Before Me'ah Sharim, there was Lublin! There is a history of Jewish life in Lublin since the 1300s. In 1939, there were over 42,000 Jews in Lublin. This is yeshiva was the center of Jewish learning. The renown Rabbi Majera Szapira, originator of "Daf Yomi" a page a day of Talmud, was one of the main figureheads at this yeshiva, in the early 1900s.
Rabbi Szapira's picture is on the right.
There were nearly 100 synagogues in this city. Now there is one and I understand, getting a minyan is almost impossible. There are something like 50 Jews in Lublin now. This yeshiva has been beautifully reconstructed. Now, all they need is people. It's empty.
After the war (a phrase I hear several times a day in Poland) there were between 2000 to 3000 Jews, depending on the exact year, who returned to live in Lublin. Jews came to the city from the liberation of central Poland and also from the Soviet Union. This ended with the Kielce pogrom of 1946. Many survivors of the death camps were murdered in this pogrom, as if the Nazis had finished the job yet. The Jewish population dwindled to 1000 and then lower still in the early 1950s. 1968 saw another anti-Semitic campaign and more Jews left Lublin. Jewish sites in the city have experienced some reconstruction since the mid-1980s, thanks to Dr. Symcha Wajs, an earlier resident of Lublin, before the war, although most Jewish residents will confess that Lublin is still not a particularly friendly city for them.
I played at the yeshiva which has a fascinating museum upstairs and was taken on a tour of the building. This is the "bet knesset" or synagogue of the yeshiva, restored with its original windows and everything else. The only new items in this room are the benches.
During the war, the Gestapo took the building and used it for their headquarters. The yeshiva library contained over 20,000 books and all were burned by the Nazis. When the war ended, the yeshiva was turned into a medical school. Eventually, the medical school moved and the yeshiva began to be reconstructed, a process that continues now and hopefully will be complete by the summer of 2010. The plans are for it to be turned into a hotel, still maintaining the historical sites and memorabilia as well as the museum.
Here is a shot of my concert at the yeshiva, taken by the very talented Polish photographer, Jurek Liniewicz. He wrote me this which brought me to tears, "Thank you for your very beautiful and energetic performance. We can be proud to be Jews."
I'm so glad I did this concert as well all the others in Poland. There was the little community of Legnica, beautiful Wroclaw (prononced Breslov) originally Prussian with its amazing architecture, Warsaw of course, Kracow a city I wish I could spend more time in, Poznan (originally Posner in German), Lodz, Czestochowa with it's great school of art for young people where I played, another tiny community - Katowice, and Lublin. I deeply appreciate Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, for bringing me to his country. This has been an experience I shall never forget.
Being a musician and playing cultural, even religious music affords me the opportunity to do things like this. How grateful I am for what I do. Whatever gifts we have, whatever skills we have, were somehow given to us by G-d and to return the favor is one of the most significant, important, and meaningful things we can do with our lives.
When I finished the concert at the yeshiva in Lublin I was invited to the old shtiebel (little synagogue) in town and was taken around by Luba Matrazek who now manages it. It is still in disrepair but they managed to have a little Chanukah party there a few night before and it is constantly being worked on. This is Luba, pointing to her picture as a young girl in Jewish school just after the war.
Notice that Luba is all bundled up. This is because there is no heat in the place save for a small space heater, during winter in Poland.
The date on this photo to the left reads 1938 and I have a feeling this happy, smiling girl had no idea what would soon be in store for her and her people in a year and a half's time. How life would change. It would soon be horrific.
Most people ended up in the camps and some fled to the woods and joined the partisans. Even after it was all over, pogroms continued where the holocaust left off.
Below is a handmade afikomen cover for the holiday of Pesach (Passover), on display at the shtiebel.
There was a mikvah, a ritual bath at the yeshiva which is being restored. Here is what it looks like now, still being remodeled.
Some of the items were replaced, like the original tile on the floor of the mikvah itself. Below is one of those original tiles from the mikvah. Notice the "Magen David," the star of David.
After the concert and visiting the shtiebel, I was invited to attend a theatre performance of Pinchas Passini, one of the finest directors in Poland, now living in Lublin. It was an outstanding performance from the directing, to the set design, to the acting, to the music. The story is an adaption of Russian fairy tales. Here is what the empty set looked like before the performance began. On each one of the clouds, a video was projected reflecting a certain aspect of the story, featuring the very actors in the play but in real life. I couldn't understand a word but was mesmerized the whole time. The art in Poland and indeed, in much of Eastern Europe is excellent, often far beyond what even exists in the West.
Originally from Warsaw, Pinchas Passini was brought to Lublin as part of a government effort to emancipate their country through the arts and Lublin, as musicians in the States would say, is a good "shake down town." It's out-of-the-way and not expensive and less distracting than the major cities. In short, it's a good place to develop something. Being a Jew there is more difficult than in Warsaw or even Kracow which are places that are more emancipated already and therefor have far less anti-Semitism. Generally, the more remote the location, the harder it is to be a Jew. We went to a little restaurant to have a little nosh while we were talking and to my surprise, in Lublin, there were no kosher restaurants! Where ended up was the closest thing to being kosher as it was considered Jewish style; it is owned by some people in the Jewish community. I saw kosher Israeli wine - Gamla, Yarden, Golan, saw pictures of Jewish life on the walls, ... and of course there was Slivovitz, plum liquor which was so high proof, I gagged, startling Pinchas who nonchalantly polished off his glass in one gulp and ordered another. I'm a wimp with alcohol.
It does appear as Poland is progressing. It's starting in the cities and the government seems to promote a modern, accepting culture. The younger generation does not have the bias of anti-Semitism and is interested in Jewish culture. I met more and more young people who also had Jewish blood in their family histories and were only discovering it now. They are interested, enthusiastic, and intrigued.
I spend Shabbat in Warsaw, courtesy of the Rabbi and then go to Germany.