Jewish Heritage Europe

New Life, New Exhibit, at Lublin Yeshiva

Grażyna Pawlak at Rabbi Shapiro’s Ohel in Jerusalem

Grażyna Pawlak curated a new permanent exhibition on the life and achievements of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who founded the Yeshivat Chachei Lublin in 1930 and developed the Daf Yomi (Daily Page) seven-year cycle of studying the Talmud. In this essay Pawlak, who heads the board of the Prof. Moses Schorr educational foundation in Warsaw, discusses Shapiro and describes the development of the exhibit, which is located in the Yeshiva building.

New Life, New Exhibit, at Lublin Yeshiva

By Grażyna Pawlak

LUBLIN – “It will be the happiest day in my life when a shoemaker holds his tools in one hand and a copy of the Shulchan Aruch in the other,” Rabbi Meir Shapiro – a Polish lawmaker in the 1920s, founder of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, and a visionary educator who developed the Daf Yomi – once said.

It is part of my own vision that museums are among the most effective means of educating, and as a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I was deeply honored to be asked by the Warsaw Jewish Community to create a museum about Rabbi Shapiro in the very building where he founded his Yeshiva.

During our research in Israel I was once asked what was the point of an exhibition focusing on just him, since Poland already had an impressive museum about Jewish life, POLIN, whose development I had initiated back in the 1990s. My answer was that by showing in detail the life of one man and what he achieved, we can help visitors identify with the beauty and the challenges of the everyday life of Jews before World War II.

The more research we did, the more I was hooked. We found fascinating material in Polish archives. A research trip to Israel brought us much more. On the anniversary of the death of the son of rabbi Shapiro’s brother, I met other surviving members of the family. A visit to Rabbi Shapiro’s ohel in Jerusalem was a particularly moving experience.

The family accepted me; they became excited about the project. I received copies of photographs which had never before been published. Officials from the Ganzach Kiddusz Hashem archives and Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk from Netanya Academic College were extremely helpful. Thanks to them, I obtained material that had never been shown to a wider public.

Family photos at the exhibition

Shapiro was both a deputy to the Polish parliament and a leader of Agudas Israel. A prolific and pragmatic visionary, he also focused on teaching the poor.

A great speaker, he presented his project for the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin and the idea of Daf Yomi in 1923, during the first congress of Agudas Israel in Vienna. (Click HERE to see film clips from that congress.)

Chachemei Yeshivat Lublin

By 1930, the yeshiva was built and was ready to accept students. The building was designed in 1924 by Agenor Smoluchowski, who worked closely with Shapiro. The six-story building without a doubt was one of the most prestigious structures erected in pre-war Poland – and the most modern yeshiva in the world at the time.

Centrally heated, it included rooms for students on the upper floors, with a dining hall, kitchen, bakery, bathrooms (with showers and ritual bathing pools), laundry, drying hall and storage rooms on the ground floor and basement level. There was a 200-square-meter lecture hall, two-stories high, lit by a chandelier with 16 lamps and also used as a synagogue. Next to this were a conference room, guest rooms, the rector’s residence, and a library with 12,000-13,000 volumes.

There was also a special room for a model of the Temple of Jerusalem from Herod’s time, made by Henoch Weintraub, a Hasid who spent more than 10 years building it. Made of wood and painted in the color of marble it was encrusted with precious materials.

Rabbi Shapiro died in 1933, and the Yeshiva only functioned until 1939. After the war it was used as part of the Lublin Medical University. It was returned to Jewish ownership in 2003 and is managed by the “Avir” company set up by the Warsaw Jewish Community. Currently it houses the Hotel Ilan (which has a mikveh), as well as a synagogue and the Jewish community offices.

In creating the exhibition about Rabbi Shapiro, I was keen to have it evoke feelings of participation in the life of the yeshiva and of empathy, the experience of a deeper relationship between visitors and the rabbi.

The exhibit occupies five rooms around the synagogue. The space dedicated to rabbi Shapiro, as designed by Michał Fronk, resembles a Torah scroll, with a scrolled ceiling, as Shapiro had served the Torah. We put the order of Daf Yomi for the years 1938-45 on one of the walls.

Scrolled ceiling of the room dedicated to Rabbi Shapiro

We use documents, photographs, press clippings, and quotations from the rabbi (including religious songs he composed) to tell the story. Other spaces show the life in the yeshiva, the daily schedule, wartime stories of the students, descriptions of yeshiva interiors, and the history of the building’s construction.

Funding came from the National Culture Center, the city of Lublin, the Warsaw Jewish Community, and Hotel Ilan. Future plans include an archive about the yeshiva and Rabbi Shapiro, and a space called “Gates to Judaism” where teachers can explain the basics of Jewish culture to students in preparation for their visit.

Many wonderful but also sad moments happened during our work.

The Israeli writer Nava Semel, a granddaughter of rabbi Shapiro’s sister, sent us copies of family photographs. She was gravely ill and, sadly, died just before the museum opened.

Shortly before her death, she sent us an original, unknown photograph of rabbi Shapiro which had been hanging above her grandmother’s bed.

Meir Shapiro, a grandson of rabbi Shapiro’s brother, formally presented it to us during the museum opening.

The grandson of the brother of Meir Shapiro hangs the picture of Rabbi Meir Shapiro.

December 26, 2017

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Grażyna Pawlak heads the board of The Prof. Moses Schorr educational Foundation in Warsaw.

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