It had been a while since I had last tasted a slice of boiled gefilte fish. So where better to renew acquaintance with the Shabbat delicacy than one of its lands of origin, Poland? But I was not eating a Shabbat meal. I was one of a ravenous group of pilgrims who had arrived late on a midweek night in the small south-eastern town of Lezajsk (Lizhensk in Yiddish) and were enjoying the hospitality of some Israeli Chasidim in a marquee.
Like many Jews, my only experience of Poland, my father’s birthplace, had been a fly-in, fly-out day visit to Auschwitz. One can hardly apply the word pilgrimage to a place of such desecration. But it is appropriate for Lezajsk.
Across the road from us was the old Jewish cemetery and within it the tomb of Rabbi Elimelech (Weis-blum), one of the revered pioneers of Polish Chasidism who died in 1787. “If Auschwitz is the number one destination for visiting Jews, Lizhensk is the second,” said Simcha Krakowsky, a Lelov Chasid from Israel who organises free kosher meals for wayfarers.
There was an air of anticipation that night. The Belzer Rebbe from Israel was due to drop in sometime during the evening to visit the site, accompanied by several coachloads of his Chasidim. Large screens had been erected in the graveyard to broadcast his devotions inside the simple stone ohel (mausoleum) where Elimelech lies. His yahrzeit now attracts some 7,000 visitors each year and Rabbi Krakowsky has catered for as many as 1,000 over Shabbat.
When we returned in the morning, the marquee, portaloos and screens had gone. My companions went to recite Psalms and put their kvitlech — pieces of paper containing personal petitions — alongside the candles on the saintly tomb. “You can feel the kedushah [holiness] of the tzaddik,” said Simche Steinberger, a Conservative councillor from Hackney. “I feel that he is taking my prayers up.”
Pre-war, about a third of the 15,000 inhabitants were Jewish, the Mayor of Lezajsk, Piotr Urban, reminded us. “Jewish people fit into the landscape and local people treat it as natural and normal,” he said. “When they come, they don’t find any difficulties here.”
As we were leaving, another coach pulled up — this time containing a group of Polish teenagers from a nearby town. “It’s very important for the children to realise that Jews and Poles lived together in harmony from the time of Kazimierz the Great [14th century],” their teacher told me. “This is not only a holy site for Jewish people. Many Polish Catholics come here and ask for help,” she added.
The phenomenon of Jewish pilgrimage, which has been growing since the end of Communism in 1989, dovetails with increasing efforts by some Poles to commemorate the Jewish past in a country which was the graveyard of three million Jews during the war. Old synagogues are being restored as memorials in towns the Nazis emptied of their Jewish inhabitants.
Sponsored by the Polish embassy and the Foreign Ministry, our trip was arranged by Filip Slipaczek, a London-based businessman of Polish and Jewish extraction who has been instrumental in fostering ties. In a town hall chamber no bigger than a dining room, we were greeted as dignitaries by the Mayor of Bobowa, Waclaw Ligeza, who said: “Our community has always tried to express appreciation for the Jewish community that lived here.” Over the road, the decorative vines are fruitful once more on the fresco around the ark of a restored 18th century synagogue.
The most famous resident was the founder of one of the main Chasidic sects, the Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, who died in 1905. In June the town will stage a festival of Jewish culture centred on the re-enactment of a 1930s Chasidic wedding. One of our group, Ami Weitz, a great-grandson of the Rebbe, told the mayor of “the importance we put on our Jewish roots. If we can come back to our origins and feel welcome, it makes a huge difference.”
The Bobover’s ohel lies at the top of a hill made more accessible by a new asphalt track. As we climbed, the smoke from chimney-tops drifted gently across the valley against the red and yellow streaks of the dying sun. The little, sloping Jewish cemetery is the kind that inspires poets to write elegies. But then a grim reminder of the past jars with the bucolic peace — the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
By moonlight, we visited the ohel of another tzaddik, Rabbi Shlomo’s grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, founder of the Sanz dynasty, in the town of Nowy Sacz. In the field of tombstones, there are patches where a stone stands alone like a solitary tooth in an old man’s mouth ‑— the Nazis ripped out tombstones to use for construction.
