Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dublin -- Curator of Jewish Museum Dies

Word has come of the death of Raphael Siev, the longtime curator of the Jewish Museum in Dublin. He fell ill at a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony on Sunday and died early Wednesday. He was 73.

I've never been to the Jewish Museum in Dublin (actually, I've never been to Dublin!) but I had met Raphael Siev at meetings of the Association of European Jewish Museums, an organization that (loosely) links representatives of Jewish Museums in about 30 cities around Europe.

Some of these museums are large, publicly funded institutions. Others, like that in Dublin, are smaller operations, run by local Jewish communities, often on a volunteer basis.

The Jewish Museum in Dublin was founded in 1985 and includes a former synagogue with all its fittings:
the former Walworth Road Synagogue, which could accommodate approximately 150 men and women, consisted of two adjoining terraced houses. Due to the movement of the Jewish people from the area to the suburbs of Dublin and with the overall decline in their numbers, the Synagogue fell into disuse and ceased to function in the early 70's.
The museum also includes:
a substantial collection of memorabilia relating to the Irish Jewish communities and their various associations and contributions to present day Ireland. The material relates to the last 150 years and is associated with the communities of Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Dublin, Limerick & Waterford.
In addition, according to the web site, there is
an abundance of written material on James Joyce and his writings, and many people visit Dublin to follow in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom of Ulysses, nevertheless a visit to the Museum enables the Joycean follower to obtain an insight into the cultural, economic, religious & social life of the Jew in Ireland during the early 1900’s.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Italy -- Biella synagogue restored

Photo from

The gem-like synagogue in Biella, near Torino and Vercelli in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, has been rededicated after "important and decisive" restoration.

Dating from the early 17th century, the synagogue, at vicolo del Bellone 3, occupies the top floor of a medieval house in the heart of what was the historic Jewish quarter. The sanctuary is small and rectagular in shape, focused on a spendid 17th-century Ark and an oval, waist-high carved wooden enclosure around the Bimah.

The €350,000 restoration, overseen by the Jewish community in Vercelli and funded in part by the Piedmont Region and a local bank, included structural consolidation and repair of the roof, which threatened collapse, as well as restoration of the elaborate Ark, the women's gallery and other interior fittings. Further restoration work is planned.

For Italian readers, you can see fuller details by clicking HERE. You may also contact the president of the Vercelli Jewish community, Rossella Bottini Treves, at

The Biella synagogue is one of about 16 beautiful synagogues in Piedmont, many of which have been restored in recent years and can be visited. You can find some information on the Jewish Community of Torino web site. Also, Sam Gruber has written an essay about these synagogues which can be found in a new volume about Jews in Piedmont.

See also the web site for the synagogue at Casale Monferrato, the most elaborate of the synagogues in the region, which is now used (mainly) as a Jewish museum and culture center.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Poland -- My Ruthless Cosmopolitan column about Henryk Halkowski

Here's the link to my Ruthless Cosmopolitan column remembering my old friend Henryk Halkowski, the writer and local historian who died in his native Krakow on New Year's Day.

Ruthless Cosmopolitan: Farewell to a Pintele Yid

Jan. 22, 2009

BUDAPEST (JTA) -- The Yiddish expression "dos pintele Yid" is often translated as "the Jewish spark" -- an indestructible core of Jewishness that lurks deep within even unknowing or alienated Jews, ready to spring back to life at any unexpected moment.

The Forward's language maven, Philologos, once devoted a column to the term, describing it as an almost mystical notion.

"It posits that all Jews, even if they are unaware of it or have been raised so un-Jewishly that they do not know they are Jewish, have within them a Jewish essence that can be activated under certain circumstances," Philologos wrote.

Henryk Halkowski, who died suddenly on New Year's Day in his native Krakow, Poland, may have been one of the least mystical people I ever knew, but in many ways he embodied this concept.

A writer, translator and local historian, Henryk was like a pintele Yid for an entire city -- a city whose Jewish population of more than 65,000 had been all but wiped out in the Shoah. A city where only some 200 or so Jews live today.

To my mind, Henryk was one of the most noteworthy personalities in the new Jewish reality that has emerged in Poland since the Iron Curtain came down nearly 20 years ago.

"He was a guardian of Krakow's Jewish legacy," said Joachim Russek, director of the city's Center for Jewish Culture.

Born in 1951 into the echoing vacuum of post-Holocaust Poland, Henryk was haunted by the ghosts of Krakow's Holocaust dead and the generations of Krakow Jews who went before them.

He, in turn, haunted Jewish Krakow, learning its secrets and becoming so intimately attached that he seemed to have real, psychological difficulty leaving the city even for a few days.

"He was a character," said Stanislaw Krajewski, a leader in Poland's Jewish revival and the American Jewish Committee representative in Warsaw. "He was so Cracovian -- a Krakow curiosity."

