March 23, 2004

Lizhensk 2004: Invasion of a Polish Shtetl

A week after Purim, life is back to normal in most parts of the Jewish world. But for a small town in Poland normality was briefly suspended a week later on the 21st of Adar; the anniversary of the death of the famed and much loved father of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk.

For the righteous he is known as the Noam Elimelech, after his exceptional commentary on the Torah. For the traditional he is immortalised by the famous Yiddish song: Der Rebbeh Elimelech.

For more than two centuries since he departed this world, Jews have travelled from far and wide to pray at his grave. In the early years, these pilgrimages were arduous journeys of many days if not months, by means of steamship and horse-drawn carriage. In times of uprising, pilgrims risked their lives and were even shot amongst the gravestones. However, this year the Jews would come in peace and in their thousands and they were also to arrive in grand style.

Not having much in the way of Chassidic roots, I would never have gone along had my best friend Avrumi not chartered a 400-seater jumbo jet with a fellow travel agent in New York. He told me that visits to the grave had changed the lives and fortunes of so many people, that it must be worth a try. With the anniversary falling this year on a Sunday, the large contingent of American travellers had to rush out of their homes after the Sabbath to catch overnight flights to London and connect with the special charters.

Once our aircraft was boarded in London, an all-male crew handed out special amenity kits to the hundreds of Chassidic passengers. No British Airways cabin attendant had ever given out kits like these. They contained a memorial candle, a miniature whiskey bottle for a le’chayim with two cookies, a pen and scroll of paper to write out kvitelach (notes of supplication to be deposited at the grave) and a tiny packet of tissues for the occasional tears.

Instead of the usual air miles announcement, the PA system came alive with Tefillat Haderech (the travellers’ prayer). In place of an in-flight movie, passengers listened to a speech about the Rebbe and traded stories handed down from the old Shtetl. Treated by my friend Avrumi to a first class seat on ‘his’ plane, I settled down to read some of the history of Lizhensk from web pages I had downloaded the night before.

One survivor’s memoir recorded that it had been a beautiful town full of greenery and with a vibrant Jewish community in which people assisted each other to ensure that ‘the disgrace of starvation would not occur in our midst’. As anti-Semitism was imported from outlying cities, students faced daily tribulations at the high school where the abuse of teachers and non-Jewish students made life, in her words, like a Gehinnom (hell). She told of how Jewish youth could not find their place: “It is no wonder that for the most part, they dreamed of Aliya to Palestine or emigration to other lands across the ocean. There was no employment, neither for those who possessed diplomas nor for those who did not possess diplomas, for all the doors were locked in front of the Jews. I myself felt best in the small roomof the “Gordonia” organization, among Jewish women. There we danced the Hora and talked about Palestine.”

She had left Lizhensk a few days prior to the start of the Nazi deportations and now lives in Israel. Another child of Lizhensk wrote a graphic account of the early pilgrimages to Reb Elimelech’s grave, which had been surrounded by the graves of his disciples and other town scholars. ‘When there was a joyous event in a family, such as the marriage of a son or daughter, the orphaned brides and grooms would come to the cemetery to invite the souls of their dear ones to come and participate in their wedding. Parents would also come to weep for those who did not merit to witness this joyous event.’

Central to Jewish life in Lizhensk was its beautiful domed synagogue, adorned with pillars, stained glass windows and artwork depicting scenes from Psalms. The Germans chose Rosh Hashana to make their entrance and burn it to the ground.

Toward the end of the war when the Nazis could no longer find any live Jews to abuse, they attacked the cemetery, felling all the tombstones and using them to pave the marketplace. Miraculously the tomb of Reb Elimelech survived and stands alone in its cave at the top of the hill.

I felt the aircraft slow and dip into its descent into the lateafternoon cloud. As we neared the ground I could see Polish farmers and townspeople staring up in wonderment from snow covered fields and rutted tracks. The whole town seemed to have turned out to see this first Boeing 747 ever to have landed in their tiny airport of Rzsesow.

Braking hard on the short runway, the captain steered toward a red-suited ground man beckoning him toward an apron crowded with other chartered planes. Frantically waving his fluorescent paddles, he delighted in Boeing’s behemoth like a fisherman landing his biggest catch of the day. It was estimated that well over 3,000 Jews from America, Israel and continental Europe would pass through this little airport on this, it’s busiest day of the year.

On disembarkation and under the watchful eye of Polish police and army personnel, there was a rush to the fleet of buses.Everyone needed to get to the grave in Lizhensk before the anniversary day formally closed at nightfall.

As we arrived in Lizhensk, I saw villagers transfixed by the scene of hundreds of Chassidim emerging from fleets of buses that filled the narrow lanes of the former shtetl. They watched as long lines of dark coated figures shuffled up the muddy track towards the burial cave which was aglow with the light of a thousand candles. Flanking the track were collectors for various charities and vendors of Chassidic texts and sundry ‘Melech Memorabilia’.

I tried to conjure up visions of the scene as it had been described in old Lizhensk: ‘Numerous stalls selling holy books and holy objects were set up both inside and outside. They also sold food and beverages in order to provide for the needs of the numerous visitors. I remember in particular the good taste of the traditional drink called 'Yapczszik', which was a sort of fruit soup which was very tasty and overflowing. I always ran after my father and asked him to buy me cup after cup of this special drink. The entire city glowed with peacefulness during the course of these several days, as it absorbed the crowds of Jews who came from near and far.’

