Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Berlin -- Jewish Museum turns 10

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Quick reposting of an article on the Jewish Museum in Berlin -- which last month celebrated its 10th anniversary.

I well remember how, as the article puts it

Even in the late 1990s, people would wait for months to get a tour of the bare frame of the building with its dark stairwells, empty spaces and crooked walls. Paths and corridors branch off to symbolic destinations - to the outside, to freedom, to a 'Garden of Exile,' or to a dead end.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rudi Klein Speaking in DC next week on his new book

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I encourage anyone in the DC area to go hear my good friend Rudi Klein discuss his magnum opus, Synagogues in Hungary 1782-1918, at a talk at the Library of Congress on Monday. it's a fascinating subject and Rudi gives a lively talk! I posted about the book HERE when it came out.

Here's the press release for the talk:
“Synagogues in Hungary 1782-1918” Is Subject of Book Talk on Oct. 24

Architectural historian Rudolf Klein will discuss his new book, "Synagogues in Hungary 1782-1918" at noon on Monday, Oct. 24 in the European Division, Room LJ-250 of the Thomas Jefferson Building at 10 First Street S.E., Washington, D.C. The event, which is sponsored jointly by the European Division and the Hebrew Language Table, is free and open to the public; tickets are not required but seating is limited.

The focus of Klein’s book is the synagogues of Hapsburg Hungary and their transformation from 1782 through World War I. While the book is primarily architectural, it illuminates how synagogues served as vehicles for conveying values, identity and dreams that were at the core of Jewish existence in the Diaspora. The author deconstructs the traditional idea of synagogue style and introduces a matrix of formal and functional elements that constitute a synagogue.

Klein is a professor of modern architectural history at Szent Istvan University in Budapest. From 1996-2006, he was a professor of architectural history at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. The author of many books on Jewish architecture, Klein has focused on the diverse cultural heritage of the Jews of Hungary.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. The Library seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its website at and via interactive exhibitions on a personalized website at

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Austria -- Vienna Jewish Museum Reopening

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Just a brief note -- the Jewish Museum in Vienna re-opened Tuesday after being closed for about a year for a fullscale -- and controversial -- restoration and revamping of its exhibition. I have yet to see it, but the next time I go to Vienna (probably in early December) I will make sure to give a full report, as I am very curious to see the new facility. The opening (temporary) exhibition is a sure-fire crowd pleaser on 100 years of Jewish experience in Hollywood...

Here's a video of the opening ceremony:

The Jewish Museum Vienna is now open - Welcome back! from Jewish Museum Vienna on Vimeo.

As for now, according to one brief (and dry) article:
Not only the technical infrastructure and visitor facilities were renovated, but visitors will also be offered new and exciting insights into the collections − of Jewish past and present − as well as a new atelier for children and several other services.

Visitors will get to know whom the Jewish Museum Vienna has to thank for its collections and take a virtual tour through the synagogues that existed in Vienna before 1938. They will also be invited to view the new permanent exhibition, but also to Hollywood − the location where the first temporary exhibition will take place. This will be an introduction to the founding fathers of the film metropolis, the men who left their shtetl in Galicia and Ukraine to invent the American dream in Hollywood. This journey will take one across 100 years of Hollywood and trace this Jewish experience as far as the present."
I posted here earlier this year about the controversy over the museum renovation, in the process of which the holograms that had formed part of the museum's historic exhibition, mounted in 1994, were destroyed during their removal.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Poland - art and memory. Page of History Foundation

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I have to admit that I had never heard of the Page of History Foundation and its interesting project linking art and commemoration  until I read a recent  article in the Jewish Chronicle about an art work it just unveiled in the town of Gora Kalwaria (Yiddish Ger) south of Warsaw -- a sculpture depicting Adam and Eve by the Polish artist Bronislaw Krzysztof.

The year was 1990, Communism had just collapsed in Poland and John Pomian, a Pole living in the UK, was on a return visit to his country of origin with a Jewish friend, Casimir Stamirski.

As the pair passed through the town of Mogielnica, Mr Pomian, who served in the RAF during the war, was invited by Mr Stamirski to stop off in the town to see they could find any traces of the Jewish community that once thrived there.

There was nothing to be found. As they returned to their car, they spotted a large boulder bearing the names of locals who died during the Second World War. There were no Jewish names among them.

On his return to London, Mr Pomian decided something had to be done to commemorate the presence of Jews in Poland, who, he says, "have shared our history for centuries". In 1991, Mr Pomian set up the Page of History Foundation, which aimed to install works of art in towns where Jews once lived as gestures of remembrance "from Poles towards Polish Jews".
 Read full article HERE
The foundation's web site describes its purpose as commemorating the Jewish presence in Poland "through funding works of art authored by recognized artists and making these available to a wider public."

It states that the Foundation's four basic principles are:
--  this is to be a Polish gesture towards the Jews, who shared our history for centuries and made their contribution to the development of Polish culture and commercial life.

