Saturday, August 29, 2009

Romania/Hungary -- Getting Ready to Go to Radauti

Dohany St. Synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’m in Budapest this weekend, getting ready to head off to Radauti, Romania (the ancestral village on my father's side of the family) on Sept. 1 to carry out the photographic documentation for my (Candle)sticks on Stone project on representing the woman in Jewish tombstone art.

The annual Summer Jewish Culture Festival in Budapest starts tomorrow, and I hope I can catch some of the events. There will be celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the Dohany St. synagogue on Sept. 6, but I wont be able to attend because of the Romania trip. (They also are not listed, somehow, as part of the Festival...)

I also just found out that there will be some sort of ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the synagogue on Dozsa Gyorgy avenue -- designed by my hero, Lipot Baumhorn, built in 1908 and long used as a sports/fencing hall. But I so far have not been able to find out details...

A major part of the "Candlesticks" project is a photo documentation of the stones in the Radauti Jewish cemetery. (Alas, my good camera has broken, so I have to scramble to find a replacement...)

As I wrote for the web site I have set up for the project:

In Jewish tradition, Sabbath candles are a common, and potent, symbol on women’s tombs. That is because lighting the Sabbath candles is one of the three so-called “women’s commandments” carried out by female Jews: these also include observing the laws of Niddah separating men from women during their menstrual periods, and that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread.

The first time I saw a Jewish woman’s tombstone bearing a representation of candles was in 1978, when for the first time I visited Radauti, the small town in the far north of Romania near where my father’s parents were born. The tombstone in question was that of my great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, who died in 1947 and in whose honor I received my middle name. Her gravestone is a very simple slab, with a five-branched menorah topping an epitaph.

Since then, and particularly over the past 20 years, I have visited scores if not hundreds of Jewish cemeteries in East-Central Europe, documenting them, photographing them, and writing about them in books and articles.

Carvings on Jewish tombstones include a wide range of symbols representing names, professions, personal attributes, or family lineage — as well as folk decoration. In northern Romania and parts of Poland and Ukraine in particular, cemeteries include a variety of wonderfully vivid motifs, and some stones still retain traces of the brightly colored painted decoration that once adorned them.

Candlesticks on women’s tombs are more or less a constant: sometimes they are very simple renditions, yet they can be extraordinarily vivid bas-relief sculptures. In some instances, broken candles represent death. And in some cemeteries, the carving is so distinctive that you can discern the hand of individual, if long forgotten, artists.

I won’t be going alone on the trip, as I had thought — three of my cousins are coming with me: Arthur, and Hugh and his son Asher. (I hope we all fit in the car!) So it will be a combination art trip and roots trip, with some family gossip and tourism thrown in. I look forward to re-visiting some of the painted monasteries in the region and also eating well...

In addition, as part of the trip — and also as part of the annual European Day of Jewish Culture — next weekend I’m to take part in two presentations of Simon Geissbuehler's new guidebook on Jewish cemeteries in the Bucovina region (now divided between Romania and Ukraine). One presentation is i Radauti, and the other, on Sunday, is in Chernivtsi — Czernowitz — Ukraine, just over the border.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Latvia -- Riga Synagogue Rededicated

The great synagogue in Riga, Latvia has been re-opened after a full restoration with a high-profile ceremony. The dedication is the first of ceremonies honoring three landmark synagogues in Europe in the space of a couple of weeks. Following the Riga ceremonies, there will be events marking the 150th anniversary of the Dohany St. Synagogue in Budapest on Sept. 6, followed by major events in Sofia, Bulgaria on Sept. 9 marking the 100th anniversary of the great synagogue there, and the completion of years of restoration work.

RIGA (Reuters) - Latvian Jews, the country's president and prime minister and other officials attended on Wednesday the ceremonial re-opening of the sole synagogue in the country's capital after a two-year renovation.

The synagogue, in the historic Old Town, was the only one in Riga to survive the Holocaust and was one of the only ones to continue to work in the territory of the former Soviet Union.

