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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 andchessed.)

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 tallisand 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 havezechus 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, Yeshaya44). 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 tokabolo. 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


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, amaggid 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.