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As an American journalist, author, editor and researcher, I’ve published and lectured widely and won awards for my work on Jewish heritage and contemporary Jewish issues in Europe, as well as my work on the European fascination — and embrace — of the American Wild West, its mythology and its music.

I’ve chronicled European Jewish issues for 25 years — I  coined the term “Virtually Jewish” to describe the way the so-called “Jewish space” in Europe is often filled by non-Jews — and am Coordinator of the web site www.jewish-heritage-europe.euan online resource for Jewish heritage issues that is a project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. I had a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on my project “Sauerkraut Cowboys, Indian Dreams: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe.” 

Among my awards is Poland’s  Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the highest awards that Poland grants to foreign citizens. And I was the Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC, for Spring Semester 2015.

 

Equiblues 2015!

This is a crosspost from my SauerkrautCowboys blog

 

This was the third time I have been to the Equiblues rodeo and country music festival in St. Agreve, France — an annual event that draws upwards of 25,000 people and that this year was celebrating its 20th edition.

It was one of the first big country-western festivals I attended (back in 2004) when I first started following the “scene”. Last time I was there was 3 years ago — read what I wrote back then HERE and HERE.

Equiblues lasts the better part of a week, but this year, I only was able to make it there for Friday evening and Saturday, and — alas — I missed all of the rodeo — though I saw some of the cowboy mounted shooting competition.

 
One of my reasons for going was to meet with Georges Carrier, an expert on country music in France who had been the director of the Country Rendez-vous festival in Craponne for 18 years.

I parked in front of the scene in the photo at the top of this page — a fitting welcome image.

But the photo below encapsulates the atmosphere event better: “Authentic Dreams”. Festivals like Equiblues are signal embodiments of what I call “real imaginary” spaces — a re-created; no — a created — “America” where everyone wears cowboy hats and boots and hustles and bustles amid the trappings of the frontier; but where little has much really to do with the United States. As usual, except for some of the artists and rodeo performers, I was one of the only — if not the only — American there. I did hear English in the crowd from one couple strolling through, but UK English.

 

 

 
Actually, I found this year’s Equiblues just about identical with what I found three years ago. Even the same food (sausage and frites; steak and frites; wine; beer…) and physical set-up. For festival-run merch, tickets, food, and events — you have to pay in Equiblues dollars that you have to buy with Euros: one dollar = one Euro.

As usual, I was fascinated by the use of flag imagery — American flags, Confederate flags and various other flags and banners. They are used basically without much meaning, as decoration mean to provide an “American” or “Rebel” spin, as backdrops, clothing, ornamentation.

In the photo below, fly in a row, over a souvenir and clothing stand,  an American flag, a Confederate flag with the words “Heritage Not Hate”, a  Confederate flag and, I think, an Iowa state flag. I doubt of many people understood the significance of the slogan……

 
Check out the flag-inspired clothing, too.
 

 

 

 

 

 

The music, of course, with crowded concerts every night — by American, Canadian and French artists — under a circus-like big top, is one of the highlights. And there is a big space for line-dancers. I am still fascinated by the hypnotic geometric movements of these masses of people.

There was even a Miss Equiblues contest.

 

But most visitors looked more like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lodz Ghetto photos — my piece in the Jewish Quarterly

The Jewish Quarterly publishes my review of the book Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

June 22, 2015

The extraordinary images reprinted in Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross are survivors, both physical and symbolic.

Ross, born in Warsaw in 1910, was one of the more than 200,000 Jews imprisoned in the World War II Lodz ghetto. Thanks to his background as a photo-journalist, he was appointed to a privileged position—an official photographer for the Statistics Office of the Ghetto’s Jewish Council (Judenrat).

He worked in that capacity from 1940 to 1945, taking thousands of photographs that documented the widest possible range of ghetto life—and death.

On the one hand, his official work produced everything from ID portraits and group photos of ghetto police, to Potemkin village-like shots of ghetto inmates, smiling at their benches as they laboured in Council-run workshops, or “resorts”, including those that employed young children.

