On his web site, Tomasz Wisniewski, the Bialystok-based pioneer of documenting Jewish heritage sites in eastern Poland, has posted extensive photo galleries of painted gravestones in Poland. Some are pre-war pictures and some show stones today. On some, the painted decoration is no longer visible, some show current faded traces, and others show reconstructions of how the colors once were.
The Foundation for the Preservation of jewish Heritage in Poland reports that roughly 80 tombstones, with their vivid polychrome decoration fully intact, were discovered in the Polish city of Radom during road construction work.
This is an extremely valuable find -- although tombstones with remnants of painted decoration still stand in some places (notably in Radauti and other towns in northern Romania), few show such well preserved painting. (See photos I have posted of some of there by clicking here.)
The Foundation and local conservators are working to preserve the stones, which have been moved to the Radom Jewish cemetery.
The ninth European Day of Jewish Culture will take place Sept. 7, with the theme "Music."
Italy is consistently probably the most enthusiastic country that takes part -- last year, fully one quarter of the 200,000 people who attended Culture Day events across the continent were in Italy. This year, events are scheduled in some 58 towns and cities in Italy.
The pictures above show events in Ancona in 2005 -- a ceremony in the synagogue and the rededication of the Jewish cemetery after restoration.
VILNIUS - When Tobias Jasetas was a small child, his family emmigrated to England. One summer his mother decided to go back to Lithuania for an extended holiday to visit relatives. She took Jasetas, who was then nine years old, with her. It turned to be one of the saddest decisions made by anyone, anywhere, ever. The year was 1939 and within a few months of arriving war had broken out. The mother and son were stranded in a country under Soviet occupation. The Soviets deported Jasetas’ relatives to Siberia. Then the Nazis came and things got even worse.
Jasetas is now 87 and still lives in Vilnius in a run down apartment with basic utilities. He doesn’t like to reflect on what might have been. He is the ultimate survivor. He lived through the first Soviet occupation, the Ghetto, the murder of his mother and other relatives. He escaped from the Ghetto just before the “Child Achtung” in 1944 when Ghetto children were singled out and slaughtered. He was hidden by a Lithuanian family. He lived through the second Soviet occupation when Jewish culture was crushed. Today Jasetas is struggling to get by on a meager pension and allowance that he gets from the Lithuanian government as a survivor of the Jewish Ghetto.
However, there is one fight left that that this old warrior would like to see resolved before he passes on. It is a struggle that faces all of Lithuania’s 3000 strong Jewish community, all that is left of a once thriving population. They want the Lithuanian government and people to recognize the enormous contribution that Jews have made to the Lithuanian nation.
Sam Gruber reports that there has been progress made toward restoring the synagogue and Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania, the hometown of our paternal grandparents. I last visited there two years ago, when I took these pictures:
I found the cemetery in pretty good shape, compared to others in Romania and elsewhere. The tombstones have extremely interesting carving, the frequent motif of the hand of God breaking the tree of life is particularly vivid. Also, a number of the stones still bear traces of brightly colored paint.
During my visit, I discussed plans to restore the synagogue with Tanya Grinberg, then the secretary (actually the leader) of the tiny resident Jewish community. Tanya died suddenly last fall, and I don't know what impact her death has had on local developments.
Romania: Radauti (Radautz) Jewish Heritage Documented and Posted On-Line
Descendants of the Jews of Radautz in Bukovina, (now Radauti, Romania) have banded together to work with the local Jewish Community and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania to document the town's Jewish heritage –including all of the gravestones in the cemetery - and to make this information available on-line.
Last year there were tensions between the "outsiders" and the local Jewish community which produced a flurry of accusations that spilled into the local media. Now, however, misunderstandings seem to be resolved, and both groups are united in their commitment to maintain the historic cemetery and to develop a restoration program for the synagogue, which is, overall, still in good condition.
An online slideshow of the synagogue, built in 1879, showing the need for repairs can be seen at: http://www.radautz-jewisheritage.org/Radautz%20Temple%202005/default.htm
The synagogue, which is listed as a protected historic site, has recently been included in the "Action Plan for the Protection of the Jewish Heritage" adopted by the Romanian Government. A good portion of the costs for restoration, for which planning began in 2007, will be covered from this source. Additional funding for the project will certainly be needed.
