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Jewish Culture and Heritage in Lublin, Poland

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For many centuries Lublin was a vibrant center of Hebrew and Yiddish culture and home to what was then the world’s largest Talmudic school. Lublin was called the Jerusalem of the Polish Kingdom. The only Jewish college of higher education in the country was located here.

Although Lublin was not spared from severe destruction during World War II, its picturesque and historical Old Town has been preserved and offers a glimpse of what life was like here in the seventeenth century, with a city hall in the middle of the Rynek, a Dominican church, fortifications, and various city gates.

Old Town-Lublin New York Jewish Travel Guide

The district is one of Poland’s official National Historic Monuments. The city is viewed as an attractive location for foreign investment and is one of the best cities for business and also a meeting place for artists, scientists, students and all kinds of business people in Poland.

Lublin’s Old Town is stunning, with great architecture, quaint little streets and a lively atmosphere. Lublin is interesting during the day, but magical at night! The street cafes and displays emit golden lighting that makes the arches glow. It is as if they are enticing you to share in their history –as if you would maybe walk into the arch and emerge into a long ago time. 700 years covers a lot of history! Also, finding the brass plaques set into the cobbles commemorating the boundaries of the Ghetto during 1941-1942 was a sobering reality-check.  It’s a beautiful Central European old town, small in its size, but enchanting and an unforgettable place for me. A must-see city in Poland!

Old Town – Lublin New York Jewish Travel Guide

You cannot leave Lublin without stopping at the Maidanek camp, which is located in a suburb of the city. I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Maciej Zbarachewicz, a guide, by my side, who was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the history of all of the sites that we passed throughout Lublin.  The Maidanek camp was the first martyrdom museum and the oldest memorial to the victims of Nazism in Europe, at the site of a former German concentration camp. This is a huge site covering almost 6km and with the exception of some later storm damage is, as it was, when liberated.

Majdanek has been preserved in almost its original state, down to the prisoners’ barracks with their crammed bunks, exhibits of real prisoners’ clothes and mounds of victims’ shoes, the guard towers beside the barbed wire fences, and the original stained and scratched gas chamber next to the ovens of the crematorium. The most appalling thing at Majdanek, though, is the “hill of ashes” next to the crematorium, where some 7 tons of ground-up human bones and ashes, which had been scattered around the area, were gathered and preserved as a memorial after the war.

 

This visit to Majdanek left me speechless. This important museum help us remember the pain and suffering of the European Jewish community and Polish communities during WWII and after the Soviet liberation of the camp. A reminder of the evil that humankind is capable of…   I personally feel this is a absolute must-see. To walk the pathway into the gas chambers was very eerie and emotional, to say the least. One of the best preserved concentration camps I have visited thus far. It was a very moving, emotional, challenging, and eye-opening experience.  This must-visit site will leave an impression on you.

Majdanek National Museum: The Mausoleum at Majdanek

The legend of Lublin Billy Goat

Probably many visitors have thought of what the sign of “a billy goat” in Lublin means. A billy goat can be seen on the lanterns, in the attic on one of the buildings in the Old Town, and in the city centre.  A billy goat climbing on vines is the coat-of-arms of Lublin. The story has its beginning in a legend. It says that during the Tatars’ attack on Poland, some groups of children living on the territory of the contemporary Lublin ran away. They hid away in a defile. Unfortunately, they ran away in a hurry and didn’t take any food with them. Interestingly enough, there was one goat left in the defile. The goat has fed the children so they could survive. The silver billy goat looks majestically with his golden hooves and horns. The grapevines In front of the billy goat stand for fertility. The billy-goat stands on his two legs proving his power and strength. It is worth looking around the city to see where you can find this quinessential sign of Lublin.

Lublin Billy Goat – New York Jewish Travel Guide

The Grodska Gate – NN Theatre Centre is a local government cultural institute based in Lublin and an important landmark of Lublin. It used to be called ‘the Jewish Gate’, as it separated, or rather joined, the Christian and Jewish quarters of the city, becoming a passage between two different worlds. When in 1992 the NN Theater moved into the Grodzka Gate, its members understood that thus they became responsible for saving the memory of Polish and Jewish Lublin.

This visit was a thoughtful and moving experience – I would recommend it to anyone who visits Lublin. I had the privileged to have the Head of the Department, Mr. Bartosz Gajdzik, guide me through the labyrinth of rooms dedicated to the individuals, who once lived in Lublin in the Jewish quarter.

The Grodska Gate – New York Jewish Travel Guide

The Memory Gate Program’s goal is recovering memory about Polish-Jewish Lublin, which is called “Memory Gate”. Its purpose is to gather and present articles, documents and testimonies related to Lublin Jews, their lives and activities. With time, the Memory Gate program was developed and embraced artistic, educational and publishing activities, concentrated around the subject of Jewish cultural heritage in Lublin and Lublin region.

Grodzka Gate Center – NN Theater: maquette of Lublin’s Jewish district- New York Jewish Travel Guide

There used to be some 43,000 Jews in Lublin. The center has 43,000 folders, most of them completely empty, other than a name, one for each person. After WWII, estimates are that only about 1/2 of 1% survived. A group of 3000 glass negatives were discovered in a trash bin, which was never discarded from a building up the street. These were developed and showed Jewish life from the ’20’s and ’30’s. Out of these pictures, only about 15 people have been identified. These 3000 pictures are displayed throughout the building. I found two other exhibits particularly moving.