But he turned his lens, too, on other scenes far outside the purview of propaganda—scenes of violence and mass deportations, scenes of murder and malnutrition, scenes of death. Often taken on the sly, from a camera hidden under his coat, these images are chilling but almost familiar in the Holocaust horror they depict.

Ross, though, also immortalized intensely personal moments that put the death, destruction and degradation in a much more intimate, even unlikely, context: kids at play, a smiling bride at her ghetto wedding, friends clowning, a couple stealing a kiss.

Ross, who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel after the war, knew just what he was doing and just what he wanted to do.

“Having an official camera, I was secretly able to photograph the life of the Jews in the ghetto,” he wrote in 1987, four years before his death. “Just before the closure of the ghetto in 1944, I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

In January 1945, after the Red Army liberated the ghetto, he went back and dug up what he had hidden. Fewer than 3,000 of the 6,000 negatives he had buried survived intact; others were severely damaged from seven months under ground.

But by bringing them back to light, he brought them, and what they represented, back to life.  Ross unearthed not only shadowy strips of celluloid; he unearthed direct testimony to the cruelty of life inside the ghetto, and direct testimony, too, to life itself – the lives lived by ghetto inmates, intimate glimpses of humanity side by side with the horror.

Mai-Mari Sutnik, who edited Memory Unearthed, called them images of “cruel tragedies” and “consoling pleasures.”

…Continue reading

 

 

On filming “Banjo Romantika”

banjo-romntika-posterLee Bidgood has written an engaging essay in Ethnomusicology Review about collaborating with Shara Lange on the filming of Banjo Romantika, the documentary about Czech bluegrass music that I helped on and in which I appear as a “talking head.” He writes about the practical nuts-and-bolts of filming as well as his changing role as scholar and participant.

When Shara and I set out to film in the Czech Republic, my lingering sense of a scholarly ideal led me to impose a research-design structure to our slate of scheduled interviews and visits to performance events.  This stance quickly met with the practicalities of fieldwork (which ranged from me not being able to successfully work the sophisticated camera, to a hardware glitch garbling a key bit of interview audio, etc.); at a more foundational level, however, my sense of the project sometimes conflicted with Lange’s goals as a filmmaker.  Although dedicated to an observational perspective, and thus to a transparent presentation of her subjects, she also emphasized to me the importance of a dramatic “through-line” to the film, and spoke of the people we were filming not as colleagues or subjects but as “characters.”  As I pushed for more and longer filmed interviews (thinking that more words from “characters” mouths would give them more agency and provide more information) she sought evocative moments, interactions, and scenes. [...]

The most significant result of the documentary on my continuing fieldwork among Czech bluegrassers is an increased engagement with my projects.  Discussing my plans for an English-language academic paper or monograph has never quickened my colleagues’ pulses.  Seeing or hearing about the film has led many Czech people to contact me with questions, concerns, and feedback that I have been trying to elicit for years through more traditional means.  We plan to broadcast the film on a television station in the Czech Republic, launching it into the wider discourse among fans and non-fans of bluegrass there.

 

Read the whole article here

With Lee Bidgood at the Birthplace of Country Music museu, Bristol TN/VA

With Lee Bidgood at the Birthplace of Country Music museum, Bristol TN/VA

Confederate Flag flies over Europe’s “Sauerkraut Cowboy” Wild West/Country Scene

Rebel-Flag-wm28

At the Country Rendez-vous festival, Craponne, France, 2008. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve been following the “Sauerkraut Cowboys” country music and wild west scene in Europe for more than a decade, visiting Wild West theme parks, country music festivals, concerts, swinging door saloons, ranches in many countries and hanging out with a variety of European wild west and country music performers and fans.

