Monday, April 27, 2009

Belarus -- Synagogue destroyed in Luban

The Associated Press reports that a historic synagogue in the Belarus town of Luban, south of Minsk, is being destroyed to make way for a supermarket. Built in the 19th century, the synagogue is that where the influential orthodox rabbi Moshe Feinstein served before fleeing to New York in 1936. A handful of Jews live in the town today. Officials say the building is not protected as a monument.

LUBAN, Belarus – The roof has been removed and the windows stripped of their frames and glass. Piece by piece, workers are tearing down the former synagogue [. . .]

The synagogue's role in town history was only publicly recognized again in 1996, when a memorial plaque in English, Belarusian and Hebrew was put up on the building, which by then housed a medical clinic. [. . . ]

As the demolition began, the memorial plaque was moved to a nearby building, where it was attached with two crooked, rusty nails. [. . .]

No mention is made of Jews even at the Soviet-era memorial where 785 Jews were shot in November 1941 when the Luban Ghetto was liquidated. The victims are referred to only as "peaceful citizens."

Read full story

Germany -- "Juden" streets exhibit

Here's a head's up for an upcoming exhibit -- OK, it's in San Francisco, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and OK, it doesn't open until June, but it deals with Europe and the Museum web site already has a good interactive preview on line.

The exhibit is called The J. Street Project, by photographer/artist Susan Hiller. Hiller became fascinated by the number of streets in Germany referred to Jews and set out to track them down. Explains the Museum press release:
Artist Susan Hiller's chance encounter with a Berlin street called Judenstrasse (Jews Street) in 2002 was the unexpected experience that set into motion an arduous three year journey to find and photograph every street in Germany with the prefix Juden (Jews) in its name - a surprising 303 sites in all. Hiller was initially shocked, but mostly confused by this strangely ambiguous commemoration of people who had been exterminated not so long ago. "The Jews are gone," she says, "but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present."

The J.Street Project, an evocative exhibition that includes Hiller's photographs and a film, is the result of her long and fascinating look at this ambiguity. It is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum June 18 through October 6, 2009. A limited edition companion book is also available in the Museum's gift store.

At the heart of the exhibition are the more than 300 color photographs of busy boulevards, quiet country alleys and run-of-the-mill suburban streets. Pigment printed in an almost painterly fashion on watercolor paper and identically sized and framed, the images are hung in a seven-foot grid - a silent procession of thoroughfares and the signs that mark them. The mood of each image is distinct as the season, time of day and location change, but in each there is a sense of the unresolved nature of the historical status of these places. A snowy country lane lying along the railroad tracks, while charming, attests to a long and bleak legacy of discrimination and segregation when Jews were not allowed to use main roads and were restricted to paths on the outskirts of villages and towns. Some streets mark ancient Jewish settlements from as early as the 11th Century indicating the historical depth of Jewish life in Germany. A narrow city alley is a testament to how cramped and oppressive ghetto streets were.

And while most of the images are devoid of people, Hiller's camera captures many incidental and transient details - weather, buildings, cows, cars, a few children. "It's their everyday matter-of-fact-ness that makes the photographs unsettling," she says. "They convey an uncanny resonance by revealing connections between some very ordinary contemporary locations, history and remembrance, as the street signs repeatedly name what's missing from all these places."

The exhibition also features Hiller's 67-minute single-channel video that further interrogates the ordinariness surrounding the 303 street signs, which appear to be entirely overlooked by the current residents. Traffic stops at a light, an old man's hat blows off his head, birds flit by, people chat. But these banal moments exist in an uneasy tension with scenes that seem rife with a darker meaning - under a sign that reads Judengasse, another sign points the way to the train station. In the background, trains regularly appear and rush off. Hiller's footage, coolly shifting from emptiness to weightiness, makes no conclusion, but does make the appeal that the traces of history in our surroundings merit interpretation.

Displayed alongside the video and the photographs is a large-scale map of Germany with each location listed and pinpointed. "The multiplicity of these places over the entire country is very special," she says. "And it opens a very different picture of what happened during the Holocaust. Somehow my image had always been of people being rounded up in Berlin and taken away ... But thinking about what happened in a tiny rural village on an old street next to the church, where there had been a Jewish community for generations, evokes a very different picture."

