Jewish Heritage Europe

Check out the rich resources on -- an online clearing house for news and information on Jewish heritage that I coordinate as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Europe

Friday, May 8, 2015

I consider Dark Tourism, in a comparative persective

Tourists visit slave cabins at Boone Hall plantation, near Charleston

Visitors walk past barracks at Auschwitz, which house exhibits

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've been in Charleston, SC, for the past four months, teaching this semester as the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

During my stay, I've begun to consider parallels -- and dissonances -- between the way Jewish heritage and history, including the Holocaust, are presented in Eastern Europe and the way African American (including slave) history and heritage are presented in the Charleston area.

Here's a brief essay I wrote, for the web site of the Drayton Hall plantation, exploring some of the issues.

- - - -
More than 20 years ago I wrote a book called Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today. The title referred to the mezuzah—the encased prayer scroll Jews place on their doorposts, indicating a house as the home of a Jew.

In post-Holocaust Europe you could often find the grooves or scars where mezuzahs had been removed or painted over during or after the Shoah—thus forming symbolic mezuzahs that indicated a house where Jews once lived. In my book, I extrapolated further, suggesting that the surviving physical relics of pre-war Jewish life—synagogue buildings, Jewish cemeteries, even if abandoned, in ruined condition or transformed for other use, also served as symbolic mezuzahs to mark towns, villages, cities, and even countries where Jews once lived and do not live now.

My intent was to show how buildings and other physical sites can be talismans and touchstones, opening the way into memory and history.

George McDaniel made this same idea explicit in his introduction to the panel of Drayton Hall descendants. “History did not happen to someone, somewhere else, but to you,” he said. “You grow up a product of history. Preserving buildings means also preserving the story behind the buildings, making a connection with people. Why is a place important? How do you feel connected?”

From the Jewish perspective, visiting Jewish historical sites in post-Holocaust, post-Communist Europe can be a very positive experience, emphasizing Jewish life, history and culture; but the experience also falls under what is now known as Dark Tourism—tourism to sites of what we can call “negative” history, “negative” experience: death, destruction, war.

Sites of slavery also fall under Dark Tourism, though this aspect of a historic site (such as a plantation or genteel antebellum home) often becomes masked, elided, or simply footnoted in the presentation of beautiful buildings and gardens for tourist consumption.

Much of this boils down to “who controls the narrative”—and to whom is the narrative directed: issues that we have been dealing with in the class I have been teaching, “Memory, Heritage, Renewal.” Although the main focus of our class is Jewish heritage and memory and their role and representation in Europe, we have been able to draw parallels with the way that African American heritage, history, and culture are presented here in Charleston and the Lowcountry.

I was delighted that students from my class were in attendance at the panel presentation featuring the descendants of Drayton Hall, as the discussion clearly demonstrated the parallels we have been dealing with, touching on issues such as the point of view of interpretation and interpreters; messages and signage; how the same place can have different symbolic meanings and generate different memories for different people.

I found particularly compelling a part of the film about Drayton Hall’s African American descendants that parallels the post-Holocaust Jewish experience in Europe. People were filmed sitting in the African American cemetery at Drayton Hall, speaking about how many of the deceased buried there had no markers for their graves, no one to talk about their history. In Eastern Europe, when I visit an abandoned Jewish cemetery, I often ponder the fact that most of the thousands and thousands of people buried in these places are also forgotten, with no descendants to tend their graves or even remember who they were.

Drayton is not alone in trying to present a more inclusive past in the plantation context. Boone Hall has installed an extensive presentation on slavery and African American history centered on the nine preserved slave cabins there. Magnolia Gardens features special programs to bring to life its recently renovated row of cabins. And Middleton Place, which I have not yet visited, presents a permanent exhibit titled “Beyond the Fields” in a two-family tenant residence called Eliza’s House, in memory of Eliza Leach, a South Carolina African American born in 1891, and the last person to live in the building. The much less elaborate Hampton Plantation also incorporates the site’s slave history in well researched text panels, both in the Big House and along the path leading to it.

