Thursday, October 29, 2009

My article on Holocaust acknowledgment, memory and commemoration

 Monument at Belzec Death Camp, Poland. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Here's a link to my JTA article on Holocaust recognition, acknowledgment and commemoration in post-communist Europe.
By Ruth Ellen Gruber, October 28, 2009
ROME (JTA) -- A row of empty shoes where Jews were shot dead on the bank of the Danube River in Budapest. The image of a grand synagogue chiseled into stone at the place it once stood in Bratislava. A museum, a wall of names and a vast symbolic field of ashes at the site of the Belzec death camp in Poland. A giant menorah and the statue of a tortured figure at a corner in the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

These are just a few of the monuments to victims of the Holocaust that have been erected in Eastern Europe in the 20 years since the fall of communism opened the way to a dramatic, often painful and still ongoing confrontation with history in that region.
Under communism, Jewish suffering in the Holocaust generally was subsumed as part of overall suffering during World War II. Most Holocaust or World War II memorials in communist Europe -- even at death camps such as Auschwitz and Buchenwald -- honored generic "victims of Nazism" or "victims of Fascism."
But over the past two decades numerous new memorials have been built, countless plaques have been affixed, educational programs have been instituted, Holocaust museums have been established, and a number of countries have adopted an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day to serve as a focal point for study and commemoration.
"Education is a slow process, and changing inherited and accepted concepts and beliefs is a difficult task in any context," said Samuel Gruber, president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments. "In this light, I think we can look at amazing progress over the past two decades."
But the process has been far from smooth, and far from complete, and it varies widely from country to country and locale to locale.
"The way that the Holocaust is remembered is a good indication of the health of a nation," said Warren Miller, chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, which has sponsored a number of Holocaust memorial projects.
"When the Holocaust is denied, freedom is under assault," he said. "Where the Holocaust and its victims are remembered, freedom is secure."
Some states, particularly those that were themselves victims of the Nazis, have taken many measures to confront their history and recognize local culpability in the deportation and murder of Jews.
In Poland, for example, the memorials and museums at Holocaust sites such as Auschwitz and Belzec have been revamped to provide both factual information and context. New memorial plaques have been put up throughout the country, and numerous public and private education projects on the Holocaust and Jewish history have cropped up.
"But when the subject focuses on questions about the Polish role as collaborators with the Nazis or merely Polish self-expressions of anti-Semitism, it is still quite controversial," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee's director of international Jewish affairs.
In some countries, nationalism, local pride and complex political and other legacies have put up obstacles to an honest evaluation.
"Progress is relative," Gruber said. "These are still fledgling democracies. Some countries are much further along the path to historical accountability and sincere commemoration than others, but many have had further to go."
In countries such as Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, which were allied with the Nazis, honest evaluation of the past means acceptance of direct local participation in the Holocaust.
Education is vital, said Maros Borsky, director of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center. "The evil that happened in society will not be healed, but the next generation must learn about it," Borsky said.

In the countries that once formed part of the Soviet Union, the problems are compounded by other issues. In the Baltic countries in particular, nationalists long have regarded the Nazis as the lesser of two wartime evils -- "liberators" against the Russians who occupied their countries.
In 2002, for example, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga had to intervene directly to ensure that the inscription on a monument to 25,000 Jews killed in the Rumbula Forest near Riga included mention of Latvian collaborators as well as Nazis among the perpetrators.
"She said this is a place of national shame," Miller said. "It was a huge step forward and an example for other European leaders to follow."

In Ukraine, nationalist aspirations after decades of Russian domination have eclipsed the memory of Jewish suffering, particularly in western Ukraine, which before World War II was part of Poland and had a complex multiethnic profile.

"Generally speaking, Jewish issues, including the Holocaust, are still not seen as part of one's own history," said Tarik Cyril Amar, academic director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv.

The high-profile dedication Oct. 8 of a national Holocaust memorial in the Romanian capital Bucharest illustrated many of these points.