Read more

Friday, April 24, 2009

Poland -- Photos of Synagogues

I came across this link to a public Picasa web gallery of photographs of Polish synagogues. Click HERE to see it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Poland -- Some new Jewish travel resources

I'm doing a little updating on Jewish Heritage Travel, for inclusion in the Hungarian edition of the book that is currently undergoing translation, and in doing so I have come across various new (or newish) web sites that are useful for Jewish heritage travelers. Some have downloadable maps and recommendations for accommodation and dining.

Here are a few of them -- I'll be posting more:

Poland Jewish Heritage Tours -- a new program launched by the Taube Foundation

Jewish Krakow -- I'm not sure who runs this new English language site

Jewish Lublin (with a downloadable map) -- English language site of the Lublin branch of the Warsaw Jewish Community

Sunday, April 19, 2009

(Candle)sticks on Stone -- Introducing My New Web Site

As I reported earlier, I have been awarded the first Michael Hammer Tribute Research Grant by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute for a project called “(Candle)sticks on Stone: Representing the Woman in Jewish Tombstone Art”.

Each year the HBI awards 20 to 30 grants to support academic and artistic projects about Jews and gender. My project was selected by the HBI board as "an exceptional research award" to be dedicated to the memory of Michael Hammer, the husband of one of the board members, who died last year.

My project centers around the richly decorated tombstones of women in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania, where my own great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, is buried. Many of these stones bear sometimes very elaborate depictions of candlesticks, and of women's hands blessing the flames.

As part of the project, I have set up a combined web site/blog on which I will post photo galleries and text related to my subject and also post blog entries chronicling my reflections and insights as I progress. There is also room for comment from visitors.

Please visit the site at

The site is in a continuing state of evolution and development -- so I hope you'll keep coming back!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Austria -- Jewish Guidebook to Salzburg

I'm delighted to note that Stan Nadel's walking tour guide to Jewish Salzburg has just been published in English. (The German edition came out a few years ago.) It's called Salzburg and the Jews: A Historical Walking Guide and is published by Wipf and Stock.

From the Preface:
When I moved to Salzburg in 2002 I followed in the footsteps of thousands of others and fell in love with this quaint old city and its beautiful surroundings. I am a historian by trade and I was enchanted with walking the city's streets and identifying where various historical events had taken place. I am also Jewish, so I read all I could about the history of Jews in Salzburg and began to fit what I learned into the geography of the streets and buildings that I so much enjoyed. As I learned more about the city and its history, I found it unsettling to see the shadows of a very ugly past in the city I have come to love. I liked my first apartment, but I was not happy that one of Adolf Eichmann's associates lived in an apartment downstairs after it had been taken away from an elderly Jewish man...

There are many such shadows in Salzburg, but it remains a beautiful city with many attractions. I certainly do not want to discourage anyone from coming to Salzburg to enjoy, as I do, its beauty, culture, food and wonderful beers. To the contrary, I would like to encourage others to come and share my pleasure. But I also want to share what I have learned with visitors to Salzburg who might like to know about some aspects of its history that are often neglected by the standard tourist guidebooks.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My latest Moked comment (in Italian) -- Passover in Radauti

My latest photo and comment on the Italian web site harks back to the Passover seder I spent in 1991 in Radauti, Romania, the town from which my grandparents emigrated to the USA.

Passover 1991, Radauti. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
Il Seder di Pesach. Una cerimonia antica. Una cerimonia vissuta in famiglia o fra amici, raffigurata qui in una immagine che è abbastanza vecchia, ma, nel mio cuore e nella mia memoria, rimane senza tempo. E' Pesach del 1991, a Radauti, una cittadina nel nord della Romania da dove, un secolo fa, i miei nonni erano emigrati in America. Siamo una ventina di persone, quasi tutti anziani, seduti in una stanza della sinagoga. Fa freddo. Portiamo maglie e capotti. C'è un solo ragazzo, il figlio del presidente della piccolissima comunità, che ha cantato le quattro domande del Ma Nishtanà. Il Seder è finito. Abbiamo mangiato il kugel di matzot, uova sode, manzo stufato con patate. Abbiamo bevuto un vino dolce che viene da Israele. Le fiamme delle candele si spengono. L'uomo che ha condotto il Seder è stanco. Canta con una voce molto debole. E lui è unico fra i presenti che ricorda ancora della mia famiglia. Dopo la cena, cantiamo il tradizionale, Had Gadya. Conosco una melodia. Un amico venuto con me da Bucarest ne propone un'altra. E il vecchio intona, con un filo di voce, un' altra melodia, una melodia molto particolare, che non ho mai sentito. Canta, forse, nel modo in cui cantavano, anni e anni fa, i miei antenati.

