Saturday, August 12, 2017

Ukraine Road Trip - L'viv

I recently spent a week in Ukraine, where I gave the concluding talk, July 27, in a series of lectures called "Jewish Days in the City Hall: (Un)Displayed Past in East European Museums." 

The series was organized by the Center for Urban History, where I have spoken before -- and where I have also taken part in other programs (including as a member of the jury for the design competition for three sites commemorating Jewish history in Lviv -- one of them, the Space of Synagogues, was dedicated last year.)

The lecture series focused on a number of questions related to Jewish museums in Eastern Europe: "What are the Jewish museums of Eastern Europe telling us about? What are the challenges that Ukrainian museums face when including Jewish history into the dominant narrative of their exhibitions? What are the perspectives for historical museums of Ukraine in a global context? How do they see their role and mission in developing critical perception of the history of Ukraine and shaping participatory historical culture in the present-day society?"

In my talk, I reflected on the changes that have occurred in the Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage travel field in the nearly 30 years that I have been involved -- and specifically in the 25 years since the publication of the first edition of my book "Jewish Heritage Travel" and 15 years since "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe."

The themes were similar to those in a presentation I gave a month earlier in Glasgow, at a conference on "Dark Tourism" that focused on Dark Tourism at Holocaust, Nazi and World War II sites; my presentation was called "From Dark Tourism to Tourist Attractions".

When I started writing about Jewish heritage sites and Jewish heritage tourism, almost any visit to a Jewish heritage site in eastern and central Europe was a form of "Dark Tourism." Most Jewish heritage sites such as synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were neglected, ruined, abandoned or transformed for other use. There were only a handful of Jewish museums and almost no Jewish heritage sites were mentioned in guidebooks or even local histories.

The evolution since then has been dramatic, regarding infrastructure, information sources, agencies of display and deep-seated attitudes to travel, heritage, and Jewish presence (and fate) in the region.

Ruins still abound, and many sites and experiences remain deeply tragic. But scholars, genealogists, tour guides, governments, cultural and heritage entrepreneurs have studied, mapped and documented almost everything; some continue to sink into oblivion, but others have been opened up for unprecedented travel and educational opportunities as well as for commercial touristic exploitation.

Signage in Prague

Local guidebooks, web sites, and other resources provide a wealth of information. Many Jewish heritage sites that were once tragically abandoned have become attractions, increasingly on mainstream travel itineraries that mix the "Dark" with the Destination: a  glossy brochure I once read promised that a four-star Jewish Heritage Cruise down the Elbe River would "look both backwards and forwards, reviewing the rich Jewish culture of key cities, confronting the atrocities of the Second World War, and embracing a positive future."

During my week in Lviv, I took two day trips to visit Jewish heritage sites in the region -- we visited nearly a dozen. I had wanted specifically to revisit places I had seen earlier, in particular in 2006, when I researched the latest version of my Jewish Heritage Travel book, to see the changes.

Much of what I found was as distressing as I had found in years ago, or in some cases even more so -- but there were also some positive developments.

I have written about some of these visits on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site -- and I will cross post them here, too.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Greece: Remembering Nikos Stavroulakis, z"l

NOTE: This was originally published on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site, which is having server problems so it might not be possible to access it there.

Nikos Stavroulakis in Sejny, Poland, 2012

We are deeply saddened by the death of our longtime friend Nikos Stavroulakis, an artist and scholar who was the co-founder and former director of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens and the driving force behind the restoration of the Etz Hayyim synagogue in the ancient port city of Chania, Crete.

Nikos, who was born in 1932, had been in failing health for some time. His death was announced May 19 on the web site of the Etz Hayyim synagogue, where he had led a pluralistic Havurah-like community for nearly two decades and where a memorial service will be held at a date to be determined.

Tributes to him poured in from around the world (see below).

“The world of Greek Jewry owes Nikos so much,” Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, Museum Director of Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum in New York, wrote on Facebook. “He will be dearly missed.”

Nikos was the son of a Greek Orthodox father from Crete and a Jewish mother. Educated in England, the U.S., and Israel, he was a Renaissance man whose expertise encompassed subjects ranging from landscape design and horticulture to Jewish cuisine. His books included a history of the Jews of Salonika as well as a Guidebook to Jewish Greece and a Greek Jewish cookbook.

Nikos co-founded the Jewish Museum in Athens in 1977 and served as its director until 1993. He then moved to Chania where he lived in his family home and and took charge of efforts to restore the Etz Hayyim synagogue, the only surviving Jewish monument on the island.

