Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Romania/Ukraine -- The Bucovina Cemeteries Guidebook is Launched

Jewish cemeter, Gura Humorului, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Swiss Diplomat Simon Geissbuehler's guidebook to Jewish cemeteries in the Bucovina region straddling the Romania-Ukraine border was launched last week in Bucharest and has been getting appreciative reviews in the local media. The book is available in various languages.

'This work is a combination of a tourist guide and an art album and I'm speaking of the fact that the text written by Simon Geissbuhler is in the form of a traveller's journal, but the images in the album make one think the work is an art album', said Adrian Manafu, the editor of Noi Media Print publishing house that published the volume.

Manafu, moreover, believes the Jewish cemeteries in Bucovina can be deemed genuine works of art. He explained the work refers the cemeteries in historical Bucovina, an old Romanian territory that has been shared by Ukraine and Romania after World War Two.

Read full story

I was glad to see that an article in one of the local media highlighted the sorry fact that the wonderful Jewish cemeteries in Bucovina are woefully ignored. The journalist Annett Muller picks up my own contention that these cemeteries could form the basis of a fascinating artistic a spiritual tourism route -- and she points out how the famous "Merry Cemetery" in Sapanta, with its brightly painted grave markers, is a popular attraction, even if it is in a fairly remote location. Few people realize that there is also a Jewish cemetery in Sapanta, well maintained and well marked.

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

I wrote the Foreword to the book, and Simon kindly pointed out an article in the local media where this was highlighted.

I am hoping to get to Radauti at the end of the summer, when a launch of the book is scheduled to take place there -- at the same time, I'll be working on my photo documentation of the beautifully decorated tombs of women in the Jewish cemetery there, a project for which I received a grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.

Vienna -- Michael Jackson and the Jewish Nose

In Vienna this weekend, I visited the Jewish Museum to see the exhibit "Typisch!" -- about Jewish and other ethnic stereotypes. The exhibition already has shown at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and at the Spertus Museum in Chicago. What should I find as one of the exhibits? Michael Jackson, who else....

So -- here's my latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column about the experience.....

Poster for Typical!," an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Vienna that features a photo of Michael Jackson used to illustrate how the singer tried to crush stereotypes. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Poster for Typical!," an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Vienna that features a photo of Michael Jackson used to illustrate how the singer tried to crush stereotypes. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)
Ruthless Cosmopolitan: Michael Jackson and the Jewish nose

By Ruth Ellen Gruber - June 29, 2009

VIENNA (JTA) -- Amid all the noisy outpouring over Michael Jackson's sudden death, the last place I expected to find him was in a Jewish museum. But there he was, his pale, mask-like, surgically engineered image featured as part of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in the Austrian capital.

Called "Typical! -- Cliches of Jews and Others," the exhibition deals with the use (and abuse) of ethnic stereotypes in popular culture. The exhibition, which runs until October, has been shown at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Spertus Museum in Chicago.

It was assembled long before Jackson died June 25 in Los Angeles.

In a life-size photograph from 2002, he is shown with lank black hair framing a long, square stubbly chin, pinched red mouth, huge made-up eyes and a tiny nose with distorted pointy tip.

The photo is used to illustrate how, for better or worse, the King of Pop attempted to destroy stereotypes and, literally, to cut himself away from the confines of physical definition.

Jackson's "surgical transformations mirrored back to the culture the blurring of boundaries demarcating adulthood, sex and even race," Guy Trebay wrote in The New York Times after Jackson's death.

The "Typical!" exhibition deals with stereotypes commonly used to categorize African Americans, Muslims, women, Native Americans and others.

But given that it is mounted at a Jewish museum, much of its focus is on stereotypes about Jews. The exhibition poster employs a few sketched strokes to conjure up some: corkscrew curls, a hat and a huge hooked nose.

Indeed, the multitude of variations on the (alleged) size and shape of the Jewish nose form a major theme.

"The paradigm for the 'typically Jewish' nose originated in the craniological studies of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach," an information panel informs. A German natural scientist who died in 1840, Blumenbach "claimed to have evidence that Jews had an especially prominent nasal bone."

Exhibit installations examine the misuse of this and other paradigms in "scientific" teaching, as well as the ways in which they became part of the vernacular shorthand that shapes the way we see others and ourselves.

A section called "the schnoz," for example, shows a collection of 19th century walking sticks whose handles are formed by exaggerated noses. The contemporary artist Dennis Kardon's installation "Jewish Noses” features dozens of larger-than-life-sized casts made from the noses of actual Jews to demonstrate the silliness of such nasal cliches. Also, a modern painting ironically comments on the love and success that are supposed to result if one has a nose job.

"I am often asked whether or not Jews have a 'Semitic' nose," reads an exhibition quote by the historian Sander Gilman, who has written extensively about Jewish stereotypes. "After 54 years of experience, I can only answer that every Jew I have ever met has a nose."

The inclusion of Jackson's picture in the mix highlighted the transformations his own nose infamously went through.

It also reminded me of a book I read some years ago, a vicious anti-Semitic satire called "The Operated Jew," that was written in 1893 by a German doctor named Oskar Panizza.

An attack on efforts by Jews to assimilate into mainstream society, the book is a creepy and extremely disturbing tale about how a Jew named Itzig Faitel Stern tries to rid himself physically of the stereotypical signs of his Jewishness and become a "modern" European.

Foreshadowing Jackson's experiences under the knife, Stern submits to radical procedures, including the straightening and bleaching of his hair, "Extreme Makeover"-style cosmetic surgery and a series of horrendous operations to straighten his bones. He even gets a full transfusion of "Christian blood."

"It is impossible for me to give the reader an account of all the garnishings, changes, injections and quackeries to which Itzig Faitel Stern submitted himself," the narrator states. "He experienced the most excruciating pain and showed great heroism so he could become the equivalent of an occidental human being."

In the end, it doesn't help. At his wedding to a Christian woman, all falls apart and Stern "reverts" to the ugliest anti-Semitic cliche of the Jew.

Panizza, an early exponent of Nazi-style racial anti-Semitism, set out to "prove" that Jews could never become part of the mainstream modern world, even if they physically attempted to change their skins.

It's not exactly clear what world Jackson was trying to become part of -- or leave -- with his surgeries and other transformations.

Artistically he was the ultimate crossover, winning fans of all colors, ages, religions, nationalities and sexual orientations all around the world. Over the years, though, he alienated some African Americans by his physical manipulation of identity and apparent ambivalence about his own blackness.

Death, though, appears to have brought Jackson back to his roots -- or in any case to a warm embrace by the African-American community.

“We want to celebrate this black man," the actor and singer Jamie Foxx said to cheers at the Black Entertainment Television Music Awards Sunday. "He belongs to us, and we shared him with everybody else.”

Foxx added, "It didn't matter what he looked like, it was all about what he sounded like. It didn't matter what his nose looked like -- I loved the old nose and the new nose."

Read Story on JTA

Czech Conference -- Declaration on Restitution etc

At the Prague conference on Holocaust Assets, forty-six countries have ratified a document aimed at easing the restitution process for Jewish property seized during the Holocaust.

The first comprehensive, multi-country document of its kind covering the issue of land confiscation together with survivor care, the declaration states: ''Noting the importance of restituting communal and individual immovable property that belonged to the victims of the Holocaust (Shoah) and other victims of Nazi persecution, the Participating States urge that every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property, which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups, the vast majority of whom died heirless.''

