Friday, October 24, 2008

Jewish cemetery in Bucharest vandalized

Unknown vandals toppled or otherwise damaged as many as 200 grave markers in the largest Jewish cemetery in Bucharest. There is a slideshow of the damage on yahoo news.

From what I can tell from news reports, the cemetery is the vast 20th century cemetery, still in use by the Jewish community, in the far south of the city at Soseau Giurgiului 162. This is where my own great-uncle, Pinkas Gruber, who died in 1980 at the age of 98, is buried.

Jewish spaces and places -- my new Ruthless Cosmopolitan column

My new Ruthless Cosmopolitan column deals with the concept of Jewish space(s) and Jewish place(s). It's a bit peripheral to concrete issues of Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage travel, but it fits within the broad context of the discussion and in the rich tapestry of culture, history and heritage. I also describe some surprising new places to "travel"... (By the way, you can see all my columns aggregated on my Ruthless Cosmopolitan blog.)

Places and spaces: Exploring
what makes up the Jewish tapestry
Ruth Ellen Gruber
Avner Gruber, the first cousin once removed of Ruth Ellen Gruber, visits a Jewish cemetery in Hamburg, Germany.
ROME (JTA) -- We've all played the "Jewish geography" game -- you know, questioning someone we've only just met in order to discover common Jewish connections, friends or even family.
n doing so, we are mapping out our experiences, delineating a sort of Jewish topography of interlinking

backgrounds, histories and far-flung mishpocha.

Somehow I feel a sense of profound satisfaction when I discover an unexpected link with a stranger. It's like a gift, an almost magical sense of communion with the densely woven tapestry of Jewish life -- or at least with an individual or a place that helps make up that tapestry.

The idea of Jewish topography and the spaces and places -- physical and metaphysical -- in which Jews live, dream and interact forms the basis of a fascinating new book.

“Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place” (Ashgate Publishing House, 2008) is a collection of essays by a score of international scholars who participated in a six-year research project at the University of Potsdam in Germany.

Called Makom, or "place" in Hebrew, the project aimed to explore the relevance of space and place in Jewish life and culture.

In my own writing, I have dealt frequently with "Jewish space" in the way that the Paris-based historian Diana Pinto framed it. She coined the term in the 1990s to describe the place occupied by Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish memory within mainstream European society, regardless of the size or activity of the local Jewish population.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lost Wooden Tombstones from Jewish Cemeteries in Eastern Europe

Tomek Wisniewski, the pioneering Jewish heritage expert in Bialystok, Poland, has just published a fascinating article -- with lots of rare pictures -- detailing the lost wooden tombstones from Jewish cemeteries in eastern Europe. The oldest such tombstones date back to the 18th century, he reports -- the photographs he includes, from the World War I period, show evocative views of many such wooden markers, standing side by side with traditional carved and often painted stone mazzevot.

Most of the wooden markers were flat-faced planks. But Tomek includes extraordinary photos of wooden ohels, or shrines, and tombs resembling miniature wooden peak-roofed houses.

Tomek's new book, A History of Lost Jewish Shtetl Cemeteries, will be published in the coming months and will include further information on Jewish wooden grave markers.

In his article, published in the online Jewish Magazine, he writes:

With a few exceptions, small-town Jewish cemeteries in Poland 'exist' only on old maps and old photographs. Their rich artistic heritage has been lost, or survives only in fragmentary or merely symbolic form, e.g. walled cemeteries behind whose walls practically nothing is to be found. The most interesting and impressive tombstones (matzevot) have disappeared. They all met the same fate. The Germans used them to cobble roads and pavements, to reinforce escarpments and clad the beds and banks of rivers. They were used in the construction of flights of stairs and farmers used them as sandstone knife-sharpeners. Despite these years of destruction, tens of thousands of the most beautiful stone tombstones managed to survive in Poland, but not one single wooden one has been preserved.

For centuries the Jews erected wooden tombstones. Typically they were to be found in the poorest communities in areas where stone was in short supply. . . . .

