Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Poland: New cemetery signage in Lutowiska and Starachowice

Lutowiska. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I posted recently on the exemplary fashion in which Jewish heritage sites are cared for and put on local tourism and heritage itineraries in the remote village of Lutowiska in the far southeast corner of Poland.

There is even more signage point the way to the Jewish cemetery there now,  thanks to the support of the Michael Traison Fund for Poland, the Community Office of Lutowiska and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) which erected a new information plaque and road sign.

Michael's fund,  the FODZ and the Town Office of Starachowice  also put up two new road signs  marking the way to the local Jewish cemetery there (where I have never been). 

Poland: Oswiecim, the city of Auschwitz, wrestles with whether the past must be part of its future

My latest JTA story is about Oswiecim, the town outside of which Auschwitz was built.

Woman walks her baby in front of the Auschwitz Jewish Center. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

JTA, July 21, 2011

OSWIECIM, Poland (JTA) -- Can a town that exists in the shadow of death transform itself into a place of normalcy?

The question long has vexed Oswiecim, the town of 40,000 in southern Poland where the notorious Auschwitz death camp is located.

For decades, residents and city leaders have struggled to separate Oswiecim from Auschwitz and pull the town, its history and its cultural associations out from under the overwhelming black cloud of the death camp, which is now a memorial museum.

With only limited success to date, however, a new generation of town leaders is trying a different tack: bolstering Oswiecim as a vital local community, but also reaching out to connect with Auschwitz rather than disassociate from it.

"Ten or 15 years ago, many of us began thinking that the way to go was not to reject Auschwitz but to deal with it," said historian Artur Szyndler, 40, the director of research and education at the Auschwitz Jewish Center who grew up in Oswiecim under communism.

The town has adopted "City of Peace" as its official slogan. And for years a Catholic-run Dialogue and Prayer Center and a German-run International Youth Center near the camp have promoted reflection and reconciliation.

Downtown, the 10-year-old Auschwitz Jewish Center makes clear that before the Holocaust, Oswiecim had a majority Jewish population and was known widely by its Yiddish name, Oshpitzin. The center includes a Jewish museum and a functioning refurbished synagogue -- the only one in the city to survive. It runs study programs and serves as a meeting place for visiting groups.

And now the Oswiecim Life Festival, founded last year by Darek Maciborek, a nationally known radio DJ who was born and lives in Oswiecim, aims to use music and youth culture to fight anti-Semitism and racism.

"This place seems to be perfectly fitting for initiatives with a message of peace," Maciborek said. "A strong voice from this place is crucial."

The closing concert of this year's festival, held in June, included the Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu. He gave a midnight performance for a crowd of 10,000 in a rainswept stadium just a couple of miles from the notorious "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work sets you free") gate of the death camp.

"It was an incredibly symbolic moment," Oswiecim City Council President Piotr Hertig told JTA. "It was a very important symbol that a religious Jew was performing at a festival in such a place."

Hertig said the new push to bolster Oswiecim and reach out more to the Auschwitz museum and its visitors is partly due to a generational shift in the town.

For a long time, most of Oswiecim's population consisted of thousands of newcomers from elsewhere in Poland who settled here after World War II. But today's community leaders increasingly include 30- and 40-somethings like Hertig and Maciberok who were born in Oswiecim and feel rooted here.

The town now has plans to go ahead with several projects that had been thwarted by outgoing Mayor Janusz Marszalek, who had particularly strained relations with the Auschwitz Memorial, according to Hertig. These include a new visitors' center for the memorial and a park on the riverbank just opposite Auschwitz that will be connected to the camp memorial by a foot bridge.

"This will be a very good place for people to come after visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, where they can meditate, reflect and soothe their negative emotions," Hertig said.

Hertig said he hoped new programs and study visits developed with the Auschwitz memorial will encourage longer stays by visitors. Plans are in the works to build an upscale hotel in town and refurbish the main market square and other infrastructure.

"Auschwitz, on our outskirts, is the symbol of the greatest evil," Hertig said. "But at the same time we want to show to others that Oswiecim is a town with an 800-year history that wants to be a normal living town."

Located on the opposite side of the Sola River from the Auschwitz camp, Oswiecim has an old town center with a pleasant market square, several imposing churches, and a medieval castle and tower. In the modern part of town is a new shopping mall and state-of-the-art public library, as well as a big civic culture center that hosts a variety of events, including an annual Miss Oswiecim beauty pageant.