Here's a link to the JTA story by Dinah Spritzer.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Christian Science Monitor Article on Jewish Heritage

Check out Michael J. Jordan's article in the Christian Science Monitor about the issue of caring for Jewish hertiage in Europe. Michael sat in on some of the sessions at the March seminar on Jewish heritage in Bratislava, but the story runs as an advancer before this weekend's Holocaust Assets conference in Prague.

For architectural historian Maros Borsky, the story begins five years ago.

He was documenting the synagogues of Slovakia, which, like the rest of post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, saw its countryside depopulated of Jews, with most provincial synagogues abandoned. Slovakia itself has seen a war-time community of 137,000 shrink to some 3,000 Jews today, with only five of 100-plus synagogues functioning.

In the course of his work, Mr. Borsky came across a donor who wanted to renovate a rural synagogue. But which one?

"I realized it's important to create an audience for these synagogues, for Jews, non-Jews, locals, and tourists to learn there once was a community here – and what happened to it," he says.

The result of Borsky's work, the "Slovak Jewish Heritage Route" will soon connect 23 restored synagogues.

The Slovak project will be just one of scores discussed this weekend in Prague as representatives from 49 countries convene for the landmark Holocaust-Era Assets Conference. The agenda ranges from charting the progress made in returning Nazi-looted artwork and restituting Jewish property to caring for elderly survivors of the camps.

Read full article

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Croatia -- Jewish Tours in Zagreb

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've just been contacted about a new program that provides Jewish heritage tours of Zagreb, Croatia. They are being conducted by the recently formed Rimon Center for Jewish Education in the city.

Take a walk through ages, starting at 11th century foundation of Zagreb, over to the 14th century and the first arrival of Jews to Zagreb, through the golden years of late 19th and early 20th century, when Zagreb developed rapidly, with Jewish community reaching it's peak - just before almost completely perishing in the Shoah.

Our tour includes visits to all the landmarks and sites of Zagreb, with detailed insight into history of Jews in Croatia and surrounding areas, and the revival of Jewish life today.

I expect to be in Zagreb in a few days, and will check them out!

The city's Jewish community has been split by some very bitter personal (and ideological) conflicts in recent years. But there is quite a lot to see Jewishly that -- I hope -- would not mean having to get involved in local spats....

Prague -- Holocaust Era Assets Conference

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Holocaust Era Assets Conference convenes in Prague this weekend, gathering representives from many countries to deal with the unresolved issues of property restitution and recovery of art and other objects looted from Jews (and others) during and after the Shoah. You can see the program HERE. The meeting is a follow up to several other major international conferences on these issues.

More than six decades after World War II the terrible ghosts of the Holocaust have not disappeared. The perverse ideology that led to the horrors of the Holocaust still exists and throughout our continents racial hatred and ethnic intolerance stalk our societies. Therefore, it is our moral and political responsibility to support Holocaust remembrance and education in national, as well as international, frameworks and to fight against all forms of intolerance and hatred.

The stated aims of the conference are:

  • To assess the progress made since the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets in the areas of the recovery of looted art and objects of cultural, historical and religious value (according to the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and the Vilnius Forum Declaration 2000), and in the areas of property restitution and financial compensation schemes.
  • To review current practices regarding provenance research and restitution and, where needed, define new effective instruments to improve these efforts.
  • To review the impact of the Stockholm Declaration of 2000 on education, remembrance and research about the Holocaust.
  • To strengthen the work of the Task Force on International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, a 26-nation body chaired by the Czech Republic in 2007-2008.
  • To discuss new, innovative approaches in education, social programs and cultural initiatives related to the Holocaust and other National Socialist wrongs and to advance religious and ethnic tolerance in our societies and the world.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Romania -- New Guidebook News

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A Romanian web site (using my pictures....) is highlighting Simon Geissbuehler's new guide to Jewish cemeteries in the Bucovina, for which I wrote the Foreword. The launch of the book in Bucharest is this Friday.

Volumul intitulat „Cimitirele evreieşti din Bucovina” al diplomatului elveţian, dr. Simon Geissbühler, va fi lansat joi, 25 iunie a.c., ora 18.30, la IF Gallery din Str. Tokio nr. 1, Bucureşti. Publicată de editura „Noi Media Print”, cartea este disponibilă în română, germană, engleză, franceză şi ucraineană.

Vernisajul va cuprinde scurte alocuţiuni ale directorului editorial al editurii „Noi Media Print”, Adrian Manafu, ale preşedintelui Federaţiei Comunităţilor Evreieşti din România, dr. Aurel Vainer, şi ale autorului, deschiderea unei expoziţii de fotografie cu cimitirele evreieşti din Bucovina, cât şi un cocktail unde vor fi servite cele mai bune vinuri româneşti.

Celebra scriitoare, fotografă şi jurnalistă americană, Ruth Ellen Gruber, deţinătoare a două premii Simon Rockover pentru jurnalism iudaic, o autoritate în domeniul chestiunii evreieşti din Europa, a apreciat că “prin publicarea acestui ghid turistic Simon Geissbühler face un pas important, prezentând publicului larg o serie de localităţi minunate. Domnia sa deschide astfel, noi dimensiuni pelerinajului spiritual, adresându-se aparţinătorilor tuturor credinţelor şi orientărilor religioase, care doresc să intuiască nemijlocit frumuseţea, semnificaţia istorică şi vitalitatea cimitirelor evreieşti din Bucovina”.

La rândul său, preşedintele FCER, dr. Aurel Vainer, consideră că „această carte este şi trebuie să fie primul pas al autorului, la care ne alăturăm fără nici o rezervă, către un proces de cunoaştere şi recunoaştere a bogatei tradiţii culturale şi religioase evreieşti în sine şi ca parte din Patrimoniul Cultural Naţional”.

Spain -- Cemetery Controvery in Toledo Resolved

Philip Carmel, the executive director of the Jewish cemetery preservation organization Lo-Tishkach reports a successful conclusion to the controversy over about 100 graves dug up from the medieval Jewish cemetery in Toledo, Spain to make way for the expansion of a school that already occupies part of the cemetery site.

All the bones were reburied in their original grave sites at a ceremony on Sunday.

As Sam Gruber and I have noted in earlier blog posts, the Toledo construction was halted earlier this year after heated protests, including demonstrations outside Spanish embassies.

Phil makes clear that the government, local authorities and Jewish organizations cooperated to work out a satisfactory solution to the problem.

He writes:

I am pleased to inform you that yesterday, Sunday June 21, saw the reburial of all the bones removed from the medieval cemetery in Toledo. The remains were buried on site in the actual graves from which they had been removed. This was achieved after protracted negotiations which only reached fruition last Thursday in Madrid at which point we decided not to publicise details of the reburial until after it had concluded.

This remarkable and historic solution brings a satisfactory conclusion to a chapter which has seen a tremendous degree of solidarity and cooperation on the part of the Spanish government and the local Jewish federation and a willingness to work together with the Conference of European Rabbis and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe to achieve an amicable solution within the boundaries of Halachah.

At all times, we have insisted that the remains of these Toledo Jews should be buried in their chosen resting place and not transferred to another site. We are highly satisfied that the moving ceremony which took place yesterday in the presence of local Jewish leaders, heads of the regional authority of Castilla la Mancha, and the president of the CPJCE, Rabbi Elyokim Schlesinger has given the correct conclusion to our work.

