Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Poland -- Austeria in Krakow

Austeria book store, Krakow. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I was pleased to see a nice mention of Austeria publisher in Krakow, as part of a story in the Jerusalem Post about Jewish renewal in Krakow.

The new Polish-language book Dovev Siftei Yeshenim (The Utterings of the Lips of the Sleepers), written by Krakow's Rabbi Boaz Pash, is an effort to bring back to life the voices of the city's rabbinic tradition in the place where it all happened. The book is a collection of interpretations on the weekly Torah portion written by some of the greatest rabbis Krakow ever produced.

"Everyone has heard about the rabbis and sages of Krakow, but who can quote them?" asks Pash. "What member of the current generation that is living and growing up in Poland can open their books? This book and others of its kind represent an attempt to meet that need."

The book begins with 15th century scholar Rabbi Yom Tov Milhausen, and continues with such luminaries of the Jewish bookshelf as the 16th century giant Rabbi Moshe Isserles, better known as the Rama, and the 17th-century halachist Rabbi Yoel Sirkas, the Bach.

"Poland is experiencing a renewal of Jewish culture and a demand for more information about Judaism, both in the past and present," says Pash.

Indeed, the book's publisher, the local Jewish publishing house Austeria, is part of that revival, owned by a Krakow couple who run a Jewish-themed café, bookstore and hotel. At 30 zlotys (about NIS 40), it is priced for popular consumption.

Austeria is run by Wojtek and Malgosia Ornat, who also run the Klezmer Hois cafe/restaurant/hotel, a Jewish book store and a Jewish art gallery (in the High Synagogue).

Austeria published my book "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)" last year.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

European Day of Jewish Culture Coming up -- Sept. 6

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the European Day of Jewish Culture, an event that takes place in nearly 30 countries and represents the biggest and most extensive Jewish culture festival in Europe. Begun as a local initiative in the Alsace region of France, Culture Day went international in 1999 and is one of the only such manifestations that has a cross-border character.

This year its theme is Jewish Festivals and Traditions. Its roster is likely to include as many as 800 separate, simultaneous events in 28 countries.

With so much going on at the same time in so many places, Culture Day is targeted more at local people than at tourists. It's aim is to enable the public at large to discover the cultural and historical heritage of Judaism and in doing so to combat anti-Jewish prejudice.

As I wrote last year in an article for Hadassah Magazine, Culture Day is loosely coordinated by the ECJC, B'nai B'rith Europe and the Red de Juderias, a Jewish tourism route linking 15 Spanish cities. On the ground, however, the operation is staffed by local volunteers in each participating country -- thousands of them, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. The level of participation in each country is determined by local interest, resources and capabilities: some countries have only a few token events.

The Italian participation has, from the beginning, been among the most enthusiastic, thanks to good organization, hundreds of volunteers, and important support from state, regional and local authorities. This year, there will be a record participation in Italy -- nearly 60 towns, cities and villages will be scheduling some sort of event.

Each year in Italy, one city is chosen as the flagship, where official kick-off ceremonies and major events are held.

This year the choice is unusual -- it's Trani, a seaport town in the deep south of Italy, in Puglia, on the heel of Italy's boot. Jews were expelled from here half a millennium ago; it's only in the past few years that local people have begun to recover Jewish history. A tiny Jewish community was reconstituted five years ago.

Events there will center around what is being called the first Festival of Jewish Culture ever to be held in Puglia. Called "Negba", it takes place Sept. 6-9. The program includes performances, concerts, lectures, discussions, exhibits.

Many events will be sited at Trani's Scolanova synagogue, which was used for a centuries as a church but has been the center of Jewish life in the town since 2005.

You can see the full Italian schedule by clicking HERE.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

POLAND -- Cleaning up Dymow Cemetery

The Foundation for the Preservaton of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) has posted some dramatic -- and informative -- photos about the clean-up of the Jewish cemetery in Dymow, showing before and after pictures that document the scope and difficulty of such operations.

The cemetery is the final resting place of important chassidic leaders: Zvi Elimelech of Dinov (1785-1841) called "Bnei Issahar", his son David "Cemah David (1804-1874) and grandson Ishaiahu Naftali Herc. Zvi Elimelech is considered a spiritual father of Satmar and Belz chassidim, and his tomb is visited by numerous faithful. FODZ reports:
In this operation we are helped by the members of local sport club (5th league "Dynovia" Dynow - may they be upgraded soon!) who are working in their free time. FODZ contributes all necessary equipment and materials.

This is what we call a success in the hopeless battle for proper maintenance of 1200 Jewish cemeteries in Poland: the engagement of the local citizens is a positive respons for the need and should be more highlighted in the media than antisemitic vandalism. But, it happens so in this world, that the Good is boring, and the Evil - attractive.

