Saturday, December 15, 2012

Czech 10 Stars Project

Interior of the synagogue in Mikulov, one of the 10 Stars sites, which is undergoing restructuring as part of the project. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

I've written an article for JTA about the Czech Republic's 10 Stars project -- an innovative Jewish heritage project that will amount to a nationwide Jewish Museum with 10 thematic exhibits located in 10 restored synagogue in 10 different towns and cities around the country: Úštěk, Jičín, and Brandýs nad Labem to the north; Plzeň and Březnice to the west; Nová Cerekev and Polná in the south-central part of the country; Boskovice, Mikulov and Krnov to the east..

The project is being coordinated by the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, which owns the buildings, with 85 percent of the funding coming from a $14 million grant from the European Union. About 15 percent of the financing is being provided by the Czech Culture Ministry.

“It’s actually one museum scattered around the country,” said Tomas Kraus, the executive director of the federation.

“The exhibition in each site will be linked to one certain phenomenon in Jewish history, culture, religion, traditions,” he said. “The idea is that if you visit one of the sites, even by chance, you will realize that there are nine other parts of the exhibition, so you will want to visit them, too.”

To encourage this, 10 Stars will issue a “passport” that can be stamped each time a person visits one of the synagogues in the network. When all 10 stamps are filled in, the passport can be redeemed for a prize.


10 Stars is due to open in October 2013, around the time of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. But it so far has received little publicity -- even its web site is only in Czech, limiting the audience.

I have visited a number ot these sites already: some of them were already restored in earlier years but are now undergoing maintenance and other work. Exhibits that already existed in the synagogues at Boskovice, Mikulov, Ustek and Polna are being revamped or expanded as part of the 10 Stars program.

In Ustek, the rabbi's house next door to the restored synagogue will be used to house an exhibit on Jewish education. The restored Jewish schoolroom, already installed in the basement of the synagogue, will remain as part of the new exhibit.

Synagogue in Ustek
 Ustek synagogue. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Recreated Jewish schoolroom installed in Ustek synagogue basement. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Friday, December 7, 2012

New books on Jewish heritage in Czech Republic and Poland

Ark in restored synagogue in Jicin, CZ. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This also ran in my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

I’ve got my hands on two new books that deal with the restoration of historic Jewish sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Both are oversized, both are bilingual (English and the local language)and both feature a combination of text and photographs.

Both, too, are, in a sense, celebrations of the restoration of Jewish heritage sites in those countries since the fall of communism in 1989. But they are quite different in scope, design and presentation.

Brány spravedlivých. Synagogy Moravy, Slezska a Čech - The gates of the righteous. Synagogues of Moravia, Silesia and Bohemia, by Jaroslav Klenovsky and photographer Ludmila Hajkova (FotoStudio H, Usti nad Labem), is a gorgeous coffee-table book that examines in some detail 54 of the synagogues that now stand in the Czech Republic, chosen to illustrate different architectural and decorative styles as well as history.

Klenovsky, based in Brno, is a pioneer in the post-World War II and post-Communist documentation of Jewish heritage sites in Czech lands, especially in Moravia, and has written widely about synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish quarters.

The synagogues in the book are arranged in chronological order, from the 13th century AltNeu (Old-New) synagogue in Prague, to the modern synagogue in Liberec, dedicated in 2000.

Several pages are devoted to each building: an explanatory text sketches the history of the synagogue and local Jewish community and also provides an architectural description. Lush color photos depict both the interior and exterior of each building, as well as details, and each is also accompanied by drawings showing the floor plan of the building as well as its location in the city.

The Nazis destroyed 70 synagogues, but 105 more were destroyed under Communist rule. The Czech Republic and its Jewish community hold an enviable record in post-Communist preservation of Jewish heritage sites: 65 synagogues have been reconstructed since 1989. (The Jubilee Synagogue in Prague hosts a permanent exhibition on restorations that opened in June of this year. It focuses on heritage sites that come under the jurisdiction of the Jewish Community of Prague — which is responsible for the management of 28 synagogues and 159 cemeteries in three regions of Bohemia. The Prague Jewish Community web site has a section with an interactive map of the heritage sites owned and maintained by the community.)

Currently, seven synagogues in CZ are used as Jewish houses of worship, 35 are Christian churches, 43 are used as museum or for cultural purposes, 15 warehouses and storage facilities, 20 are under reconstruction or without use.

Preserving Jewish Heritage in Poland – in which I am pleased to say I have an essay – was officially launched Nov. 4 in Warsaw.

Co-financed by the Polish Foreign Ministry (which will distribute copies of it), it was published explicitly to mark the 10th anniversary of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, or FODZ. It highlights FODZ’s work over the past decade and presents examples of FODZ’s synagogue and cemetery restoration projects, such as the restoration of the Renaissance synagogue in Zamosc, as well as its educational programs and its Chassidic Route tourism itinerary.

Synagogue in Zamosc after restoration. (Photo: FODZ)
The full text and photos of the book can be downloaded from the FODZ web site.