It was built in 1905 and the restoration, begun in 2007, aimed at restoring the dilapidated building to as close as possible to the original design.

Read full story

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Egypt -- Restoration Work on Cairo Synagogue

This is a bit out of the region, but still... The Associated Press reports on restoration work at the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in Cairo, putting it into political context.

The AP reports that the Egyptian head of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, denied the restoration was meant to assuage Jewish anger at Egyptian culture minister Hosni Farouk, "who outraged many Jews with his comments in April 2008 vowing to burn any Israeli books found in Egypt's famed Library of Alexandria."

"I believe these rumors were started to hurt Farouk Hosni's bid to become the next director general of UNESCO," said Hawass, who reports to the culture minister. "The Jewish monuments are Egyptian monuments ... they are part of us and part of our culture."

The synagogue was named after Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, a famous physician, philosopher and Torah scholar who was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1135 A.D. He eventually moved to Cairo, where he died in 1204 and was buried inside the synagogue. The remains of the rabbi, who is known in the West as Moses Maimonides, were later transferred to the Holy Land.

Read full article

Friday, August 21, 2009

My latest column -- another take on Bielsko Biala

The Jewish architect Karol Korn, who designed some of the most important buildings in Bielsko-Biala.

In my latest column on, I visit Bielsko-Biala, Poland and describe the Jewish sites there -- focusing, among other things, on the buildings designed by the architect Karol Korn.

Much of the town is still somewhat rundown, with sooty grime obscuring the facades of elegant buildings. But restoration work has begun on some of the architectural gems that in the latter part of the 19th century won the town the nickname "little Vienna."

A Jewish architect, Karl (or Karol) Korn, in fact, was instrumental in shaping the urban landscape we see today -- so much so that a street in town was even named in his honor.

Korn, who lived from 1852-1906, designed many of the sumptuous mansions and apartment buildings that still line the city's main boulevard, ul. 3 Maja, and near by streets. Some of them show art nouveau, or secessionist, features. His used Italian and neo-renaissance touched for his own mansion, built on ul. 3 Maja in 1883 -- it incorporates a sculptural representation of Korn's emblem above the entrance: an arrangement of the measuring tools and other instruments used by architects and builders.

Korn also designed other important buildings, such as the elegant President Hotel and the central Post Office, that are landmarks on the avenues that spread out from Bielsko's medieval core of 14th century castle and arcaded market square.

His most elaborate building, however, no longer exists. This was the opulent, Moorish-style synagogue that dominated ul. 3 Maja until the Nazis destroyed it in 1939.

It was an imposing structure with two big towers, lotus domes, decorated cupolas, arched windows and a red and orange striped façade -- old postcards, on sale at the local tourist office, demonstrate that it was one of the city's most prominent attractions.
Today, a contemporary art gallery stands on the spot -- ironically this is where the performance art festival I was attending took place. It is marked by a small memorial plaque on an outer wall.

Next door, a puppet theatre stands on the site of the one-time Jewish school, and across the street is the former Jewish Community building. I was told that the carved decoration represents the various fruits mentioned in the Torah.

Read full Article

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lithuania -- update on fire damaged Pakruojis wooded synagogue

Fire-damaged north-facing side of the Pakruojis synagogue, Summer 2009.

A correspondent has written in with an update (and photos) on the historic wooden synagogue in Pakruojis, Lithuania, that was damaged by fire a few months ago. Many thanks for sending the pictures and for this vivid and thoughtful description:

We were shown the synagogue by a guide from the local tourist office, who was very helpful and spent much of the afternoon showing us the sights of Pakruojis. He said that there was a local feeling that the fire was started by teens - the building on the plot adjacent to the synagogue, which looked like a private dwelling, had also been set on fire at some point. It was evident from our tour that several buildings of local historical importance are sitting empty and unsecured, for example the old printing press, and the outbuildings of the large manor house have suffered several fires in the past. Pakruojis has the feel of a place which has experienced a long period of decline and does not have the public funds available to restore or even protect their historical buildings. The regeneration which we did see, which is taken place on the manor house, was the result of private investment. My feeling is that there will not be any local attempt to save the synagogue, as there are other more pressing financial needs in this challenged area, but that this was not because it is a building with a Jewish history - other buildings of local importance are equally threatened by fire and dereliction. Having said that, there is a local strategy in place to try and attract more tourists to the area - so who knows?