But few of the more than 1.2 million people who visit the Auschwitz camp each year ever set foot in Oswiecim or even know that the town exists.

"It is difficult to comprehend what it must be like to call this city your hometown," said Jody Manning, a doctoral student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who is writing a dissertation on life in Oswiecim and Dachau, Germany, also the site of a concentration camp.

Local residents long have resented that most outsiders make no distinction between their town and the death camp.

"People from outside are sometimes shocked. They ask how I can live in Auschwitz. But I don't -- I live in Oswiecim," said Gosia, a 30-year-old woman who works at the Catholic Dialogue Center. "This is Oswiecim, my hometown -- not Auschwitz!"

It remains to be seen whether the new push can help remove the stigma from Oswiecim and achieve a less strained modus vivendi with the death camp memorial. "People have the right to live normally, but I don't think they'll be able to disassociate from Auschwitz," said Stanislaw Krajewski, a leading Polish Jewish intellectual. "The best they can do is to use it in a constructive way; the very name Auschwitz has a magical power."

Moldova -- Video of Vadul Rascov

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Simon Geissbuehler turned me on to the extremely evocative Jewish cemetery in Vadul Rascov, a rather remote village and former shtetl in Moldova.... I've never been there, but Simon loves the place and he and others who have made the trek have written about it and taken wonderful photos.

Simon sent the link to a TV video clip (in Romanian) about the place. What strikes me is not just the site itself but the relatively recent dates on the gravestones that are shown.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ukraine -- thoughtful report on the L'viv klez fest; virtually and non-virtually Jewish

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My friend Sarah Zarrow is just wrapping up a stint of living and researching in L'viv. I have recommended her blog -- her most recent post is a thoughtful take and description -- with pictures -- of the L'viv Klez Fest, which I have never been to.
Perhaps because of demographic changes, sometimes festivals feel like a Jewish version of “add women and stir.” Take some hummus, some d minor, and some hava nagila…poof! Instant Jewish. Part of the festival is a street fair on Staroevreiska (the old Jewish street, in the oldest section of town). “Jewish” is sort of a stand-in, it seems, for old, antique, quaint. Laundry hangs from some cords, signs for LvivKlezFest hang on others.

I get fake Jewish stuff, some times. I don’t always find it pleasing, or even acceptable, but I don’t get offended; I often can see where it comes from, even if I don’t like it. And I admit a certain fondness for it, sometimes. Fiddler-esque kitsch has an appeal. What I don’t get is when Jews really buy into it. It’s like black people in blackface, and it’s not done (at least, it doesn’t look like it here) self-consciously, as burlesque….I got pretty grumpy, until I was knocked out of my snottiness by two people: Harald Binder, the President of the Board of the Center for Urban History, who made the excellent point that a vision of Jews as culture makers, party-throwers, and generally happy and friendly people would be better than the general view of Jews in L’viv now. And Zhenya reminded me that people were happy, and that happiness wasn’t a bad thing. Which I forget, even after being away from New York for two months.
The Festival seems to be quite theatrical, as attested by these clips from last year, showing a performance of a "Jewish Wedding" --

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Poland -- visit to Dukla

Dukla's ruined synagogue, monotype by Shirley Moskowitz, 1993. (c) Estate of Shirley Moskowitz

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

One of Polish towns I visited in June was Dukla, a small town in the far south of the country at the top of the Dukla Pass just north of the border with Slovakia. Here, just off the rather run-down market square,  stand the gaping ruins of a once imposing synagogue.
Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

And there are  two Jewish cemeteries at the edge of town, marked from the road with a sign indicating it is a war memorial site.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The walled newer cemetery, entered through a rusting gate, had a few neat rows of stones, some with fairly interesting carving -- and the whole area was nicely maintained, with freshly-cut grass/weeds.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Dulka. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Across the dirt road, though, the eroding gravestones in the old cemetery were scarcely visible in the thick vegetation.

Dukla. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I first visited Dukla in, I believe, 1992, when I was researching my book "Upon the Doorposts of thy House: Jewish Life in East Central Europe, Yesterday and Today." (The book is out of print, but I am planning to re-issue it as an e-book on Kindle.) Things are much today as they were then, though the market square seemed a bit more run-down and less quaint this time around.