Interior of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Chania, Crete. Photo: World Monuments Fund

The synagogue was originally a church, built in the 15th century by the Venetians and dedicated to St Catherine. Conversion of the building took place in the 17th century, re-using parts of the older building and adding a barrel-vaulted mikveh. Prominent rabbis are buried in stone sepulchres around the courtyard.

The synagogue remained in use until 1944, when the Nazis deported the community’s 263 Jews. The ship on which they were carried, which was presumably en route to a death camp, was torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine, killing all its passengers. The synagogue was desecrated shortly afterwards and stood ruined for decades, even used as a public toilet.

After fifty years of neglect, Etz Hayyim was in 1996 placed by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) on its first “Watch List” of 100 endangered sites across the world, and also targeted as an initial project of WMF’s Jewish Heritage Program.

Nikos spearheaded fundraising for the project and oversaw the the building’s conservation, and the synagogue was rededicated in 1999. Since then, it has been developed as a religious and cultural center, including a reference library, and is also used for worship — by a community that Nikos himself said “accommodates Jews of every variety of self identity as well as non-Jews.”

After arsonists targeted Etz Hayyim in January 2010, he wrote on the synagogue’s blog:

“…our doors are open from early in the morning until late in the day so that the Synagogue assumes its role as a place of prayer, recollection and reconciliation.”

“This character of the Synagogue must not change and the doors must remain open,” he wrote. If not, that means “we have given in to the ignorance that has perpetrated this desecration.”

May his soul be bound in the bond of life — may his memory be a blessing!

Nikos Stavroulakis and Jewish Heritage Europe/Jewish Heritage Travel Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2012

Etz Hayyim Synagogue web site

Article on Etz Hayyim in eJewish Philanthropy

Article on Etz Hayyim in The Guardian

JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber's column about Etz Hayyim and Nikos Stavroulakis, 2010


We asked several people who knew Nikos to share memories or reflect on his life and influence:

– – – – –

Samuel D. Gruber, President of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments and founding director of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund in the late 1980s:

Nikos was a Renaissance man. He knew so much about so many different subjects - art, cooking, Judaism, the Ottoman Empire, and Greece -  and had done so many things. He had a magnetic personality, his  voice was mesmerizing, and he was such a raconteur. Even his letters, which were long typed single spaced recitations and meditations, were somewhat hypnotic. When I began work at the World Monuments fund in 1989 I immediately began to correspond with Nikos. He was founder of the Jewish Museum in Greece, and had documented (with Tim DeVinney) the synagogue of Greece, which they published in 1992.. Nikos spoke at the Future of Jewish Monuments conference in New York in 1990. He led off the first session and of course there was no stopping him at 20 minutes ... and no one wanted him to stop. From that came, a few years later, the WMF project to restore the Etz Hayyim synagogue in Hania. Nikos did most of the important work on that project, but it was a thrill to work with him for a few years to raise the money, establish the scope of work, and promote the restoration which at the time was a rare undertaking not jsut for Greece, but for Europe. EVentually Nikos moved back to Hanias, and over the years he greatly expanded the original scope of work to create a unique and vibrant multi-cultural, ecumenical and international center that still had its roots in Crete's ancient Jewish history - very much like Nikos himself.

 - - - - -

Krzysztof Czyzewski and Nikos Stavroulakis, Sejny, Poland, 2012

Krzysztof Czyzewski, Director of the Borderland Foundation, in Sejny, Poland

A great man of the borderland is gone. Philosopher, museum-man, artist, writer, storyteller, and the best chef in the Mediterranean region….Once I asked Nikos what ‘ethos of dialog’ means for him. As his wont, he smiled wryly, and answered: “I came back and rebuilt a synagogue because I couldn’t get in peace with this story about a sunken ship of Jews from Chania. And beside that a ruined synagogue is an open wound for Crete, which by itself is a bridge between East and West — and being a guardian of that bridge is what I understand to be a Cretan. And when the synagogue was rebuilt, a group of old women knocked on its doors, three orthodox Greek women, dressed in black, asking if they can pray inside. I would not say I was passionately interested in intercultural dialog but I could not say “no” to them. After this, it was a kind of natural thing that I invited also some Turkish Muslims to cross a synagogue’s threshold. But later on somebody wanted to blow the synagogue up, and another time somebody set fire to it … And I had to fundraise again for the restoration of Etz Hayyim. This is how I became a man of dialog, although it would be more adequate to say: I am living in a fire of dialog!”