One of the most striking of all the striking visual images in the multi-faceted scene is the frequent display of the Confederate (Rebel) flag, the Stars and Bars or Southern Cross. It is used on its own or in tandem with the American flag, the Stars and Stripes. It’s found as decoration, on T-shirts, pins, jewelry, backdrops, logos, you name it.

At the annual Trucker-country music festival, Geiselwind, Germany Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

At the annual Trucker-country music festival, Geiselwind, Germany Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

For most country music fans I’ve met in the scene, the flag seems to represent pure “rebel-hood” or the anti-Establishment, rather than to have a direct link with the Civil War, Confederacy, or slavery, i.e. the strong connotations that it evokes in the United States — and which have been at the heart of debates and discussion this past week since the AME church massacre in Charleston.

Indeed, I have been lectured to by various Confederate flag-sporting Europeans about how slavery had “nothing to do with” the Civil War. Etc Etc.

“They don’t know much about the history of the southern cross and for them it’s not important, it’s a link to freedom and rebellion against the establishment and their normal life,” one German member of the European wild west scene, a former employee of one of the Pullman City wild west theme parks and a close observer of hobbyist and other behavior, told me a few years back. Rockabilly fans also use it as a symbol of their favorite American music — album covers often feature the image.

Equiblues Rodeo & Country Music festival, St. Agreve, France, 2004 Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Equiblues Rodeo & Country Music festival, St. Agreve, France, 2004 Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

In France, Alain Sanders used the Rebel Flag as the logo of his country music fanzine, “Country Music Attitude.” Country music “feeling,” he told me when we met in 2004, is a kind of attitude toward life.  “It’s rebel attitude,” he said. “Don’t believe  everything because it’s printed. We don’t like the kind of world where you have the good and the bad. It’s grey, like the uniform of the confederate soldiers. And we explain to people also that when you are country, when you have a country attitude, it’s not once a month or once a year when you come to a festival. It’s every day. You think country, you sing and you think country — that’s what we try to explain.”

Nonetheless, outside the country scene per se, some skinhead and neo-Nazi groups in Europe also use the flag — in their case as a symbol of racism, to link them to the Ku Klux Klan and other extremists.

The photos presented in this gallery here show the Rebel flag in its country/wild west scene incarnation in various countries — Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy.

(See my other photo galleries from the western scene: Fox Tails and Sauerkraut Cowboys – General Views)

All photos (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.

Article on “Roots” travel quotes me

Me outside the ruined synagogue in Kalvarija, Lithuania, the town from which by great-grandparents emigrated to the US around 1880

Me outside the ruined synagogue in Kalvarija, Lithuania, the town from which by great-grandparents emigrated to the US around 1880

A long article on Jewish roots travel by Hilary Danailova in New York Jewish Week quotes me at length about changes in the Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage travel scene over the past quarter century.

Wed, 06/17/2015
 
 
Travel Writer
 

After a career traveling widely and often, Marshall Katz retired from the U.S. Air Force and a series of high-level government posts — and embarked on a new odyssey of sorts: researching the lost Jewish heritage of Sub-Carpathia, his ancestral homeland. Katz now makes regular trips between Pennsylvania, where his father was a kosher butcher near the West Virginia border, and Eastern Europe, where the Katz family’s forbearers had lived in what is today part of Hungary.

Undaunted by language barriers and unfazed by “atrocious” roads, Katz has since logged trip reports — along with practical travel advice, cemetery photos and recovered Jewish history — for hundreds of villages throughout Hungary, Western Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He posts them on the website JewishGen.org, an encyclopedic Jewish-genealogy resource with a half-million registered users worldwide.

“I’m trying to make a contribution,” Katz said recently by phone from Ukraine. In addition to cataloguing copious amounts of data for the Sub-Carpathian Special Interest Group site, which he founded on JewishGen, Katz communicates personally with many of his fellow heritage seekers — searching out a family’s tombstones or vital records in a particular village he plans to visit, for instance, or advising travelers on everything from hiring a car service to reliable tour guides.