With his encyclopedic knowledge of Krakow's Jewish history, culture, legend and lore, Henryk became a touchstone for me and other Jewish foreigners who began trickling in to Krakow in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"For many of us, Henryk Halkowski was one of our first significant encounters with Krakow, and for all the years thereafter he remained a fixture of its character as much as any other person or institution," said Michael Traison, an American lawyer who has worked for years in Poland and sponsored many projects aimed at preserving Jewish heritage and fostering Jewish revival.

A stocky figure with thick glasses and a gray-flecked beard, Henryk was a familiar figure in Krakow's Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, where he roamed the streets with a restless energy.

"Wherever one walked in Kazimierz, regardless of the time of day or night, you couldn't help but run into him, then have a drink, then have a meal," recalled the klezmer musician and filmmaker Yale Strom, who met Halkowski in 1984 and featured him in several of his documentaries.

I first met Halkowski in the early 1990s.

Back then Kazimierz was a slum, a dilapidated ghost town that still showed the scars of Nazi mass murder and communist oppression.

Henryk, as head of a Jewish club, had formed the nucleus of a group of younger Jews who had attempted to revive Yiddish culture in the 1980s.

He recalled to me how foreign Jews often seemed uncomfortable meeting younger Jews in Poland -- how they couldn't understand their desire, or need, to remain.

"American Jews have a stereotype about Polish Jews who stayed here," he told me. "It's as if we are seen as 'traitors' to the nation."

In the years since then, Kazimierz has grown into a lively tourist center, with Jewish-style cafes, renovated synagogues, kitschy souvenirs and constantly milling tour groups.

The district has a resident rabbi and a Chabad center, and there is a plethora of Jewish cultural and educational institutions -- even a local Jewish publishing house, which has brought out Henryk's own books.

Henryk was an acute observer of the transformation, even as he became one of its protagonists.

"Disheveled and in disarray, he never disappointed as he cynically critiqued the absurdity of the Disneyland display of Jewish heritage and tragedy," Traison said.

"Orally and through his writings, he offered a sincere and unique insight into Cracovian culture and specifically that special Kazimierz life created since the fall of communism.

"Henryk remained and remains a genuine part of that milieu," he said. "And if one word is needed to describe him that is it: genuine."

In 1997 I took a picture of Henryk, a wry grin on his face, as he posed a trifle awkwardly at a Krakow souvenir stall selling T-shirts and carved wooden figures of Jews.

"Shall I tell you my obsession?" he asked me once, as he tucked into a bowl of chicken soup and kreplach at one of Kazimierz's trendy new Jewish-style restaurants.

"What we need in Kazimierz is some sort of institution that presents Jewish life as it really was here. What an apartment was like, for example; what a cheder was like, what a workshop was like. How the people here really lived. Something to inject a bit of reality into the gentrification."

Henryk was buried in Krakow's Jewish cemetery. Some 300 people braved the snow and bitter cold to pay their last respects. Rabbis and cafe keepers alike mourned at the graveside.

I could not make the trip to attend. But I remembered what Henryk had told me years ago, during one of our earliest conversations.

"Kazimierz," he said, "can be a place where meaning can be materialized."

That still holds true. But it simply won't be the same without him.

Real Full JTA Story

Poland -- Wooden Synagogus anniversary recently published Sam Gruber's article marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark book Wooden Synagogues by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka.

Fifty years ago this year, two young Polish architects published a book that would change the face of American synagogue architecture. Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, both survivors of the Warsaw Uprising and German labor camps, collected and interpreted studies made before the war of the wooden synagogues that once dotted Eastern Europe. Most of the surveys were taken by people who died in the Holocaust, and all of the centuries-old buildings went up in flames. But much of the documentation pertaining to their architecture survived. The Piechotkas used this material, which included photographs, measurements, and descriptions, to recreate the destroyed buildings in their book Wooden Synagogues. Published in Polish in 1957 and released in English in 1959, the book revealed a lost world of interior spaces, shapes, and decorations, tremendously varied, expressive, and exciting—and all made of wood.

From 1959 to 1989, the Piechtokas, living in Warsaw, were severely restricted in what they could publish about Jewish art, despite the material they continued to gather and additional insight they might have offered. Thus, Wooden Synagogues became a sort of message in a bottle, sent out into the world on its own.

Read Full Article and See Pictures

One of my first and most intensive journeys tracing Jewish heritage sites was a trip with the Piechotkas through eastern Poland in May 1990.... Sam and his wife, Judy, and I traveled with Maria and Maciej to -- if I remember correctly -- 19 synagogue buildings in all states of repair and disrepair. (We also visited some sites on our own.) The trip opened my eyes to the extent, beauty and power of what survived of Jewish heritage in eastern Europe, and it formed the basis for much of the Poland chapter in the first edition of Jewish Heritage Travel.

Italy -- Archeology of Jewish Settlement in Sardinia

There will be a conference this weekend about Jewish history in Alghero, a small town on the northwest coast of Sardinia where Jews settled in the mid-14th century. One of the principal speakers will be Mauro Milanese, an archologist who has directed excavations in Alghero's old Jewish quarter.

