Thursday, December 29, 2011

Serbia -- Concern at condition of historic Nis Jewish cemetery

Vandalized tomb in Nis Cemetery, Dec. 22, 2011. Photo courtesy of Jasna Ciric

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

More than seven years after a well-publicized clean-up campaign, the historic Jewish cemetery in Nis, Serbia appears to be once again under threat.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia issued a statement on Wednesday protesting  “catastrophic” conditions in the cemetery and urging authorities to take action.

It said that on a recent inspection visitors found “destroyed and broken monuments, scattered bones, human waste and garbage.” It said that the cemetery was at the mercy of private entrepreneurs who have destroyed one-third of the site by building factories, restaurants and warehouses, while another third of the area is inhabited by Roma families who have built a makeshift village over the graves.

Long abandoned and partially built over and destroyed, the cemetery, which dates back to the 17th century and in 2007 was listed as a national cultural monument, was cleaned up in 2004 in an effort that involved the JDC, Serbian soldiers, and the local Roma community. 

Pictures taken Dec. 22 showed much of the area cleared of undergrowth and the grave markers visible. But Jasna Ciric, the president of the Jewish community in Nis, told me that the situation today was "a horror" and that in some ways was worse than it was in 2004.  "Grave monuments have been smashed with hammers," she said.

She said that on a previous inspection of the cemetery in September, things had been fine and it had been cleaned up.

Now, she said, a telephone line,  sewage drains and water pipes have been introduced in the midst of the cemetery.

"All the established safeguards of the Jewish cemetery in Nis, which under the Law on Cultural Property, have remained only on paper and without respect for the Jewish cemetery or the Jews who are buried there," she said. "Our cemetery is systematically destroyed, all of our long-time efforts and the money invested toward saving  this cemetery are in vain, the city authorities do not understand this issue."

The Federation appealed to the Mayor of Nis, the Ministry of Culture, the Nis Institute for Monuments Protection and other authorities to “once and for all put an end to this vandalism.”

Pictures from Dec. 22, 2011  showing homes and other structures encroaching on the Nis Jewish cemetery. Photos courtesy Jasna Ciric

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Netherlands -- In Amsterdam, the Dutch Queen attends reopening of the Portuguese synagogue after restoration

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands attended the dedication ceremony in Amsterdam Dec. 20 of the Portuguese Synagogue -- or "Esnoga" -- which was reopened after renovation. She also attended the the first presentation of the synagogue's treasure rooms with many special ceremonial objects.

The synagogue's web site called the occasion "an important moment in the history of this monumental complex."
In January 2010 the current restoration project began. This restoration was necessary because the annexes were in very poor condition and had never previously been restored from the foundations. The aim of the restoration and provision of access was to maintain the Synagogue's authenticity.

Renovation of and rearrangement to ensure easy access to the Portuguese Synagogue is a wonderful and unique addition to the city's cultural features. It will reinforce the cultural and economic infrastructure and make the city and region more attractive for residents and visitors. This heritage is unique, in that it remains a lively building with an equally vibrant community that uses it to this day.

The Esnoga is a pearl for Amsterdam and the Netherlands. In use for centuries, it is now literally opening its doors to the general public. Visitors will be able to view the art treasures, which are maintained according to museum preservation standards, in their natural context. The functional areas will also be made visible and accessible to visitors, who will thus feel like guests in the community. Visiting this historic complex is like taking a stroll through the past and present of a community that has been celebrating its religion and culture for three centuries within these walls.
To see specifics of the restoration, click on the following links:  

Photo from:
The "Esnoga" and annexes

The main building has undergone quality restoration to the gables, the roofs, the cast-iron windows and the sandstone ornaments. The interior of the synagogue, however, has remained in its original state following the restoration. The building will continue to be lit by nearly one thousand candles in the copper chandeliers.

  • Treasure chambers

    Special climate-controlled spaces will accommodate the valuables of the Portuguese Synagogue. In the future, the concealed treasures will be on public display here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Jewish and "Jewish" Festivals......Shelly Salamensky's Take

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My friend Shelley Salamensky muses on three Jewish -- or "Jewish" -- festivals: Krakow, Birobidzhan and Hervas, Spain, in the New York Review of Books blog.