The site on which the synagogue stands looks over the river and was the first street in Pakruojis. This street, which is better described as a lane, runs along the side of the river, and so is hidden from the view of the current main street of Pakruojis and has little through traffic. It's a lovely spot, but is also very secluded - a great place for kids to hang out and get up to mischief... There is a bench next to the synagogue, where a street drinker was sitting as we were looking around the synagogue in the middle of the day. It is now also possible to walk into the synagogue through the hole in the east side, which is how we took the pictures of the interior.

As you will see from the photos, it seems that there is damage from at least two separate fires, one on the east side, and a larger one on the north side. The photo of the damage to the north side shows about two thirds of the length of the building - you can see the undamaged portion of the north side from another picture which shows the northeast corner - it was difficult to get a shot of the full length of the north side as the river (and at various points, the street drinker!) stood behind us.
Pakruojis wooden synagogue, east-facing exterior. Summer 2009.

Pakruojis wooden synagogue, interior. Summer 2009

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Poland -- Link to an Auschwitz article....

At Auschwitz, July 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm linking to an article, A "New Jew" Goes to Auschwitz, by Jay Michaelson, in The Forward, that provides an interesting take on how the Holocaust and Auschwitz (as a real place and as a symbol) are regarded by young generations for whom it is all increasingly distant history. (For someone in his or her 20s, it is more or less like World War One or the Edwardian Age is to my generation!) The article is subtitled "The Cathedral of Holocaustism."

Like many of my generation’s so-called “New Jews,” I see the recourse to the Holocaust as a substitute for living Judaism: an ersatz religion whose frisson of spiritual passion ultimately provides only negative reasons to live a Jewish life. As an activist, I am also dubious of how unspeakable tragedy was so readily converted into a platform for pretension, posturing and political exploitation. And as a teacher and writer, I know how easy it is to use the Holocaust as the ultimate cheap shot: the surefire way to get kids’ attention, get your book published and score points for piety when all else fails.

This summer, though, I visited Auschwitz for the first time. No, I was not in the parade of Jewish tourists on the European genocide trail, but since I was studying in Krakow (which, I hasten to point out, is joyful, cultured, vibrant and colorful) for the summer, I felt it was important to go, and so one rainy Sunday I went. So what happens when a “New Jew” goes to Auschwitz? In fact, despite my expectations, the trip underscored rather than undermined my ambivalence.

Read full story

Inevitably, the way we view the past changes. The comments on this article are particularly interesting...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Poland -- Article summarizing non-Jews preserving Jewish heritage

This year's award ceremony, held at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, honoring non-Jewish Poles who preserve Jewish heritage.
Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've written frequently on this blog about non-Jewish Poles preserving and conserving Jewish heritage (and of course, this was one of the themes touched on in my book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe). One of my favorite events at the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow is the ceremony honoring non-Jewish Poles for their efforts in this field.

An article in Transitions Online by Marjorie Backman summarizes some of the recent developments.

Poland lost nearly all its Jewish population in World War II, although previously Jews had comprised 10 percent of the population, even 50 percent of some towns. (Several historians estimate that half of the Jews slain in the Holocaust came from Poland.) During the Nazi years and the communist period, public discussion about Jewish culture was impossible, according to Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich. Only after 1989 came “honest appraisal of what the Jewish presence meant in Poland.” For 50 years, Jewish-Polish relations were “in the freezer.”

