Saul Wahl, king for a night

Alter Kacyzne: “Siddurim for sale (The Siddur is the daily prayer book)”

We have already published a plentiful selection from the photos made by Alter Kacyzne (1885-1941) in pre-WWII Poland. One-way, the source of the photos has now published two more photos with the note that these were the last ones she had. Both pictures have survived in the New York journal Forwerts, just as all those photos of Kacyzne which were not destroyed together with his Warsaw photo studio in 1942. The captions are also from the journal, although they were probably written by Kacyzne, just as Menachem Kipnis published his photos with his own captions in the same journal. The first photo represents a prayer book seller in Warsaw, while the second a man praying from an already purchased prayer book in Lublin, in the Saul Wahl Synagogue, shortly before the advent of the Sabbath.

Alter Kacyzne: “Lublin, 1924. The Saul Wahl Synagogue, the oldest in the city. Legend has that Saul Wahl, a Jew, was made king of Poland for twenty-four hours”

As a compensation for the few images, in the short time before the advent of the Sabbath let me tell you who was Saul Wahl, the wealthy Jew of Brest, who was elected king of Poland for a night.

Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł, the Polish-Lithuanian Grand Marshall and Prince Imperial in 1582 – exactly a hundred years after our Konrad Beck –, notwithstanding being a Calvinist, went on a two years long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in 1601 he published the story of his travels in Latin and Polish, which was also quoted in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. In this he relates that on the way home he also visited Rome where the Polish Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius and the Polish Jesuit Piotr Skarga successfully converted him to Catholicism. On the way heading north, around Padua he was attacked by bandits who completely looted him: so he had to find someone to ask for a loan for the remainder of the road.

Statue of Prince Mikołaj Radziwiłł in Keidan, from here (the photographer is a far away offspring of Saul Wahl!)

However, rabbi Pinchas of Anspach, a great-grandson of Saul Wahl described the circumstances of this episode slightly differently in the introduction of his Gedulath Shaul of 1734, also cited by the great raconteur Gustav Karpeles in his study of 1895 on the one-night reign:

So this prince journeyed in great state from land to land, until his purse was empty. Now, he chanced to be in Padua, and he resolved to unbosom himself to the rabbi, tell him that he was a great noble of the Polish land, and borrow somewhat to relieve his pressing need. Such is the manner of Polish noblemen. They permit shrewd and sensible Jews to become intimate with them that they may borrow from them, rabbis being held in particularly high esteem and favor by the princes and lords of Poland.

Well, shortly, Prince Radziwiłł requested a significant loan of the famous Rabbi Samuel Katzenellenbogen of Padua, who in turn asked him to visit his son Saul, who went to Brest to Talmud studies, from which it immediately becomes apparent how great the reputation of the Polish-Lithuanian Talmud schools was. When Prince Radziwiłł arrived to Brest, he summoned the young Katzenellenbogen,

and found him so wise and clever that he in every possible way attached the Jew to his own person, gave him many proofs of his favor, sounded his praises in the ears of all the nobles, and raised him to a high position.

In 1587, after the death of Stephen Báthory, Prince of Transylvania and King of Poland, the Polish nobility could not agree on the person of the new king. Besides the two large parties, the Zamoyski and the Zborowski families a number of minor candidates also went in the ring with the support of the Czar, Austria and Sweden. The electors appeared armed to the teeth in the castle of the Radziwiłłs on 18 August for the elections, but until late night they could not come to an agreement. However, the law required that the king should be chosen on the same day. Prince Radziwiłł therefore proposed to choose Saul for a night and to continue the debate the next day, which was done by acclamation: this is how Saul got his name Wahl (election). According to the legend, King Saul did not spend the night idle. As Rabbi Pinchas writes:

I heard from my father that they gave into his keeping all the documents in the royal archives, to which every king may add what commands he lists, and Wahl inscribed many laws and decrees of import favorable to Jews. One was that the murderer of a Jew like the murderer of a nobleman, was to suffer the death penalty.

Saul Wahl, the Jewish King. A card from a Polish historical deck of cards

The Polish historiographical tradition, however, does not know about the case, and the first reliable data on Saul Katzenellenbogen were reported only in the study of the Russian historian Bershadsky Еврей король польский (Восход 1889). Accordingly, already King Stephen Báthory delegated to him the salt monopoly in 1578, handed to him the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, and made him chief farmer of taxes in Poland. He was also confirmed in this office by Sigismund III in 1588. In 1589 he was raised to the high rank of sługa królewski, which made him and all his house exempt from any ordinary jurisdiction, and only the king could judge in his case. He also achieved that in the affairs of the Jews of Poland, instead of the Polish law, the much more favorable Magdeburg Law had to be applied.

Saul Wahl spent all his life in Brest, where he made a number of charitable foundations, schools and a synagogue that bore his name until its destruction in 1838. The other synagogue bearing his name in Lublin, which we see on Kacyzne’s photo, along the Podzamcze street in the old Jewish quarter under the castle was demolished by the Nazis together with the whole Jewish quarter through the prisoners of the Majdanek concentration camp.

German patrols in the Jewish quarter of Lublin, May 1941 (Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-019-1229-31)

In 2006 a book by Neil Rosenstein was published on the genealogy of the most prominent 15th to 20th century Jewish families, devoting a large space to the descendants of Samuel Katzenellenbogen. This shows that although Saul Wahl was elected king for only one night, nevertheless among his offspring there have been several uncrowned kings such as the composer Félix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the cosmetic queen Helena Rubinstein as well as Karl Marx.

Lublin, the Saul Wahl Synagogue. Detail of an aerial photograph of 1930, from here