Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bob Cohen on East European Diaspora Haunts in New York

I have a link to Bob Cohen's Dumneazu blog on the sidebar of this blog, but his current post, "From Katz's Deli to Williamsburg, Let My People Go!" on visiting (and eating in) New York haunts of East European Jewish immigrants is well worth reading... the photos and his descriptions go back and forth between the Old Country and the New World, pointing out wonderful visual and gustitorial links and influences.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Italy -- Historic Synagogue in Sabbioneta Closed


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The entry stairway to the early 19th century  synagogue in the historic northern Italian town of Sabbioneta has been declared unsafe and the building, now used as a museum, closed to visitors.

Sabbioneta, on the Po River near Mantova, was laid out as a walled "ideal city" in the second half of the 16th century by Prince Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna. It is on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites, paired with Mantova as two aspects of Renaissance town planning.
Mantua shows the renewal and extension of an existing city, while 30 km away, Sabbioneta represents the implementation of the period’s theories about planning the ideal city. Typically, Mantua’s layout is irregular with regular parts showing different stages of its growth since the Roman period and includes many medieval edifices among them an 11th century rotunda and a Baroque theatre. Sabbioneta, created in the second half of the 16th century under the rule of one person, Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna, can be described as a single-period city and has a right angle grid layout. Both cities offer exceptional testimonies to the urban, architectural and artistic realizations of the Renaissance, linked through the visions and actions of the ruling Gonzaga family.

Sabbioneta represents the construction of an entirely new town according to the modern, functional vision of the Renaissance. The defensive walls, grid pattern of streets, role of public spaces and monuments all make Sabbioneta one of the best examples of ideal cities built in Europe, with an influence over urbanism and architecture in and outside the continent. The properties represent two significant stages of territorial planning and urban interventions undertaken by the Gonzagas in their domains.
Jews lived in Sabbioneta from the town's early days -- even before it was laid out in its present form. There was a ghetto here, and the town developed into an important center of Hebrew printing.   The Sabbioneta synagogue dates from 1824 -- its present form is an enlargement and rebuilding of an earlier structure by a noted Lombard architect named Carlo Visioli.

The synagogue lay in sorry disrepair for decades until it was restored by local authorities, turned into a museum and inserted into local tourism itineraries. It has a gilded ark behind a low, elaborate grille and  flanked by Corinthian columns. The ceiling is decorated by ornate stucco work.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Austria -- Government to Help Fund Jewish Cemetery Restoration

 Historic Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt, Austria. Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Austrian government is mandating 20 million euro over the next 20 years toward the care and restoration of abandoned and neglected Jewish cemeteries in Austria. An agreement reached Monday night broke what Austrian Jewish leader Ariel Muzicant said had been a stalemate lasting nine years, following an agreement made in 2001 under which Austria had committed to care for Jewish cemeteries as part of a compensation deal for Nazi crimes.

Vienna's Jewish community called the government's 20 million euros (29 million dollars) a "late Hanukkah gift." "Nearly nine years after the signing of the Washington Agreement, the last issue that was still open in terms of international law is settled," the community said in a statement. Under the new funding agreement reached late on Monday, Jewish communities are to raise an additional 20 million euros, while the city of Vienna and the province of Lower Austria also pledged contributions.
          Read full DPA story

          Read Associated Press story

There are about 70 Jewish cemeteries in Austria, about 20 of which are said to be in particularly bad condition. The Austrian Jewish Community web site has an extensive page listing all the cemeteries and giving their history, size, location, condition and notes on any current or recent restoration efforts.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Me -- Interviewed about the Virtually Jewish on a Canadian Radio

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

When I was in Budapest this month, I was interviewed by phone about the Virtually Jewish phenomenon by Radio613, an independent Canadian Jewish radio program. Click RIGHT HERE to listen -- but be forewarned, it runs about an hour!
The interview highlights Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European issues that are critically examined in her book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture and her recent essay featured in the Jewish Quarterly Review, “Beyond Virtually Jewish: New Authenticitiy and Real Imaginary Spaces in Europe”.  Ruth Ellen Gruber shares insights on the state of Klezmer in Europe with music this week from Itzhak Perlman and the Klezmatics (“Dybbuk Shers”), Brave Old World (“Berlin 1990″) and Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird (“Broken Tongue”). Tune in!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

RUTHLESS COSMOPOLITAN -- Riffing on architecture bans (and destruction), from Vilnius

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column is a riff about how the recent vote to ban new mosque minarets in Switzerland struck a chord -- making me recall historic bans and regulations on synagogue architecture -- and the ultimate destruction of them.

I wrote it after I got back from the seminar in Vilnius, which came a week after the Swiss vote and focused on the lasting impact of the destruction of Lithuanian Jews -- and their built heritage.
I realize that the Swiss voters who overwhelmingly approved the minaret ban were responding to scare tactics that raised the specter of an extremist Islamic takeover in their country.
Yet in a certain way, the Swiss vote Nov. 29 and the Lithuanian seminar were connected.

To me, the ban on minarets recalled centuries of restrictions on the size or prominence of synagogues. The Swiss ban is just the latest example of how governmental authorities target religious architecture as a means of limiting religious or cultural expression.
 In the story I quote Sam.

"Beginning in the fourth century and continuing through the Middle Ages, and again in the 20th century, the 'legal' restriction and destruction of synagogues quickly led to the same policies applied against individuals, and then whole communities. 

"Restricting specific types of religious or cultural expression -- especially when such restrictions are deliberate exceptions to existing building, zoning, health and safety codes -- is discriminatory."
It is, he said, "an act of denigration of cultural custom and, by extension, of the people who cherish, or the religion that requires, those very customs."

 I also noted the focus of the Vilnius seminar -- and now the destruction of nearly all traces of Jewish historic presence in Vilnius left a gaping hole that has yet to be filled.
Before World War II, about 100,000 Jews lived here. The Great Synagogue, standing in the heart of what is today's postcard-perfect Old Town, was the most magnificent of more than 100 synagogues and prayer houses in the city. The Vilnius Old Town today is on UNESCO's roster of World Heritage Sites, but almost no physical traces of its Jewish past remain. There are a few street names, wall inscriptions and plaques, but that's it.

Read full story

Monday, December 14, 2009

Moldova -- Anti-Semitism on Show

 Exclusiv: momentele profanării (Video)
 Photo from

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This deviates somewhat from what I usually post here, but the video is so graphic that I decided to put it up. If you've never seen anti-Semitism in action, here's your chance. TV footage on of a group of 100-200 Orthodox Christian fundamentalists in Chisinau (Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, led by a priest, removing a Hanukkah Menorah placed by the Jewish community, replacing it with a cross, and then taking the Menorah and positioning it -- symbolically -- upside down. The priest and crowd spout paranoid anti-Semitic slurs.