But now, he says, “There are more non-Jewish Poles working on saving Jewish cemeteries, creating more Jewish festivals, adding courses in the high school than in any other country in Europe.”

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Poland -- New Book by Tomasz Wisniewski

Tomasz Wiesniewski, Bialystok, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Tomasz Wisniewski, the long-time researcher on Jewish heritage in (particularly) northeastern Poland has published a new book on pre-World War II Jewish cemeteries. Called "The Lost World of Small-Town Jewish Cemeteries" and published by Istytut Wydawniczy Kreator, it will be officially launched at an event in Bialystok on Sunday.

Most of the book is in Polish, although some of the picture captions are also in English. Indeed, perhaps the main value of the book is to present these pictures, which Tomek has been collecting for many years. Many (if not all of them) can also be seen on his web site,

The pictures show extraordinary scenes of Jewish cemeteries all over what is now Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus -- when they were in use by the large and vibrant Jewish communities that once lived there. Many of the stones are painted -- the pictures are in black and white, but Tomek has also included reconstructions of what they may have looked like in color. (You can still find a few stones with traces of colorful decoration in, for example, northern Romania -- and tombstones in active Jewish cemeteries in, for example, Ukraine still occasionally are painted.)

Painted tombstone in Sharhorod, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The pictures also show Jewish grave-markers made out of wood (none of which survive today), as well as graves covered by wooden shelters. Almost none of these cemeteries remains today -- and for those who know Jewish cemeteries in this part of the world only as ravaged vestiges of the past, the scenes are a revelation.

Tomek asked me to write a Foreword for the book, and this is what I wrote:
Tomasz Wisniewski is a rescuer of Atlantis.

Like most of the postwar generation, he grew up in Bialystok with no inkling that his native city had once been an important center of Jewish life, learning and political and economic activity.

Born in the late 1950s, he was ignorant of the fact that Jews had made up the majority of Bialystok's pre-war population, that tens of thousands of Jews had been confined in the wartime Bialystok ghetto, that in 1941 the Nazis had herded some 1,000 Bialystok Jews into the city's main synagogue and then had torched the building.

Only three out of the more than 60 synagogues that had stood in Bialystok before World War II had survived the conflagration, and all were put to other use. The city's Jewish cemeteries had all been destroyed or swallowed up by encroaching forest.

Wisniewski discovered this history by chance in the early 1980s, when he read a book about the wartime Bialystok ghetto and the almost total annihilation of the Jewish population. The book changed his outlook about his town, his country and even his own local identity. "I wanted to know what there was before," he told me, "when Jews lived in Bialystok."

Since that moment more than 25 years ago, Wisniewski has devoted his life to documenting Jewish history both in Bialystok and in the surrounding region, where Jews had formed the majority of the population in numerous small towns, or shtetls. He felt he was discovering a lost world that had vanished from view and from public awareness as if it had been drowned like the mythical continent of Atlantis -- and indeed, "Postcards from Atlantis" was the title of a series of articles that he published in the local press.

Over the years, Wisniewski has become a recognized expert on the Jewish history and heritage of eastern Poland. He has published books and many articles, mounted exhibitions, and, more recently, set up a web site with an expanding database of historic and contemporary photographs of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other heritage sites. In 1998 he became one of the first recipients of an annual award presented by the State of Israel to honor non-Jewish Poles who care for Jewish heritage in Poland.

This new book is based on the extensive photographic archives Wisniewski has collected over the past quarter century. For the first time, the pre-war state of Jewish cemeteries in the small shtetls scattered around the region is visually documented in dramatic detail: the exquisite carved imagery on the tombstones, or mazzevot, the surprising way many of them were painted in bright colors, the many striking grave markers made of wood, none of which survived the Shoah.