Mauro Milanese ha diretto invece gli scavi nel quartiere ebraico di Alghero, il “kahal” o “juharia”, con interventi nel cortile del vecchio ospedale, all’interno della chiesa di Santa Chiara e sopratutto in Piazza Santa Croce dove era ubicata la sinagoga, il luogo di culto della comunità ebraica, l’“aljama” algherese; quest'ultimo intervento ha riportato alla luce, al di sotto dei ruderi della chiesa di Santa Croce, i resti di alcuni fabbricati ascrivibili al quartiere ebraico, e, proprio in occasione della chiusura degli scavi, un vano sotterraneo, probabilmente il “mikvé”, ovvero la vasca annessa ai locali della sinagoga utilizzata per alcuni rituali della comunità.

I primi ebrei sefarditi arrivarono con la conquista di Alghero (1354) da parte di Pietro IV il Cerimonioso, provenienti dalla penisola iberica (“Sefarad”, in ebraico) dalla Provenza e dalle Baleari. Ben presto si dotarono di una prima sinagoga, di una macelleria per la vendita di carne “kasher”, di un cimitero (“fossar iudeorum”), ed ottenerono il privilegio, fra gli altri, di amministrare autonomamente la giustizia, tutti elementi essenziali per la sussistenza di una comunità rispettosa dei numerosi precetti previsti dalla religione giudaica.
It's a sad sign of the times and of the mentality that identifies anything Jewish with the current policies of Israel, that the organizers, according to an article in the local newspaper, in announcing a conference about local Jewish history in the 14th and 15th centuries, felt that they had to mention the situation in Gaza and their hope that "it cannot and must not transform itself into an occasion that can give rise to racist outbursts," that is, anti-semitism. The organizers also used the announcement of the conference to voice their hopes for a peaceful settlement that would "leave space for tolerance and reciprocal respect" between Israelis and Palestinians.
«Per concludere – dichiarano gli organizzatori - la situazione politica nella Striscia di Gaza, di tragica attualità, non può e non deve trasformarsi in un’occasione che possa dare origine a rigurgiti razzisti; l’auspicio è che le armi cedano il passo alla diplomazia affinché si possa trovare una soluzione ed una prospettiva di pacifica convivenza fra le parti in guerra, cosa che forse potrebbe essere possibile se l’integralismo, religioso o politico che sia, lasciasse spazio alla tolleranza e al reciproco rispetto».

Read Full Article (in Italian)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Slovenia -- Maribor synagogue defaced

Maribor synagogue, Jan. 18, 2009 -- photo from Slovenian Press Agency

Several synagogues in Europe have been the target of vandalism (or worse) linked to the situation in Gaza.

The latest is the historic former synagogue in Maribor, Slovenia, which was daubed with anti-Semitic graffiti over the weekend -- click HERE to see more pictures showing the walls of the building covered with "Judan Raus" and "Gaza."

The synagogue in Maribor, now used as a cultural center, is one of Slovenia's most important Jewish heritage sites and one of the oldest known synagogues in Europe.

It stands in the heart of the medieval Jewish quarter (still known as Zidovska ulica) and is believed to date from the 13th century. Its exact date and original appearance are unknown, however. Already in 1501 -- a few years after the Jews were expelled from that part of Slovenia -- it was converted into a church. It functioned as a church until the late 18th century. In the early 19th century it was sold and turned into a warehouse and, later, a dwelling.

Long empty, the building was renovated in the 1990s and reopened as a cultural center in 2001. The only physical evidence that the building was once a synagogue is the large niche in the eastern wall, presumably for the Ark. Also, numerous stone fragments with carved Hebrew inscriptions were found during excavations for the renovation.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Off Topic -- but a Pause that Refreshes the Soul

This video clip has nothing to do with Jewish Heritage travel, but I'm taking a cue from the Klezmer Shack's Ari Davidow and posting it anyway! After all, the artists, the song and the circumstances are deep within my own cultural/political/musical genes -- so maybe it at least has to do with Jewish parents used to talk about how they had drunk beer with Woody Guthrie back in the 1940s, and Guthrie's LP "Bound For Glory", with narration by Will Geer, was one of the records that wafted me to sleep as a child (the other two big ones were Paul Robeson's "Songs of Free Men", and the original cast recording of "Carousel.")

So -- Bruce Springsteen backs Pete Seeger as he leads hundreds of thousands of people at the big concert for Obama at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, singing a full version of "This Land Is Your Land."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Emotions on Visiting a Jewish Cemetery in (East-Central) Europe

Nazna, Romania, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Visiting a Jewish cemetery in Europe, and particularly in East-Central Europe, can be an emotional experience.

This holds true whether you go there as a volunteer helping clean up an abandoned cemetery overgrown by weeds and trees, or as someone on a roots trip looking for a long-lost, or long-forgotten, family grave, or as a "straight" tourist interested in history or the powerful imagery of tombstone art.

