A village/small town in eastern Poland
not far from Lublin
that was once an important Jewish centre until the German Nazis
came and destroyed it all and murdered virtually the entire Jewish population. Today there are just a few memorials at the former Jewish cemetery in a secluded location. But well worth a stopover en route between Lublin
More background info: The village of Izbica, first mentioned in the 15th century became a town in the mid-18th century when a Jewish settlement was established. Over the next century the town became a proper ‘shtetl’ and grew and grew. It also became a centre for Hasidic Judaism, with Rabbi Morchedai Yosef Leiner (1801–1854) the most notable figure.
In independent Poland
Izbica grew further and at one point had between 4500 and 6000 inhabitants, around 90% of them Jewish. Then came WWII
and Izbica was first taken by Nazi Germany
, then briefly occupied by the Soviet
Red Army, then handed back to the Germans. Some Izbica Jews fled together with the retreating Soviets for fear of what their treatment by the Nazis
might be. And they were right to fear the worst.
chief Kurt Engels
, in a vile act of desecration, had the inhabitants smash up the Jewish cemetery and the broken matzevot (gravestones) were subsequently used to clad the walls of a new town prison in a former fire station (now the police station). Izbica was turned into a ghetto and Jews from other parts of Poland
as well as from Austria
were resettled here.
With the beginning of Operation Reinhard
in March 1942, Izbica became a transit camp for transports to the death camps of Bełżec
. In total some 20,000 Jews are assumed to have passed through Izbica. In November that year the ghetto was liquidated and the last remaining ca. 2000 Jews were executed at the former Jewish cemetery. In early 1943 the ghetto was briefly reopened to house a few hundred Jews who had been captured in hiding and all of these were deported to Sobibór
After that Izbica was de facto depopulated and derelict and never grew back to its pre-war size. It remains a poor place now with a Polish population.
Of the Izbica Jews only a very small handful survived. This includes Thomas Blatt
who was deported to Sobibór
where he took part in the legendary revolt and escape of 14 October 1943. He managed to survive in hiding until liberation by the Red Army in 1944 and later emigrated to the USA
. Blatt also played a decisive role in the tracking down of Kurt Engels
, who survived the war and initially changed his name, but then opened a cafe using his real name, namely in Hamburg
. He was arrested in 1958 but committed suicide before he could be put on trial for his deeds.
In Izbica itself it wasn’t until the 1960s that some commemoration of the atrocities committed here were started and the first few of today’s monuments were erected and three mass graves marked (though not necessarily at the location of the originals). In 1995 the ohel (covered grave, in this case in the shape of a small house) of Morchedai Yosef Leiner and his family was rebuilt.
Together with local school pupils, a German organization and the German TV station ARD saw to the old prison being dismantled and the fragments of the smashed-up matzevot were taken to the old Jewish cemetery where most were used to now clad the outer walls of Leiner’s ohel. Moreover, yet another commemorative monument was erected.
This cluster of monuments is now a rather hidden but atmospheric pilgrimage site. Only dedicated visitors come to this place which is far off the beaten tourist tracks. But it’s a worthwhile stop when exploring the several dark sites of south-eastern Poland
(most likely with Lublin
as the base for excursions).
What there is to see:
Not a lot, but it’s a very moving place as long as you know what happened here. Once you’ve found the path up the hill (see below
) to the former Jewish cemetery you find a clearing and to the left stands the Leiner ohel (see above), its outer walls clad with broken matzevot (Jewish tombstones). A few more broken matzevot are piled nearby. To my surprise I also found an intact-looking matzeva lying in the grass further along the path and one even still upright.
In addition there are several monuments, including a stone one with a black marble obelisk and an inscription in Polish and Hebrew, and a cluster of more monuments, including individual ones, as well as the outlines of the mass graves of the final executions of Jews that took place here in November 1942 (see above), though apparently this is only symbolic, as the exact location of the victims’ remains is not known.
Furthermore there’s also a tall stone slab with an inscription in Polish, German and English, which is thus the only element that is transparent to foreign visitors who do not know Polish or Hebrew. It features a very brief account of Izbica’s tragic history and is dedicated to the murdered Izbica inhabitants. The stone was erected in 2006 by a German foundation and funded by the German embassy.
I visited Izbica as part of a day excursion with a German-speaking Polish guide. Our main destination was Sobibór
but afterwards we made the detour to Izbica. It was good having a guide here in particular. Not only did my guide know the hidden way to the Jewish cemetery, so I didn’t have to search for it, but she was also able to bring the place alive a bit by providing associated background info. At the end she also asked a Polish local man who lives at the bottom of the hill for the key to the Leiner ohel. That way we also got to take a look inside. There isn’t much in there, it’s mostly empty save for a small grave-like memorial in one corner with a plaque in Yiddish or Hebrew.
It’s a lonely, silent little place and very much a pilgrimage destination rather than tourism proper. But as part of a full circuit around the various dark spots in this part of Poland it’s a valuable add-on.
in the far south-east of Poland
, some 40 miles (65 km) south-east of Lublin
and a similar distance north-west of Bełżec
Access and costs: remote and somewhat hidden; free
Getting to this rather forlorn place is only easy by road, ideally by car. There’s a train station and buses too but connections are so infrequent as to be useless for a touristic visit. But when driving, Izbica can easily be slotted in as a stop en route between Lublin
and/or Zamość, both of the latter are by the main road, Route 17/E372, to Lviv in Ukraine
In Izbica you have to turn off the main road into the little street called Fabryczna, right after a long curve when coming from the north, left just a couple of dozen yards after the Rynek (market square) when coming from the south, and park a bit into this side street.
The path up the hill to the former Jewish cemetery is a bit hidden. You have to use the first driveway off Fabryczna at the turn-off from the main road. It may look like a private driveway (and the barking dogs may underscore that impression!) but is actually a public right of way leading to some steps signposted “Cmentarz Żydowski” (‘Jewish cemetery’). Follow the path up until you come to the clearing with the monuments. You’ll likely have the place all to yourself.
The ex-cemetery is theoretically freely accessible at all times. The Ohel is usually locked, but if you’re with a guide you can have them ask for the key at the house at the bottom of the path up the hill, if the owner is in.
Time required: not long, perhaps ten minutes or so, or a bit longer if you have a guide who can bring the place to life a bit more …
Combinations with other dark destinations:
the nearest other dark place is Trawniki
to the north, ca. a half hour drive first north on the 17/E372, then in the village of Fajsławice turn right and carry on straight to Trawniki. The much more significant dark site of Bełżec
is some 40 miles (66 km) further down Route 17/E372 towards Ukraine. And a similar distance north on the 17/E372 takes you to Lublin
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Zamość, a pretty renaissance town with a grand central square is only about 15 miles (23 km) to the south of Izbica, so can combine easily if you’re driving. Otherwise head back to Lublin
- Izbica 01 - driveway to look out for
- Izbica 02 - sign
- Izbica 03 - path up the hill
- Izbica 04 - no-littering sign
- Izbica 05 - lawn and reconstructed ohel of tsaddik Mordekhai Yosef Leiner
- Izbica 06 - clad in the metzevah fragments from the German prison
- Izbica 07 - metzevah details on the ohel
- Izbica 08 - inside the ohel
- Izbica 09 - monument
- Izbica 10 - more monuments and symbolic mass grave
- Izbica 11 - toppled but intact metzevah still in place
- Izbica 12 - another lone surviving metzevah
- Izbica 13 - preserved sukkah on a house at the bottom of the hill