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
"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
'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.