In the introductory chapter of Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe I addressed these emotions, describing how I myself felt when I began exploring these sites.
I became absolutely mesmerized, even a little obsessed with what I was seeing. I wanted to visit, touch, see, feel as many places as I could. I almost felt it a duty. As I entered broken gates or climbed over broken walls into cemeteries where a Jew may not have set foot in years, I wanted to spread my arms and embrace them all, embrace all the tombstones, all the people buried there, all the memories.
In the first editions of the book, I added a further sentence, describing how I projected my thoughts toward these all so often forgotten places: I'm here, I told them mentally; SOMEONE is here.

Back then, my trips were voyages of discovery. Everything was new; there was little literature on the subject, few visitors had made their way to such sites, and there were few efforts to preserve, maintain or restore them. But even today, after scholars and genealogists and tour guides have studied and mapped and documented almost everything -- I still feel the pull.

An eloquent expression of the power of this pull -- one that in many ways mirrors my own feelings -- was recently published in the Jerusalem Post. It's an article called "The Other Side," by Jonathan Gillis, who had taken part in a project to restore the Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa, Poland. The article is a tribute to the late Aryeh Geiger, the founder and head of the Reut School in Jerusalem, who also instituted the
school's project to restore Jewish cemeteries in Poland. I did not know Geiger, who died at the end of 2008.

Gillis describes working to find stones hidden by ivy and undergrowth and heaving to right them and turn them over. And he describes reading a letter, originally composed by Geiger, that imagines how the individual people whose lives are marked by the individual stones might address the strangers who had suddenly come into their midst to seek them out, restore them to light and, thus, restore them also to memory:

I chose a tombstone quite near to the main path running through the cemetery. It was one I'd uncovered myself that morning, as I'd searched about under the ivy with my metal bar: the tombstone of an avrech - a young unmarried man stricken down in the prime of his youth. His name, which looked like Ya'acov, had been partly chipped off the stone, though the name of his father, Naftali, was clearly there, and also the date he had died.

I sat down on the ground next to the grave and lit the candle, and then opened the folded-up paper and, by the candlelight in the gathering gloom, read the letter Aryeh had once written in his own hand: "Dear Friend," it read, "First of all I wanted to say thank you to you for coming to visit me from the Holy Land. When you all entered my little fortress by the gateway, I was sure I was hallucinating and that my mind was deceiving me. Of course I don't have eyes or a body, and quite possibly my bones have long since disintegrated... however my spirit and soul are very much here and alive in this cemetery.

"I don't know why you came to me now. I know that you have cleaned me and restored me and my friends, and we all feel as if our spirits have been splendidly brought back to life by this.

"You know I too was alive once, breathed the air, loved, hiked, prayed; I was also once a very proud Jew. Then, after I left the world, it made me sad when the undergrowth came and hid me. I felt neglected and abandoned. And then, suddenly, you appeared, reconnected with my soul and 'revived' me.

"If you don't mind, I would like to ask you a few questions - from 'the other side' as it were... from behind the screen - the world that you call 'the world of truth' (though my soul is actually present right here this evening) - just a few questions from me to you: Who are you really?

"What brought you to me and what was it really that made you decide to visit me and revive me? How beautiful is the Land of Israel - is it important to you that you are an Israeli?

"Do you gain satisfaction from being Jewish?

"For as long as you're on 'the other side,' what is it you want to do with your life?

"Will you remember me when you leave here?

"What is it in your view that gives life value?

"I do hope you'll think about these questions because I would like you to continue talking with me. Even if you leave me here, I'd still like to stay in touch. I'd like you to remember me always, and always feel free to talk with me (a dialogue of souls).

"On behalf of myself and all my friends, I am very grateful. Now my soul really does dwell in the realm of life.

"With love, and thanks, your tombstone."

Read Full Article

Back in 1991, while researching the first edition of Jewish Heritage Travel, I had an almost mystical experience in the old Jewish cemetery in Nazna, near Targu Mures, Romania. Here, in a sort of clearing in the center, I found one stone shaped almost like a human being; its back even curved like the back of a living person. I somehow felt a living presence. Not that the stone was "alive", but that it embodied a strong, surviving spirit. A man, a mentsch. I was very reluctant to leave. The man buried here was named Moses, son of Israel. His epitaph tells us that he was a man of integrity; the carved decoration represents a crown, and an upside-down heart pierced by an arrow.

I keep a picture of me and the stone tacked to the bulletin board above my desk -- the stone stood upright, almost as tall as I am. It was early early spring; barren and still chill.

When I visited Nazna again, 15 years later, I was as excited to revisit that stone as I would have been to revisit a friend I hadn't seen in that long a time...This time it was summer, and the fruit trees planted since I had last been there made a rich, green, leafy bower. The stone seemed to be more tilted over, as if by added age. Its carved decoration, too, was more blurred. Still, the connection was there. I felt the same spirit, only a little older perhaps, like me. It was still a man, a mentsch. And it was great to see him.