After the Drayton Hall panel, I was excited to visit McLeod Plantation with Mary Battle, public historian at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, and her class. McLeod, which served as local headquarters of the Freedman’s Bureau following the Civil War, has the potential to interpret not only slave life but the postwar experience of the newly freed men and women. McLeod’s signage uses a phrase that could be the site’s “slogan”—describing it as a place of both “tragedy and transcendence.” I found it interesting that this formulation echoes what we sometimes call sites of Jewish heritage in Europe—“sites of tragedy and sites of triumph.”
Read article on the web site

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March 2015 Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter is out!

The new Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter is out!

Click here to read it in your browser.

News & info from Poland, Italy, Latvia, Croatia, Portugal and the UK and more... with a focus on synagogue history,  architecture & preservation.

There also are calls for fellowship applications, papers, workshops and conferences as well a links to a photo gallery of the symbolic decorative image of the hands raised in priestly blessing.

Check it out -- and subscribe to both the monthly newsletter and the regular item-by-item news feed!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Check out the February Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter!

The Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter for February shares calls for fellowship applications, papers, workshops and conferences -- including a training session at the National Library of Israel.

We also highlight new books on Jewish heritage in Ukraine, Slovenia, and Poland, as well as preservation initiatives and issues in Poland, Lithuania, England, Italy, Croatia, Spain, and Romania. For a change of pace, we even posted about an 18th century Jewish cemetery in the United States.

Please keep me informed about your own Jewish heritage projects, concerns and ideas so that I can share information with our expanding readership. Thanks!


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jewish Culture, etc, Festivals in Europe 2015

Dancing at the Yiddish Summer Weimar

As usual, I am trying to put together a list of as many as possible of the numerous Jewish festivals -- culture, film, dance, etc -- that take place each year around Europe. Please help me by sending me information!

The big culture festivals and other smaller events make good destinations around which to center a trip. Some, like the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, are huge events lasting a week or more, which draw thousands of people and offer scores or sometimes hundreds of performances, lectures, concerts, exhibits and the like. Other festivals are much less ambitious. Some are primarily workshops but also feature concerts. Many of the same artists perform at more than one festival.

The list will be growing and growing -- and again, I ask my readers to please send me information and links to upcoming events. Thanks!


July 27- August 1 -- Trebic -- Samajim Festival


June 7-23 -- Paris -- Festival of Jewish Cultures


February 19-22 -- Fürth -- Jewish Film Days

February 22 -  March 22 -- Various -- Rheinland Jewish Culture Days

March 6-8 -- Fürth -- Klezmer Festival Intermezzo


August 18-21 -- London -- Klezfest


April 19-30 -- Rome -- Sefarad in Roma: festival of culture and cuisine


March 17-20 -- Szczeczin --  Days of Jewish Culture

April 18-27 -- Warsaw -- Festival of New Jewish Music

May 5-10 -- Warsaw -- Jewish Motifs Film Festival

June 11-14 -- Tarnow -- Galicianer Shtetl days

June 17-20 -- Oswiecim -- Oswiecim Life Festival 


Feb. 28-March 1 -- Besalu -- Besalu Jewish City

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Check out the latest Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter

Painted ceiling, replica of Gwozdziec wooden synagogue, in the POLIN museum.

The Jewish Heritage Europe newsletter this month has links to posts and pictures from Poland, Italy, Germany, Romania, Serbia -- and more!

This month's theme is "Dedication! Celebration!"

Links include links to photo galleries on the new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the Old and New Jewish cemeteries in Venice, Italy.

Click here to access the Newsletter online

Please sign up to get automatic delivery to your inbox!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Photo gallery: Beautiful but Desolate Kerepesi Jewish cemetery in Budapest

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

(This post also appears on my En Route blog for the LA Jewish Journal)

In Budapest earlier this month, I visited the Jewish cemetery on Salgotarjan street, which was founded in 1874 and is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Pest side of Budapest.

It is actually the Jewish section of the city’s Kerepesi monumental cemetery, where national heroes are buried — and is the final resting place of many wealthy and influential Hungarian Jews of the time. Massive family tombs of Jewish noble families and industrialists line the perimeter; but there are also the graves of ordinary people. There is also a section where Holocaust victims are buried.

