Event 1: Lublin, Poland

Lublin reflections

Refleksje związane z Lublinem

Reflections at the end of three days together in Lublin

Lublin is the biggest city and the largest academic centre in Eastern Poland. Home to 350 000 people with nearly 100 000 students living there. The city boasts 700 years of history. Next to Krakow, it has one of the most beautiful old towns in Poland.

As we walked to the Cultural Centre from our hotel every day, we became increasingly aware of the hidden streets beneath our feet – the houses, shops, printing houses, synagogues. Beneath the concrete, lie the memories of an entire town.

The Nazis used the synagogue as a centre for selecting those for deportation to death camps, it was burnt to the ground afterwards.

In many ways, Lublin was the heart of the Holocaust in Poland. Of the city’s 43,000 Jews, fewer than 300 survived there. Operation Reinhard, the Nazi programme to systematically murder all of occupied Poland’s two million Jews, was headquartered here. The plans for Belzec, the first extermination camp, were drawn up and its construction administered in Lublin. The Majdanek camp is just outside the city. At least two million people died in these four locations between October 1941 and November 1943, and thousands more were shot in the forests around them.

Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, director of Grodzka Gate NN Theatre and inspiration for the work of Stowarzyszenie Studnia Pamięci (Well of Memory Association) says “This is not the history of the Battle of Waterloo but of people still crying, still hurting.” Institutes such as Grodzka Gate have alerted huge numbers of Poles to the contribution that Jews made to Poland’s rich history. Much of its work has been arts based and beyond words: the lighting and extinguishing of lamps, the planting of memorial trees, music on the streets, but discrimination lingers.

The Gate’s mission to create a file for each of the city’s 43 000 Jewish residents has not been without opponents . Stones painted with swastikas were thrown at Pietrasiewicz’s windows. A bomb squad was called to dismantle an explosive device left outside his house. His work is an important step in combating a rise in discrimination against minorities in Europe. The UK team are amazed that this project is led by non Jewish residents whose knowledge of what happened in WW2 is extensive. The exercise with buttons initiates discussion about those who resisted and those who acquiesced.

Having bought some souvenirs to take back to the UK, we came out of a shop and found a plaque in memory of Aleksander Zelwerowicz, an actor, director and founder of the National Theatrical Arts Institute. He was born in Lublin. He also hid and assisted Jews for the duration of the war. His daughter Helena says “He defined himself as a friend of man. He always had an open heart and practical assistance for those oppressed and in need of help, and during the occupation, Jews needed that help the most.”

The current government policies in Poland make it difficult for open hearted people at the Gate and the Well of Memory to continue reinstating a significant part of their history, but their work is more relevant than ever, as long as the connection is made between past events and contemporary issues.

One participant says she is ashamed of her country’s increasing hatred of foreigners. She feels helpless to act. We try to say that she can act as an individual, welcoming people who are already in Lublin and then working with other like minded people to put pressure on the government and remind them of EU principles.

From a UK participant

What has stayed with me ...

The finite numbers who were so brutally killed and the infinite capacity of the perpetrators to abuse and humiliate, in ways only humans can.

To be able to walk freely on streets where invaders had so cruelly stamped their boots in occupation.

Feeling alarmed to hear about the rise in nationalist anti-immigrant feelings and policies, which the Polish government are actively promoting.

Being shocked by the contemporary and ongoing invasion of disrespectful Israeli youth, who brought their insensitive carnival atmosphere to a place of solemn reflection.

Feeling fortunate that we have never experienced such oppression from an evil invading force, it puts our war time experiences in another light.

From a Polish participant

It has been a short time together and yet it has made me think ...

It has been a short time together here in Lublin and yet it has made me think. Meeting new people from different countries and cultures, even for an hour, is refreshing and precious. Asking open questions, listening to the consensus of other people, trying to find an answer for myself – it’s an experience every person should have from time to time.

Spending time thinking about the words we heard, and creating something together to help us respond, has been a revelation.

It gives a more open view of what’s happening in our city and in the world and plants new ideas about choices.

I’m thinking about what Brian said about being pro-active and helping migrants and refugees. I feel there is an empty space to fill in my life and in my city’s life.

I remembered the actions of Lublin’s citizens when there was a real need to help Ukrainian people, during Maidan in Kiev. How can we awake this activity again today, especially when our government is not sympathetic?

Thank you for asking the questions!