Last week our team went for a visit to our very old friends and spiritual mentors in the Old Jewish cemetery in Lublin. Every visit to this cemetery brings new discoveries and excitement with it, for although it isn’t so big anymore nowadays, this cemetery is the oldest existing cemetery in Poland, and some of the most fascinating and important Rabbis are buried there.
We began our visit with Rabbi Yaakow Kopelman. R. Kopelman is the owner of the oldest gravestone in Poland still standing in its original place, died and buried in 1541. His stone tells us how truly ancient this cemetery is, and also gives us information about the Jewish community in Lublin in the 15th c. Next to R. Kopelman there are two more ancient graves, belonging to Abraham Ben Uszaja and his daughter, also from the middle of the 15th c.
The ancient cemetery, once full of amazingly beautiful graves with Jewish engraves from different times and styles, is today much smaller than it was a hundred years ago. Two world wars and a period of neglect lasting until the 90’s, had left some of its stones in a very poor shape, making it hard to read and recognize them. But one special tombstone stands out from the others for its almost intact condition and mystical vivid coloures. that is the tomb of the Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz - the Seer of Lublin.
The Seer grave, kept today inside a locked Ohel, was recoloured and restored according to its original state. It was almost unharmed over the 2nd world war, as the stories claim that even the Nazi soldiers were afraid to damage it, and suffer the consequences of the Lubliner’s curse. There is not enough space to share here the many stories surrounding the Seer’s name, so you will have to come with us for a tour and hear them in person.
One story, nevertheless, takes us further into the graveyard, and to one of the great prides of the Jewish community of Lublin. The story goes, that whenever someone came to seek the Seer’s advice with sorrow in his eyes, the old Rabbi would tell him to go to the grave of Shalom Shachna and lay flat on it. He would add then, that all the great Rabbis who were buried in this cemetery are now in Israel, in the great Yeshivah of our Lord, all except for Rabbi Shachna, who lonely stayed behind to guard this city and its Jewish community. Rabbi Shachna’s stone is also visible and preserved in the cemetery to this day. It is a big and white stone, fitting to the old style of Ashkenazi engravings.
Not far from R. Shachna’s grave we could find one of the many sad evidences to the destruction made to this cemetery by the war - a tombstone that is no longer recognizable because of a large hole that was blasted into it in the 2nd world war. Some of the other stones around this one still bare visible bullet holes, revealing to us a little glimpse from the painful story of the community this cemetery belonged to. We walked further in, taking advantage of the winter that cleared a little of the bush that covers some of the cemetery’s parts in the summer.
On the top of the hill, in the heart of the cemetery, we were happy to meet another old friend, the renowned leader of the Lublin Jewish community, a great scholar and the first Rector of the Lublin Yeshiva, Rabbi Solomon Luria. Hamaharshal’s tomb, although somewhat damaged, still stands in the cemetery until today, along with a commemoration stone that was added to it in recent years.
From up here you can really see how high and noticeable this cemetery is, standing on an ancient tumulus watching over the city. This is also one of the reasons that contributed to the devastation it suffered over the centuries, for it’s been used as sort of a natural hill Keep for armies stationed in the city. Many other stories about the people buried in the cemetery were shared between us, as we went back down that steep hill, escaping the cold day that finally made his victory over us, and we continued to share our stories of the Seer, and other key figures, over a warm bowl of soup back in the old town.