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(photo credit: AP)
Hundreds of Polish Jews broke into joyful applause Sunday as the country's chief rabbi unveiled the first restoration work at what was once a famed center of religious learning - an emotional moment in the revival of Poland's small but growing Jewish community.
To the strains of a triumphant Hassidic march, Rabbi Michael Schudrich and two other Jewish leaders were lifted high into the air by a crane to unveil the name of the school, Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin.
The inscription, in Polish and Hebrew letters, and the elegant columned yellow building stand as a testament to the Jewish life and learning that flourished in the eastern Polish city before it was destroyed by the Holocaust.
"This was very moving, very stirring," said Michael Traison, a 60-year-old American lawyer who attended. "We lost all those people in the Holocaust, but now we see a birth of Jewish identification by people who didn't feel free to express that for so long."
The school was returned to Warsaw's Jewish community thanks to a 1997 law restituting Jewish communal property to the country's Orthodox community.
Leaders stressed that the renovation of the yeshiva marks the first time since the war that the community was able to restore one of its former properties from its own resources, rather than depending on donations from abroad.
"This is an event without precedent since World War II," said Piotr Kadlcik, the leader of Warsaw's Jewish community.
After the unveiling, Jewish men in traditional black dress carried velvet-covered Torah scrolls through the columned entrance and up two flights of stairs to a spacious renovated synagogue.
On the way, Schudrich stopped to affix mezuzot to the doors of the yeshiva building, as well as the entrance to the synagogue.
Before World War II, Lublin was home to a large Jewish population that made up about 40 percent of the overall population of 100,000. The city was sometimes called the Jewish Oxford and the Polish Jerusalem because of its long tradition of learning.
The Chachmei yeshiva was opened in 1930 by a renowned rabbi of the time, Meir Shapiro, and operated until the 1939 invasion of Nazi Germany at the start of World War II.
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.
Many of its former students were killed in the nearby Majdanek death camp, as well as other camps that the Nazis set up across occupied Poland.
But some survivors went on to make their homes in Israel, the US and elsewhere.
One of them is Joseph Friedenson, an 84-year-old editor of a New York-published Yiddish-language monthly, Dos Yiddische Vort.
He remembers the yeshiva as a place of pious devotion and deep study where students were awakened at 5:30 a.m. and devoted their day to prayer, private study and hearing lectures in Yiddish.
In his hometown of Lodz, in central Poland, "every young man dreamt of going to this yeshiva," Friedenson recalled in a telephone interview from his home in New York before the ceremony.
The synagogue will serve as a place of prayer for the local community of roughly 40 people, as well as for Jewish visitors passing through.
However, no decision has been made on what do to with the rest of the vast building. Ideas under consideration include building a Jewish community center, a museum of Hassidism, or a hotel that could serve as a base for those touring Jewish-related sites in Poland.