Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ukraine -- On Its Crumbling Jewish Heritage

The ruined synagogue in Brody, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The distinguished Brown University historian Omer Bartov will be giving a talk based on his book Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia on November 23 near Boston, as the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston's 2nd Annual Genealogy Lecture co-sponsored by Hebrew College. (For details see here.)

Bartov gave a similar talk at the major conference on Jewish history and heritage in East-Central Europe that was held in L'viv, Ukraine at the end of October, and for which I gave the key note speech.

For his talk in L'viv, he basically just showed a series of pictures of ruined synagogues that he had taken on his travels in western Ukraine, stressing the important message that unless they are restored, they will crumble -- and with them will vanish the memory of the Jews who once formed such an important parts of the towns in which these ruins now are found. (I have posted pictures of a number of these sites, either on this blog, or in the photos section of my web site: www.ruthellengruber.com, and have written about many of them in Jewish Heritage Travel.)

Omer's photos are compelling, but I hope that he includes in his upcoming talk some of the issues that were discussed at length during the L'viv conference.

These include many of the issues that I have been dealing with in the blog -- and which Sam Gruber has dealt with extensively, in his blog, on the International Survey of Jewish Monuments site, and in nearly 20 years of trying to raise awareness of the plight (and importance) of Jewish heritage sites (in Ukraine and elsewhere) and also -- importantly -- to raise money to help restore them and to instill the idea that they are important for local communities as well as for Jews.

Omer's book, Erased, which came out last year, touched me in particular ways.

As I emailed him at the time, some of his discussion about attitudes to Jewish heritage and memory reminded me of what we had heard and found elsewhere in east-central Europe back in 1990 -- as I was beginning research on the first edition of Jewish Heritage Travel.

A conference organized by Sam in 1990 on the future of Jewish heritage sites was really the first such conference of its type. Back then, the prevailing attitude, among Jews as well as non-Jews, toward preserving Jewish heritage was "why?" By now, in many places, much has changed, and in many minds, "why?" is being or has been largely replaced by "how?" Many of these issues were further elaborated in conferences on the future of Jewish heritage held in Paris in 1999 and in Prague in 2004.

I summarized some of them in my key note speech in L'viv:

Twenty, and even 15 years ago -- even much more recently in some countries, even simple information on Jewish heritage sites was hard to come by, little systematic documentation existed, and few publications addressed the subject.

Jewish heritage sites, like Jewish history and culture and even the Holocaust itself, were often considered "Jewish things" -- things apart that were not deemed important for mainstream society, and not embedded in the main sweep of national or local history. They could be ignored, destroyed, forgotten, concealed, left to crumble, and it didn't matter -- because, except for a few examples, in the absence of Jews they were deemed to have no value for society at large.
Jews themselves also often felt ambiguous about Jewish heritage sites and their fate, particularly after the Holocaust made Europe a closed chapter in many Jewish minds.

Since then, times have changed, and changed radically in some places, and they continue to do so -- as this conference itself attests.
By the end of the 1990s, Jewish heritage issues were, to one extent or another, on the agendas of national monuments authorities and local organizations, including tourist bureaus, in many European countries; extensive inventories of Jewish heritage sites had taken place or were under way in some countries; and questions about the place and role of Jewish heritage and heritage sites in a changing Europe had emerged as part of a broader debate on European culture, "multi-culture" and identity. For Jews, too, the question evolved -- from simply "why" care for Jewish heritage sites in these countries -- to "how" to do so, "what use" to make of them, and "by whom" and "for whom" should it be done.. . .

These last questions -- what use to make of sites, who should carry out the restoration and for whom should it be done -- are key to their preservation. (We had extensive talks in L'viv on how to "reimagine" Jewish L'viv, for example.)

In considering the future of Jewish quarters, and Jewish heritage sites in general, several more specific questions have emerged -- and I know that some of them will be addressed here in the coming days in much more detail.
Does the absorption of Jewish heritage into mainstream culture accurately portray the past? To what degree is commercial exploitation of Jewish history and heritage legitimate? Does the history of the Holocaust impose particular obligations on non-Jews to consider, learn and even care for Jewish culture?
Also: What role can cultural heritage sites and activities play in shaping modern Jewish communities? And -- what role do they play in shaping modern perceptions of what it is to be Jewish?

In my travels in Ukraine in 2006, researching the new edition of JHT, I really felt as if I had stepped back into those days nearly 20 years ago, in other countries.....who knows if and what may change in coming years; in 2006 I detected a few sprigs of movement, such as the efforts to locate and preserve Jewish cemeteries coordinated by Meylakh Shyekhat -- and the work of a young local historian in Luboml, who is obsessed with local (ie Jewish) history and worked on the big Luboml exhibition and book project in the 1990s. But these still need to be nurtured (and funded) -- and good will and local interest are essential ingredients.

Former synagogue in Sharhorod, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Plaque on synagogue in Sharhorod, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Placing plaques and signage -- as Sam Gruber noted in his recent blog post -- are important steps. For me, for example, the ruined synagogue in Stryj, with its recently installed gate with stars of David and its plaque, makes a powerful statement -- though the plaque could and should contain more information. (In contrast, see the former synagogue in Dolina, which was transformed out of recognition into a church and bears no indication of its former function.)

The recent conference in L'viv and the conversations that some of us held afterward with local officials also give rise to some hope. As does the operation of the new Center for Urban History that organized and hosted the conference. But who knows....

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