I had not been there in years -- despite some efforts at clean-up some time back, the cemetery is more densely overgrown than ever and tragically neglected, and I was glad that a friend came with me, as I do not like wandering around there by myself. There used to be a lot of stories of homeless people camping down there, or others coming in to rob the graves. Once I was startled to flush out a pheasant. There is decent security now, though, and a responsible young caretaker (who tied up his dogs when we arrived).

Still, many of the huge tombs of families who once wielded social, political and financial power are literally crumbling; collapsing and being swallowed by vines and other vegetation. Some of them have been broken open: you can even see the coffins in the crypts.

Quite a few of the tombs are the work of leading architects of the day — such as Ignác Alpár, Sándor Fellner, Albert Körössy, Emil Vidor and Béla Lajta. Lajta, whose work prefigured art deco, also designed the entry way from the street and the massive Ceremonial Hall (now roofless), built around 1908.

I posted a gallery of photos on, the web site that I coordinate for the Rothschild Foundation Europe.

Here are just a few of them  (all photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber) -- click here over to Jewish Heritage Europe to see the full selection.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Jewish Heritage Europe October newsletter is online

In a grand family tomb in the vast Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest

The Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter for October went out last week….

This issue focuses on important completed synagogue restoration projects in several countries -- Spain, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Lithuania -- plus other news highlights from around the continent that have been featured in recent weeks on Jewish Heritage Europe, the web site that I coordinate as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Europe.

There is also a link to the JHE Photo Galleries, a growing collection of galleries where many new images have been posted...Take a look -- one of the new galleries celebrates Simchat Torah with a series of images of decorated Arks from synagogues around Europe.

Ark, Roman, Romania
Ark in synagogue in Roman, Romania

You may submit your own photos to add to the galleries.

Click here to see the Newsletter in your browser -- better still,  sign up for automatic monthly delivery that will link you to a fascinating selection of updates and images from all around Europe.

There's a lot going on -- synagogue restorations, clean-ups of Jewish cemeteries, exhibition openings, guided tours, Jewish culture festivals -- and more.

You can also receive more frequent news by subscribing to the almost-daily newsfeed (blog) using the box on the the JHE home page.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Nearly 25 years later, revisiting the old question : Should old synagogues in Eastern Europe be restored?

Exterior Rumbach st. synagogue, Budapest, December 2011. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm crossposting this item that I put up today on Jewish Heritage Europe, the web site that I coordinate as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Europe. It looks back over the past quarter century of Jewish heritage preservation and priorities -- showing that despite progress that has been made and mind-sets that have changed, much still resonates:

Writing in September's Moment Magazine, Phyllis Myers posed the old question: should old synagogues in eastern Europe be saved?

Her answer — and mine — is, of course, a resounding YES.

It is important to remember, however, as Myers points out, that this answer was not self-evident — or even all that widely held — when she, and others involved in the field, first posed the question a quarter of a century ago, after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Myers first did so in a long article, also in Moment, published in 1990, called “The Old Shuls of Eastern Europe: Are They Worth Saving?”

It’s worth reading again today to get a sense of the situation on the ground — and in people’s mind-sets — back then, just as the movement to document and restore Jewish built heritage in eastern and central Europe was getting under way. In a sense, her article represented a sort of blueprint for what could — and should — be the preservation priorities for the coming generation.

As more restoration takes place, the need for integrity and creativity in communicating the many dimensions of the Jewish experience will grow. The answer is not just a series of plaques on the buildings. Or more exhibit cases of Jewish ceremonial objects. Or lists of famous Jews. We must strive to evoke a unique encounter between visitor and place. We need to remember that as time passes a n d travel increases, visi­tors will want to know more about how Jews lived as well as how Jews died.

A quarter of a century later, the essence of what she wrote still holds true. The priorities she outlined are still priorities that should be addressed, and — despite the many successes and great strides accomplished — her message and the concepts she framed still have a powerful resonance. Indeed, one of the synagogues whose deteriorated condition she specifically mentioned in 1990 – the Rumbach st. synagogue in Budapest — still languishes in a sorry state despite sporadic efforts to restore it.

Interior of Rumbach st. synagogue, 2011

“We preserve—buildings and places, the simple and the awesome—for many reasons,” Myers wrote in 1990.