The Passover Seder. An ancient ceremony. A ceremony observed with family or friends, shown here in an image that is rather old, but, in my heart and memory, remains timeless. It is Pesach 1991, in Radauti, a small town in the north of Romania, from which, a century ago, my grandparents emigrated to America. We are about 20 people, almost all elderly, seated in a room of the synagogue. It is cold. We wear sweaters and coats. There is only one boy, the son of the president of the tiny Jewish community, who chanted the Four Questions. The Seder is over. We ate matzo kugel, hard-boiled eggs, stewed beef with potatoes. We drank sweet wine imported from Israel. The flames of the candles are sputtering out. The man who conducted the Seder is tired. He said with a very weak voice. And he is the only person here who still remembers my family. After the meal, we sing the traditional song, Had Gadya. I know one melody. A friend who came with me from Bucharest knows another. And the old man sings, with a quavering voice another melody, a very particular melody, one that I had never heard before. He sings, perhaps, the way that, years and years ago, my own ancestors sang.

Belarus -- Jewish Tombstones Discovered in Brest

A Belarus newspaper reports that a trove of Jewish tombstones -- apparently used by the Nazis to pave a parade ground -- has been unearthed in central Brest during excavations for an outpatient clinic. During World War II a Gestapo headquarters stood at the spot.

The first tombstone was discovered as soon as workers removed the asphalt layer on April 8 and a total of 12 tombstones were found as of Friday.

The tombstones, which are some 50 centimeters wide and about 150 centimeters tall, appear to have been removed from the graves of rabbis by Nazi troops. [...]

All tombstones are to be taken to the Brest Fortress war memorial, where some 2,000 such pieces are already kept. They are expected to be used in the creation of a memorial at the site where a Jewish cemetery once was and where the Lakamatyw stadium was built later.

Read Full Article

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Lithuania -- More News about the Vilna Jewish Library

The Jewish Press has run a long article by Rosally Saltsman updating Wyman Brent's ambitious efforts to create a Jewish library in Vilnius. Brent has also issued an appeal for CDs, LPs, tapes and other material to create a Jewish music section of the library.

He's not Jewish, he's not Lithuanian and he's not a librarian, but Wyman Brent, an American from San Diego, is building a Jewish library in Vilna. The library is the melding of Brent's three loves - books, Lithuania and Jewish culture. It's sort of the culmination of an odyssey, which has taken him to various parts of the world and through many periods in history.

Hopefully, the library will open its doors in a couple of months, but its official opening is scheduled for October 1, 2009, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Vilna Gaon Museum, which is donating the space.

The 46-year-old self-appointed librarian first came to Lithuania in 1994. "I felt at home. It felt like the place where I belonged." He had come to Russia to see the country and had read a book called The Hills of Vilnius (Alfonsas Bieliauskas and M. Ryley). So he came to see the city, which was described so beautifully in the book.

Brent isn't Jewish and to his knowledge, there are no Jews in his centuries-old family tree. What began as a fascination with WWII and the Holocaust led to his traveling to Europe and visiting places of Jewish culture. On a 1993 visit to Prague, he was struck by the contrast between an exhibition of drawings by children from the concentration camps who had been killed, and that of the Jewish cemetery outside where he saw a rabbi walking with his students. And Wyman thought, "It's wonderful that Judaism is still so very much alive."

Read Full Article
Wyman can be reached by email at:, or by phone at 370 5 2625357.

Books can be sent to him at: Wyman Brent, Ausros Vartu 20-15A, Vilnius LT-02100,

The Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum is located at: Pylimo 4 Vilnius (Vilna) Lithuania.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Prague -- Michelle Obama Visits the Jewish Quarter

Photo (c) Jewish Museum Prague

While President Barack Obama held his political meetings, his wife Michelle became the latest of the millions of tourists who have visited Prague's famous Jewish quarter. She was accompanied by two of her husband's top advisors, both of them Jewish -- Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod -- and also met local Jewish leaders.