One of the most emotional moments was standing in front of the full scale photo of Henio Żytomirski, the last photo taken shortly before the war. Henio was a Jewish boy, who was born and brought up in Lublin, and at the age of nine was executed in a gas chamber at Majdanek concentration camp. Henio had become a symbolic child by an annual education project called “Letters to Henio”, which contains letters that have been sent to Henio by other children. Henio has a face and a dedicated project to his memory. Facing Henio’s innocent photo, my thoughts went for 1.2 million Jewish children that were murdered. Most of them have neither a photo nor a memory in their name.

the library with 43,000 folders-The Grodska Gate – New York Jewish Travel Guide

I also particularly liked the wall of remembrances, which recounted the memories of several of the survivors. If you’re interested in Jewish history, this is definitely a place to visit. They also have a huge scale model of pre-war Lublin, showing the castle surrounded by the soon to be completely demolished Jewish quarter, as well as the Christian quarter.

This is surely the most interesting institute in Lublin, but probably even in all of Poland; the personal commitment of Mr. Bartosz Gajdzik as someone, who is part of the Jewish world, always amazes me. To find such kind people, who maintain the Jewish heritage with no personal gain, is truly admirable.

The Castle Museum is a must-see!

Built in the 13th century, the castle has a special view, overlooking the town and surrounding area. It is one of the oldest preserved Royal residences in Poland. It has a long history of elegance and ruin. It also served as a Tsarist prison for 128 years and most infamously as a Nazi prison during their occupation, when 40,000/80,000 people passed through the prison. Just before withdrawing in 1944, they executed 300 prisoners here. In 1954 the castle prison was closed. It is now the main tourist attraction in Lublin and is the site of the Lublin museum. It’s also possible to climb the endless steps to the top of the tower and devour the 360 degrees-view of Lublin. The main attraction, however, is the museum. There you can see many artefacts: Pieces of furniture, armaments, and of course, many art objects, which are mostly beautiful paintings with the breathtaking sight of Matejko’s Union of Lublin. It is a truly impressive site, which should not be missed when in Lublin.

The Castle Museum – Lublin New York Jewish Travel Guide

Worth a visit is the Piwnica pod Fortuna. A good, historical museum from early history to modern times including WWII. “Piwnica pod Fortuną”, or “The Fortuna Cellar”, is located in Lublin at Rynek 8, in a historic tenement of the Lubomelski family.  Very interesting to see and complete in its content!

One of the highlights was my visit of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, which was founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro; an important centre for Torah study in Poland. Here I will give you a bit of history about this Yeshiva:

Lublin was sometimes called the Jewish Oxford and the Polish Jerusalem, because of its tradition of learning going-back centuries. The synagogue is housed within the yeshiva, an elegant six-story, yellow building opened in 1930 by a renowned rabbi of the time, Meir Shapiro.

Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva -now a four-star hotel named Hotel Ilan, Lublin New York Jewish Travel Guide

It operated until the 1939 invasion of Nazi Germany at the start of World War II, and was a place for young Orthodox men to pursue intensive studies of the Talmud, the collection of writings making up the Jewish law.

When the Nazis took over Lublin, they stripped the interior and burned the vast library in the town square. After the war, it was used by a medical academy, but was returned to the Jewish community in 2004. Its synagogue, the first to be entirely renovated by the Jewish community of Poland since World War II, was reopened on February 11, 2007. Also, under current plans, the first museum of Hasidism in Europe will be located in the renovated building.

As of October 2013, a four-star hotel named Hotel Ilan was opened in the building, which includes  44 rooms, four suites, a restaurant featuring Jewish cuisine, a lobby bar, conference center and spa. Its logo includes the slogan “feel the tradition.” For those staying at the hotel, it is a perfect location, close to the historic center of Lublin (and to the shopping malls). It offers very spacious rooms, excellent kosher cuisine (try the soup and pierogi!), good breakfast, and the staff is very friendly, making your visit here a memorable and enjoyable experience. Excellent place to stay for a weekend or longer!

The Synagogue – New York Jewish Travel Guide

The Old Cemetery of Lublin: “Jewish cemetery in the city center”

Jewish cemeteries in Lublin remained under administration of Jewish community. In the city there were three cemeteries. The first one is a non-existent Jewish cemetery in Wieniawa that was situated near today’s Lublinianka stadium. Only photographs of that cemetery are preserved. In the place of the cemetery, there is currently a plaque commemorating its existence.

Another cemetery, so called “Old Jewish Cemetery” is situated in Kalinowszczyzna Street and Sienna. Approximately sixty matzevot can still be found there, including the oldest matzeva in Poland from 1541, which is still standing on its original place. There is also an ohel of famous tzadik, and the grave of one the Hasidic movement founders Jacob Isaac Horowitz– Szternfeld, called the Seer of Lublin (disciple of Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk) which is covered with small stones of homage . Other Rabbis are buried here as well: Rabbi Shalom Shakna, founder of the Talmudic school, who died in 1558; Talmud scholar Yehuda Leybush ben Meir Ashkenasi, who died in 1597; Rabbi Itzhak Aizyk Segal, who died in 1735.

The Old Cemetery – Lublin New York Jewish Travel Guide

Matzevots at this Jewish cemetery have inscriptions in Hebrew, and are amply decorated with different kind of ornamentations that have a certain symbolic meaning.

A third cemetery is the so-called “New Jewish cemetery”, situated on Walecznych Street, where burials take place to this day. The ashes of children from the Jewish Orphanage at 11 Grodzka Street, shot dead in 1942, were transferred to this cemetery.  By the cemetery there is a Chamber Memorial in honor of the Jews of Lublin.

The grave of the Seer of Lublin in the Old Jewish Cemetery- New York Jewish Travel Guide

For more information, visit:

To plan a trip to Poland, contact the Polish National Tourist Office North America or log on to:

https://www.poland.travel/en  and www.lrot.pl

Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide

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