We preserve to remember. For decades, Jewish preservation in Eastern Europe has focused primarily on places of death. Chasidim have tended cemeteries, especially the graves of Tzadikim (charismatic lead­ers), while other Jews have ensured that death camps remain as witnesses to a story that could otherwise become myth.
But preservation means Jewish life as well as death. When we walk in the footsteps of our forebears, contemplate their lives, stand in the places where they lived—and were betrayed—powerful linkages occur between their lives and ours.

We preserve to learn. American archi­tectural historian Carole Herselle Krinsky writes, “Synagogues…reveal especially clearly the connections between architecture and society.” Clues to self-perceptions of Jews over the centuries, the evolution of faith and culture and relations with Gentile neighbors abound in the shapes, materials, designs and settings of synagogues. Did a community choose Gothic or Moorish ar­ chitecture, site its synagogue on the street or set it back off a courtyard, retain a sepa­rate entrance for women or build a gallery in the main hall? Did it raise a dome high or low in the community’s skyline, place the bimah (pulpit) in the center of the main hall or on the east wall? Did it hire a Jewish, Gentile or Viennese architect? Why did poor Jewish artists in old Poland decorate their synagogue walls with colorful, representational frescoes and pious prayers?

We preserve to provide settings for dia­logue. It is true that in many places in East­ern Europe few, if any, Jews are left, and to talk about understanding, much less recon­ ciliation, would be glib. Yet a dialogue that goes beyond the “chamber of horrors” of the Shoah is clearly underway, fostered in special ways by sites embedded with memo­ries. [...]

We preserve to transcend. On Simchat Torah, 1989, Cracow’s revered Remuh Synagogue, rebuilt but used continuously since the mid-1550s, re­verberated as 40 Israeli teenagers took over the service from a forlorn group of elderly survivors and vibrantly danced and sang “Am Yisrael Chat”—the people of Israel live. The benefactor who paid for the Szeged synagogue’s restoration put it this way: “I just want to know that the synagogue I remem­ber from my childhood is still there.” [...]

We preserve to fulfill our commit­ ment to life. For preservation to play this role—or any successful role—in Eastern Europe, sites need to be acces­sible, marked and interpreted in com­pelling ways. [...]

Click here to read Myers’s 1990 Moment article

Friday, August 29, 2014

More than 40 Jewish Culture, etc, festivals each year in Poland!

Singer's Warsaw Festival, 2011

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Readers of this blog know that each year since 2009 I have tried to put together a list of Jewish culture, music, film -- etc -- festivals that take place around Europe.

This year (so far) the list includes 40 or so, in more than a dozen countries.

My list is far from totally comprehensive -- I know I miss quite a few events. But I believe it is still probably the most complete list of such festivals Europe-wide.

Still, my list's incomplete-ness is borne out by a list of Jewish culture and other festivals in Poland, researched and complied by Agnieszka Gis, a young volunteer at the Krakow Jewish Community Center who this summer is working as an intern at the Taube Foundation in San Francisco.

Agnieszka's list includes more than 40 festivals, of all sorts. That's 40 Jewish culture, film, music and other such festivals in Poland alone -- a country whose Jewish community today numbers probably some 15,000 or so!

There are big festivals, such as the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow and the Singer's Warsaw festival in Warsaw. But many are in small towns and even  far-flung villages. Most are organized by non-Jews and directed at a non-Jewish audience, perfect examples of what I have I described as the "virtually Jewish" phenomenon.

Click here to see Agnieszka's list in PDF form (you will have to enlarge it to read)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The August Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter is Out!

Synagogue in Orla, Poland. Photo: W. Wejman/Shtetl Routes

The latest edition -- August -- of the Jewish Heritage Europe monthly Newsletter is out, and up online.

It features a selection of items that were posted on JHE's regular Newsfeed over the past month.

Top story is the series of "field notes" from the ambitious Shtetl Routes project, a Jewish heritage tourism project in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine that is under way with a more than $400,000 grant from the European Union.

Other stories range from the completed restoration of the synagogue in Tulcea, Romania to archaeology at Krakow's Old Synagogue.

Take a look!

It's easy to subscribe -- you'll get the Newsletter automatically in your email inbox.

Also subscribe to the regular Newsfeed for more frequent updates about what's happening in the Jewish heritage world.