Surviving photographs show that wooden tombstones are very similar to each other, being made from long slender wooden planks of oak or pine whose shape is vaguely reminiscent of a primitive human form. The top resembles a head and the remainder offers just the suggestion of the human body. The slender, elongated, wooden tombstone is unique in shape, in minimalist ornamentation and, especially, in the manner of accommodating the inscription to the narrow register. Although association with the human form may be unintentional, the minimalist ornamentation and accommodation of inscription to the narrow register are clearly deliberate.

Read the Full Article, on

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Exhibition on Turkish Synagogues in Istanbul

An exhibition of photographs of historic synagogues in Turkey opened this week at the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul and will run until October 31.

The photographs were taken by Devon Jarvis, and the project as a whole was directed by Joel A. Zack, an architect, author and expert on Jewish heritage in the Mediterranean region. Zack, a former Fulbright scholar, carried out a ground-breaking survey of Moroccan synagogues for the World Monuments Fund that was published in 1993, and he later founded a travel company concentrating on Jewish Heritage tours to Spain, Turkey, Morocco and elsewhere.

The Turkey project documented 50 synagogues and resulted in 30,000 photographs and 130 measured architectural drawings. It is the first such detailed inventory of synagogues in what today is the Muslim country with the largest Jewish population -- some 15,000 to 18,000 Jews, mainly in Istanbul.

Read Full Story in the Turkish Daily News

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My Travel Column on is back on line

I'm happy to report that my travel column on is back on line after several months out of action while the web site was under redesign.

About a dozen articles are archived and accessible -- from Hungary, the western Balkans, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and elsewhere.

There is also an interactive forum -- and a quick link to this blog and to where you can purchase my books...

New articles will be coming soon!

Meanwhile, take a look at the entire site, with its trove of family photographs, interviews and other material on Jewish life in central Europe.

From the Top Tier Gallery, Vienna

As noted in a previous post, I spent much of the High Holy Day period moving around Europe, in a sort of mini-Jewish Heritage tour of Siena, Vienna and Budapest.

Vienna on Yom Kippur provided the most traditional Ashkenazic experience -- services in the historic "Stadttempel," the lovely neo-classical synagogue on sloping Seitenstettengasse, in the heart of the city's core First District. From the outside, the synagogue, built in 1824-26, looks like a plain, anonymous building -- many synagogues across Europe (including that in Siena) are hidden behind featureless outer walls that face the street. This was either for protection or in compliance with edicts that allowed direct access to the street only for churches. (This positioning saved the synagogue during Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938; it was not torched for fear that the entire block could go up in flames and survived World War II almost unscathed. All of the other nearly 100 synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in Vienna were either destroyed or severely damaged.)

What sets the building apart these days is the security outside -- including armed guards.

Designed by the architect Josef Kornhausel, the Stadttempel features a graceful oval sanctuary encircled by two tiers of women's galleries and topped by a sky-blue dome sprinkled with gilded stars. Twelve fluted ionic columns support the galleries and partition the perimeter, and a gilded sunburst tops a rendition of the Ten Commandments that seems to float above the ark.

I arrived in Vienna just in time to enjoy a pre-fast meal with my friend Antonia before we took a taxi to services. We had to climb to the top tier of the women's galleries, where we stood at the back -- if we had been in a theater, we would have been in "the gods." From almost no seat in either of the women's galleries, however, is it possible to see anything of what goes on on the ground floor, where the men are seated. You have to lean right over the edge of the galleries and look down -- not good if you have a fear of heights.

Throughout the service, boisterous and cute little children ran in and out, and the other women around us, unable to see (and only to hear with some difficulty) used the opportunity -- as usual in such cases -- to schmooze. When I could hear, it was a pleasure. (Even though Antonia and I arrived too late to hear Kol Nidre). The cantor was excellent, and the melodies sung in the service here are the same ones I grew up with at my Conservative JCC in suburban Philadelphia...

The crowd was well-dressed and prosperous-looking; all ages represented. Afterward, we milled about on the cobbled street outside, greeting friends in the congregation -- these included Edward Serotta, the director of, the central European Jewish research institute. (I write a travel column for Centropa -- it was on hold for a few months during a redesign of the web site, but is now back up on line.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

New Book on Jewish Cemeteries in Europe

Houses of Life: Jewish Cemeteries of Europe has just been published in England. It is written by Joachim Jacobs, a German landscape architect who has worked on designing or restoring Jewish cemeteries in Germany, with photographs by Has Dietrich Beyer.