I want to also state for the record our deep gratitude for the unstinting and dedicated work of Ambassador Ana Salomon and the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in assisting us to find a solution to this matter in the face of unwarranted protests and misinformation directed against the Spanish government and the local Jewish Federation.

I hope that our work to save this historic cemetery in Toledo will prove to be a prototype for how governments, local Jewish communities and representative Jewish organisations can work together for the benefit of preserving these cemeteries in Europe.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Krakow -- It's That Time of Year Again.....

Exhibition during Festival in the High Synagogue, 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

It's that time of year again, the run-up to the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, and articles are beginning to appear in newpapers and online....click here for one in the Jerusalem Post. According to the Festival's web site, the Festival recently took first place in a survey on what is Krakow's best product for tourists.

This year's festival has several points of interest that set it apart -- one will be the performance by the Other Europeans group of Yiddish and Gypsy (Lautari) musicians, part of a tour that is the culmination of this wonderful two-year project. The other is the selection of expanded day trips to shtetls in the Krakow area. Parts of the Festival will also be transmitted live on Internet.

I've attended most of the festivals in the past 20 years (it was founded in 1988) and have both taken part in them, giving talks or presentations of my books, and written about it in my books and in publications ranging from the International Herald Tribune to Polin, the scholarly annual on Polish-Jewish relations.

The article I wrote back in 1995 for the International Herald Tribune (now on the New York Times web site) still sums up much of the experience - what has changed is that Szeroka, the main square of the old Jewish quarter Kazimierz, is no longer very dilapidated, and that many more Jewish visitors now form part of the festival crowds.

On the rain-soaked main square of Krakow's dilapidated old Jewish quarter, thousands of Poles cheered, clapped, sang and danced well past midnight recently as klezmer bands playing traditional East European Jewish music and Israeli musicians sent their sounds blasting into the night.

The concert was the five-hour finale of the city's Fifth Festival of Jewish Culture — a festival that some have described as a "Jewish Woodstock."

Throughout the festival week, the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, and other parts of the city were the scene of concerts, theatrical performances, exhibitions, films, street happenings and workshops rooted in Jewish heritage.

Most of the performers and artists were Jews from the United States, Israel and Western Europe. But the overwhelming majority of the audience were non-Jewish Poles, joined by a handful of foreign Jewish tourists and members of the tiny local Jewish community.

Read full story

I'm not sure if I will get to Krakow for the festival this year....I've left it rather late to line up accommodation (as I thought I would have to be elsewhere at the time). But who knows. I have long regarded the festival week as the best party going -- and so many of my friends will be there....

Click HERE to see a video of my being interviewed during the Festival in 2007.

And remember -- the Krakow festival is just one (though the biggest and most venerable) of many Jewish festivals around Europe this summer -- see HERE for information and links to a score of them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Budapest -- Night of the Museums Includes Jewish Sites

Wintertime view of the Dohany st. Synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest are participating in the annual "Night of the Museums" -- which this year takes place Saturday night, that is, tomorrow, June 20. Museums all around the country will stay open late -- sometimes very late, even all night -- and will feature a variety of special programs and events. I'm told that it is the first time that Jewish community operations are taking part.

The Jewish Museum is located next door to the splendid Dohany St. Synagogue (which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary), in an annex built in the 1930s on the spot where Theodore Herzl was born. There will be jazz, classical, Gypsy and Klezmer music and special exhibits, games, guided tours and other activities.

Hungarian Jewish Museum
1077 Budapest, Dohány utca 2.

Music of Happiness, gypsy-jewish music festival at the Night of the Hungarian Jewish Museum
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Hungary is participating first time on the Budapest event „Night of the Museums”. You will have the opportunity to hear concerts, literary conversations and to visit on free guided tours in the Jewish Museum and on Herzl square from 22:00 till the morning.

Full Jewish Museum program

The program at the Holocaust Memorial Center, on Pava street, just outside the city center, looks even more interesting. The center is a striking modern building -- it looks as if it should be in a German expressionist film -- built around the restored Pava Street synagogue, designed by my favorite architect, the prolific Lipot Baumhorn. (I have written extensively about L-B, who is one of my heroes.) Anyone in town should try to see the concert by the great Roma cimbalom player Kalman Balogh, which runs from 8 p.m. til midnight. Kalman takes part this summer in "the Other Europeans" project, and later this month and in July will be performing with that group -- mixed Yiddish and Gypsy musicians -- in Vienna, Krakow and Weimar, Germany.

Holocaust Memorial Center
1094 Budapest, Páva utca 39.
Phone: Telefon: +36 1 455-3333 | Web: www.hdke.hu

On the Night of Museums, there is a lively mood beginning from the afternoon. Family programs entertain the smallest ones, special guided tours begin every hour in Hungarian, English and German. From 6 o’clock we take visitors back to the world of old newsreels, we investigate – with the help of a discussion – the responsibility of the media then and today. The evening is devoted to music and dance. You can listen to klezmer, gipsy and jazz, and dance with a champion of swing. If you feel like doing so, you can change books and ideas in the History Corner, or glance into the Mirror of Tolerance. Hungry and thirsty wanderers can refresh themselves in the Bar of Acceptance.

Full program here

Holocaust Memorial Center. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Warsaw -- New museum construction to begin June 30

The new Museum of this History of Poland Jews has announced that construction of the building will begin June 30 at the museum site across from the 1948 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument.

Here's the press release:

After many years filled with devotion to the cause, after overcoming all obstacles and difficulties, construction of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will finally begin on June 30th, 2009.

Today, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Mayor of Warsaw, Bogdan Zdrojewski, Minister of Culture and National Heritage, and their representative Paweł Barański, Director of the Capital City Development Authority, signed a contract with Polimex-Mostostal Construction Company, which won the bid to build the Museum. Also present at contract-signing was the Museum building designer Rainer Mahlamäki. “I believe that it is one of the most interesting museum buildings in the world,” said Mayor Gronkiewicz-Waltz and added that she was glad to see the start of construction after so many years. “Today we celebrate,” rejoiced Minister Zdrojewski and thanked the Museum team for having helped to create an exceptionally refined and successful project whose execution is awaited with impatience by multitudes of people in Poland and around the world.

“I’m glad that as of today, instead of describing the exceptional museum that we will create some day, we will be able to actually show the process of its creation. I would like to thank the Mayor and the Minister for having brought us to the point where we are today. It is said that putting the investment package together, preparing and overseeing the tendering procedure, and meeting the requirements of the Public Finances Act for the purpose of funding the Museum project was more difficult than actually building the Museum. I am certain that from now on everything will go smoothly, especially since the construction will be in the hands of professionals from Polimex-Mostostal”, said Museum Director Jerzy Halbersztadt. Polimex-Mostostal Chairman Konrad Jaskóła assured that the building would be erected in 33 months as stated in the contract and asked for support all institutions engaged in building the Museum.

Last April, Polimex-Mostostal together with Interbud-West won the Museum construction tender with their bid of PLN 152 million. A competing bidder – Warbud – filed a protest on May 8th but ultimately decided not to appeal the decision. Appeal proceedings would greatly lengthen the entire process. It was also reported that the renowned multinational engineering company Ove Arup will participate in supervising construction of the Museum.