The commercial aspects of Hervás’s festival—funded by the village’s chamber of commerce as a boon to local business—are hardly unique. Birobidzhan’s cultural renaissance, has, similarly, garnered it development grants from Moscow; while on the fringes of the Kraków festival, stands sell hook-nosed “Jew” figurines. Yet much more is at stake in both places than profit. In Kraków, with its rich, traumatic history, the festival is an attempt to confront the still relatively fresh loss of what was once the world’s largest Jewish population, as well as the question of Polish complicity with Nazis in the war, communist suppression of Holocaust history, and continuing European intolerance; it’s also a chance for Poles to reflect on their country’s future as a conservative, culturally monolithic nation in a changing, diversifying Europe. Birobizhan’s Jewish cultural revival appears primarily to enliven an isolated, poor, rather bleak place unremarkable but for its unique history. Despite some silliness and confusion, the more sober efforts to teach Yiddish and Jewish history ensure that important legacies are preserved. And perhaps even theme-park-style memorialization is more salutary than the more common case in places from which vital cultures have more or less vanished: sheer oblivion.

In Hervas, the evocation of a Jewish past is so perfunctory and historically fanciful as to border on the offensive. Stars of David adorn street signs, window grates, and even, for no clear reason, the church. There is a Judería Tavern and a Hotel Sinagoga: the former, on inspection, specializing in ham, the latter indistinguishable from a Holiday Inn. On arrival, I was amused by the kitsch; but by my last day, I felt vaguely sick. The empty symbolism cruelly underscored all that Europe has lost.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Very off geographical topic -- synagogue in Mumbai celebrates 150th anniversary

A ceremony Tuesday celebrated the 150th birthday of the Magen David synagogue in Mumbai, India. The synagogue, which underwent restoration last year, was built in 1861 by the philanthropist David Sassoon at a time when hundreds of Baghdadi Jews were migrating to India to escape religious persecution.

“This is probably the largest synagogue in India and, if you exclude those in Israel, probably the largest in Asia,” Solomon Sopher, chairman and managing trustee of the Sir Jacob Sassoon Charity and Allied Trusts, told India's Daily News & Analysis news agency.

He told the Mumbai Mirror (which also publishes a picture of the ceremony): “The Magen David synagogue is easily the biggest in India. Its beauty has been enhanced after the second renovation last year, at the cost of Rs 70 lakh.” He said the first renovation of the synagogue was done in 1910 by David Sasoon’s grandson Jacob.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Slovakia -- New Jewish Guidebook

Synagogue in Stupava. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Mazel tov to Maros Borsky on the publication of his valuable new bilingual Slovak-English guidebook to Jewish Monuments in western Slovakia. Zidovske pamiatky zapadneho Slovenska/Jewish Monuments of Western Slovakia  was launched last week in Bratislava and Trnava.

A slim paperback illustrated with full-color pictures of each site, the book provides details -- including GPS coordinates -- for Jewish heritage sites in  more than two dozen other towns in Slovak regions of Bratislava and Trnava, giving basic history and current details.

Most of these sites are off the beaten track and not included on the  Slovak Jewish Heritage Route, a network of 25 key sites around the country.

Amsterdam -- slice of history

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Nir Hasson reports in Ha'aretz how the discovery of a 25-year-old book in Israel reveals a fascinating slice of the Jewish history of Amsterdam -- as well as a clutch of mysteries.

Friday June 3, 1768, was an exciting day in the sizable Jewish community of Amsterdam. That day, the Stadtholder (chief executive) of Holland, William V of the House of Orange, arrived for a rare visit to the Jewish quarter and the synagogue, accompanied by his wife, Wilhelmina of Prussia. "Their Highnesses sat on the bench of the community elders, the other ministers and dignitaries were seated on two velvet benches on the north and south sides of the synagogue. As they entered the synagogue, the Holy Ark was opened, the cantors and vocalists had begun to sing 'Baruch Haba' [Welcome]" [...].