The book describes thirty cemeteries in several countries and tells their story, with maps, photographs, paintings and text. They cemeteries chosen date from the Roman period through Islamic Spain and medieval Italy to baroque and 19th-century Germany and present-day Britain and France. (There is a "search this book function on the listing.)

Mega Conference on Jewish Art in Poland to Begin

The first Congress of Jewish Art in Poland, a mega-conference drawing dozens of speakers, is due to be held Oct. 27-29 in Kazimierz Dolny, a beautiful town on the Vistula River. It will be devoted to Jewish artists (painters, sculptors, graphic artists, architects) who from the period of the Haskalah until WWII created art centres in Central-Eastern Europe or were connected with these centres, active in Western Europe, Russia, America and the Palestine.

Click here for the program.

Kazmierz Dolny has a long Jewish history and striking Jewish heritage sites.

Holocaust monument at Jewish cemetery, photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

These include the stone synagogue, originally built in the second half of the 18th century, which stands just off the main market square, and a striking Holocaust Memorial, a mosaic-like wall made of fragments of recovered tombstones, at the site of one of the town's two destroyed Jewish cemeteries.

Virtual Shtetl in Lower Silesia

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews has announced that a project called ‘Virtual Shtetl in Lower Silesia, Opole and Lubuskie Regions’ was launched in south-western Poland in September.

The announcement says that the primary objective of the project is to develop an internet portal that will give information on some 60 Jewish shtetls in Lower Silesia, Opole and Lubuskie Regions. The portal will comprise detailed data, including texts and images, on German Jews who resided in those areas up to World War II and on Polish Jews who formed the largest Jewish settlement in Poland after the war.

A catalogue of Judaica from the Lower Silesia, Opole and Lubuskie Regions, a book devoted to Jewish schools in Wrocław, 12 interviews with members of the Jewish community who graduated from the Sholem Aleichem Jewish Common School and Jewish High School in Wrocław will complement the project.

Click the links above for more information on the general ‘Virtual Shtetl’ project -- an internet portal dedicated to the history of Jewish life in small towns within historical Polish borders. It will feature old and recent photographs, preserved Jewish memorabilia, film clips and interviews. It will also give practical information – GPS coordinates, charts, landmark locations.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Good Sukkoth News from Poland

A pre-war Sukkah discovered in the Polish town of Szydlowiec is under restoration by specialists at the Radom Regional Museum.

The newsletter of the forthcoming Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw reports on the discovery of the rare Sukkah, which probably dates from around 1920, as well as on the restoration process. The Sukkah has been donated to the Museum.

The Sukkah was discovered incorporated into the porch of a house that once belonged to Nuta Ajzenberg, a wealthy tannery owner who also built a small synagogue next to his home for use by his family and his employees.

Szydlowiec is distinguished by its large and important Jewish cemetery, which has some 3,000 or more tombstones, the oldest dating back to the 18th century. Many bear extremely vivid carvings.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Yet another story about the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow...

(Looking at the "Please Respond" project in Krakow last summer. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.)

Here's another radio piece about the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.

It was put together by Stephanie Rowden, who -- together with the anthropologist Erica Lehrer and graphic designer Hannah Smotrich -- organized a valuable project/public art happening at last summer's Festival. It was called "Please Respond" and aimed at asking visitors to and participants in the Festival, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to comment on it -- people wrote hand-written notes, which were posted on a board, and Stephanie recorded interviews. (They also got great T-shirts made up for the project!) There is meant to be a web site, etc, but I haven't seen it yet.

Indeed, I'm eager to see the final results -- I assume that this radio piece is just a first step in publishing the material collected. The comments collected here (and I recognize several of the voices!) give a good selection of what people think and say.

