Throughout their history, East European Jews have participated in three types of pilgrimages: (1) pilgrimages to pray and petition at cemeteries in various localities of Eastern Europe; (2) pilgrimages by Hasidim to visit their sages, both living and dead; and (3) pilgrimages to the Land of Israel. After World War II, several of the traditional pre-1939 pilgrimages were revived, and various Jewish communities have embarked on new ones.
Pilgrimages to cemeteries were undertaken with the goal of offering prayers and petitions on behalf of individuals and/or communities at the graves of the pious or relatives. Such pilgrimages were inspired by the belief that the dead, due to their closer proximity to heaven, can serve as advocates on behalf of the living who come to their graves as supplicants—especially if the deceased were especially revered people.
Hasidim on pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Elimelekh ben Eli‘ezer Lipman, Leżajsk, Poland, ca. 2005. (A. Olej/K. Kobus—Travelphoto)
The most auspicious times for such petitions were considered to be on the eves of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and, by extension, during the penitential period that begins a month before Rosh Hashanah and ends with Hosha‘na’ Rabah). Visits at these times were popular particularly during times of personal or communal crisis. In the seventeenth century, under the influence of the Safed kabbalists, the practice of visiting and petitioning at graves in Eastern Europe grew in popularity and received new emphasis. Such visits came to be not only associated with enlisting the aid of the deceased as an intercessor, but were also regarded as pious acts in and of themselves. The growing popularity of such pilgrimages is clearly indicated by the publication, in both Yiddish and Hebrew, of cemetery prayers. The prayers included in such collections as Ma‘aneh lashon (Prague, 1615), and countless reprintings) were believed to have the power to reverse adversity, and were recited while the visitor circled the cemetery and the graves of deceased family members or the righteous.
Perhaps the most popular and well-attended pilgrimage of this type up until World War II was the pilgrimage to the grave of Mosheh Isserles (1525–1572) on the occasion of his yortsayt—on the 18th of Iyar—in Kraków. It was attended by several thousand Hasidim as well as non-Hasidic Jews.
Women participated in such pilgrimages, praying at graves and performing their own rituals. One such ritual was to measure the graves with candlewick—subsequently used to make candles that were then donated to the synagogue.
Pilgrims at the grave of the Ba‘al Shem Tov, Medzhibizh, Ukraine, 1991. Photograph by Dmitry Peysakhov. (© 1989–2006 Dmitry Peysakhov)
The second type of pilgrimage undertaken by Jews in Eastern Europe was by Hasidim. Some years after the death of the Ba‘al Shem Tov in 1760, his followers began to venerate his grave in Mezhbizh (Pol., Międzyboż) on different occasions during the year. By the nineteenth century, this practice was well known among Hasidim in many parts of Eastern Europe. Hasidim who often lived far from their rebbe began a new kind of pilgrimage: visiting him several times a year. Some traveled long distances on foot, while others came in carriages and trains to spend time in their rebbe’s court and consult with him. This became known as ‘aliyah le-regel. (The term in its conventional sense refers to ascending to the Temple in Jerusalem—or, more broadly, going to the Holy Land.)
Jews in Eastern Europe, along with Jews from other parts of the world, also made pilgrimages to the Land of Israel, and such visits often resulted in their remaining permanently. Generally, few individuals were involved—mostly those who were part of the religious elite—but inspired by the kabbalists in the seventeenth century, pilgrimage to the Land of Israel attracted increasingly more Jews from Eastern Europe. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, several Hasidic rebbes were known not only to visit the Land of Israel but to move there.
World War II, which brought destruction to the life and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe, also interrupted the tradition of pilgrimages. After the war, when Eastern and Central Europe came under communism, pilgrimages were either limited or forbidden—but they did not disappear entirely. Since the collapse of communism in 1988–1989 and the opening up of Eastern Europe to Western tourism, Eastern Europe has once again become the pilgrimage destination of Jews of different denominations and countries of residence. Whereas in the past East European Jews constituted the majority of participants in pilgrimages, today almost all participants come from abroad—many from the United States.
Hasidim in town to visit the grave of Rabbi Naḥman, Uman, Ukraine, 1995. Photograph © Gueorgui Pinkhassov. (Magnum Photos)
Secular, observant, and Ḥaredi Jews have been returning to areas in Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and Latvia on different occasions during the year to visit sites connected to the history and legacy of their past. Poland—where the majority of East European Jews lived before the war, and where the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka have become the most visited sites—is the most popular destination. A favorite way for Jewish tourists to visit Eastern Europe is via organized excursion. Many travel agencies specialize in Jewish tourism, and pilgrimages to Eastern Europe may be tailored to meet the needs of various Jewish groups.
Hasidic Jews of different sects and origins from Israel, Western Europe, South America, and the United States constitute the largest and most frequent among Jewish groups returning to Eastern Europe. More than 20,000 Hasidim take part annually in at least 30 pilgrimages to different places in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
The most popular sites are the graves of Hasidic rebbes. The two most common pilgrimages among Hasidim today are those to the grave of Elimelekh of Lizhensk in Leżajsk, southern Poland, on the anniversary of his death (on the 21st of Adar) and to the grave of Naḥman of Bratslav, in Uman, Ukraine, on Rosh Hashanah. Tens of thousands of Hasidim attend each of these pilgrimages annually.
After Hasidim, the second largest group among Jewish groups returning to Eastern Europe as tourists and pilgrims are Israeli Jews of various ages and backgrounds, both religious and nonreligious. More than 5,000 Israelis visit Poland each year, among them 1,000 Israeli high school students. Subsidized and encouraged by the Israeli government, these students travel to Poland each year to visit the death camps and learn about the Holocaust.
A March of the Living participant from Canada, wrapped in the flag of the State of Israel, on the railroad tracks in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, Poland, 1992. Photograph by Stacy Wintre. (March of the Living Canada)
Non-Hasidic Jews of Eastern Europe, who are now settled in different countries worldwide, go on their own pilgrimages to Eastern Europe. Their destinations include the graves of religious authorities, such as the reconstructed grave of the renowned scholar Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, known as the Gaon of Vilna, and the grave of the distinguished halakhic scholar and head of the Volozhin yeshiva Ḥayim Soloveichik of Brest Litovsk (Yid., Brisk) in Volozhin, Belarus (formerly Lithuania). They also visit the sites of the former yeshivas of Brisk, Volozhin, and Slobodka.
An example of a newly invented post–World War II pilgrimage to Eastern Europe is the annual March of the Living, held under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education. This international educational pilgrimage, begun in 1988, brings Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom ha-Sho’ah, Holocaust Memorial Day, to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. They then continue to Israel to observe Yom ha-Zikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and end with the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day.
Avraham Mordekhai Alter, Be-Darkhe Polin ha-avelot, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1986/87); Shifra Epstein, “Les pèlerinages hassidiques en Pologne,” Les cahiers du judaïsme 8 (2000): 100–111; Mayer H. Greenberg, Sefer tsadikim keruyim ḥayim (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1996); Jack Kugelmass, “Why We Go to Poland: Holocaust Tourism As Secular Ritual,” in The Art of Memory, ed. James Young, pp. 174–183 (Munich, 1994).