In the text that accompanies the pictures, Wisniewski tells stories of the pre-war past but also reflects on the savagery of destruction, both during and after World War II. Tombstones were smashed or uprooted and, as he documents, were used as paving stones, building foundations, and even as whetstone to sharpen knives. Recovering these fragments, too, is a means of rescuing memory and returning from oblivion.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Prague -- Big New Exhibit on the Golem and Rabbi Loew

Golem figurines for sale in Prague. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

If you'll be in Prague in the coming months, don't miss the big new exhibition that just opened at Prague castle on the legendary sage and scholar Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Loew. Called The Path of Life, the exhibition is part of events celebrating the 400th anniversary of Rabbi Loew's death. It presents both the historical figure of the Rabbi, who was known as the Maharal, as well as the legends and legacy surrounding him -- he is renowned in books and folklore as the creator of the Golem.

The idea of Rabbi Loew as the personification of the mystery of the ghetto, a miracle worker, mathematician and creator of an artificial being may not be historically grounded but it has provided immense inspiration for literature, drama and art. “The historical and the imaginary Rabbi Loew both have a right to exist, but there is a cavernous divide between the historical image of this figure and the way he is mainly seen today,” says the exhibition curator Alexandr Putík, a researcher at the Jewish Museum. “This fact is of such importance that it serves as the basic concept for the whole exhibition, which comprises two parts. The first part focuses on the historical Rabbi Loew and the authentic traditions connected with him, while the second part looks at the Rabbi Loew’s legacy and the origin of the legends that are linked to his name.”
According to the press release about the exhibition:

Among the most important items on display are the writings of Rabbi Loew together with official registers and records associated with him. One of the unique items is a document from the State Archives in Vienna dating from 1597 that was signed by this Jewish scholar, whose fame spread following his meeting with Emperor Rudolf II at Prague Castle. Another rare exhibit is a table bell that was made from an alloy of seven metals on the basis of kabbalistic instructions and belonged to Rudolf II; this is on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The exhibition also showcases a number of items that were directly or indirectly connected with Rabbi Loew. These include a replica of the tombstone of his relative Lev the Elder from 1540, the original of which is in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, the chair that the rabbi is said to have sat on during religious services at the Old-New Synagogue, and a Kiddush cup that – according to oral tradition – belonged to Rabbi Loew. The original tombstone and chair obviously could not be put on view at the exhibition, but they can be seen on a tour of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Rabbi Loew’s work stands out for its complexity and depth – he dealt with not only Torah and Talmud exegesis and religious law, but also with mystical theology and education, and he had a major influence on Hasidism and modern religious Zionism. “Ironically, the general public now knows Judah ben Bezalel mainly due to the golem legend, with which he was not associated until the nineteenth century. This legend is also featured in the exhibition,” says the other curator of the exhibition Arno Pařík. On view at the Imperial Stables are Sippurim [Hebrew “Tales”] – texts by German romantics that were published in Prague in 1847 and raised broader awareness of Rabbi Loew and his golem – and literary works by Alois Jirásek, Josef Svátek and Adolf Wenig that dealt with the golem legends.

Legends about Rabbi Loew and his golem spread most extensively, however, at the beginning of the twentieth century, which is why the exhibition showcases a number of literary works on this theme by such authors as Yudel Rosenberg, Gustav Meyrink and Chaim Bloch. Rabbi Loew and the golem were depicted in art first by Mikoláš Aleš and then by Hugo Steiner-Prag, among other artists. A monument to Rabbi Loew was made by the sculptor Ladislav Šaloun for the front of Prague’s Town Hall; the model for this – which is in the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague – is also on view at the exhibition. A play about Rabbi Loew and his golem was also performed at the Liberated Theatre. The greatest success, however, was with the film versions of these legends by Paul Wegener, Julian Duviviér and Martin Frič (in the film The Emperor’s Baker and the Golem). Selected excerpts from these films will be screened at the exhibition.

