For centuries Lublin served as a centre of European Jewish culture, earning the nickname the 'Jerusalem' of the Polish kingdom. The first mention of Jews living here dates from the 14th century; around the same period they were granted rights by the king to settle in the area below the castle. Jewish historians look back on the 16th and 17th centuries as the high points for the community. The first census in 1550 shows 840 Jews lived in Lublin; 200 years later Lublin had the third-largest Jewish population in Poland. By the time WWII broke out, around a third of the city’s 120,000 residents were Jewish.
For centuries, the city's Jews lived in the area surrounding Lublin Castle. These days, the area is mostly parking lots. It’s hard to imagine that before the German occupation this was a densely populated community filled with streets, shops and houses. The Grodzka Gate that links the Old Town and the castle area was once called the ‘Jewish Gate’, as it effectively marked the end of ‘Christian’ Lublin and the start of the Jewish quarter. Try to join a tour of the excellent exhibits on Lublin's Jewish history.
This centuries-old neighbourhood came to an end with the Nazi occupation of the city on 18 September 1939. The Germans initially moved the Jews into a restricted ghetto made up of part of the traditional Jewish quarter and a relatively small piece of territory marked by today’s ul Kowalska and ul Lubartowska. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942, with most of the residents sent to their deaths at the extermination camps at Bełżec and Sobibór, and the Majdanek camp within Lublin. Of the approximately 40,000 Jewish Lubliners, only a few hundred survived the Holocaust.
Memories of the Holocaust languished during the communist period, but since 1989, the city has worked at recognising the contributions of the city’s Jews. As a visitor, it’s easy to visit many important sites.
To experience echoes of the lost Jewish community, take a walk to the area northeast of the bus station to see both the Old Jewish Cemetery and the New Jewish Cemetery. The old cemetery dates to 1541. Once inside, it is a jumble of broken tombstone and old trees. There are views to the lost Jewish quarter around the castle. The new cemetery was established in 1829. Part was destroyed first by the Nazis and then by road-building projects. What survives today is a melancholy fragment of the past. Stop at the Hotel Ilan to get keys to both cemeteries. Starting at the bus station, a circular walk that includes the Hotel Ilan, the new cemetery and the old cemetery will cover about 3.4km.
Returning to the centre, the banality of evil is evident at the former headquarters of Operation Reinhard, which was the German name for the extermination of the Jews in occupied Poland. Today the building is a law school and the site is unmarked.
Finally, in the Old Town, the former Jewish orphanage is where on 24 March 1942 the Nazis seized over 100 children and three caregivers. They were taken to a sandlot in Lublin’s east and killed. A new memorial marks this site. In 1948, the bodies were reburied in the new cemetery where there is an older memorial.
A superb source of information on all things Jewish in Lublin is the group Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre (www.teatrnn.pl), which has an enormous amount of information on its website, including a detailed walking tour.