Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Italy -- Pesaro Jewish heritage route is on again this summer

Pesaro synagogue. From

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Once again, visitors to Pesaro (and locals, too, of course) this summer will be able to visit  Jewish heritage sites around the city. Though unfortunately they seem to be open only on Thursday afternoons between June 23 and September 1.

Sites include the old Jewish quarter, the synagogue, whose complex includes a mikvah and a matzo oven, and the old Jewish cemetery.

For information on the synagogue, call: +39-0721 387541-474
For the Jewish cemetery: +39-335 1746509

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nice article in the Forward on overlooked Jewish heritage sites

Wonderful carved stone in Siret. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Michael Luongo has a nice wrapup in The Forward about the "Top 10 Overlooked Jewish Heritage Sites From Around the Globe." It's called "Forgotten History." And thanks, Mike for mentioning this blog!

When most of us think of Jewish heritage travel, places like Jerusalem or the Warsaw Ghetto come to mind. Yet, from the pre-Inquisition sites that dot Spain, to farming villages in South America, hundreds of forgotten or under-visited Jewish sites exist across the world. When we put out the call for recommendations of our readers’ favorite overlooked sites on the Forward’s Shmooze blog and Facebook page, we got a global range of answers. Not surprising, most of the suggestions were about Eastern Europe. From your recommendations and my own travels, here’s an informal list of the top 10 Jewish sites often overlooked by traveler

The sites on the list range from Europe, to Latin America to New Zealand.....

It's always hard for me to choose a favorite or "best" or "most overlooked" site -- but I nominated my beloved Jewish cemeteries and painted synagogues in northern Romania and western Ukraine.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tourism -- An interesting essay on tourism to Jewish sites by Alex Joffe

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

There is an interesting essay in Jewish Ideas Daily about ebbs, flows and other "dilemmas" in Jewish-themed tourism, written by Alex Joffe, who is described as a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. He starts from considering the archeological remains of an ancient synagogue in Albania, excavated as a potential tourist site seven or eight years ago, but now languishing and all but abandoned.

Tourism, he writes, "is not just a recreational and aesthetic experience for the tourist. It is a business, and as such it poses moral questions as to the specific experiences that are bought and sold." 

Some of the issues he raises are among those I discussed both in the introduction of Jewish Heritage Travel and in the chapter on Travel in Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. Such as the role of actual living Jewish communities in far-flung places, and whether or not visiting Jewish heritage sites entails any particular responsibilities or sensitivities.
Even among the dead, the ethical questions are real, and the ironies are evident. While Albanians had hoped to use their commendable historical story to draw tourists, their synagogue now languishes and decays. Meanwhile, Nazi concentration and death camps, above all Auschwitz, are sites of pilgrimage and remembrance—and a source of significant tourism revenues to Germany and Poland.

Why go one place rather than another? Albanians saved "their" Jews—are they owed something in return by Jewish tourists? Or should Jews instead visit Germany and Poland, to keep the Jewish histories of those countries from falling victim to the Nazis, to rebuild Jewish life, or even to offer prayers at cemeteries?

The scale of the problem is overwhelming, as there is no end to Jewish heritage sites. Everywhere Jews lived, they left behind schools and synagogues, dwellings, markets and factories, and cemeteries. Few of these sites are beautiful. Proportionally, sand-floor synagogues in Curaçao are vastly outnumbered by destroyed or usurped synagogues in Ukraine or Belarus. And everywhere there are the cemeteries, mass graves, and other assorted killing fields—overgrown and forgotten, ploughed up, or routinely desecrated. Another responsibility thus looms, to preserve the dignity of the Jewish dead.

But the synagogue of Onchesmos deserves to be seen—and not only by Jews. After all, remembering that Jews were a vital part of the Mediterranean world is, if nothing else, important to understanding that they remain a living part of that world today. Archeologists have responsibilities as well, not only to preserve the remains but to present them in such a way that they become at least a small part of the living present. Otherwise they should be left in peace.
I'm not sure that I find the questions and challenges (if they are really questions and challenges) he brings up mutually exclusive. There is no "should" entailed in where anyone -- Jewish or not -- chooses to visit.  Jewish heritage places are interesting and important in themselves -- in different ways. Each one tells a different story, though, of course, some of the stories are related. But it seems besides the point to make it seem an ethical choice -- or to pose it in terms of making it an ethical choice -- as to whether you will visit Auschwitz or the excavated ruins of an ancient synagogue in Albania.