Rudi Klein's Dohany St. Synagogue book launch

As I'm in Budapest this week, I was able to attend the official launch for architectural historian Rudolf Klein's new book on the Dohany St. Synagogue, The Great Synagogue of Budapest (Budapest: TERC, ISBN 978 963 9535 82 4). The event took place at one of the city's most prominent book stores and drew a good crowd.

As Sam Gruber reported last month in his blog, the book is, we believe, the first detailed monographic treatment of what is Europe's biggest synagogue, the flagship of Hungarian Jewry, which was designed by Ludwig von Forster and built in the 1850s. Next year marks the 150th anniversary of its inauguration, and celebrations are planned.

Rudi's book appears in both English and Hungarian, and it's unfortunate that it is not available (yet) outside Hungary -- there do not seem to be plans to sell it on, either.

My Jewish Heritage Traveling Holidays

This year, I've ended up turning the High Holy Days into a Jewish Heritage Travel (or shlep) across Europe: Rosh Hashana in Siena, Italy; Yom Kippur in Vienna; Sukkoth in Budapest.

It's been a mini-tour of three different cities, countries, Jewish traditions. Food! But sampling different Jewish cultures and traditions was a by-product, not really the aim.

I spend much of my time in a farmhouse in rural Italy, and, though nearly a 2-hour drive away, Siena is actually one of the closest places to me where there is a synagogue. Budapest, where I have a small apartment, is a second home, and I try to get here as often as I can. And in Vienna I have a close friend with whom I usually try to spend at least part of the holidays.

I've written in a previous post about the beautiful 18th century synagogue in Siena, at vicolo delle Scotte 14, just off the wonderful Campo, the huge piazza that is the heart of the city. I met some lovely people where I attended a concert there on the European Day of Jewish Culture and accepted their invitation to join them for Rosh Hashanah.

Only a few dozen Jews live in Siena, most of them members of three or four families. Under current administrative regulations they do not constitute an "official" Jewish community on their own, but a "section" of the much larger Jewish community in Florence.

Anna De Castro and Lamberto Piperno Corcos live on a big estate outside of Siena. It has been in the family for nearly 70 years and consists of a huge (now empty) villa with formal gardens (which Anna and Lamberto are attempting to restore and put back into good shape). There are a number of smaller houses, some of which have been turned into rental apartments -- the estate, Monaciano, produces excellent wine and also rents out the apartments as "agritourism" accommodation.

I arrived at Monaciano just in time to change clothes and go into town for erev R-H services.

The services marked one of the first public appearances of Eli Rabani, an Israeli who has just arrived in Siena to serve as the congregation's new "capo culto," or religious leader, replacing an elderly leader who passed away not long ago after heading the congregation for decades.

Though not a rabbi, Rabani is is there to lead prayers. He and his young family will be living next to the synagogue, and local Jews hope that they will form a dynamic new anchor for Jewish activities.

The congregation was small -- much of it seemed composed of foreign tourists and American students. Fortunately, they don't use the women's gallery, located high above and heavily screened... Women simply sit on one side of the sanctuary.

It was all very informal, and we rushed back to Monaciano for the real centerpiece of the celebration -- the dinner, or Rosh Hashana Seder. Many of Anna and Lamberto's relatives were also there for the holiday, and we sat around a huge table in one of the outlying houses.

In our Ashkenazi tradition, Rosh Hashana dinners have always consisted of just a special dinner, with Challah maybe, and apples dipped in honey -- not to mention chicken soup. But in the Italian tradition (and Sephardic) there is a "seder" -- an ordered meal during which special ritual foods are eaten. These were mostly fruit and vegetables, most of them fried... I don't have the exact order with me as I am writing this post, but we started with figs and then went on to apples and honey, pomegranate, squash, green beans, spinach fritatta, fried little fish. There were other dishes, too, including a delicious squash risotto.

The next morning, we all went back to the synagogue.

There was a palpable air of excitement as he led the prayers and read the Torah. The shofar sounded, and Rabani's two small and very cute children ran about the sanctuary.

For the first time in years, there was a Cohen in the congregation, one of Anna and Lamberto's relatives who was up for the holiday from Rome.

He stood before the Ark, reciting the priestly blessing, while families and friends stood and grouped tightly together under tallises raised to cover us like tents.