The ceremony marking the start of construction will take place on June 30th at the square in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes’ Memorial. In addition to Warsaw City Hall and Culture Ministry officials and representatives of the Jewish Historical Institute Association, which initiated the Museum project and is responsible for the core exhibition, it will be attended by business partners, sponsors and numerous guests from many countries. Splendour will be added to the ceremony by the Musical Tribute to the Memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which will feature 100 cantors from the Cantors Assembly (USA), who that day will began their tour of Poland.

Polimex–Mostostal is the largest Polish construction engineering company. It specializes in erecting steel structures, which will come handy in construction of the unique curved wall of the Museum. In 2008, the company had a turnover of PLN 4.3 billion (15% higher than the year earlier). It is among 20 largest enterprises listed on Warsaw Stock Exchange. The company takes up grand investment projects (highways, railroads and power plants, Legia Stadium in Warsaw and Wisła Stadium in Krakow) and special cultural projects such as the Chopin Centre and Medical Academy library in Warsaw or the Art Education Centre in Gorzów Wielkopolski.

Monuments and Memorials

The site of the Warsaw Ghetto, with Ghetto monument in background. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The site in front of the Ghetto Monument of the about-to-be-built Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Memorials to the Holocaust and to the Jewish communities destroyed in the Shoah are among the sites of Jewish heritage and memory in Europe that receive the most visitors.

I want to draw attention to two particularly thoughtful essays by Sam Gruber about their design, purpose and impact.

One is about what's missing from the Holocaust memorial in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Answer? Any information to inform the visitor what it is about.)

The other is about the complexity and changing style and emphasis of Holocaust monuments and memory in Warsaw, focuses on the Ghetto Monument, erected in 1948, the monument at Umschlagplatz, erected in 1991, and the planned new Museum of the History of Polish Jewry.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More Festivals

I just want to post a reminder that I keep updating the page noting Jewish culture and other festivals around Europe (and occasionally elsewhere) -- the link is in the sidebar of the blog. So far, I'm up to about 20!

I just added a link to the program of the Jewish Culture Days in Lodz, Poland, which runs from now until the end of June.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Italy -- Cherasco synagogue resources, visits

Photo: De Benedetti Cherasco 1547 Foundation

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've come across a new web site dedicated to the Jewish heritage of Cherasco, in northern Italy's Piedmont region, and in particular to its gemlike little synagogue, located in the heart of the one-time ghetto, which was reopened in 2006 after a full restoration. Dating from the 18th century, the synagogue is noted from its beautiful carved bimah, with spiral columns.

Much of the site's content is still only in Italian, though it looks as if the whole site will eventually have an English edition. Of particular interest are the photo galleries (see the Galleria Multimediale) which includes before and after images of the synagogue -- as well as a detailed photo documentation of the restoration process.

The site was established by the De Benedetti-Cherasco 1547 Foundation, which also sponsored the restoration.

The Foundation was established in 2002 to commemorate
the engineer Gian Giacomo Debenedetti, who died in 1998 and "who dearly loved the city of Cherasco and worked to promote its image and its initiatives in Italy and abroad."

Its stated goals are also to:
Express gratitude to the city of Cherasco, that since 1547 has welcomed numerous Jewish families within its walls, including the De Benedetti family

Maintain cultural ties with France, in remembrance of the armistice signed at Cherasco between revolutionary France and the Kingdom of Sardinia on 28 April 1796, an event that resulted in the introduction of the values of the French Revolution and in the emancipation of the Jews of Cherasco to the city

Develop ties with the country of Israel, initiated by the through the twinning of Cherasco with the city of Qiryat Gat

Guided tours of the synagogue are offered various Sunday afternoons in coming months -- June 14, 21, 28 ; August 30; September 6 and 13; October 18 and 25; and November 1. Private visits can be arranged during the week, by reservation.

Codess Cultura Società Cooperativa
via S. Anselmo 6 10125 - Torino
Tel. +39 011 6699725
Fax +39 011 6508190

Friday, June 12, 2009

Poland -- Upcoming commemorative and cultural events

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In Poland, there may be only 15,000 (or so) Jews -- but the summer months are filled with Jewish culture and heritage events. This year is no exception.

From big Jewish culture festivals, to individual commemorative events marking sites of Jewish heritage, much is going on. Some are sponsored by local civic organizations, some by committed local activists, some by the Israel embassy, some by local Jewish communities and Jewish organizations -- and some by a combination of organizers and funders who work together on the projects.

This month will see at least two commemorative events.

This Sunday, June 14, a ceremony will take place in the little town of Brzostek to memorialize the destroyed Jewish community there. It will formally rededicate the Jewish cemetery, which has been newly fenced put in order, and also unveil a Hebrew-language monument. In the course of restoring the cemetery, some 30 old tombstones, which have come to light in recent years, were re-erected. In addition, a plaque will be dedicated in the town center -- in Polish and English -- in memory of the former Jewish residents of the town. The project is being carried out in full co-operation with both the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, and the Brzostek town council.

Rabbis and local dignitaries will attend the ceremony, as will pupils from local schools.

"The town is regarding it as a major civic event and organizing various exhibitions on Brzostek's Jewish history," writes Connie Webber, the head of the Littman Library Jewish publishing house, said in an email. "Everyone with a Brzostek connection is invited to participate. Buses will be arranged to and from Krakow on the Sunday, and arrangements have been made for kosher food to be available both on the Sunday and for the preceding Shabbat in Krakow."

Connie and her husband, the scholar Jonathan Webber -- who family stems from Brzostek -- have been instrumental in organizing the commemoration.

Just one week later, on June 22, a plaque commemorating the former Scheinbach Synagogue building (today the town library) will be unveiled in Przemysl, in the far southeast of Poland on the border with Ukraine. Participating will be guests from Poland and abroad. The plaque is a joint initiative of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and Michael Freund of Raanana in Israel.

Located at ul. Slowackiego 15, the synagogue was built for the Reform community in 1886-1890 and was designed by Marceli Pilecki. (Another synagogue in the town, built in 1909, stands abandoned and falling ever more into ruin on Plac Unii Brzeskiej, in the Zasanie district across the river. There is a large Jewish cemetery next to the main municipal cemetery, with tombs from the 19th and 20th centuries.)
(Synagogue photo fodz.pl)

As for Jewish culture festivals -- everyone knows about the big Krakow Jewish Culture Festival -- but a a number of others are in the works in Poland. They include:

Gdansk -- 10th Baltic Days of Jewish Culture. June 14-15

Bialystok -- 2nd Zachor Festival of Jewish Culture. June 15-16

Chmielnik -- VII Meeting with Jewish Culture, June 19-21

Krakow -- Festival of Jewish Culture, June 27-July 5. The Other Europeans concert will be July 3.

Warsaw -- Singer's Warsaw Festival of Jewish Culture, Aug. 29-Sept. 6. A big festival, increasingly similar in scope to that in Krakow.

Lodz -- Festival of the Dialogue of Four Cultures. Usually in September

For an ever-growing list of Jewish festivals in all parts of Europe, check the link in the side bar of this blog!

Switzerland -- Guided Tours at Jewish Museum

This summer, the Jewish Museum in Basel, Switzerland, is sponsoring one special guided tour a month of its current exhibition "Strange Objects Stepping Out of Line" which is describe as:

A journey to the world of Jewish curiosities. Objects from everyday-life, religious ceremonies and history have been chosen as they differ in their material, shape or intended use from the ordinary items of the collection.
The exhibit runs til the end of the year. Tour dates are June 21, July 19, August 16 and September 6 -- the European Day of Jewish Culture.

