Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland
On the fifth day of the Cohen Center trip, our group of 21 journeyed to Lublin, Poland, once a renowned center of Jewish learning. Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel The Magician of Lublin evokes Lublin's deep history in Jewish lore. That evening, at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Dr. Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska lectured the group on "Literary Images of Jewish Lublin and the Lublin Region."
Berlin and Warsaw had taught us how difficult it is to conjure the pre-Holocaust world once populated with creators of music, dance, art, literature, businesses, law, medicine, science, philosophy, and mathematics. In Berlin, where the Jewish population had by 1939 dwindled to 75,000, and Warsaw, where Jews had comprised almost one-third of the citizenry, mere remnants now remain.
Study the stacks of shattered tombstones in a historic Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. In Berlin, envision the proud edifice from the delicate Moorish columns and arch of a synagogue rescued from ruins after Kristallnacht destruction. In Lublin, where a vibrant Jewish neighborhood once hummed, now stood a parking lot. But stories of Lublin's past as the Jewish Oxford or the Polish Jerusalem still live when you read I. B. and I. J. Singer and such authors as Jacob Glatstein.
Majdanek, outside Lublin
The next morning, the bus took the Cohen Center study group down the main road, a few miles past Lublin to what is no more than a suburb. Majdanek, a death camp where so many Jews perished, had been just a name in a list. But now, the words of Jacob Glatstein, from the poem "Lublin, My Holy City," came to life:
Lublin, my holy Jewish city. Your Jewish streets smelled of whole-wheat bread, sour pickles, incense, herring, and Jewish faith. Lublin, my holy city of young boys and girls thirsting for education; of the first lilac aroma of early Hebrew and the deliciousness of proud Yiddish; of modern Hebrew schools, the Hazamir choral society, and the professional unions, my city of enraptured painters, poets and violinists.
Holy city of mine, you asked this honor for yourself: that when they would burn and roast a million and a half Jews they should do it in the shadow of your nearly thousand-year history of Jewishness.
I take off my shoes when I come to the Majdanek woods. The ground is Holy of Holies, for the Jewish people lies resting here in the shadow of hundreds of pious generations. *
In 2010, hundreds of Lublin's high-rise apartments overlook Majdanek. Imagine this view out your window: barracks and chimneys of a death camp where hundreds of thousands perished.
Of Glatstein's young boys and girls thirsting for education, the few surviving Lublin Jews who tried to return to rebuild after the Holocaust were hounded out of town in 1968. Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska referred to that pogrom as The Last Exodus.
I keep reflecting on the words of one of the younger members of the tour group, "Here, we are all students." It's good to travel together to remember and to teach.
*The quotation from "Lublin, My Holy City" is condensed from the elegy in I Keep Recalling: The Holocaust Poems of Jacob Glatstein, translated from the Yiddish by Barnett Zumoff, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1993, pages 158 to 160.