Stefan Litt, an archivist at the National Library in Jerusalem, found this description in the course of his research into the registries of the Ashkenazi communities (pinkassei kahal ) in the 17th and 18th centuries. The registry goes on to note that a community elder, Gumpel Klev, bestowed on the royal couple a keepsake from the community: "Two books printed on white satin, the cover pages beautifully ornamented with their insignia."

Two weeks ago, Litt located one of these two books, which were printed on cloth nearly 250 years ago, in the storerooms of the National Library in Jerusalem. Did the Stadtholder leave the book on his seat when he got up to leave? What was scribbled in Dutch on the last page? And why was this scribble erased? Why are there traces of one of the pages being singed? How did the book make its way to the National Library? All of these matters are still shrouded in mystery.

Read the article on Ha'aretz

Friday, December 9, 2011

Poland -- Aleksander Hassidim

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

An article in the Jerusalem Post  by Levi Cooper gives fascinating background on the Aleksandrow Hassidim, who still make pilgrimages to the small town of Aleksandrow Lodzki to visit the grave of the founding Aleksander rebbe, Rabbi Yehiel Dancyger (1828-1894), and his sons. In January 2010, more than 300 Aleksander Hassidim traveled to the town to mark the 100th anniversary of Yehiel's son, Rabbi Yerahmiel Yisroel Yitzhok. The only physical traces left in the town are the cemetery and the former residence of Yehiel's grandson, Rabbi Yitzhak Menahem Dancyger (1879-1942), who was killed in Treblinka.
Rabbi Yehiel requested not to be accorded any rabbinic title and asked his followers not to place notes with requests on his grave as is traditionally done with a hassidic master. Aleksander Hassidim, therefore, bring such notes to the grave, read them out and then, in accordance with the wishes of Rabbi Yehiel, they do not place them on the grave. Rather, they place them on the nearby grave of Rabbi Heynech.
The article traces the complex history of the dynasty and describes the situation today, with centers in Israel and the U.S.

Read full story HERE

Saturday, December 3, 2011

UK -- More on London's East End

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Here's another detailed travel story (in Jewish Week) about London's former Jewish quarter, the East End. The author, Stephen Burstin, conducts Jewish themed tours. For more information, click HERE

The oldest surviving synagogue in England, Bevis Marks, today straddles the border between the East End and the city’s financial district. Founded in 1701 primarily by Dutch Jews whose descendants had fled the Spanish Inquisition, it is Sephardic. Its original interior is perfectly intact, including the beautiful Renaissance-style ark.

Bevis Marks boasts several famous sons, most notably the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose father turned his back on Judaism and converted the family to Christianity when Benjamin was 12. This did not stop an Irish member of Parliament from later insulting the young politician’s Jewish roots. But Disraeli famously retorted: “Yes, I am a Jew. But while the right honourable gentleman’s ancestors were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Many sites in the East End continue to provide reminders of the neighborhood’s rich Jewish heritage; at one time Jews made up 95 percent of the population. There’s the soup kitchen that served 5,000 meals a day during the Depression years; now, paradoxically, its retained ornate facade provides a frontage to luxury apartments. Across Commercial Street in revitalized Spitalfields, $1.5 million homes vie with each other to maintain the best-kept Jewish secrets from unknowing passers-by.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Poland -- Restoration Work Completed on pre-war Private Synagogue in Bedzin

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Restoration work has been completed on a richly decorated private Jewish prayer room in Bedzin, in southern Poland. The so-called Mizrachi synagogue, believed to date from the mid-1920s, is located in a building at ul. Potocki 3 in the former Jewish quarter.  It was used by the members of the Mizrachi religious Zionist organization. The founder was probably the owner of the entire building, a man named Wiener, who was active in the movement.

The prayer room will be opened to the public in the spring.

The Bedzin town web site has a slide show of pictures showing the completed work -- you can view it  HERE

There are also a lot of pictures on Wiki commons of the "before" condition

Mizrachi Będzin 16
Photo (c) Leszek Maszczyk

The photographer Jono David has also posted four dozen pictures documenting the poor state of the synagogue when renovation began and then the  painstaking process of restoration. You can see them HERE

It is the second private prayer house in Bedzin to be restored recently. The other is under the care of a private organization called Cukierman's Gate.  I have posted about them in the past HERE.

Kosovo -- Jewish cemetery vandalized

Photo from

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Vandals have descerated the recently restored  Jewish cemetery in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, by scrawling anti-Semtic slogans and swastikas on the tombs. Officials condemned the desecration, and police are investigating.

The Associated Press reports:

In June, a group of students from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and their peers from the American University in Kosovo restored the neglected cemetery by clearing debris from around the graves and cutting overgrown grass.

Rabbi Edward S. Boraz of the college's Roth Center for Jewish Life held a dedication ceremony at the memorial site, with students taking turns to read out the names of Jewish families from the region who perished during World War II.

On Thursday the hate graffiti "Jud Raus" — a misspelling of the German "Juden Raus," which means "Jews out" — could still be seen at the foot of a memorial.

President Atifete Jahjaga and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci condemned the act.

"The damaging of cemeteries presents an act in complete contradiction with the traditions and values of the people of Kosovo, based on tolerance and full respect for all the dead and all the monuments," Jahjaga said in a statement.

Thaci described the desecration as "a cowardly act."
Read full article HERE

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Prague -- Pinkas synagogue to be open tomorrow to commemorate deportations to Terezin

Monument at Terezin. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

As part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the first deportations of Czech Jews to Terezin, the garrison town north of Prague used as a ghetto-concentration camp, the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague -- now a memorial to nearly 80,000 Holocaust victims in Bohemia and Moravia, will all names inscribed on its walls -- will be open free to the public on Sunday Nov. 27.

Czech Republic -- a Zionist take on touring Jewish Prague

Inside the Jubilee Synagogue, Prague. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

There's a detailed travel story in the Jerusalem Post by Stewart Weiss about his visit to Jewish Prague. Prague has been visited and toured and written about so much that it's really hard to find a way to say anything new, or really to express any new emotion about it, its Jewish history, the impact of visiting Jewish sites and remembering both pogroms and the Holocaust.....I packed a lot of it in in my chapter on Prague in my 1994 book Upon the Doorposts of Thy House, including a critique of mass tourism....

Weiss article goes over much of the same material. He is ever-skeptical at the tour guide spin (though as a tour leader himself, he must know how to keep his audience.....).
The first stop on our trip is the ancient Jewish cemetery in the heart of Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. Because the land allotted to the Jews was woefully insufficient to bury their dead, there are at least seven layers of graves lying deep beneath the surface, where as many as 100,000 people are buried. But while the graves are invisible, the tombstones are ubiquitous, and stretch as far as the eye can see. They stand as silent, solemn witnesses to the past 1,000 years, from the time Jewish settlers first came to Bohemia, and they testify to a nation within a nation that included every conceivable vocation, from salesman to seamstress to scholar.

The greatest of these scholars was Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the famed Maharal of Prague (1525-1609). In lesser intellectual circles – and certainly among the tour guides peddling fantasy to wide-eyed visitors seeking same – he was the progenitor of the Golem, a clay figure brought to life in order to protect the downtrodden disciples of the Maharal.

It is strange to me, though, that  in what he calls "four days of walking with ghosts" he seems to have totally missed the lively local  Jewish community and local Jewish life -- writing only that Chabad  "struggles valiantly to provide a working synagogue."

Read full story HERE

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Art -- Sotheby's auctions Chagall (and Moyse) paintings of synagogue interiors

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In its upcoming auction Dec. 14 of  Israeli and International art, Sotheby's will be auctioning three rare large oil paintings from 1931-35 by Marc Chagall showing interiors of synagogues, and also two paintings showing synagogue interiors by the 19th century French painter Edouard Moyse. The paintings all come from the collection of  a descendant of the art collector Max Cottin who acquired the Chagalls in 1945.

Chagall's paintings include a 1935 oil on canvas work showing the interior of the now-destroyed Kloyz of the Vilna Gaon in Vilnius, as well as two paintings of synagogues in Israel.

Chagall's 1935 oil of the Kloyz synagogue in Vilna. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

as well as

Friday, November 18, 2011

Slovenia -- Exhibit in Maribor About Jewish WWI soldiers

World War I Military Cemetery, Stanjel. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Back in the 1990s, when I was documenting Jewish heritage in Slovenia, the most impressive site visited was the haunting remains of an Austro-Hungarian World War I military cemetery. All that was left were the massive stone pillars of the gates, a huge temple‑like monument, and about five scattered grave markers. Two of these were of Jewish soldiers, each bearing a star of David.

Stanjel gravestone. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Yesterday, Nov. 17, an exhibition dedicated to Jewish World War I soldiers opened in the former synagogue in Maribor, Slovenia. It is called Forgive Us, Forgive Us O You Dead. Jewish Soldiers of the Austria-Hungarian Army On The Isonzo Front.

In Isonzo Front, in northeast Italy and western Slovenia along the Isonzo river, is dotted with battlefields, museums and monuments to the World War I fallen. Some half a million soldiers died between 1915 and 1917. Fighting here was immortalized in Ernest Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms

The  exhibition in Maribor was curated by  Petra Svoljšak, Head of the Milko Kos Historical Institute of the Scientific Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and Renato Podbersič, senior researcher at the SCNR (Slovenian Center for National Reconciliation).

The theme of the exhibition forms a part of the Podbersic's dissertation research, which is to be concluded in near future. Podbersic visit all  the extant war cemeteries of WWI in Slovenia and added several other tombstones to the list that I had compiled in 1996. He made historical research of the documents and existing literature and also interviewed people who knew about Jews who fought on  the side of the Austrian army in World War I.

 Our friend Ivan Čerešnješ, of the Center for Jewish Art, contributed  photos of his own grandfather and other Jewish soldiers from Bosnia, fighting in the Isonzo front.

Maribor Synagogue Center curator Janez Premk also advised on the exhibit. He said he believe that it will be  "a  major contribution in the contemporary research of the Jewish past in Slovenian lands."

Ukraine -- Report on a Jewish Heritage Tour

Ohel containing tomb of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzhybizh. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

As I am currently compiling up to date information on Jewish heritage sites in Ukraine and other European countries, I was pleased to come across an article by Yoram Dori, a senior advisor to Israeli President Shimon Peres, describing a Jewish heritage tour in Ukraine preceding participation in the Limmud cultural/educational event in Odessa. Dori traveled with Chaim Chesler, the founder and chair of the executive of Limmud FSU, Dan Brown, founder and editor of the eJewish Philanthropy website, Natan Roi, editor of the Jewish Agency’s Hebrew website, and Edvard Doks, a travel guide and Ukrainian correspondent for Yediot Aharonot.

His article focuses on the fact that few if any of the Jewish heritage sites they visited bore mezuzahs or plaques or other signs indicating their history and origianl purpose -- and issues that has loomed large across former-Communist Europe since public interest in Jewish heritage began evolving in the late 1980s.

Ver is di mezuzah? (“Where is the mezuzah?”) was the question at the heart of our tour of various Jewish sites in Ukraine, preceding the recent Limmud FSU festival in Odessa. [. . .]

For me, by the way, everything is clear. When I get home I will try to find a solution at least to the missing plaques. Maybe by an appeal to the president of Ukraine who is due to visit Israel shortly. To allow hundred years of Jewish history to disappear without trace is just not acceptable.

Their stops included Zhitomir, Berdichev, Vinnitsa, Medzhybizh, and Uman.  (Except for Vinnitsa, I covered all these sites in Jewish Heritage Travel.)

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Belarus -- Synagogue vandalized

File photo from

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The synagogue in Babruysk in eastern Ukraine was vandalized twice in the past week.

The synagogue's secretary, Maya Savatseyeva, told RFE/RL that vandals smashed the synagogue's windows at about 2 a.m. on November 18. On November 11, a swastika and "Death to Jews!" was daubed on the fence surrounding the synagogue.

The town's Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shaul Habobo said that the local government is providing security for the synagogue while the police continue to search for the perpetrators.
“Everything is pretty much repaired,” he said. “Thank God, we have put this behind us.”

The local Jewish community numbers about 50, mostly elderly, people.