Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


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Luboml - guidebook

Ukr. Любомль, Yid. ליבעוונע

Luboml - guidebook

The postage stamp

In the 1920s, Luboml, located in the northwestern part of Volhynia, was the town with the highest percentage of Jewish population in the Second Polish Republic, and it was in Luboml, in 1918, that the world’s first postage stamps using the Hebrew alphabet (and showing a synagogue) were issued.

The Jews of Luboml

The first mention of Luboml dates back to the 13th century, though there had been earlier settlements here. The town began to thrive after the 13th-century Mongol invasions. The Jewish community of Luboml is believed to have been one of the oldest in Poland and Ukraine, and for many centuries, it played a special role in the development of the town economy and culture. In his fundamental work Yidn in amolikn Poyln in likht fun tsifern (Yid.: The Jews in Old Poland in Numbers, 1958), Raphael Mahler states that as early as the 14th century, there already were a small number of Jewish communities in Poland, Polesie, Belorussia (Lithuania), and the Land of Chełm (Kholm), and he brings the Luboml of 1370–1382 as an example. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Luboml was the seat of the Chełm Land starosty, and, according to the Jewish administrative division, the capital of the Belz–Chełm District.

The synagogue

In 1510 (or, according to other sources – in 1521), the Jewish community built a synagogue in Luboml that was one of the most beautiful stone synagogues in Poland-Lithuania. It was located near the bulwark within the city limits, in the southwestern corner of the market square.

Liuboml, houses by the town square, synagogue in the background
Liuboml, houses by the town square, synagogue in the background

Luboml’s Great Synagogue was built in the Renaissance style and had certain elements of a fortification. The outer walls, for example, were surrounded by a defensive gallery with observation holes. In the eastern regions of the Kingdom of Poland, such fortresstype synagogues were fairly common, although the synagogues of this type very rarely played a role in the town defence system, and were not built with a defence purpose.

Liuboml, portal in the synagogue
Liuboml, portal in the synagogue


In Luboml, the synagogue main building was cube shaped, and the adjoining precinct for women was lower. Each of the interconnected parts of the building had an attic adorning the edges of the roof. Unique decorative elements on its outer face gave the building a majestic air. The entrance through the main vestibule (Heb.: pulish) was adorned with two inscriptions – quotations from the Bible; at the bottom: “How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17), and at the top: “In the house of God we walked with the crowd” (Ps 55:15). Another inscription – “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Num 24:5) – was carved on the arches of the three large windows in the southern wall of the Great Synagogue. The inscriptions reminded the worshippers that the synagogue was a mikdash me’at – a little Temple, a sui generis replica of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by Romans in 70 c.E. The architect of this magnificent building remains unknown.

The Great Synagogue was the glory of the city and the source of its pride – though not the center of its religious life. The Jews of the city pointed from afar to the fortifications surrounding it, to the slope of its thick walls – but they did not rush to go inside. [...] During the week no one prayed there, and only on the Sabbath were its doors opened wide, though only a few minyanim [groups of ten men for prayer] came. This was also the only place in the city where the service was conducted according to the Ashkenazic rite, whereas in the rest of the places of worship they prayed in the Sephardic style, according to Hasidic custom. [...] During holidays and festivals, and on those days when the “congregation should be called together,” people instinctively came to the Great Synagogue. [...] During two months of the year, Elul and Tishri, the synagogue manifested majesty and greatness and drew many thousands. It was a custom that on the New Year all the old Torah mantles were hung on the walls. Metal wire was strung beneath the windows and all the mantles were hung there on rings – mantles of many ages, sizes, and colors, shining with silver and gold, gleaming with scarlet and azure. [...] Nowhere else was there a shofar as curved and as large as the one in the Great Synagogue; nowhere else was there anancient Pinkas [ledger] with the names of thousands of those who had passed away; and nowhere else was there a chest full of hundreds of defective Torah scrolls. [...] And when, on Simchat Torah evening, the synagogue filled with men, women and children – including non-Jews who came to join the Jews’ celebration – it was a sight never to be forgotten. It’s unlikely that this scene could have been repeated – hundreds of Jews carrying hundreds of Torahs, dancing through the hakafot (traditional circumambulations around the bimah).

Yakov Hetman, The Great Synagogue, in: Luboml. The Memorial Book of a Vanished Shtetl, Hoboken, NJ 1997, edited.