Find information HERE

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jewish Heritage -- Final Statement of Bratislava Seminar Released

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

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Final Statement adopted by participants at the international seminar held in Bratislava in March on the care, conservation and maintenance of historic Jewish property in Europe has been released. The statement represents a milestone in strategic thinking about sites of Jewish heritage, laying out pragmatic guidelines with best-practice principles and procedures for Jewish properties that could serve as models for all involved in the field.

(I have already given a preview of the recommendations in a Ruthless Cosmopolitan column written after the seminar.

Whereas the restitution of Jewish communal property in Central and Eastern Europe has been a hot-button issue since the Iron Curtain fell nearly 20 years ago,
the practical and urgent need to care for, conserve and maintain the properties once they’ve been recovered is often forgotten amid the slow and painful legal battles to get back historic Jewish properties that were seized by the Nazis or nationalized by postwar Communist regimes.

Many of these sites are huge. Many are dilapidated. Some are recognized as historic monuments. Most stand in towns where few, if any, Jews now live. Even basic maintenance can stretch already strapped communal resources.

At the Bratislava seminar, Jewish community representatives from 15 countries gathered to address these concerns.

The aim of the meeting was to foster networking and cross-border consultation and spark creative strategic thinking. Many participants had never met before and had little awareness of how colleagues in other countries were confronting similar challenges. Some knew little about the variety of Jewish heritage sites in other countries.

I took part as an expert -- one of my briefs was, as someone who has spent two decades documenting and writing extensively about Jewish heritage sites in many countries, to introduce participant to the panorama of Jewish built heritage in east-central Europe. Among other things, I ran a slide show of more than 200 pictures, from a variety of countries, showing Jewish heritage sites of all sorts, from all periods -- medieval to modern -- and all states of conservation, -- from ruin to fully restored -- and all sorts of use, from warehouse to house of worship.

Sam Gruber, who as president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, was one of the organizers (along with the Joint Distribution Committee and the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center; the World Monuments Fund and the Cahnman Foundation were also sponsors) posted the final statement on his blog (from which I have taken this copy.)

Seminar on Care, Conservation and Maintenance of Historic Jewish Property
Bratislava March 17-19, 2009
Final Statement Adopted By Participants

The participants in the Seminar “Care, Conservation and Maintenance of Historic Jewish Property,” meeting in Bratislava March 17-19, 2009, agree on the following principles and procedures which guide their work.


The ongoing struggle for property and resource restitution has often overshadowed the practical issues of how to manage community properties already held, or those returned.

Proper care of these properties; often involving substantial costs, difficult planning and use issues, and demanding historical and architectural preservation concerns, have preoccupied many Jewish communities for years. In many cases, and especially for smaller Communities, the needs of these properties continue to stretch professional and financial resources. Everyday community needs often delay or prevent the attention that properties require.

Each Jewish community faces its own specific situations, and has unique needs, but there are many shared problems and needs that can be addressed collectively. Importantly, there are also solutions - many of which have been pioneered by Communities themselves - that can be shared, too.

Jewish Properties and Jewish Heritage

Jewish heritage is the legacy of all aspects of Jewish history – religious and secular.

Jewish history and art is part of every nation’s history and art. Jewish heritage is part of national heritage, too.

Documentation, planning and development of sites benefit and enrich society at large as well as Jews and Jewish communities.

Jewish historic sites and properties should also be developed where possible within the context of diverse histories – Jewish, local, national, art, etc.

Jewish tourism and tourism to Jewish sites should be part of every country’s tourism strategy.

Inventories and Documentation

All past and present Jewish communal properties, and all Jewish properties and sites deemed to have historic, religious and/or artistic significance, should be documented to the fullest extent possible.

Inventories must be made and maintained of all properties in each country, and more substantial documentation should be made of historically and architecturally significant properties, especially all synagogues, institutional buildings, cemeteries, monuments, and Judaica and archival materials.

Jewish communities and institutions should cooperate and collaborate in this process to the fullest extent possible, and should welcome the assistance of other public and private institutions and individuals in pursuing these documentation goals.

Information on Jewish sites is most useful when it is most widely available. Efforts should continue and expand to make documentation available in publicly accessible research centers and through publications and on-line presentation, all the while considering safety, security and privacy concerns.

Materials relevant to Jewish history and properties in public, state archives and Jewish community archives should be open for everyone for historical and legal research.

Good documentation must be accurate and complete in its description, and it must be historically informed so that it presents something of the significance of what is recorded.

Synagogues and Former Synagogues

Synagogue 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.

Cooperation and Trust

Honesty and transparency are Jewish values and should be especially apparent in the handling of all matters concerning Jewish property, which is held as a communal trust.

Jewish communities should manage their properties to maximize their use for present and future generations.

Jewish communities and institutions should work together as much as possible to share existing information, methodologies and technologies, and they should work together to develop new and compatible goals and strategies to optimize the care and management of historic Jewish properties.

Regular meetings of Jewish community leaders, members, staff and expert professionals to discuss property issues is encouraged within single communities, and between communities. Regional, national and trans-border meeting are useful for the exchange of information and ideas, and for effective planning purposes.

Any sale or development of communal property must be to meet identified community needs.

Wherever possible, proceeds from the sale or development of some properties should be allocated to the care and maintenance of other properties including, but not exclusively, cemeteries.

Jewish communities and museums should work together to develop historic, descriptive and exhibition materials that can be shared.

Jewish communities and local heritage, cultural and tourist bodies should work together to develop regional, national and trans-border heritage routes.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Italy -- Jewish Route in Pesaro

A Jewish heritage route including the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery will be open this summe in the Italian Adriatic port of Pesaro. Unfortunately, the sites will only be open one day a week -- Thursday afternoons -- during June, July and August.

The synagogue, probably dating from the early 17th century and noted for its beautifully decorate vaulting, is on via delle Scuole and will be open from 4-7 p.m.

The cemetery is nearby on the San Bartolo hill, and will be open from 5-7 p.m.

For information, call +39/0721 387474-357

La sinagoga di via delle Scuole sarà visitabile nei mesi di giugno, luglio e agosto, ogni giovedì dalle 16 alle 19. I visitatori della sinagoga troveranno ancora allestita al piano terra dello storico edificio la mostra “1938-1945 La persecuzione degli ebrei in Italia”, a cura della Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea CDEC. I 38 pannelli articolati in 15 sezioni tematiche - dove convivono testi, foto, libri, giornali e documenti privati - ricostruiscono con impostazione scientifica le vicende subite dagli ebrei in un periodo ben preciso del Novecento.
L’apertura estiva è possibile grazie alla disponibilità delle associazioni FAI e Serc e della dottoressa Maria Letizia Siepi.
Accanto alla sinagoga, anche il cimitero ebraico sul colle San Bartolo (strada panoramica San Bartolo c/o n. 161), sarà aperto da giugno a settembre il giovedì dalle 17 alle 19. In agosto, è prevista inoltre un’apertura eccezionale sabato 15 in occasione della festività: mattino 10-12, pomeriggio 17-19; per informazioni Ente Parco Naturale Monte San Bartolo 0721 400858, 335 1746509.
Informazioni tel. 0721 387474-357 Servizio Musei_Comune di Pesaro.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Poland -- My Ruthless Cosmopolitan column from Bielsko Biala

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column, published June 1, was from Bielsko Biala, Poland and deals with the impact of perception, desire and demand on memory, particularly vis a vis the Jewish experience and Jewish heritage in Poland....