At the perimeter gate, a group of Cohanim stood in prayer by torchlight. Forbidden to enter any cemetery, it seemed unfair that they had travelled so many thousands of miles only to stop short of the last 20 yards. They would have to ask others to post their personal requests into the Rebbe’s tomb. At the cave, hundreds of Chassidim struggled to squeeze into an area not much larger than a double garage. The heat of all those candles was almost as fierce as the jostling for position. In spite of these impossible conditions everyone was good-natured and the only raisedvoices were those wailing out their Psalms. The grave itself is enclosed in what looks like a giant golden birdcage. Bodies pressed against the bars and fingers poked through the gilt wire mesh. The interior was already stacked high with scraps of paper inscribed with private pleas for the Rebbe to intercede in heaven to cure the sick and restore livelihood to the needy.

Their prayers spent, visitors later emerged from the cave’s two narrow doorways. Exhausted from all the jostling and the fervour of their prayers they headed for a makeshift dining hall where hot soup and food was ladled out of steaming vats by volunteers amid the sound of live Chassidic music. It was a delight to see an elderly Polish man bring in a sloshing vat of hot soup on a pushcart. I recalled stories of my own grandfather doing the same for the guests in his boarding house.

Some of the younger townspeople mingled gamely with the bearded followers of ‘Reb Melech’ and even enjoyed some of the strange food in an almost carnival atmosphere. Watching them, I couldn’t help wondering how many of their parents had been willing accessories in the murder of their Jewish neighbours. How many of them may have catcalled: ‘The only good Jew is a dead Jew!’ What an irony that the single dead Jew buried in a cave up the hill has now become the most important personality in their town today and brings in more foreign currency than their largest factory.

Revived and refreshed, our pilgrims were now to become tourists as they split up for pre-booked choices of all-night bus tours of the outlying towns and their notable tombs and surviving synagogues. It was unfortunate that the timing of this year’s anniversary on a Sunday meant that tours could only take place at night. It seemed as if Jews had to steal visits to their holy places while the rest of Poland slept. By the next morning buses returning from Shinov, Dinov, Ropshitz, Sanz, Krakow and Warsaw brought their bleary eyed passengers back to the airfield at Rzsesow for the flight home.

Chatting to the chief steward on our return flight, it became clear that this was as much an unforgettable trip for the 22-man crew as it had been for the passengers. They had really not known what to expect and frankly I’d had my own doubts. But it was with genuine warmth that they thanked everyone for a most wonderful experience and asked whether they could take us all back again next year. For me, the entire trip was a genuine Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name). And this – in the words of the famous song – would have made the Rebbe Elimelech ‘goor goor freylach ’ (very very happy).


Back in London, the big news of the day was terrorism’s victory at the Spanish general election. In the days that followed I have wondered how much has really changed since those twilight days of Lizhensk and whether it could all happen again in a modern Europe. One only has to look at events in France to see stark parallels; the torching of Jewish centres, vandalism of cemeteries and street beatings by Moslems who seem to go largely unpunished.

Jewish life in Poland was doomed by the early appeasement of Nazi fascists. Now we are seeing appeasement of the new Islamofascists. But who are we to complain when our own leadership in Israel is appeasing terror with voluntary withdrawals from Lebanon and soon Gaza? Why is our own army being held back from liquidating those responsible for the modern day pogrom of suicide bombings?

Anti-Semitism has again reared its ugly head on European campuses. Not quite the ‘Gehinnom’ described by the child of Lizhensk, but abuse just the same. But who are we to complain when the Israeli universities we fund with our donations provide tenure, pay and platform to some of the most self-hating anti-Zionist lecturers?

Now as then, newspapers are blatantly biased against Israel. Last year’s parody of a Nazi-era cartoon won an award for portraying Sharon eating babies. But who are we to complain when the liberal leftists who monopolise Israel’s press pounce on any opportunity to discredit their own people and country?

And if this were not enough, we now have a blockbusting movie; by all accounts the most cleverly crafted and potent piece of anti-Jewish incitement we have ever faced. During the war years, Poles had to travel all the way to Warsaw’s playhouses to watch Goebbels’ movies flickering in black and white. Now, courtesy of cable and DVD, this 21st Century libel will be beamed in living colour into millions of homes and be accepted as ‘gospel’.

I conclude that the only real difference, between then and now, is the existence of the State of Israel as our protector and refuge of last resort. If the millions of our people who perished in Europe could see us today, what would they say about those who seek to undermine something so special and precious, that may well have saved them in their day? They, who stuck together in brotherhood to prevent the disgrace of starvation, would surely beseech us to close ranks and protect our precious people in their homeland.

I leave the last word to the survivors of Lizhensk: ‘To those who were dear to us, the people of Lizhensk, we overflow with a fountain of memories, so that we can remember them, and perhaps more importantly, so that their cruel and unusual deaths can be regarded as the deaths of martyrs. Their lives were dedicated to the existence of the Jewish community in any place and under any condition.’

[This article first appeared as a front page essay in the Jewish Press]__________________________________________________

Pictures of this trip may be viewed at

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