New Book on Jewish Heritage Published -- "Reclaiming Memory"

Tempel Synagogue, Krakow. July 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm delighted to announced the publication of a new book, to which I have contributed. It's called Reclaiming Memory: Urban regeneration in the historic Jewish quarters of Central European Cities, and it is published by the International Cultural Center in Krakow, Poland.

Edited by Monika Murzyn-Kupisz and Jacek Purchla, the book is the English language version of a collection of essays that was already published last year in Poland.

The essays included form the proceedings of a conference held in June 2007.

I've contributed a piece in my "beyond Virtually Jewish" mode, dealing with the creation of "new authenticities" and "real imaginary spaces" in today's world. It is a delight to be in a collection whose other contributors include Miriam Akavia, Leopold Unger, Janusz Makuch, Magdalena Waligorska, Martha Keil, Arno Parik, Jarolsav Klenovsky, Lena Bergman, Adam Bartosz and others.

Reclaiming memory – the theme of the conference organised by the International Cultural Centre in Krakow in June 2007 – is one of the most significant issues in Central Europe since the fall of communism. One salient aspect of this issue is Jewish heritage, for so many centuries such an expressive facet of the identity of this part of the continent, yet now survived only by a hollow echo. Vibrant districts were reduced by the Holocaust to lifeless spaces – witnesses to tragedy, orphaned monuments to a culture sentenced to annihilation, and in the best case to oblivion.

With the fall of communism and the restitution of freedom to Central Europe, the time came to reclaim that memory. The rediscovery of Jewish culture has become a characteristic feature of the transformation of the region’s largest metropolises: Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Vilnius and Warsaw.

The papers brought together in this publication go further than a simple general analysis of the issues attendant upon attempts at regeneration of former centres of Jewish culture since 1989. Their authors have tried to take a wider angle on the subject of Jewish heritage, and in particular on what Ruth E. Gruber aptly dubs its “new authenticity” and the phenomenon of “real imagined space”. For the question arises whether, paradoxically, this rapid evolution from a phase of destruction to rampant commercialisation will not eradicate completely the testimony to the Jewish presence in our culture that even the Holocaust failed to destroy?

The other

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jewish Tombstones as Building Material -- This Time in the U.S...

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The photographer Ahron D. Weiner has discovered Jewish tombstones used to build an embankment for the Woodmere Club's golf course on Long Island.

In Tablet Magazine, where a slide show of his photographs is posted, Weiner said:
the club insists the stones—none of which seem to contain dates, only names and symbols—were extra granite, donated many years ago by long-dead club members.
If that is the case -- fine and good!

Still, I've documented and written about Jewish cemeteries and tombstones in eastern Europe for 20 years by now, and always one of the most disturbing sights is to find gravestones used as building material.

There are many examples -- back in November, I posted here about a planned exhibition on this topic.

Sometimes this type of misuse was done out of deliberate desecration -- as when the Nazis demolished cemeteries and used the tombstones to pave roads or line ditches and river beds, or as foundations for buildings...I vividly recall a farmer in the village of Krynki, in eastern Poland, prying away stones to show us how they were used as the foundation of what he said had been a pig sty....

Other times, however, Jews seem to have used the stones themselves.... there is a long retaining wall at the historic Jewish cemetery in Mikulov, Czech Republic, for example, that is composed of tombstones.

Mikulov. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Mikulov. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

In the past 25-30 years, it has become commonplace to use broken tombstones as a sort of mosaic memorial wall, to commemorate Holocaust victims.

There are many examples of this -- the most famous, perhaps, is in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Krakow and the large Holocaust memorial at the site of one of the Jewish cemeteries in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland.

Earlier this month, I photographed such a wall at the New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow:

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Friday, July 17, 2009

Poland -- Dark Tourism at Auschwitz

Gate at Auschwitz, July 09. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

There's an academic field (or sub-discipline?) known as "Dark Tourism." The term -- as the web site of the Dark Tourism Forum puts it, is
a label first coined in the mid 1990’s by Professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley of Glasgow Caledonian University, [and] is the act of travel and visitation to sites of death, disaster and the seemingly macabre. Lennon and Foley’s book ‘Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster’, first published in 2000, whilst not the first publication to address the subject area within academia, it was the first to systematically outline some of the issues and concerns associated with tourism, death and associated suffering.
The Forum cites as examples of Dark Tourism such varied places as the London Dungeon, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Ground Zero in New York, the Sixth Floor in Dallas (from which President Kennedy was shot), Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC -- and, of course, Auschwitz.

I guess a lot of the travel that I carry out, write about (and, OK, promote) to sites of Jewish heritage can seem to some observers to fall under this rubric -- afterall, I'm talking about often abandoned cemeteries, ruined synagogues and other relics of a civilization and people who were all but wiped off the map in a horribly brutal fashion....

