Letter from Lublin
Roman Litman, 76, is a rarity. In a city of 350,000 inhabitants, he is one of Lublin’s last remaining Jews. By his count, Lublin, formerly an important Jewish centre in eastern Poland, has only 50 Jews left. “There may be more,” he said. “But we don’t know.”
Decimated during the Holocaust, Lublin’s Jewish community has experienced such a precipitous decline that there has not been a Jewish wedding here in decades. The last bar mitzvah took place in the 1980s.
As if to underscore the state of this community since World War II, Litman told me that not a single Jew living here today was even born in Lublin, the seat of Poland’s first independent government in 1918 and the cradle of the Solidarity trade union movement in the 1980s.
Litman’s claim was disputed by Robert Kuwalek, a local historian, who said he knows an old Jewish Lublin-born woman who still lives here, but who, like some Jews in this country, conceals her true identity. Litman, married to a Catholic, like almost all his fellow Jews in Lublin, hails from the neighbouring town of Lenczczna and has lived here since 1945.
Poland’s ninth largest city, and its biggest one east of the Vistula River, Lublin has fared badly in history, having been sacked by waves of invaders from the Tatars to the Lithuanians. Jews arrived in Lublin in the early 12th century, King Casmir III having granted them permission to settle on its outskirts. By the 16th century, the Jewish population was concentrated in the Podzamcze district, in the heart of today’s quaint old town and in the shadow of the Royal Castle, a major tourist attraction.
During the mid-1600s, Jewish residents obtained land for a cemetery, and today it boasts of having the oldest Jewish tombstones in Poland. Although the Nazis pillaged the cemetery, they left some gravestones untouched. A hub of Jewish scholarship, Lublin was a centre of Chassidism. Centuries ago, Lublin hosted the Council of the Four Lands, the central body of Jewish authority in Poland from 1580 to 1764.
As elsewhere in Europe, Jews could never be certain what the future would bring. Lublin was attacked by Cossacks and Moscovite armies in 1655 and they proceeded to torch the Jewish quarter. In 1795, when Poland was partitioned for the third time in 23 years, Jews were expelled. Yet by the mid-18th century, Jews comprised half of its population and Lublin had the largest Jewish community after Krakow and Lwow. Jews played a pivotal role in the economy and were particularly active in the tanning and cigarette industries.
By the 1920s, 37,000 Jews resided in Lublin, forming one-third of its population. The Jewish community was supported by 12 synagogues, an array of private prayer houses, a hospital, an orphanage, three cemeteries, a network of schools and the Chachmei yeshiva, one of the most famous in Poland. Inspired by Lublin’s renown, novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote The Magician of Lublin.
The German army marched into Lublin on Sept. 18, 1939, 17 days after its invasion of Poland. Within weeks, Jews were subjected to a series of restrictions, penalties and physical attacks. The Royal Castle was converted into a Gestapo prison through which 40,000 people would pass.
Lublin would serve as the headquarters for Operation Reinhard, the German plan to eradicate the 3.3 million Jews of Poland. In the autumn of 1941, the Nazis had the Majdanek concentration camp, a few kilometres from Lublin’s old town, up and running.
In 1940, shortly before the Germans established the ghetto, Roman Litman and his family – parents and siblings – fled to the Russian zone in Poland and then on to Siberia and central Asia.
Deportations from Lublin commenced in March 1942. The ghetto’s Jewish inhabitants were sent to the Belzec extermination camp, while still others were dispatched to Majdanek. Jews who survived the roundups were murdered in Majdanek in November 1943. Several hundred Jews who had worked in the Royal Castle and had avoided death were shot in the summer of 1944. According to Kuwalek, a number of Jewish children were saved by Christians.
Lublin was captured by the Red Army on July 24, 1944, the first city in German-occupied Poland to be liberated from Nazi tyranny. Until Warsaw’s liberation in January 1945, Lublin was Poland’s temporary capital and the seat of the Soviet-backed Communist provisional government.
After the war, the Litmans went back to Poland. They lived in Lwow, which was claimed by the Soviet Union and by newly independent Ukraine after the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991.
When Litman returned to Lublin, the city had anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 Jews, but its Jewish infrastructure had been virtually destroyed. “There was a Jewish school and only one synagogue,” said Litman, one of Lublin’s last Yiddish speakers.
With the 1946 pogrom in Kielce, many Jews who had settled in Lublin left Poland altogether. Among them were Litman’s brother and sister, who immigrated to Israel in 1946 and 1950 respectively, and Litman’s second brother, who immigrated to Denmark in 1960. He and his sister, now 67, stayed in Poland to look after their parents, who died in 1968 and 1993. He seriously considered emigration right after the war, but since his parents had no inclination to move and he wanted to continue his education, he remained in Poland.
Litman and his wife have had three children, and they, in turn, have sired six grandchildren. All of them live in Lublin.
Never a member of the Communist party, he earned a steady income as an engineer building bridges. Even the state-sanctioned anti-Semitic campaign in 1968 had no effect on him.
I interviewed Litman at the Chachmei yeshiva at 85 Lubartowska St.
Founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1930, it had 200 students in its formative years. During the Nazi era, the yeshiva was converted into a police billet and a military hospital. The Nazis confiscated the books in its library, scattering them to the winds.
Under communism, the yeshiva housed the medical faculty of a university. The property was returned to the Jewish community in 2004 under Poland’s 1997 restitution law. The yeshiva, having since been been renovated, is now an educational and cultural centre with a synagogue (the prewar shul was transformed into a museum on Lublin’s Jews), lecture halls, a library and a dining room equipped with a kitchen.
The yeshiva and the former shul notwithstanding, precious little remains of prewar Jewish Lublin.
The old Jewish quarter starts at Grodzka gate, a romantic-looking arched passageway that once separated Jews and Christians in Lublin. Picturesque and redolent of Roman Vishniac’s photographs of pre-1939 Poland, this neighbourhood of rough cobblestone streets brims with Renaissance-style buildings and cafés, as well as a Jewish-style restaurant, the Mandragora, whose specialties run the gamut from gefilite fish to Israeli salad. There are a few plaques commemorating buildings in which Jews lived.
Lublin’s Jewish past is lovingly nurtured by Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, the 50-year-old Polish Catholic director of the Grodzka Gate Theatre. By means of various projects, including an oral history study, he and his colleagues promote Lublin’s former status as a bright beacon in the Diaspora.”I grew up in Lublin, near Majdanek, but I was not aware of Jews or Jewish culture. It was very typical.” For the past number of years, however, he has dedicated himself to setting things right.