“It can be hard walking here,” said Rabbi Osher Schapiro, a big-hearted Bobover Chasid from Stamford Hill, who recalled a visit to Poland by his father, a New York rabbi, in the 1980s. “There was a Holocaust survivor in his shul who cried: ‘How can you walk on the soil that is soaking in the Jewish blood of our brothers and sisters?’ He was trembling for days.”
There is no more striking example of restoration than in the city of Lublin. In 1930 Rabbi Meir Shapiro — founder of the Daf Yomi Talmud study programme — opened the largest yeshivah in the world. Used by the Communists as a medical school, the building has been returned to the Jewish community. Its magnificent façade
is as imposing as that of an imperial hotel.
But the old Jewish quarter dating back to the 15th century was levelled by the Nazis and most of the 42,000 Jewish inhabitants taken and murdered in camps such as Majdanek, which is situated in a suburb of the city. At the far end of the camp looms what looks like some kind of giant well. As you approach, its contents become shockingly clear - a huge mound of human ash, milled bone and soil – a mixture the Nazis used as fertiliser – which have been gathered as a monument to their victims beneath the inscription: “Let our fate be a warning”. Nearby stretch some of the trenches where 18,000 Jewish prisoners were shot in a single day as part of the Germans’ “Operation Harvest Festival”.
However, the old gatehouse which separated the Jewish and Christian quarters of the city remains, transformed into an exhibition and cultural centre dedicated to preserving the memory of Lublin’s Jewish past. Entitled Theatre NN (No Name) it educates around 10,000, mostly young, visitors a year, using creatively staged exhibits and performance.
“In our centre we collect all traces of Jews who lived in Lublin,” said its energetic director Witek Dabrowski. “In the last few years Polish neighbours forgot about their Jewish neighbours. We want to commemorate them. We have collected thousands of photographs, some unique, and we have testimonies of people who remembered Lublin before the war. Every single testimony is a treasure.”
As he led us up the narrow stone steps from the entrance to the gatehouse, he remarked; “This is the passage between life and death, between light and darkness. The Christian part of Lublin still exists. The Jewish part does not. Every day we come to the centre, we feel the emptiness.”
Still, a pocket of 30 or so Jews remain in Lublin. Against the odds elsewhere, new shoots of Jewish life are appearing. No more so than in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, whose summer festival of Jewish culture, launched in the 1980s, has become an international event and a byword for Jewish revivalism.
The district shouts its Jewish legacy from the rooftops. Israeli or Yiddish music pours out of cafes called Cheder or Babelstein. Outside the 17th century Isaac Synagogue, a young woman handed us leaflets for a klezmer concert there that night. Our guide, Dorota Kluska, reckoned there are about 350 Jews affiliated to the community. “It’s a trend to trace your Jewish heritage from the past and convert,” she reported.
At the new Jewish Community Centre, little painted ceramic butterflies were being affixed to the front wall as part of an international project to mount 1.5 million butterflies in memory of the Jewish children murdered during the war. But for the centre’s forward-thinking director Jonathan Ornstein, they also represent the children and grandchildren of survivors. “Here we are focused on life,” he said. “In this place where there was so much tragedy in the last century, Jewish life is able to re-emerge and be reborn. We have people who are finding out about their Jewish roots and getting in contact all the time.
“I feel in most places in Europe it is getting more difficult and less safe to be Jewish, but every day in Poland, it is easier, safer and better to be Jewish. And that’s a remarkable story the Jewish world needs to know about. Not only to see Poland as a place of tragedy and loss but as a place with an incredible thousand-year Jewish history, a fantastic present and a very bright future.”