(Oh, and I disagree with him when he says few of the sites Jewish "left behind" are beautiful.)

Poland -- the Chassidic Route: Sanok

Painting in Judaica exhibit at Open Air Museum.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sanok, in the far southeastern tip of Poland, is a charming little town centered around a castle and nice little main market square -- it is a gateway to the Bieszcszady mountains, a beautiful region of lush hills, rushing streams and all the bucolic beauty that goes with it. I was there to write about the project constructing a replica of the destroyed Gwozdziec wooden synagogue -- and I've already posted on this.

Sanok - main square. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

But, because of its long, rich Jewish history, Sanok, where Jews settled in the 16th century, is a stop on the Chassidic Route traced by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, or FODZ. The town was a center of Chassidism in the 19th century, and before the Holocaust, Jews made up between 40 ad 50 percent of the local population.

There are only a few traces left of this vivid world.

The most interesting is the small but valuable collection of Judaica,  photographs, paintings and other material housed at Sanok's open-air folk architecture museum, or skansen, a sprawling display of wonderful wooden village architecture.

Photos (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

It's all displayed in a long, bright room in a complex of buildings housing examples of Christian folk art, including carved wooden figures, and centuries-old icons.

Among the skansen buildings are a couple of houses once owned by Jews. But the museum director told me that there were plans to build a replica of one of the destroyed wooden synagogues -- the 18th century synagogue of Polaniec, for which ample documentation survives. The replica, (if and) when built, will form part of a newly built replica of a smalltown market square which is to open this summer.

Polaniec wooden synagogue. Picture from virtual shtetl web site

Sanok -- unfinished replica of market square. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

In town, there are a couple of synagogue buildings, rebuilt for other purposes. There is also one surviving Jewish cemetery, dating from the 19th century -- it's next to the Catholic cemetery. Only a few gravestones remain. There is also a Holocaust memorial.

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

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Poland -- the Chassidic Route: Baligrod

My car is parked at the entrance to the cemetery, pointing back toward the village. It was a bit tricky turning around. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The  village of Baligrod, about 20 km south of Lesko, is another stop on the Chassidic Route itinerary sponsored by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ).

Jews lived here from the early 17th century and for much of the period between the 18th century and World War II they made up a majority of the residents. The synagogue and other buildings were destroyed in WWII.

The Jewish cemetery survives on a hill overlooking the town — a lovely spot with a beautiful view -- and the narrow, bumpy dirt road is clearly marked by signposts from the village. I drove up (as I didn't know how far it would be) but it would make more sense to park below and walk.

Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

There are supposed to be about 200 stones here;  the oldest legible date from  1718 and 1732. The Nazis used hundreds of gravestones  to pave the market square -- they are believed still to be there, covered by asphalt.

The cemetery was restored in 2008, and the stones are in good condition — and there is even an incongruous red trash can for visitors to deposite rubbish (it was filled with  used plastic water bottles) –  but when I visited the grass and weeds were chest-high , in sore need of cutting. The grass totally obscured some of the stones -- I tried to see as many as I could, but I know I didn't see them all.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Still, I found many beautifully carved stones, with a variety of candlestick shapes on women's stones, ranging from crude but delicate incised images to more elaborate styles, some featuring candlesticks flanked by birds. See more candlesticks stones at my site.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Someone had clearly visited a short while before I did, though, as there were narrow paths tromped through the grass, and someone had piled stones and pebbles on many of the gravestones.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Friday, June 17, 2011

Poland -- More on the night of the synagogues and Krakow

Sign for the Krakow JCC and a tourist map of Jewish sights in Kazimierz. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I wrote my latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column on the revival of Jewish spirit in Krakow, following my participation in the Night of the Synagogues -- and a conversation I had with Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Krakow JCC, the morning after.....We both needed caffeine..... I  posted about the Night of the Synagogues last week on my this blog -- with lots of pictures.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

June 15, 2011

KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) -- Jews in Krakow have a new slogan -- "Never Better."

The catchphrase is deliberately provocative, a blatant rejoinder to "Never Again," the slogan long associated with Holocaust memory and the fight against anti-Semitic prejudice.

It may be counterintuitive, acknowledges Jonathan Ornstein, the American-born director of Krakow's Jewish community center who helped come up with the slogan.