This is what I wrote about Dukla in "Doorposts":
The Dukla Pass is the lowest and easiest north-south route through the western Carpathians, and by the 16th century it was already a well-established artery for trade, including the wine trade. the town of Dukla itself prospered as a major center for the import of Hungarian wine, though Ber of Bolechow [the 18th century wine merchant and Jewish leader from what is now Bolekhiv in Ukraine] recounted that the Jewish wine traders from there were not always quite honest. He told the story of a certain Reb Hayyim of Dukla, who made a large purchase of wine in the Hungarian town of Miskolc at the same time that Ber's brother and two other associates were there. Unfortunately, Reb Hayyim paid the Hungarian suppliers with counterfeit money -- golden ducats that turned out to be gold-plated copper -- and Ber's brother and a friend were arrested along with Hayyim, even though it was acknowledged that they had not held any of the bad coins.

The three were kept in jail for a year, until, after much nerve-wracking investigation, the origin of the bad coins was traced to a monastery, which in turn had received them from local noblemen, who made a practice of circulating debased coinage at that time. Ber's brother was released from prison and was even paid a considerable sum in compensation for wrongful arrest, Ber wrote. But the affair had taken a toll: the stress and tension had caused Ber to break out in spots.

During World War II the Dukla Pass was the scene of bitterly fought battles between combined Czechoslovak and Soviet armies and the Germans. The bloody mountain fighting in the autumn of 1944 destroyed the German defenses and left 100,000 soldiers dead. The towns of Dukla, to the north of the pass, and Svidnik in Slovakia to the south, were almost totally razed. I passed numerous memorials to this fighting as I drove along the gentle curves through the wooded hills. Monuments had been erected to the fallen, and ruined tanks, artillery pieces, and airplanes had been left in place where they had been at the close of he conflict, rusting memorials to the battle.

Dukla itself was a small town clustered around a stage-set market square with a white market hall at its center. Nearby, I found the synagogue. It had been built around the middle of the 18th century, and the wily Reb Hayyim may will have worshipped there. Now it was a ruin. It had been destroyed during the wartime battles and had simply been left as it was, four massive stone walls and little else, looming in a small hollow. At the edge of town, a few graves still stood in the Jewish cemetery, surrounded by a brilliant carpet of wild spring flowers.
On that trip, I brought my mother, the artist Shirley Moskowitz, with me -- and she produced a cycle of montoype prints of some of the Jewish heritage sites we visited -- including the one of Dukla synagogue at the top of this post. The cycle of prints was exhibited in several places in Poland in the early 2000s, and now many of them are posted on the web site that we established for her and her artwork after her death in 2007.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ukraine -- Struggle to recognize and recover Jewish heritage and history

Old Jewish Cemetery in L'viv -- now destroyed and built over by a market
By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Kyiv Post has run a 5-part series over the past few weeks about the struggle of memory over Jewish heritage and history in Ukraine in the wake of the Holocaust.

One of the articles, which are by Natalia A. Feduschak, focuses on the valiant Meylakh Sheykhat and his tireless battles to preserve and honor Jewish heritage sites.
For nearly two decades, often working with limited resources, Sheykhet has tirelessly traveled throughout western Ukraine to ensure Jewish cultural remnants are preserved. It has not been an easy job for the 58-year-old, who has lived in Lviv nearly his entire life.

Not only is Sheykhet racing against time, neglect and the elements, he is also fighting apathy from some segments of the Ukrainian population, which does not always recognize Jewish culture as part of its own.

For instance, since 2003 he has been at loggerheads with local officials in Sambir, a town south of Lviv, to remove three large Christian crosses erected in the Jewish part of the cemetery. Visits by international figures like former Canadian-Ukrainian parliamentarian Borys Wrzesnewskyj and Mark Freiman, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, have not changed local minds.

Before World War II, today’s western Ukraine boasted artifacts that reflected a culturally rich Jewish life. The landscape was dotted with cemeteries and synagogues, while towns and villages, often home to a population comprised largely of Jews, bore entire Jewish quarters with unique religious and residential structures.

Read a profile of Meylach HERE

Monday, July 18, 2011

Macedonia -- Good Review of New Holocaust Museum

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Economist magazine gives a good review of the new Holocaust/Jewish Museum in Skopje, Macedonia.