"May the Lord bless you and keep you. 
May the Lord let His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. 
May the Lord look kindly upon you and give you peace."

It was very emotional -- I don't think I was the only congregant to wipe away tears.

(On to Central Europe in following posts.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hmm... "Ebraismo Virtuale" - virtually "Virtually Jewish?"

I've just discovered that the Israeli scholar Ariel Toaff has published a book called "Ebraismo Virtuale" -- or "Virtual Judaism."

I haven't seen the book yet, but there have been comments in the Italian media noting that he drew the title from my own "Virtually Jewish."

In "Il Sole 24 Ore," Giulio Busi wrote Sept. 14, "Unfortunately, the title of the book is copied from 'Virtually Jewish' by Ruth Ellen Gruber, and as for new ideas, there are not many."

Well, at least someone has read my book!

Toaff's book seems to be about how the memory of the Shoah holds Judaism "hostage." Toaff (accoring to Busi) apparently stigmatizes "the current state of Judaism and its image in the media on a global level."

Toaff, the son of Rome's emeritus chief rabbi, is the author of some wonderful books, including a terrific history of Jewish life in medieval Umbria. But last year he caused a huge scandal with his "Pasque di Sangue," in which he said there was evidence to back up blood libel allegations that Jews in medieval times murdered Christians.

Genealogy Trip to Lithuania Being Planned

Avotaynu's Jewish Genealogy newsletter, "Nu? What's New?" reports:

Howard Margol and Peggy Freedman are organizing their 16th annual group trip to Lithuania, June 30 to July 10, 2009. If you are interested in tracing your roots in Lithuania, Latvia, Eastern Poland close to Lithuania, or Belarus, now is the time to sign up. This year the group will be limited to 25 persons. The trip includes stops at various archives, synagogues, ghettos,
Holocaust sites, meetings with Jewish leaders, sight-seeing, guide/interpreters, and two days to visit and spend time in your shtetls of interest. Margol and Freedman are very familiar with the archives, are on a first-name basis with the archivists, and know all the main places of Jewish interest.

The trip is sponsored by the American Fund For Lithuanian-Latvian Jews, a non-profit organization, and is not a commercial venture. Any profit from the trip will go to support the Jewish community in Vilnius.

For details and a full itinerary, contact

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Simchat Torah in Hermanuv Mestec, CZ

(Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2006)

I have received word that on Oct. 22, Simchat Torah will be celebrated in the restored synagogue in Hermanuv Mestec, a small town in Bohemia about 60 miles east of Prague.

The even will be a joint celebration by Prague's liberal Bejt Simcha congregation and the Progressive Temple Sinai congregation from Wellington, New Zealand. Temple Sinai has a Torah scroll that comes from Hermanuv Mestec, which it received through the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust. The Trust was responsible for rescuing the collection of 1,564 Torah Scrolls and 400 Torah Binders that formed part of the "precious legacy" of ritual objects looted from more than 150 destroyed Jewish communities and collected at the Jewish Museum in Prague during the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia during World War II.

For further information on the celebration, contact Bejt Simcha:

Jews settled in Hermanuv Mestec in the early 16th century. At its height, in the mid-19th century, the community numbered about 840 people. Many were active in the local shoe industry. At the outset of World War II, only about 60 Jews still lived there.

The neo-Romanesque synagogue was designed by the architect Frantisek Schmoranz and built in 1870 on the site of an earlier synagogue. It stands in the remains of the old Jewish quarter on Havlickova street, near St. Bartholomew's church, a few steps away from the main market square.

According to a detailed information booklet that I picked up when I visited the synagogue a coupe of years ago, Schmoranz originally had planned a larger and more ornate building with a tower, but that design was quashed over fears by the local Catholic clergy that such a synagogue would overshadow the church.

After World War II the synagogue was used as a church and then as a warehouse -- the first time I visited, in about 1990 or 1991, the sanctuary was willed by piles of huge industrial spindles filled the sanctuary.

The building was beautifully restored a few years ago and now forms part of an art gallery complex. Inside, intricate geometric and floral patterns cover the walls; stained glass windows gleam in the windows, and the Ark, topped by the Ten Commandments, is resplendent with gilding.

(Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2006)

The Jewish cemetery has more than 1,000 tombstones, oldest legible dates from 1647, is about 200 yards away, off Havlickova. Some of the older stones feature delicate carving and asymmetric shapes; others have an almost clumsy, primitive look. (It is well maintained, and a caretaker lives on the spot.)

Both the synagogue and the cemetery have been declared national cultural monuments.

Workshop to be Held on European Itinerary of Jewish Heritage

What is being billed as the First international workshop on the European itinerary of Jewish heritage is to be held in Oviedo, Spain on Nov. 4-5. The sponsor for the meeting is the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Heritage (AEJP), which coordinates the annual European Day of Jewish Culture.

Participants are to include the presidents of B'nai B'rith Europe and the European Council of Jewish Communities, the director of the European Institute of Culture Itineraries, and experts from France, Italy and Spain. Participants listed in the program include Max Polonovski from Paris, Annie Sacerdoti from Milan, Assumpcio Hosta, from Spain. It is not clear who else will be in attendance.

Topics on the agenda include "Approaches to management of cultural routes, with examples of Italy, Slovakia Czech Republic, England, France, Holland, Poland and Spain," and talks relating to the history and future of the annual European Day of Jewish Culture -- I recently wrote about some of the challenges in my article on European Culture Day in Hadassah Magazine.

One of the sessions is on "the website as a tool for promotion and working in a group" -- I hope that attention will be drawn to the regularly updated International Survey of Jewish Monuments site and the (slowly) growing Jewish Heritage Europe site -- not to mention Sam Gruber's Jewish art and monuments blog (and my own blog). Sam's blog, mailing list and ISJM site, along with my blog, are among the few web resources that attempt to keep up some sort of regular, updated track of international developments in the Jewish heritage field.

It will be interesting to see what comes of the Oviedo workshop. (And I wish that information had been released on it a bit earlier, as it might have been interesting to attend.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Endangered Synagogues

Here's an article I wrote recently on endangered synagogue buildings, published in the Jewish Chronicle in London. (There was some trouble with the link, but I think it works now.) It's bit simplified and simplistic, but the point is clear. (And it's a point that anyone following this blog will have been aware of....)

(Ruined synagogue in Nowy Korczyn, Poland. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Historic European shuls ‘falling apart’

Ruth Ellen Gruber

September 26, 2008

Time is running out to save scores of historic former synagogues in Central and Eastern Europe, a heritage foundation has warned.

"If we want to be serious about saving this heritage, we must do it now, as the synagogues are falling apart," said Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Nearly 20 years after the fall of Communism, a question-mark still looms over the fate of scores, perhaps hundreds, of former synagogues ravaged during the Second World War.

Most were abandoned or transformed for other uses during the Communist era. While restitution returned many to Jewish ownership, others still remain public or private property.

Some have been restored and are used as museums, cultural sites and - in rare cases - as houses of worship.

But a good number still stand abandoned or in poor condition, with either insufficient funds - or interest - to restore them.

"We are doing whatever we can," Ms Krawczyk said. "The more property we get, the more critical mass, and more complaints from visitors that cemeteries are neglected. There are also more problems if we get a summons to carry out emergency repairs in many sites at once. We don't have the resources. Roofs can't be fixed with kind words and good advice."

Ms Krawczyk said gaining restitution of a property could be difficult, time-consuming and complicated.

"We have to prove even the most obvious cases," she said. "The law was enshrined in part in the spirit of helping redress the wrongs that were done. But the authorities are not living up to the spirit."

In addition, she said, the costs of repairing a synagogue, or the complications of preservation norms on historic buildings, often made local authorities reluctant to contribute.

Even synagogues that may seem protected can be at risk. Last year, one of the two historic synagogues in Joniskis, Lithuania, collapsed, even though it was listed as a historic monument.

"Proper care of these properties, often involving substantial costs, difficult planning and use issues, and demanding historical and architectural preservation concerns, have preoccupied many Jewish communities for years," said Samuel Gruber, president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments.

