A Virtual Visit Home to Lublin / Robinn Magid

After twenty years of digging through microfilmed vital records of my Lublin ancestors, I have now actually “flown through” Lublin and taken a virtual walk around my ancient “family homestead” even though it was demolished in 1939. It’s all thanks to the creative genius of the geo-modelers at Brama Grodzka/TeatrNN in Lublin, the far-reaching data of Jewish Records Indexing – Poland, and visualization tools of Google Earth. And with a little know-how, you can visit your Lublin family’s home too!
The Brama Grodzka (“City Gate”) building dates back to the 14th century when the original medieval structure housed a drawbridge and at night separated the Lublin Jewish community from the gated Christian city center. Nicknamed “The Jewish Gate”, the original Brama Grodzka witnessed the signing of the famous “Treaty of Lublin” that created the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania in 1569. Rebuilt in 1785, the Brama Grodzka now serves as an interactive civic museum bringing to life the multicultural Lublin of the pre-war past, and they are setting the standard for glimpsing the past and visiting our heritage.
While creating a searchable index of the Lublin vital records for JRI-Poland (see http://www.jri-poland.org), I began to notice that my large Lublin family was often cited as living at House #434 on Ulicy Ruska. People died and babies were born at this house, some being recorded as early as 1813. A couple born in the 1780’s who married around 1800 seemed to come from large families related to me (CYGIELMAN and ROSZGOLD) each citing that same address and stating the occupation of “cygielnik” (brickman) over and over in the records. One individual was described by each of these surnames within the same record, so I began to theorize that several families related by marriage and/or business had lived in a large building of apartment flats rather than a single family “house”. Along with these theories, my curiosity about the size and shape of the building at this old address grew and grew.
By 2001, I was able to briefly visit Lublin in person with my guide, Krzysztof Malczewski. “Chris” and I met with Robert Kuwalek, a scholar and historian at the Majdanek Museum, who suggested that we visit TeatrNN and view their models of Old Lublin. Robert gave me a matrix known as a “taryfa” which was published in 1899 in the local Russian newspaper. It described all the properties in Old Town Lublin (“Stare Miasto”) by land registry number, old and new house numbers, and even included the property owners’ names at that moment in time. From this taryfa, I learned that House #434 had been renumbered “8 Ulicy Ruska”. It was assigned land registry #286, a permanent number allowing tracking despite name changes over time. The property owner was identified as “Melzak,” a name which was disappointingly unfamiliar to me. We drove to Ruska Street guided by Mr. Roman Litman, the current head of the Lublin Jewish Community, but together we could not locate the address. Mr. Litman told us that the street had been bulldozed by the Germans in 1939 and had been slightly reengineered later when it was eventually rebuilt. Since everything including the layout of the street had changed, it was impossible to see exactly where my family homestead had been.
At TeatrNN, my English-speaking guides, Marta and Beata, showed us an impressive cardboard model, approximately 17 feet long that resembled an HO-scale model railroad. They said it had been a gift of Rishon LeTzion, one of Lublin’s sister cities. Beata invited me to crouch down and view the model from “street level” or “eye level”. She helped me estimate where House #434 had been just below St. Mikolya’s Church. We couldn’t identify the exact location on the model, so I photographed the entire block and for the next ten years, this photo was the closest I could come to visiting our ancient family home.
In May 2010, I returned to Lublin with my 19 year-old son, Joshua, and our translator and guide, Chris Malczewski. We revisited TeatrNN and learned from Tadeusz Przystojecki, a trained archivist and redactor in the TeatrNN History Department, that there are at least four surviving taryfas for the City of Lublin. They date from the 1899 publication I was familiar with, up to 1915. Skimming these publications in Tadeusz’s office, I learned that the 1903 taryfa showed land registry #286 to have not just one, but three separate buildings on it, labeled “434”, “434a” and “434b”. At that time, the owner of #434 was a Josef Melzak, the same surname I had discovered on the 1899 taryfa. 434b belonged to an Abraham Klainberg – another name that meant nothing to me. But, lo and behold, building 434b was owned by “Cygielman & …”, my family! Ninety years after a Cygielman/Roszgold baby had been born at #434, the building was apparently still owned by family members. House #434 seemed more real than ever, even if it could only be pictured in my vivid imagination!