Nazna, Romania, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Italy -- New Museum of Memory and Welcome

Many (many) years ago, while driving near the beautiful baroque city of Lecce in the very heel of the Italian boot, I was startled to pass by a building with Hebrew lettering on its wall....I didn't stop to find out what that was all about, and I've never really remembered just where it was, but given the inauguration of a new museum near Lecce this week, the Hebrew must have had something to do with the seacoast village of Santa Maria al Bagno, near Nardo.

Here, on Jan. 14, museum commemorating tens of thousands of Jewish Holocaust refugees was opened -- the Museum of Memory and Welcome (Museo della Memoria e dell'Accoglienza).

Between 1943 and 1947 as many as 150,000 Jews fleeing Europe for Palestine, then still under British control, found shelter in and around Nardo. The museum, designed by the Rome architect Luca Zevi, was opened in Santa Maria al Bagno, which was one of the main refugee centers. Here, Jewish institutions including a synagogue, canteen, orphanage and hospital were set up.

Three newly restored murals painted by one of the refugees, Romanian-born Zivi Miller, form the centerpiece of the museum. The murals were painted on a building that was long abandoned -- maybe these are what I glimpsed from the car window. One shows a lighted menorah; one depicts the journey of Jews from southern Italy toward Palestine, and the third shows a Jewish mother a child asking a British soldier to allow them to enter.

For Italian-readers, here's a link to the local town web site, which has pictures of the ceremony.

It sounds like a fascinating place -- and I hope to be able to make the long trip down there later in the year.

Pisa -- Vandalized Synagogue Already in Bad Repair

I filed a brief story for JTA about a vandal attack this week on the synagogue in Pisa, probably linked to the crisis in Gaza. Five eggs filled with red paint were thrown at the buildings facade, leaving five red splashes, like blood.

The Pisa Mayor said the city will take care of cleaning up the damage. But the sad fact is that the synagogue as a whole is a very bad repair. Writing on, the web site of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Journalist Piera Di Segni says it is in a "particularly alarming" state, closed for use for more than a year because of serious structural damage and a hole in the roof. Photographs on the site show missing tiles in the roof.

You can see an earlier article, from last summer, in the Florence newspaper La Nazione, by clicking HERE.

The synagogue was built in the 16th century (transforming an earlier medieval structure) and remodeled in the 1860s by the architect Marco Treves.

The article is part of a series the site is posting on Jewish cultural heritage in Italy.

For Italian-readers, I'm posting Piera Di Segni's entire article below. You can see the entire series at the culture section of the site.

pisaBeni da salvare 6
Pisa: “La sinagoga è in pericolo”

