A Different Type of Seminary: Priests, Cyclists, and Other Tourists Visit the Lublin Yeshiva

Wojciech Tworek

Yeshivas Khakhmey Lublin has enjoyed a somewhat legendary status. Its founder, Meir Shapira (1887-1933), dreamed of creating a cutting-edge yeshiva that would provide young Torah scholars with a perfect study environment: big and comfortable classrooms, a well-equipped library, a dormitory, and a dining hall on-site. The yeshiva even had its own banner and anthem. The monumental building on Lublin’s Lubartowska Street, opened in 1930 after nearly a decade of fundraising, still stands out from the surroundings of mainly two-story tenement houses. In the 1930s, it was nothing short of a sensation. “We approach the famous seat of Yeshivas Khakhmey Lublin with reverence and agitation,” wrote Hilel Seidman in his somewhat grandiloquent description: “A magnificent and impressive five-story building with architectural panache. One of its kind in the world. Other institutions of higher education would not be ashamed of it either.” 1 1 Hilel Seidman, Szlakiem nauki talmudycznej: wiedza judaistyczna a wyższa szkoła talmudyczna w Lublinie, Warszawa 1934. And indeed, this new place on the Lublin map proved to be attractive for a wide range of people, including many rather unexpected guests for a rabbinical school. 2 2 On the history of Yeshivas Khakhmey Lublin, see Konrad Zieliński and Nina Zielińska, Jeszywas chachmej Lublin: Uczelnia medrców Lublina, Lublin: UMCS 2003. For Hasidic accounts of the history of the yeshiva, see David Avraham Mandelbaum, Yeshivat Hakhme Lublin: Ha-yeshivah—u-meyasedah maharam Shapira z.ts.l., Jerusalem: Merkaz le-’idud mif’ale tarbut u-mehkarim toraniyim be-Yisra’el, 1994; David Halachmy (Weisbrot), Yeshivat Hakhme Lublin u-meholelo ha-ga’on maharam Shapira z.ts.l. Bne Brak: Mishor, 1994–95.

Yeshivas Khakhmey Lublin was created as the flagship educational institution of Orthodox Jewry, with the institutional support of the Orthodox political party Agudas Yisroel, which was dominated in Poland by the Hasidim of Avraham Mordekhai Alter (the Gerer rebbe). 3 3 Shapira was one of the leaders of Agudas Yisroel in Poland, and in 1922 was elected on behalf of this party as a deputy of Sejm (lower chamber of the Polish parliament). On Shapira, see Nina Zielińska, Konrad Zieliński, “Rabin Majer Szapira (1887-1933), zalożyciel uczelni Jesziwot [sic!] Chachmei Lublin,” Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 193 (2000): 49-60; David Avraham Mandelbaum, Ha-or ha-me’ir: masekhet hayav u-fo’olav shel ha-ga’on rabi Me’ir Shapira z.ts.l. mi-Lublin, Bne Brak: Mandelbaum, 2007. On Agudas Yisroel, see Gershon C. Bacon, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916-1939, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1996; on its Lublin activity and support for the yeshiva, see Tadeusz Radzik, “Agudas Isroel (Związek Izraela) w Lublinie w latach 1919-1939,” idem (ed.), Żydzi w Lublinie. Materiały do dziejów społeczności żydowskiej Lublina, vol. 2, Lublin: UMCS, 1998, 289-306. The interest it generated, however, exceeded narrow partisan boundaries within the Polish Jewish community. The opening of the yeshiva in the summer of 1930 attracted large crowds, including non-Jewish representatives of the local authorities, and the building quickly became one of Lublin’s landmarks. Visitors flocked to see it as well as the 3D model of the Second Jerusalem Temple, which served as a study aid for students learning Talmudic tractates concerning the Temple and the sacrificial order. The Jewish press noted (and sometimes ridiculed) the popular interest in the yeshiva. 4 4 The journalist Shmuel Leyb Schneiderman, for instance, wrote a scathing report from his visit. In his eyes, the yeshiva was a product of the megalomaniac mind of a provincial rabbi who wanted to create “the intellectual center of Jewish theology, a sort of Vatican” that would educate new troops of an Orthodox Inquisition to “burn at stake heretical libraries [...] suck the poor dry and oppress them.” See his Od Nalewek do wieży Eiffla, Warsaw 1936, 48-49. However, the yeshiva’s guest book — currently held in the Lublin State Archive — offers the most interesting testimony to its popularity as a tourist destination.