But it's aimed at rebranding Jewish Poland, or at least Jewish Krakow, shaking up conventional perceptions and radically shifting the focus of how the Jewish experience here is viewed.

"Because the Holocaust isn't subtle, then the rebranding, as a way to get people to understand the situation here now, also can't be subtle," Ornstein explained.

Only a few hundred Jews live in Krakow, but the community has been rebuilding in the past two decades, particularly since the JCC opened three years ago.

"When we say 'Never Better,' it's not in terms of numbers, or the amount of things in Jewish life, or the synagogues that are functioning and all that," Ornstein said.

However, he went on, "in terms of the way the Jewish community interacts with the non-Jewish community and the direction that things are going, I think that there's never been a more optimistic time to be Jewish in Krakow than there is now."

I spoke with Ornstein on a Sunday in June, the morning after an unprecedented event that in a way had been a public affirmation of the new Jewish spirit he described.

Organized by the JCC, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Krakow Jewish communal organization, it was called 7@Night -- Seven at Night or the Night of the Synagogues.

Night of the Living synagogues may have been a better description.

From 10:30 p.m. until 2 a.m., all seven of the historic synagogues in Krakow's old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, were open to the public.

It was part festival, part celebration and part didactic exercise. The aim was to foster Jewish pride, but also to educate non-Jewish Poles about contemporary Jewish life and culture.

An astonishing 5,000 or more people turned out, a constant flow of people that trooped from one synagogue to the next and patiently braved long, slow lines and bottlenecks at doorways. Almost all were young Cracovians.

Each synagogue hosted an exhibit, concert, talk or other activity that was produced by Jews and highlighted Jewish life and culture as lived today in Poland, Israel and elsewhere.

Events ranged from talks by Krakow Rabbi Boaz Pash on "the ABCs of Judaism" to a live concert by an Israeli rock band to a DJ sampling new Jewish music from a console set up on the bimah of the gothic Old Synagogue, now a Jewish museum, to a panel discussion about the role of women in Judaism.

All the events were free -- and all were full.

"It far, far exceeded our expectations," said Ornstein.

I've never seen anything quite like it, even though I've followed the development of Kazimierz for more than 20 years -- from the time when it was an empty, rundown slum to its position now as one of the liveliest spots in the city.

I've witnessed -- and chronicled -- the development of Jewish-themed tourism, retail, entertainment and educational infrastructure in Krakow, including the Jewish Culture Festival that draws thousands of people each summer. And I've written extensively about the interest of non-Jews in Jewish culture.

But Seven at Night was something different. For one thing, nostalgia seemed to play no role. And also, unlike many of the Jewish events and attractions in Kazimierz, this one was organized and promoted by Jews themselves.

It was their show, kicking off with a public Havdalah ceremony celebrated by Rabbi Pash that saw hundreds of people singing and dancing in the JCC courtyard.

"Never Better" was a prominent theme.

Most explicitly, it was the title of a multimedia presentation that ran throughout the night, projected on the vaulted ceiling of the 16th century High Synagogue, which today is used as an exhibition hall. The presentation featured interviews with local Jews young and old, religious and secular, all expressing a confidence in their identity and future.

It's still anybody's guess whether or not demographic realities will enable the long-term survival of a Jewish community in Krakow. But Ornstein said that may not be the point.

A key message of the current activism, he said, was to help frame the context of Polish Jewish history and hammer home that however small their numbers, Jews in Poland are not a separate, exotic entity but part and parcel of 21st century Polish society.

"The powerful message is that Judaism isn't just an idea, it's not just something that belongs to the Polish past, but there are Jews living here," Ornstein said. "We're trying to say that you can be a Jewish Pole, not just a Jew in Poland, to turn 'Jew' into an adjective instead of a noun."

I hope he's right.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Poland -- Sanok. Gwozdziec synagogue project

Laura Brown, co-director of Handshouse Studio, with replica of Gwozdziec synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Earlier this month I spent several days in Sanok, in the far southeastern corner of Poland, visiting the site of the Gwozdziec synagogue project -- the construction of a replica of the roof and decorated inner cupola of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec (now in Ukraine) -- one of about 200 wooden synagogues torched by the Nazis in World War II

The article I wrote about it for the International Herald Tribune/New York Time online  is now readable  -- click HERE to read the full story

In the far southeast corner of Poland, the warm summer air is resounding with the rasp of old-fashioned iron saws and the satisfying twack-twack-twack of ax blades on wood.

