deveikus the song, "Avol anachnu amcho bnei brisecho," ending with the brochoh, "Boruch Hamekadesh Shemo borabim," since it was known that this was the song sung by R' Avrohom the Ger Tzedek in his final moments.
The only Yid who did not lock himself in his home on that day was the gaon, Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, author of Yesod Veshoresh Ho'avodah. Pushing aside his fear, this great personality went to the public square in order to give R' Avrohom the merit that there be an answer of "Omen," to his brochoh of "Hamekadesh Shemo borabim."
With his tortuous death by fire, the pain of the Ger Tzedek was not yet over. The goyim would not allow his ashes to be buried and kept them under close guard.
One of the Jews of Vilna, shaved his beard, disguised himself as a goy and, for a large bribe, managed to get from the guards some of the ashes and a few fingers that remained of Avrohom Ben Avrohom. These he secretly brought to burial in the cemetery of Vilna. Eventually, when the Gra was niftar, his holy body was laid to rest next to the remains of the Ger Tzedek.
A strange looking tree grew next to the kever, one that resembled the form of a person. Many a time, the goyim tried unsuccessfully to destroy the tree. It is said that during World War II a Nazi tried to cut down the tree and drops of blood were seen to come out from the "wound."
The yahrtzeit of the Ger Tzedek on the second day of Shavuos, became a day of his'orerus and spiritual rectification for Vilna's Jews in his memory, up until the Holocaust, when Vilna's Yidden too, joined him on the mizbeiach — al kiddush Hashem.