I happened upon the guest book by coincidence. While researching the Chabad yeshiva in interwar Warsaw, I came across cursory remarks about a rosh yeshive by name of Shimon Engel Horovits, famous for his mystical inclinations, photographic memory, and the fact that his loyal students staged a revolt in the Lublin yeshiva. I wanted to know more about this mysterious Hasidic educator, so I made an overnight trip in a dubious minivan to Lublin. At that time, I was more interested in Meir Shapira’s letters or newspaper clippings with scraps of information about Shimele Engel, but kedey yoytse zayn I flipped through the guest book, too, and I was flabbergasted by what I saw. 5 5 The primary result of my research can be found in my article “Mystic, Teacher, Troublemaker: Shimon Engel Horovits of Żelechów and the Challenges of Hasidic Education in Interwar Poland,” Jewish Quarterly Review 110.2 (2020): 313-342.

The preserved pages of the guest book contain a few dozen signatures of people who visited the yeshiva between 1932 and 1938. The book has five columns for guests to fill in: name, place of origin, street address, date, and additional remarks, with instructions provided in Hebrew. Some visitors took the liberty to scribble a few additional words. There is little external information about these visits, such as if and how they were guided. One can assume that the yeshiva administration saw them as a public relations and fundraising opportunity. Lest one think that the yeshiva attracted Orthodox visitors only, the diversity of languages used in the book suggests otherwise, with signatures in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and Esperanto.

Who came to the yeshiva, then? Alas, many entries provide little information. In most cases, a place of origin is given, showing that people came from many localities in mostly central Poland: Warsaw, Łódź, Radom, but also Lwów [Lviv], Kraków, Brześć Litewski [Brest], and many smaller towns. A few came from Palestine, for example one Yisroel Kats, who arrived from Tel Aviv. His case is interesting for other reasons, too. The same hand signed six men in a row named Kats, including Yisroel. The other five came from Włodzimierz Wołyński [Volodymyr Volynsky], Warsaw and Łódź. Perhaps these brothers or cousins decided to include a visit to the yeshiva as part of their family reunion.

Certain visitors disclosed their profession. As one might expect, the famous rabbinical school attracted some religious functionaries, such as Yankev Yoyne Erlekhman, a dayen and rabbi from Warsaw. 6 6 He was the son-in-law of Yisroel Elozer Halperin, the rebbe of Kozhnits in Łódź; see Yehoshua Asher Weissblum, Sefer bet awot: mekhil toldotehem shel tsadikim, Brooklyn, 2002, 139 n. 112. Members of the Hasidic nobility also signed the guest book, including Yisroel Shmuel Nayhoyz (Beys Hodosh) from Lwów, who under “additional comments” wrote simply “the admor [rebbe] of Bibrka,” a minor offshoot of the small Chelm dynasty. Other Hasidic visitors include Dovid Horovits, “the young rabbi of Grodzisk” and Yisroel Halberstam, “the son of the admor, our master, the holy rabbi of Zhmigrod [Żmigród], currently in Kraków”. Dovid, who later became the rabbi of Grodzisk Mazowiecki, was murdered in the Holocaust. Yisroel survived the Holocaust and became a rebbe in his own right of Tsanz-Zhmigrod in New York. It is likely that these two Hasidic heirs apparent were on a joint trip, as their signatures are next to each other in the book. They were also related: Horovits married Fayge Beyle Halberstam, the daughter of Mordkhe Zeev, the rebbe of Tsanz-Gribov.

