Old Jewish cemetery in Lublin
The old Jewish cemetery in Lublin is situated on a loess hill once called the Grodzisko (“the gorod site”, “the settlement”) to the south-west of the Old Town and the Lublin Castle, in what is now the Kalinowszczyzna district. The cemetery is surrounded by a stone and brick wall, built probably in the 16th/17th century. There are two entrances to the cemetery. Nowadays, they are located in Sienna and Kalinowszczyzna streets respectively. Most tombstones were completely destroyed during World War II. Nevertheless, the original site of the cemetery has survived.
Establishment of the cemetery
It is difficult to determine the exact date on which the old Jewish cemetery in Lublin was established. The oldest written mention of the cemetery originates from 1555. According to a document, confirmed by king Sigismund II Augustus, three parcels were given to the Jewish community in Lublin by starosta (county-level royal official) Stanisław Tęczyński. The cemetery was established on one of them, the so-called Grodzisko - a hill between the castle and Czechówka river.
The 1555 document does not concern the foundation of the cemetery, as the oldest matzevah tombstone is from 1541. It is set on the grave of Yaakov Kopelman Halevi, a well-known Talmudist. Therefore, Tęczyński sanctioned an already existent cemetery.
Jewish funeral ceremonies were taking place in Lublin even before 1541, given that, according to 16th-century records, Jews lived in Lublin already during the reign of king Casimir III the Great, in the 14th century. However, it is impossible to ascertain whether the Grodzisko was already used as a Jewish cemetery back then. At the turn of the 14th century, a fortified settlement was situated there.1
Archaeological research in the 20th century showed that in the early 17th century, a substantial part of the cemetery hill had been covered with a 1 meter-thick layer of soil in which more people were buried. It was a common practice at other Jewish cemeteries in Poland as well.
Boards that had been used instead of coffins to secure bodies before burial, were discovered in the graves.
Ceramic shards which had been placed on the eyes and lips of the dead were found next to some of the people buried at the old Jewish cemetery in Lublin. This practice was widespread across Poland. The shards were often taken from the pot that was crushed next to the grave before the burial. This custom refers to the words of Talmud that read “an eyeball of flesh and blood (...) is never satiated” (Tamid 32). The tradition of covering the eyes stems from the belief that nothing, even death, can still the eyes of man. Therefore, the eyes of a dead person should be covered.2
Padlocks were also found on the boards that framed some of the bodies. The meaning of this custom has not been explained clearly. One of the Talmudic terms for grave is “something locked”, “a lock” (Kethuboth 17a). Hence some archaeologists argue that padlock could be a symbol of locking the tomb forever.
Covering eyes and mouth and placing padlocks next to the bodies were both expressions of the same endeavour – to isolate the dead from the world of the living.
Destruction of the cemetery
The old Jewish cemetery was destroyed several times. It suffered substantial damage in the 19th century from the troops quartered in the nearby Franciscan church.
The cemetery was almost completely devastated during World War II. In 1939, there were several thousand graves in the cemetery and only about two hundred have survived. Many of these matzevah gravestones are broken or riddled by bullets.
1980s and 1990s also saw acts of vandalism and damage to the cemetery.
People buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Lublin
The old Jewish cemetery in Lublin is visited by groups of religious Jews from all over the world, as it is here that important Jewish teachers and spiritual leaders were buried.
Among people buried in the Old Jewish cemetery are: Yaakov Kopelman (Talmudist, died in 1541), Abraham ben Uszaja (cantor, died in 1543),Shalom Shakna (Talmudist, founder of the Lublin yeshiva, died in 1558), Solomon ben Jehiel Luria (died in 1573), Yaakov Yitzchak ha-Levi Horowitz-Sternfeld, The Seer of Lublin (died in 1815).
Tombstone epitaphs from the old Jewish cemetery in Lublin
The texts of the epitaphs from both extant and destroyed tombstones from the old Jewish cemetery in Lublin have survived thanks to the work of Shlomo Baruch Nissenbaum titled Le-korot ha-yehudim be-Lublin (A history of the Jews in Lublin).
Compiled by Bartosz Gajdzik
Translated by Jarosław Kobyłko
1 M. Balaban hinted at the existence of Jewish cemeteries older than those preserved, in central and western Poland, see: Balaban, M. (1929), Zabytki historyczne Żydów w Polsce (Historical Monuments of Jews in Poland), p. 110 (in Polish).
2 Fijałkowski, P. (1989), “Obrządek pogrzebowy Żydów polskich w świetle badań archeologicznych” (Burial Ritual of Polish Jews in the Light of Archaeological Research), Biuletyn ŻIH (Jewish Historical Institute Bulletin), issue 3/151, VII-IX 1989, pp. 25-42, esp. p. 34 (in Polish).
Fijałkowski P., Obrządek pogrzebowy Żydów polskich w świetle badań archeologicznych, Biuletyn ŻIH, nr 3/151, VII-IX 1989 r., s. 25-42.