Plans for a new Jewish Museum in Cologne are experiencing problems.....
Cologne Debates Building Jewish Museum in City Center
Deutsche Welle, July 17, 2008
Plans to build a Jewish museum in Cologne are being put to the test. While originally supporting the idea, the city's mayor is now not so certain any more that the winning design is the best one to build. The city is home to the oldest Jewish community north of the Alps and still has significant remains of the old Jewish quarter, including the ruins of a mikwe, or ritual bath, just in front of Cologne's city hall.
That's why this particular spot was also chosen as the location of a future museum. A design by Saarbruecken-based architectural firm Wandel Hoefer Lorch was overwhelmingly chosen by an expert jury.
It all happened so quickly that members of the private foundation planning to pay for the construction said that it hadn't collected any of the 20 million euros ($31.7 million) needed.
They might not have to hurry.
While Cologne's conservative Mayor Fritz Schramma had originally voiced enthusiastic support for the plan, he's since backed away from it.
Here's a nice piece in the NY Times about Jewish Vilnius. A predictable "roots search" piece, but nicely done.
Frugal Traveler blog, July 16 08
In much of Europe, the Old Town is the only town that matters. Centuries-old stone houses, crammed into shoulder-width alleyways that swerve at random and wind uphill toward ancient churches dedicated to forgotten saints — this is, to many of us, what Europe is all about. But Old Towns often give me pause: Will the quaintness mask a lack of vitality? Is it a museum for tourists, or a place where locals live, work and play? And if the Old Town is boring, will the New Town — the less-densely populated, less charming sprawl outside the medieval city walls — be any better?
In Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, I needn’t have worried. Its Old Town is easily my favorite in Europe (sorry, Dubrovnik), a vast, fun web of alleys lined with elegant, straight-backed buildings that reminded me of Scandinavia. (Danes, I’m told, see them as very Russian.) Modern-day pilgrims — women sporting severely fashionable bangs, men who’ve mastered geek chic — flock to the 18th-century neo-Classical Vilnius Cathedral in the heart of the Old Town, not to pray but to hang out in the broad piazza. From there, they proceed up glossy Gedimino Prospect or cobblestoned Pilies Street, perhaps ducking under a low, concealed archway to grab a beer or three at one of the innumerable courtyard cafes.
It was in one such cafe that Regina Kopilevich sat across from me last Thursday and asked the question I had been waiting a lifetime to hear. Placing her hand atop the pile of papers in front of her and opening her clear blue eyes extra wide, she leaned forward and said, in slightly accented English, “Would you like to know your name?”
Since learning to paint at 73, Mayer Kirshenblatt's mission for nearly two decades has been to record the vibrant lost world of his childhood in Poland.
Ruth Ellen Gruber
KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) -- When Mayer Kirshenblatt was born, the town of Opatow in south-central Poland was known to most of its inhabitants as "Apt." That's because most of the population was Jewish, and Apt was Opatow's name in Yiddish.
The Holocaust left Yiddish Apt a distant memory, glimpsed dimly in sepia-tinted photographs or locked up in the hearts of the few people still alive who had known it before the destruction.
Kirshenblatt was one of them until 1990 when, at the age of 73, he taught himself to paint and began to record in colorful detail the vibrant lost world of his childhood hometown.
"I only paint one thing -- that's Apt," he said. "I paint not from my imagination but what actually happened."
Sprightly and bespectacled, with twinkling eyes and a bristly moustache, Kirshenblatt turned to painting at the urging of his family.
Since 1967, his daughter, the scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, has conducted interviews with him on prewar Jewish life in Apt.
The recollections were published last year along with nearly 200 of Kirshenblatt's paintings as a book, "They Called Me Mayer July." The title stems from Kirshenblatt's childhood nickname, "Mayer Tamez," or "Mayer July" -- slang at the time for "Crazy Mayer."
The book has won several awards and brought international attention to the work of Kirshenblatt, who left Poland for Canada in 1934.
In recent months Kirshenblatt's paintings have been exhibited in San Francisco, and in the coming two years they are slated to be shown in Atlanta, New York, Amsterdam and Warsaw. This summer, for the second year in a row, Kirshenblatt's work was featured at the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.
And on June 28, Kirshenblatt and his daughter brought his memories of Apt back to present-day Opatow with an exhibition of 50 full-scale digital prints of his paintings, on display at the Opatow District Office building.
"It was absolutely fabulous," Kirshenblatt later said. "We had over 200 people and they made a tremendous display. The event was well advertised all over the city with posters -- even the priest mentioned it."
He added, "I've had exhibitions elsewhere, but here the people, the atmosphere, was absolutely the best I ever had."
It was, Kirshenblatt said, a far cry from the first time that he returned to his hometown. That was in 1988, when Poland was still in the grip of communist rule. "I was crying," he recalled. "I came to the town and there was not a sign of Jewishness."
Since then, Kirshenblatt and his daughter have returned on other occasions and established good relations with Opatow's residents.
"I enjoy going back there, and Opatow is beautiful," he said. "But it's not Apt."
Displaying the energy of someone far younger than 91, Kirshenblatt and his daughter have toured extensively, accompanying slide shows of his paintings with lively discussions of the incidents and people portrayed.
"At my age," he said, "to have another career like this is most terrific."
Detailed, wry and often witty, Kirshenblatt's paintings are peopled by sometimes crudely drawn characters, each of which seems to come to life as an individual. They crowd around dinner tables or cluster in the synagogue. They peer into windows, carry water in wooden buckets, play music, walk to school, mourn the dead, even commit a crime.
To a certain extent, the paintings recall the work of the American Grandma Moses, another self-taught artist who took up the brush in her 70s and created remembered scenes of rural life in 19th-century America.
History, though, has given Kirshenblatt's work a special edge.
The titles of his paintings alone reflect complex, even convoluted tales that defy common stereotypes. Some examples: "The Kleptomaniac Slipping a Fish Down Her Bosom," "Boy with a Herring," "The Hunchback's Wedding," and "Jadzka the Prostitute Shows off her Wares at the end of Market Day at Harshl Kishke's Well."
"What I'm trying to say is, 'Hey! There was a big world out there before the Holocaust,' " Kirshenblatt told his daughter in one recent conversation. "There was a rich cultural life in Poland as I knew it at the time. That's why I feel I'm doing something very important by showing what that life was like."
"It's in my head," he said. "I will be gone, but the book will be here."
Opatow's official Web site offers scant mention of the town's Jewish past. Most of those who live there now settled in the town from elsewhere after World War II. Knowledge about the town's prewar past is sketchy.
Things are changing, though, says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
At the exhibition in Opatow, she said, she met a young local man who wants to specialize in Jewish studies in college. And as part of a nationwide project of "adopting" historic places, a group of local people is attempting to document the destroyed Jewish cemetery and recover uprooted tombstones.
The high profile accorded her father and his work, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, are part of this process.
"They have really embraced him," she said. "They consider him really one of the people who holds the memory of the town."
Significant, too, she said, was the title given by town authorities to her father's exhibition.
"They called it 'Old Opatow,' not 'Old Jewish Opatow,' " she said. "And when we dedicated the book, we dedicated it to the people of Apt. So it's everybody, Jews and non-Jews alike, but we dedicated it to the town with its Jewish name."
As the author of National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, I have roamed thousands of miles around Europe's historic Jewish heartland, bringing Jewish heritage to light for on-site explorers and armchair travelers alike. On this blog I will post photographs, links and personal experiences related to Jewish heritage sites and travel, particularly in the countries of east-central Europe.
Aside from clearly marked quotations, links and pictures, all material on this blog is copyright ⓒ Ruth Ellen Gruber
I'm an American writer, photographer, and public speaker long based in Europe. I've chronicled Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European Jewish issues for more than 20 years. My latest books are "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," published in 2007, and "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," published in 2008.
I also am working on "Sturm, Twang and Sauerkraut Cowboys: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe," an exploration of the American West in the European imagination for which I won a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEH summer stipend grant.