Here, in the foothills of the Carpathians, an international crew of master timber craftsmen and students has been working on an intensely hands-on project that combines history, art and education. They are building a replica of the tall peaked roof and inner cupola of an ornate wooden synagogue that stood for 300 years in the town of Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine.

The replica, which will be 85 percent of the original size of the building, will be installed as one of the key components of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, currently under construction in Warsaw and scheduled to open in 2013.
The article gives pretty much of an overview of the project, run by the Massachusetts-based Handshouse Studio -- and if you want detailed descriptions of the process, Edward Levin, of the Timber Framers Guild, has been keeping a wonderful blog about it all, with lots of pictures and theoretical musings. Click HERE to read it.

My discussions in Sanok opened a new world to me -- that of Timber Framing and master carpentry; people involved who find spirituality in working with wood. Fascinating discussions.

Here are some of my own pictures of the project, which is being carried out on the grounds of the Sanok open-air folk architecture museum.

Serbia -- Belgrade Jewish Museum downloadable guidebook

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I just found a downloadable version (PDF) of the illustrated, 35-page guidebook to the Museum of Jewish History in Belgrade, published last year. Go to the link by clicking HERE. I will add it to the other PDF guides I have on my iPad....

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Poland -- the Chassidic Route: Lesko

Former Synagogue in Lesko. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The last time I had been in Lesko was in 2006, when I was updating my book Jewish Heritage Travel -- but also attending the annual biker and country music festival held there, "Moto Country Piknik." It was a wild night full of black leather-clad beer-drinkers, heavy metal chrome, and Polish country acts, most of whose names I didn't get.
Lesko Moto Country festival, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Five years later, on the Jewish heritage front, I found little changed...

The imposing synagogue, just off the main market square, dates from the mid 17th century. It is the only one of five prayer houses to survive World War II. It was devastated during the war and rebuilt in the 1960s -- the reconstruction added baroque gables (which a booklet on sale at the synagogue said had been removed in the 19th century). That on the front facade frames the depiction of the Ten Commandments. The reconstruction also extended the height of the tower so that it now extends above the roof level.

All in all, I find it a very beautiful and impressive building -- and, importantly, there has long been separate signpost outside identifying it as a former synagogue and describing the history: before World War II, nearly two-thirds of the town population was Jewish. In the entry hall there are several plaques listing the names of hundreds of Lesko Jews killed at the Belzec death camp in 1942.

Memorial to Lesko Jews at Belzec. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The synagogue is now used as a gallery displaing and selling local arts and crafts. Five years ago I bought there a wonderful naive carving of the late Pope John Paul II, wearing red shoes and with his head surrounded by angels.

Inside the synagogue gallery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Each time I've visited the gallery, I've found a refreshing lack of kitschy carved Jewish figures and paintings on sale -- such as those so prevalent in Krakow and Warsaw...   but one of the local artists still did utilize the "Jew and money" stereotype in a rather outrageous manner! That's real money clutched in their hands!

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

 The Jewish cemetery in Lesko, founded in the 16th century, is one of the oldest and most historically important in Poland. It is vast, and rises up a steep hill, just down the road from the synagogue. The oldest stones are at the bottom, by the entrance -- massive slabs with vividly carved epitaphs but no other decoration. Here is where the tour groups stop --  a Polish tour group was visiting this time when I entered.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
Few people, however, venture and farther up the hill, except for school kids using one of the paths as a short cut.

 The higher you go  the more, and more recent, and more vividly carved stones there are. But also -- at least in early summer -- the more overgrown and untended do you find them..... it is a real wasteland; I have to say, I felt both glad to see people (like the tour group) visiting, but rather lonely and depressed that so much of the cemetery was a jungle. And this comes from someone who has seen endless overgrown Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe! I think the contrast of the "known" and "unknown" -- the "remembered" and the "forgotten" -- just got to me.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I can't put it any better than a post I have linked to before -- a description of the Lesko cemetery on the  site.

Poland -- The Chassidic Route

Painting in the Judaica section of a sacred art exhibit in the open-air folk architecture museum in Sanok. photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

While in the far southeast corner of Poland earlier this month, I visited a few of the Jewish heritage sites on the "Chassidic Route" itinerary in eastern and southeastern Poland promoted by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Hertitage in Poland (FODZ).

