My Visit to Lublin, Poland

My visit in October 1998 to the city of Lublin in eastern Poland began with a drive southeast from Warsaw through a great swath of farmland that stretches as far as the eye can see and is as flat as Kansas or the San Joaquin Valley in California. There are many long stretches of the road which go through a double line of trees, many of them dying from the mistletoe that clings to their branches.

There are roadside stands selling food and drivers just pull off the road; this is not a freeway and there are no exit ramps. Prostitutes wearing provocative clothing line both sides of the road to accommodate truck drivers traveling in either direction. Standing right alongside them are peasant women making a few extra zlotys by selling the wild mushrooms they have picked in the forest.

The major farm crop in this area seems to be potatoes, although the land is broken up into many small fields without fences, rather than large fields planted in a single crop. Lublin is in southeastern Poland where the land was formerly divided into great feudal estates, owned by a few aristocratic families, while the majority of the people were serfs or peasants. Farming in this area is still done manually by peasants or with horse drawn farm implements, although you also see a few tractors out in the fields or traveling on the highway with the cars.

Southeastern Poland is still sparsely populated and there is a lot of forest land remaining. It is easy to see why the Germans coveted this great wealth of land for their "Lebensraum," and thought of this area as comparable to the American West. One gets the impression that this is land that is not being used for maximum food production. This part of Poland is a great plain which continues on into the Ukraine to the east.

With so many forests for partisans to hide in, and no natural barriers to stop an invading army, one can readily see why Poland was one vast battleground in two World wars. On the road to Lublin, I noticed lots of military vehicles and the train stations at every stop in Poland were crowded with young soldiers.

Lublin is the easternmost city and the largest city in southeastern Poland; with five universities, it is the intellectual center of Poland. Other cities of note in the area are Zamosc, a former Jewish center to the southeast, and Tarnow, a medieval town to the southwest, which was the site of the Gestapo prison from where the first political prisoners were taken to Auschwitz.

When World War II started with the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, Lublin had 122,019 inhabitants, of which 37,830 were Jewish. There were more than a hundred Synagogues in the city and Lublin was one of the most important centers of Jewish culture and scholarship in Europe.

Beginning in the 1790ies, Lublin became an important center for Hasidic Jews. Since the end of the war, the city has grown to three times its former size, but in 1998 there were only a few elderly Jews living there. According to my tour guide, Lublin is today a center for the Gypsy population in Poland.

A famous Yeshiva was established in Lublin in 1515 and the city became known as the "Jewish Oxford." One of the students was Moses Isserles Remu'h, who became a famous scholar in Kazimierz where a Synagogue is named after him; he lived from 1520 to 1572.

In the 1920ies, a new building was erected for a Yeshiva, using funds collected from Jewish communities around the world. The Yeshiva building, located at ul. Lubartoweska 85, is now used by the Medical Academy, but is open to tour groups who can see the former classrooms of the Yeshiva which are still being used today by medical students. Known as "The School of the Sages of Lublin," it was the world's largest Talmudic school.

Yeshiva Chachmei during Nazi occupation of Poland

The building is a large classical structure, made of yellow stone, with the entrance at right angles to the street. The original fence around the Yeshiva, shown in the photo above, is gone now. The interior of the former Yeshiva is shabby and crumbling; it is hard to believe that these never-renovated classrooms, with their wooden desks carved with the initials of Yeshiva students from half a century ago, are still being used today by medical students.

One look at this medical school is enough to convince anyone of the poverty in Poland. When I visited Lublin in 1998, the medical school looked and smelled worse than the inside of the brick barracks at the Auschwitz main concentration camp. There is little evidence remaining that would indicate that this was ever a religious school; the huge religious library was destroyed by the Nazis when they closed the Yeshiva in 1939. There is not much to see now, although many visitors come here; there is a walk-in closet which has a guest book that many people have signed with messages of hatred for the Nazis.

Coming into Lublin, I was disappointed to see that it is a modern city with tacky-looking high-rise buildings and factories with smokestacks. I was expecting it to look like Krakow. The old city center has cobble-stoned streets and dilapidated old buildings which now look more like a slum than a historic Old Town. East of the Old Town is a Castle built in the 1820ies, which was used by the Nazis as a Gestapo prison.

Lublin first got into the history books in 1569 when the Polish and Lithuanian Kings met there and formed the Lublin Union which created one large empire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. A monument called the Union of Lublin Monument marks this event. There is another monument called the Third of May Constitution Monument commemorating the Polish Constitution, which the tour guides like to point out was written in 1791, pre-dating the American Constitution.

The first recorded history of the Jews in Lublin goes back to 1316 when Jewish merchants settled in the city even before King Kazimierz proclaimed a Statute of Privilege which allowed Jews to live anywhere in Poland. Lublin is on a major trade and military route into the Ukraine and Russia, so there were probably Jewish merchants here long before that. The Jews of Lublin created a separate "Jewish City" at Podzamcze, near the Castle. In 1568 the Jews were given the privilege of preventing Christians from living in their district, thus creating a ghetto by their own choice. Like the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish quarter in Lublin was completely destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, including the two old Synagogues near the Castle.

Lublin ghetto being destroyed on orders of the Nazis

Another separate Jewish community, called Wieniawa, was established in the 18th century in a western suburb of Lublin. This community, along with its Synagogue and cemetery, was also completely destroyed by the Nazis in World War II.

At the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Jews of Lublin were forced into a ghetto in the vicinity of Old Town and Lubartowska Street behind the Krakow Gate. Later a second ghetto was established in the suburb of Lublin called Majdan Tatarski, which is very near the Majdanek concentration camp and is the source of the name Majdanek.

The old photograph above shows Polish workers taking down the buildings of the Lublin ghetto after the Jews were forced to leave. The photograph below shows furniture piled up in the streets when the ghetto was liquidated by the Nazis.

Liquidation of Lublin ghetto

Some of the Jews from Lublin were taken to the New Cemetery and executed by the Nazis. Others were shot in Krepicki forest when the Majdan Tatarski ghetto was liquidated. Many were sent to the nearby Belzec extermination center, or to the extermination centers at Treblinka and Sobibor. Eighteen thousand Jews from the Lublin area were shot in one day at the Majdanek concentration camp on Nov. 3, 1943.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the city was important as the Lublin Headquarters of the Race and Resettlement Office in Berlin. It was in Lublin that Odilo Globocnik had his headquarters for supervising Operation Reinhard, which was the Nazi plan for the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question." The building which served as the Operation Reinhard headquarters, located at ul. Spokojna 1 (Quiet Street), is now also occupied by another medical school, the Collegium Anatomicum.

Lublin was the headquarters of the SS and the Gestapo for the administration of Operation Reinhard, and also the headquarters for the Nazi party. Christian Wirth, the Inspector of the Operation Reinhard camps, lived for six months in Lublin in a small villa at ul. Wieniawska 5, before moving to another house closer to the Majdanek camp.

The map of Lublin acquired many new names under the Nazi occupation, such as Horst Wessel Strasse, Von Mackensen Strasse and Adolph Hitler Platz. After the war, the names were changed back to the old street names.