Path of Life also traces the development of the Prague ghetto and the Jewish cemetery during the lifetime of Rabbi Loew. Thanks to the City of Prague Museum and KIT digital Czech a. s., it is possible to see a 3D depiction of the most important buildings of Prague’s Jewish Town, as rendered in an 18th century model by Antonín Langweil. In addition to Rabbi Loew’s house, this shows the major public buildings and the tombstones of Rabbi Loew and other prominent figures from the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Walking Where They Walked -- Two Views

A woman's tomb in the Jewish cemetery of Radauti -- valuable art and culture that transcends specifically Jewish or family history.
Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I am posting links here to two very different views of the experience of "walking where they walked" - i.e. visiting Jewish sites in East Central Europe.

One is by Matt Gross in Tablet Magazine, called "Grave Missteps." It is billed as a "critique" of what he calls heritage tourism -- but what, in his case, is sort of "Jewish genealogy lite." Gross misses the point about what heritage tourism in the broader sense is all about, reducing it to his own lukewarm, ambivalent search for his own family roots and making the preposterous statement that on-site travel has little value, at least where Jewish history and heritage is concerned.
[W]hen it comes to digging into the past, travel is not necessarily your best shovel. As Jews, we have a wealth of countries, languages, traditions, and histories to investigate, and one of us has likely written about a book about it already. No need to fly halfway around the world—to museums whose store of knowledge and exhibit design pale in comparison to the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum’s, to Holocaust sites devoid, for various reasons, of details and context, to the poorly marked graves of our ancestors.
Of course, he only seems to see Jewish history and heritage within the experience of his own family. He seems to fail to recognize Jewish heritage sites -- the synagogues, the gorgeously carved cemeteries, such as the one is Radauti, Romania, where I am carrying out my (Candlesticks) On Stone project, the old shtetls and ghetto areas -- as having any cultural, historical, architectural, artistic relevance to general European experience as a whole and thus merit visits on these accounts. Would he say the same about visiting sites like Stonehenge? Roman ruins? Angkor Wat? Hadrian's Wall? The ruins of medieval monasteries? We can read about them in books and online, too.

The other article, from Mondoweiss, is another take by Lizzy Ratner on visiting Poland, with the author (yay!!) realizing that Israel is not the be all and end all the core of of Jewish experience or identity. It's called "In the Beloved Old Country, a Jew Has Visions of Her Homeland."
I visited the synagogue in Tykocin where one of my great grandfathers might have prayed. And I roamed the overgrown cemeteries of Warsaw and Bialystok, wondering which of my relatives were buried there, marveling at the tangled breadth of what once was, mourning its loss, and puzzling over why, if we’re going to insist on having some kind of a “homeland,” so many Jews demand that it be Israel when it so clearly should be Poland. Poland, land of latkes and bialys. Poland shel zahav. This, of course, isn’t the reaction you’re “supposed” to have. In the popular Zionist narrative, the Old Country – and the unspeakably murderous brutality that Jews suffered there – is the (non-Biblical) justification for the state of Israel.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

RUTHLESS COSMOPOLITAN -- Summer Reading and the Holocaust

Holocaust monument on bank of the Danube. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column deals with three books by people I know -- The Shanghai Moon, a detective story by S.J. Rozan, The Budapest Protocol, a political thriller by Adam LeBor and The Pages In Between, a memoir by Erin Einhorn. The books are very different, but they deals with how the Holocaust and associated with it, have an impact today.

RUTHLESS COSMOPOLITAN: Summer Reading and the Holocaust

By Ruth Ellen Gruber (July 29, 2009)

BUDAPEST (JTA) -- Summer's here and my recreational reading has included three books by people I actually know.

Each book is quite different from the others -- "The Shanghai Moon" by S.J. Rozan is a detective story; "The Budapest Protocol" by Adam Le Bor is a political thriller; and "The Pages In Between" by Erin Einhorn is a nonfiction personal memoir.

But they all have something in common: They use the Holocaust and the lingering impact of its memory as springboards for narratives that take place in the present. And fiction or nonfiction, all three books are gripping yarns that make readers think, as well as become lost in the story.

