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PILGRIMAGE

Hasidim in Leżajsk

The Warsaw Voice, 12 March 2002

Every year on the 21st day of Adar (the beginning of March), Hasidim from all over the world make pilgrimages to Leżajsk to visit grave of zaddik Elimelech Weissblum, who is buried in the local Jewish cemetery.


This year marks the 216th anniversary of the death of Elimelech, who was one of the founders of Hasidism, a religious movement that renewed Judaism in the 18th century. The Hasidim believe that a person's soul returns to the place where he or she is buried on the anniversary of his or her death. In Elimelech's case, Jews come to ask his spirit to help them with important life issues. The esteemed rabbi's grave is covered in thousands of small sheets of paper with requests from the faithful. Candles sent by those who could not come burn next to the grave.


"I am a seventh-generation descendant of Elimelech," said an elegant man from Manchester. He didn't want to tell me his name, and had no time to talk about details. Besides, he wanted to spare himself repeating the stories about the vicissitudes of his family, an exercise that only brings back the nightmare of World War II.


He left Leżajsk when he was only a year old, but for him stories told by the adults he grew up around became more real than what he could have seen and felt himself as a child. The man knows the details of how his parents and relatives died. Poland is a graveyard without graves. You do not know where to look for the bodies of those who were killed, although according to the rules of the torah, they should rest in untouched ground until the arrival of the Messiah.


The man has visited Poland three times. His have been on short pilgrimages: arrival by plane in the night, a bus trip to the cemeteries in Sieniawa, Łańcut and Leżajsk. Evening prayers at the cemeteries and a hurried return to the airport in the morning.


The pious zaddik Dawider from Lelów, today living in the United States, has traveled to Leżajsk a number of times. Dawider solemnly carried a torah wrapped in an embroidered roll of black velvet, surrounded by a crowd of Hasidim. They moved quickly, nearly running. Each minute one of the faithful comes up to him and kisses his hand. The procession is heading towards the ohel, the shrine built over zaddik Elimelech's grave. The crowd gathered at the shrine parted to let Rabbi Dawider approach the iron fence that encloses the grave of Elimelech. Inside the enclosure there stood a crowd of men dressed in black. Heads in black hats moved rhythmically in a trance of prayer. The ohel resembled a buzzing beehive. It was somewhat empty only in the aisle, behind a curtain, where a few women who accompanied their husbands were praying.


'Each of the pilgrims has 30 to 100 candles with them,' said Krystyna Kiersnowska, who looks after the ohel. 'Each candle has a card addressed to the zaddik attached to it. Around noon, I collected several sackfuls of trash: remains of 3,000-4,000 candles which had been lit on the evening of March 4.' A fire engine stood guard in front of the cemetery-last year, the candles caused several fires.


'I have been coming to Leżajsk with the Hasidim since the 1980s,' said Paweł Zimny, a taxi driver from Cracow. "At the time, there was nothing here except for the ohel. The burial ground had no fence, next to it there was a heap of trash and a wooden shed, which later burnt down in a fire. The Hasidim plunged in the ice-cold San River, since the prewar mikvah-or ritual bathhouse, no longer existed.'


'They would prepare kosher meals in the home of Janina Ordyczyńska, my mother,' said Kiersnowska. 'Five or six hundred people would come to our house every day. They only bought eggs and tomatoes here. They carefully examined each, so as not to violate the kosher rules. They brought other food products with them.'


Today, private pilgrimages have been taken over by the tourist industry. Hundreds of kilograms of kosher food are airlifted from Israel. Offices in Tel Aviv, New York, London, Manchester and Brussels charter jets for groups traveling to Leżajsk. On two days alone, March 4 and 5, over 20 planes landed at Jasionka airport in Rzeszów, carrying around 2,000 passengers. In a letter to the city mayor, the organizers announced the arrival of the total of 10,000 visitors. The traffic continues for several weeks.


There is an ambulance on 24 hour duty on Górna Street, in front of the cemetery. 'Last year there were several cases of fainting. We took a woman with a broken leg to the airport in Cracow's Balice district,' said Eugeniusz Krauz, a paramedic.


There are also four portable washrooms on Górna Street, brought here by WC Serwis from Zabrze. They stood there for only a couple of days. "We have fulfilled all the requirements of those who placed the order: there are separate entrances for men and women on both sides of the washrooms,' said Jacek Bański, owner of the company. 'The toilets are heated with electric heaters, there is hot running water, and in the cubicles for women there are even bidets, although nobody uses them.'


The arrivals at Jasionka airport were guarded by a special anti-terrorist sub-unit. The area around the burial ground in Leżajsk was patrolled by city guards and policemen from the prevention section, accompanied by dogs. They were clearly visible from a distance. Many of the praying visitors could have thought: 'Here I can pray and be safer than in Jerusalem.'


Locals on The event

'This year I went to Leżajsk for the first time,' said Kazimierz Surowiec, Podkarpacie province governor. 'I was surprised at the number of visitors. We have to take advantage of this fact for the promotion of Leżajsk and of the entire region. During the Hasidic holiday, I met with Mr. Simche Krakowski, president of the Hasidim Leżajsk Poland Foundation, which is the organizer of the pilgrimages, together with the Nissenbaum Foundation.'


***

The unemployment rate in Leżajsk has reached 16-17 percent. Janusz Wylaź, the city mayor, hopes that the annual visits from Hasidim can result in interest from economic partners. 'We have been conducting preliminary talks with the Nissenbaum Foundation,' Wylaź said. 'We will have to wait for the effects, though.' The city works to meet the interests of its visitors. 'This year, we are holding the Festival of Jewish Culture for the first time,' said Wylaź.