But the rabbis, rebbes and rebbes-in-making are the minority. Other visitors include merchants, a physician, and various organized groups. After all, burgeoning Jewish tourism was becoming an important way of spending leisure time. And indeed, there is an entry in the name of the Jewish Landkentenish Society, an organization instrumental in promoting tourism and “knowing the land” as a cultural and political project. 7 7 See Samuel Kassow, “Travel and Local History as a National Mission: Polish Jews and the Landkentenish Movement in the 1920s and 1930s,” in Julia Brauch, Anna Lipphardt and Alexandra Nocke (eds.), Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place, Aldershot 2008, 241-264. This entry is followed by three short notes from groups of Esperantists, including from “the Esperanto section of the Jewish Landkentenish Society,” written in Yiddish and signed—both in Yiddish and in Polish—by Zalmen Szyk, the chairman of the Vilna branch of the society. Other interesting groups include a cyclist club, “Marathon,” whose members made it all the way to Lublin from Warsaw, almost two hundred kilometers.

Other groups, often very remote from the ideology and worldview of the Agudas Yisroel-backed Yeshivas Khakhmey Lublin, also used trips there as an educational or formative opportunity. Among these groups were members of the right-wing Revisionist Zionist youth movement Betar; fifty-nine students from a competing institution, the Warsaw Takhkemoni rabbinical seminary; students from Lublin’s school for children with special needs; and ninety (!) girls from a nearby public elementary school — rather unthinkable in today’s Hasidic yeshivas with their strict standards of modesty and rigorous separation between sexes. 8 8 Eliza Orzeszkowa public elementary school was located at Lubartowska 18, a kilometer away from the yeshiva, in a building which at some time housed, among others, a Hasidic shtibl. It seems that the majority of the school’s faculty was Jewish and that the school catered predominantly to Jewish children. See Teodor Wolski (ed.), Monografia szkolnictwa m. Lublina, Lublin: Magistrat m. Lublina, 1928, 56, and [accessed 1 December 2021]. On the coeducational public elementary school for children with special needs at Niecała 6, see Wolski, Monografia szkolnictwa m. Lublina, 58, 136-127.

Several individual names stand out as well. One visitor was Ben Zion Kalb, a young Jew from Nowy Targ, who would several years later organize a network smuggling people out of occupied Poland to Slovakia, and whose collection of papers is now available at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 9 9 See ​​ Abba Ahimeir, the notorious Revisionist Zionist journalist and ideologue, also left a mark in the book. Ahimeir was at the yeshiva on behalf of Hazit ha-‘am, a Revisionist weekly, whose title, disturbingly, translates as “The National Front.” A full report followed his visit. Titled “Be-erets poshte ha-yad veha-regel” [In the land of beggars and bankrupts], it is an acerbic account of a rootless diasporic institution, which welcomes with suspicion a Jew from Jerusalem as someone who may be influenced by “the sitra ahra [evil] of Zionism.” Ahimeir describes the yeshiva as a place perhaps monumental, but essentially dead: “Yeshivat Hakhme Lublin is located in a huge building of three or four floors. The building was erected in an elevated place. There were attempts at making a garden in the courtyard, but a long time ago I noticed that greenery flourishes in the courtyards of mosques, but not of our synagogues, houses of study, or yeshivas.” What brought Ahimeir the most enjoyment from his trip to Lublin was a lunch in a Polish cafeteria, which served delicious cabbage soup such as he “ha[d] not tasted since being banished from his parents’ house.” 10 10 Abba Ahimeir, “Be-erets poshte ha-yad veha-regel,” Hazit ha-‘am 72 (30 December 1932).

Abraham Sumiga’s signature also stands out. Under “additional comments,” where many guests wrote their professions, Sumiga put simply: ger-tsedek, a righteous convert. His Hebrew cursive script looks a bit childish, suggesting he has only just learned how to write; he put a dagesh in his first name (hence Abraham and not Avrom), and his place of origin is unclear. We can learn more about him from articles in the Warsaw newspaper Hayntige nayes. 11 11 “Yunger galeh zikh megayer geven in Lublin,” Hayntige Nayes 284b (13 December 1934); “Far’n endigen dem galekhim-seminar iz er aroysgetreten un gevorn a Yid...,” Hayntige Nayes 153b (4 July 1935). According to these, Abraham was born as Andrzej (or Józef; Hayntige nayes gives both these names), and before he wanted to be a Jew, he tried to become a Catholic priest. In the seminary in Kraków, however, he started harboring doubts about his faith. He became interested in Judaism, left the seminary shortly before being ordained, and moved to Lublin, where he converted (apparently with the blessing of the rebbe of Trisk, Moyshele Twerski), and found a shidukh with a girl from Chełm. It is hard to be a Jew, as the saying goes, but it is perhaps even harder to be a Jew-by-choice. The article in Hayntige nayes mentions unspecified “unpleasantries”—first from his Christian surroundings in Kraków and then from his fellow Jews in Lublin—that forced him to move around and eventually settle in Łódź. The last traces of him I found were in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto archive, and I do not know whether he or his wife survived the war.