In March of this year, I received an email from Tadeusz, saying that their project to document a view of all the pre-war buildings of Lublin was now live on TeatrNN’s website using Google Earth technology. He sent me the URL (http://teatrnn.pl/makieta/makieta.html ), instructing me that it requires the installation of the Google Earth version 6 plug-in and cautioning me that the website was still in Polish only. It will eventually be translated into English. There are already “place mark balloons” to identify all street addresses, and these balloons will eventually be expanded to include historical information about the inhabitants of those dwellings and the businesses located there in the selected 1930’s time period. Some of the balloons already include hotlinks to web pages about the particular building. TeatrNN is busy collecting additional materials to recreate the information needed to “populate” the old buildings, and their objective is to provide virtual geo-models of Lublin showcasing the town in several significant historical time periods. We’ll eventually be able to visit the city throughout its glorious and turbulent history. Remarkable!
The 3-D Lublin model can also be initiated directly from TeatrNN’s newest homepage (www.teatrnn.pl). From that homepage, if one clicks on the photo of the 3-D model and downloads the Google Earth plug in, the view automatically “flies in” using the interactive virtual globe. Entering Lublin, the flat Google street map rapidly changes to 3-dimensional “pop-ups” of the old city that take a minute or two to load. The resulting 3-D panoramic view is centered on the Old Rynek, the ancient market square of Lublin. Coincidently, the opening view includes Rynek #5, the former site of my Cygielman family’s cork factory which was located in the center of the town. Low, in front in the right corner of the panorama lies St. Jana’s Cathedral, where most of our Lublin ancestors registered their life-cycle events between the years 1810 and 1825. By the way, today St. Jana’s Cathedral sits exactly next door to the ultramodern Lublin branch of the Polish State Archives, which houses the original Jewish vital registers for at least 88 separate towns in the Lublin area. (www.archiwa.gov.pl )
Clicking on the button at the top left of the screen labeled “Pokaz informacje o budynkach” reveals the place mark balloons showing street addresses. Eventually, these balloons will describe the Jewish inhabitants and shops located at the address and provide hotlinks to backup pages describing each building in detail. A second click on that button makes the balloons disappear. The right hand button labeled “O makiecie” reveals Polish language instructions for using the site.
Like Google Earth, the tools to the right of the screen enable the viewer to select views, zoom in, and maneuver around selected neighborhoods. I explored most of the available map, locating the house where my grandmother grew up at # 2 Lubartowska Street, and even experimenting with “diving below” the 1930’s overlay. I wanted to see what the flat photo below looked like while looking for the two Lublin Jewish cemeteries which will hopefully be added to the model in a future phase. Picture visiting the Old Jewish Cemetery on Kalinowszczyzna Street, the oldest surviving Jewish Cemetery in Poland, and viewing what it looked like before the Nazis used most of the matzevot (tombstones) for gravel at the Majdanek death camp. Or, visualize, if you will, exploring inside the fabled 16th century MaHaRaShaL Shul, also cruelly destroyed during the war, and tracing Lublin families through the seating assignments. The main synagogue’s seating registers from the 1870’s still survive in the Jewish Community collections of the Polish State Archives. The possible uses of this amazing technology are endless!
And you can imagine the grin on my face when I discovered that I could “walk around” house number 8a Ulicy Ruska (Old #434a) and get a feel for the size, shape and relative location of this ancient building. I could see it had been a multi-story apartment building with storefronts and side sheds. I learned that it was not on the block directly below St. Mikolya’s church as we had supposed ten years earlier; instead, it had been situated one block to the left/west of the hill. TeatrNN’s model has left only the people, colors, and sounds for my imagination to fill in!
The level of intimacy we can share with our history and heritage is greatly enhanced with a virtual reality encounter like this. Once the center of the Jewish experience in Poland, Lublin has been hailed as the “Jewish Oxford” and the “Polish Jerusalem” for it was the predominant educational, religious and market center during the Golden Age of Polish Jewry. Today, Lublin is an economically-challenged university town, but with the brilliance and foresight of TeatrNN at the Brama Grodzka, “Virtual Lublin” is now casting our eye back to the chivalrous Lublin past. Under their adopted logo of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, they are allowing us to see virtual windmills where once we could only imagine them.

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