A week after Purim, life is back to normal in most parts
of the Jewish world. But for a small town in Poland normality was
briefly suspended a week later on the 21st of Adar; the anniversary
of the death of the famed and much loved father of the Chassidic
movement, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk.
For the righteous he is known as the Noam Elimelech, after his
exceptional commentary on the Torah. For the traditional he is
immortalised by the famous Yiddish song: Der Rebbeh Elimelech.
For more than two centuries since he departed this world, Jews
have travelled from far and wide to pray at his grave. In the
early years, these pilgrimages were arduous journeys of many days
if not months, by means of steamship and horse-drawn carriage.
In times of uprising, pilgrims risked their lives and were even
shot amongst the gravestones. However, this year the Jews would
come in peace and in their thousands and they were also to arrive
in grand style.
Not having much in the way of Chassidic roots, I would never
have gone along had my best friend Avrumi not chartered a 400-seater
jumbo jet with a fellow travel agent in New York. He told me that
visits to the grave had changed the lives and fortunes of so many
people, that it must be worth a try. With the anniversary falling
this year on a Sunday, the large contingent of American travellers
had to rush out of their homes after the Sabbath to catch overnight
flights to London and connect with the special charters.
Once our aircraft was boarded in London, an all-male crew handed
out special amenity kits to the hundreds of Chassidic passengers.
No British Airways cabin attendant had ever given out kits like
these. They contained a memorial candle, a miniature whiskey bottle
for a lechayim with two cookies, a pen and scroll of paper
to write out kvitelach (notes of supplication to be deposited
at the grave) and a tiny packet of tissues for the occasional
Instead of the usual air miles announcement, the PA system came
alive with Tefillat Haderech (the travellers prayer). In
place of an in-flight movie, passengers listened to a speech about
the Rebbe and traded stories handed down from the old Shtetl.
Treated by my friend Avrumi to a first class seat on his
plane, I settled down to read some of the history of Lizhensk
from web pages I had downloaded the night before.
One survivors memoir recorded that it had been a beautiful
town full of greenery and with a vibrant Jewish community in which
people assisted each other to ensure that the disgrace of
starvation would not occur in our midst. As anti-Semitism
was imported from outlying cities, students faced daily tribulations
at the high school where the abuse of teachers and non-Jewish
students made life, in her words, like a Gehinnom (hell).
She told of how Jewish youth could not find their place: It
is no wonder that for the most part, they dreamed of Aliya to
Palestine or emigration to other lands across the ocean. There
was no employment, neither for those who possessed diplomas nor
for those who did not possess diplomas, for all the doors were
locked in front of the Jews. I myself felt best in the small room
of the Gordonia organization, among Jewish women.
There we danced the Hora and talked about Palestine.
She had left Lizhensk a few days prior to the start of the Nazi
deportations and now lives in Israel.
Another child of Lizhensk wrote a graphic account of the early
pilgrimages to Reb Elimelechs grave, which had been surrounded
by the graves of his disciples and other town scholars. When
there was a joyous event in a family, such as the marriage of
a son or daughter, the orphaned brides and grooms would come to
the cemetery to invite the souls of their dear ones to come and
participate in their wedding. Parents would also come to weep
for those who did not merit to witness this joyous event.
Central to Jewish life in Lizhensk was its beautiful domed synagogue,
adorned with pillars, stained glass windows and artwork depicting
scenes from Psalms. The Germans chose Rosh Hashana to make their
entrance and burn it to the ground.
Toward the end of the war when the Nazis could no longer find
any live Jews to abuse, they attacked the cemetery, felling all
the tombstones and using them to pave the marketplace. Miraculously
the tomb of Reb Elimelech survived and stands alone in its cave
at the top of the hill.
I felt the aircraft slow and dip into its descent into the late
afternoon cloud. As we neared the ground I could see Polish farmers
and townspeople staring up in wonderment from snow covered fields
and rutted tracks. The whole town seemed to have turned out to
see this first Boeing 747 ever to have landed in their tiny airport
Braking hard on the short runway, the captain steered toward
a red-suited ground man beckoning him toward an apron crowded
with other chartered planes. Frantically waving his fluorescent
paddles, he delighted in Boeings behemoth like a fisherman
landing his biggest catch of the day. It was estimated that well
over 3,000 Jews from America, Israel and continental Europe would
pass through this little airport on this, its busiest day
of the year.
On disembarkation and under the watchful eye of Polish police
and army personnel, there was a rush to the fleet of buses. Everyone
needed to get to the grave in Lizhensk before the anniversary
day formally closed at nightfall.
As we arrived in Lizhensk, I saw villagers transfixed by the
scene of hundreds of Chassidim emerging from fleets of buses that
filled the narrow lanes of the former shtetl. They watched as
long lines of dark coated figures shuffled up the muddy track
towards the burial cave which was aglow with the light of a thousand
candles. Flanking the track were collectors for various charities
and vendors of Chassidic texts and sundry Melech Memorabilia.