I'm posting the piece here, but will have more to say about B-B in a later post, with pictures from my trip.

Poland’s Jewish heritage is about more than just death

BIELSKO-BIALA, Poland (JTA) -- Outside the elegant theater in the city of Bielsko Biala in southern Poland, a billboard advertises an upcoming play. Stark letters spell out the title: "Zyd" -- Jew.

The lettering looks almost menacing, like scrawled graffiti, and I am a little taken aback.

But then I remember where I am.

This is Poland.

And the play, in fact, is an award-winning exploration of anti-Semitism and the power of stereotypes -- part of the endless continuing discussion here about the Jewish past, the Jewish present, and the long, complex and troubled relationship between Jews and Catholic Poles.

"There is no theme that Poles are more likely to discuss than Jews," the play's author, Artur Palyga told the Polish media. "It can be said that Judaism is our national passion."

"Zyd" deals with teachers in a provincial Polish town preparing for the visit of a former student, a Holocaust survivor who had attended their school before the Shoah, when Jews made up more than half the town's population.

Its portrayal of grassroots prejudice is graphic and sometimes grotesque. Indeed, the play came under fire in the right-wing press, and its premiere last year sparked protests.

Still, it won the main prize at a national festival of contemporary Polish drama for being "an honest, brave and theatrically precise attempt to settle accounts with the difficult Polish past."

The play is essentially about memory. In particular, it’s about the various uses to which memory is put, and how memory differs in the minds of different people considering the same past.

These issues have suffused much of my own work over the past two decades, as I have researched Jewish heritage sites in East and Central Europe and chronicled the Jewish experience in places were few or no Jews live today.

How are Jews and Jewish heritage remembered? Which Jewish places and personalities are incorporated into the local consciousness? How do local people choose to portray an important part of the population that was savagely removed, almost overnight?

I found Bielko Biala permeated with examples of how perspective influences memory.

They ranged from indifferent disregard to the kitschy commercialization of a "Jewish-style" restaurant called Rabbi, to an earnest attempt to acknowledge the contribution of Jews to the city.

Bielsko Biala was officially established in 1951 with the amalgamation of two towns on opposite sides of the Biala River, which for centuries formed the border between the Austrian Empire and Poland, and then the regions of Silesia and Galicia.

Before 1939, the population was divided among ethnic Germans, Jews and Poles, and the city remains a stronghold of Protestantism. The Nazis absorbed it into the Reich, and almost all the Jews were killed. After World War II, Poland took it over and expelled the ethnic Germans.

Only a small Jewish community lives here today, but Jews played a major role in local history. In the 19th century, Jewish industrialists helped build the city into a major textile center, and a local Jewish architect, Karol Korn, designed key buildings that still define Bielsko Biala.

Korn's grandest building -- the Moorish-style great synagogue -- no longer exists. Erected in 1881, it dominated the city's main avenue until it was blown up by the Nazis in 1939.

Today, a contemporary art gallery occupies the spot; a small plaque on an outer wall commemorates the destroyed building but says nothing about the community it once served.

There's a puppet theatre now next door, where the Jewish culture center once stood, and a courthouse occupies the former Jewish community building across the street. Its elaborate decoration, I was told, represents the seven fruits mentioned in the Torah.

The Jewish cemetery, whose red-and-orange striped ceremonial hall is another Korn design, is well maintained and designated a cultural monument. Among the tombs is a poignant memorial to Jewish soldiers who fell fighting for the Austrians in World War I.

All these sites, and more, are noted on Jewish heritage itineraries included in local guidebooks available at the tourist information office and the city museum. On sale in both places I found reproductions of old postcards portraying the synagogue in all its glory as a major pre-war landmark.

I have no way of knowing who follows these itineraries or purchases the postcards. But, at least for tourists, they clearly acknowledge the Jewish contribution to the town and set Jewish history and heritage here within the general matrix.

This marks a welcome contrast to the "Jewish heritage package" offered by one of the city's leading hotels.

Far from exploring the rich historic contribution of Jews here, its itinerary is simply a round trip to Auschwitz, with "sightseeing" at the memorial museum there, then dinner back at the hotel's restaurant.

Bielsko Biala is only 25 miles from Auschwitz. I would certainly urge anyone visiting the town to take a day and go there. But promoting a tour of the Nazis' most notorious death camp as a Jewish heritage package banalizes Jewish heritage and the Holocaust, and both ignores and insults the memory of the generations of Jews who lived here (and often prospered).

In Bielsko Biala, Poles have begun to offer up a more nuanced take on history -- Jewish and Polish. Unfortunately, however, hotel tourist packages tend to offer only what their clients demand. Jews should take the lead in demanding more.

Even in places where few or no Jews live anymore, Jewish heritage must not be equated with its destruction. Nor, indeed, should the centuries-old Jewish experience be defined solely in terms of death.

Romania -- Romanian Jewish Heritage Event in London

Close up of the Ark, synagogue in Roman, Romania, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Readers in London can get a taste of the wonderful architecture of Romanian synagogues by attending a little festival of Romanian Jewish culture June 11-17 at the Romanian Culture Institute. The opening event takes place June 10.

Centerpiece is the exhibit of Christian Binder's photographs of synagogues of Romania, organized by Julie Dawson (who will speak at the London events).

The Romanian Cultural Institute London, in partnership with Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) and with the support of Spiro Ark organises an event highlighting Romania's rich Jewish cultural heritage: Synagogues of Romania, an exhibition of photographs of synagogues in southern Transylvania, accompanied by presentations from Andrei Oisteanu, Julie Dawson and Letitia Cosnean and klezmer music live concert with Kosmos Ensemble.

"In the wake of the Holocaust and subsequent mass migration of the vast majority of Romania's Jewish population, countless synagogues fell into various stages of disrepair and decay. This photo exhibition aims to capture the transitional stage in which Romania now finds itself. With the entrance of foreign investors and NGOs, some synagogues are being restored, turned into cultural centers or finding alternative uses. Others remain abandoned, assuming a central location in the town's center and representing an evocative, stubborn reminder of the recent and troubled past."
Julie Dawson, curator
Photography: Christian Binder | http://www.pbase.com/binderch/synagogues

The event brings together:

  • the photographic exhibition;
  • presentations: Julie Dawson and Letitia Cosnean will lecture about "The Plight of Romanian Synagogues" and the "Restoration of the Medias Synagogue" respectively, Andrei Oisteanu will talk about "Jewish Culture in Romania".
    Mr Oisteanu will also present his recent book Inventing the Jew. Antisemitic Stereotypes in Romanian and Other Central-East European Cultures, published by University of Nebraska Press, USA.
  • klezmer music live concert given by the Kosmos Ensemble.
The event will take place in the presence of HE Dr Ion Jinga, the Ambassador of Romania in the UK.

Julie Dawson works in Romania and has traveled extensively throughout Eastern Europe visiting both shtetls and former centers of Yiddish culture. She has been instrumental in organizing regional Yiddish/Jewish cultural events including klezmer and Yiddish song concert tours, photo-documentary exhibitions and community education programs.

Letitia Cosnean is MET's architect in Sighisoara and her lecture will shed light on the restoration process of the Medias Synagogue.