– – – – –

Journalist Liam Hoare, who wrote about Nikos Stavroulakis for EJewish Philanthropy in 2014:

Everything about his biography suggested determination and tremendous vision, but the man I met also possessed a fierce intellect, a passion for and deep and broad knowledge of Jewish and Cretan history and culture, and a sentimental attachment to the island he made his home in the final years of his life. The mission of the synagogue he brought back to life—rooted in history and open to everyone, encapsulating the very best of Diaspora values—is as best a lasting testament as any man could hope to have. I feel privileged to have met Stavroulakis and wounded to think that Etz Hayyim must find its way without him. Greek Jewry and indeed Greece as a whole is in his debt.

– – – – –

Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, Museum Director of Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum in New York:

I first met Nikos Stavroulakis when he was in the process of creating the Jewish Museum of Greece, when the collection of artifacts were being stored in the synagogue in Athens. I had started my research on the Jews of Greece and was visiting Jewish communities throughout the country to learn more about what had happened to my own family in Salonika. I was fulfilling a promise I had made to my Nona Marika to find out what had happened to our large family from Salonika who had disappeared in the concentration camps. I heard about this man, Nikos Stavroulakis, who was collecting artifacts of Greek Jews from all over Greece. I had naively hoped that he might have something of my Errera and Russo families. It was not to be, but this is when I first became an admirer of Nikos. He […] showed me how important and powerful remembering can be.

Nikos and I went on to become friends […]. Probably, my most endearing memories of Nikos came from my visits to Hania, first shortly after he was successful in having Etz Hayyim nominated to the World Monument Fund as “One of the Most Endangered Sites in the World” in 1996 and, then, repeated visits as Nikos’ vision of the restoration became a reality. It was during one of those visits that I approached Nikos to help me apply to the World Monument Fund for Kahal Shalom Synagogue in Rhodes. I had learned during a visit in 1997, when approached by the then President of the Jewish Community of Rhodes, Alberto Kovos, that the synagogue was caving in due to dampness in the porous stone. Everyone told me that I did not have a chance, that Kahal Shalom looked “too good” to be considered. This is when I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life. Nikos said to me, “Marcia, what have you got to lose? All they can say is no. If you do not dream, nothing will happen.” I took my dream of restoring Kahal Shalom to the World Monument Fund and, fostered by the words of Nikos Stavroulakis, proposed Kahal Shalom to become “One of the Most Endangered Sites in the World” for 1999. We succeeded and the oldest still-functioning synagogue in Greece was saved from destruction.

During this time, I was fortunate to be treated to Nikos’ cooking and to marvel at his library but, by far, the most important gifts Nikos gave to me were his encouragement and the knowledge that you have to be a little crazy and very obsessed to do what we do. Thank you Nikos. May your memory be Eternal.

Lithuania: Restored wooden Pakruojis synagogue reopens (watch video)

NOTE: This was originally published on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site, which is having bad server issues and may not be accessible.

Photo: Pakruojis municipality

The historic wooden synagogue in Pakruojis, Lithuania has been reopened after a major restoration project that used old photos to recreate the whimsical polychrome images on its walls and vaulted ceiling.

The building will  house a children’s literature section of the Juozas Paukštelis Public Library and also host concerts and other cultural events. An  exhibit tells the history of the Jews of the Pakruojis region.

Interior, Pakruojis synagogue. Photo: EEA

The  more than €750,000 project was carried out over nearly three years by the Pakruojis Regional Administration, with more than €568,000 in financing from Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein under the European Economic Area and Norway financial grants mechanism.

Exterior, restored Pakruojis synagogue. Photo: EEA

The opening ceremony May 19 was attended by Deputy Norwegian ambassador Turid Kristin Lilleng, deputy Israeli ambassador Efrat Hochstetler, and director of the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture’s EEA Financing Program Dalia Stabrauskaitė, as well as the head of the Lithuanian Jewish community and other representatives.

Watch a video of the open — and see the restored building:

Built in 1801, the synagogue is the oldest surviving synagogue in Lithuania. Pre-WW2 photographs document the interior — with a carved bimah (which was not restored) and  wall paintings that include charming depictions of trees, plants, animals,  houses and even a train.

Photo: Pakruojis Municipality

The building suffered severe damage in a fire in 2009.

Some 200 or more elaborate wooden synagogues were found in eastern Europe before World War II. Almost all were destroyed. Lithuania is one of the few countries that still has wooden synagogues — about 14 altogether. All of them, however, are fairly simple buildings that probably survived destruction because of their relatively nondescript appearance.

After World War II the Pakruojis synagogue was transformed into a movie house; it was also used as a sports hall, and then eventually abandoned.

