Saturday, November 26, 2011

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

Monument at Terezin. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

Czech Republic -- a Zionist take on touring Jewish Prague

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

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

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

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

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

Read full story HERE

Saturday, November 19, 2011

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

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

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

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

as well as

Friday, November 18, 2011

Slovenia -- Exhibit in Maribor About Jewish WWI soldiers

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

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

Stanjel gravestone. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine -- Report on a Jewish Heritage Tour

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

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Belarus -- Synagogue vandalized

File photo from

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

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

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

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