Reb Elimelech personally selected his burial spot, explaining that on that location he perceived the soul of the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Elimelech returned his pure soul to his Maker on 21 Adar, 1787 at the age of 70. Ever since, his burial plot has become a center for prayer and personal requests.
The importance Jews awarded to Reb Elimelech’s gravesite was not lost on the non-Jews. One Lizhenskian gang of hoodlums reasoned that a spot in a cemetery attracting so much traffic must really be the location of hidden Jewish treasures. Convinced that the Jews must have buried their valuables in the Jewish graveyard, they began to dig. But they did not even find a copper coin.
The gang leader was not to be outsmarted. He proposed that they dig up the grave of Reb Elimelech, for there the true treasures must definitely be hidden!
But the gang members refused to comply. They were illiterate, they were poor, they were vicious anti-Semites, they were anything but refined – but somehow they knew, like everyone in Lizhensk, this is one place you don’t mess with. The leader’s desire for Jewish loot surpassed his prudence, so he dug up the grave by himself – vainly looking for treasures.
A few days later this gang was united for a party, where the main refreshments were beverages of the alcoholic variety. As is not uncommon, from drinks they segued to loud arguments that then escalated into blows. The drunks got a little carried away and killed their leader – even decapitating him. They placed his severed head on a table as if it were a trophy, and then sat down to drink some more.
The bitter outcome of this gang leader spread throughout the Lizhensk region, and the non-Jews had little difficulty seeing in the man’s denouement the hand of God as revenge for defiling the grave of so saintly a man.
Story has it that when the Nazis arrived in Lizhensk they wasted no time in murdering the local Jews. A handful managed to escape to the Jewish graveyard, hoping that they might be saved in the merit of the tzaddik who was buried there.
As the Nazis pillaged their way through Jewish Lizhensk, they were, as always, disappointed by the lack of loot that impoverished Polish Jewry had to offer. Where were all of the valuable Jewish possessions that they had heard about since the time they were sentient? They must be hidden somewhere, and this suspicion brought them to the Jewish cemetery.
There they found a few terrified Jews attempting to hide, and the Nazis ordered them to dig up Reb Elimelech’s grave. Their dread of the Germans knew no limits, but their fear of violating the sanctity of Reb Elimelech was greater still, and they refused to comply.
Fundamentally goal-minded, the Nazis then brought over the gentile custodian of the cemetery – at rifle-point – and commanded him to unearth the grave. But he too was unwilling to tamper with the revered gravesite.
With no other resort, the Germans did the dirty work themselves. They opened the grave and found the corpse in its entirety – as if he was recently buried. His payos were still moist, as if he had just emerged from the mikveh – although 150 years had lapsed since his passing.
This spooked the Nazis so thoroughly that they fled the place, enabling the Jews who had been apprehended at the site to hide in the nearby forest. Those who survived related how the merit of Reb Elimelech had saved their lives. The caretaker saw to it that the earth was replaced over Reb Elimelech’s grave.
Reb Meir Premishlan said that whoever desires genuine fear of Heaven must travel to the gravesite of Reb Elimelech and pray there. Reb Mendel of Rimanov attested that going to the gravesite is a catalyst for repentance. The tradition has been passed on that whoever visits his grave will merit salvations and will not die without having repented.
Over time, the occasion of Reb Elimelech’s yahrzeit has brought large crowds of petitioners to seek Heavenly intervention in their lives. The number of those today who travel across the world to remote Lizhensk, Poland on the occasion of Reb Elimelech’s yahrzeit number in the serious five-digits.