Under Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany, and deportations of Jews ordered by Antonescu resulted in the deaths of some 280,000 Jews. Even after the fall of communism, this fact was largely ignored or minimized, and Antonescu is often viewed as a hero by Romanian nationalists.

"Six years ago there was no difficulty in getting Romanian leaders to acknowledge that there was a Holocaust in their country, but they only understood this as what Hungarians did to Jews in Romanian territory under their control," Baker said.

Construction of the monument and marking Oct. 9 as Holocaust Commemoration Day were mandated by an international commission on the Holocaust in Romania, headed by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, which released a 400-page report in 2004 as Romania was preparing to enter the European Union.

Political dignitaries, Holocaust survivors and religious leaders from Europe, Israel and the United States attended the ceremony, and Romanian President Traian Basescu spoke.

The Romanian state and Romanian society, Basescu declared, "reaffirm their decision to assume the blame for the past and to uncover the historic memory in the spirit of truth."

The memorial, said Baker, who attended the ceremony and is a member of the Holocaust Commission, can be seen "as a culmination of the process of getting Romanians to confront their own Holocaust history."

Nonetheless, he added, "It was still ironic that while President Basescu spoke very clearly in his dedication remarks about the role of Antonescu in the Holocaust, he told me later that same day that he believes over 50 percent of the Romanian population still views Antonescu positively."
"So much has been done,” Baker said, “but there is still much to do."
Read full article at

I was unable in an 800-word story to incorporate all the material I obtained in interviews for the piece.

But -- Sam Gruber has now posted on his blog his full responses to my questions. We have discussed these issues many times over the years, and in some ways, his responses mirror a lot of my thinking (but expressed much more eloquently!). We come to the topic from different directions, too.

You can read the full text of the interview by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poland -- Heritage Seminar coming up

 Zamosc synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Hertiage in Poland (FODZ) reports that on November 6th, a Polish-French seminar on cultural heritage and local development will take place at the French Embassy in Warsaw. The encounter is organized by the  Embassy  and the Association of Historical Cities in France. Europea
The aim of the meeting is the exchange of experiences between French and Polish institutions in the field of best practices for protecting the cultural heritage and the importance of benefiting from it.

A representative of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and representatives of town participating in the Chassidic Route project will also take part in the seminar. 
A FODZ statement (on Facebook...) adds:
The European Union is also a chance for better cooperation in the field of preserving and exposing our multicultural experiences from the past. The French are especially interested in the Sephardic motive of Zamosc, since some French towns also had post-inquisition immigrant Jewish communities. Is this a step leading to broader [cooperation] for European preservation of material traces of Jewish history?

Poland -- TV report on degradation in a Warsaw Jewish cemetery

Polish TV runs a report about the neglect of the Warsaw's Brodno Jewish cemetery, in the Praga district.

Click HERE to see and read it (in Polish).

Ukraine -- A New Plan to Restore All Jewish Cemeteries?

Jewish cemetery, Busk, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm posting this little article from the Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS, stating that the Chabad-linked Jewish community in Zhitomir, Ukraine, headed by the very energetic Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, has "begun a massive project to restore and preserve approximately 1,500 Jewish cemeteries scattered throughout Ukraine." According to the article, an office for this project opened this past week. But it doesn't look to me, from what is reported, that there is real funding.

It says that a "detailed inventory" of all Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine will be prepared "with information as to the degree of neglect, damage and defacement."

Jewish cemetery, Brody, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

It is not clear to me if this initiative has any connection with the cemetery inventory that the Lo-Tishkach organzation is carrying out in Ukraine. This is what Lo-Tishkach describes as "a three-year FSU educational project to catalogue all of the Jewish cemeteries and mass graves in Ukraine and the Baltic states." It says that surveys of 216 Jewish burial grounds have now been performed in eight of the Ukraine’s 25 regions, and that data from these surveys in now being processed.
Participants, who are drawn from local youth groups and universities, carried out comprehensive surveys at each location, illustrated by detailed photographs, and gathered vital information on the areas’ Jewish life, history and culture. The data collected from these surveys is currently being updated to the Lo Tishkach Database (see the list of recently updated records on the homepage) and will shortly be presented in a series of publications providing an up-to-date record on the situation of Jewish burial grounds in Ukraine. 

Many sites urgently in need of care were identified during the surveys, details of which are available here. Contact us at to find out how to help save these sites.
Co-ordinated by the Lo Tishkach Foundation and supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the project seeks to practically engage young Ukrainians with their culture and history, encourage reflection on the lessons of the Holocaust, develop values of volunteerism and civic responsibility and collect valuable information for the Foundation’s database.
The Zhitomir-project says that funding has come from the "well-known 'Chevra Kadisha' organization." But there is no indication of methodology.

The funding for this ambitious project is coming from the well-known "Chevra Kadisha’ organization. Many of the Jewish cemeteries that will be part of this project are located in towns and villages where there is no longer a local Jewish population or where there are very few Jewish residents. These cemeteries contain Jewish graves that are currently in a terribly neglected state and are often subjected to attacks by local vandals.

The office from which this project will be managed opened this past week. In the first phase of the project, a detailed inventory of all Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine will be prepared, with information as to the degree of neglect, damage and defacement. The staff will attempt to compile lists of famous individuals who are buried in these respective cemeteries.

The second phase of the project involves putting the cemeteries back in order and organizing their regular maintenance.

The initiators of this project are hopeful that the World Zionist Organization will provide financial backing and organizational assistance in implementing this project. According respect and honor to the deceased is an important part of Jewish tradition.

Read article at the web site

It is important to recall how vast, complex and difficult an operation it will be to again survey the Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine. A survey was carried out -- to determine threats and status, and also to identify the sites -- in the 1990s, overseen by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad. It was published in 2005 and can be downloaded by clicking RIGHT HERE. Dozens of people were involved, and the Commission's list and report remains the most inclusive to date.

Jewish cemetery, Sadhora, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Monday, October 26, 2009

Poland -- Article on Jewish Cemetery in Lodz

 Poznanski tomb, Lodz, under restoration in 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

There's a nice article (by DPA) on the large Jewish Cemetery in Lodz -- though it incorrectly states that the cemetery is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. The much older Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and, certainly Budapest's vast Kozma utca Jewish cemetery, have more burials and also more varied styles of tombstones and mauslea. The Jewish Cemetery in Lodz does have a very informative web site with a map and pictures and links to an expanding data base that so far includes the names of 90,000 people buried in the cemetery.

 Map of the cemetery, Lodz. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Tombstone showing traces of painting. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Here's part of the DPA story:
Lodz, Poland - Lodz' Jewish cemetery is an impressive sight, with its long avenues, old trees, mausoleums that look like ancient temples and thousands of headstones. Some are badly weathered and it is impossible to read the inscriptions on many. Graves are covered in ivy and most of them date back to before the Second World War.[...]
The Jewish cemetery has some stunning examples of opulent graves built by a middle class who were prepared to spend almost as much money on mausoleums as they did on houses for the living.

In his day, Izrael Poznanski, for example, was the most well known Jewish factory owner in the city and accrued a fortune from textile manufacturing. He lies buried with his wife Leonia in a mausoleum that cost a fortune to build.[...]
There are many other fine examples of ostentatious graves in the cemetery. The tomb of the Prussak family is a domed roof supported by four columns with four steps. Many of the tombs were built in the art nouveau style, such as that for the Rapppaport family.
The parents of the classical pianist Artur Rubinstein are also buried in the cemetery. Their comparatively simple gravestone survived the war along with thousands of other ordinary headstones. The headstones are usually made of sandstone or limestone and are often decorated with a Star of David or a hand in blessing. The image of a book indicates the headstone marks the grave of a learned person.