Reactions have come from the Moldovan blog and the MCA -- The Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in Romania.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lithuania -- Report from Vilnius

Plaque recalling the Gaon of Vilna. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The formal topic of the seminar in Vilnius this week was "Vilnius -- World Heritage Site: Values of Jewish Heritage and its Commemoration."

Vilnius's postcard-perfect historic center is a UNESCO site of world heritage, but almost nothing physical remains to be seen of the rich and important Jewish presence that once stood here. The early 17th-century Great Synagogue and its surrounding buildings were severely damaged in WW2 and the ruins were razed by the Soviet authorities in the 1950s. Almost no traces remain except for some plaques, a few monuments and a couple of faded Yiddish wall signs.

Yiddish signage in Vilnius. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The issue of what to do with Jewish heritage and memory in Vilnius has been contentious. It is haunted not just by the memory of the 100,000 Jews who before WW2 made up a third of the city's population, but by other factors, including the collaboration of local Lithuanians in the killing of Jews and the local nationalist narrative that associates anti-Nazi activity with support of the Soviet regime.

It has also been haunted by a huge and highly controversial $32 million project to rebuild (rather than restore) the old Jewish quarter in Vilnius, including the  Great Synagogue, which was approved (at least in principle) some years ago but never really got off the ground. See articles about this HERE and HERE and HERE. This project was promoted by MP and activist Emanuelis Zingeris, but was opposed by others in the Jewish community (and elsewhere).

I was one of three outside experts who took part in the seminar -- the others were Philip Carmel, who heads the Lo Tishkach organization that is creating a data base of Jewish cemeteries, and Vladimir Levin of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. (Magdalena Waligorska, from Poland/Florence was supposed to have come but she got the flu.)

I was impressed by the number of people who showed up for the formal session, on Dec. 7 -- and stayed throughout a long day of presentations from more than a dozen speakers, as well as the number of people who tuned up the following day for a more informal discussion of the issues. This indicates the intererest, at least in certain official spheres. One of the successes of the seminar, someone joked, was that representatives of all or almost all of the stakeholders in the Jewish heritage issue sat together in the same room and even discussed the situation.

The consensus that emerged was that it is totally unrealistic to even think of rebuilding the Great Synagogue. Even Zingeris (who denied to me that he had ever suggested it) now opposes it -- he would, however, like to see the foundations of the synagogue excavated and used as education/exhibition space, as in Frankfurt with the Judengasse and in Vienna with the Judenplatz excavation of the medieval synagogue there.

People at the meeting talked about restoring "fragments" -- uncovering more Yiddish signs, for example. Also making an archeological investigation to discover exactly where the limits of the Great Synagogue are, and then deciding what to do (this apparently has not been carried out).

During the meeting we learned of several initiatives involving Vilnius and Lithuania in general, where the state of Jewish heritage sites is perilous, to say the least.

Besides the collapse, in a hurricane apparently, of the Red Synagogue in Joniskis two years ago, and the fire that damaged the wooden synagogue in Pakruojis earlier this year, the precious wooden synagogue in Seda has also collapsed. And masonry synagogues (and maybe also the wooden synagogue) in Plunge were recently bulldozed. The wooden synagogue in Ziezmariai, which is one of the few to bear in identification plaque, is said to be under threat and there are thoughts that it should be moved to an outdoor architecture park.

(As I noted earlier, we heard from both a representative of Pakruoijis and a culture ministry official that there was a commitment to rebuild the Pakruojis synagogue, and also that funds have been found to begin restoring the structure in Joniskis.)

During the conference, we heard from the researchers who in 2006-2008 directed the compilation of  a catalogue of all the more than 90 extant synagogues in Lithuania. This massive work is nearing completion, and publication of its first volume should take place within weeks. During the seminar, a photographic exhibition of a small fraction of the material compiled was opened, showing the variety of type -- and condition -- of these buildings.

The project was initiated in 2006 by the Vilnius-based Centre for the Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews, in collaboration with the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts. The Center for Jewish Art joined the project in 2007, and the  Gediminas Technical University in Vilnius also takes part.  

You can see a photo gallery of many synagogues at the web site of the  Center for the Studies of the Cultur and History of East European Jews.

The catalogue began as research on masonry synagogues but soon expanded  to record all synagogues of Lithuania. Students fanned out throug the country to measure buildings,  make diagrams, pinpoint their locaton and gather archival, cartographic, iconographic and other information about particular synagogues.

There have been many lost opportunities regarding Jewish heritage in Lithuania. One of them stems from the rather abortive -- if loudly proclaimed -- attempt to establish a "European Route of Jewish Culture." There was little coordination of this from its headquarters in Luxemburg, but also, on the ground, it was difficult to gain local support, and it remains difficult to convince some local authorities that the Jewish heritage of their towns and villages is part of their own heritage. 

On this note, there appear to be few initiatives such as those in Poland, whereby local Catholics have taken a lead in delving into local (Jewish) history, cleaning cemeteries, and the like -- efforts which each year are honored by the Israeli Embassy. I suggested to culture minister representatives and also to the representative of the Israeli embassy that some sort of similar honor could be organized in Lithuania as encouragement for local involvement. 

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ukraine -- New Resource for Jewish Heritage

 Synagogue, Bolekhiv, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I want to highlight a rich and exciting new web resource for Jewish heritage in Ukraine that I learned about at the seminar in Vilnius this week on preserving and promoting Jewish heritage in Lithuania.

This is the Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina site, which compiles extensive databases, photo galleries, articles and other material gleaned on expeditions carried out by the Center For Jewish Art at Hebrew University. (One of the scholars involved with the site, Dr. Vladimir Levin, also took part in the Vilnius seminar.)
The project Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina is designed to preserve the once vivid world of Galician and Bukovinian Jewry. Our goal is to save historical documents and vestiges of Jewish material culture in Galicia and Bukovina before these historical records and objects disappear. We intend to make them available to the wider public as well as to the growing community of researchers worldwide through this website.

The project begins with the region of southern Galicia, which was known as the Stanislawów Voivodship (województwo stanisławowskie) in interwar Poland and is known as the Ivano-Frankivsk Region (Ivano-Frankivs'ka oblast') in today's Ukraine. In this region, primary attention is paid to four communities around Ivano-Frankivsk (Stanislawów): Bohorodczany (Brotchin, Bohorodchany), Lysiec (Lysets', Łysiec), Nadworna (Nadvirna, Nadwórna) and Solotwin (Solotvyn, Sołotwina).

The core of the project Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina is an electronic database of primary materials pertaining to Galician and Bukovinian Jewry. Ultimately, the database will include: archival documents, newspapers articles, oral history testimonies, and documentation of Jewish cemeteries and communal buildings. The database also includes information regarding Jewish communities, Jewish communal organizations and the lives of individual Jews in the region. The project's website also includes part of the archival catalogue of the Central Archives for the History of Jewish People in Jerusalem (CAHJP).

The project Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina was initiated by a generous donation from a private foundation that wishes to remain anonymous. The project is conducted under the auspices of the Leonid Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in cooperation with The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem. Other organizations, such as the Sefer Center in Moscow and the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem also take part in the project.
.The site includes search options, interactive databases and other aides. It looks great!

Romania --Piatra Neamt Wooden Synagogue to be Rededicated

Interior of Piatra Neamt wooden synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Interior of Piatra Neamt wooden synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ark in Piatra Neamt wooden synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The "Baal Shem Tov" or Cathedral wooden synagogue in Piatra Neamt, Romania, will be rededicated Dec. 14 after restoration.

Legend has it that the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, prayed here -- that is, on an earlier, masonry synagogue that  stood on the spot, as the wooden synagogue was built, according to documentation, in 1766, and the Ba'al Shem Tov died in 1760.

I've visited on several occasions, the last time in 2006.  This is what I wrote in Jewish Heritage Travel:
The present building is halfway underground, probably built like this to conform to regulations that forbade synagogues from being higher than surrounding Christian buildings. The sanctuary is entered down stairs leading from a little outer prayer room, where regular services are held. Chandeliers hang from the ribbed wooden dome arching over the dull, browny-green walls decorated by pale stenciled flowers. Carved and gilded lions, griffins, bunches of grapes and other decorations ornament the compact but elaborate Aron ha Kodesh, built in 1835 by one Saraga Yitzhak ben Moshe.
Sam Gruber has posted further information and comment on his blog.

The wooden synagogue stands next door to the masonry Great (or Leipziger) synagogue, which was originally built in 1839. It is very similar to other folk-style Moldavian synagogues, with  a small, raised bimah with a trellised frame situated in the middle of the sanctuary in front of a highly elaborate Aron ha Kodesh with tromp l'oeil draperies. The walls are decorated with bright frescoes representing Holy Land themes, and frescoes of biblical animals -- the stag, the lion, the tiger and the eagle -- are painted on the ceiling.

Ark in Great synagogue in Piatra Neamt, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Budapest -- Hanukkah Festival Article

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Poster for the festival in the door of the Hummus Bar in Kertesz street. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My latest article for the International Herald Tribune/New York Times online is a preview of the Hanukkah Festival in Budapest's old Jewish quarter organized by Marom (with the support of the JDC). I already gave a heads up to the festival on this blog.

Called “Quarter6Quarter7,” the festival, which starts Friday and is the first of its kind, features some 130 events in more than 30 different venues in and around the city’s Seventh District, central Budapest’s first and most important Jewish neighborhood.

“It's a Hanukkah festival, but it’s not just a Jewish event; it’s a festival of the Quarter, of everyone who lives here and visits here,” said Adam Schonberger, one of the organizers. “Living culture is the key, and the district itself becomes a house of culture, where it all is going on.”
Read Full Story

A full program can be seen HERE.  I am taking part in a "conversation" the first night about "why it's good to have a cafe in the Jewish Quarter." Or why not?

Lithuania -- Jewish tour guides

In Vilnius this week, I re-connected with my old friend Ilya Lempertas, who is a historian and independent Jewish tour guide, and our seminar group was guided around Jewish Vilnius by another guide, Yulik Gurvich, who with his son runs the JeruLita travel agency.

That means that I have now been guided in Lithuania by four different guides -- two based in Vilnius and two in Kaunas. I had good experiences with all of them, so here are their contacts:

Ilya Lempertas, Vilnius --  E-mail:

Yulik Gurevich, Vilnius --  JeruLita Tours

Simonas Dovidavicius, Kaunas. (Simon is executive director of the Sugihara House.) E-mail:  

Chaim Bargman, Kaunas. P. Luksio str. 37 – 22, 3043 Kaunas, Lithuania. Tel: (+370 7) 77 99 48 Mob: (+370) 6 8177166.

You can find more at the Pushelat web site, though some of the information may be out of date.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lithuania -- conference and news highlights

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've been at an intense, interesting and, I hope, productive seminar in Vilnius about Jewish heritage preservation and promotion. The meeting was supposed to focus on the plan that was floated some time ago to rebuild the destroyed Great Synagogue in Vilnius, but it soon expanded to take in all sorts of issues, from the status of former synagogues, including wooden synagogues, in the provinces, to amplifying signage and awareness in the old Jewish quarter of Vilnius.

The situation presents a number of depressing factors, including vandalism, apathy, lack of coordination and cooperation between stakeholders, and the usual "one Jew building three synagogues on a desert island" syndrome.

But the fact that the seminar took place was positive and I did learn some positive developments.

These included the news that:

-- a grant from Norway through the EU has been obtained to start rebuilding the "red synagogue" in Joniskis whose eastern wall collapsed in a hurricane two years ago.

-- both the Culture Ministry and the municipality of Pakruojis are committed to restoring the wooden synagogue there, which was seriously damaged by arson earlier this year.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Poland -- Restoration of the Wroclaw Synagogue Almost Complete

 White Stork Synagogue, restored facade (Photo: Bente Kahan Foundation)

 White Stork Synagogue before restoration. (Photo: Bente Kahan Foundation)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Wroclaw, Poland-based Norwegian singer Bente Kahan reports that the restoration of the historic White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw is nearly complete, and that the synagogue will be rededicated next May 6.

As I reported on this blog from Wroclaw last year, Kahan set up a foundation in 2006 (The Bente Kahan Foundation) whose main aim is the restoration of the synagogue and creation of a modern Jewish Culture Center and Jewish Museum there. The Center has already been operating in the partially-restored synagogue, organizing, the web site states: "exhibits, film screenings, workshops, lectures, concerts and theatre performances. Included in their programs are also their own productions 'Wallstrasse 13' and 'Voices from Theresienstadt' featuring local actors and musicians, as well as 'Sing with us in Yiddish', a concert with children from Wroclaw."
The Bente Kahan Foundation, supported by the Municipality of Wroclaw and the Association of the Jewish Religious Communities in Poland has a clear vision of future functions of the synagogue. The Center for Jewish Culture and Education will strengthen the role of the temple as one of the most attractive spiritual centres in the country by opening its doors for concerts, shows, theatre, workshops, films, lectures seminaries and so on. This living Jewish heart in the centre of Europe will beat even stronger!
The creation of the modern Jewish Museum in Wroclaw (2012) will definitely help to reach that goal. The Museum will be located in the basement and on the balconies of the synagogue floors. The Staircases and the separate entry will enable free communication with the building without disturbing the sacral and cultural space of the temple. By using of modern 3D and holographic techniques, the museum will show the rich and unique world of the Silesian Jews and their thousand-years-old history. It will also be a place for exhibitions, lectures and workshops. The museum will become no just another tourist attraction but also an important link in the educational proces, especially in the context of young people.
Kahan has set up web site dedicated to the synagogue and its restoration (only in Polish).

Interior before renovation. (Photo: Bente Kahan Foundation)

Interior after renovation (Photo: Bente Kahan Foundation)

Before World War II, Wroclaw, known in German as Breslau, was part of Germany and Germany's third-largest Jewish community. Originally inaugurated in 1829,  the White Stork synagogue is an elegant neo-classical structure designed by Karl Ferdinand Langhans. (For a complete history of the building, click HERE.) It is the only synagogue in the city to have survived the War and languished in disrepair for many years. It was returned to Jewish community ownership in the mid-1990s, after which sporadic restoration work was carried out. (A symbolic event in this process was the wedding there in 2000 of the American filmmakers Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, who run the documentary company JEM/GLO.)

There is still a small Jewish community in Wroclaw, which uses a refurbished prayer room in the synagogue complex. A big Jewish Culture Festival called Simcha takes place in Wroclaw each summer.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wroclaw also has two fascinating Jewish cemeteries.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, founded in 1856, is now maintained as a municipal Museum of Cemetery Art.  Located on Slezna street, it has about 12,000 graves, including 300 elaborate monuments ranged around the walls. The earliest known Jewish gravestone in Poland, that of a David ben Shalom, who died in 1203, is conserved here. Notable people are buried here include the German Social Democratic leader Ferdinand LaSalle (1825-1864) and the parents of Edith Stein, a Jewish intellectual and convert to Catholicism who became a nun, was killed at Auschwitz and was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

Detail of a Tombstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery: a snake circling an hour glass. Photo (c) ruth Ellen Gruber

Monday, November 30, 2009

Poland -- New Pictures of Lancut Synagogue

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) has posted a gallery of gorgeous new pictures of the synagogue in Lancut, Poland, part of the Hassidic route that it sponsors.

Click HERE for the gallery.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Vatican -- Concern over transformation of disused churches

 Presov, Slovakia --- exterior and interior of a synagogue transformed into a department store. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2006

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

What to do with abandoned or disused synagogues (in Europe but also elsewhere), and what constitutes appropriate use for them, are perennial issues affecting preservation agencies, congregants, and other interested parties. After the Holocaust, synagogues in many parts of Europe were sold or seized and transformed for secular use -- warehouses,  shops, apartments, workshops, fire stations, a bakery, libraries, museums, culture centers, restaurants, etc etc.

The Final Statement of the seminar last March on maintaining Jewish heritage sites suggested as best practice:
Synagogues and former synagogues should retain a Jewish identity and or use whenever possible, though each one does not necessarily need to be restored or fully renovated.

Former synagogues, no matter what their present ownership or use, should be sensitively marked to identify their past history.

As part of the effort to restitute communal and religious property, when a property of historic value - such as a synagogue - in disrepair or otherwise in a ruined condition (while in the government's possession) is returned, States should help either by modifying laws which impose penalties for not maintaining properties in reasonable condition, or by providing financial and material assistance to undertake necessary repairs and restoration.

Now, the Vatican has expressed similar concern over disused churches that are sold. According to AFP,
Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's new chief of cultural affairs said Thursday that Roman Catholic churches where there were few worshippers could be sold off. But he urged "the greatest caution" in doing so.

A church in Hungary, he said,  was "transformed into a nightclub and where striptease took place on the altar."
The archbishop, who is president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said dwindling numbers of worshippers at some churches meant it now made sense to sell, or even destroy, the buildings.

"Faced with falling number of worshippers, a phenomenon which we are also unfortunately witnessing in the centre of Rome, churches without any artistic value and which need significant work can be sold or destroyed," he told reporters.
Read full AFP story

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Budapest -- JTA Highlights Ovas! and its attempts to save the architectural fabric of the Seventh District old Jewish quarter

 My favorite sign in the 7th district (for a dentist). I hope it doesn't get gentrified away... Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

JTA's intrepid Wandering Jew, Ben Harris, has written a lively story on the continuing battles over the fate of the Seventh District, Budapest's old downtown Jewish Quarter -- and the district in which  have had an apartment for the past 10 years. (It's a good summary -- and I'm glad to see it because I'm due to speak about the development of the Seventh District at a conference in a couple of weeks in Vilnius...)

He highlights the gentrification but also the activities of Ovas!, an organization founded about five years ago, in attempting to save the dilapidated buildings of the District from unscrupulous developers and the wreckers' ball. Ovas! fights the good fight, but to me the group's failure has been to say "no" to tearing down buildings without putting forward strong, positive alternative strategies.

 Poster for Ovas! outside the Siraly cafe on Kiraly street, Dec. 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I advised Ovas! a little at the start of their activities (they even brought me to brief a city official on my strategic views) and I spoke about the development of Jewish quarters in general at a conference a few years ago organized by Ovas! A number of the people involved (including several of those quoted by Harris in his story) are friends of mine, and I particularly admire the detailed work that Anna Perczel has carried out so passionately over the years. Her book on the buildings of the district is exciting, to read -- but particularly to walk around with.

(See my own JTA story from 2004 about Ovas! by clicking HERE)

Gozsdu Udvar is a controversial restoration/gentrification project in Budapest's Seventh District. In later August/early September, part of the annual Jewish culture festival took place here. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Harris notes some of the corruption involved in the development of the District (fast becoming one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods for cafes and pubs). Many of the developers involved are Israeli.

Gyorgy Hunvald, the mayor of District 7, which includes the Jewish quarter, was deeply involved in selling off historic properties and allegedly making buckets of cash in the process. Hunvald was arrested in February and is now in jail facing charges of bribery and abuse of office.

Perczel sketched out a mind-bogglingly complex story of how investors, developers and the authorities in District 7 colluded to sell off properties, move people out of their homes, and tear down historic buildings for redevelopment. Some aspects of the corruption she describes border on the comical, as when a document that the district was obliged to take into account in formulating its development plan was declared secret and sealed for 15 years.

         Read full story at JTA web site

I began writing about these battles nearly 10 years ago, around the time that I got my apartment, when the local government in the Seventh District (local administrations in Budapest have more power than the city-wide administration) had drawn up plans to punch a pedestrian walkway, the "Madach Promenade", through the district.

When I wrote a "Letter from Budapest" on the issue for Business Week, gentrification of the area was just beginning, but  issues had already festered for years -- actually, for nearly a century. Planners had dreamed of building a new "Madach Avenue" through the district -- and in the 1930s had gotten close: they tore down the so-called Orczy House, a rambling center of Jewish life in the city, and in its place built a brick apartment complex with a huge archway that was to be the gateway to the new Madach Avenue. World War II put an end to these plans.
The Madach Promenade, in fact, is the latest incarnation of a grandiose dream that city planners have tried to implement at intervals over the past century. The failures left the district in limbo, compounding damage done by war and communist-era neglect. Three years ago, architect Andras Roman singled out the Madach plan as an example of how a bold but misplaced vision contributes to urban blight. In ''The Tragedy of an Avenue,'' which appeared in a Budapest cultural journal, Roman traced the failures to the city's behavior as a living organism. City planners, he wrote, ''didn't realize that a city wants to progress by its own rules. It is an inner process that resists the artificial.''

Today, despite all the plans, this process persists. In fact, many locals doubt that the Madach scheme will ever come to pass. But the state of limbo may turn into a fait accompli. Demolition by neglect is a byproduct of inertia, and vacant lots can be more valuable than those with old buildings on them. The Seventh will change, but perhaps not as anyone now envisages.

         Read full Business Week story
        Read my 2004 JTA article about OVAS!

Big Online Jewish Postcard and Photo Resource

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

An article in the online Jewish Magazine has led me to the web site of Stephanie Comfort, who has collected more than 9,000 postcards, most of them pre-war scenes of Jewish life and places, all over the world.  Comfort writes:
When asked what I do I often reply " I collect dead Jews" - their photos, their market places, their shtetls and towns, their Synagogues, their festive occasions, their lives in black and white and their deaths in the Holocaust. I try to recall a particular face whenever I say Kaddish as all members of most of the families were murdered at the same time and ask others who look at my postcards and photos at my Exhibitions to do the same. My Rabbi at one occasion told me that I am "ransoming the captives"….especially when most of my postcards come from Eastern Europe or Nazi family albums. A good many of the cards in my collection are from the late 1880's and what are called Cabinet Cards taken in photography Studios. I was born with the "collecting gene". 
 In addition to the web site she maintains  a flickr stream with thousands of old postcards -- and also photographs, some of which she has taken.

There are numerous old postcards of synagogues (sometimes along with present-day photos of the same site). Some of them are mis-labled. But I found images that I had never seen before. In particular, it was exciting to see so many views of the destroyed neolog synagogue in Bratislava, the Wilhelm Stiassny synagogue in Malacky, Slovakia, and the Lipot Baumhorn synagogue in Lucenec, Slovakia -- all of these views showing the synagogues standing in old Jewish neighborhoods that also were destroyed.

Pre-war Jewish postcards showing synagogues, genre scenes, religious observances, cemeteries, and portraits are a popular collector's item, and several books showcases collections have been published. There are also a number of on-line showcases for these. among them is a web site showing postcards from the collection of Frantisek Banyai, now leader of the Prague Jewish community.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Budapest -- Heads Up for Hanukkah Festival

 Lighting menorah at concert, Hanukkah 2008. Budapest. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The old Jewish quarter in Budapest, in the city's inner Districts 6 and 7, will be hosting a big festival throughout the eight days of Hanukkah -- the evening of Dec. 11 through Dec. 19. The main sponsors are the JDC and Marom (the youth group of the Masorti, or conservative, movement). The web site is only in Hungarian so far, and I have not seen the full schedule of events yet, but there are to be concerts, lectures, guided tours, workshops, etc. I've been asked to take part in some sort of conversation on the first night.

About 30 local businesses --cafes, shops, art galleries, pubs, restaurants,  synagogues, the JCC and the Jewish Museum -- are taking part in one way or another.   This is much much bigger than the Hanukkah festival last year, which mainly took place at the Siraly cafe -- I posted a video on this blog of the klezmer/punk/hip hip/fusion party I went to during those events.

That is:

Bálint Ház (JCC)
Bar Ladino
Boulevard és Brezsnyev galéria
Carmel Étterem (kosher restaurant)
Dohány utca synagogue
Dupla (restaurant)
Fröhlich Cukrászda (kosher pastry shop)
Garzon Cafe
Hanna Étterem (kosher restaurant)
Humusz Bár
Kádár Étkezde (lunchroom)
Klauzál Étterem (restaurant)
Klauzál13 Vince Könyvesbolt és Galéria (bookstore and gallery)
Kőleves (restaurant)
Kuplung (club)
M Étterem (restaurant)
Mozaik Teaház és Kávéház (tea house an cafe)
Mumus (club)
Orthodox synagogue
Rs9 színház (theatre)
Rumbach utcai synagogue
Sasz Chevra (Lubavicsi) (Chabad synagogue)
Sirály (cafe)
Spinoza Ház (cafe/theatre)
Szimpla (cafe)
SzimplaKert (cafe)
Szóda (cafe)
Jewish Múseum

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Art Work on Jewish Heritage Sites

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In 1993, I took my mother, the artist Shirley Moskowitz, with me on a trip to east-central Europe. I was working on my book Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today (Wiley, 1994) and also doing the first updated edition of Jewish Heritage Travel (Wiley 1994).

We went mainly to Slovakia and Poland -- where we met up with my brother, Sam, who was leading a Jewish heritage tour for architecture preservationists.

Mom made many sketches and took many photographs of the Jewish heritage sites that we saw -- mainly ruined synagogues and abandoned cemeteries. She then produced a series of monotype prints from this material. The prints were exhibited several times in Poland -- at the Jewish Culture and Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, and also in Tarnow.

 Old-New Synagogue, Prague I. Monotype by Shirley Moskowitz. (c) Estate of Shirley Moskowitz

I have now posted images of more than a dozen of these monotypes on the web site that we have set up as an expanding online exhibition to honor Mom and make her work known to a wider public.

Click HERE to access them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Warsaw Jewish Cemetery video

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ben Harris, the "Wandering Jew" of JTA, has posted a wonderful little video about the three-year project to document the main Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. The comments of the young people he interviews are moving and apt.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Germany -- Photos by Julian Voloj

Zeek/The Forward present pictures of German Jewish built heritage, by Julian Voloj. Click HERE

Lithuania -- More on Kalvarija Cemetery Project

More information has been posted about Ralph Salinger's project to record the information on the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Kalvarija, Lithuania. You can find it by clicking HERE.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Romania -- My Travel Piece in NYTimes online explore painted monasteries and Jewish cemeteries

The International Herald Tribune and NYTimes online runs my travel piece on the Bucovina region of northern Romania -- in which I write about both the painted monasteries and the Jewish cemeteries. The headline writer and photo caption writer unaccounably attributed everything to Gura Humorului, but that is just one of the places I mention in the story -- chosen as the dateline as it is the hub for two monasteries (Voronet and Humor) as well as the historic Jewish cemetery -- I posted a video of the cemetery in September.

November 7, 2009
Where Art and Faith Embrace in Gura Humorului, Romania


GURA HUMORULUI, ROMANIA — The Bucovina region in the far north of the country, wrote the Romanian scholar Silviu Sanie, is “one of those blessed realms where sacred and secular monuments have enriched the enchanting natural landscape. [...]”

Here are Romania’s famous painted monasteries, built in the 15th and 16th centuries when the region, a stronghold of Orthodox Christianity, was threatened by Ottoman invaders.
The vividly colored frescoes on their exterior walls, masterpieces of Byzantine painting, tell the tales of saints and heroes, and portray in epic imagery the cataclysmic struggle between good and evil at the end of days. [...]

Here, too, however, are religious sites far less known and rarely visited that also form important components of the region’s deeply rooted spiritual patrimony. These are the centuries-old Jewish cemeteries, whose weathered tombstones bear extraordinary carvings that meld folk motifs and religious iconography into evocative examples of faith expressed through art.
 Read Full story

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lithuania -- Clean-up at Kalvarija Jewish Cemetery

Kalvarija Jewish cemetery, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ralph Salinger reports on his web site how he used shaving cream to decipher the insciptions on the tombstones in surviving part of the Jewish cemetery in Kalvarija, Lithuania. Mr. Salinger posts pictures of himself, working with local school children and others, spreading foam on the stones, letting it fill the grooves with white to reveal epitaphs and incised decoration.

He posts pictures of the stones, and also an article from a Lithuanian newspaper about the project. (Note that some of links may note work.)

Kalvarija is now the border town between Lithuania and Poland -- it is also the town from which my great-grandparents on my mother's side emigrated to the US in the 1880s.

I have visited there twice, once in 1999 and once in 2006, when I was researching the new edition of Jewish Heritage Travel.

 Kalvarija has one of Lithuania's most important preserved Jewish complexes, a fenced compound on Sodu street, where two synagogues face each other across a fenced compound. When I was last there one of them, built in the 18th century, was a ruin. Its roof had fallen in, and through the gaping windows you could see grand broken arches and other architectural detail.

The other, however,  believed to have been built in the early 19th century, was undergoing  renovation for use as a cultural venue and music school; by the end of the summer 2006, the exterior had been almost completely rebuilt, although the interior was not finished. A red brick rabbi's house, decorated with a big star of David, stands between them.

The Jewish cemetery is located on the other side of the little Sheshupa River that winds through the town. The Germans destroyed most of the it, and many stones were stolen. What remains is a small, fenced-in, triangular plot with several dozen simple tombstones, right in front of a huge electric grid.

Ugly, barrack-like housing  built on the area was still there in 2006; there was no indoor plumbing, and residents had to walk 50 yards or so to privies, apparently built right atop the graves.

I wrote about my first visit to Kalvarija, in 1999, for JTA -- Salinger has posted the article on his web site, along with pictures of the synagogues.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber
On a frosty November morning, I walked around the two massive, ruined synagogues that form a unique surviving Jewish complex in Kalvarija, a small, sleepy town in southern Lithuania near the border with Poland.
One of the synagogues was built in the early 18th century. Its roof had fallen in and its bottom windows were bricked up, but it was possible to see arches and other architectural detail and decoration.
The other, built in about 1803, was more or less intact, but crumbling. Between the two stood a red brick building, a former rabbi's house and a cheder, or Jewish school, with a big Star of David above the door.

As I have done in hundreds of other cities, towns and villages in more than a dozen countries, I took pictures of the synagogues from every angle.

With my eye focused through my camera, I didn't watch where I was walking. Suddenly, I tripped over a broken brick, half buried in the uneven yard, and went crashing to the ground.

Trying to save my cameras, I ended up twisting my ankle so that I could hardly walk.

The injury took weeks to heal fully, but everyone told me that my spill was beshert -- fated -- and maybe it was.

Kalvarija is the town from which my great-grandfather, Pesach Susnitsky, emigrated some 120 years ago, ending up in the small town of Brenham, Texas.

In Brenham, Pesach became Philip. He was the patriarch of a huge family of children, including my grandmother, who was born in Brenham, and a pious pillar of the Jewish community.

In Brenham, he helped found a Jewish congregation. The little wooden synagogue that was built in 1894 still stands.

When he left Kalvarija in about 1880, Jews made up more than 80 percent of the town's population. By 1939, it had dropped to about 25 percent, but still about 1,000 Jews lived in the town.

No Jews live there today, and I must say that given the depressing and bloody history of the town and region during World Wars I and II, and decades of later Soviet domination, I am enormously thankful that my great-grandfather had the courage to leave when he did.

Still, the buildings I was photographing were not just fascinating sites of Jewish heritage in general: they were the places where my ancestors worshiped and studied.

The streets of the town, with their small, mainly low wooden houses, and the central square dominated by a big, white church with two ornate towers, were the streets and square where my ancestors walked.

I had driven there with a friend after spending the night near the Polish town of Suwalki, about 20 miles to the south. Until a few years ago, such a day trip from Poland to Kalvarija would have been difficult if not impossible.

For one thing, American citizens today do not need a visa to enter Lithuania. While Kalvarija is the first town in Lithuania across the border from Poland, the border crossing-point was opened only four years ago.

I didn't have a real genealogical agenda for my visit -- I just wanted to see the town. But I had hoped to spend much of the day walking through the quiet streets, poking into corners and possibly talking to local people.

My injured ankle cramped my capabilities, though -- and here's where beshert comes in.

An old woman told us where the Jewish cemetery was located, on the other side of the little Sheshupa River that winds through the town, and my friend and I decided to drive straight there.

Pesach Susnitsky died in Texas in 1939 at the age of 83. Several years ago, I visited his grave in the Jewish cemetery in Brenham.

I had little hope of finding any Susnitsky graves in Kalvarija, but I was eager to visit the cemetery just to see it.

We found a small, fenced-in, triangular plot of ground right in front of a huge electric grid, which contained several dozen simple tombstones, some of them toppled.

Hobbling, I starting photographing the site. Just then an old man came by, wheeling a bicycle.

"I know everything, everything," he smiled. All his teeth were capped in gold. "I remember everything how it was."

He propped up his bike and began to talk. He described how the cemetery used to extend much, much further, stone after stone, all the way down to the river, but the Germans destroyed it, and most remaining stones were stolen.

Now on top of the area, there are ugly, poor barracks where people live -- with no indoor plumbing, they have to walk 50 yards or so to toilets. Pigs and dogs frolic around. A man passed by leading a cow.

Of the remaining graves, the only mausoleum, he said, was that of a certain Menashe who was a "millionaire."

I asked the old man if he remembered the Susnitsky family -- and he did.

"Of course! There were a lot of Susnitskys here, a lot." Particularly, he said, before the war, there were two Susnitsky brothers in town, Alter and Yankel, who must have been nephews or great-nephews of Pesach. "Alter was a big, tall man," he said. "Yankel was small, curved over and had a hunch back." He demonstrated, scooping out his own body.

The brothers lived together in a big house on a hill, he said -- and then he led us there to see it. Indeed, it was one of the most imposing wooden houses in the village. Undergoing some renovation, it even sported a satellite dish.

Both brothers were killed when the Germans deported the Jews to nearby Mariampole during World War II, he told us.

The old man said all the houses on this street were occupied by Jews, and that Jews lived all over the town. "So many, so many!" He gestured forlornly.

He was clearly nostalgic for past times -- and the disappearance of the Jewish community represented for him a change for the worse. Nonetheless, in describing the Jews in town, he used the Polish term Zydek or "little Jew" -- a term Jews regard as pejorative.

The Jews in Kalvarija were "good people," and "wealthy," the man said, they took care of each other and everyone got on with everyone.

"They were called Yankele, Alterke, Menashe, Meyshke," he recalled. "They would say, 'Oy vey, oy vey.'"

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Poland - Extensive Interview with Michael Traison

Michael Traison (c) looks on at ceremony presenting awards to non-Jewish Poles who preserve Jewish heritage, July 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My friend Michael Traison is the subject of a lengthy and detailed profile in the Chicago Jewish News. The article, by Paul Dubkin Yearwood, includes a long interview with Michael -- and discusses the important work he has been doing in Poland -- some of which I have written about here, including the annual awards to non-Jewish Poles who preserve and promote Jewish heritage and the Shabbaton weekends in disused synagogues he sponsors.

Michael and I met in January 1995, at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We bonded instantly over our mutual feeling that Jewish experience in Poland should not just be defined in terms of death.

I'm delighted to see him and his work get this recognition.

"When you mention Poland, most Jews feel it is a forbidden land, nothing but a cemetery," he says. "People have created the idea that Poles were responsible for World War II and the Holocaust."

Why do so many Jews in some ways "have more powerful, passionate feelings about Poland than about Germany?" he asks. "You have the strongest feelings about those to whom you have the closest ties. When a family member betrays you, it is worse than when a stranger does."

Traison wanted to find answers for himself on these matters, and for that, he had to visit Poland. He flew to Warsaw, alone, intending to stay for four days, then go on to Israel.
"I couldn't speak a word of Polish and few Polish people knew how to speak English," he says. "I was basically on my own, communicating by body language, isolated, yet knowing the streets, the places, almost like I had been there before."

The connection to the land was instantaneous. "I feel like the month I was born, October 1946, there must have still been smoke from the chimneys of the camps, and I must have inhaled the souls of some of our people," he says.

On that first visit, "for whatever reason, I had positive experiences," he says. "I encountered Poles and they saw me walking, wearing a kippah. People would offer to show me the local cemeteries or synagogues. They viewed it as part of their own Polish history and culture." He also met others "who were afraid I was coming to take back my property. There was a certain amount of fear and anxiety, but many people were very hospitable."
That visit was "a life-changing experience" for Traison, he says. Soon he found himself visiting there four times a year, then every month. Eventually he combined the journeys with his law practice - he is a principal in a large Chicago firm, Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, that has three offices in Poland, and practices commercial law.

[...] his trips to Poland grew more frequent and his involvement in projects relating to the Holocaust and the country's Jewish population more intensive. (He notes that a Google search of his name and "Poland" yields dozens of entries.) Today he spends about 25 percent of his time there - about a week out of every month - and is now engaged in 75 different projects.
Read full article

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Romania -- More on Gura Humorului

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A few weeks ago, I posted a video that I took of the wonderful and well maintained Jewish cemetery in Gura Humorului, Romania. I was there to document that tombstones of women for my project (Candle)sticks on Stone: Representing the Woman in Jewish Tombstone Art.

I forgot to include the link to the excellent and informative web site about Gura Humorului, which include a map and index of the cemetery. You can find that web site by clicking RIGHT HERE.
In 1857 Gura Humorului had a Jewish population of 190 souls. In that year also the Jewish cemetery was established. That cemetery was active until 1920. In 1920 the "New" cemetery was established right near the "Old" one, and it is still open today. This cemetery (the old and the new) has about 2060 graves. Stones beautifully cared for, many in German. The new part was renovated recently by The Association of Gura - Humora Jewish Community Descendants.

Monday, November 2, 2009

My article on Holocaust memorials

 Budapest -- Holocaust memorial museum and education center. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I have a brief article on Holocaust memorials in post-communist Europe, part of JTA's series related to the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, Oct. 30, 2009

ROME (JTA) -- Under communism, Jewish suffering in World War II generally was treated as a footnote to the overall losses in what the Soviets called the "Great Patriotic War."

Public monuments existed at some Holocaust sites in Eastern Europe, such as Auschwitz, the Paneriai forest near Vilnius where at least 70,000 Jews were killed, and Babi Yar, where tens of thousands of Jews were killed in ravines outside Kiev. But these usually commemorated generic "victims of fascism" and did not acknowledge the involvement of local collaborators.

Since the fall of communism 20 years ago, however, a host of new Holocaust memorials have gone up in post-communist states while and Communist-era monuments have been revamped by state authorities, local civic groups and Jewish organizations, giving the Jewish tragedy of World War II more prominence.

The new memorials range from simple plaques to modest monuments to huge memorial complexes, such as the monument at the Belzec death camp. A joint project of the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee, the monument was inaugurated in 2004 by the Polish president.
Some new sites, such as Belzec and the state-run Holocaust memorial center in Budapest, which also opened in 2004, include museums or educational facilities.

In other cases, including at Babi Yar and Paneriai, new inscriptions or components have been added to provide more accurate information and context in order for the memorial site to teach and inform as well as commemorate.

This can become contentious if, for example, the new inscriptions make reference to local collaboration in the killing of Jews.

"After the problem of funding, the hardest part of getting monuments and memorials erected has not been getting some kind of general consent, but it has been working out the specifics of the design and especially the language on the inscription," said the president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, Samuel Gruber, who has written about Holocaust memory and consulted on Holocaust monument projects.

"Most older memorials have been very general in their language, so much so that it is often hard to figure out what events are being commemorated, and rarely can one learn about who did what to whom and when,” he said.

This remains a concern, even with monuments whose positioning and design make them prominent. Some memorials form a striking symbolic presence, but provide little or no information as to what they commemorate. Visitors are presumed to know already what they represent.

In the heart of the Slovak capital Bratislava, for example, a chiseled image of a destroyed synagogue now serves as a Holocaust memorial. But other than the word "Remember," no information is provided on how the wartime fascist state collaborated with the Nazis in killing most of Slovakia's 135,000-strong prewar Jewish community.

Likewise, in Sopron, Hungary, a small but powerful sculptural monument depicting empty clothing hung outside the Auschwitz gas chambers stands near an abandoned synagogue. The memorial bears Hebrew lettering and the Sh’ma prayer, but no further information.

"How can one remember what one doesn't know?" Gruber said. "How can one 'not forget' what is never fully discussed or taught?"

On Slovakia’s Holocaust Memorial Day, Sept. 9, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico presided over the dedication of a memorial to Slovaks who helped rescue Jews at the time of the anti-Nazi Slovak National Uprising in 1944.

Funded by the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia and several private sources, the memorial was built in the town of Zvolen next to the mass gravesite of Jews who were killed by the Nazis. It also includes a digital information point.

"This represents a different way of presenting Slovak national history that is at the same time a rejection of the [Nazi-allied] Slovak national puppet state of Josef Tiso," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee's director of international Jewish affairs who has advised on Holocaust memorial projects in several countries. "Fico deserves credit for doing this, and he also speaks emotionally about the importance of Holocaust education in his country."

Though flawed at times, the memorials serve an important purpose.

"Memorials have a permanent presence," said Warren Miller, chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, which has been involved in Holocaust memorial projects in Latvia, Romania, the former East Germany and other countries. "Going to a powerful memorial will help people want to learn more."

Lviv -- Interactive Map. Are they working together?

 Me in L'viv... Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I was very impressed last year in L'viv when I found out about the L'viv interactive street map on the web site of the L'viv Center for Urban History of East-Central Europe. The Center, based in the heart of L'viv, is compiling an ever-expanding, interactive data base of streets, buildings, institutions, etc, that can be accessed online. It's a great resource.

Today on the Tracing the Tribe blog, I found out that another project, which sounds very similar, has been launched by a group called Gesher Galicia and begun earlier this year by Dick Koops, a Dutch-born teacher. It is called the L'viv House and Street Photography Project.  There is no indication as to whether there is any coordination or collaboration between these two projects. It's a pity if not. (The wheel has already been invented.....)

Budapest -- New Book on Dohany St. synagogue

 Tourists outside the Dohany St. synagogue during the summer Jewish culture festival, Sept. 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The second major book in less than two years has come out in Hungary on the Dohany St. synagogue -- the biggest synagogue in Europe and a major Budapest landmark, which was inaugurated just 150 years ago.

This book, titled simply "The Dohany Street Synagogue," is by the Hungarian-born American photographer Laszlo Regos, and it was published by the Hungarian publisher Alexandra to coincide with events marking the synagogue's anniversary in September. I have not seen the book yet, but Regos posted a video preview on YouTube.

Regos, who specializes in architectural photography, said that what sets his book apart from that published last year by the Budapest-based architectural historian Rudolf Klein ("The Great Synagogue of Budapest," published by the Budapest house, Terc) is the emotional aspect. Klein, he said, "put his talent as a photographer and his knowledge as an architect to it -- I gave my soul. It took me eight years to do it, and [I] approached it not just as an architectural photographer."

Regos is an accomplished photographer and clearly passionate about his subject,  and the photos on the video and on his web site are luscious. Again, I haven't seen the book yet (and don't know what text there is to go with the pictures) but one thing does bother me (it bothers me a bit in Klein's book, too, but that book is really text-driven) -- in the images I have seen, the synagogue is presented as empty; gorgeous and beautiful and artistically and architecturally powerful, but empty. People (Jews or not) are literally not in the picture(s). Yet this is one of the synagogues in Europe -- in post-Holocaust, post-communist Europe -- which is, in fact, rarely empty. On major Jewish holidays, it is packed by a congregation that spills out on the forecourt, seeing and being seeing. At other times during the year, it is crawling with tourists who often must line up to gain entry. It is, in short, a living space -- and I hope that this comes through in the book.

In 2004, Regos included photographs of the Dohany St. synagogue in an exhibition on synagogue architecture held in New York called "Palaces of Prayer." Sam Gruber mentioned this exhibit in an article on synagogue photography in The Forward. 

On his web site Regos includes the following as Artist's Statement:
      ...When I was a little boy, my parents took me there for the very first time. I didn't like the place at all.
      It was dark, gloomy; the lingering smell of crumbling plaster and mildew was in the air. I didn't understand why everyone's eyes were filled with tears.
      Later when I understood all too well, I went back whenever I could to say Kaddish for my grandparents. They didn't come back from Auschwitz, along with the other 600 thousand Hungarian Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Challenging the watchful eyes of the ever-present Secret Police, I went there with my family and friends to demonstrate that we belonged there rather than Communist Party meetings.
      The location was Budapest, Hungary. The place, the Dohany Street Synagogue.
      In 1979 I left Hungary seeking political, religious and artistic freedom.
     The next time I saw her was a few years ago. I couldn't believe my eyes! She was gorgeous and probably looked better than when she was born in 1859. Her breathtaking beauty made me fall in love.

 I too remember the Dohany Street synagogue where it was in terrible condition, dark and dank and with its ceiling sagging down over the sanctuary, swathed in plastic sheeting and held up by metal bands. But I also remember it -- even then -- as, at least on the High Holidays, being, despite everything, a place of life, where thousands of people congregated. They were there to make a statement of belonging and identity -- I'll never forget walking in to Yom Kippur services in 1983 and being aghast at the noise of what amounted to a giant schmooze fest under that sagging ceiling.