--  this is to be a completely private undertaking and we will not be seeking any money from public funds.

--  we will commemorate Polish Jews through works of art of the highest and lasting aesthetic merit.

-- the inspiration for these works will be the Old Testament, which is the sacred scripture of both Christians and Jews.
Besides in Gora Kalwaria, works of art have been put up since 1995 in Warsaw, Szydlow, Lodz and Zamosc.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Poland -- Concern over preservation of "forgotten" Holocaust sites

Gate at Auschwitz. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A fund-raising campaign for preservation of the infrastructure at Auschwitz has been achieving success. But focusing resources and attention on Auschwitz has raised concern that other Holocaust sites are crumbling. I wrote about this in a JTA article.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber  October 12, 2011 
ROME (JTA) -- Auschwitz, the most notorious camp in the Nazi killing machine, may soon claim success in its campaign to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust.

The foundation supporting the site in southern Poland has attracted tens of millions of dollars from donor countries, and the camp’s barracks and other buildings seem set to be preserved for decades to come. The museum memorial at the former Nazi death camp attracts more than 1 million visitors per year.

Some fear, however, that the concentration of resources and attention on Auschwitz could overshadow other preservation efforts and threaten the integrity or even the existence of the memorials and museums at lesser-known camps and Holocaust sites in Poland.

"Because Auschwitz is treated as the symbol of the Holocaust and the whole world is supporting only this museum, everybody in Poland, including the government, seems to think that this is enough," said historian Robert Kuwalek, a curator at the state-run Museum at Majdanek, the Nazi concentration camp and killing center near Lublin in eastern Poland. "The problem is deeper because it is the lack of basic knowledge that the Holocaust happened in forgotten sites like Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Chelmno.”

Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were the three killing centers of the so-called Operation Reinhard plan to murder 2 million Polish Jews in 1942 and 1943. During that operation, Kuwalek said, "more people were killed in a shorter time than in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the whole period that that camp functioned."

Despite their importance in the history of the Holocaust, these and other sites -- such as the forced labor camps at Stuffhof and Gross-Rosen -- are overlooked by the vast majority of visitors who want to learn about the Holocaust or pay homage to its victims firsthand. All are marked by memorials or even museums. But some are located in remote parts of the country, and most are in serious need of upkeep and preservation.

The museum at Sobibor, for example -- the site of John Demjanjuk's crimes -- was forced to close in June when funding from local authorities ran out. An estimated 167,000 to 250,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered at Sobibor, which is located in a remote part of eastern Poland. In May, a German court convicted Demjanjuk, now 91, of complicity in the murder of 28,000 Jews there.

"We simply realized that we could not afford to pay our bills this year, maintenance costs included," Marek Bem, a Sobibor museum spokesman, told the Krakow Post. "Without a stable budget we can't make any plans for the future."

The museum reopened July 1 after the Polish Culture Ministry announced that it would be reorganized as a state-run institution funded by the ministry.

"Auschwitz is the great exception to the rule," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Baker was the point man for the AJC in its cooperation with the Polish government to build a large and impressive monument and museum at Belzec, where 500,000 Jews were killed. The center opened in 2004.

"With all the focus on Auschwitz, there's a kind of irony," he added. "It is coming that Auschwitz is becoming a universal symbol. It is raising money from scores of countries. When the survivors pass on, one question will be how to retain the identity of Auschwitz as a place where Jews were killed. It can become a universal place of lessons about genocide."

The Auschwitz Foundation was set up in 2009 with the goal of raising $163 million and thus guaranteeing an annual interest income of about $6 million for the much-needed conservation of barracks, the ruins of gas chambers, and other artifacts and material.

To date, nearly 20 countries have announced support for the effort, bringing the total pledges to more than $122 million. Germany alone pledged about $82 million. Israel was the latest country to pledge funds, with a $1 million contribution pledged to the foundation a few days before Rosh Hashanah.

In a statement quoted by the Auschwitz museum website, Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev explained why the investment was seen as so important.

"The site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where over 1 million Jews were murdered during the Shoah, has become a key symbol of the Holocaust and of absolute evil," he said. "It is therefore a moral imperative to preserve the site's authenticity and legacy, and it is meaningful that Israel is participating in meeting that imperative."

The success to date of the Auschwitz fundraising campaign has been greeted with a cautious sigh of relief by scholars and preservationists who for years had raised the alarm about the threats to the site.

"It seems that the future of Auschwitz with regard to preservation is mostly secured," said Tomasz Kunciewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, an educational institution in the town of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located. "Several governments have already made significant contributions, and others are expected to follow suit.

"However, regarding the more 'forgotten' death camps, such as Sobibor, the situation seems to be acute and there should be similar international efforts made regarding fundraising as in the case of Auschwitz."

In contrast to the 1.3 million visitors to Auschwitz last year, only about 30,000 go annually to Belzec, in southeastern Poland, and 20,000 visit Sobibor. Even Majdanek, which has a large museum and many more original buildings and other infrastructure than Auschwitz, attracts only about 100,000 annual visitors. The Majdanek museum is still coming to grips with a 2010 fire that destroyed one of the original barracks, where some of its key collections were stored.

"Everybody talks about the problems at Auschwitz," Kuwalek said. "Nobody pays attention to the other places. I'm really afraid that they were forgotten and will be forgotten."

Determining how to deal with these sites, he added, "will be a discussion that is more and more important. There is a recognition that something has to be done, but no one knows how and what."
Read the story at JTA HERE

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

England -- Clean-up of Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I thought I'd add a report from Liverpool, England about the start of a huge clean-up operation at the historic but derelict Deane Road Jewish cemetery, which was founded in 1837 and operated until 1929.

Prominent Liverpool Jews such as David Lewis, the founder of the big department store Lewis’s, are buried here, but the site has long been overgrown and neglected, resembling many cemeteries in Eastern Europe. Fitful clean-up has been under way since 2002, but in December 2010, the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to award £494,000 to the cemetery to achieve full restoration of the site, with completion expected in Spring 2012. There is a web site devoted to the cemetery and the clean-up project, which will be posting before-during-and-after photographs of the progress and has maps, biographies and many other resources.
In the 19th century, a community of Jewish businessmen belonging to the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation changed the face of Liverpool's economy. Amongst these men and women were watchmakers, silversmiths, bankers, entrepreneurs, clerics, artists, politicians, medics and musicians. Their combined resourcefulness, wealth, activities and status helped Liverpool develop into one of the most thriving cities of the Victorian age.

For years, their graves stood desolate, obscured by trees, choked by poisonous plants, vandalised with graffiti and surrounded by refuse. Deane Road Cemetery, their final resting place, was derelict for a century. Following several failed restoration attempts, it seemed that conditions would never be able to be improved long-term. However, since 2002, an ongoing restoration project has gradually improved the physical state of the cemetery and applied for funding for a full restoration.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

World Monuments Fund 2012 Watch List -- two Jewish interest sites

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Two sites of Jewish interest are included in the 2012 Watch List issued by the World Monuments Fund. Initiated in 1996, the Watch List is published every two years to call international attention to cultural heritage around the globe that is at risk from the forces of nature and the impact of social, political, and economic change.

The 2012 list includes the Portuguese (Sephardic) Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk, in The Netherlands, famous for is distinctive carved tombstones.
Portuguese Jews settled in Amsterdam after fleeing persecution in Spain in the sixteenth century. Although northern Europe was tolerant during this violent period, the Portuguese Jews were refused a Jewish cemetery in the city. The community instead purchased land 31 miles from Amsterdam in 1614 at the confluence of the Bullewijk and Amstel rivers. Beth Haim covers 10 acres and has over 27,500 graves from over four centuries. The Portuguese Jewish community thrived in Amsterdam until the early twentieth century, and Beth Haim, which means “house of life,” is replete with refined carvings and inscriptions devoted to the dead.

The location of the cemetery at the confluence of two rivers has led to significant water issues, compounded by a lack of regular maintenance. The local community today is committed to the preservation of the cemetery, but resources are limited. Open for public tours and in close proximity to Amsterdam, the local stewards of the site strive to raise public awareness and preserve the site for future generations.
The other site is in Macedonia -- the ruins of the ancient city of Stobi, which include traces of two synagogues, one on top of the other: one dates from the 2nd or 3rd century, the other from the 4th century. Among the finds is a well-preserved mosaic floor with Jewish symbolism.
Stobi lies at the confluence of the Crna and Vardar Rivers, and was an important urban, military, administrative, trade, and religious center of the Roman and early Byzantine empires. Thought to have been first inhabited in the sixth century B.C., significant urban development and demographic expansion occurred from the first to third centuries A.D. and Stobi continued to develop and expand until it was abandoned around the turn of the seventh century. The archaeological remains within the city walls occupy 27 hectares on three terraces that slope towards the Crna; suburbs and cemeteries are located outside the city walls. The site contains 26 exposed buildings, including a theater, synagogue, palaces, houses, basilicas, and baths, and has been excavated for nearly a century. Due to poor site drainage, Stobi is constantly threatened by flooding and rising subterranean water, and lacks an integrated plan for research, conservation, interpretation, and community engagement.

Stobi is one of the most significant and well-known archaeological sites in the Republic of Macedonia and provides insight into the historical events, material culture, and urban planning of the Hellenistic, Roman, and early Christian settlements in the area. A management plan is needed to guide continued research, protection, and tourism development.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Italy --Exhibition in Rome

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

What sounds like an interesting photographic exhibition opens tomorrow, Oct. 6, in Rome at the "House of Memoria and History". It's an exhibit of 300 photographs taken by Maurizio Agostinetto during a 960-kilometer trip by bicycle from the Brenner Pass to Auschwitz, retracing the route of 26 Jewish deportees during the Holocaust, including Primo Levi.