The focus of the book, thus, is more on policy and process than on the buildings or cemeteries themselves.

In one of the chapters, FODZ CEO Monika Krawczyk traces the history of the Foundation, which was born out of a compromise agreement following the heated debates over who should obtain restituted property that took place after Poland passed its 1997 law regulating the relations between the state and Jewish communities in Poland. A main focus of that law was restitution of pre-WW2 Jewish communal property. An agreement in 2000 led to the establishment of FODZ, granting it territorial jurisdiction for restitution and Jewish heritage in those parts of Poland where no active Jewish community now exists. This includes most of eastern and southeastern Poland.

In her essay, Veronika Litwin of FODZ notes that it was not until that law was passed that “hope for change began to emerge” that the widespread neglect of Jewish sites since World War II might be redressed.

As for my own essay? It's a personal look back on my nearly 25 years of involvement with Jewish heritage issues in Poland.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I Speak about Jewish Heritage in Spectacular Florence Venue

 By Ruth Ellen Gruber

(This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal)

I had the pleasure and privilege Sunday of giving a presentation about the Jewish Heritage Europe web site project in Florence, in one of the city's most prestigious and spectacular venues -- the Salone dei Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of Florence, a massive building with a distinctive tower that was originally built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Me & Pope Leo X. (Photo: Angelo Pontecorboli)

I was part of a five-person panel speaking on various aspects of "Developing Jewish Cultural Heritage in Europe." Our round-table was part of a huge, weeklong biennale on Cultural and "Landscape" Heritage sponsored by the Fondazione Florens. Other people on the panel included Giuseppe Burschtein, an IT specialist and Jewish heritage activist in Florence; Renzo Funaro, an architect who heads the "Opera del Tempio" project of restoration and promotion of Jewish heritage in Florence and elsewhere in Tuscany; Dora Liscia Bemporad, the director of the Jewish Museum in Florence; and Annie Sacerdoti, a pioneer of Jewish heritage documentation and activism in Italy and one of the spearheads of the European Day of Jewish Culture.

The moderator of our panel was the journalist Wlodek Goldkorn -- who pointed out at the start of the event that this session was probably the first time that a Jewish program (other than a commemorative event) had taken place in the magnificent hall, a grandly huge space dating from 1494, richly decorated with a gorgeous painted ceiling, sculptures and paintings from the 16th century.

The view from the podium

We had a pretty good crowd -- and nobody left in the middle! Given the mix of people on our panel, presentations included both local and Europe-wide issues -- and none of us had more than 10 minutes or so to speak.

For my talk, I had an internet connection projected on two immense screens. I presented Jewish Heritage Europe as a tool that is already functional, attracting 4,000-5,000 people a month. I took the audience on a tour of the site, describing both the static content for 48 countries -- and also the dynamic content -- the newsfeed, calendar, and the In Focus section.

I had wanted to highlight some other web sites that bring Jewish heritage online -- such as Judaica Europeana and Virtual Shtetl. But, alas, there wasn't time.

You will just have to go to all those web sites and explore!

(Photo: Angelo Pontecorboli)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Travel Article on Tallinn Estonia

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

(This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal)

I've never been to Tallinn, but by all accounts it is a beautiful city. Hadassah Magazine runs a richly detailed travel piece on Tallinn, highlighting in particular detail its Jewish sites and history. The article is by Jono David -- a photographer who has roamed the world documenting Jewish heritage sites (his current project is a photo documentation of Jewish sites in Africa).

You can browse Jono's vast archive of more than 61,000 images from 87 countries and territories at his web site:

In his Tallinn piece, Jono writes: "Many of the Jewish remnants of the past have few or no markers. During much of the Soviet era, the community maintained a prayer house at 9 Magdalena Street, not far from Old Town. Originally a warehouse, the extant building is in a derelict state. A prayer room at 23 Kreutzwaldi Street preceded it between 1946 and 1966, but it was demolished to make room for a hotel."

But he provides information on what there is still to see and describes today's living Jewish community and its institutions.

You can find even more information on Tallinn and Estonia on the Estonia pages of the Jewish Heritage Europe web site.

Friday, October 19, 2012

In Budapest, a Different Kind of Jewish "Jewish" Cafe

Mazel Tov... Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

Thanks to CEU professor Daniel Monterescu for introducing me to the Mazel Tov cafe in Budapest's 13th district. On first look, it seems similar to the "Jewish style" cafes in Krakow and elsewhere in eastern Europe, where sepia-colored shtetl nostalgia is the norm....But at Mazel Tov the decor is actually very different.

Inside Mazel Tov. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Outside, the cafe's name is written in Hebrew-style letters, and inside, its walls are covered by pictures -- as at the "Jewish-style" cafes elsewhere that I have visited and written so much about in the past.

But these are not the "usual" pictures of bearded sages, rabbis, antique-style Jewish genre scenes and the like.

