Poland: Tourists and pilgrims take "The Chassidic Route"


Visitors to the town of Lezajsk in south eastern Poland these days are taken on a sentimental journey into the past. Some 2 000 Chassidic Jews from all over the world have made their annual pilgrimage to the place. It coincides with preparations for the opening of what is to be The Chassidic Route, a major tourist attraction for visitors to Poland and Ukraine, and eventually also to Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Each year on the 21st day of Adar, at the beginning of March, Chassidic Jews from many countries come to Lezajsk to visit the grave of Zaddik Elimelech Weissblum, one of the founders of a religious movement whose aim was to revive Judaism in the 18th century. The Hasidim believe that a person's soul returns to the place of burial on the anniversary of his or her death. The Jews visit Elimelech's grave in Lezajsk to ask his spirit to help them with important life issues.

Lezajsk is one of ten places in Poland to be included on the Chassidic Route. The nearby town of Debica is another one. Jacek Dymitrowski of the 'Friends of Debica Association' hopes the Route will attract many tourists to the town.

"Out of the three synagogues existing in Debica, only one has survived. There is also a Jewish cemetery, which was devastated by the Nazis. It is currently being renovated. And there is a site where 600 Jews were murdered during World War Two."

Several buildings from the late 18th and early 19th century, formerly belonging to the town's Jewish inhabitants, as well as the site of the former Jewish Ghetto have survived. Head of the Debica commune, Stanislaw Rokosz, says there are also several sites of Jewish martyrdom in the close vicinity of the town.

"There are the Mount of Death and a former labor camp where 15 thousand people perished, half of them Jews."

The focal point of the Chassidic Route in Poland is to be Zamosc. A Jewish Museum and the Tourist and Cultural Information Centre are to open in the town's former synagogue.

Poland is sometimes seen as a huge Jewish cemetery and so there is an awareness among the initiators of the project that the focus should be primarily on restoring the Jewish heritage of Poland. Among those who are fascinated by the once-thriving Jewish culture and traditions on Polish lands is the British photographer Chris Schwartz. He is the founder of the Galicia Museum in Krakow. The Traces of Memory is the title of an exhibition which documents the Jewish heritage of southern Poland.

"If we only look at the sites of murder in one way we're letting Hitler win because it's important to pay respects to people without question, it is also important to develop a pride and understanding of the culture that existed here before."

Initially the Chassidic Route will cover ten localities in Poland and five in Ukraine. In later years it will also include Jewish heritage sites in Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The project is supported by the European Union programme for the development of heritage tourism. It's expected that as the project is implemented even more Chassidic Jews will be coming to Lezajsk, to pray at Zaddik Elimelech's grave, and to sing and dance.