The Tale of Walenti Potocki

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Pablo Edronkin

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The Potocki family were in business with the Skowronek bankers during the early years of the XX century, but perhaps their relationship began earlier, if Walenti really existed.

"There are a thousand ways to do injustice without breaking a single law." - Mishle Yehoshua[250].

Walenti Potocki (Abt 1700 -1749)[38] was a legendary member of the aristocratic Polish family of the same name; no actual proof of his existence has been presented, but several authors mention him because according to a legend, he converted from Christianity to Judaism, an action that eventually he paid with his life.

The reason why we chose to mention him is because according to those same stories, he became acquainted with the Gaon of Vilna[1.17][19], who was one of the ancestors of the Skowronek family.

If our familiar lore is true, and my grandmother was in fact destined to be married with someone from the Potocki family instead of my grandfather by an arrangement made at about the time she was born, in 1908, this would mean that the dealings that the Potocki and the Skowronek family had would have been going on for quite a long time (See Skowronek the Horse and Skowronek the Bank) because such deals were seldom made by families that had no prior engagements of other kind.

That the Potockis had commercial dealings with the Skowroneks, Schoenbergs and other family names related to us is certain. Just consider this: In the beginning of the XX century, most banks were owned by Jewish families that in reality, were all relatives by means of intermarriage that had been taking place for centuries. Then, the Potocki family, being a wealthy one, would certainly have made use of the banking system and inevitably, would have been in contact with those bankers. The banking names at the time were Rothschild, Montefiore, Landau, Kronenberg, Schoenberg, Worms, Hanau, Heine, Mendelssohn, Itzig, Guggenheim, Werhteim, Goldschmidt, Raphael, Oppenheim, Schiff, Epstein, Gomperz and of course, Skowronek.

Some were better known than others, some operated in just one country while others, in many, but they were all familiarly related. Then, being the Potocki family from Poland and the Skowronek family from Warsaw, and being both actually neighbours, living a few metres from one another, it is unavoidable that the moment the Potockis would have made use of any sort of banking system, they would get in touch with our large family.

Potocki is a name also related by marriage to the Gans family, from which many of the members of the Skowronek family also descend (See Eger - Gans)

The name Szembark[32], linked by marriage to the Potocki family is indeed a phonetic variation of Schoenberg, one of the most prominent names associated to the Skowronek family. Whether the Szembarks had anything to do with the Jewish Schoenbergs is something yet to be seen, but it is indeed interesting that during the XVIII century, when Warsaw was a relatively small city, there were three similarly-named families, Szembark, Schoenberg Belmonte and von Schoenberg[56], and all of them were part of the local aristocracy.

There are indeed many cases of people that have similar names but are unrelated. However, in this case we have to consider that the high nobility in Poland and other European countries at the time represented perhaps 1% of the population; Warsaw, at the time had only a few thousand inhabitants. Then if we find three similarly-named families in the same place, all of them wealthy and doing the same line of work, we cannot help but wonder if they were connected.

We know that the von Schoenberg family that originated from Schoenburg was active in the Polish Royal court at least until 1745, when its last representative, who was the private secretary of the king passed away.

The von Schoenberg family from Germany entered Poland in the second half of the XVI century, when one of its members - Caspar von Schoenberg[56.2] - began lobbying for the election of Henry d'Anjou as king of Poland, on behalf of the French crown. The name Szembark appears in Polish records a few years later.

However, an interesting point is that the Schoenberg Belmonte family, also known as van Schonenberg or von Schoenberg, was dedicated to the banking business in Amsterdam, Scandinavia and Hamburg - Altona at that time, and some of its members were official representatives of the Spanish, Portuguese and French kings.

The representative of the House of Anjou for the election of Henry as king of Poland also secured some very good loans for the Polish state and received a very nice reward for his job. This von Schoenberg made the deal with German bankers that were, of course, Jewish by having some of the Hanseatic cities visited[56.2] at the time when the Schoenbergs Belmonte actually began being known as such, after "Germanizing" their originally Portuguese name, which was de Belmonte.

Another interesting thing is that the German, Christian von Schoenberg family named several of its members Abraham in successive generations to pay homage to one Abraham that reconstructed the wealth of the von Schoenberg family after the 30-year war[56.1]. That was also a Jewish tradition and Abraham was not a so common Christian name at the time. The name sounds distinctly Jewish and since Jews were often forbidden from using non-biblical names in European cities to distinguish them from Christians, it seems odd that one purely Christian family would name several of its members in such a way as to provide them with an unnecessary handicap.

Moreover: The de Belmontes were considered Christians or Jews depending on who asked, because they were "Marranos," forcibly converted by the Inquisition. That was why they fled to Amsterdam in the first place, from a very comfortable position in the Portuguese royal family until things turned ugly for Jews there.

But going back to the story of Walenti, while its authenticity has been questioned, many people in Lithuania, Russia and Poland believe it and still call him Ger Tezedk, and according to most Jewish sources, he was a Polish nobleman who was burned at the stake on May 23, 1749.

On his conversion to Judaism, Walenti allegedly adopted the name Abraham ben Abraham. According to the tale, Walenti became interested in Judaism during a trip to Paris, and soon began learning about the religion and the Hebrew language.

He went to Amsterdam and became Jew, returning later to Paris. But as rumours of his conversion began spreading back to Poland, he fled to Vilna. The Vilna Gaon then suggested him to hide in a small village, but a tailor who made uniforms of Polish officers and public officials and was aware of the gossiping going on about the fugitive Potocki began suspecting that the new arrival was in fact, Walenti. The son of this tailor, who usually went to pester those in the synagogue where he was hiding was thrown off the establishment by Abraham ben Abraham, and the tailor reported him to the authorities.

He was soon arrested, tried for heresy and condemned to death by burning at the stake[57]; since his mother began using all her influence to free him, the execution was moved ahead one day so that she would not be able to save him.

Only oral tradition about the existence of Walenti Potocki has been passed by generations; non-Jewish historians generally question its validity stating that there is no evidence that he ever existed, which is often more than enough as an argument to put the whole story within the realm of tales.

However, cases like the Holocaust prove that efforts have been made thorough history not only to exterminate Jews but erase all traces of their existence as well: Seventy years after 1945, still one third of the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime have not been identified. Thus, the existence of Walenti should not be dismissed so easily.


PE Myasoedov (1867-1913). The burning Avvakum. Oil on canvas. Size: 67.5  103.5 inches. 1897.
PE Myasoedov (1867-1913). The burning Avvakum. Oil on canvas. Size: 67.5 103.5 inches. 1897,
A fairly explicit and accurate example of execution by burning at the stake.
From Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, public domain[54].



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