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Prochownik, Abraham

Legendary Jewish merchant (the name signifies a gunpowder merchant) who supposedly was declared king of Poland. The story is set in the ninth century, when the legendary king, Piast, ascended to the Polish throne (ca. 860), thus establishing a medieval dynasty.

The tale, first committed to writing by Herman Sternberg in 1860, is as follows: Popiel died, leaving no successor to the Polish throne. The council in Kruszwica, unable to reach agreement about a successor, followed the proposal of the senior elector that the first person to enter the city the next morning should be crowned king. Abraham Prochownik was the first to arrive, pursuing his gunpowder business, and was thus proclaimed king. He refused to accept the crown, saying that he wished to be alone with his God and ordering that he not be disturbed. When he had not emerged after three days, Piast declared that a country could not exist without a leader and burst into the building where he was located. Abraham—wise enough to understand that the country needed a leader and courageous enough to violate his order—then announced that Piast was most suited to be king. Piast was thus crowned king of Poland.

This legend served to strengthen Jewish claims to settlement rights in Poland: if Jews had lived in Poland from its earliest days, there could be no grounds to question their right to live there later. It also legitimized Jewish mercantile activity, showing that it had been their occupation from earliest times. Moreover, the story demonstrated Jews’ unique contribution to Polish history and their role in the foundation of the Piast dynasty. The legend illustrated the importance of the Jews to Polish society—it was the sound judgment of a Jew that brought the Poles to choose a great king and establish an illustrious royal dynasty. Finally, it emphasized to Poles and Jews alike that Jews had no pretensions to power in the Diaspora.

The story was largely preserved—albeit in concise form—in historical works on Polish Jewry, where it served as a source for information on the earliest period of Jewish settlement. Today, historians maintain that the tale could not have emerged before the thirteenth or fourteenth century, when gunpowder first arrived in Europe. Some are of the opinion that it was created only in the modern period for apologetic purposes. It is thus generally agreed that it tells nothing about Jewish history in Poland in the ninth century.

The legend is found in several versions. In 1855 the folkorist Roman Zmorski set down a written Polish-language version based on the oral tradition that had been related to him by Jews. The story was published in Hebrew in 1861 in Ha-Nesher, a supplement to Ha-Mevaser, and in Yiddish in 1901 by Peter Wiernik. It also appears in Grigorii Bogrov’s novel Zapiski evreia, published in Russian in 1878 and translated into Hebrew (with the title Ketav yad Yehudi) in 1900. Shemu’el Yosef Agnon gave it literary form in his story “Mi-shomerim la-boker” (Watchers for the Morning), published in the collection Polin sipure agadot (Poland: Legends; 1925). Unlike the similar legend of Sha’ul Wahl, the story of Abraham Prochownik is largely forgotten.

Suggested Reading

Ḥayah Bar-Yitsḥak, Jewish Poland: Legends of Origin (Detroit, 2001); Bernard D. Weinryb, “The Beginnings of East-European Jewry in Legend and Historiography,” in Studies and Essays in Honor of Abraham A. Newman, pp. 445–502 (Leiden, 1962).



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss