Visit to Poland – Part I : Two Lublin Projects

I will begin to summarize my thoughts on my recent Poland visit over the course of several posts. I will start will the city of Lublin.

My local Lublin guide was a local Polish Catholic, a native of the old city of Lublin, who was willing to take me around for several days out of the goodness of his heart because I taught his best friend from college who now lives in the US. One of the first places that we entered was a door under the gate between the Christian and Jewish sections of the old city of Lublin. The lower level had a restaurant that served non-kosher Jewish style recipes and had klezmer performers.

Upstairs was three floors dedicated to the former Jewish community. The place was called Teatr NN – Theater of No Name, memorial to the missing Jews. Here is their memory project for the Jewish community with many links to their activities.

The first room contained detailed aerial and spatial maps of the area with details, as well as diptychs of photographs then there were rooms of viewers of photographs of pre-WWII Jewish Lublin labeled by house number. The center is documenting each house and building, floor by floor, year by year. They are gathering photographs, deeds, business records of every building and its activity. The center of the display was a scale model of the old city where one could point to and discuss each building. They explained with great dedication the history of each building. They showed where the poor lived by their small close set houses and where the wealthy lived by heir expansive buildings.
Here is their model of the Jewish quarter.
They placed their model on Google- Satellite Maps.
They produced a little history book on the Jews of Lublin.
(Both Map and book may load slow and may need plug-ins or updates.)

They claimed from photographic evidence that the Yeshiva of Maharshal was bombed by the Nazis but that it was still standing and the Soviets were the ones who actually destroyed the building. They also discussed with me the brush factory across from Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin in the 1930’s, which was owned and operated by an American Jew of Czech origins.

They were proud to explain how they bring classes of school kids and have all sorts of projects for them and they perform shows about Jewish life.
On seeing such dedication, I asked them: how they became involved in this project? They said that they had been students at the Catholic University of Lublin KUL. One of their priests included material on Judaism- the priest emphasized the role of Judaism in Catholicism in a post-Vatican II age as well as selections from Heschel and Levinas. They were now committed to the Jewish-Catholic reconciliation.

The top floor of the little museum was dedicated to the righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the war—and they told me that they were sorry there were no more. They want the students to understand that not everyone was good. I asked: who funded this project? They answered: The city of Lublin.
Teatr NN –served educational needs of both Jewish visitors (if they have a Polish speaker with them) and of the Polish visitors.

Then I visited Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin recently restored and renovated. During most of the decades from the War until four years ago it was a medical school. Now it was renovated as a community center, shul, adult education center, and mikvah for the Jews of Lublin, a branch of the Warsaw Jewish community. There are about 40 Jews- older and still scared of the Antisemitism from the Soviet era.

There was little restoration of the original look of the interior of the Yeshiva. It was renovated to look like Israeli govt funded school, white wash paint, no details on the wall, and modern plywood bookshelf. There were a few original touches like the color of the pillar in the shul but it mainly looked non- descriptive Israeli. In addition, rooms were not restored to original size, for example renovated otzar seforim is a tiny room, even though the original was a large room. And most annoying for me, was the anachronistic painted sign above each room in modern Hebrew with the name of that room- like in summer camp- dining room “hadar ochel” or library “sifriah”

I appreciate the need for a forward looking shul with a mikvah that has Rav Eliyashev’s approval, but then then dont claim renovation or historical education.

In general there was no attempt to restore the building to any of its former glory. The original building followed Rav Meir Shapiro’s plan for tiferet, to bring aesthetic glory to chassidus. The original tiles were carved and decorated the way the fancy buildings of Lublin are engraved. The original building was to bring an aesthetic building to the Torah world. Now it is industrial plain. The very glory of the building is obscured. The Yeshiva had a model of the beis hamikdash since they emphasized the sacrificial cult (kodshim)- currently, no attempt was made to even mention it.

This past summer an Orthodox rabbi mentioned in his sermon that he was brought to Lublin as part of a Federation trip and when he visited the yeshiva, he said: “so what? It is an empty building.” I felt the same way. No effort was made to restore the original. No effort was made to create an aura of the original. They were just proud that the building was in Jewish hands and they remembered that it went from rubble to renovation. The goal was to keep the costs down.

The pictures on the wall were just random collage arrangements of collections of pictures of Rav Meir Shapiro and the Yeshiva in no order to provide decoration. The paid docent knew little about the Yeshiva beyond the dozen talking points that she was fed.

The pictures and ephemera of the original Yeshiva was, however, preserved in many many photographs and we have records of its stationary, publicity, and printed materials. We have several volumes dedicated to the Yeshiva edited by Rabbi Dovid Avrohom Mandelbaum.(Go read them) There was not even a sense that they knew the content of Yehoshua Baumol, A Blaze in the Darkening Gloom: The Life of Rav Meir Shapiro.One could create many educational displays from our knowledge of the yeshiva from Mandelbaum.
We have many volumes written by the graduates and teachers Eretz Tzvi from Rabbi Aryah Tzvi Frommer Rosh Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin or students like Rav Pinhas Hirschsprung of Montreal or Rav Shmuel Wozner of Bnai Brak. There was no one associated with the renovation that had any idea.

The building as it stands is not useful for education for Jews or non-Jews. They have plans to add to the building a museum of Hasidism. If their current approach continues, it will be pictures of dancing Hasidim, Buber stories of the Besht, and pictures of tombstones for their current Hasidic visitors. It will have nothing of the actual greatness of the community.

But the tragedy is that the Polish Jews who were born in Communist Poland and are now in charge of these buildings know nothing of the Torah history. Personally, I think that if there would be a museum, it should be dedicated to the Yeshivot in Poland, starting with the great ones of the 16th century, then to the new ones of the 18-19th century – Zamosc, Zagres, and then the new yeshivot of the 20th century like Daas Moshe run by the Piesetzna Rebbe and Yeshivat Chochmai Lublin.

Many of the Polish Jews in charge who hid their Judaism under the Communists and now are showing their Judaism by taking possession of buildings have little background in history, museums or Torah- even if they think they know history. I can understand that they do not want the actual history of Jews as part of the arenda system which mediated between szlachta and peasants by making Jews tax farmers and middlemen. And do they want to portray the Jews as factory owners and industrialists. But I was told that they want to do a Hasidic museum because they think Catholic Poles want to hear about the joyous Buberian Hasidim of Ukraine and that the Brooklyn Hasidim, the people who actually come to visit are mainly Hasidim have no interest in history reconstruction- only graves. Even if one did a Hasidic Museum, there is so much more than joyous romantic portrayals since there is so much rich Polish Hasidic material to show.

The building currently has no lesson for Jews or Poles. The community interprets “restoration” as restoration to the community and not historical restoration.

Long term, if there is a goal of history or education then there should be some committee created to advise them consisting of academic historians, museum curators, and Haredi representatives with an interest in history.

On the way out, I was told by one of the officials that I should bring American money to restore the cemetery. But after the way they showed that they had no concern to restore or preserve this building nor any effect at education, I would rather have the city of Lublin or the Polish Catholics restore the cemetery.
I am giving them the benefit of the doubt but some have recently ascribed more nefarious motives to these reclamation projects.

More on this in the next post: Visit to Poland Part II: Looking for Izbica

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