The fact that his wife was either a widow or a divorcee suggests that his position on the shidukhim market was not particularly strong. 12 12 Sumiga and his wife’s details are preserved in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto Archive; his wife Sonia Genia bore two surnames: Gartman Sumiga (nee Kerszencwajg), which indicates that Abraham was not her first husband; see Archiwum Panstwowe w Łodzi, Przełożony Starszeństwa Żydów w Getcie Łódzkim, sygn. 987, 773. Or perhaps, the marriage underscores the courage of his wife, Sonia Genia, who agreed to marry a convert and a former seminary student regardless of possible social disapproval. While conversions to Judaism were rare in pre-war Poland, they did happen and were treated by the Jewish press as a curiosity. 13 13 Adam Kopciowski of the Marie Curie University in Lublin discusses several such cases in his monograph on the Yiddish press in Lublin. See his Wos hert zich in der prowinc? Prasa żydowska na Lubelszczyźnie i jej największy dziennik „Lubliner Tugblat”, Lublin: UMCS, 2015, 425-427

A few words are due about a visit paid by the “Astrea” student fraternity active at the Catholic University of Lublin. While the inscription in the book gives only the date of their visit and the number of visitors (twenty), the students shared their impressions several days later in Głos lubelski, the mouthpiece of the Lublin chapter of the right-wing nationalist Narodowa Demokracja party. The article “Z wędrówek po Lublinie” [From wandering around Lublin] shows that the trip was not intended to open up young Catholic minds, but to confirm their long-harbored prejudice. The description of students learning in khevruse in the yeshiva hall uses common antisemitic tropes: “Each student, self-absorbedly, crams holy words, trying to shout louder than everyone else [...]. Is it history or insanity? No, it is medieval fanaticism [...] Is it possible to talk about the assimilation of the Semitic race?! Can we think about racial coexistence? European civilization will never reach where faith is based not on principles grounded in reason, but on the fanatical blindness of ritualistic traditions.” Drawing on antisemitic discourses of “hygiene,” the yeshiva is described as primitive, backward, and dirty. The only thing that presents “some value” in their view is the yeshiva library that holds old Hebrew manuscripts. 14 14 “Z wędrówek po Lublinie,” Głos Lubelski 27 and 29 (27 and 29 January 1935).

These students were not the only non-Jews visiting the yeshiva. Indeed, the guestbook demonstrates that it was a fairly popular destination among priests and seminary students. It is fascinating to see that in the mid-thirties, when rampant and violent antisemitism was on the rise in Poland and the Catholic church was one of the antagonizing factors, the worlds of yeshive bokhrim and Christian clergymen could meet; that young priests would leave their comfort zone, overturning (even if fleetingly) accustomed power relations, and become guests in an Orthodox Jewish space. Or perhaps their experience was not much different than that of Astrea students, for whom the visit to the yeshiva was a performance of racial and religious superiority. So far, I have not been able to procure any sources that would shed additional light on these visits. Perhaps some of them resulted from curiosity and boredom. One of the pages, for example, has signatures of six seminary students and one deacon (advanced student) from the Lublin Catholic seminary. 15 15 Seminary students take diaconate vows usually prior to commencing their last year of study, concluded with presbyterian vows, by which they become ordained as priests.

The seminary is less than half an hour on foot from the yeshiva; perhaps the young future priests — usually not allowed to leave the walls of the school individually, but always, for precautionary measures, accompanied by another student — took their limited opportunity to stroll around and decided to spend some time in a different kind of seminary.