The Chassidic Route itinerary includes: Baligrod, Bilgoraj, Chelm, Cieszanow, Debica, Dynow, Jaroslaw, Krasnik, Lesko, Lezajsk, Lublin, Lancut, Leczna, Przemysl, Radomysl Wielki, Ropczyce, Rymanow, Sanok, Tarnobrzeg, Ulanow, Ustrzyki Dolne, Wielkie Oczy, Wlodawa and Zamosc.

I was based in Sanok, a charming town that in fact itself is on the Route, and I also visited the "route" sites of  Rymanow, Lesko, and Baligrod. In addition, I stopped in Dukla and Lutowiska. All the  places I visited were within an easy drive from Sanok through beautiful countryside. Some places I had seen in the past -- even more than 20 years ago. Others I visited for the first time: so, a mixture of big changes and new experiences....

To keep posts at a reasonable length, I won't give a rundown of all the sites all at once, but I'll devote a post to each place.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Poland -- New Jewish Guidebook to Poland Published in Warsaw

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A new Jewish guidebook to Poland goes on sale this month, published under the auspices the Museum of the History of Polish Jewry, now under construction in Warsaw and due to open in 2013.  Here's what the Museum's Virtual Shtetl web portal has to say about the new guidebook (it's unclear if there is an English language edition yet, though I assume there will be one):

Zabytki kultury żydowskiej w Polsce (Monuments of Jewish Cultural Heritage in Poland) is a new, richly illustrated, guide to places that merit a visit and closer acquaintance. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews has assumed patronage over the guidebook, which will go on sale on June 19th.
Books published under the Museum’s patronage have included popular-science works, albums and historical atlases. Today they are joined by a guidebook to Jewish historical monuments in Poland that survived World War II, published by Carta Blanca. It encourages readers to visit these sites during holidays.  
MHPJ involvement in the guidebook’s creation was enormous, mainly because the source material for the work was provided by the Museum’s Virtual Shtetl community portal, which contains information on nearly 2000 localities within Poland’s current and pre-war borders. Our heartfelt thanks also go to Magda Propokopowicz, who was in charge of editing that material.
The guidebook is divided into 11 regions and describes 170 locations (both places that are well-known such as Łódź or Kraków, as well as small towns and villages) which were once inhabited by Jewish communities – at times very large. The Jewish contribution to each locality is shown against the background of its history. The text portrays eminent local personalities, describes the history of local synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish communal facilities, and is intertwined with Jewish jokes, curiosities and anecdotes. The guidebook is beautifully illustrated with as many as 370 photographs by respected travel photographers Anna Olej-Kobus and Krzysztof Kobus. This fascinating tale of Jewish places in Poland is supplemented by a dictionary of basic Jewish terms, atlas of historical monuments rendered in a scale of 1:1 500 000 and an introduction to Judaic history, customs and traditions.
Since the goal of the guidebook is to popularise Jewish sites in Poland, it answers questions such as:
  • -  Which Polish synagogue is considered the most beautiful?
  • -  Where can one taste genuine kosher food?
  • -  When are Yom Kippur, Pesach, Purim and other Jewish holidays celebrated?
  • -  Which Polish city hosts every year the largest Jewish culture festival in Europe?
  • -  What is the town of Leżajsk world famous for?
  • -  What does the name Umschlagplatz mean?
  • -  Which Jewish cemetery features the largest number of tombstones and unique matzevot that survived the Nazi occupation?
  • -  What can be found today in Łódź on the grounds of the huge factory that was once owned by the industrialist Izrael Poznański?
  • -  Is it still possible to feel the atmosphere of a shtetl anywhere in Poland?  
  • -  How to find the boundaries of the former Warsaw ghetto?

 I have to say, that most of these questions are answered in my Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, which takes in 14 countries, not just Poland.

This new guidebook is by no means the first Jewish guidebook to Poland. There have been regional and local guides published since the 1980s, and a national guidebook came out around 1991.

