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