2017 marks the 700th anniversary of Lublin receiving municipal rights.
On 15 August 1317, King Władysław I the Elbow-High passed the founding act of the city. In this same period, the first half of the fourteenth century, we find the first mentions of the Lublin Jews. Over nearly its entire history, Lublin was a multicultural city – Jews lived here for over six centuries, helping to create its social, cultural, and economic landscape.
The development of the Jewish settlement in Lublin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was primarily dictated by economic factors. The city’s prime location on trade routes persuaded many Jewish merchants to settle here and set up shop. The dynamic growth of the Jewish society and its economic success led to conflicts with the Christian bourgeoisie, which gained the De non tolerandis Judaeis privilege from the Monarch in 1535, prohibiting Jews from settling within the city limits. These restrictions resulted in the swift development of the Podzamcze Jewish district, which circled the Lublin castle, soon acquiring the privilege of “Christian non-tolerance.” This, in turn, led to the creation of the “upper” (Christian) and lower (Jewish) towns, causing the separation of the two religious groups.
In the sixteenth century, Jewish Lublin enjoyed a golden era. An impressive synagogue complex was built in the center of Podzamcze, a cemetery was founded, the famous Jeszywas Chachmej Lublin Talmudic academy was established, and a Hebrew printing house was organized. Soon Lublin grew to be the second most important center of Jewish culture in the Kingdom of Poland, following Krakow. The city’s significance was confirmed by the resolution (passed by King Stefan Batory in 1580) of the central Jewish self-governing organ in Poland – the Council of Four Lands (Waad Arba Aracot).
The Lublin community’s period of swift development ended in the mid seventeenth century, when the Moscow/Cossack armies devastated Podzamcze – most of the buildings were razed to the ground, and the Cossacks murdered around 2,000 of its inhabitants.
The reconstruction went slowly, but two centuries later (in the mid nineteenth century) Jews accounted for nearly sixt per cent of the city’s inhabitants, and Lublin had the second-largest Jewish population in Poland (after Warsaw). One of the factors behind this growth was the city’s special position on the map of Polish Hassidism, owing to the work of Yaakov Yitzchak, the famous “Seer of Lublin.”
In 1862 most of the legal restrictions on Jews were lifted, which led to the residents of Podzamcze settling in parts of the city that had been off-limits – in the northeast part of the Old Town and on Krakowskie Przedmieście, Lublin’s main avenue. These changes, however, applied to only a small, wealthy, and highly assimilated portion of the Jewish populace. The poor, traditional, and less educated Jews remained in Podzamcze, isolated from the local Christians.
At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the criteria which Jews had used to identify themselves were reevaluated. At this point new socio-political trends arrived in Lublin, activating Jewish public life to a theretofore unseen scale. Zionism found new adherents, as did the workers’ Bund. Private schools for Jewish girls appeared, along with modern charity institutions, such as the hospital on Lubartowska Street and the orphanage on Grodzka Street. The Faith Community became active, and was a scene of debate between the traditional Orthodox majority and the growing numbers of Jews who supported new movements.
When Poland regained independence in 1918, Lublin’s Jews had a highly developed and impressively diverse socio-political life. In the interwar period, almost all the Jewish political parties were active in Lublin, running lively organizational, social, and cultural activities. Sport organizations, educational institutions, and professional unions were also running. Cultural and economic life flourished. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Lublin was inhabited by around 43,000 Jews (one-third of the total population).
The city was taken by the Germans on 18 September 1939. Early the following year the Jewish Council (Judenrat) was established, headed by engineer Henryk Bekker, later replaced by lawyer Marek Alten. In March 1941 the ghetto was formed, in an area that covered Podzamcze (the boundary line was Lubartowska Street) and part of the Old Town. This decision led to a very cramped living situation, the worsening of sanitary conditions, and consequently, the outbreak of contagious epidemics, which, combined with starvation and back-breaking labor, decimated Lublin’s Jewish population.
The great resettlement from the Lublin ghetto began during the night of 16 and 17 March 1942. Lublin became the first Jewish center in the General Government to experience the effects of Operation Reinhardt, i.e. the systematic and mass annihilation of the Jewish population in that area. People taken from the ghetto were led to a railway ramp by the city slaughthouse in the Kalinowszczyźna district, from which transports to the death camp in Bełżec departed almost daily. During this month-long operation, around 26,000 Jews were taken from the ghetto, and 1,500 were murdered on the spot. When it was completed, the surviving Jews (around 7,000) were brought to the newly created ghetto in Majdan Tatarski, a suburb of Lublin situated near the Majdanek concentration camp, and the Podzamcze district was systematically demolished.
The fate of the ghetto in Majdan Tatarski was sealed on 9 November 1942, when its inhabitants were driven to Majdanek. The majority were murdered in gas chambers that very same day.
Just before the city was taken by the Soviet army, in August 1944, around 300 Jews lived in Lublin, and by the year’s end this number had grown to over 3,000. For a brief period Lublin became the center of Jewish life in postwar Poland; numerous Jewish political parties were reborn, aid, social, and cultural institutions were created, such as the Central Historical Commission – the germ of the later Jewish Historical Institute. In November 1944 saw the establishment of the Central Jewish Committee in Poland, the country’s main Jewish institution, which functioned until 1950. The end of the city’s “metropolitan” function came with the liberation in early 1945 of the central part of Poland and the flow of most of the institutions that were created here and their affiliated people to Łódź, Warsaw, and other larger cities.
In mid 1946 the city was still inhabited by over 2,000 Jews, yet after the Kielce pogrom (1946) sparked a mass exodus from the country, this number dramatically fell. In the 1950s several hundred Jews still lived in Lublin, most of whom emigrated from Poland after the antisemitic campaigns of 1968.
At present, a branch of the Warsaw Jewish Faith Community functions in the city, as does a division of the Jewish Social-Cultural Society in Poland. Lublin’s Jewish community amounts to only a few dozen people.