In the Ariel Cafe, Krakow. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Instead, Mazel Tov's walls are covered by pictures of living Jews -- Jewish celebrities -- from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to Woody Allen to Barbra Streisland, Leonard Bernstein and even the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller.

On the surface, it looks similar. But the focus is totally different from the other places. (Though in Krakow my favorite Jewish-style cafe, Klezmer Hois, does also include a lot of pictures of real, live Jews on its walls -- most if not all of whom have been patrons of the establishment.)

Judaica for sale in Mazel Tov. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Mazel Tov is located in what was a modern Jewish neighborhood (pre-WW2) and on a street where there is a small synagogue that still operates. It is run by a Jewish woman, there are some Judaica items on sale, Israeli pop music was playing, and there is a mezuzah at the door.

But it's not kosher -- on the menu are ham and cheese sandwiches. (But this is also typically secular Budapest Jewishness.....)

Me in Mazel Tov cafe. Photo: Dan Monterescu

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Medieval Jewish Banquet in Italy

Honey-nut sweets served on bay leaves. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

Biancomangiare, lentil soup, twice-roasted goose with garlic, sweet and sour baked onion salad, Ippocrasso (spiced white wine), honey-nut sweets.

These were the dishes served at a Medieval Jewish banquet that recreated a meal that Jews in Italy might have eaten in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The event took place in Bevagna, a stunningly beautiful town in Italy's Umbria region -- whose historic center looks much the same as it did way back then.

Entering Bevagna. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The dinner, in a so-called Medieval Tavern in the heart of the town, capped a little academic conference on medieval Jewish life in Bevagna. I wrote about the dinner for JTA, in an article that also included the recipes for the dishes we ate. The first course was Biancomangiare, a puree made from chicken breast, almonds, rice flour, rose water and spices.

It was followed by a spicy lentil soup and then the main course: heaping platters of crisp, twice-roasted goose with garlic served with a warm salad of baked onions in sweet and sour sauce. The meal was rounded out by a form of spiced white wine called ippocrasso and honey-nut sweets served on fresh bay leaves.
"We love medieval cooking," said Alfredo Properzi, one of the dinner organizers. Properzi, a local doctor, belongs to a civic association that fosters study and re-enactment of life in the Middle Ages. The recipes for the dinner, he said, came from cookbooks of the period. 
"One of the big differences was the spices that they used -- much more than today," he said. "Also, medieval cooks liked to use various spices to color food as well as season it.

The main speaker at the conference -- and my partner across the dining table -- was Ariel Toaff, an emeritus professor of Medieval and Rennaissance history at Bar Ilan University, who is the son of the reitred, longtime chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff.

Ariel Toaff and a "medieval" waitress. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ariel's wonderful book, Love, Work and Death: Jewish Life in Medieval Umbria, is one of my favorite books -- partly because I spend a lot of my time in Umbria (where so very few Jews live today that when my entire family is with me, we make up one of the major Jewish centers in the region) and partly because the book reads like a spicy novel, set in Assisi, Orvieto, Bevagna, Todi, Perugia, Terni, Foligno -- and other towns that I'm very familiar with.

The chapter headings say it all: "Sex, Love, and Marriage;" "Love of Life and Intimations of Mortality;" "Meat and Wine;" "The House of Prayer;" " Outcasts from Society;" "Witchcraft, Black Magic, and Ritual Murder;" "Converts and Apostates;" "The Pattern of Discrimination;" "Merchants and Craftsmen;" "Doctors and Surgeons;" "Banks and Bankers."

Ariel also authored Mangiare alla Giudia, an influential history of Jewish food and eating in Italy, which has not been translated into English. Both books served as inspiration for the Bevagna dinner. (See an article on Italian Jewish cuisine in English by Ariel by clicking HERE.)

"The dinner organizers asked me what would be a typical dish for the menu, and I immediately told them goose because goose was, so to speak, the Jewish pig," he said. "It had the same function for the Jewish table as the pig did for non-Jews. Every part of the animal was used, including for goose salami, goose sausage and goose ‘ham,’ and foie gras was also a Jewish specialty."
Like today, he said, Jews in medieval times generally ate what the non-Jewish population did, adapting local recipes to the rules of kashrut. 
"Biancomangiare was also made sweet with milk, pine nuts, almonds and raisins," he said. "But if it was served with a meat dish, the Jews would substitute almond milk for dairy milk."
Also like today, certain dishes became Italian Jewish favorites.
"Lentils were typically Jewish, and lentil soup was commonly eaten in the 14th and 15th centuries," Toaff said. "Being round, they symbolized the cycle of life. Another typical Jewish cooking style was sweet and sour, like the baked onion salad."

No Jews live today in Bevagna, but the city actively promotes its medieval history with festivals, pageants, Medieval dinners, and other events. The mayor told me that she was now thinking of how to add a Jewish component to all this -- and maybe even get a kosher winery started up.