In 2010, Pascal -- a leading Polish publisher of travel books, came out with an updated version of Adam Dylewski's 2002 English-language guidebook, which had the unfortunate title "Where the Tailor Was a Poet...Polish Jews and Their Culture"  The new edition --which I saw on sale in Krakow this month -- is simply called "Polish Jews and Their Culture, an Illustrated Guide."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Krakow -- Upscale Kosher Restaurant

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Krakow now has an upscale kosher restaurant. Called the Olive Tree, it is located on Kupa street in the heart of the Jewish district, Kazimierz, and has kosher certification from the Manchester-based Badatz Igud Rabbonim.

I didn't try it on the one night I was in Krakow this month, but I peeked in, and the ambience is certainly nice; sleek and smooth, with low lights and casual-elegant decor.  No kitsch or nostalgia in view!

The  menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner are on the web site.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Poland -- Krakow's Night of the Living Synagogues

Long line waiting to get in to the Old Synagogue, around 1 a.m. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The "Night of the Synagogues" in Krakow last weekend -- June 4 -- was the last stop in my Hungary-Poland trip; I had spent the week in and around Sanok, in the far southeastern tip of the country, and I was torn between going on to Krakow for the synagogue night or returning to Budapest.

Krakow won out -- how could I resist? I have been watching the development of the city's Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, for more than 20 years -- from an empty slum to one of the liveliest spots in the city. I have watched (and written extensively about) the restoration of its synagogue buildings, and the Jewish and "virtually Jewish" tourism, retail, entertainment and educational infrastructure: cafes, restaurants, museums, culture centers, etc etc etc....

On the Night of the Synagogues, all seven of the historic synagogues in Kazimierz were open to the public from 10:30 p.m. until 2 a.m. And each one hosted cultural or educational programming. The event was sponsored by the Krakow Jewish Community Center, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish communal organization.

The night was a resounding success, and I feel privileged to have been there. More than 5000 people (maybe many more, as organizers had a hard time counting) made the rounds and visited the synagogues -- there were huge bottlenecks at doorways and a constant flow of people.

Crowds inside the Izaak synagogue, where there was an exhibition on Israel and an Israeli dance workshop. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The evening kicked off with an open-air Havadalah ceremony in the JCC courtyard, led by Krakow Rabbi Boas Pash, JCC director Jonathan Ornstein and the JDC's Karina Sokolowska from the JCC annex roof.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Then, the crowds dispersed into the district -- a district that has many crowded bars, restaurants and cafes that remain open into the wee hours. I managed to get to all seven of the synagogues -- but I forgot that the Galicia Jewish Museum was also open, so I didn't make it there.

There are only a few hundred Jews living in Krakow, and the vast majority of synagogue-visitors were non-Jewish local Poles.

There was a long line to get into the gothic Old Synagogue, which has been a Jewish museum for the past half century. Here, a DJ playing an eclectic mix of Jewishy rock and other music was ensconced under the wrought iron grill of the Bimah while visitors looked at an exhibit on Krakow synagogues and other Jewish buildings that no longer serve their original function.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

There were panel discussions in the Kupa synagogue on the role of women in Judaism and young people in today's Jewish experience in Poland -- every seat in the audience was full. The Popper Synagogue, now a culture center, hosted an arts workshop. And an Israeli rock band gave a (loud) concert in the Tempel -- the ornate 19th century synagogue that was restored in the 1990s thanks in part to the World Monuments Fund.

 The 16th century Remuh synagogue -- still the main Jewish place of worship in Krakow -- was also more or less standing room only. Here, Rabbi Pash gave a series of talks on the ABC's of Judaism. People had to sign up, as the space was limitied -- and I was told that ten times the number expected tried to attend. The overflow stood in the women's section, which originally was to have been closed.

Rabbi Boas Pash speaks to crowd in Remuh synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

There was also an exhibit in the High Synagogue -- and a multi-media presentation projected on the ceiling. It focused on contemporary Jewish life in Poland, highlighting the reborn and reemerging community, and particularly the young people who in Krakow have gravitated to the JCC and its activities.

Multi-media presentation in High Synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

All in all it was a terrific event -- and very gratifying to someone like me who remembers the bad old days! Mazel tov to those who planned it and took part!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hungary to Poland trip -- Lutowiska!

View of Lutowiska from Jewish cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
By Ruth Ellen Gruber

One of my aims in the southeastern corner of Poland was to explore  some  Jewish heritage sites for the first time -- as well as revisit some that I had been to previously to update my information on their status and condition.

One of the first-time places was the hamlet of Lutowiska -- way down in the triangular southeastern tip of the country that pokes between Ukraine and Slovakia, very close to the Ukrainian border.  Pretty far, far away.....   When borders were different, though, tt was once a major trading center,  with a large Jewish population. According to a Yizkor book entry on Lutowiska, Jews  were the majority population from the late 19th century.

Here's information from the town web site:
The name Lutowiska comes from the Russian word „letowyshche” designating a place where cattle and sheep were grazed in summer. The village was set up in the 16th century according  o the Wallachian law in estates that then belonged to the Stadnicki family. The village was first referred to in 1580. The village was located on the intersection of busy trade routes from Sanok to the Tucholska Pass and further to Transylvania and from Przemyśl through the Beskid Mountains or Użock Pass to Użhorod. There was also a local route to the East through Turka to Drohobycz. Such a place encouraged the location of a town. Thanks to the efforts of Ludwik Urbański Lutowiska was granted a charter at the beginningof the 18th century. In 1742 King August III granted the town a privilege to hold ten big fairs a year (by comparison  Sanok and Lesko only held two big fairs a year). In the 19th century the big fairs in Lutowiska were famous throughout Europe. People chiefly traded in oxen that were grazed on high-elevation meadows (poloninas). They were grey, long-horned cattle called Hungarian, willingly bought even by merchants from Western Europe. During thebig fair the whole Lutowiska was packed with cattle, a few thousand animals were here at a time. Lutowiska’s centra consisted then of two adjoining market places surrounded by wooden houses, which mainly belonged to Jews, a majority of the town’s population. Lutowiska lost the status of town in 1919, though it remained the region’s significant trade and administrative centre until the Second World War. The census of 1921 discovered 261 houses inhabited by 2125 people. In 1939 the settlement already had about 3500 inhabitants. In June 1942 Gestapo officers from Ustrzyki Dolne shot ca. 650 local Jews. They also burnt the synagogue and Jewish houses, practically all the wooden buildings in Lutowiska. Between 1945 and 1951 Lutowiska was within the Soviet borders, the name was changed to Shevchenko. At the end of 1951 a mere 28 families lived there. Resettlers from the Sokal and Hrubieszów regions mainly moved to the deserted houses. The village only reverted to its original name after a few years. In 1951 Lutowiska became home to communal authorities.

I had been told that there was a Jewish cemetery here, but that it was outside the village; I would have to ask, I was told, but people would know.

In fact, there is a beautiful, and beautifully maintained, Jewish cemetery here, as well as the ruins of the synagogue -- and I was delighted to find that  local authorities have included both in a well organized touristic/educational route in and around the town that focuses on the three cultures that before WW2 coexisted here -- Jews,  Poles and Ukrainians. The itinerary is aimed at bringing back awareness of destroyed local history (Holocaust as well as post-war expulsions and population and border shifts) and also highlight the landscape and environment.

Sign of Three Cultures route outside entry to Jewish cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
The cemetery is on a hill behind the town's big school, immersed in lovely rolling landscape -- I found it by asking at the local tourism office, where an English-speaking young man gave me explicit directions as well as a brochure and map for the Three Cultures route. I walked there, following three back-packing girls who also headed that way to visit the site.

The cemetery is enclosed by a rustic fence, and the weeds and grass are cut. There are some dozens of gravestones, some with fairly elaborate carving; many tilted, some eroded -- I was able to document a lot of women's tombstones, for my (Candle)sticks on Stones project, showing a variety of carved versions of candlesticks.

Some of the carvings were very reminiscent of the carving style in Busk and other places across the border in what is today Ukraine.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
The carving on this stone reminds me of that across today's border in Ukraine. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
Other sites on the Three Cultures itinerary include the Greek-Catholic cemetery, with a replica of the wooden church that no longer stands here:

Replica of the Greek-Catholic church Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hungary to Poland trip Part I -- a Jewish cemetery uncovered....

Revealed on the road side. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm beginning to post material from my recent road trip to Hungary and Poland; it was somehow difficult to get things online when traveling....

My itinerary took me from Budapest to Sanok and other towns in the far southeast corner of Poland, and then to Krakow. Most of the route through Hungary is four-lane motorway, but from Miskolc north to the border with Slovakia it's still a two-lane highway.

The first time I recall driving this way was in 1992, when I was researching my book "Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today." One of the chapters of that book is a long essay, "Wine Merchants and Wonder Rabbis" about the links that connected northern Hungary and southern Poland -- wine going north, Hassidism going south.

At that time, the only person I encountered who remembered the existence of the Jewish cemetery of Méra, a village in northern Hungary in the road to the Slovak border, was a malodorous old drunk, who got in the car and guided me there. I found the broken frame of a gate and a few eroded tombstones imbedded in a thick wall of brush just off the side of the main road.

The last time I had driven that way, a few years ago, I hadn't been able even to make out where the cemetery was, it was so overgrown. There seemed to be nothing.  I feared it was totally lost -- and with it,  the memory of the Jews who had lived there.

So this time, I was quite surprised to find that the cemetery had been cleared of brush, bushes, under- and overgrowth, with the stones fully exposed. In fact, I was astonished! Even the grass/weeds had been freshly cut! (I'm not sure, though, who has carried out the work or when it was done.)

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

What was revealed, however, was the story of death and vandalism as well as remembered life... some of the stones had been broken or smashed...., but the fragments had been gathered and stood together.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

But...regardless -- there they were! Clean, cleared, exposed, not submerged any more out of sight out of mind;  revealed for all to see!

Publication -- Rudi Klein's magnum opus on Hungarian synagogues is out!

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My friend Rudi Klein's magisterial and encyclopedic book on Hungarian synagogues has been published, adding an extraordinarily rich resource to anyone interested in architecture and architectural history as well as in the development of Jewish art and lifestyle from the late 18th century to World War I. A big Mazel Tov to him!

The hefty tome -- it runs more than 670 pages and weighs in at about 4 kilograms -- traces the development of synagogue architecture in the historic Hungarian and Hapsburg lands of central Europe. Klein describes several hundred synagogues -- including destroyed buildings as well as buildings that still exist, classifying and commenting on their "genealogy, typography and architectural significance."

Hundreds of gorgeous and informative photographs, drawings, diagrams, old postcards, plans and other images illustrate the text -- most contemporary pictures were taken by Klein himself. The main text is in Hungarian, but there is a lengthy summary in English -- and all of the illustrations bear English captions. Here are a few sample pages:

Klein breaks down the architectural typology into range of types

-- Simple "peasant cottage-type synagogues"
-- Burgher house-type synagogues
-- Protestant church-type synagogues
-- "Solomon's Temple-type synagogues" with battlements, lunette, or pediment
-- Factory Hall-type synagogues
-- Catholic church-type synagogues
-- Byzantine church-type synagogues
-- Palace-type synagogues

In addition to detailed descriptions of exemplary buildings, he includes a comparative catalogue of thumb nail pictures illustrating all the synagogues of each type.

It is a landmark work, the fruit of many years of archival and on-site research, which will be of great value to a wide audience -- from scholars and students to, well, tourists. (It amplifies, corrects, broadens and expands some of the material included in a book on Hungarian synagogues by Aniko Gazda, published in 1989, which I used as the guide for my first foray around Hungary looking for synagogues -- in 1990, as well as for other trips.)

Unfortunately, the sheer size (and weight) of Rudi's book, not to mention the price (approx $80) -- plus the fact that it is at this point only available in Hungary -- limit the possibilities..... I very much hope that a digital version will be published so that the wealth of material can be easily obtained by a broad international readership.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hungarian Yiddishe Mamma Mia

Yum. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm on the road -- this week in Poland, and last week in Budapest, where I came across (but didn't sample) this new restaurant in Gozsdu Udvar, the wonderful series of linked courtyards in the 7th District, between Kiraly and Dob streets, that was renovated recently with debatable results.....It's not clear if it's Italian Jewish (which I rather doubt), or comfort food with an attitude (which may be more like it.)

Gozsdu Udvar will be part of the scene of the Judafest festival on Sunday -- food, music, stands, etc in the old downtown Jewish quarter.

I'll miss this, as I'm heading to Krakow (from Sanok, in the far southeast tip of Poland, where I've been all week) in order to take in the "Night of the Synagogues" festival Saturday night, when all seven of the historic synagogues in the Kazimierz district will be open to the public, with lots of programming, until 2 a.m.

There's a lot to report from my trip -- but it will come in dribs and drabs... I haven't had much time (or a constant internet connection) to sort out photos and stories.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber