Driving into Lublin, I couldn’t help but fill with excitement as we drove past beautiful architecture and bustling bazaars. As much as I loved the Polish countryside, I missed the hustle and bustle that fills a city. Lublin is the ninth largest city in Poland and sits about two hours west of the Poland-Ukraine border.
The main purpose of our visit to Lublin was the Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre Center. What once began as an independent theater in the 1980’s has now evolved into an incredible cultural center for the city.
Upon arriving at the gate, we were promptly greeted by our guide, Magdalena, and ushered into the building. In the main entrance to the museum aspect of the institution, Magdalena supplied us with an extensive history of the gate. The Grodzka Gate, where they are located, was once the passageway between the Christian and Jewish parts of the city. The NN, on the other hand, means “no name” and is what is written on the graves of people whose identities are unknown.
The institution was forever changed, however, in 1997 when a woman introduced herself to the theater by saying, “I am the NN.” This woman, who was a young child at the start of WWII, was hidden in Lublin after being picked up from the streets by a kind woman. Due to the nature of her survival, she had no idea what her birth name was. Therefore, to her, she truly was the “NN.”
This woman’s story inspired the Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre to invest itself in discovering and sharing the Jewish history and culture of Lublin. One of the main ways this institution is now accomplishing this is by collecting the oral history of Jewish Lublin. To date, they have collected over 1000 testimonies.
Of the more than ~40,000 Jews that lived in Lublin prior to WWII (1/3 of Lublin’s population) , only about 0.5% survived the war. Many of the Jews that remained after the war either immigrated or changed their names. Currently, Lublin’s Jewish community consists of 60-100 people.
One of the ways that the Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre is recording Lublin’s history is by putting together folders containing information and statistics about the houses that were Jewish from Old City.
One of the greatest aspects of this institution is its focus on remembering that every victim in this war had a face, a name and a history. Pictures of Jewish people and places line the hallways of the museum and force you to truly think about the impact of the nearly complete loss of a people.
Perhaps just as important as the victims of this tragedy were the righteous that helped or hid Jews during the war. The Gate recognize the righteous in a room that is all white and titled “Lights in the Darkness.” The room is filled with oral accounts of the attempts (some successes, some not) of the righteous to save their Jewish neighbors, friends, or otherwise.
Our tour of the museum was concluded here and we were given the night to explore Lublin. The city is beautiful, especially at night. Pubs and restaurants line the cobblestone streets and light-hearted conversations fill the air.
The next morning we met at the Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre again for a few workshops. These workshops helped us to gain a better understanding of the kind of work the institution does and the importance of education within the community.
Following our workshop, we met back up with Magdalena for a walking tour of Lublin, with a focus on its Jewish history.
When our tour concluded, we were given time to reflect on our time traveling so far and come up with a presentation symbolizing all that we had learned. While some people paired up and others presented individually, each presentation encapsulated the beauty and horrors of our trip thus far. While we have been learning about so much death and destruction, we have also met incredible people and institutions that are doing outstanding works of reconciliation despite what roadblocks they may have encountered thus far.
I can’t wait to see what other incredible people/institutions we meet throughout the semester and how the world can be changed one step at a time.