Students and priests from the Bobolanum Institute, a theological seminary run under the auspices of the Jesuit order, also stopped by at some point. It is almost uncanny to see signatures of the “Pope’s soldiers,” an order historically engaged in missionary work and proselytization, in the yeshiva guest book under the signature of a Hasidic tsadik. Interestingly, some of these men, apparently showing off their philological skills gained in the seminary, signed in Hebrew. Their shaky square script (rather than cursive) suggests that their Jewish language education did not go beyond Biblical Hebrew. They added the letters TJ to their names, which stand in Polish for Towarzystwo Jezusowe (Society of Jesus), the official name of the Jesuit order. However, they did not seem to be able to make up their mind whether one writes Towarzystwo with tov or with tes.

Finally, not all the priests in the yeshiva were Catholic. One page in the book shows signatures of a group of Mariavite Christians: a small independent church that emerged in Poland from a group of followers of a mystic and visionary, Sister Maria Felicja Kozłowska. On an autumn Monday in 1935, a group of Mariavite priests and nuns visited the yeshiva. “I paid a visit and I admired,” wrote Ignacy Kopystyński approvingly. Together with him were Sister Marya Kopystyńska (perhaps his wife, as the Mariavite church abolished requisite celibacy for its priests), Stanisław Smater, Cecylia Jałosińska and Stanisław Jałosiński, who at that time was the parish priest of the sole Mariavite church in Lublin.

Was this visit important for them as they carried on with their life and work, through the war, the Holocaust and later? Did it sow a seed of doubt, similar to that of Sumiga when he was a seminary student, or did it only strengthen their preconceived notions of Jews and Judaism? We may never know. Antoni Anyszkiewicz, one of the seminary students, went on to become a village priest. 16 16 See [accessed 30 November 2021]. Marian Spytkowski, the Jesuit with a tov, was ordained in 1937 and after the war served in various capacities in towns and cities around Poland. 17 17 See [accessed 30 November 2021].
Adam Kozłowiecki, who signed under Spytkowski, survived Auschwitz and Dachau. Liberated in 1945, he left Europe for a Jesuit mission in Africa, where he climbed the church hierarchy and became the archbishop of Lusaka in Zambia. 18 18 See on him, for example, Stanisław Augustynek, “Cardinal Adam Kozłowiecki SJ (1911–2007), the First Metropolitan Archbishop of Lusaka,” Folia Historica Cracoviensia, 23.2 (2017): 11-35. Kozłowiecki published his memoirs from the concentration camps, entitled Ucisk i strapienie. Pamiętnik więźnia 1939-1945, Kraków 1967. Józef Piecuch worked in various capacities in several Jesuit monasteries during and after the war. Stanisław Jałosiński became a Mariavite bishop in the 1950s. What brought them to the yeshiva and whether their close encounter with this vanguard institution of Hasidic education left any lasting impression remains an open question.

The guest book, however fragmentary and inconspicuous, reveals the Lublin yeshiva as a space of many encounters that we may find unlikely today.The famous yeshiva attracted tourists and rabbis, cyclists and antisemites, rebbes and schoolgirls, journalists and priests. Meir Shapira wanted to revolutionize Torah learning by creating clean, spacious, and well-equipped premises for yeshiva students. At the same time, he wanted to place the yeshiva firmly in the Lublin and Polish contexts as an important cultural and educational institution. The guest book, which as far as I know is unique among preserved interwar yeshiva documents, testifies to his efforts. Not only did he create an ambitious, forward-looking, and prestigious institution of higher learning, which attracted Hasidic students from Poland and abroad, he also created a landmark of a Polish city and a tourist attraction for Jews and non-Jews alike. And this perhaps best shows us how thoroughly revolutionary and modern the Lublin Yeshiva was.

Tworek, Wojciech. “A Different Type of Seminary: Priests, Cyclists, and Other Tourists Visit the Lublin Yeshiva.” In geveb, December 2021:
Tworek, Wojciech. “A Different Type of Seminary: Priests, Cyclists, and Other Tourists Visit the Lublin Yeshiva.” In geveb (December 2021): Accessed Jun 19, 2024.


Wojciech Tworek

Wojciech Tworek is assistant professor at the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław.