Lublin, once dubbed the Jewish Oxford, was the academic center of Ashkenazi Judaism for the better part of four centuries. From the mid 16th century to the mid-20th century, Jewish scholars from all over Eastern Europe came to study in Lublin at one of the continent’s only state-sanctioned Talmudic academies. The current building, completed in 1930 and gutted by the Nazis barely a decade later, is currently being renovated. In addition to the restoration of the school and synagogue, the Chachmei Yeshiva will be home to a Museum of Hasidism, the first of its kind.
Throughout the Middle Ages the lands of Eastern Europe had a history of relative tolerance towards the Jews. Nowhere was this more true than in Poland, which along with Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Spain was one of the major centers of Jewish life during the Diaspora. From the earliest days of the Kingdom of Poland, its rulers were among the most enlightened and hospitable with respect to Judaism. The first major waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in Poland at the beginning of the 12th century. Driven out of other countries by the frenzy surrounding the early crusades, the Polish King Boleslaus III encouraged the Jews to move east.
Despite pressures from the Catholic Church, Poland’s kings and aristocracy remained well-disposed towards the Jews. They were seen as a great economic asset to the generally poorer regions of Eastern Europe. In 1264, the General Charter of Jewish Liberties was enacted, which effectively protected the Jews and extended them full freedom of religion. In the mid 14th-century, when the Black Plague struck, Jews from all over Europe fled to Poland and the protection of King Casimir III, possibly at the behest of his Jewish mistress. Even larger numbers of Jewish immigrants arrived after the expulsions from Spain and Portugal in 1492.
By the beginning of the 16th century, Poland had become the new center of European Judaism. It is estimated that by the 1550s, less than a century after the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, more than three-quarters of all of the Jews in the world lived in Poland. Poland became the defacto center for Jewish academia in Europe. Lublin became the most important Jewish community, and a congress of Jews from all over Eastern Europe met there annually. In 1567, the head of the Yeshiva of Lublin, one of the most prestigious Jewish schools in Poland, was elevated to equal status with his counterparts at the kingdom’s Christian universities.
Unfortunately, the Polish Jewish community’s renaissance came to an end in the mid-1600s. In the wake of the Thirty Years War, which had laid waste to much of Cental Europe, Poland was assaulted on all sides by encroaching neighbors, none of whom were friendly towards the Jews. But despite the fact that the Jews of Poland then saw a steady decline in their rights, freedoms and safety, Poland continued to be the center of European Jewish life through the 20th century. The Yeshiva of Lublin remained the greatest center of Talmudic scholarship in Europe right until the German occupation began in 1939. After the war, the building was used as a medical school. Now being renovated, it will soon be a functioning Yeshiva again.
The earliest incarnation of the Yeshiva of Lublin existed at least as far back as the early 16th century, possibly earlier. However, the current building is less than a century old. Constructed between 1924 and 1930, this elegant school typifies the architectural style of public buildings of the period. Despite serious damage to the interior during the Nazi regime, this important symbol of Jewish academia miraculously survived the ravages of World War II and the Holocaust. The exterior appears much today as it did in the 1930s.
As of this writing, work was still being done on the interior. However, the Yeshiva’s synagogue was completed and rededicated in 2007. The restoration effort attempted to recreate the original synagogue based on available plans and photographs. The ark, which is located on the western wall, has not yet been completed. The finished Yeshiva will include a museum with exhibits on the history of Hassidic Judaism.
The Yeshiva is located close to a number of other Jewish sites on the north side of Lublin, approximately two hundred miles southeast of Warsaw close to the border with Belarus. Because renovation work on the Yeshiva is still underway, no visitor information was available as of the time of this writing. Web: www.lublin.jewish.org.pl (official website)
Eastern Europe was home to many Yeshivas in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust. Few survived the war. One that did survive is the Volozhin Yeshiva in Belarus. It has recently been returned to the local Jewish community and is currently being restored.