I prefer to see visiting these places, however, as an affirmation -- and acknowledgement -- of life; of lives lived, of culture created, of richness and fullness over the centuries. Yes, destroyed: but, as my brother Sam once (more than once) put it, Jews did not sit around in Europe for hundreds of years just waiting to be killed....their lives, culture, religious traditions, creativity, contributed mightily to Europe as a whole, and visiting sites of Jewish heritage is a recognition of this fact -- as fact that was woefully ignored, suppressed, or diminished for decades.

Visiting specific Holocaust sites is, on the other hand, a pure example of Dark Tourism. Commemoration, memorial and recognition, too, of course. But at death camps and execution sites one remembers and responds to the death and disaster.

Last weekend, I took a friend to visit Auschwitz for the first time. He is an American musician who was on tour in central Europe, and the festival he played in southern Poland was the first time he had been to Poland. Auschwitz is located only an hour or so away from the festival site. My friend had one morning free after the gig, so I drove him up there.

He is not Jewish, but he was born just four years after the end of World War II, and he remembers from his childhood how heavily the legacy of the War and the Holocaust was felt -- even in America. He grew up with the images and the imagery: the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, the crematoria; the railway head at Birkenau where railcars of Jews were separated, to the left, to the right.

Even though we had very little time that morning, touring the site with him -- first Auschwitz I, where the museum exhibits are arranged in brick barracks, then the vast, empty field at Birkenau -- was a powerful and moving experience.

I have been to Auschwitz many times by now, and each time I go there I feel that I am stepping into a place that is sort of in a different dimension. Things get distorted: thoughts, feelings, time, sounds. Inside the perimeter, I often feel that nothing outside exists. Yet, on occasion, I have spent hours simply prowling around outside the camp, photographing the signage and everyday banalities that do exist there "in the real world." (Afterall, more than half a million people a year visit Auschwitz, so it's clear that there will be infrastructure such as parking lots, coffee shops, WCs, restaurants, hotels, and shops selling books and souvenirs.)

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

This time, I mainly just walked with my friend. Seeing it all, a bit, through his eyes -- his first tangible encounter with the reality of Auschwitz -- as well as my own.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The night before we went there, we sat talking with some of the members of the Czech band that my friend was touring with. The young drummer, David, suddenly volunteered that one of his grandmothers was a survivor of Auschwitz, and that her parents, his great-grandparents, had been murdered there.

Did he want to go with us? I asked him.

No, he had already been and didn't need to go back, he said. But, he told us, "say hello to my family...."

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

P.S. For those visiting Auschwitz who want to see how Jews lived before the Holocaust, I recommend a visit to the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim, the town outside which the death camp was built. Oswiecim's pre-war population was more than 50 percent Jewish -- it was known in Yiddish as Oshpitsin -- and the museum is located in the complex that includes the town's one surviving synagogue. The exhibit deals largely with local pre-war Jewish life, and the center has other resources, too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Poland -- Tablet magazine on Krakow (mentioning Virtually Jewish)

Crowd gathers for the final concert. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Though I was in Krakow for the last few days of the Festival of Jewish Culture, I haven't (yet...) contributed to the annual crop of articles about it... but I was happy to see this nice mention of Virtually Jewish in the "Letter from Krakow" piece by Roger Bennett run in Tablet Magazine.

Krakow is a town in which the Holocaust is everywhere—thanks to the battery of brightly colored wagons, little bigger than golf carts, that litter the streets, energetically competing to lure visitors onto a series of niche tours they market via menus emblazoned on their sides. Trips to Auschwitz, “Kazimierz Ghetto,” and “Schindler’s Factory” are advertised alongside “Pope’s Krakow” and Wawel Castle as if they are all great days out for the whole family, despite the fact that while the last two are national jewels, the former are scars that stretch across the heart of the city. 65,000 Jews lived in Krakow before the war, amounting to 25 percent of the population. They now number a mere 200. Their absence hangs heavy, and if these tour carts were the sole custodians of their memory, they would surely soon be forgotten. But over the past 19 years, the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival has provided a critical public space for its audience to grapple with the stains of their history. This tangled phenomenon has been well-documented by the remarkable Ruth Ellen Gruber in her book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe and our first encounter with it on this evening served to underline just how complex a task it can be.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Poland -- Hidden Beit Midrash in Bedzin

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

It's always inspiring to meet yet more people who take it upon themselves to care for and promote sites of Jewish heritage in Poland (and elsewhere). This week, I accompanied Tomek Kuncewicz and his group of fellows at the Auschwitz Jewish Center to the run-down town of Bedzin, where we visited a nondescript apartment that was once a private Beit Midrash, or prayer house -- and still has traces of the vivid paintings that once covered its walls.

photos (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

In March of this year, young people in the town created a Foundation -- the Fundacja Brama Cukerman (Cukerman's Gate Foundation) -- to conserve and protect the prayer house and make it available for visitors as part of Bedzin's rich Jewish heritage.