"In many cases, and especially for smaller communities, the needs of these properties continue to stretch their professional and financial resources."

Protests failed to save a former synagogue in the Bosnian town of Travnik. Built in 1860 on the site of an earlier synagogue, the building was damaged during World War II and has not been used for Jewish worship since 1941.

The Bosnian Jewish community, numbering under 1,000, sold it to the city in the 1950s, and it had served as a metal workshop for decades.

Still, said those campaigning to save it, the synagogue was "one of Travnik's symbols and a testament to the centuries-old religious and ethnic diversity and life in Bosnia".

But their efforts to save it were futile, and the building was torn down a few weeks ago to make way for a new shopping centre.

British Checking Disused Jewish Cemeteries

Abandoned, disused and neglected Jewish cemeteries are not just a problem in post-communist countries and elsewhere in Europe where most Jews were murdered in the Shoah. But concern over what to do, how to do it, who should do it, and how whatever is done should be financed is a serious issue in other countries, too.

See this story from the London Jewish Chronicle on the situation in England:

From The Jewish Chronicle
Leon Symons
October 3, 2008

The Board of Deputies has begun an audit of all the cemeteries it looks after in Britain to find out who owns them and who is responsible for their upkeep. It has also launched an appeal to raise the funds needed to maintain the cemeteries, hoping to generate around £50,000.

Solicitor David Marcus, the deputy for Muswell Hill, has begun researching Land Registry and other records to try to find out who owns the cemeteries, some of which are centuries old.

"The Board has accepted responsibility for cemeteries around the country, virtually all of which are now out of use," Mr Marcus explained. Some have title deeds in the name of Board honorary officers who have died, while others are in the name of the local community, or with the local authority.

"We want to start a new company and place in it all the cemeteries and any others that become its responsibility, so they are outside the Board. For example, a number are mentioned on the Jewish Heritage website, some of which are at risk, that we know nothing about and are not part of the Board's group. The problem is: Who will look after them?"

Read Full Story

Sunday, October 5, 2008

LA Jewish Journal Story on Czech Jewish Heritage

(Inside the Boskovice synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2004)

The Los Angeles Jewish Journal runs a nice travel feature by Jay Firestone on Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic. I have covered all the material in my own writing -- and all the sites mentioned are covered, in more detail, in Jewish Heritage Travel. On this blog I have also posted a lot more information on many more Czech sites.

Still, it's great to see an article that goes beyond Prague and takes in some of the the wonderful little towns in Moravia, such as Boskovice, Trebic, and Telc -- though it's too bad that Mikulov wasn't mentioned, as it is one of the most important site of Jewish heritage in the country.

October 1, 2008

Czech Republic surprises with Jewish treasures

By Jay Firestone

A tight budget, an embarrassing exchange rate and exponentially expensive flights -- it's a tough time to be an American, and an even tougher time to be an American traveler. But it's still possible to enjoy a first-rate European experience while keeping travel costs reasonable.

The Czech Republic's strong cultural balance between bustling urban life and calm rural communities features a wide variety of tourism options, from breweries to castles to Jewish ghettos. Major cities like Prague and Pilsen are ripe with history at nearly every corner, and Jewish tours offer everything from the construction of the second-largest synagogue in Europe to the creation of the mythical Golem.

Click to Read Full Story

Friday, October 3, 2008

Contemporary Art Project Memorializes Shoah Victims in Prague

From Czech Radio comes a story about a new public art and memorial project in Prague's historic Jewish quarter. It is part of a "Stones of the Vanished" or "Stumbling Stones" project that originated in Germany and has seen similar monuments projects in a number of cities, most of them in Germany. According to the web site, after Prague an installation is also slated for another Czech town, Kolin.

Holocaust victims remembered by new ‘Stones of the Vanished’ project

By Rosie Johnston

If you stumble across a little brass plaque on a walk in Prague’s Old Town next week, then the chances are it is going to be a ‘kámen zmizelého’ (‘stone of the vanished’). The project, organized by the Czech Union of Jewish Students, will eventually see stones commemorating victims of the Holocaust embedded in pavements all over the capital. The idea comes from Germany, as does the man making the memorials, Gunter Demnig. But the project coordinator at the Czech end is Petr Mandl.

