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 investments and a meeting place for artists, scientists, students, and 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 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.
You cannot leave Lublin without stopping at the Maidanek camp, which is in a suburb of the city. 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.
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 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.
The legend of Lublin Billy Goat
Visitors will see a Billy goat on the lanterns, in the attic of 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. 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 its golden hooves and horns. The grapevines in front of the Billy goat stand for fertility and standing on his two legs proving his power and strength. It is worth looking around the city to spot this quintessential sign of Lublin.
The Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre Centre whereby the ‘NN’ stands for the Latin meaning of ‘no name’ or unnamed is a local government cultural institute and an important landmark of Lublin. The Grodzka Gate is also known as the Jewish Gate which historically was used as a passage from the Christian to the Jewish part of the city. When in 1992 the NN Theater moved into the Grodzka Gate, which focuses on the lost Jewish cultural heritage in Lublin and works to tell the story of what happened to the Lublin Jews.
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.
Before the outbreak of World War II, there were 43,000 Jews living in Lublin and the Grodzka Gate Center had 43,000 folders, most of them empty, other than a name, one for each person. After World War II, estimates show only about 1/2 of 1% of the Jewish population survived. A group of 3,000 glass negatives were discovered in a trash bin and were later developed to show Jewish life from the 1920s and ’30s and are now displayed throughout the building. Out of these pictures, only about 15 people have been identified.
Standing in front of the full-scale photo of Heino Żytomirski, the last photo of him taken shortly before the war was an emotional moment for me. 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 Heino,” which contains letters that have been sent to Heino by other children. Looking at 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 of their name.
The wall of remembrances recounted the memories of several of the survivors. There is 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 one of the most interesting institutes in Lublin, and probably even in all of Poland.
Lublin Castle Museum
This castle was built in the 13th century, and has a special view, overlooking the town and surrounding area. It is one of the oldest preserved royal residences in Poland and had a long history of both elegance and ruin. It 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 and the site of the Lublin Museum.
The Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva 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. It is the first museum of Hasidism in Europe located in this building.
On 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, a conference center, and a 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 spacious rooms, excellent kosher cuisine (try the soup and pierogi!), and a good breakfast, and the staff is very friendly, making your visit here a memorable and enjoyable experience.
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, “Old Jewish Cemetery” is situated on Kalinowszczyzna Street and Sienna.
Approximately 60 Matzevot (gravestones) can still be found there, including the oldest Matzeva from 1541, which is still standing in its original place. There is an Ohel (grave) of the famous tzadik, and the grave of one of the Hasidic movement founders Jacob Isaac Horowitz-Szternfeld called the Seer of Lublin (disciple of Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk). Other rabbis are buried here: 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 has inscriptions in Hebrew and is 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.
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The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Polish National Tourist Office in North America