Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shana Tova!

Synagogue ceiling, Siret, Romania. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Shana Tova to all my readers! Thanks for your attention and comments!

May you have a sweet, satisfying and scintillating New Year -- and beyond!

Friday, September 23, 2011

I Receive High Honor from Poland

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm honored and delighted to report that at a ceremony at the Polish Consulate in New York last night I received the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit  -- one of Poland's highest honors awarded to foreigners. Poland's President Komorowski presented the awards -- alas, I was not able to be in New York, but my friend who stood in for me took a video of the moment when my name was read out:

Given my history with Poland, going back more than 30 years, it is quite an honor! As my old friend and colleague Doug Stanglin reported in USA Today, this award comes 28 years after Poland's the-Communist regime arrested me, threw me in jail, interrogated me and expelled me on trumpted up "espionage" charges.

At Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, 1983
What a difference a few years and the fall of the Berlin Wall makes.

In 1983, at the height of martial law and the Solidarity worker's movement, Poland's communist-led government detained American reporter Ruth Ellen Gruber on suspicions of "crimes against the state."

The then-bureau chief for United Press International was hauled in for questioning by police, then expelled from the country.

Thursday, the Polish government was at it again, with a new proclamation aimed at Gruber.

This time, it bestowed on her the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the highest honors awarded to foreigners.
.Read full story HERE

Here's another story, by Polish Radio's English service:

Ruth Ellen Gruber, who remains an active commentator on Central European affairs, was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit by President Bronislaw Komorowski on Thursday at a ceremony at the Polish Consulate in New York.

Poland’s head of state is currently attending the UN General Assembly in New York, where he gave an address calling for solidarity among nations.

Gruber, who covered the Solidarity surge in Poland as a bureau-chief of United Press International, was deported from the country for “crimes against the state.”

As it was, Mr Komorowski was himself arrested by the Polish authorities during that period. As a Solidarity activist, he was interned after the declaration of Martial Law in December 1981.

Gruber was granted the award both for her coverage of the Polish bid for democracy, as well as her more recent work furthering Polish-Jewish understanding.

Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere), a collection of her articles, was recently published, as well as her work on the so-called Jewish revival in Poland – Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Central Europe. (nh/jb)
Read full story HERE

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nice photo web site on Eastern European Jewish traces

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've just come across the web site -- "a photographic documentation of Eastern European Judaica" by Charles Burns. It features a growing gallery of photographs and comments on Jewish heritage and heritage sites in Eastern Europe. It's worth a look.

He has arranged the photos by towns -- and there are dozens on the list. The are mainly in Ukraine and Poland -- but  he doesn't give the country or any other geographic location. I also wish he had included links to similar sites and other resources.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Italy -- Huge turnout for Jewish culture event in Rome

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Organizers report a huge "unprecedented" turnout for a Jewish culture extravaganza held in Rome Saturday night -- the "Night of the Kabbalah".

I wasn't able to attend, as I'm in Prague... but the Rome Jewish community reports that at one point more than 3,000 people stood in line to get in to the Jewish Museum for events. There were readings concerts, discussions, interviews etc etc etc

The event was organized as part of the annual  International Jewish book festival in Rome, which is on this week.
Part of the crowd. Photo: Rome Jewish Community

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Czech republic -- Ten Stars project

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I spent two hours yesterday meeting with Jan Kindermann in Prague to discuss "Ten Stars"  -- the ambitious and very impressive EU-funded  Jewish heritage preservation project he is coordinating for the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. The project  involves complex renovation and exhibition projects at ten synagogue buildings dotted all around the country. The towns include Úštěk, Jičín, Brandýs nad Labem, Plzeň, Březnice, Nová Cerekev, Polná, Boskovice, Mikulov and Krnov.

Krnov synagogue. Photo: 10 Hvezd project

"10 Stars" is a creative and very well thought out strategy of development and promotion that is funded by the Culture Ministry and an approxmately €10 million grant from the European Union. All the sites are owned by the Jewish community, and there are local partners in each place.