The Prayer House is located in an upstairs apartment at Aleja Kollataja 24 -- in a building that was part of a grand complex of tenement dwellings and businesses owned by Nuchim Cukerman. You have to enter a narrow courtyard (open at one end) and climb the stairs.

Courtyard. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Front of Cukerman house. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

After World War II, the Prayer House was divided into two rooms and a kitchen, to serve as a flat. The paintings were covered over by cheap paint and stenciling. Apparently the owner always knew about the hidden murals, which became known publicly a couple of years ago, when highschool students were brought in to clear off some of the over-paint with sponges and water.

The discovery of the Cukerman prayer house came on the heels of the discovery four years ago of another private prayer house, known as the Mizrachi synagogue, in a building nearby. The Mizrachi synagogue is closed -- and apparently the paintings have deteriorated seriously over the past four years.

The Brama Cukerman Foundation is also placing plaques on former Jewish sites, including places of business, such as a one-time Jewish cinema house, around town, to create a heritage route.

Hundreds of non-Jewish Poles have dedicated their time and passion over the past 20-30 years to preserve and protect sites of Jewish heritage and memory in Poland. For 10 years now, they have been honored by the Israeli Ambassador each year with an award initiated by the American lawyer Michael Traison and now presented at a ceremony during the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.

Award ceremony, at Galicia Museum. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

This year's honorees came from Lodz, Rymanow, Ryki and other towns...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Poland --the power of a Jewish graveyard

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've written for years about the power and emotions evoked by Jewish cemeteries, particularly those in Eastern Europe.... Now Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband has felt the pull -- as he recounts in an article in the Jewish Chronicle. Miliband visited the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews project. Had he headed south, he could have felt perhaps even more palpable evidence of the endurance of the Jewish spirit (if not a sizable Jewish population) at the Festival of Jewish Culture (which I still expect to comment on here).
Visiting Poland gave me a poignant link to my roots - and hope for the future [...]

This was my first visit to Poland. There must have been a deep ambivalence at the heart of this delay. Poland is my roots. But Poland is the scene of terrible tragedy — mass murder on an unimaginable scale. This counterpoint — normality and tragedy, centuries of construction and a decade of destruction, heroism alongside sadism — is at the heart of the new Museum of Polish Jews that begins construction on June 30, on a site in the heart of the former Warsaw Ghetto ( ).

The haunting void where once was the ghetto seems permanently wrestling with present and past —when I visited, dog walkers were to be found alongside an Israeli art group.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Budapest - Hot Town, Summer in the City

I've been in Budapest for the past couple of days, soaking up the summer heat and checking out the courtyard (and other) cafes in the downtown 7th District old Jewish quarter, which is where I have my apartment.

Unfortunately, my laptop is acting up -- so, despite the free WiFi service in many cafes in the area, I have been having some trouble connecting (and uploading pictures).

On this trip, I used the popular Barladino cafe, on Dob utca, as a sort of "office," sitting at the wall, where electric plugs are located, using the Wifi and sampling the fare, and meeting people. Barladino is known for its generous 3-course lunches starting for the equivalent of 6 or 7 dollars.

Just down the street, on Kertesz utca, is the Hummus Bar -- wonderful half-size falafel pitas for the equivalent of about $1.75.

I didn't have enough time to check all the other places, but I glanced in to several of the courtyard or garden cafes in the district while hurrying to get somewhere else. These places, located in the courtyards of abandoned buildings or in vacant lots where buildings have been pulled down, have become a popular tradition in Bpest. Minimalist decor, very casual; often open very late.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Poland -- Cornerstone of Museum Laid

Site of new Museum. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The cornerstone of the long-awaited Museum of the History of Polish Jews was laid in Warsaw at a high-profile ceremony Tuesday. The museum, years in the making, will be located in what was the World War II Warsaw Ghetto, across from the Ghetto Heroes monument erected there in 1948.

"Prior to the Holocaust, the Shoah, Warsaw was one of the world's main centres of Jewish life where politics, culture, publishing and Jewish theatre thrived -- in fact it was the leading centre, surpassing other cities in the US and Europe," project director Jerzy Halbersztadt told guests at the site.

During the Holocaust, the district was inside the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, where all told Nazi Germany imprisoned more than 400,000 Polish Jews, many of whom died of starvation or disease or were sent to death camps.

The bricks used as the cornerstones came from the World War II-era foundations of the last headquarters of the Council of Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, the scene of a famous wartime uprising, Halbersztadt said.

"So we have come full circle and beginning the construction of the museum is also an element of closing this circle," he added.

Read AFP story