Here's the press release put out by the Museum:

The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, accompanied by the US president’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod, political consultant, visited Prague’s Jewish Town today. Mrs. Obama first looked round Pinkas Synagogue, where she honoured the 80,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah from Bohemia and Moravia, whose names are inscribed on the synagogue walls. After listening to an exposition on the prayer house’s history, the First Lady was particularly interested in the story of the children’s drawings from the Terezín ghetto, over 200 of which are on display on the upper floor of the synagogue. Michaela Sidenberg, the Curator of Visual Arts at the Jewish Museum in Prague, said: “In preparing the museum tour for the First Lady, our starting point was what Michelle Obama has indicated several times in the past, namely that in her role as First Lady she intends to devote herself also to supporting programmes that focus on child education and on the importance of parents’ involvement in the education process. I believe that the experimental educational programme that the avant-garde artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944) organized in Terezín and the children’s story itself were of great interest to the First Lady. In addition to the copies of artworks on display in the permanent exhibition, Mrs. Obama also had the opportunity to see an original collage by Marie Mühlstein (1932–1944), who, like the majority of children imprisoned in Terezín, did not survive the Nazi persecution.” After her tour of Pinkas Synagogue, the First Lady then went to the Old Jewish Cemetery, where she stopped by the graves of important figures from Prague’s Jewish history: the scholar and poet Avigdor Kara, whose tombstone (dating from 1439) is the oldest in the cemetery; the distinguished patron and mayor of the Jewish community Mordecai Maisel (d. 1601); and the renowned rabbi and Kabbalist Judah Loew ben Bezalel – Rabbi Loew, also known by his acronym MaHaRaL (1525?–1609) – who is the most important figure buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery and who died exactly 400 years ago. Following the old Jewish tradition, the First Lady placed a kvitl – a folded piece of paper with a personal wish – on the rabbi’s grave. Leo Pavlát, the Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, added: “It is a great honour for us that Mrs. Obama chose to visit Prague’s former Jewish Town among other sights of the city. This testifies to the uniqueness of the Jewish monuments and to the important role that an awareness of Jewish culture can play in education, the promotion of tolerance, democracy and the sharing of human values. We co-operate with a number of institutions throughout the world and along with Prague Jewish school and kindergarten receive support from the U.S.-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which is of great importance to us. We are pleased that Mrs. Obama also expressed interest in this area of our activities.” After visiting the Old Jewish Cemetery, the First Lady then went to the Old-New Synagogue, which is the oldest European synagogue that is still used for religious purposes. She was greeted there by representatives of the Czech Jewish community: the Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic and Prague Efraim Karol Sidon, the Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic Jiří Daníček, the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic Tomáš Kraus, and the Chairman of the Jewish Community in Prague František Bányai with his wife. Looking round the interior of this unique Early Gothic building, Mrs. Obama’s interest was captivated particularly by the historical banner of the Prague Jewish Community with its emblem, the adornment of the Torah Ark and the seat on the east-facing side, which according to tradition belonged to Rabbi Loew. The Chairman of the Jewish Community in Prague František Bányai commented: “Mrs. Obama was probably pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and history of the Old-New Synagogue. Her visit was a quite extraordinary event in the synagogue’s more than 700-year history.” The First Lady of the United States was presented with a Kiddush cup and memorial medal for the 700th anniversary of the Old-New Synagogue by the representatives of the Czech Jewish community and several publications by the Jewish Museum.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My latest Moked comment (in Italian)

My latest comment on is from Los Angeles, where I was at Passover last year and went shopping in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on Pico near Robertson with my father and brother Frank:

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
Benvenuti all'Elat Market, una specie di "hard discount" kasher a Los Angeles, dove con mio padre e mio fratello ci siamo trovati fra la gente - molti di loro dalla comunità persiana - che freneticamente acquistava una galassia dei prodotti rigorosamente Kasher per Pesach. Lì e in altri negozi della zona abbiamo comprato anche noi matzot, cetriolini, rafano, un pollo per la minestra, e pesce macinato (per il babbo, cui piace preparare un gefillte fish vero e proprio). Mia nonna, la mamma del babbo, che era nata vicino Cernowitz, nel vecchio impero dell'Austria Ungheria, era immigrata in America da bambina, prima della Prima Guerra Mondiale. Aveva vissuto a lungo prima della sua morte a Los Angeles, e adesso diversi altri miei parenti vivono attorno alla metropoli californiana. Ogni volta che ci vado, mi rendo conto - con un po' di stupore - che nell'area di Los Angeles si trovano più ebrei di quelli che si trovano in tutta la Francia. Più o meno venti volte il numero degli ebrei che vivono oggi in Italia.