I met him on Wednesday morning to ask first about the name of the project:

“I would translate it as ‘The Stones of the Vanished’, the original name is ‘Stolpersteine’ in German, which means rather ‘stumbling stones’, but it is very hard to translate, and the meaning of the project is a bit different in the Czech Republic.”

So is this part of a European network of ‘Stolpersteine’ then? How big is the scale of this Czech project?

“So of course, we wanted Prague to be part of this international project – as you know, it has already been done in many other European countries. And now in Prague we are unveiling our first ten stones, and we want the project to enlarge by around 30 stones per year.”

And I hear that you are actually going to have to look quite hard to find these stones - that they are not going to be all that evident at first glance…

“One of the ideas of the project is to personify the historical event that was the Shoah, the Holocaust. We want to reflect the stories of people who were murdered in its course. So of course, the stones can’t be massive and all down the pavements, on every corner.”

So, if you were going to hunting for these stones, where would you find the first ten?

“Well, the first stones will be put in the Old Town, in the Jewish Quarter, where many Jewish people lived. But in the future, the majority of Jewish people in Prague lived in Vinohrady, and so there will be many stones there as well.”
Photo: www.stolpersteine.comWho is funding this project?

“It is funded by private sponsors and donors, and also those people who want to dedicate a stone to their family share the cost.”

The project is being unveiled later this month, so there aren’t yet any stones in place, but what will they look like, for those who maybe won’t get to Prague, and maybe won’t get tot see them?

“The stones are concrete cubes around 10cm each, or four inches if you want to be metric about it, and then there is a sheet of brass on top with writing. The writing reads ‘here lived – the name of a person, the date of birth, the date of transport, where that person was deported and the place and date of that person’s murder’.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Worrying News about Wooden Synagogue in Lithuania

In his Jewish Art & Monuments blog, Sam Gruber has published worrying news about the deteriorating condition of the former wooden synagogue in Pakruojis, Lithuania.

The synagogue -- one of the most impressive of the dozen or so surviving wooden synagogues in Lithuania -- was already in bad shape when I visited there in 2006. Sam has posted a slide show of pictures I took at the time.

The synagogue dates from the very early 19th century and is the oldest surviving wooden synagogue in Lithuania. Old pictures show that it once had an ornate interior, with a richly carved Ark and central bimah. The walls and ceiling bore colorful paintings. including one of a locomotive pulling a train. Painted fruit trees, storks, and flowers decorated the ceiling. One painting depicted the messianic image of the Leviathan swallowing its tail; its curved body surrounded a rendition of a t house with potted shrubs out front and three smoking chimneys. The synagogue is still recognizable by its double-mansard roof, but it was used as a cinema and sports hall in the 1950s. When I saw it, the windows were boarded up, the walls were sagging and outer planking had buckled in some places.

Recently, wooden planking as been removed from one wall and, as Sergey Kravstov of the Center for Jewish Art notes, “there are other severe problems, mainly the danger of fire, since the structure is abandoned, and is being frequently visited by homeless.” (Sergey's virtual reconstruction of the synagogue can be seen on the Center for Jewish Art web site HERE.)

These wooden synagogues are remarkable survivors -- I would say some of the most precious Jewish heritage sites in Europe. They are all that is left to remind us of the phenomenally ornate wooden synagogues, dating back centuries, that were destroyed by the Nazis.

The artist Murray Zimiles has created an unforgettable series of works based on the destruction of these synagogues.

Jewish Genealogy Blog

Here's another resource for family historians -- the Tracing the Tribe Jewish genealogy blog, by Schelly Talalay Dardashti. Schlley writes: "I have tracked my family history through Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Spain, Iran and other countries. My articles about genealogy have been widely published in the Jewish media. In addition to writing, I speak at Jewish and general gen conferences and societies and also teach online Jewish genealogy at Genclass I'm past president of the five-branched JFRA Israel, a Jewish genealogical association, and a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists."

I've added a link to this blog on my Blogs to Watch list.