Andrei Oisteanu is a Romanian historian whose research fields include: ethnology, cultural anthropology, history of religions and mentalities. His writings are seen as a considerable contribution to researching magical and ritual practices as well as mythical and religious symbols. He is also noted for his work in Jewish studies and the history of anti-Semitism; Oisteanu has been the first researcher to have developed a complete study in image ideology focusing on the way in which Jewish people were represented within the Romanian mentality and folklore.

Kosmos is an innovative ensemble that composes original music in which there is space for improvisation. Offering a unique sound free from borders or labels, the ensemble aims to explore the boundaries of Western Classical music with Eastern European, Gypsy, Balkan, Klezmer and Tango with contemporary influences. Since their debut in 2005, Kosmos has been enthusiastically acclaimed by audiences at festivals and music societies across Europe.

When: Opening: 10 June 2009, 6 - 8 pm
Photography exhibition: 11-17 June, 10 am - 6 pm
Where: Romanian Cultural Institute, 1 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH
Admission: free for the exhibition. Opening: by invitation. We have a limited number of seats - please get in touch if you want to attend.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Romania/Ukraine -- New Guidebook Launch

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

"Jewish Cemeteries of the Bucovina," a new guidebook-brochure to Jewish cemeteries in the Bucovina region of Romania (and Ukraine) is being published this month. It was written (and photographed) by Simon Geissbühler, a Swiss diplomat based in Bucharest and will be available in English, German, French, Romanian, and Ukrainian.

The official launch is June 25 in Bucharest -- see the inviation above -- but there will be another launch in Radauti, on June 29.

I contributed the Foreword to this guide -- the cemeteries in this region, with their sculptural, wonderfully carved, tombstones have long been among my favorite Jewish heritage sites (and not just because the region is where my paternal grandparents came from.) My project (Candle)sticks on Stone focuses on these carved stones, particularly house women are represented on them by depictions of candlesticks.

Needless to say, I'm delighted to see this book come out, and I hope it attracts attention to these wonderful but overlooked places, which are located in the same region as Romania's splendid, and much more famous (and visited) painted monasteries.

Here's my Foreword:
A hand reaches out, grasps the branch of a tree and breaks it sharply off. The image is extraordinary, even surreal; so vivid that you can almost hear the crack of the wood.

The tree is the Tree of Life and the hand is the hand of God -- or maybe that of the Angel of Death. The portrayal, found repeated over and over in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, in the Bucovina region of northern Romania, is one of the remarkable sculpted images found on Jewish tombstones in scores of Jewish cemeteries scattered over this part of East-Central Europe.

I first visited Radauti more than 30 years ago, in the bitterly cold December of 1978. It is the town from which my grandparents emigrated to the United States, and it is here, in the Jewish cemetery, that my great-grandmother Ettel Gruber lies buried.

Tilted now to one side, her tombstone is marked with the depiction of candlesticks that traditionally denote the tombs of Jewish women. Ettel, who died in 1947, was "a positive and dedicated woman, fair and kind in all her doing," her epitaph reads. She "offered hospitality and charity to the poor and set a full table for the Tzaddikim."

Jewish cemeteries are often described as "Houses of the Living," and, even when overgrown and abandoned, lives and life stories endure here in sculpted form.

Jewish tombstone decoration combines religious and folk motifs that in many cases refer to the name, lineage, profession or personal attributes of the deceased. Numerous gravestones bear symbols referring to death, such as broken candles and broken flowers as well as the hand of God breaking the branch from a tree. But many more refer to life.

Among the more common carved symbols are two hands in the spread-fingered gesture of priestly blessing on the gravestones of a Cohen (priest), that is, a descendant of the biblical High Priest Aaron. Another common symbol is a pitcher, or ewer, marking tombs of Levites, or descendants of the ancient tribe of Levi, priestly assistants who traditionally washed the hands of the priests.

Books mark the graves of particularly learned people; hands placing coins into charity boxes denote those who were particularly generous. Candlesticks -- as on my great-grandmother's gravestone -- often mark the tombstones of women, since in Jewish ritual women bless the candles on the Sabbath. The candlesticks are sometimes simple representations; others show ornate, almost braided candelabras, and some carvings include hands blessing the flames.

The images of a variety of animals also frequently decorate the stones. Lions may symbolize the tribe of Judah or personal names, such as Lev or Leib. Carved stags indicate names such as Zvi or Hirsch. Birds often appear, and mythical beasts, such as the winged griffin, are also common. There is often, too, a wealth of other decorative carving such as flowers, vines, grapes, and geometric forms.

All this imagery, and more, is found in the Jewish cemeteries of the Bucovina region. The decorated tombstones here, in fact, represent especially striking and sometimes startling examples of artistry, design and virtuoso stone-carving.

Baroque tombstones from the 18th and 19th centuries in particular employ a richness of texture and imagery that approaches that found in the rococo decoration in some churches. In some places carving styles are so distinctive that you can discern the work of individual, now anonymous, artists.

Few Jews live in the Bucovina today; the cemeteries thus form powerful memorials to a civilization that was wiped out in the Holocaust. Moreover, the liveliness and fantasy employed by the stone-masons adds a new dimension to how we may regard the spiritual, intellectual and artistic lives of Jews who lived in traditional East European shtetls.

To me, these elaborate sculpted gravestones are just as important manifestations of faith through art as are the marvelous painted monasteries that are also found in this region. Yet few people know of their existence, and even fewer ever visit.

With this important new guidebook, Simon Geissbühler introduces these wonderful places to a broader public and opens the way for spiritual pilgrims of all faiths and beliefs to experience their power, beauty and historical significance.

Ruth Ellen Gruber
Morruzze, Italy

Poland -- Dzialoszyce, commemoration, pilgrimage, travel

Ruth in Dzialoszyce, 2006. Photo: Jack Sal

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Pilgrimage and commemoration form important components of Jewish travel in eastern and central Europe. In fact, in Poland in particular, few Jews visited in the post-war communist period for any other purpose.

There were -- and still are -- strictly religious pilgrimages to the tombs of great rabbis. These are facilitated now by new infrastructure including kosher food services and accommodation.

Commemorative pilgrimages to death camps and other Holocaust-related sites also still draw thousands of people each year. More than half a million people visit Auschwitz alone. Here too infrastructure has changed radically, enabling the experience to educate about the Shoah and about the Jewish communities that were destroyed, rather than to focus them on mourning and commemoration.

At Auschwitz, among other things, the Auschwitz Jewish Center, which opened in 2000 in the surviving synagogue in the town of Oswiecim, focuses on the life in a town that before World War II was a majority Jewish town.

Before Auschwitz became the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, it was just an ordinary Polish town known as Oswiecim. The majority of its citizens were Jewish. Generations of merchants, rabbis, doctors, and lawyers raised families here and contributed to a richly textured Jewish culture. Jews worked, married, studied and worshipped, cared for their families, and served the community. The tragedy of Holocaust suddenly ended the centuries-old Jewish life of the town.

The Center facilities include the Jewish Museum, Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, and Education Center. The Center’s exhibitions and programs are open to visitors and students from around the world. Dedicated to public education, the Center’s programs teach about the richness of pre-war Jewish life in Oswiecim and build awareness of the dangers of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and the other forms of intolerance.
The Center's current exhibition is on Jewish survivors from Oswiecim who now live in Israel.

New forms of commemorative pilgrimage increasingly involve bridge-building between Jews and local Poles.