Pakruojis synagogue in 2006

The Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University in Jerusalem created an excellent digital presentation about the synagogue that illustrates the history of the synagogue and the Jewish presence in the town — noting that there were once three synagogues in Pakruojis. It includes a digital recreation of the building, inside and out, showing the architectural and artistic features.

Digital recreation of the Pakruojis wooden synagogue. Screen grab from CJA presentation

It also includes the striking photo documentation of the synagogue made in 1938, showing the painted decoration on the ceiling and the carved ark and bimah, that was used by the restorers to recreated the ceiling paintings and even the wallpaper.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

In an Interview, I reflect on five years of Jewish Heritage Europe

Me at the ruined Great Synagogue in Kalvarija, Lithuania, the town my great-grandparents came from. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

February 2017 marks the fifth anniversary that — the web site that I run as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe — has been online.

In a lengthy interview with Liam Hoare of eJewish Philanthropy, I reflect on developments since I’ve been involved with Jewish heritage work — where we’ve been, and where we may be going.

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

Since its launch five years ago, Jewish Heritage Europe has become an essential one-stop shop for news, information, and resources concerning, as the name indeed suggests, matters of Jewish culture and built heritage in Europe: museums; synagogues; cemeteries, and so on. Ruth Ellen Gruber, the author of Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe who has chronicled Jewish life in Europe for over twenty-five years for the JTA among other places, edits the site, which is supported by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Here, I talk with Gruber about the site’s development and how European attitudes towards Jewish heritage have changed in the time she has been reporting on these issues.


What was the impetus behind setting up Jewish Heritage Europe five years ago?

JHE builds on and expands a previous version of the site that was launched after a major conference on the Future of Jewish Heritage, held in Prague in 2004. The decision by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe to relaunch and expand came as a follow-up to a conference held in Bratislava, Slovakia in March 2009 that discussed the state of Jewish heritage sites in Europe as well as strategies for their restoration, use, and upkeep. That seminar, attended by international Jewish heritage experts as well as by representatives from Jewish communities in more than a dozen countries, also resulted in the Bratislava Statement, a major statement of specific ‘best practices’ about how to deal with Jewish heritage sites.

JHE’s aim is to facilitate communication and information exchange regarding projects, initiatives, and other developments such as restoration, ongoing projects, best practices, advisory services and more. Its primary focus is Jewish built heritage: synagogues, cemeteries, mikvaot, Jewish quarters and other physical traces that attest to a Jewish presence on the continent stretching back to Antiquity, but it also includes material on Jewish museums and other cultural institutions.

Is there anything that stands out for you in terms of how Europe‘s Jewish heritage is discussed, studied, and cared for in the five years since you’ve been running the site?

Jewish heritage and particularly Jewish built heritage is a field that has been continually developing over the past few decades. When I first became involved with Jewish heritage issues in eastern and central Europe nearly thirty years ago, I was entering largely unexplored territory. Little was known about what still existed in those countries – I felt I was ‘filling in blank spaces’ and literally putting Jewish heritage sites back on the map. At that time, even in western countries, Jewish built heritage was often ignored or overlooked.

That is no longer the case. In post-communist Europe, many Jewish heritage sites are still empty or in ruins, and most Jewish cemeteries are neglected or abandoned. But there are lists, inventories, databases, and online resources that tell us where they are. Surveys have documented synagogue buildings and Jewish cemeteries. Projects have mapped old shtetls to position destroyed buildings, and other projects have digitally recreated destroyed buildings or have even recreated them in replica form. Moreover, projects of various sorts have restored, cleaned up, fenced, preserved, or protected hundreds of sites.

I see all this on a day-to-day basis as I compile the JHE News Feed. Probably the site’s most powerful asset, it’s essentially a ‘wire service’ about what’s going on the Jewish heritage world today. To date, I have posted more than 1100 articles from dozens of countries, which probably constitutes the most extensive searchable database on contemporary Jewish built heritage issues. Thus, running JHE has enabled me to recognize the widespread reach, range, and scope of Jewish heritage initiatives all over Europe, as well as the challenges and controversies, from protection and preservation issues to religious concerns, the uses of new technology in research, to the various ways that Jewish heritage sites are used – and also abused.

Of course, Jewish heritage work, and the situation of Jewish heritage, is different from country to country, city to city, and is dependent on many factors: Jewish community organizational matters; local and national politics; funding shortfalls, and actual on-the-ground possibilities. My feeling is that seeing what’s going on in other countries, or in other projects, can be useful to help inspire activists or help them in creating strategies for their own work. I think it is important for activists today, though many are still working on their own or in relative isolation, to realize that they are not as alone as were the Jewish heritage activists who, often on their own, blazed the trail in earlier decades.

Click here to read the full interview