There is particularly rich archival documentation about Bevagna's most prominent Jewish family in the 15th and early 16th centuries, the extended clan of the banker Abramo. Ariel Toaff recounts the story in great detail in "Love, Work and Death." it is a dramatic family saga that has a sort of rags to riches to rags again narrative framework.

Abramo owned banks in three towns, as well as a mansion, investment properties, farmland and many other holdings. But after his death in 1484, the family suffered a series of tragic setbacks, including deaths, bank failures and even a trumped-up claim by a young Bevagna boy that the family had lured him to their home and crucified him over Easter in 1485. Though apparently linked to a default on a loan to the Abramo bank by the boy’s mother, the allegations led to the banishment of several Abramo family members.

Click here to read full JTA article

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revisiting a Secret Garden Jewish Cemetery in Czech Republic

Looking out from the cemetery. All photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber  

(This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Lost Angeles Jewish Journal.)
I spent part of this weekend at a bluegrass workshop in the little town of Male Svatonovice, in the north of the Czech Republic, near the Polish border. I was only there to observe, not to join the hundred or so students learning banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass, so I took time to drive half an hour through the back roads to revisit one of my favorite Jewish cemeteries -- the isolated walled graveyard at the tiny hamlet of Velka Bukovina.

The village is too small to appear even on many large scale maps. The Jewish population disappeared in the early 20th century as Jews moved out to bigger cities.

When I first visited, six years ago, while doing the update for my book National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel, I stayed at a charming pension that was sort of near by. The son of the family who ran it helped me find the cemetery -- it is set alone in the middle of farm fields. There did not seem to be any way actually to reach the cemetery other than tramping across the field, so that is what I did. It was the height of summer, and I waded through maybe half a mile of waist-high weeds, grass, and, I guess, hay. (Thankful that I was wearing my cowboy boots.)

This time, the going was much easier. First, I could see the cemetery int he distance from the main road. And I easily found the one-lane paved road that led up near by it. I parked at the side, and found a sort of vehicle track through the grass leading to the cemetery. It was an easy path to walk. Could I have totally missed it when I went there the first time? Or is it new since I was there?

Whatever. I easily reached the cemetery and found the gate latched but not locked. Inside the absolute rectagular wall, it was just as I remembered -- a secret garden of a place, rather well maintained (I saw a wheelbarrow propped in a corner of the space) with irregular rows of gravestones exhibiting vividly carved inscriptions and decorations, many with a decidedly rustic touch -- the oldest date back to the mid-18th century. In the distance, I could see the autum colors in the nearby forest.

All photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber


What I still consider one of the most moving aspects of this cemetery is also still there -- a park bench placed outside the gate, looking out at the fields. Does anyone ever ever ever come to use it? To sit and remember the community? To reflect on a world of changes?

All photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lack of Funding Closes Museum Housing Sarajevo Haggadah

Sarajevo Haggadah in bank vault, 2001. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the LA Jewish Journal

The Bosnia-Herzegonia National Museum in Sarajevo, where the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah is kept, is being forced to close for lack of funds -- the latest in a number of major cultural institutions in Sarajevo forced to shut their doors due to political wrangling and the central government's halting of funds for culture.

In my brief JTA story I write that Jakob Finci, the longtime leader of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, said the museum, founded in 1888, would close on Thursday due to “lack of money, financing and support from the State.”

He called the decision “tragic,” but said he did not fear for the Sarajevo Haggadah, which, he said would be kept in a safe place.

The haggadah, handwritten in Spain in the 14th century and brought to Sarajevo after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, has been owned by the museum since 1894.
During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, the lavishly illustrated, 109-page book became a symbol of the shattered dream of multi-ethnic harmony in Bosnia. After the war ended in 1995, the U.N. Mission, along with the Bosnian Jewish Community, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the Yad Hanadiv and Wolfenson Foundations, facilitated a $150,000 project to restore the Haggadah and prepare a secure, new, climate-controlled room in which to put it on display. 
This was opened with a gala ceremony in December 2002. But Finci told JTA that, in recent years, the actual Haggadah was only displayed on four days a year – all the rest of the time a facsimile was shown.

In 2001, before it went on public display, I had the rare opportunity of viewing the Haggadah in the underground bank vault in Sarajevo where it was kept, when I accompanied a JDC delegation to Bosnia.

A bank functionary led us through corridors and down narrow stairways into a basement vault lined with safety deposit boxes.

Wrapped in white tissue paper, the Haggadah was removed from a sealed, blue metal lock box and placed on a table.

Wearing clean, white gloves, a staff member from the Sarajevo national museum then opened the book, turning over page after page to reveal the elegant Hebrew calligraphy and brilliantly colored and gilded illustrations.

An article in April in The Art Newspaper provided some background to the museum crisis.

The National Gallery closed to the public last September. It had been without a director and chief financial officer since May. The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also in Sarajevo, was forced to shut its doors on 4 January after running out of money for maintenance and heating. Staff at both institutions have worked without pay since the respective closures.

