|This post was written for the newsletter of the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association.|
From the hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants of Lublin, fifty thousand were Jews on the eve of the Second World War. Most of them lived outside the walls of the old town, in the maze of the large Jewish quarter lying between the Brama Grodzka, the Grodno Gate, and the royal castle, where they were exiled by the privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis of the urban bourgeoisie, received from the Polish kings in the 16th century. The gate, usually called Jewish Gate by those living inside the walls, framed, with a mediterranean arch, the sight of the picturesque, crowded and poor neighborhood. The frame still exists. Only the image it once framed has disappeared.
“When we came here in 1990”, says Witold Dambrowska, one of the Warsaw founders of the Teatr NN, “No Name Theater”, operating in the bastion of the Grodno Gate, “we did not know anything about Lublin’s Jewish past. We did not know that the gate looks out onto a Jewish Atlantis. That the large empty space lying outside the gate is all that is left to us from the Jewish town. That the concrete of the parking lot under the castle buries the memory of a dozen synagogues, hundreds of Jewish houses, and an entire Jewish community.”
The No Name Theater was given a name by a Jewish woman who visited the bastion shortly after the founding of the theater. “I am NN”, she said, and she told them about who lived there, and how they lived, in the tiny homes weaving through the bastion, before the German invaders on 16 March 1942 forced all the residents of the ghetto onto trucks, and blew up all of its buildings, except for the bastion.
The theater decided to take up this legacy which had come to them. First they had to assess what, exactly, it was. Through detailed research they sought to explore the history of each house in the Jewish neighborhood, and in several thousand hours of interviews, made with survivors and their former neighbors, everything that could be known about the former residents and their lives. The thick dossiers of the houses and interviews, like headstones, line the wall of the research room, on whose floor white lines indicate the walls that were once there and the disposition of pre-war rooms. Here the trail starts, it leads through the labyrinth of corridors and rooms, layered upon each other over several centuries, and lined with the photographs of the Jewish inhabitants of Lublin, to the other large room, where a large city model shows the former Jewish town. The interactive reconstruction was also published on the internet, where, proceeding from house to house, one can get to know every piece of information that has up to now been collected about the neighborhood and its residents.
But the theater considers its task not only the revival and preservation of historical memory, but is also devoted to its sharing. They hold regular courses about the history of Jewish Lublin for the students of the city, as well as for the young people visiting them from all Poland and from abroad, and via street performances, they revive the past of the Jews in the city where they lived. On 16 March the students of the city schools read aloud the list of names of the deported, from morning till night, on the site of the ghetto, and after the fall of darkness no light, no lamp is lit, on that day in the city. Only one remains on, the single old street lamp that survives from the Jewish quarter, which shines day and night all the other days of the year in the memory of those killed.
And the disappeared long to be back where their memory is maintained. In the Renaissance main square of the old town, during the restoration of house number 4, a few years ago, a box was found containing two thousand seven hundred glass negatives, the photos of an unknown Jewish photographer of the inhabitants of the city from the 1920s and 1930s. The majority of the images are portraits of people, of whom not a single image was left. The negatives were received as a deposit by Teatr NN. And some of the portraits were enlarged life-size for the windows of the old town. The former citizens of Lublin moved back into their town. They look out from their former flats, at the table they sit, they take sips from our glasses,