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. Known as the Jerusalem of the Polish Kingdom, Lublin was home to the only Jewish college in the country.
Although Lublin was not spared from severe destruction during World War II, its picturesque and historic Old Town has been preserved and offers a glimpse of what life was like here in the 17th century, with a city hall in the middle of the Rynek, a Dominican church, fortifications, and various city gates.
The district is one of Poland’s official National Historic Monuments. The city is viewed as an attractive location for foreign investment and also a meeting place for artists, scientists, students and businesspeople 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. Seven hundred years covers a lot of history! Also, finding the brass plaques set into the cobblestone 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.
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; he was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the history of all of the sites that we passed throughout Lublin. The Maidanek camp was the first Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom museum and the oldest memorial to the victims of Nazism in Europe, at the site of the former German concentration camp. This is a huge site covering almost 6 kilometers – with the exception of some later storm damage it appears as it did at the time of liberation.
Majdanek has been preserved in almost its original state, down to the prisoners’ barracks with their cramped bunks, exhibits of real prisoners’ clothes and mounds of victims’ shoes, the guard towers beside the barbed wire fences, and the original stained with scratch marks of peoples of people trying to escape. The most appalling place 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 museum helps us remember the pain and suffering of the European Jewish community and Polish communities during World War II and after the Soviet liberation of the camp. To walk the pathway into the gas chambers was very eerie and emotional, to say the least. Majdanek is one of the best-preserved concentration camps I have visited thus far. It was a very moving, emotional, challenging, and eye-opening experience.
The legend of Lublin Billy Goat
Visitors will see a billy goat on the lanterns, in the attic on one of the buildings in the Old Town, and in Lublin’s city center. 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, groups of children living on the territory of contemporary Lublin ran away. 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 — a goat that fed the children so they could survive. The silver billy goat looks majestic with his golden hooves and horns. The grapevines in front of the billy goat stand for fertility, and the billy-goat stands on his two legs proving his power and strength. It is worth looking around the city to try to spot this quintessential sign of Lublin.
The Grodzka 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 they had become responsible for saving the memory of Polish and Jewish Lublin. This visit was a thoughtful and moving experience as I had the privileged to be with the Head of the Department, Mr. Bartosz Gajdzik, guide me through the labyrinth of rooms dedicated to the residents, who once lived in Lublin’s Jewish quarter.
A program known as the Memory Gate is recovering the history of Polish-Jewish Lublin. 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 came to embrace artistic, educational and publishing activities, concentrated around the subject of Jewish cultural heritage in Lublin and the surrounding region.
There used to be some 43,000 Jews in Lublin. The Grodzka Gate Center has 43,000 folders, most of them completely empty, other than a name, one for each person. After World War II, estimates are that only about 1/2 of 1% of the Jewish population? survived. A group of 3,000 glass negatives was discovered in a trash bin, which had never been discarded, from a building up the street. These were developed and showed Jewish life from the 1920s and ’30s. Out of these pictures, only about 15 people have been identified. These 3,000 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 Heino Żytomirski, the last photo of him taken shortly before the war. Heino 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. Heino had become a “face of the Holocaust through” an annual education project called “Letters to Henio,” which contains letters that have been sent to Heino by other children. Heino has a face and a dedicated project to his memory. Facing Heino’s innocent photo, my thoughts went toward the 1.2 million Jewish children that were murdered by the Nazis. Most of them have neither a photo nor a memory to their name.
I also particularly appreciated 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. There is also a huge-scale model of pre-war Lublin, showing the castle surrounded by the soon-to-be-demolished Jewish quarter, as well as the Christian quarter. This is surely the most interesting institute in Lublin, and probably even in all of Poland; the personal commitment of Mr. 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.
Another must-see in Lublin is the city’s Castle Museum.
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 both 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 to 80,000 people passed through the prison. Just before withdrawing in 1944, the Nazis executed 300 prisoners here. In 1954 the castle prison was closed. It is now the main tourist attraction in Lublin and 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-degree-view of the city. The main attraction, however, is the museum. There you can see many artifacts: pieces of furniture, armaments, and of course, many objects of art.
Worth a visit is the Piwnica pod Fortuna, a comprehensive, historical museum from early history to modern times, including World War II. “Piwnica pod Fortuną,” or “The Fortuna Cellar”, is located in Lublin at Rynek 8, in a historic tenement of the Lubomelski family.
Another highlight was my visit to the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, which was founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro; it was an important center for Torah study in Poland. Lublin was sometimes called the Jewish Oxford and the Polish Jerusalem, because of its tradition of learning dating back centuries. The synagogue is housed within the yeshiva, an elegant six-story, the yellow building opened in 1930 by Shapiro, a renowned rabbi of the time.
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 Old Cemetery of Lublin: “Jewish cemetery in the city center”
Jewish cemeteries in Lublin remained under the administration of the 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, with a plaque commemorating its existence. Another cemetery, the so-called “Old Jewish Cemetery” is situated in Kalinowszczyzna Street and Sienna. Approximately 60 matzevot (gravestones) 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 (grave) of the 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 Ashkenazi, who died in 1597; Rabbi Itzhak Aizyk Segal, who died in 1735.
Matzevot at this Jewish cemetery have inscriptions in Hebrew and are amply decorated with different kinds of ornamentations that have symbolic meanings. 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.
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Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Polish National Tourist Office in North America