The National and University Library, which has had no heating since early January, is next on the list of anticipated closures. [...]
The current crisis is a result of national elections held in 2010, which failed to create a coalition with a parliamentary majority. Without a functioning government, there was no funding for cultural institutions last year.

Museum administrators in Sarajevo say that grants from the new government, formed this February, will not solve the structural problem affecting the institutions. They believe that the institutions need to be funded at a national level if they are to operate effectively in the future. They also want a national cultural ministry to be created.

For further information on the culture crisis in Bosnia see the web site 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Shana Tova!

Jewish themed ceramic souvenirs at a shop in the medieval Jewish quarter of Trani, Italy. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

With still a week to come in the autumn holiday season, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish all my readers a sweet, satisfying and stimulating new year -- and beyond!

I've taken a break from posting this past month or so, but I look forward to getting back into the swing of things very soon and posting regular reports, commentaries, images and links.

Meanwhile -- for a growing range of resources and news reports, please take a look at the web site that I am coordinating as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Europe:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Detailed look at a Jewish cemetery in Ukrainian Transcarpathia

Photo courtesy of

Bottom of same gravestone. Epitaph reads: "Here is hidden the virtuous and praised woman, whose hand was open to the poor [Prov 31:20 in free rendering], Lady Scheindel, daughter of Moshe of the blessed memory. Deceased on Hoshana Rabbah [the last day of Sukkot] in 5605 [1845]. May her soul be bound in the bondage of the living." Photo and translation courtesy of 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The elegant and informative riowang blog runs a very nice post -- with lots of photos -- about the Jewish cemetery in Tekovo/Tekehaza  in Ukrainian Transcarpathia.

I have already linked to the very detailed and richly illustrated riowang posts about the Jewish cemetery and synagogue in Lesko, Poland - and since the author gave me permission to use his photos, I am re-posting some photos of Tekovo/Tekehaza here.

The post  comments in particular on the large number and variety of gravestones marked by candlesticks.

Riowang noted that in Tekovo/Tekehaza
it is worth noting a special gravestone motif, which almost has its own school in the cemetery of Tekeháza: the large and diverse number of geometric candelabra. The presence of candelabra – as we have already seen in the cemetery of Lesko – is not unique in itself. We meet with them almost only on women’s graves, praising the Friday night candle-lighting and, beyond that, the light and warmth of the family home as well as the virtuous woman maintaining it. What is interesting in Tekeháza, however, is the large number and many variations of stylized, geometric candelabra.
The many photographs on the post show candlesticks that are geometric and braided at the same time, as well as some that look like plants:
Once speaking about the candelabra, it’s worth to point out a special local form of this motif. About these gravestone decorations it is difficult to decide whether they are three-branch candelabra or stylized three-leaved plants.

For the stone pictured above, it notes:

On the top, two doves with their heads turned back surround a richly decorated seven-branch candelaber of an intertwined stem. The dove is a symbol of piety, while the candelaber of Friday evening and of the family home. At the bottom of the gravestone a snake is waving. The snake is a relatively rare motif on Jewish graves. In the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw we find an example of the snake biting its own tail, a symbol of eternity, while in the likewise Polish Jewish cemetery of Żabno, the snake attacking the lion on one of the stones represents the death. It is likely that the snake in Tekeháza is somehow related to this latter one. 

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

U.S. Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal Visits her Family's Heritage Sites in Poland

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Hannah Rosenthal, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, took time out on a trip to Poland and Germany this month to honor her ancestors at sites of her own family history.

Rosenthal’s family came from what is now Bytom, Poland. All were murdered at Auschwitz in 1942 except for her father, who was the last Rabbi in Mannheim, Germany, and survived interment in Buchenwald.

In a post Tuesday on the State Department’s official blog, Rosenthal recounted that she visited sites in Bytom where her family had lived and also visited the Jewish cemetery there, hoping to find the graves who her grandmother and uncle, who had died before World War II “and therefore would have graves.”

Visiting Bytom, she wrote, was “both exhilarating and devastating.”

When we went to see the gorgeous synagogue, where Dad had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and loved to tell us great stories about, there was no synagogue. Just a dilapidated gray apartment building. When we went to the cemetery, we hoped to find the graves of my grandmother and uncle who died before the war—and therefore would have graves. But Polish activist Wlodzimierz Kac had something else in mind. He had researched my family and ended up showing us 18 Rosenthal graves. My grandmother Selma, my uncle Martin, great and great-great grandparents, great and great-great uncles, and aunts and cousins. Eighteen Rosenthals who we could honor. I am the last Rosenthal in my family. 
Bytom now has not a single Jew and hardly any Jewish presence. Where once a bustling community thrived, there is not one single survivor. We visited two of the places Dad’s family had lived. He had described his home’s music room and parlors. Now the buildings are dark, dank, depressing. And mostly empty. We wondered how we could help restore a school or a prayer house, or clean up the cemetery, when there is no one to keep it up. The absence is profoundly present.