The ghosts of the Great Synagogue 

 According to the Sefer Luboml (Hebr.: The Memorial Book of Luboml), during long autumn nights, when the wind would whistle and dogs would howl, the children of Luboml would listen with bated breath to terrifying ghost stories told by their grandparents. The book reports one legend according to which the souls of the dead come to the Great Synagogue at night to pray. This type of legend was very popular among the Jews of Eastern Europe, related to synagogues in general. In his novel From the Fair, Sholem Aleichem wrote: “And then the hollow sounds of voices came out of the Cold Shul. Strange, whining sounds, accompanied by sobs – the dead praying. They prayed every Saturday night in the Cold Shul. They prayed with a minyan. Who didn’t know that?” By the Cold Shul the Yiddish writer meant the Great Synagogue, used for Shabbat, Passover, and High Holidays only. It was very expensive to warm it up – therefore daily prayers were conducted elsewhere in the prayer houses or in a “Warm Shul” – a smaller precinct adjacent to the Great Synagogue and separated from it, which was easier to warm.

We learn from the reminiscences penned by Yisroel Garmi (Grimatlicht) that, near the Great Synagogue and the beth midrash, there were separate kloyzn for groups of Hasidim and for craftsmen. Hasidic shtiebels bore the following names, based on the rebbe followed by the congregation: Twersky (Trisker), Ruzhynsky (Ruzhiner), Kotsky (Kotzker), Radzynsky (Radziner), and Stepansky (Stepaner). The synagogue of Trisk/Twersky Hasidim was located on the right side of the beth midrash.

Prominent figures

One of the most famous rabbis of Luboml was Rabbi Hersh, who served from 1556 until the 1570s. From that time, for nearly a century, the rabbis of Luboml were among the most famous in Poland. One of them was Abraham Polak, a teacher and the author of numerous rabbinic works. A well-known rabbi late in the 16th century was Moshe Mes, who put 613 commandments in a poetic form and penned an important work on Jewish rituals. His books printed in 1591 in Cracow were reprinted in Frankfurt and Main in 1720, in London in 1958, and in Brooklyn in 1964.

One of the students of Luboml’s Jewish school was Seweryn Lubomelczyk, born in Luboml (1532–1612), who converted to Catholicism as an adult and became famous across Europe as an eminent theologian and orator. Unlike it happened with other converts, Seweryn made a vertiginous career in the Catholic world. The pope and Polish kings entrusted him with the most important matters. Seweryn of Luboml authored numerous theological studies and had considerable standing in the Dominican Order.

 Frank (Ephraim) Rosenblatt (1884–1927) was a literary critic, columnist, and doctor of philosophy, who was born in Luboml. He received a traditional religious education. Initially, he supported Zionism but later became disillusioned in Jewish diasporic nationalism, chose Marxism, and joined the Bund movement. In 1903, he was arrested by the Russian police and left for the USA on his release. He graduated from Columbia University in New York in 1910. Rosenblatt eventually became an economic expert in state institutions and also Secretary General of the Arbeter Ring (Yid.: The Workmen’s Circle), a left-wing, non-profit Jewish organisation protecting Yiddish culture, supporting working people’s rights, and propagating the ideas of social equality. Rosenblatt was one of the leading Yiddish-language American literary critics of early 20th -century literature. He began his literary activity in 1903 – first he wrote in Russian and then switched over to Yiddish. He published poems in various periodicals, such as Tsukunft (Yid.: Future). In the same journal, he published socio-political and economic articles and wrote about various literary issues. He authored profound studies devoted to the work of Sholem Aleichem, Avrom Reyzen, I.I.-M. Weisenberg, M. Winczewski, M. Rosenfeld, and others, as well as to the work of the key Russian writers.

According to 1564 tax records, there were 8 merchants and 26 craftsmen in Luboml, organised into guilds; there were 3 functioning Orthodox churches, an Orthodox monastery, and a synagogue. 

 In 1564, the Jewish community paid 150 florins of tax – 1 florin per person. The Jews worked in crafts, leased land, and traded with Lwów, Kyiv, Brest, Przemyśl, Lublin, and Warsaw. Commodities were transported down the Bug River to Gdańsk and other cities. These were mainly timber, potash, wax, honey, salt, saffron, jewellery, and other commodities. The 1667 protocols of the Council of Four Lands list annual tax rates per person. Larger towns are listed separately, particularly Luboml with 8,100 guilders tax levied on the local Jewish community. 

 After a census in 1847, the Jewish community of Luboml had 2,130 members. By 1870, Jews already constituted two-thirds of the town’s inhabitants. In 1897, the population of Luboml was 4,600, including 3,300 Jews – among them (according to the 1898 data) 349 craftsmen and 52 workers; 370 students received education under the guidance of 17 teachers, and 60 students attended the Talmud Torah school. 

