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.

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