"The Shanghai Moon" is the latest in Rozan's award-winning series of mysteries featuring New York-based detectives Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. It hinges on the experiences of the more than 20,000 European Jews who found refuge in Shanghai, China, during the Shoah and on the fate of their looted belongings. The book is the first in her series in which Rozan explores Jewish themes. Like the other two authors, Rozan is Jewish.

"The Shanghai ghetto is a compelling aspect of Jewish and Holocaust history that gets almost no attention," Rozan told me when I asked her what prompted her to write about it. "Once I started the research, I was completely enthralled with these people's stories and thought that whole rich world needed to be brought to light.

"The past never stops reaching into the present,” she said. “In a sense, crime and mystery novels are all about making that clear, about bringing above the surface, as it were, how and when that happens.”

Rozan said she occasionally hears from people who were in the Shanghai ghetto or had family members there.

"They almost never encounter that time and place in fiction, and they're thrilled to see it," she said. "And I'm thrilled when they tell me my picture of it feels right to them."

"The Budapest Protocol" tells quite a different story. Le Bor, a veteran British journalist and author, sets his story in the Hungarian capital, where he lives. But he creates an alternative Budapest, using today's city -- including its former Jewish quarter -- as a backdrop for an imaginary political scene in which Nazi-inspired political forces gain power in a bid to take over Europe.

Le Bor told me he extrapolated from a 1944 U.S. intelligence document an account of a meeting of leading Nazi industrialists in the Maison Rouge Hotel in Strasbourg, France. They admit the war is lost but lay out their plans for the next Reich, the fourth, which will be an economic empire.

"I simply moved that meeting to the fictional Hotel Savoy in Budapest and took the story from there," the author said.

Le Bor described the book -- his first novel after several nonfiction books -- as weaving "past and present together, just like everyday life everywhere in Eastern Europe.

"We walk on pavements once trodden by the Gestapo and the [Hungarian fascist] Arrow Cross, we marvel at the beauty of the Danube, which within living memory was also a watery grave for thousands of Jews," he said.

"But Hungary, certainly more than its neighbors, is making real efforts to remember what was lost at numerous memorials and Holocaust commemoration ceremonies. It also celebrates what remains at events like the Jewish summer festival," an annual event at the beginning of September.

"Jewish culture," Le Bor said, "is an ever-richer part of Budapest life."

Erin Einhorn's nonfiction memoir, "The Pages In Between," gripped me as much as -- or more than -- any fictional thriller.

The Detroit News called it "a detective story framed as a memoir." The story's subplots, it said, "reveal how memory often distorts the truth, and how family legend is often colored in its retelling."

The book recounts Einhorn's attempts to find out the truth about how her mother, who was born in the Polish city of Bedzin in 1942, survived the Holocaust.

Einhorn, then in her 20s, moved to Poland for a year in 2001. She found the house in Bedzin that once belonged to her family, met the descendants of the Christian woman who took in her mother as a baby and became immersed in an ever-widening web of truths, half-truths, myth and deception.

A reporter with the New York Daily News, Einhorn uses her journalistic skills to record not only her search for her mother's past but also her search to understand the present -- and, in a way, her search for her own identity.

Along the way she presents an honest and intensely vivid appraisal of contemporary Poland, especially the nuances and contradictions that compose the complexities of Poland's centuries-old relationship with the Jewish world.

Sadly, Einhorn's mother died at age 59, just as Einhorn was embarking on her project. That loss becomes a milestone that turns Einhorn's book into not just a search for family history, but a coming-of-age chronicle that links the past with an open-ended future.

I stayed up well past midnight to finish it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hungarian edition of Jewish Heritage Travel Postponed

As I've noted, my book National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe is being translated into Hungarian... publication was anticipated for early September, to coincide with the annual Jewish Summer Festival.

I've just been informed that publication is being postponed, possibly to late fall, possibly til even later.... Ah, the economic crisi stikes again....