Read full article here

Lodz Jewish Cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Poland -- Good News (Maybe) about Przysucha synagogue

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

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) reports that progress seems to be being made regarding the restoration and preservation of the imposing, 18th century synagogue building the Przysucha. The FODZ web site reports that a meeting will be held tomorrow about the synagogue's fate.
On October 26th, 2009 in Przysucha representatives of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland will meet with representatives of the local NGO’s: Oskar Kolberg Cultural Society and Music Education Society as well as the Oskar Kolberg Museum in Przysucha. The meeting will be dedicated to the concept of the historical synagogue’s development.
Przysucha was a major center of Hasidism in Poland -- Martin Buber mentione d seven Tzaddikim from the town. It was the seat of the influential Hasidic masters Abraham of Przysucha (d. 1806) and Jacob Yitzhak ben Asher (1766-1813), known in lore simply as the Holy Jew of Przysucha, who is credited with being the first propagator of Hasidism in Central Poland.  Jacob Yitzhak's disciple Simcha Bunem (1784-1827) also lived here. Their tombs in the Jewish cemetery, which is near the synagogue, are places of pilgrimage.

Przysucha was founded in 1910 as a settlement of German ironworkers. Jews lived here from the beginning, and by 1921 made up two-thirds of the population of 3,200.

The synagogue is one of the largest of Poland's surviving synagogues. It was heavily damaged in World War II when the Germans used it as a warehouse.  It conserves traces of structural and decorative detail, including the central bimah, the women's gallery, a few faded frescoes and much of the Aron ha Kodesh, with stucco work above it. Attached to the outside wall is a rare example of a kune, or pillory, where Jews sentenced by the Jewish community court would be locked in punishment.

The Kune. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.

FODZ, which took possession of the badly deteriorated building two years ago, has a web page dedicated to the synagogue and efforts to revitalize it. On the page you can see architectural drawings and other material.
In 2008, we carried out essential protective renovations, but the building still needs urgent repairs. The roof is in a very bad condition and the interior is rapidly deteriorating due to excess moisture. Currently we are working on the construction and conservation documentation. Once it is completed, we will be able to apply for funding necessary to start the restoration and adaptation works.

The synagogue in Przysucha (yid. Parshishe vel Przishe) was built between 1774 and 1777. With an area of nearly 600m², it is a massive limestone building towering over a small town (current population: 6800). The main prayer chamber is rectangular, with a vaulted ceiling descending in the middle towards a four-piered structure formerly framing the bima (reader’s podium). The aron ha-kodesh, framed by a portal topped with stucco griffins, has also been preserved. Some polychromies remain on the walls.

  Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2006

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Poland -- Kielce Shabbaton

Michael Traison, who organized the Shabbaton last weekend in the Polish city of Kielce, has passed on some reaction to the event, which brought Jewish religious services to the century-old synagogue in the city for the first time since World War II The synagogue was totally rebuilt after the war and has served as the district archive since 1951. Fotos of the event have been posted of the very comprehensive Shabbaton Web Site.

This is what one participant wrote:
From childhood I used to listen to my parents descriptions of the Kielce synagogue. This synagogue was the symbol and pride of the Jewish community of Kielce. It was like Jerusalem for the Jews in Kielce and their center of life. It appeared on every document, book, letterhead related to Jewish Kielce. It was the community icon. Whenever I told somebody that I visited the synagogue they asked me whether the wonderful ceiling paintings are still there.  

I am not a religious person, I don't know to pray and if I went to synagogue it was mainly during my and my sons bar mitzvah when I also "went up to the Tora" - keeping the Jewish tradition. I never had a dream to pray at any specific place, or at all, neither in the Kielce synagogue but apparently when it happened it became another bar Mitzvah for me.

When I was 13 years old I went up to the Tora in our local synagogue surrounded by all my family members and friends. Being a good musician, I learned to sing the Brachot, Aftara and Maftir as a real Hazan. I remember very well the excitement and how my parents were proud. This was almost 50 years ago.

Last weekend I was standing there in the Kielce synagogue during the praying, once again surrounded with many friends, Jews and non Jews among them the chief Rabbi of Poland. I slowly started to feel excited and realized that I am celebrating a second bar mitzvah but this time without the presence of my family members. Then instead of looking into the Sidur, I started to think of each and every one of my family members who lived in Kielce and prayed in this same place and slowly slowly I started to feel their presence. And when Rabbi Schudrich invited me to the Tora, instead of saying the Brachot I suddenly started to sing them at exactly the same melody which I was singing when I was 13 years old and which I never repeated since then. I felt that I came to Kielce to celebrate my Bar Mitzva once again after 49 years, this time with my grandparents, great grandmother uncles, cousins and other family members that lived in Kielce and could not attend my first 13 years bar mitzvah. I hope that they have been proud of my singing as were my parents when I was 13 years old.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ukraine -- Big Turnout at Berdichev

The Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS reports that there was a record turnout this month to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, an early Hasidic Master who spent the last 25 years of his life in Berdichev (or Berdychiv, in Ukrainian).

Born around 1740, he was a disciple of the tzaddiks Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg (Mikulov, Czech Republic) and the Maggid of Mezhirech.  Levi Yitzhak was one of several charismatic rabbis who made their home in Berdychev. He believed in the innate goodness of human beings, and his optimism and good cheer imbued his teachings. In particular, he believed that people could serve God in their daily actions as well as through prayer, and even prayed and wrote in Yiddish so that ordinary Jews could understand his words.

Berdichev is legendary in Jewish life and lore. Jews settled here in the early 18th century, and the town developed into an archetypical shtetl, and great Yiddish writers set stories there or used it as models for fictional towns. In 1897, its more than 41,000 Jews made up 80 percent of the town. There were said to be at least 80 synagogues and prayer rooms, but the town was also a hotbed of the Socialist Labor Bund.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak's tomb in the large Jewish cemetery is a place of pilgrimage. Protected by a newly refurbished ohel as big as a small house, it stands surrounded by thousands of tombstones. The cemetery has undergone clean-up work -- but when I visited in 2006, it was very overgrown.

 Berdichev Jewish cemetery 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Inside, his grave is covered by a simple slab, flanked by racks to hold candles.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2006

Here's what the web site of the Federation of Jewish Communities said about the commemorations:
The activities were overseen by Chief Rabbi of Berdichev Moshe Taller, who is also a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary serving in the region. The local Jewish community carried out the necessary preparations thanks to the financial support of Mr. Aaron Meiberg, who made this contribution to honor his parents’ memory.

One of the special projects commemorating the 200-year anniversary was the publishing of a booklet with excerpts from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s teachings as well as a book of Psalms with commentary by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.
The number of visitors to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s gravesite on or around the yartzeit was more numerous than usual. For their convenience, the Jewish Community Center organized a hospitality center at the cemetery, where visitors were able to get kosher food, have use of restrooms and special water containers for the ritual washing of hands after visiting a grave were also made available. Additional lights were also installed at the cemetery for those people coming at night. The police provided for the visitors’ safety, while the city government arranged a pedestrian crossing for the visitors in front of the cemetery.

On Tuesday, 25 Tishrei (October 13 this year) everyone was welcome to participate in a special meal in the central courtyard of the city’s synagogue. Many rabbis and public figures attended the meal, including Mikhail Yudanin, a board member of the World Congress of Russian Jewry, who is a friend of the Jewish community of Berdichev. Mr. Yudanin received an honorary certificate in appreciation for his support of the Jewish community’s growth and development.

Mayor of Berdichev Vasiliy Mazur, who actively contributed to the reception’s organization, greeted the visitors. He noted that Berdichev owes its world-famous name to the Jewish people (in the past, the city was considered the unofficial Jewish capital of the Russian empire), and expressed his hopes that Jewish life in the city will continue to undergo a revival.
 Read Full Article

Ukraine - Synagogue in Khmelnitsky restored, reopened

The synagogue in the Ukrainian town of Khmelnitsky has been renovated and reopened for religious use.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS reports that it reopened for the High Holidays and was filled to capacity.
The synagogue is the only one in the city to have survived the Soviet era, through during that time it was neglected and became utterly rundown. While superficial renovations were carried out following the collapse of the USSR, it soon became clear that the entire building needing a complete overhaul.
Read full article

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Jewish Festival -- In Northern Ireland

This is somewhat out of the geographical area I generally try to stay in -- but  a Jewish Culture Festival is being held  in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It's called "Jews Schmooze."
A series of talks, exhibitions and concerts will celebrate a vibrant culture. Records from the last census record just 400 members of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland. They may be small in number but they are determined to celebrate their identity.

Jews Schmooze co-ordinator Katy Radford said: "Since the 1800s, the Jewish community in the north has fed into cultural and educational vibrancy here establishing schools and theatres and sponsoring arts events.

"Jews Schmooze is an opportunity for the community to continue that work and its commitment to partnering with other communities to promote cultural diversity and deter racism and anti-semitism."

The programme was launched at the north Belfast synagogue on Tuesday by Belfast's lord mayor, Councillor Naomi Long.
Read full article
This is what Northern Ireland's culture minister, Nelson McCausland,   had to say about it on his blog:

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Yesterday I visited the Jewish synagogue in North Belfast for the launch of Jews Schmooze, a programme of talks, exhibitions and  concerts that is intended to celebrate Jewish culture.  The centre-piece will be the world premiere in the synagogue of a new production by the Kabosh theatre company.  It is entitled This Is What We Sang and it follows five Jewish family members during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Today the Jewish community in Northern Ireland numbers around 400 people but it is a community with a long history and it has contributed much to life in Northern Ireland. 

Growing up in the north of the city I knew a number of Jewish young people who attended the Belfast Royal Academy when I was there.  At that time, back in the 1960s, the community was larger than it is today.

Over the years I have visited the synagogue a number of times and on one occasion I gave a talk on the life of one of the most notable members of the community, Sir Otto Jaffe.

I have a personal interest in the life of Otto Jaffe, who was Lord Mayor of Belfast on two occasions, in 1899 and 1904, and who was a Liberal Unionist.  He was a successful businessman and also a generous philanthropist.  The leading figure in the Jewish community of his day, he built the old synagogue in Annesley Street and also the Jaffe School on the Cliftonville Road.

The year 1904 was a good year for the Jewish community in Belfast with the opening of the synagogue and the honour of a Jewish Lord Mayor.  Unfortunately the experience of the Jewish community in Limerick in that year was rather different and a Redemptorist priest, Fr John Creagh, led an anti-semitic pogrom which drove many Jews out of the city.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Jewish Heritage Travel" at Warsaw Airport

It's always nice to see a book on sale where it should be sold -- a friend of mine found National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel on sale now at Warsaw airport. Cool!

Friday, October 9, 2009

POLAND -- Shabbaton in Kielce: services in synagogue for the first time since WW2

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A Shabbaton  will take place in the Polish city of Kielce next weekend (Oct. 16-17), bringing Shabbos observances to a synagogue that has not been used for worship since the Holocaust. A detailed web site (in English as well as Polish)  describes the program, the synagogue -- reconstructed out of recognition after World War II, and long used as the district archives -- and the history of Jewish life (and death) in the city.
On 16 October the Shabbaton will begin with common prayers at the three houses of worship built in Kielce in the early 20th century: the Catholic Church, the Synagogue, and the Orthodox Church. During an open meeting, the Polish Council of Christians and Jews will then discuss Catholic and Jewish identity.

On Friday evening a community Sabbath will be celebrated for the first time since World War II. Sabbath prayers will be said in the synagogue, which this year celebrates the 100th year since its founding and which is currently in use as the State Archive, followed by a traditional Sabbath dinner dinner.

On 17 October after morning prayers and lunch everyone is invited on a walk through Jewish Kielce. Guests from Israel will then lead workshops on Judaism. A Havdala service will mark the end of the sabbath, which will then be followed by an evening of dance and music.

Jews were barred from settling in Kielce until the early 19th century; by 1939, there was a Jewish population of about 25,000. The Nazis set up a ghetto in April 1941; many died from the brutal conditions, and about 20,000 people were deported to Treblinka.

Kielce, however, is far better known for what happened after World War II. It is is infamous as the site of the last pogrom in Poland, a massacre of 42 Jews by a Polish mob who attacked the Jewish community house on July 4, 1946. The pogrom is described in detail in the book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz,  by Jan T. Gross.     

 Building in Kielce where the 1946 pogrom took place. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

 Monument to the pogrom, in Kielce, by American artist Jack Sal. (Photo from

The Kielce Shabbaton is the latest in a series of Shabbaton programs in long-disused synagogues in Poland organized by Michael Traison, an America lawyer who has an office in Warsaw and has spent much of his time in Poland over the past 15 years. Previous Shabbatons have taken place in Pinczow, Piotrkow Trybunalski, Przemysl, and Lublin.

Traison -- whom I met in 1995 at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz -- told me recently that he had four motivations for organizing the Shabbatons.
"First is remembrance, to remember these communities and these human beings that were here. Second is to demonstrate that the Jewish people did survive as a people and thrive and we are here, we are alive, and that we're here in Poland, too: Am Yisroel Chai. Third, to have an opportunity to bring Poles and Jews together, not just here but worldwide. And fourth, to provide a Jewish religious experience for people who would like to participate in such an experience and enjoy a good Shabbat."
(I'm also told that a Shabbaton will be held in late November in Plock, apparently organized by the Beit Warszawa reform congregation, but I don't have any details.)

Rome -- Festival of Jewish Literature coming up

The second International Festival of Jewish Literature in Rome will be held Oct. 24-28. It features mainly Italian and Israeli authors, and probably will be of interest only to Italian-speakers. You can find the program and details BY CLICKING HERE.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Slovakia -- New and Improved Web Site, with Jewish Heritage Route

Jewish cemetery at Beckov, Slovakia, under the Beckov castle. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The extremely useful and information-packed Slovak Jewish Heritage web site has been revamped and enlarged to include new information, an interactive map, and material on the individual sites that comprise the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route. (It also includes travel and accommodation information for Slovakia.)

The web site is devised and operated by Maros Borsky, the leading expert on Jewish heritage in Slovakia. The author of the book Synagogue Architecture in Slovakia, Maros founded and directs the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center - one of 36 organizations featured this year in Compass, a new guide designed to introduce, inform and enlighten readers about what it sees as some of Europe’s "most vital, innovative, effective and sustainable Jewish organizations and programs."

Each month, a "site of the month" will be highlighted online -- sites in good condition but also neglected sites that need action to save them. The current "site of the month" is the wonderful synagogue building in Liptovsky Mikulas, a neo-classical structure that was rebuilt by the Budapest architect Lipot Baumhorn after fire damage in 1906. It was in bad shape when I first saw the building in 1990 or 1991; it was later partially restored. Just three years ago, it was being used as an exhibit hall and cultural venue. Today, however, the synagogue (which was restituted back to the Jewish community) has been closed, and it is impossible to visit.

The building, Maros writes on the web site:

embodies the tragedy of Jewish heritage in Slovakia. Although it is one of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe, there is no use for the building, and nobody is willing to come up with a solution for its survival. However, for the time being, it is still worth seeing – at least from the outside.

Synagogue in Liptovsky Mikulas, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Slovak Jewish Heritage Web site states:

Our online resources provide information about major Jewish sites around the country. The material covers a range of topics and is oriented to scholars as well to the general public.

The MONUMENTS DATABASE features details on hundreds of Jewish heritage sites we have documented throughout Slovakia. We began our work in 2001 as Synagoga Slovaca, a project aimed at documenting the scores of synagogues, many of them in ruinous condition, that still stand in all corners of the country. We are gradually adding cemeteries, cemetery chapels, mikvaot (ritual baths), school buildings, other Jewish communal buildings and Holocaust memorials. Material in the database includes historical and architectural information as well as photographs.

The SLOVAK JEWISH HERITAGE ROUTE promotes the country's most important Jewish heritage sites and integrates them into national and local cultural, educational and tourism contexts. The Route is associated with the European Routes of Jewish Heritage, which has been declared a Major Cultural Route of the Council of Europe.

These projects and other activities of our Center are part of a long-term vision that includes the establishment of a sustainable and multi-faceted SLOVAK JEWISH HERITAGE PROGRAM. We strongly believe that our work can foster a desire - and a commitment - to seek sustainable frameworks for the maintenance and restoration of these important yet all-too-often neglected heritage sites. Only through such strategies can we contribute to the preservation of Slovak Jewish monuments as part of Slovakia's overall multicultural heritage.

Romania -- New Holocaust Monument in Bucharest

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A new National Holocaust memorial, commemorating Jews and Roma killed in the Shoah, will be dedicated in Bucharest on Thursday.
President Traian Basescu laid the cornerstone for the memorial in 2006 and is expected to attend the dedication. The Romania Ministry of Culture, Religious Affairs and National Heritage described the monument, designed by Peter Jacobi, as "a contemporary expression of a memorial, the bearer of a message, a visible sign, an active space with which the public can interact freely." It includes five sculptures symbolizing Jewish and Roma suffering, a central memorial site and two installations using tombstones.

Construction of the monument was mandated by an international commission on the Holocaust in Romania, headed by Elie Wiesel, which released a 400-page report in 2004. As many as 380,000 Jews, and thousands of Roma, were killed in the Holocaust in Romanian-occupied territories.

Until now, the only Holocaust memorial in Bucharest was one erected by the Jewish community in 1991 in front of the main Choral Synagogue.

Holocaust memorial in front of the Choral Synagogue, Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sam Gruber has posted a detailed article on Holocaust memorials in Romania on his blog.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Romania -- More on my genealogy travels

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I posted a lot on this already, but I want to point out that my current Ruthless Cosmopolitan column on JTA deals with my recent trip to Romania with my cousins, on which we dabbled in family history and, as the cliche goes, walked in the footsteps of our ancestors.

RADAUTI, Romania (JTA) -- It's the custom in Judaism to visit the graves of family members around the High Holidays.

This year I went a step further and walked in the footsteps of my ancestors.

My father's parents, who immigrated to the United States before World War I, were born near the market town of Radauti in the Bucovina region of northern Romania.

This is where I went a couple of weeks before Rosh Hashanah. It was my fourth trip to Radauti, which when my grandparents lived there was one of the easternmost towns in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

My first visit there was more than 30 years ago, in the freezing December of 1978. I was a correspondent for United Press International and was accompanying Romania's then-chief rabbi, Moses Rosen, on his annual Chanukah tour to far-flung remnant communities throughout the country.

I recall visiting 19 Jewish communities in six days. Elderly people in winter coats and astrakhan hats huddled together in unheated synagogues, and puffs of steam came from the mouths of the Jewish choir from Bucharest that came along with us to perform.

My brother Sam also was on that trip, and he and I took time in Radauti to visit the Jewish cemetery and pick our way through the stones to find the grave of our great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, who died in 1946 and in whose honor I was given my middle name.

Discovering her grave did not trigger in me any further genealogical impulse, though what we experienced on our trip around Romania that week sowed the seeds of my interest in Jewish heritage.

Read full story at

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Romania -- My Tablet Magazine article on Candlesticks on Stone

Candlesticks on Stone. Radauti, Romania, September 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Here's the link to my piece in Tablet Magazine about my (Candle)sticks on Stone project, about the representation of women in Jewish tombstone are -- Tablet ran it with a nice slide show of my photos.

It was the first week in September, and in cowboy boots and jeans, camera slung over my shoulder, I crunched through the springy thick tangle of undergrowth that carpets the old Jewish cemetery in Radauti, a market town in the far north of Romania, near the Ukrainian border. Around me stretched the crowded, ragged rows of tilted tombstones: gray and mossy green, some still bearing remnants of the blue and black and red painted decoration that once adorned the exquisite, ornate carving on their faces.

Read on...

I'm about (finally) to start putting up the photo galleries on the project web site.