There is a comprehensive web site associated with the project -- but it's a pity that it is only in Czech, which means that awareness outside the country remains limited.

Planning took place in the approximately two years since the EU funding came through -- Jan showed me stacks of detailed files. Actual construction will being in October.

The idea is to create a network of 10 sites that will all be open to the public. Each site will house a permanent exhibition, based on one theme. Linked together, all the sites will in effect constitute a comprehensive Jewish museum spread out over the entire country. The "10 Stars" will issue a sort of "passport" (such as those used for other heritage and museums) to encourage visitors to take in all the components. Each time you visit one of the sites, you will get a stamp in the passport -- if you get stamps for all of them, you can turn it is and get some sort of "prize."

Thematic exhibits will include Jewish education, Jewish life and practice, Architecture, Industry, the Rabbinical world, etc.

Some of the sites on the list of Stars include places where synagogues  already have been restored. (Polna, Ustek, Boskovice, Jicin, etc)

Boskovice. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

In those places, the project will carry out much-needed maintenance (such as at the synagogue in Ustek, whose lower floor has suffered water damage) but will also restore a neighboring Jewish building for use as part of the exhibition complex -- in Ustek, this means the rabbi's house next to the synagogue. since the Ustek synagogue already includes a fine little reconstruction of the former school room, the permanent exhibition here will deal with Jewish education.

Ustek. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

In Plzen, where the Great Synagogue has undergone at least a partial restoration, the 10 Stars project will restore the Old Synagogue. And since Plzen is the only town on the list where there is an active Jewish community, the permanent exhibit here will deal with Jewish life and practice.

Many other synagogues have been  restored and are used for cultural purposed in the Czech Republic -- quite a few of these are owned by municipalities, not the Jewish community. But all should complement each other, meaning that CZ remains the country where a strategic vision and plan regarding Jewish heritage has had the most success, thanks  to pragmatic visionaries within the Jewish community as well as to local activists and a political and cultural climate that supports and welcomes involvement in these initiatives.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ukraine -- latest on the Golden Rose

Golden Rose ruins, December 2010. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Archeological excavation near Golden Rose, December 2010. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Misleading reports that suggested that the preserved ruins of the historic Golden Rose synagogue in L'viv were being destroyed to make way for a hotel went viral this past week, triggering an uproar. The G. R. ruins themselves are not under threat -- the envisaged hotel is on a nearby site. There are also archeological excavations going on around the Golden Rose site, which could be misconstrued as preparation for construction. Nonetheless, a longterm strategy for what to do with the Golden Rose is still not in place -- although I am glad to learn that plans for the implementation of the "Synagogue Square" memorial that includes the G.R. ruins and the place in front of them where another synagogue and a prayer house once stood seem to be moving forward.

I was on the international jury for the design competition for this and two other memorials marking Jewish sites in L'viv, and have reported on them in this blog.

Here is the story I ended up doing for JTA on the Golden Rose situation, based on numerous phone calls and email communication with various parties. Most people I know who have anything to do with L'viv Jewish heritage are happy that the controversial hotel plan has now come under scrutiny. But they are rather taken aback at the way a misleading and mis-headlined report can go viral and ignite such a firestorm.
Ukrainian mayor says synagogue ruins are not threatened

September 9, 2011

WARSAW (JTA) -- The mayor of the Ukrainian city of Lviv denied reports that the preserved remains of the historic Golden Rose synagogue were being destroyed to make way for a controversial hotel.

"I want to reassure everyone that no construction has ever taken place at the site of the Golden Rose," Lviv's mayor, Andriy Sadovyy, said in his statement.

"Construction of a hotel in the neighboring Fedorova Street, which has drawn criticism from some civic organizations’ representatives, has nothing to do with the site of the former Synagogue,” he said.

The mayor also said that plans were going ahead for new memorials to Lviv Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

The Golden Rose synagogue was largely destroyed during World War II; what remains are its foundations and a wall bearing arches.

On August 19, a Lviv district court ordered the Ukrainian Investment Company, the hotel's builder and investor, to "stop any preparatory and construction works on the plot" on Fedorova Street and "vacate building machines from this territory."

The site of the envisaged hotel does not directly touch the Golden Rose ruins. But critics charge that it could compromise a mikvah, the foundations of a former kosher butchery and other buildings in the old Jewish quarter.

“It is a disgrace,” said Meylakh Sheykhet, the Ukranian director of the Union Council of ex-Soviet Jews, in a statement. “They are building the hotel over the very places where there are Jewish artifacts buried and where the mikvah once stood.”

The mayor's press office said that his statement had been issued in response to an article by Tom Gross published by The Guardian newspaper and other international media outlets. Gross' article was headlined "Goodbye, Golden Rose."

In The Guardian, Gross wrote: "Last week I watched as bulldozers began to demolish the adjacent remnants of what was once one of Europe's most beautiful synagogue complexes, the 16th-century Golden Rose in Lviv."

Although the "adjacent remnants" to which Gross referred apparently did not mean the actual preserved ruins of the synagogue building, many readers were left with the impression that the synagogue itself was threatened. Other media outlets picked up the story and reported that the synagogue was being destroyed. Even Wikipedia at one point stated, "It [the Golden Rose Synagogue] was illegally demolished by the government of Ukraine in 2011 to build a hotel."

“After the publication of this information we have received inquiries from various countries of the world about the situation of the ruins of the Golden Rose Synagogue," Sadovyy said.

Sadovyy's statement noted that Lviv staged an international architectural competition last year for memorials to mark three sites of Jewish history in the city. Winners, announced in December, came from Israel, the United States and Germany.

One of the sites, the so-called Synagogue Square, includes the ruins of the Golden Rose and the space in front of it where another synagogue and a beit midrash once stood. Sadovyy said that an international group of experts "is at work" on this project. JTA has learned that Jewish representatives and city officials will meet in Lviv next month to discuss how and when to implement construction of the memorial there.

"It is extremely important to us, that, together with the Jewish community, civic organizations and everybody concerned with the fate of Lviv heritage, we resolve the issue of Synagogue fragments’ conservation as well as the issue of their worthy setting," Sadovyy said.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Poland -- Jedwabne monument defaced with swastikas

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I don't usually post about defacement or vandalism of monuments, but I can't ignore this one. The monument in Jedwabne to the hundreds of Jews  burned alive by their Polish neighbors when they herded them into a barn and set the barn on fire  in July 1941 has been defaced with swastikas and anti-semitic slogans.

Media reports said a policeman on patrol discovered the attack Wednesday night. The monument, which stands on the site of the barn where the Jews were killed, is not lit and stands on its own, away from town buildings. Jan Gross's book about the event, "Neighbors," touched off a huge and lacerating debate on Poland the Holocaust when it was published a decade ago.

Photographs in the Polish media showed anti-Semitic slogans and swastikas scrawled in big green letters on the obelisk-like monument and on the wall surrounding it. One slogan read, "No need to apologize for Jedwabne."

According to Polish news reports, regional police in Bialystok, who are investigating the incident, are linking this attack to other apparent neo-fascist vandal attack in the past few weeks in eastern and northeast Poland. These include scrawled anti-Semitic slogans and Nazi symbols found on the former synagogue in the town of Orla on August 10. Then, vandals broke into the Islamic Center in Bialystok, trashed the ground floor and attempted to set the building on fire. The next day, bilingual signs in Polish and Lithanian were found damaged in Punsk, a town near the border with Lithuania.

On Thursday, Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski issued a statement condemning the vandal attacks. "I utterly condemn these acts of criminality, alien to Polish tradition," he said. "There is no room for such behaviour in Polish society – even if it is the work of but a small group of extremists. We stand in solidarity with all those who feel personally affected by these despicable acts. I am convinced that the perpetrators will be swiftly tracked down and face the full extent of the law with regard to their actions."