The first thing that greets visitors to the museum is a memorial with digital photo frames with changing pictures of the dead, including 3,500 identity photos which the Bulgarians demanded from the Bitola Jews. The museum is not yet finished but today its main exhibition charts the history, not just of Macedonia’s Sephardic Jews, but also those of other parts of the Balkans and especially the former Yugoslavia. What is striking, in comparison with the museums in Paris and Berlin, say, is the lack of objects. The community was wiped out so comprehensively that virtually nothing remained, says Mr Sadikarijo.

For decades the spot where the new museum stands was a rough patch of ground that served as a bus station. The whole area, which was more or less empty, was the old Jewish quarter of Skopje, many of whose remaining houses collapsed in a devastating earthquake in 1963. When the Macedonian government began its post-communist programme of returning property nearly a decade ago, it was found that there were no heirs to much of the former Jewish property. So a fund was established, which in turn created the museum.

The memory of this community has been saved from oblivion in a way that is neither flashy, political, nor full of raw emotion. Perhaps it will serve as an exemplary model of sober remembrance in the Balkans in years to come.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Amsterdam -- quick Jewish tour

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

JTA's "Transatlantic" blog by Alex Weisler runs a rapid-fire travel story on Jewish Amsterdam, with a main emphasis on the Anne Frank House.
It was my first time in Holland, and I was struck by the city’s warmth and beauty and by the way it seems to gleefully dart back and forth between the seedy and the genteel.

Amsterdam also has much to offer the Jewish traveler.

Anne Frank House should be at the top of any yiddishe tourist’s itinerary. The museum, housed in the building where the diarist and seven others hid from the Nazis in the famous “Secret Annex,” is just a short walk from the Dam, one of the city’s central squares and a main center for shopping. It’s a remarkably subtle installation – helped by the fact that photos are not allowed, forcing visitors to fully immerse themselves in the experience.

I was caught off-guard by how emotional the exhibit made me, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. There’s something timeless about Anne’s story and something to be commended about the way the museum has chosen to present it – respectfully but not morbidly, powerfully but without bombast. It may well have been the most effective Holocaust memorial I’ve ever visited.
 He also highlighted the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, as well as some other sites.
If you have one more attraction in your system, I’d recommend the Jewish Historical Museum, housed near the Dam in four conjoined former Ashkenazi synagogues. (Across the street is the city’s Portuguese Synagogue, a spare, compelling space that is also worth a visit.) The museum explores Jewish rituals, from life-cycle events to Torah study, as well as examining Jewish history in the Netherlands since 1600.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Poland -- I rate the "Jewish" cafes in Krakow

Steve ponders the Ariel. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In the Forward's "Jew and the Carrot" blog, I rate six of the most prominent Jewish/"Jewish" cafes in Krakow's Kazimierz district, with help from Steve Weintraub.

Nowadays, visitors are still sometimes shocked by the extent of the kitsch (Szeroka St, the main square in Jewish Kazimierz and the hub of Jewish tourism, souvenir stalls and Jewish-themed venues, is sometimes referred to as “Jewrassic Park”.) But the Jewish themed cafes are actually now in the minority — Kazimierz has become a major district of youth-oriented night life and music, with scores of pubs, clubs, cafes and eateries of all sorts.

This year, during the Festival, I enlisted two festival participants — Chicago-based dancer Steve Weintraub and Berlin-based trumpeter Paul Brody — to join me on a couple of “café crawls” to rate half a dozen of the most prominent Jewish themed establishments in the district, from ones that are over the top, to the ones that are a nice place to hang out.

Klezmer Hois

A meeting place for local and visiting Jewish intellectuals and artists, K-H is run by Wojtek and Malgosia Ornat, who also operate a Jewish publishing house and bookstore. Both have Jewish roots. The Ornats’ first Jewish themed café, opened in 1992, was the first in Kazimierz, and their take on style, décor and menu have influenced many other cafes in the district and in other cities. Its front room is an intimate café/restaurant, but it also has larger dining rooms. Up flights of creaky stairs is a hotel with old-fashioned furnishings. In the shady garden, you can enjoy one of the best breakfasts in town — home-baked rolls, sour cherry jam, cheeses, fruit, eggs and hummus. Szeroka 6

Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz

The highly theatrical concept has always caused me to cringe a bit. The exterior of the café/restaurant is mocked up to look like a row of pre-war shops, with weathered-looking shop signs fronting the street like Benjamin Holcer’s Carpentry Shop and Chajim Cohen’s General Store. Big signs explain that the restaurant “takes us down memory lane to that bygone time.” The interior resembles an overstocked antique or curio shop crowded with items relating to the false-front shops, but it is surprisingly pleasant, achieving a sort of warm, fuzzy coziness. The menu is small but the duck with cherries comes recommended. Szeroka 1

Noah’s Ark (Arka Noego)

Noah’s Ark, one of the best known Jewish cafés, opened in 1995 and was long located in a historic building with vaulted ceilings on Szeroka. It recently moved and it may be unfair to judge it yet on its new incarnation — the lace tablecloths and candlesticks are in place, live klezmer bands play at night and the restaurant is full — but everything is still so new that it’s rather soulless. Its menu still offers dishes with names like “Cheese Soup of Jealous Sarah” and “Veal in Garlic Sauce for the Klezmers.” Corner of Izaaka and Kupa streets


This pleasant little café is an offshoot of the Festival of Jewish Culture. It has a low-key atmosphere, a library of Jewish books, and it serves exotic teas and coffees, kosher wine, and Israeli snacks such as pita, cheeses, olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Cheder aims to serve as an informal Jewish cultural center and hosts book presentations, readings, concerts and other events often keyed to contemporary Jewish culture. Jozefa 36


Sara used to be a forbiddingly stark, modern café in the Jewish Culture Center located in a renovated prayer house at the edge of Plac Nowy. It has undergone redecoration to make it much more cozy, but it still eschews nostalgic kitsch. Its roof garden has a terrific view of Plac Nowy and Kazimierz rooftops, in what may be the most secluded and secret spot in the district. At the center for Jewish culture, Meisels 17


Ariel was the first Jewish-style venue to open — back in 1992 when it was run by Wojtek and Malgosia Ornat (now the owners of Klezmer Hois). Today, it is the most blatantly commercial of them all. It is a rambling establishment, catering to groups. Its facade sports a huge menorah flanked by lions and dominates Szeroka. While the outdoor seating is pleasant enough, the dozens of paintings of rabbis and other Jewish imagery that decorate its interior strike me as prime examples off-the-shelf “Jewish.” Its little shop selling carved figurines of Jews and even refrigerator magnets of Jewish heads with stereotype profiles makes me particularly uncomfortable. There’s a large menu, but the rugelach we ordered were too stale to eat. Szeroka 18

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/the-jew-and-the-carrot/139814/#ixzz1S6xXB4Ug

Saturday, July 9, 2011

JHT makes a list of Top 20 Jewish blogs

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This blog has been included on a list of Top 20 Jewish Blogs by a web site that is a guide to schools offering Theology degrees online. It's a rather eclectic list, with some wellknown and lesser known blogs on a range of topics.
Learning about Judaism can seem daunting, but like many of the other major religions, it has key principles and practices that will help you get a handle on your busy modern lifestyle. If you’re converting to Judaism or looking to brush up on your history, these blogs provide resources that allow you to learn at your own pace.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Poland again

Krakow. One of my favorite images. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I realize I haven't posted for more than a week - a week so full of experiences that should go on this blog that I feel I'll never catch up!

I'm in Poland, where I have been at the annual Festival of Jewisg Culture, the great mix of performance and party where I try to come every year, and which I have written about so much.

As I type this, I am sitting in the cafe of the Galicia Jewish Museum, waiting for the start of the gala outdoor concert that mark the final Saturday night of the festival. They used to call it the Final Concert, but you can't say that really now, as further events go on on Sunday, Including some concerts. The official name is Shalom on Szeroka (Szeroka is the name of the main Jewish square in Krakow's Jewish district, Kazimierz). But it looks like this year they have gone back to calling it Jewish Woodstock -- which was a term used to describe the festival already in 1992....

I love the signage you see on the square - have not yest downloaded pictures but will post some examples. One sign advertises that the cafe in question takes "reservations for Shalom."

Reservations accepted for shalom...Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The weather is not great, chilly and rain is forecast. I plan to stay for a couple of hours, to meet up with some people, and then I am heading back to Oswiecim, an hour away, the town outside of which Auschwitz is located, where I have been staying - I'm writing about attempts by the town to redefine itself, something I first wrote about 18 years ago in the chapter "Snowbound in Auschwitz" in my 1994 book Upon the Doorposts of Thy House. A lot has changed, but also not....