During her trip to Poland, she wrote, she met Jewish community leaders and representatives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, and the Judaica Foundation.

I learned about the present-day Jewish community in Poland and civil society engagement on Jewish history and culture. These organizations are doing important work, fostering interaction between Jews and non-Jewish Poles through dialogue, education, and cultural exchange. Several programs focus specifically on fostering interaction among Polish non-Jewish and Jewish youth. It was moving to meet the extraordinary people working to keep the memory and spirit of Poland’s absent Jews alive.

On July 9, during her visit to Germany, Rosenthal took part in a ceremony in Mannheim at which a “stumbling stone” memorial was dedicated to her father. Stumbling stones are plaques the size of cobblestones that are placed on the street in front of houses in which Holocaust victims and survivors lived.

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

The replica of the Neolog Synagogue in Bratislava, next to the highway. Photo(c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve already posted on this blog about the new ITunes app called Oshpitzin that uses smart phone technology to teach and tour pre-WW2 Jewish Oswiecim—the town where Auschwitz was built—which before the Holocaust was a majority Jewish town.

In this JTA story I write about how this project and the Lost City project in Bratislava—which puts back on the map the old Jewish quarter of the Slovak capital, which was utterly demolished by the Communist authorities in the late 1960s to built a new highway and bridge across the Danube. Centerpiece of the Lost City project is a replica of the destroyed Neolog synagogue, on the spot where it really did once stand.

In Poland and Slovakia, restoring awareness of a forgotten Jewish past 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber · July 23, 2012 
KRAKOW, Poland (JTA)—Thanks to a new iTunes app, new tourist routes and a towering replica of a destroyed synagogue, two “lost” Jewish cities in Europe are back on the map. 
One is the historic Jewish quarter of Bratislava, the Slovak capital, which survived World War II only to be demolished by communist authorities in the late 1960s. The other is Oshpitzin—the prewar Yiddish name for Oswiecim, the once mainly Jewish town in southern Poland where the Auschwitz death camp was built. 
The two projects differ in scope and structure, but their goals are the same: to restore awareness of the forgotten Jewish past in an effort to foster a better understanding of the present—for tourists and the locals. 
Read full story here

Monday, July 16, 2012

Wonderful Exhibit in Warsaw of Gwozdziec synagogue panels

A version of this post appeared on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

Preview of the Exhibition. Photo courtesy of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A wonderful exhibition opens today at the Arkady Kubickiego (Kubicki Arcade) of the Royal Castle in Warsaw and runs til the end of the month—the colorful ceiling panels that have been painted this summer as part of the Gwozdiec synagogue reconstruction project.

The reconstruction of an 85 percent scale model of the tall peaked roof and richly decorated inner cupola of the wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec (now in Ukraine) is a project of the Handshouse Studio and the forthcoming Museum of the History of Polish Jews—I wrote about the first stages of the project last summer, when students, master timber-framers and volunteers gathered in Sanok, southeastern Poland, to build the structure, using hand tools that would have been used centuries ago. The reconstructed roof and cupola will be a major installation at the new Museum, which is due to open in the autumn of 2013.
Its elaborate structure and the intricate painted decoration on the cupola ceiling will reproduce a form of architectural and artistic expression that was wiped out in World War II, when the Nazis put the torch to some 200 wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe. Many of them, like that in Gwozdziec, were centuries old and extraordinarily elaborate, with tiered roofs and richly decorative interior painting. 
The Gwozdziec Synagogue, built in the 17th and 18th centuries, was a “truly resplendent synagogue that exemplified a high point in Jewish architectural art and religious painting,” the architectural historian Thomas C. Hubka, an expert on the building, has written.

This summer, at workshops held in synagogues around Poland, teams of students and volunteers have been carrying out the colorful, elaborate paintings that cover in the interior of the cupola—and it is these that will be displayed for the next two weeks in Warsaw.

It’s terrific—and fascinating—work, and this will be a rare chance to see the panels up close before they are mounted as part of the cupola installation!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Smartphone App for Oshpitzin/Oswiecim

A version of post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The latest Jewish travel app for smartphones and tablets takes you to a place that no longer exists except in memory: Oshpitzin.

Oshpitzin was the Jewish name for Oswiecim, the small town in southern Poland where the Nazis built Auschwitz which had a majority Jewish population before the Holoc
aust -- I’ve written a lot about the town and its difficulty in balancing its Holocaust identity with its pre-WW2 past, starting in the mid 1990s, when I dealt with the issue in the long chapter “Snowbound in Auschwitz” in my book Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today, which was a sort of diary and meditation on nearly four days blocked in Oswiecim by a freak snowfall…...

Last year, the Auschwitz Jewish Center—a prayer, study and research center in Oswiecim—launched a project aimed at putting Oshpitzin back on the map. It started with a printed guidebook and followed on withan interactive web site,, that includes a map, pictures, history, testimonies and more.

Now, the Center as followed through with a smartphone App that can be used by armchair travelers as well as actual visitors to the town. It has an interactive map, videos, audio, photographs, etc.

