Leading up to the start of World War II, Lublin, Poland, was a thriving place for Jews. At the time, approximately 40,000 Jews lived there as the city had been seen as Europe’s epicenter for all forms of Jewish life, be it in culture, business, or religious scholarship.
Lublin had also been the hub for the hassidic movement, a method to create a Jewish way of life that emphasized growing closer to God and Torah.
While antisemitism loomed large in different pockets of the globe by the 19th century, the city’s Jewish inhabitants were allowed to live within their districts and were permitted to buy land for civil purposes.
Throughout that century, its commerce and industry expanded as Jewish owners bought hospitals and schools. In 1897, the first Hebrew school was built as its population reached close to 24,000. Even after World War I, Jews continued to thrive in Lublin. Institutions devoted to politics, education, theater and sports were set up by Jewish organizations. Several printing houses also produced works in Hebrew.
The Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was started in June 1930 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Lubliner rav, who had started the Daf Yomi study program in 1923. All the books in the yeshiva’s library were later confiscated by the Nazis during their occupation of Poland, and its equipment was either stolen or destroyed.
Today, this historical building that was Rabbi Shapiro’s brainchild has been renovated as Hotel Ilan, a treasure trove for Polish Jewish history, not to mention a spacious building for continued Talmudic study and lodging.
“The idea behind the building was very unique,” says Agnieszka Litman, who serves as Lublin Branch Coordinator at Hotel Ilan. Rabbi Shapiro “realized that you not only needed a place for students where they can study Torah, but you also needed to create a space for them to have a comfortable life, so they can learn more and more. When he was designing this building, he made sure there was space for prayers, and for eating together, [and] bedrooms, so students could live here.”
In the 1920s, Rabbi Shapiro became the first Orthodox Jew to serve in Poland’s parliament. His untimely death at 46 on October 27, 1933 served as a sad and ominous harbinger for the fate of Jews living in Lublin and European Jewry at large.
After the Germans captured Lublin on September 18, 1939, the city became a center of mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. Much of these atrocities occurred in the Majdanek death camp.
Initially a labor camp site, Majdanek was transformed into a death camp by the Nazis, and the mass transport of Jews began arriving there in April 1942. Operation Reinhardt – or Aktion Reinhardt – was the secret plan devised by the Germans to kill Polish Jews and plunder all their assets. The plan was implemented in the same month.
A commemoration to honor Lublin’s Jews systematically killed by the Nazis took place at the Filharmonia Lubelska near the city’s university on April 27. This poignant event featured a 58-minute documentary chronicling the grotesque Aktion Reinhardt, as well as guest speakers, and a rock concert designed mostly for high school students.
“I think the most important thing for me is [seeing] the young people,” says Albert Stankowski, head of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum and the former head of the Digital Collection Department of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Young people, he says, “need to understand what happened because at least 1.8 million Polish citizens of Jewish origin perished. It was the biggest massacre on Polish land, and this is a fact that is not so well-known.”
Young people “need to understand what happened because at least 1.8 million Polish citizens of Jewish origin perished. It was the biggest massacre on Polish land, and this is a fact that is not so well-known.”Albert Stankowski
Aktion Reinhardt mainly took place at the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka death camps. German Schutzstaffel (SS) and police forces liquidated the ghettos and deported Jews by rail to these killing centers. Most were sent from ghettos, which were set up throughout Europe. Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites between 1933 and 1945, according to data from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“The most important aspect is the effect of what had happened here – the perishing of Jewish communities,” continues Stankowski. “These were generations who were living here, for five-, six-, seven-, 800 years, and suddenly, this became empty. Today, we don’t have more than 20,000 Jews all over Poland as compared to 3.5 million before the war.”
Stankowski also explains that the mammoth hardcover book entitled Tak, Jak Gdyby Nas Nigdy Nie Było (As If We Had Never Existed), which was published by the Warsaw Ghetto Museum and distributed as the event concluded, provides the blueprint for better understanding. This museum is set to open in 2025.
“This book will be in libraries throughout [Polish] towns and schools,” adds Stankowski. “This is important. The Jewish Historical Institute, located in Warsaw, has a huge collection of diaries of those who survived, mostly during the time of the Soviet Union. They wrote down what happened, and the documentaries made by Claude Lanzmann had recordings of the witnesses. Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation [also] did an amazing job” with testimonies from Holocaust survivors.
Rabbi Symcha Keller, who serves as head of the Jewish community of Łódź – another Polish city that once had a much bigger thriving Jewish community – and who also participated in the musical set of the commemoration remains steadfast in glorifying Jewish teachings and culture within his native land. “I make music in the Jewish-hassidic style,” says Keller. “I live in Lublin, and I am here to spend some time with some of my friends. But for all the big holidays, I am the hazan.”
Restoring Jewish heritage
While there remains a struggle to restore the once mighty Jewish heritage in Lublin, Agnieszka Litman conveys an optimistic beat, underscoring that most residents want to see it happen.
“We want to remember the past, but also build for the future,” says Litman. “People here are open to it. I think it’s now a great time to start working on the presence of the Jewish community in Lublin every day – in education and culture. It’s important to be present and to be seen, and to educate people that this is the community that exists. These Jewish organizations, which work in Lublin, are where you can learn and ask questions.” ■
The author often chronicles political and theatrical personalities, largely in Central Europe. His 2022 novella, Reckless Abandon, is available worldwide. This feature story is an adaptation of an article originally published in Central European Affairs Magazine and is reprinted with permission.