I tried to conjure up visions of the scene as it had been described
in old Lizhensk: Numerous stalls selling holy books and
holy objects were set up both inside and outside. They also sold
food and beverages in order to provide for the needs of the numerous
visitors. I remember in particular the good taste of the traditional
drink called 'Yapczszik', which was a sort of fruit soup which
was very tasty and overflowing. I always ran after my father and
asked him to buy me cup after cup of this special drink. The entire
city glowed with peacefulness during the course of these several
days, as it absorbed the crowds of Jews who came from near and
At the perimeter gate, a group of Cohanim stood in prayer by
torchlight. Forbidden to enter any cemetery, it seemed unfair
that they had travelled so many thousands of miles only to stop
short of the last 20 yards. They would have to ask others to post
their personal requests into the Rebbes tomb. At the cave,
hundreds of Chassidim struggled to squeeze into an area not much
larger than a double garage. The heat of all those candles was
almost as fierce as the jostling for position. In spite of these
impossible conditions everyone was good-natured and the only raised
voices were those wailing out their Psalms. The grave itself is
enclosed in what looks like a giant golden birdcage. Bodies pressed
against the bars and fingers poked through the gilt wire mesh.
The interior was already stacked high with scraps of paper inscribed
with private pleas for the Rebbe to intercede in heaven to cure
the sick and restore livelihood to the needy.
Their prayers spent, visitors later emerged from the caves
two narrow doorways. Exhausted from all the jostling and the fervour
of their prayers they headed for a makeshift dining hall where
hot soup and food was ladled out of steaming vats by volunteers
amid the sound of live Chassidic music. It was a delight to see
an elderly Polish man bring in a sloshing vat of hot soup on a
pushcart. I recalled stories of my own grandfather doing the same
for the guests in his boarding house.
Some of the younger townspeople mingled gamely with the bearded
followers of Reb Melech and even enjoyed some of the
strange food in an almost carnival atmosphere. Watching them,
I couldnt help wondering how many of their parents had been
willing accessories in the murder of their Jewish neighbours.
How many of them may have catcalled: The only good Jew is
a dead Jew! What an irony that the single dead Jew
buried in a cave up the hill has now become the most important
personality in their town today and brings in more foreign currency
than their largest factory.
Revived and refreshed, our pilgrims were now to become tourists
as they split up for pre-booked choices of all-night bus tours
of the outlying towns and their notable tombs and surviving synagogues.
It was unfortunate that the timing of this years anniversary
on a Sunday meant that tours could only take place at night. It
seemed as if Jews had to steal visits to their holy places while
the rest of Poland slept. By the next morning buses returning
from Shinov, Dinov, Ropshitz, Sanz, Krakow and Warsaw brought
their bleary eyed passengers back to the airfield at Rzsesow for
the flight home.
Chatting to the chief steward on our return flight, it became
clear that this was as much an unforgettable trip for the 22-man
crew as it had been for the passengers. They had really not known
what to expect and frankly Id had my own doubts. But it
was with genuine warmth that they thanked everyone for a most
wonderful experience and asked whether they could take us all
back again next year. For me, the entire trip was a genuine Kiddush
Hashem (sanctification of G-ds name). And this in
the words of the famous song would have made the Rebbe
Elimelech goor goor freylach (very very happy).
Back in London, the big news of the day was terrorisms victory
at the Spanish general election. In the days that followed I have
wondered how much has really changed since those twilight days
of Lizhensk and whether it could all happen again in a modern
Europe. One only has to look at events in France to see stark
parallels; the torching of Jewish centres, vandalism of cemeteries
and street beatings by Moslems who seem to go largely unpunished.
Jewish life in Poland was doomed by the early appeasement of
Nazi fascists. Now we are seeing appeasement of the new Islamofascists.
But who are we to complain when our own leadership in Israel is
appeasing terror with voluntary withdrawals from Lebanon and soon
Gaza? Why is our own army being held back from liquidating those
responsible for the modern day pogrom of suicide bombings?
Anti-Semitism has again reared its ugly head on European campuses.
Not quite the Gehinnom described by the child of Lizhensk,
but abuse just the same. But who are we to complain when the Israeli
universities we fund with our donations provide tenure, pay and
platform to some of the most self-hating anti-Zionist lecturers?
Now as then, newspapers are blatantly biased against Israel.
Last years parody of a Nazi-era cartoon won an award for
portraying Sharon eating babies. But who are we to complain when
the liberal leftists who monopolise Israels press pounce
on any opportunity to discredit their own people and country?
And if this were not enough, we now have a blockbusting movie;
by all accounts the most cleverly crafted and potent piece of
anti-Jewish incitement we have ever faced. During the war years,
Poles had to travel all the way to Warsaws playhouses to
watch Goebbels movies flickering in black and white. Now,
courtesy of cable and DVD, this 21st Century libel will be beamed
in living colour into millions of homes and be accepted as gospel.
I conclude that the only real difference, between then and now,
is the existence of the State of Israel as our protector and refuge
of last resort. If the millions of our people who perished in
Europe could see us today, what would they say about those who
seek to undermine something so special and precious, that may
well have saved them in their day? They, who stuck together in
brotherhood to prevent the disgrace of starvation, would surely
beseech us to close ranks and protect our precious people in their
I leave the last word to the survivors of Lizhensk: To
those who were dear to us, the people of Lizhensk, we overflow
with a fountain of memories, so that we can remember them, and
perhaps more importantly, so that their cruel and unusual deaths
can be regarded as the deaths of martyrs. Their lives were dedicated
to the existence of the Jewish community in any place and under
This site has been sponsored by Parkgate Aspen Property Management