Most of the sites the project—be it the guide book, the web site or the App—describes no longer exist. But it all entails a way to learn about the Jewish history (and general history) of a town that existed for hundreds of years before “Auschwtiz” changed its identity from a place of Jewish life into a place of Jewish murder.

As of now, the App is available in the iTunes store for IPhone and IPad—but it will soon be available on Android, too.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Staying in Krakow

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've just been to Krakow for the last few days of the annual Jewish Culture Festival - the best party around. This year I did a couple of lectures to groups who were attending (and observing) the festival. It led to some reminiscing with friends who -- like me -- have been going to the Festival since the early 1990s.

One of the things we talked about what where we had stayed in Krakow in those early years -- because, until the late 1990s, there were very few if any places to stay in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter where the Festival now takes place. Nowadays, there is a wide variety of choices all over the city -- from top flight hotels to inexpensive hostels and rental rooms and apartments.

In the early years, the artists at the Festival used to be put up at the Forum Hotel -- I should say, the late Forum Hotel, because the Forum as it was then does not exist anymore. It is a hulking empty relic on the Vistula that serves as a prop for huge advertising posters....

I used to stay at the Hotel Pollera, an old-fashioned place in the Old Town near the main market square, or Rynek, about a 20-minute walk (or more) from Kazimierz.

For the past dozen years, though, I've stayed in Kazimierz itself whenever I've been in Krakow -- usually at one of two hotels that, I have to say (full disclosure), are run by friends.

One is the Klezmer Hois, operated by Wojtek and Malgosia Ornat, the couple who founded the first Jewish-style cafe in Krakow. I still remember vividly sitting with Wojtek in 1992 or so, at an umbrella-shaded wicker table, eating strawberries and looking out at the devastation of Szeroka street, the main square of Jewish Kazimierz, which then was a ring of dilapidated buildings.

The Ornats opened Klezmer Hois -- their third locale -- in the mid-1990s, in a building that once housed a mikvah. It evolved into a hangout for Krakow Jews and visiting Jewish artists and others -- and it still fulfills that purpose, at least for us older crowd. Sitting in the garden during Festival time, is a delight, a constant round of people dropping by, conversing, eating, drinking. Klezmer Hois is, actually, the one "Jewish style" cafe in Krakow that I go to. The Ornats also run the Austeria Jewish publishing house (which has published my book "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)") and the associated Austeria bookstore.

The hotel rooms are old-fashioned and up creaking flights of stairs -- and the breakfast is spectacular, a delicious combination of table service and partial buffet.

Breakfast at Klezmer Hois Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The other hotel in Kazimierz that I stay in is the Hotel Eden, on Ciemna street, a wonderfully friendly place, founded in the mid-1990s by the American Allen Haberberg, that started out as a kosher hotel. Though no longer kosher, the Eden still caters to Jewish travelers and has a mikvah -- which has been used for conversions as well as ritual baths. Each room has a mezuzah on the door, and there is also wifi throughout the building. I asked Allen not long ago why the Eden was no longer kosher (although it will still provide kosher food for those who ask) -- he told me one reason was that there are now good kosher caterers as well as an upscale kosher restaurant (the Olive Tree) in Krakow.

Rabbi Edgar Gluck and Allen Haberberg in front of the Eden Hotel. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Also on this trip though, for the first time in a long time, I stayed for a couple of nights near the Rynek, at the Hotel Saski -- where I think I stayed with my mother in about 1992.

It doesn't seem to have changed much -- but the Old Town has.... Krakow is the city that doesn't sleep ... at 3 a.m. the streets were as lively as in the middle of the afternoon.

Lobby of the Saski. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Smart phone apps for Jewish sites in Warsaw and Berlin

 This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

 By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve been on the road for the past 10 days, and I have a backlog of material to catch up on with postings…. both items I have seen online and on-site visits I’ve made myself.

One new development is the release of smart phone apps that guide you around several Jewish sites in Berlin and Warsaw. Smart phone and tablet apps are clearly the self-tour guides of the future that are becoming the present….

The new ones I’ve noticed recently include an app that guides you around the Warsaw of Holocaust hero Janusz Korczak. Called “My Warsaw,” it is a project of the forthcoming Museum of the History of Polish Jews—it’s available for free on the iTunes store, but I’m not sure about other platforms. This is what Virtual Shtetl says:
The application spans two tourist routes. The first one guides you through places related to Janusz Korczak’s early and late childhood while the other shows Korczak’s life story during World War II. Both routes comprise almost fifty described places. The “My Warsaw-Warszawa jest moja” project shows now nonexistent Warsaw through pictures, audio recordings, a quiz, quotations and the augmented reality system. It sets an example of a novel approach of learning by having fun by means of state-of-the-art technologies.
You can download this bilingual Polish-English application on GooglePlay and AppStore for free.
The application is designed to be a modern tool for learning and teaching history. The only thing you have to do is take your Smartphone with you and take a walk with your family around Warsaw or organize a memorable outdoor history lesson. Tourists may use it as a city guide while Warsaw residents may discover their home town anew.
Another new app guides users around three historic Jewish cemeteries in Berlin .