Lithuania -- Sale of Site in Vilnius Thwarted

Vilnius Ghetto memorial, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

JTA reports that the sale of the building that housed the World War II Vilnius ghetto Jewish library has been thwarted at the request of the U.S. Embassy:
The library building, which the World Jewish Restitution Organization and Lithuanian Jewish community identify as Jewish community property, housed 450,000 books of Jewish literature in Vilnius under the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1943.

Herbert Block, an executive vice president with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a top official with the restitution group, said the embassy in the Lithuanian capital had informed him by e-mail that the Foreign Ministry had acceded to the embassy's request to cancel the sale, which was to have taken place April 8. [. . . .]

The library is on a list of 438 buildings claimed as Jewish property that were taken over by the Communist government of Lithuania after World War II. The U.S. Embassy in Vilnius argued that the Lithuanian government should not be selling disputed properties.

In fact, the sale was not announced to any Jewish authorities but was uncovered by a local non-Jewish American activist in Vilnius, Wyman Brent, who alerted Jewish groups in the United States.

Read full story

I have posted information about Brent's attempts to form a Jewish library in Vilnius.

The Ghetto Library was an extremely important institution.

It was largely put together by Herman Kruk, an activist in the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland who fled Warsaw in September 1939 after the German invasion and ended up in Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish), which was under Soviet control until the Germans marched in on June 24, 1941.

Kruk kept a diary, which was translated and published in 2002 -- and makes extraordinary reading. It is The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944
(Edited and introduced by Benjamin Harshav, translated by Barbara Harshav. Yale University Press)

The following is my review of the book that appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle in 2002.
This book is the first English translation of what is considered a classic of Holocaust literature: the detailed, day to day chronicle of life (and death) in the Vilna ghetto and the Estonian labor camps Klooga and Lagedi. It is a monumental work, in all senses of the word: emotionally, culturally and – at more than 700 pages – even physically. And it is a monument not only to the millions of human beings killed in the Holocaust, but to rich, complex world of modern, East European Jewish culture and civilization that was annihilated. [.....]

Kruk was among tens of thousands of Jews herded into the Vilna ghetto on Sept. 6, 1941. Highly active in the ghetto’s political, cultural and social life, he built up a ghetto library that loaned out more than 100,000 books. He was sent to Klooga in September 1943 after the ghetto’s final liquidation and was executed by the Germans on Sept. 18, 1944, just one day before the Red Army arrived to liberate the camps.

Unlike most published first-hand accounts of the Shoah, which were written by survivors through the perspective lens of memory, Kruk’s diary tells the story in vivid, brutal, real time.
He did not know for sure that he was doomed, but he suspected he would not survive and regarded keeping his journal as a mission.“I know I am condemned and awaiting my turn, although deep inside me burrows a hope for a miracle,” he wrote at one point. “Drunk on the pen trembling in my hand, I record everything for future generations.”

Kruk’s eye-witness entries, often several made in the course of a day, include brief notes, longer descriptive reports, observations, personal reflections, poems, polemics and even jokes which weave together to form an immediate, relentlessly unfolding picture of a nightmare world within a world.
It was a world, he wrote, where “normal” took on a meaning of its own; where the unthinkable became commonplace; where people adapted themselves and their behavior to conform to unspeakable conditions. He records Nazi atrocities but also the evolution of an artistic and cultural life within the ghetto; he paints portraits of individuals and chronicles personal and even political clashes within the sealed Jewish universe.

Benjamin Harshav and his wife Barbara have performed a herioc feat in their editing and translation and deciphering of pages that over the years had been scattered to three continents. Harshav, born in Vilna, escaped as the Germans took the city and remembers first hand characters, settings and events.
The Harshavs based their work on the Yiddish version of Kruk’s Vilna ghetto diary, published in 1961. But they fleshed this out with hundreds of newly discovered manuscript pages and fragments, including the scrawled, scarcely legible journal Kruk compiled in the Estonian labor camps.

His last entry, “written with a trembling hand and with a thick pen” was made on Sept, 19, 1944. In it, Kruk records that he is burying his last diaries in the presence of six witnesses. One day later, along with hundreds of other Jews, he and five of those witnesses were shot and burned on a pyre. The only survivor went back, uncovered the loose pages and took them to Vilna.

In 1947, confiscated with other Jewish material by the Soviet authorities, they were slated for destruction as recycled paper. They were somehow saved by an individual Lithuanian, and only came to light again half a century later after the fall of communism.