Jewish souvenirs in Trani, Italy

Jewish souvenirs in Trani, Italy

JEWISH HERITAGE EUROPE



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




Monday, November 17, 2008

Destruction of the Memory of Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe -- Interview with Ivan Ceresnjes

Jewish cemetery, Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina, 2004. Photo (c) R.E. Gruber


The Institute for Global Jewish Affairs has published a lengthy interview with Ivan Ceresnjes on the destruction of the memory of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe, using the situation in former Yugoslavia as a case study. He says:
"The memory of the large pre-war Jewish presence in Eastern Europe is increasingly being destroyed. Part of this process is intentional; part because of neglect of Jewish sites and memorials. To understand the various factors at work, one can best look at the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Its breakup over the past two decades has accelerated processes that are slower elsewhere. This concerns both attempts to change the collective memory of citizens as well as the physical degradation of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials. Monuments are usually built to commemorate a significant person or event in history, or a period of time. Memorials are usually related to death and destruction. But the distinction between the two sometimes is blurred."

Ivan (Ivica), a researcher at Hebrew University's Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, is a former president of the Jewish community in Bosnia-Hercegovina and former vice president of the Jewish federation in the former Yugoslavia.

He has spent many years documenting and writing about Jewish heritage in all parts of the former Yugoslavia and has been extremely generous with his time and knowledge -- he really helped me a lot in my own research and writing.

His interview is timely and unsettling, even disturbing in parts, and it relates to issues faced in many countries in the region -- not least of which in Ukraine, where some of these topics were under discussion at the Jewish history and heritage conference last month in L'viv.


Published November 2008

No. 75, 1 December 2008 / 4 Kislev 5769

The Destruction of the Memory of Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe;

A Case Study: Former Yugoslavia

Interview with Ivan Ceresnjes

  • The memory of the large pre-war Jewish presence in Eastern Europe is increasingly being destroyed. Part of this process is intentional; part is because of neglect of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials.
  • The successor states of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia provide a good case study of many aspects of the process of memory destruction. This federation's breakup over the past two decades has accelerated processes that are slower elsewhere. This concerns both attempts to change the collective memory of citizens, as well as the physical degradation of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials.
  • All successor states are rewriting their histories. The memory of the Holocaust is thus also fragmented according to the national context. In the history of humanity the Holocaust is an unprecedented mega-event. This larger understanding, however, gets lost in societies where no historical research has been undertaken since the Second World War.
  • Collective memory will change further. Yet monuments and memorials stand while societies change. It is important that the physical Jewish infrastructure is not further degraded and that memorial sites in Jewish locations are well kept. The memorials make local people remember what happened to the Jews. For many, the existence of a Jewish memorial does not allow them to forget the crimes of the past.

Destroying Memory

"The memory of the large pre-war Jewish presence in Eastern Europe is increasingly being destroyed. Part of this process is intentional; part because of neglect of Jewish sites and memorials. To understand the various factors at work, one can best look at the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Its breakup over the past two decades has accelerated processes that are slower elsewhere. This concerns both attempts to change the collective memory of citizens as well as the physical degradation of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials. Monuments are usually built to commemorate a significant person or event in history, or a period of time. Memorials are usually related to death and destruction. But the distinction between the two sometimes is blurred."

Ivan Ceresnjes was the head of the Jewish community of Bosnia- Herzegovina and a vice-chairman of the Yugoslav Federation of Jewish Communities until his emigration to Israel in 1996. At the Hebrew University's Center for Jewish Art, established in 1979, he documents Jewish infrastructure such as synagogues, ritual buildings, and cemeteries in Eastern Europe. He also maps Holocaust memorials and monuments.

Ceresnjes furthermore assists the U.S. Congressional Commission for Protecting and Preserving American Property Abroad. Despite its name, this commission was created in 1985 for the survey and research of Jewish cemeteries, monuments, and memorials. Almost its entire emphasis is on Eastern Europe, because it is mainly there that this infrastructure is rapidly disappearing.

Ceresnjes remarks: "When people in Eastern Europe see or hear the words ‘American property' it has a magic effect on them. Often when one tells that one is Jewish and has come to research the documentation of Jewish monuments, tombstones, and memorials, the reception is unfriendly. However, if you say that you are coming on behalf of the American government you are much better received."

The Role of Collective Memory

Ceresnjes reflects on the role of collective memory in society: "The upsurge of nationalism in Eastern Europe has led to an ideology of memory. In its most extreme form, nationalist ideologues consider that the main role of each generation is to transmit the memories of the previous one to the next.

"This ideological position claims that nations mainly exist to remember their past. In its extreme version the state, society, and economy are largely tools for promoting national memory. Economic growth frees people to spend their time on the recovery of memory. These ideologues say that societies should be dominated by memory-related activities.

"One does not even have to go that far. There is, for instance, the more moderate position that the recovery of memory in Eastern Europe was the essence of national liberation. Indeed, one of Stalin's major crimes was his destruction of national memories."

Ceresnjes comments: "However, focusing exclusively on changing collective memory without linking it to moral judgment remains highly problematic. In this context, attitudes in various countries toward Holocaust memorials need to be assessed. The case of Yugoslavia's successor states illustrates this in many ways."

READ FULL STORY HERE

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