In Search of My Family’s Jewish History in Lublin, Poland

by Nathan James Thomas

Walking across the border from Slovakia into Poland felt like crossing into Narnia. The bridge that connects the two countries was covered in snow, surrounded by white mountains and frost tipped trees. I was the only one there. A minibus took me to Zakopane, where I was befriended by an Israeli man who attempted to show off his Polish language skills.

He stood on the street, one foot on a half frozen puddle, attempting to ask passers by for directions. They averted their eyes and hurried on. We ate fish at a touristic restaurant, and sampled the rich, salty mountain cheese from the local market. When it was time to go to the train station for the overnight journey to Lublin, I was grateful for the return to solitude.

A young couple shared my cabin on the night train. There were no bed, just two long benches facing each other. They stared resentfully at me as they cuddled and entwined. I tried to lose myself in a book, and got a few short moments of sleep. It’s always moving to see dawn break through the window of a moving train. I got off at a small town, and changed to the local service to Lublin.

In my pocket with a piece of paper my grandfather had given me in London. It read: “No. 2 Lubartowska.” His mother, my great-grandmother Yeta, had been born there in 1913. It was barely seven in the morning by the time I had lugged my suitcase from the train station to lubartowska street. Old men clutched at pint-sized vodka bottles and urinated against the dark grey buildings. Old women squatted by the side of the road, selling scrawny live chickens or morose looking potatoes.

At what Google Maps showed as No 2 Lubartowska, there stood nothing but a grey line of shops which had clearly been erected within the last few decades. Dawn had yet to break, and the site of my great-grandmother’s birth seemed erie in the artificial light. Nothing of the ancestral home remained. However that was not all I had come to see. Lublin boasts a proud Jewish heritage, and having come all this way, I wasn’t going to leave at the first disappointment.

Wandering from Lubartowski back towards the old square, I happened to glance down a small alleyway. I noticed a plaque with the Star of David. A synagogue had once stood here. Of course, there was nothing remaining but the tiny sign. Standing at 8/10 Lubartowska, Hevra Noshim Synagogue was built in 1899 and was the only one to survive the second world war in tact.

The old square itself is a classic Polish affair, winding streets surrounding by bars and old-style restaurants, wooden doorways and cute buildings painted in pastel colors. Nearby is an enormous white castle. A beautiful building that is now visited by tourists, it spent most of the last 200 years serving as a prison. Thousands of jews and polish resistance fighters were imprisoned or killed within its wars by the Nazis during World War II.

A tribute to the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva Synagogue sits at the top of a luxurious hotel on Lubartowska street. An important spot in Jewish history, the synagogue was established in 1930 by Meir Shapiro, a prominent Hasidic rabbi. A clean, sterile, replica of the former synagogue was opened recently, and I toured it alone and in silence. Downstairs in the hotel lobby, a security guard handed me the keys to the Jewish cemetery, and pointed me in the right direction. He hadn’t asked for a fee or even a deposit.

I walked alone through the backstreets of Lublin, getting further and further out of the city centre. The street passed by a tall hill overgrown with grass and shrubbery. A fence ran alongside this greenery, broken by a tall iron gate. I tried the key the hotel guard had given me. It worked. Noticing the menacing graffiti on the buildings across the road, I considered locking the gate behind me.

Climbing through the weeds, the first thing I spotted was a vast brick Church rising up across the hill to my right. And then, buried in weeds, broken, muddy, neglected and vandalized, I found some of the oldest Jewish headstones in Europe. One was punctured by a gunshot, a hole ripped through the center of the granite slab, but the structure had held. Others had fallen over, or lay slumped sorrowfully, weeds attempting to pull them into the earth.

The cemetary was most likely established in 1541, at a time when Poland was a haven for Jews, a multi-cultural, multi-faith country which embraced tolerance and progressive ideals. I stood for sometime, my shoes coated in mud, trying to grasp the enormity of it all. As I turned to leave, I almost stepped on a headstone stained so green with moss that it was practically indistinguishable from the surrounding grass.

Walking through the city in silence, I noticed that many restaurants were hanging little hearts out in front of them, and the winding, cobblestoned streets seemed suddenly to be filled with smiling couples. It was Valentines day.

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