A visit to God

Article published on May 6, 2005
community published
Article published on May 6, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the streets of a small town in Poland are thronged with orthodox Jews. From all corners of the globe they have come to commemorate Zaddick Elimelech Weissblum, who died on this day in Lezajsk in 1787.

Poland, Lezajsk, March 2005. Pebbles crunch beneath the feet of Chaim Weisfish, an American Jew, as he quickly ascends the hill towards the tomb. On his way up the slope, Mr. Weisfish offers donations to Jewish communities from the United States and Israel. As required, he briefly washes his hands three times at the basin set aside for this purpose, before he enters the tomb alongside his fellow pilgrims. It is the 21st of the month of Adar in the Jewish calendar and the anniversary of the death of Zaddik Elimelech Weissblum: a day on which ultra-orthodox followers of Hasidism make a pilgrimage to eastern Poland to commemorate this renowned Hasidic leader, who turned Lezajsk into a centre of Hassidism in the 18th century. Beneath the blue glimmer of a neon light, Mr. Weisfish stands between men in black hats and coats whose black tendrils sway back and forth over their ears as they pray. Every now and then the faint sound of a mobile phone ringing interrupts the crescendo of prayers and a person with excited eyes shouts to the other end of the world, “Yes, I’m here. It’s fantastic!”

Talking to Elemenech

The Hassids believe that the soul of the dead comes back to the place they are buried on the anniversary of their death. Since 1787 therefore, people have come to Lezajsk to share their worries in spiritual dialogue with Zaddik Elemenech. His soul is a medium between the faithful and God. "Only a zaddik [“righteous one”] is worthy to speak with God," explains Ben Stern from New York. "That is why it is important to pray here on this day." Once they have prayed, people stand before the grave and throw a kvitel, a paper with individual wishes listed upon it. This kvitel is the tangible form of the many wishes for health, prosperity and safety for their family.

The birth of Hasidism began with a disaster. In 1648, during the war for the independence of Poland, Cossack gangs brutally murdered 300,000 Jews in Galicia. Synagogues, Jeshiwas (Jewish schools) and libraries were razed to the ground, thereby destroying the central aspects of spiritual and cultural life. The chance to become closer to God through study of the Torah and the Talmud, such as Rabbinism decrees, had now become impossible for the impoverished communities. This spiritual vacuum was filled by the founding father of Hasidism, Baal Shem Tov (1689 – 1760), who declared that God was onmipresent and that the religious experience could be achieved through common prayer, hymns and dancing. This teacher entered the hearts of the uneducated and impoverished Jews of Galicia, who then rediscovered their religion and culture. It was not long before followers of the charismatic Zaddik came together. By the end of the 18th century, the Hasidim had firmly established themselves in Galicia.

Histories from Shtetl

Before the Second World War, Lezajsk was a typical Galician schtetl (a small town or village) with 3,000 Jews out of a total 5,000 inhabitants. The grandfather of Greg Stein, a pilgrim from Antwerp, was one of these Jews and at the time he owned a large block of houses on the market place. His grandson, who is making his first trip to the place where his ancestors lived, made his way straight to the houses, finding them without any problem at all. It is exactly as his grandfather described it, his grandfather who will never return here. Too many painful memories prevent him from ever stepping on Polish soil again. The same is true of many of the survivors of the Holocaust. The following generation, who did not grow up with direct experience of the war but who all know the stories of their grandparents, are now gradually starting to come to the country where their forefathers once lived. Greg Stein stands in silent contemplation, his back to the burial chamber, looking in the direction of the town. “Here”, says Stein, his foot crunching down on the scattered plots of snow outside the tomb, as though he wants to claim possession of the land through some official ceremony, “Here is where the young, enquiring sons and daughters of Judaism, who are beginning to rediscover their Polish roots, meet their spiritual past.” He plans to visit some more Jewish sites today. He is not only doing this to show his presence in a country which was once home to three million Jews, but where now only 10,000 Jews live. He is also doing it because this time he himself wants to be the one who tells stories from Galicia to his grandfather.