Nel panorama del patrimonio artistico ebraico italiano c’è una situazione particolarmente allarmante: la sinagoga di Pisa. Inagibile a causa di gravi danni al tetto e alle strutture, è chiusa da oltre un anno. “Noi qui svolgevamo le funzioni religiose il sabato e le feste, ora siamo costretti a pregare nel sottoscala”, è il grido di dolore che arriva da Guido Cava, presidente della comunità. La situazione danneggia prima di tutto la vita religiosa della comunità, ma non solo: ”la sinagoga era aperta alle scolaresche di tutta la regione che facevano qui delle visite guidate e imparavano qualcosa sulla nostra storia, sull’ebraismo“ aggiunge il presidente. Il fatto che sia chiusa “è un danno per tutta la collettività”.
Al piano terra, alla base di un ampio scalone, sono sistemati alcuni banchi e un Aron, un oratorio improvvisato dove gli ebrei di Pisa, nell'ultimo anno, si sono adattati a fare tefillah.
pisa-tettoE quando si entra nella sala di preghiera, al primo piano, si notano subito i segni dei danneggiamenti: crepe che si aprono come ferite lungo i muri e la volta, macchie di umidità che mangiano a poco a poco i colori delle decorazioni, macchie bianche di intonaco che tradiscono interventi fatti con urgenza, per bloccare danni maggiori.
Salendo fino al matroneo, più vicino alla volta, sono ancora più visibili i danni provocati dal lento e inesorabile stillicidio dell'acqua penetrata attraverso il tetto, che si era infiltrata anche nell'Aron, l’armadio che custodisce i rotoli della Legge.
La sinagoga di Pisa, in via Palestro, nei pressi del Teatro Verdi e non lontano dall’Arno, fu ristrutturata nelle sue forme attuali a metà dell’800, modificando un tempio che risaliva al 1500, nato a sua volta dalla trasformazione di antichi edifici medievali.
Il progetto fu affidato all’architetto Marco Treves, nato a Vercelli, protagonista dell’architettura sinagogale dell’epoca dell’emancipazione in Italia: nell’archivio della comunità sono conservati alcuni suoi disegni autografi che illustrano il progetto col sapore del tempo. La facciata è semplice, ma ben riconoscibile dall’esterno. La sala di preghiera, sobria ed elegante, in stile neoclassico, è illuminata da ampie finestre sui due lati; il matroneo è sorretto da colonne e la sala è sormontata da una volta ricca di decorazioni.
“La volta è una carena di nave rovesciata: sotto al tetto ci sono delle doghe di legno, dei travicelli che sorreggono un incannucciato. Questa base di cannette è stata intonacata a calce e poi sono state fatte le decorazioni, che sono tempere, non affreschi”, spiega l’ingegner Piero Cesare Rini.
La volta ha subito gravi danneggiamenti: crepe, macchie di muffa e di umidità sono i segni visibili di un danno ancora più grave. Un anno fa forti infiltrazioni d’acqua hanno provocato un crollo del tetto. Approfittando del varco i piccioni vi hanno nidificato, producendo quintali di guano e peggiorando la situazione. Il danno è stato tamponato provvisoriamente, con un primo intervento d’urgenza di 35.000 euro finanziato con i fondi della legge 175. Ma le strutture e la volta corrono seri rischi. “La copertura a volta e il tetto sono interconnessi tra di loro, non possono essere smontati e rimontati, vanno restaurati” sottolinea l’ingegner Rini. Si prospetta dunque un intervento molto delicato e complesso che viene ad aggiungersi al complessivo progetto di restauro architettonico e archivistico per il quale sono stati richiesti i finanziamenti della legge 175 per oltre 600 mila euro.
“Il meccanismo dei finanziamenti è complicato” spiega Federico Prosperi, un giovane medico che, da volontario, si occupa degli aspetti burocratici “prima si fa il lavoro poi, a consuntivo, arrivano i rimborsi. Per una comunità piccola come quella di Pisa è molto difficile trovare i fondi da anticipare, e si tratta di centinaia di migliaia di euro”.
La chiusura della sinagoga sottrae agli ebrei di Pisa il loro centro vitale, ma piano piano si affrontano le varie fasi del restauro: alcuni lavori sono già stati effettuati, iniziando da un importante lavoro sull'impianto elettrico. La speranza è che attraverso i finanziamenti richiesti questa bella sinagoga torni ad essere il centro della vita della comunità e venga e restituita alla città, come parte importante della storia e della cultura ebraica, ma anche pregevole testimonianza del patrimonio artistico italiano.

Piera Di Segni

Berlin - Major Conference on Jewish Cultural Treasures in Europe after the Holocaust

A major conference on Jewish Cultural Treasures in Europe after the Holocaust will take place at the Jewish Museum in Berlin on Jan. 24-25. The conference comes at the conclusion of the exhibition "Looting and Restitution. Jewish Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present," which has been running at the museum since September.

The conference topics look fascinating and important, and I wish I could go, but logistics (and finances) will probably not permit me...

More information about the exhibition and the conference can be found at the Jewish museum web site.

Meanwhile, here is the program:

Saturday, 24. January 2009

10.00 Introduction
Inka Bertz, Jewish Museum Berlin

10.30 Reconstructing Jewish Cultural Landscapes - The »Tentative Lists«
Project 1944-1948
Elisabeth Gallas, Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at
Leipzig University

11.15 Hashavat Avedah: JCR, Inc. and the Rescue of Heirless Jewish Cultural
Property After WW II
Dana Herman, Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives,

13.30 To Whom Do the Jewish Cultural Treasures Belong after 1945? Conflict
of Interests in the City of Frankfurt am Main
Katharina Rauschenberger, Jewish Museum Frankfurt am Main

14.15 The Situation in Berlin 1945-1953

15.00 Displaced on Three Continents. The Fate of the Material Heritage of
the Jewish Community in Vienna
Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, Jewish Museum Wien

16.15 What Happened in Prague?
Michaela Sidenberg, Jewish Museum in Prague

17.00 Dealing with the Jewish Cultural Assets in Post-War Poland
Nawojka Cieslinska-Lobkowicz, Art Historian and Provenance Researcher,

17.45 The Jewish Historical Institute as a Repository for Jewish Cultural
Treasures in Poland
N. N.

Sunday, 25. January 2009

10.00 A Matter of Conscience? Legal and Moral Aspects of Dutch Restitution
Julie Marthe Cohen, Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

10.45 The Fate of Jewish-Owned Cultural Treasures in Paris and in France
Laurence Sigal, Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Paris

11.30 Looted Jewish Art and Cultural Properties in Italy. The Difficult
Restitution and Compensation after 1945
Paola Bertilotti, Sciences-Po, Paris / Ecole Normale Supérieure Lettres et
Sciences Humaines, Lyon

13.45 Lviv 1944 - Now. Jewish Cultural Objects and Property. Some Cases and
Tarik Cyril Amar, Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, Lviv

14.30 Restitution Issues in Post-War Romania
Hildrun Glass, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

15.15 »Disappeared?« The Fate of Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts in Hungary
after 1945
Eszter Gantner, ELTE University of Budapest - Center for Central European
German Jewish Culture

16.00 Final discussion: Open Questions, Ongoing Controversies

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Belarus -- Brest Jewish Museum?

The web site of the Federation of the Jewish Communities of the CIS reports thata campaign is under way to establish a Jewish section in the municipal museum in Brest, Belarus.

BREST, Belarus – In the Belarus city of Brest, the Jewish community association “Brisk” has begun undertaking a campaign for establishing a Jewish section in the municipal museum. The first initiatives to be taken are the collection of materials and items to display once this section has been created.

Towards this end, Boris Bruk, the Chairman of the Jewish community of Brest, is leading the establishment of a special council to close manage the collection and accumulation of materials on the life and development of the local Jewish community, including its foundation and distant past.

According to Boris Bruk, the collection for the future museum exhibition is already starting to come together. These materials include pieces from the traveling exhibition “The Jews of Brest”, which was previously organized by Arkady Blyaher, the local representative of the ‘Holocaust’ Center.

The Jewish community of Brest appeals to the public for assistance from anyone who may have access to or provide assistance with regards to collecting materials for the museum, and expresses its gratitude in advance to anyone able to aid in this matter. Boris Bruk is reachable via mobile telephone at +375 (29) 635-51-53 or via e-mail at

The Jewish community of Brest is a full and active member of the Association of Jewish Communities of Belarus and, as such, of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and Baltic Countries.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ukraine -- Zhovkva

Under the arcade on Zhovkva's main square. You can see where a mezuzah was affixed. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

As reported earlier on this blog, I visited Zhovkva, near L'viv, in November, after attending the conference on Jewish history and heritage.

Here's a link to my article about Zhovkva -- including more than the synagogue -- published in the International Herald Tribune.


By Ruth Ellen Gruber
Jan. 12, 2009

ZHOVKVA, UKRAINE -- In Renaissance Italy, artists and master architects theorized that the ideal proportions for a city could be derived from those of the human form. Some even made drawings superimposing town plans onto the bodies of men.

Half a millennium later, Lubomyr Kravets, the director of the tourist office in the little town of Zhovkva, just north of L'viv, unfolded a local map to show me how that theory had been put into practice here in western Ukraine.

"See" he said, pointing. "Zhovkva looks like a human body. The castle here is the head, and the big church over this way is the heart. The four entrance gates in the town walls were the arms and legs."

Zhovkva was founded in 1594 as a private fortress town by the Polish military commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski. It was one of several fortified towns in what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that were conceived as "ideal cities" and built by architects and master masons from Italy.

Read Full Article

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ukraine -- Jewish Cemetery Photos from Trix Rosen

Jewish cemetery, Cernivtsi, Ukraine. July 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The American photographer Trix Rosen used my book Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe to chart a recent trip through Ukraine. She and a friend visited Chernivtsi, Sadhora, Kremenets, Sataniv, and Sharhorod as well as the pilgrimage tombs in Uman and Medzhybizh.

She has posted an essay about her trip and some of the photographs she took on her web site -- click HERE to view.

I've posted some of my own photos from Bolekhiv and elsewhere in Ukraine on this blog, and you can see more of my photographs from Ukraine in the photo section of my web site -- click HERE. (Photos from elsewhere can be accessed through the mail "Photos" page.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Poland -- Jozefow Jewish Cemetery Cleaned Up

The historic Jewish cemetery in Jozefow Bilgorajski in eastern Poland has been cleaned up, thanks to a project that was co-financed by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

The Foundation has posted a photo gallery showing the cemetery after the clean-up work.

Jews settled in Jozefow in the 18th century, and by 1921 nearly 80 percent of the local population was Jewish. A very nice baroque-style synagogue, built in the late 18th or early 19th century, now serves as the town library.

Jozefow 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The oldest tombstones in the cemetery date from the 1760s. I visited there in the summer of 2006, when I was doing the updates for Jewish Heritage Travel. The local librarian was very helpful, giving me explicit instructions how to find the cemetery, located near quarries on a hill just outside town. Access is via a dirt road off Kamienna street.

Parts of the cemetery were -- sort of -- clear, or at least fairly accessible, even in "high weed" season. But much of the cemetery was jungle.... Here are some photos to compare how it was, with the pictures on the FODZ site showing the area after clean-up.

Photos (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber -- on Youtube and I-Tunes, based online and (physically) in Vienna, carries out research, educational and creative projects on Jews in central Europe. Much of its work is based on family photographs and indepth interviews. It is directed by my old friend and traveling companion, the photographer Edward Serotta -- I write a semi-regular travel column for it.

Among Centropa's projects are brief documentary films based on its photo collections and interviews. They provide unique insights into how Jewish life in mainly pre-WW2 central Europe looked, felt and was experienced.

These are now available for viewing on YouTube and downloadable as video podcasts on iTunes (go to the iTune store and search for centropa).

