Saul Wahl’s story is one of the most intriguing of all the legendary stories concerning Polish Jewry. It is said that he occupied the throne of Poland for a single day, August 18, 1587. During his brief time serving as Polish royalty, he supposedly enacted numerous laws protecting the Jewish population of Poland.
Those who study genealogy say that he was the ancestor to many illustrious Jews, including many great rabbis of the Halberstam line from Sacz, Rokeach of Belz, the Ropshitzer dynasty and the Katzenellenbogen line, among others. The secular Jewish world – including Martin Buber and Helena Rubinstein – can also trace their family roots to this interesting personage.
The story of Saul Wahl begins with the visit of a troubled prince to Rome. Lithuanian Prince Nicholas Radziwill, surnamed the Black, desired to do penance for the many atrocities he had committed while a young man. Thus he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome in order to consult the pope as to how best he could have his sins forgiven. The pope advised him to dismiss all his servants and to live for a few years as a wandering beggar.
Following his year of wandering, Radziwill found himself destitute in the city of Padua, Italy. His appeals for help were not heeded, and his story of being a prince was received with scorn and ridicule. He finally decided to appeal to Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Padua. The latter received him with marked respect by treating him with much kindness. The rabbi furnished him with ample means for returning to his native country in a manner befitting his high rank.
When it was time to depart, the prince asked the rabbi how he could repay him for his kindness. The rabbi gave him a picture of his son Saul (who years before had left for Poland) and asked the prince to try and find the boy in one of the many yeshivas of that country. The prince did not forget the request.
Upon his return to Poland, the prince visited every yeshiva in the land, until finally he discovered Saul in Brest-Litovsk. He was so captivated by the brilliance and depth of Saul’s intellect that he took him to his own castle, provided for all his wants, and supplied him with all possible means for continued study. The noblemen who visited Radziwill’s court marveled at the wisdom and learning of the young Jew. As a result, the fame of Saul spread throughout Poland.
When King Stefan Batory died in 1586, the Polish people divided into two factions, the Zamoyskis and the Zborowskis. There were quite a number of candidates for the throne, but the contending parties could not agree on a successor. Polish law stipulated that the throne not remain vacant for any length of time and that if the electors could not agree on a candidate, an outsider should be appointed “rex pro tempore” (temporary king).
This honor was offered to Radziwill. But he refused, saying he knew a man who belonged to neither party and who, in wisdom and goodness, was far superior to any one else he knew. That man possessed only one very slight shortcoming; but if his election was unanimously approved, he (Radziwill) would identify him. Accordingly, Saul’s name was solemnly proposed, and amid great enthusiasm (and shouts of “Long live King Saul”) Wahl was elected to this high office. (The name “Wahl” was given to him from the German word wahl, meaningelection.)
There is a disagreement as to the length of his reign. Some say that he ruled for only one night, while others say his rule lasted for a few days. All, however, agree that Saul succeeded in passing a number of very wise laws, among them some tending to alleviate the condition of Poland’s Jewish populace. Although this story is not supported by any historical data, it gained the belief of the people.
Noted genealogist Dr. Neil Rosenstein has written an interesting book (with sources and genealogy charts) on this subject. The book, Saul Wahl: Polish King For A Night Or Lithuanian Knight For A Lifetime, is published by The Computer Center For Jewish Genealogy. The ISBN is 0-9610578-8-2.
Shmuel Ben Eliezer