A Nostalgia For Jewish Culture


Two and a half hours east of Warsaw, Lublin lies in Poland’s far east, near the Ukrainian border. Step off the train in Lublin’s central station and you emerge into a palette of dark gray — from the leaden skies of Europe’s far north to the shadowy cobble-stoned streets of Old Town, with its soot-stained prewar buildings.

This is the Old World of local son Isaac Bashevis Singer, a place both iconic and chilling for modern-day Jews. Lublin evokes nostalgic melancholy like few other places: after 500 years as a center of Ashkenazic culture, it became synonymous overnight with the destruction of European Jewry.

The notorious Majdanek death camp processed tens of thousands of Jews just southeast of the city center, its dark buildings within sight of an outlying neighborhood. Today the site is preserved as a museum and memorial, a somber feature of the urban landscape that grows up around it.

But despite this weighty history — and in no small part because of it — Lublin survives as a modern city. Adventurous travelers are venturing beyond the bland cosmopolitanism of Warsaw and Krakow’s touristy charm to explore the quirky corners of Old Lublin, where grungy brick walls and shiny new façades reveal an urban renewal still in progress. To visit Lublin today is to drink cold beer in a café on the Ryken Market square, wander the medieval arches of Old Town and ponder how much has changed since Singer’s day.

Certainly the guardian of Yiddish literary memory would see the irony in a Jewish-themed restaurant like Mandragora, one of the city’s most popular dining spots and an emblem of the new Lublin nostalgia for Jewish culture.

With a Hebrew-esque sign and memorabilia of Old Jewish Lublin, Mandragora offers a tasty, if slightly kitschy, mashup of Israeli and Mitteleuropean cuisine: falafel, latkes, schnitzel, gefilte fish. I suspect the cuisine of Singer’s childhood was considerably less appealing. But memory is never quite accurate, and there are virtually no Jews left in Lublin to remember, anyhow.

A candidate for European Culture Capital 2016, the city has tripled in size since World War II, and its cultural heritage — Jewish and otherwise — is far too compelling to languish solely in graveyards.

That heritage is far too complex to go into here. Visitors get a taste of it as they walk through the Grodzka Gate, an imposing archway that once separated Christian Lublin from its Jewish district.

Today you might once again hear Yiddish songs emanating from the Gate: it is the site of Theater NN, a municipal cultural center with a permanent exhibition on Lublin Jewish life. NN sponsors numerous events aimed at keeping this heritage alive, from a traveling festival celebrating Singer’s short stories to rotating exhibits on notable Lublin Jews.

A few steps away is Lublin Castle and Tower, a massive, gloomy landmark that’s a far cry from its gilded French and mossy Irish counterparts. For several centuries the medieval palace served as a prison for Jews and others, from 19th-century nationalist conflicts to the Second World War. Today it houses the Lublin Museum, which recently re-opened after a major restoration.

Nearby is an obelisk that commemorates the Great Lublin Synagogue, once the grandest among Eastern Polish temples, later destroyed by the Nazis. Only one Lublin synagogue among dozens survived the Holocaust; today that modest space at No. 8 Lubartowska St. is preserved as an exhibition space for Jewish ritual objects.

Indeed, a walk around the historic district — including antique Szeroka Street, the onetime heart of Jewish Lublin — is a study in absence. A series of plaques commemorates the sites of now-vanished Jewish institutions, from orphanages and yeshivas to synagogues and hospitals. The Lublin tourism board has put together a helpful itinerary identifying these sites of interest, all of which can be visited in a two-hour stroll.

But it was a Polish friend of mine, an academic who visits Lublin regularly, who turned me on to the new Jewish scene at the Grodzka Gate: Hades Szeroka, a restaurant and cabaret where Jewish culture is a regular feature. A steady crowd of young, hip Poles pack the candlelit space for Jewish-style herring, trendy beet salads and Shabbat concerts by the local group Klezmaholics.

So you can visit the Old Cemetery, where rabbis’ gravestones date to the 16th century, to pay respect to a lost Jewish heritage. But these days, you can also find that heritage among the living — in the bittersweet chords and flavors of modern-day Lublin.