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Poland -- Yale Strom Remembers Henryk Halkowski

Yale Strom, the klezmer musician, writer and filmmaker, has been exploring eastern Europe and its Jewish culture for decades.... He send this vivid and loving recollection of Henryk Halkowski.
The news of Henryk's death both shocks and saddens me. I've known Henryk (or Tsvi, as I always called him) since 1984. Tsvi, along with Jerzy Kichler and Joasia Swieciki (my former wife), formed the nucleus of the revival of Yiddish culture in Krakow before the wall came down. This was 6 years before the first Krakow Jewish Festival. After Jerzy moved to Wroclaw and took over the leadership of the Jewish club there, Tsvi became the leader of the Jewish club of Krakow. All my forays to Krakow over 20 years included visits and meals with Tsvi, and a performance and lecture at his club. Tsvi represented a group of young Jews - almost a forgotten generation - born to survivors in the late 40's-early 50's, who for myriad reasons never married. An only son, Tsvi was extraordinarily loyal and devoted to his parents, and then to his mother once his father passed away. Tsvi was offered a scholarship to study and lecture at NYU, but turned it down to stay with his mother, who was originally from Vienna. Tsvi is featured in several of my documentary films, because he was, in my opinion, the most knowledgeable Jew about Krakow Jewish history and folklore. After the wall came down and with the seeds of Jewish culture sprouting, Tsvi was an integral part of this movement. He was linked with the Jewish festival, where he gave insightful commentary (often at an RPM that rivals my own) on papers he'd written, including several of his books. He was able to bridge the divide between the old Jews of Krakow, who had a certain amount of power and status in the 1970's and '80's and the new Jews who participated in the revival. I last saw Tsvi in September of 2008, when he gave me his usual pungent and satirical historical insight into the erection of the new apartment building that will shamefully tower over the Remuh's cemetery. As I had every other time since 1984, I walked away from this meeting laughing and crying and savoring our conversation. Wherever one walked in Kaczimiercz, regardless of the time of day or night (and Tsvi particularly liked to walk the streets at night), you couldn't help but run into him, then have a drink, then have a meal. I endearingly called him "The Mayor of Kaczimiercz". Tsvi's last project was editing Khasidic stories of the Bratslaver Rebe and we talked about this over latkes at the Klezmer-Hois. His intellect was eclipsed only by his gentle sweetness. His ghost, like so many others, will hover over Krakow. The world will truly miss this "pintele Yid".

Friday, January 2, 2009

Sad News from Krakow -- Death of Henryk Halkowski

The inimitable Henryk Halkowski, one of foremost (and colorful) Jewish personalities in contemporary Poloand, died in Krakow of a sudden heart attack around midnight the night of Jan. 1-2...He had turned 57 only a few days earlier.

A writer, translator and consumate luftmensch, Henryk possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish culture , lore, heritage and history in Krakow and introduced me and countless others to many of the citys Jewish mysteries.

Henryk was unique. I will write more about him in a later post.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Poland -- Orla Synagogue; a Fund-raising/consciousness-raising video

The wonderful synagogue in Orla, eastern Poland near Bialystok, needs restoration -- and the tireless Tomek Wisniewski has posted a YouTube video (in English and Polish) on it to help raise consciousness -- and, it is hoped, funding!

The striking synagogue, with a distinctive scalloped facade, was originally built in the 17th century. Its sanctuary has nine bays and a vaulted ceiling, and there are still some traces of marvellous painted decoration -- vines, garlands, floral motifs, and animals.

The building dominates the little town, where before the Holocaust Jews made up nearly 80 percent of the local population.

The synagogue was listed as a cultural heritage monument before World War II. Tomek reports that when it was all but destroyed in a huge fire in 1938, the Polish government stepped into to reconstruct and restore the building.

The synagogue was reconsecrated in 1939, but then the Nazis used it as a field hospital and later turned it into a warehouse for chemical fertilizer. For decades it has stood empty and in ever-deteriorating condition.

When I visited Orla in 1990, the entire facade was covered in rickety scaffolding and more scaffolding filled the sanctuary inside -- indeed, the outer front wall and entrance were restored then, and in the 1980s the building got a new roof.

There was talk that it would be restored for use as a local culture center -- back in 1990 the mayor and other town officials seemed obsessed by the project and eagerly showed us around the building. But funding dried up, and nothing ever materialized....

Tomek rightly suggests that, if the synagogue were restored, it would add an important component to a cluster of restored synagogues in northeast/eastern Poland that are used for cultural purposes and draw thousands of tourists.

These include the massive, 17th century synagogue at Tykocin, a wellknown Jewish museum.

The synagogue in Sejny, to the north near the border with Lithuania, is used as a theatre and exhibition space, forming part of the cultural complex utilized by the Borderland Foundation, an innovative cultural and educational organization that promotes knowledge of the multi-ethnic history of that part of Poland.

Synagogue in Sejny, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber