Visit to Poland- Part II – Looking for Izbica

I was going to talk about several graves in order to deal with some of the issues of graves in a single post but this one became long enough for its own post.

I set out to visit the grave of the Izbitzer rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (pronounced in Yiddish as Izbitz). Izbitz Hasidus is currently fashionable for his vision that we have personal illuminations of God’s will.

Izbica is 30 minutes south-east of Lublin in one of the poorer parts of Poland located on the road to the Ukraine. On the side of the road are endless mustard yellow fields of rape–seed for canola oil. Everything is now modern agriculture with tractors, but many homes still have the older horse plows still rusting the yard. Cows and chickens in the front yards were common sites. One is entering into a realm scarcely populated with little business or industry. I remembered the signs at the Warsaw airport encouraging foreign investment to develop the country.

The town of Izbica goes back to the medieval era and it was briefly conquered by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the eighteenth century, but upon return to Poland it became an all Jewish city.

An ordinary Polish town of a noble from the 17-18th century originally had two parts, a Catholic part with a Baroque church and the Jewish side of the town; market was in the middle. (See Moshe Rosman The Lord’s Jews. Magnate-Jewish Relations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 18th Century, Cambridge, MA, 1990 Gershon Hundert The Jews in a Polish Private Town. The Case of Opatow in the Eighteenth Century, Baltimore, 1992.)

In Izbica, as in many of the other towns in this region, there was no Christian side nor any Church. Izbica was 95% Jewish. The return of the town to Poland created an all Jewish town. Whereas the end of the arenda system led to poverty in Russia, in the Lublin province of Lublin it lead to financial security as the Jews built factories and help industrialize the country. Izbica was known for having furniture, wood, and comb factories. These new Jewish factory towns suffered a dearth of leadership in the nineteenth century and organized their religious lives around Hasidism- specifically the individualistic and mercantile qualities of Polish Hasidism. We know that the Kotzker had a vinegar and then an apparel factory. The older nobility towns were market towns now we have Orthodox factory owners and proletariat. And whereas the older towns had yeshivot and rationalism, these new towns had Hasidism.(see Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment)

Rabbi Mordecahi Yosef was born in Tomaszow located 50km further south and he eventually becoming a student of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (Koch). Tomaszow was the place of all the wild stories of the court of the Kotzker. In 1830, the Kotzker supported the Polish uprising against Russian so he needed to change his last name and his city to save his life. He moved to Koch and Mordechai Yosef followed. In 1839, there was the famous break between the two and Mordecahi Yosef moved to the all Jewish town needing leadership. He died in 1851.

We arrived into a nineteenth century brick town looking like many an American small town of only four blocks length. Izbica has a depressed rust belt town feel and one website claims that most of the inhabitants were unemployed.

The Jewish cemetery is located behind a yellow house. Everyone in town knew, when asked, where it was.One enters the private driveway and then goes up a narrow and steep hill with dirt steps. One comes to a tangle of bushes and bramble with a dirt path which the locals are walking on to reach the other side of the hill. The grave was located immediately to our left behind a forest of hedges, trees, and vines. We missed it and entered the trail which ran the length of the former Jewish cemetery. We noticed a few recent Post WWII memorial stones to relatives killed in war. One of these was by two siblings to their killed parents, but one of the siblings was Catholic and one Jewish so the tombstone had a Jewish memorial on one side and a Catholic one on the other. Realizing we must have missed the tomb, we went back and saw what looked like a garage set back behind the thicket which must be the ohel. There was no sign to the grave, no Jewish community signs, or clearing of the bushes to get through, nor was there any fence or enclosure.

There was a new black memorial tombstone plaque to all those killed in Holocaust and then a little clearing in which sat a wall made of broken Jewish tombstones and a homemade garage structure made of tombstone fragments held together by cement. The Nazis had destroyed the cemetery at the very start of the war to build a headquarters and prison/ghetto. These were the remnants of the broken stones returns to the cemetery now embedded in two structures. In the garage looking ohel was the grave of Rabbi Mordechai Leiner with a simple new stone and a simple plaque above it. The grave seems to have been built by the members of the Leiner family who live in Brooklyn & Israel in order to pray to their ancestor.

On the way out of town, we were pointed to a brick building and told that it was originally a bakery the only remnants of the former main street. Some of the homes looked similar in age.

The students of Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, Rabbi Zadok Hakohen and Rabbi Leibele Eiger share a common ohel in the new cemetery in Lublin proper but they get little attention and are not mentioned in the guides. If one wanted to show the past of Lublin, they should get greater attention.

But why was the grave of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef give special attention in contemporary Poland? He was not a wonder worker and the Polish Hasidic tradition is not part of the world of Galician wonder working Zaddikim. Those coming from Boro Park to visit the Hozeh, Reb Elimelech, Sanz and Belz do not include the Izbitzer. It seems that there was some Shlomo Carlebach influence on the Polish committee seeking to restore the graves as well as surprise money from German TV because they were doing a documentary of the Nazi responsible for destroying the town.

I am still trying to understand the bigger picture of these isolated acts of reclamation by the small Polish Jewish community, The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) explained their work in Izbica as follows.

The goal of the project is to restore the neglected Jewish cemetery in Izbica and to bring back its proper look. The project is coordinated by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and supported by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and by Tvschoenfilm, a German documentary producing company.

Until the end of 2006 the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage had finished the first stage of the project, during which the following results were achieved:

– the matzevot, stolen during World War II and used to build a Gestapo prison in Izbica, were moved to the cemetery and secured;
– a monument commemorating the Jewish community of Izbica was erected at the cemetery;
– a pamphlet presenting the history of Izbica was published;
– a workshop on Jewish history and culture was organized for the students of the Izbica School Complex.

In autumn 2006 the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany had joined forces with the Foundation to realize the IZBICA JEWISH CEMETERY COMMEMORATION PROJECT. The financial support of the Embassy allowed the Foundation to erect a monument commemorating the Jewish community of Izbica, publish pamphlets presenting the history of the town (in Polish and in English), organize educational activities for the students of the Izbica School Complex and, finally, to trace the geodesic boundaries of the cemetery and design a new fence.

On November 16th, 2006, a ceremony of unveiling of the monument commemorating the Jewish community of Izbica took place.

The teachers and students of the School Complex in Izbica have been taking care of the Jewish cemetery in Izbica for many years, trying to discover the past of their town. In September 2005 the School Complex in Izbica joined the educational program “To Bring Memory Back”, launched by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage.

Within the framework of the „To Bring Memory Back” program the students take care of the Jewish cemetery, discover Jewish history and culture, and explore the history of the Jewish community of Izbica. They also undertake public activities leading to bring to the inhabitants of Izbica the memory of their past.

On December 19, 2006, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage organized for the students of the Izbica School Complex a workshop on Jewish culture and history, dedicated also to the educational program’s method and the realization of public activities.We certainly hope that thanks to the workshop, led by experienced animators, young people of Izbica will manage to invite many other inhabitants of their town to join them in taking care of the cemetery and exploring the past of Izbica.

The final stage of the IZBICA JEWISH CEMETERY COMMEMORATION PROJECT will be fencing the cemetery. The cost of this undertaking is estimated for 50 000 €. The Foundation is now seeking partners who will help us to complete this task. A pamphlet presenting the history of Izbica: “Izbica. A Story of a Place”»

They had a programs in the local school in 2005-6, but there does not seem to be any programming since 2006. The cemetery has several year’s of growth of bushes so the cleanup has not been maintained. They produced a very nice pamphlet on the town “Izbica. A Story of a Place” which is worth downloading. I have not uploaded my pictures yet. In the meantime page eight of the pamphlet has pictures of the wall of gravestones, and the ohel.

Towns such as Izbica had fewer survivors since there were no Christians in the town to serve as vehicles for escape and protection. In addition, in these towns, everyone spoke Yiddish – no one spoke Polish- so it was hard to blend in outside the town. The most famous survivor of Izbica is the still living Thomas Blatt who survived an escape from Sobibor. The pamphlet quotes Blatt that his father was called Leibele Goy since he was a freethinker who ate ham and spoke with Polish Christans, the latter a trait useful for survival.

Those who know the Torah of the Izbitzer come for pilgrimage and affirmation of his influence. Those Polish Jews who have reclaimed their Judaism come for an sense that just as they recovered their faith – they have an illumination that there is Jewish core to Poland. Some Jews from the US come for an Ozymandias sense of the immense loss and imagined vision of what the town was like when all Jewish. Others like Jonathan Foer Safran came to Eastern Europe and saw nothing but stones so he used his imagination to create his own personal illumination.

Now the goal is the raise money to fence it in. The question is: for whom? Is the goal to place a memorial and a fence around in all surviving cemeteries? But as the decades and centuries pass, who will take care of these places and who will travel to these places? Even with a fence it will soon be impassable due to overgrowth.

This morning a New York paper complained about the neglect and overgrowth of colonial Protestant cemeteries in NY. Thee are no funds to maintain every cemetary even in the United States. Do the well meaning restorers in POland understand the immense commitment for upkeep?

There are hundreds of Jewish graveyards of famous rabbis in Spain, Italy, Greece, Morocco and Russia? Do we preserve them all? Here in Izbica, there are no surviving tombstones. No history to see. No graves left to protect. There is no Jewish community returning to educate and there is not enough cemetery left to create a focal point for Polish education. There are over 350 known cemeteries of shtetlach with destroyed graveyard with no tombstones left, should there be 100’s of projects to fence them in?

To be continued—Visit to Poland Part III: On to Zamosc

One response to “Visit to Poland- Part II – Looking for Izbica

  1. Thanks for a thrilling and thoughtful post.

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