Berlin has several Jewish cemeteries, including the huge Weissensee cemetery.

This is what Reuters says about the Berlin cemetery app—but I’m not sure where to get the app, or what platforms it serves. I did not find it on iTunes:
The smartphone programme leads visitors to the graves of Jewish figures such as philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, hotelier Berthold Kempinski, publishers Rudolf Mosse and Samuel Fischermen and also of those who committed suicide to escape deportation to Nazi death camps.
“There is an Internet code at the entrance of each cemetery which can be scanned by a smartphone and directly connects to the cemeteries’ website,” the cemeteries’ inspector Hilel Goldmann said.
The Internet programme is steered by a GPS navigation device and enables the visitors to plan their own ‘tour’ choosing among about 160 of the 150,000 graves in the three Berlin cemeteries, Goldmann said.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

NYTimes online on reassessing and reaffirming Jewish Culture in Poland

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

Poster for a play called "Zyd, "or "Jew" by Artur Palyga, which deals with anti-Semitism. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The development of Jewish - and Jewish-themed—cultural expression and “production” in Poland and other countries is a theme that I have written about for many years, most notably in my book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe (BTW—Virtually Jewish is now available as a Kindle e-book.)

I have focused in large part on the relationships between non-Jewish artists, musicians and others with Jewish culture and the way that they have used Jewish themes in their work.

But, in recent years, Jewish artists have also increasingly been exploring Jewish themes and topics, some of them as a way to explore their own identity.

In an article for the New York Times online the journalist Ginanne Brownell reports on this trend, writing about how Jewish artists are reasserting and redefining Jewish culture in Poland. Brownell interviewed me when I was in Poland last month and quotes me in the article—and she also quotes quite a few of my friends!

[A] growing number of Jewish Poles in the artistic sphere ... are exploring the dichotomy of being both Polish and Jewish in 21st-century Poland.

Writers, playwrights, filmmakers and visual artists are tackling everything from anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to coming to terms with their families’ Communist pasts and issues of identity.

“You cannot imagine Polish culture without Jewish culture,” said Pawel Passini, a Lublin-based director and playwright who last year won two awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for his staging of “Turandot.” “I think most people are conscious of that, the problem is how to say it and let people deal with it.”

She goes on:

From the late 1980s — thanks to things like the Krakow Jewish Festival that will take place from June 29 until July 8 this year — Jewish culture, or what is perceived as Jewish culture, has become more popular in Poland. Ms. Gruber described this in her 2002 book “Virtually Jewish” as “familiar exotica,” where there is pseudonostalgia for Jewish culture like the theatrical shtetl world of “Fiddler on the Roof” or wailing, clarinet-infused Klezmer music.

Contemporary Jewish artists are broadening the definition of Jewish culture in Poland. Mr. Passini is a case in point, having become one of the most acclaimed young stage directors in the country. He admits that many of his works — including plays like “Nothing Human” about a young girl trying to find her roots and “Tehillim,” which used choreography based on Hebrew letters — have a focus on spirituality.

Read the full story HERE

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Regarding Jewish Culture Festivals, as Anchors for Travel

 A version of this post originally appeared on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

Long line waits to visit Old Synagogue on the Night of Synagogues, 2011. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

An article in The Forward advocates something that I have long urged travellers to do—use some of the many Jewish culture and other such festivals in Europe as anchor points for summer travels.
The article highlights just two festivals—the wellknown Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, and the lesser known festival in Trebic, Czech Republic.
The Třebíč festival is made up of storytellers, musicians, historians and dancers. Most are local, though some come from nearby Prague; the well-known mix with newcomers, locals who are investigating their history by learning the music, dance and literature of the past.
Krakow and Třebíč offer an alternative way to feel what was lost and experience what remains. Festivals are a means for heritage-oriented tourists to engage in more than anguish; a chance for those who want to experience a center of Jewish culture to do so unabashedly and, in the process, meet locals of a variety of faiths gathered for a communal celebration of Jewish life.
Read more:
But—as I point out in the annual list of festivals that I compile for this blog  —there are dozens of Jewish culture and other festivals around Europe each year. My annual list includes only a fraction. There may be as many as 20 or 30 in Poland alone.

One of the most exciting—and one of the ones that actually has a direct connection to reviving Jewish life—takes place next weekend, June 2-3. It is the second edition of 7@Nite, or what I called the “night of the living synagogues” in Krakow.

On that night, all seven synagogues (and former synagogues) in Krakow’s historic Jewish district, Kazimierz, are open to the public, each one hosting a different event or activity that highlights contemporary Jewish life.

As I wrote in a JTA column last year, after the first 7@Nite:
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 [Boaz] Pash that saw hundreds of people singing and dancing in the JCC courtyard.