During World War I, the town was occupied by Austrians. While a large number of local inhabitants had fled to Russia, most of the Jews remained. The mayor of Luboml at that time was David Wejtsfrucht-London, brother of the local rabbi Aryeh-Leib London.

It was in 1918, when Luboml was still under Austro-Hungarian occupation, that the municipal council issued postage stamps with Yiddish inscriptions. Those were part of a series of stamps issued that presented notable views of Luboml – including the Great Synagogue – and bore inscriptions in four languages: Polish, Ukrainian, German, and Yiddish. The Yiddish inscription read “Shtotpost Luboml” (The City of Luboml). This was the first time that letters of the Hebrew alphabet (in which Yiddish is written down) appeared on stamps, and the first time a postage stamp bore the image of a synagogue.

 The interwar period

The interwar period saw the heyday of Jewish cultural and social institutions in Luboml. In 1921, the town had a population of 3,328, including 3,141 Jews, and in 1931, Jews made up 91.3 percent of its residents. Many cultural and youth organisations and sports clubs were established; the Zionist movement, forbidden across the border in the USSR, experienced a second revival in Luboml under independent Poland. At the same time, however, many young people left their homes and set off abroad: for the USA, Palestine, Canada, and Argentina.

Numerous Jewish businesses were family businesses, e.g. the Milstein brothers’ shoe repair shop or the Rejzman and Kopelzon Vodka and Liqueur factory. 

Some Jewish craftsmen were members of the underground Communist Party of Western Ukraine and were persecuted by the authorities. Even though the authorities barred Ukrainians and Jews from high state offices, Jews and Ukrainians did elect their representatives to the municipal council and the county council.

World War II and the Holocaust

In September 1939, the Germans entered the town and then retreated across the Bug after a few days, according to the secret addendum to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Some of the residents – those with communist sympathies – built a welcoming gate for the Red Army. On seeing this, a retreating unit of the Polish Army carried out a series of executions in retaliation. From October 1939, until June 1941, the town remained under Soviet rule. All social activity outside the official Soviet institutional framework was banned; the old Jewish cemetery was destroyed. On June 22, 1941, German troops entered Luboml again. In December 1942, the Nazis set up a ghetto encompassing the area of just a few streets. In the first days of October 1942, the Germans shot nearly all Jewish inhabitants (almost 5,000 people) in the forest near the brickyard close to the village of Borki. 

The synagogue functioned until the beginning of the Nazi occupation and survived in good condition. In the first months of the Nazi occupation, the new authorities forced the Jews to carry all valuable scrolls and books out of the synagogue, and then the Nazis burnt them. Afterwards, the Germans broke a hole through the wall of the synagogue, large enough for a truck to get in and out. The truck was loaded with the clothes of people who had been shot and the goods looted from Jewish houses stockpiled in the synagogue. However, the building of the synagogue did survive the occupation and was not pulled down until 1947, under Soviet rule.


There were no barbed-wire fences as in other ghettos, but sentries were posted to see that no one got out. The Jews were careful not to leave the ghetto. Those who went out of the ghetto to work were accompanied by guards and were brought back into the ghetto after work, tired and depressed. 

From the account by Rochl Leichter, in: Luboml. The Memorial Book of a Vanished Shtetl, Tel Aviv 1974, Hoboken, NJ 1997.

The Jewish diaspora

In 1973, in Israel, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Luboml’s Jewish community, Jews from Israel, Canada, and the USA who had been born in Luboml published a large volume of memories about the town and its Jewish community. Thanks to the efforts of Aaron Ziegelman, a New Yorker born in Luboml, a large amount of material and documents was collected about the town’s Jewish community. A major exhibition of these materials and documents, entitled Remembering Luboml, was shown all over the USA, as well as in Jerusalem, London, and Warsaw. In 2003, a documentary was produced about the history of the town’s Jewish community, Luboml. My Heart Remembers (for more information, see:

Author: Oleksandr Ostapiuk


Worth seeing

  • Jewish cemetery with the monument of the victims of the Holocaust

  • Church of the Holy Trinity (1412), Samochina 16

  • Orthodox Church of St. George (18th century), Nezaleznosti 12

  • Landscape Park and buildings of the former the Branicki Palace (18th century)

  • Museum of Local History, Nezaleznosti 33

In the vicinity

Shatsk (32 km)

Shatsk Lakes (34 km)

Ratno (80 km)

Kamin-Kashyrsyi (106 km)