The filmmaker Menachem Daum led such a trip last month -- accompanying a group of students and two Holocaust survivors from Lost Angeles to Dzialoszyce, Poland, where they commemorated Holocaust victims but also met with local students and town officials.
On May 15th, 2009 a group of Jewish high school seniors from the Shalhevet School in Los Angeles, accompanied by two Holocaust survivors, were greeted in Dzialoszyce by Polish students and teachers from the local high school as well as by students from Krakow's Jagiellonian University. The group marched together to the ruins of the town's once magnificent synagogue where they were addressed in Polish by one of the survivors. They also learned that the synagogue had housed a voluntary kitchen that the community operated with great sacrifice in order to keep thousands from starving during the Nazi occupation. The town's Mayor greeted the group and promised to shore up the synagogue ruins so they do not collapse. The group also paid their respects at the monument near the mass grave of over 1,500 Jews shot during the deportation on September 3rd, 1942. Finally, the group ascended the hill to the Jewish cemetery. Although there are no longer any tombstones or a wall, this site is sacred because of the thousands of Dzialoszyce Jews buried there. The final prayers of the Jews of Dzialoszyce at this cemetery were recalled and the shofar was again sounded, as it had been 67 earlier. The ceremony ended with Poles and Jews affixing symbolic tombstones to the trees that now cover the cemetery .

Menachem posted the following video on Youtube:

The synagogue still stands crumbling, and physically it all looks much the same. But what a difference in attitude this represents from the first time I visited Dzialozyce, in 1990. I wrote about that visit in the New York Times in October of that year in my first major article about Jewish travel in Poland, "Visiting the Vestiges of Jewish Poland."
An elderly woman, her face as brown and wrinkled as a walnut, approached us one day last June as we stood gazing at the yawning roofless wreck that was once the synagogue in Dzialoszyce, a sleepy village 30 miles or so northeast of Cracow in southern Poland.

''Do you speak Jewish?'' she asked in Polish, and mumbled a few words of Yiddish.

It's been a long time, she apologized; she's forgotten almost everything she knew of the language.

The woman came with us - three Americans and two Polish experts on synagogue architecture - as we inspected the battered masonry shell. Children lounging around a bumper car and video arcade in front of the ruin stared as we passed; a few of them joined us, too.

Built in 1852 according to a neo-classical design by Felicjan Frankowski, the synagogue is an impressive monument to the destruction of a people.

Before the Holocaust, Dzialoszyce was a Jewish town: in 1939, 7,000 of its 10,000 inhabitants were Jews. The synagogue would have been magnificent, with its tall arched windows and sculpted outer decorations. But all that remains of a frescoed interior is a few patches of flaking blue paint.

Later, the old woman and the children escorted us beyond the edge of the village, to the site of the Jewish cemetery, destroyed by the Nazis. A simple white monument, erected Sept. 1, 1989, on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, commemorates the thousands of Jews who were slaughtered here in mass graves or deported to Nazi death camps.

''I used to work for the rabbi here before the war,'' the old woman confided. ''I will never forget what he told me. He said that when the birds go away from here, the Jews will go away too. One year, there were no birds. And after that . . .''

Read full article

Monday, June 1, 2009

Czech Republic -- Trebic!

Trebic Rear Synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've come across a nice feature story on Czech Radio by my friend Jan Richter, about the historic old Jewish quarter of Trebic, in the Czech Republic -- the largest, and one of the best preserved, former Jewish quarters in the country and one of the most significant preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. In 2003, the the Jewish quarter and the Jewish cemetery, together with the Catholic basilica of St Procopius, were added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage. Click HERE for a virtual tour.

The Jewish quarter, stretched out along the opposite bank of the river from the main market square, is known as Zamosti -- "across the bridge." It includes a wide range of houses and other buildings dating from the Renaissance to the 19th century.

I first visited Trebic in about 1990, and the changes since then have been remarkable -- I have written extensively about developments there in both Jewish Heritage Travel. There has been considerable restoration work in recent years, and the area is becoming a district of quaint shops, cafes and restaurants, some of them Jewish themed. On my last visit, a couple of years ago, I took part in a weekend meeting organized by the Union of Czech Jewish Students -- there were lectures, social events, walking tours, etc.

Two former synagogues stand here. One, the so-called Front Synagogue, originally dates from 1639-1642 but was rebuilt in the 19th century. It now serves as a church -- it has a plaque inside memorializing the Trebic Jewish community annihilated in the Holocaust.

The so-called Rear Synagogue, long a ruin, was reopened to the public in 1997 after a lengthy restoration process. It was a ruined shell when restoration work began in the early 1990s. Today, it is used for cultural purposes and has an exhibition on local Jewish history and traditions, including a Holocaust memorial. The building has a barrel vaunted interior, heavy, partially buttressed walls and arched windows. Walls and ceiling are covered with baroque stucco decoration and colorful paintings that include Hebrew texts, floral motifs and painted lions on one of the doorways

You can read Jan Richter's radio report HERE -- and there is also a button to click to listern to it, as he is guided around the district by Michal Řídký, a guide for the local tourist center.

“The [rear] synagogue was built around the year of 1669, so it’s about thirty years newer than the front synagogue, and it was built in the Renaissance style. It consists of this main hall, the small hall, and the women’s gallery, because men and women were separated here during the service. Women also had a special entrance to the synagogue, there was a staircase outside. Later, a house was built just next to the synagogue, and the stairway became a part of it. A funny story is connected with that – the owner of the house was obligated to let the women go through his house into the synagogue, so every week, the women would pass through his house.”

Macedonia --Jewish Cemetery in Shtip to be Restored

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Good news -- the web site balkantravellers.com reports that the abandoned Jewish cemetery in Shtip (or Stip) Macedonia will be restored. Announcement of the project was made last month by the Institute and Museum of Shtip, which is in eastern Macedonia.

“The money for the reconstruction project was secured by the government, and with the project the Jewish cemetery will become a monument of culture,” Zaran Chitkushev, head of the Shtip Institute and Museum told the Dnevnik newspaper today.

The project involves the building of parking lots, pedestrian alleyways, benches, monuments, and the whole area of 14,000 square metres will be fenced by a wall.

“We are in constant contact with the European community in Macedonia. We will also invite an archaeologist from Israel as an associate,” Chitkushev added.

According to the jewish-heritage-europe.eu web site, there are about 120 gravestones still visible in the cemetery, but all have been vandalized and heavily damaged. There are probably many fragments scattered along the slope.

UPDATE -- Sam Gruber has posted pictures of the Stip cemetery -- click HERE.

Jewish settled in Stip in the 16th century -- as in much of the region, they were Sephardic Jews fleeing Iberia. In 1943, along with almost all the other Jews of Macedonia, the 560 Jews in Stip were deported to Treblinka death camp.

There is a Holocaust memorial in Stip, but as far as I know, no Jews live in the town anymore -- or maybe there are one or two still there. Eight or nine years ago, when I was in Macedonia for the annual ceremony marking the anniversary of the deportation of Macedonian Jews, I met a man who was described at the time as the last Jew in Stip....

Today, about 200 Jews lived in Macedonia, virtually all of them in the capital, Skopje, where there is a small, functioning synagogue. A Holocaust memorial museum and education center is under construction.

Elsewhere in Macedonia, renovation of the gateway to the historic Jewish cemetery in Bitola was recently completed -- see pictures on Sam Gruber's blog.