A few decades ago, Katz’s travels would have been virtually impossible, or at least extremely difficult. But Jewish travelers today have access to myriad online resources — and a global community of fellow genealogy enthusiasts — that have transformed heritage travel. Whereas a “roots” trip might once have been an informative but generic organized tour of Jewish districts, major cemeteries and Holocaust sites in Poland or the Baltics, today’s travelers are going online to zero in on a great-grandparents’ shtetl, family tombstones and the very streets where the European Jews of yesteryear prayed and shopped.

“People today want to be more specific,” said Avraham Groll, director of business operations for JewishGen. “They want to know where their grandfather was actually from.”

Numerous factors have converged to make that possible. “Travel is so easy these days,” noted Ruth Ellen Gruber, the renowned journalist and coordinator of the web portal Jewish Heritage Europe, who also writes the Jewish Heritage Travel blog and has explored Jewish sites across the Continent for decades. “When I started out, nobody knew what was there. Nobody knew where these places are.”

Gruber pointed out that most ancestral Jewish homes were located behind the Iron Curtain — so prior to the early 1990s, travel would have been difficult or outright impossible, and archives were sealed under Communist rule. Today Americans not only travel freely within Eastern Europe; they frequently do so without the need for visas or even border checks. Infrastructure is also vastly improved (though Katz has horror stories about Ukrainian roads), with discount airlines making it cheap and convenient to hop between cities. A generation ago, Americans would have struggled with a near-insurmountable language barrier — but today, many Europeans speak English, so it’s far easier to hire a driver or query locals about Jewish sites.

And most obviously, the Internet has opened up a world of information that was previously inaccessible. Everything from vital records and historical data to detailed maps and trip-planning services is literally a click away.

JewishGen — which was launched in the 1980s and is now affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City — remains an invaluable resource for travelers. The website organizes the research of more than 80,000 volunteers worldwide; online archives (some 22 million records and counting) help families find relatives, ancestral hometowns and each other. JewishGen also has a Holocaust database of victims and survivors, including ghetto records and census lists; special area groups, like Katz’s Sub-Carpathian site, with maps, photographs and local travel links; and a portal called KehilaLinks, with a detailed website for each community — kehila in Hebrew — where Jewish members’ families once lived.

Beyond this, travelers have more sophisticated tools at their disposal than ever before. Unsure of how a family name or town was spelled? Special phonetic-matching technology can match surnames or places by sound. Not even sure of the town’s name? “Let’s say you don’t know exactly where the town was, but it was within a day’s horse ride from a major town,” said Groll. “If you look at the right side of our page for a city, we list every nearby Jewish community.”

Not even sure which part of Europe you come from? Those with questions about their origins may start — or complement their research — with DNA testing services such as 23andMe or Family Tree DNA. For a fee typically in the low three figures, these online companies analyze saliva samples to determine national and ethnic origin. Jewish users can confirm ties to particular countries or Ashkenazic roots, then take advantage of online community resources to connect with others from similar backgrounds.

All of which points to new dimension in heritage travel: modern sojourners seek to connect not only with their ancestors, but also with each other. On sites like Tracing the Tribe — a popular genealogy blog that recently relocated to Facebook — virtual communities have formed; distant relatives or descendants of neighbors find each other, Europe-bound travelers recommend custom tour guides for far-flung shtetls, and returning heritage pilgrims get help translating tombstones.

“People make recommendations and write about their own experiences,” said Gruber, who advises that such networks are the key to lining up reliable services overseas. “There’s a tremendous amount of research, and people who can help you.”

A lot of that research has been done by Gruber herself for Jewish Heritage Europe, arguably the most comprehensive web portal for guidance on Jewish destinations, historical sites and cultural events throughout the Continent. The site — a project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe — is constantly updated with country-specific information, links and news from Lisbon to Minsk.

For the many American Jews with roots in modern-day Poland, there’s also the Virtual Shtetl. The bilingual Polish-English website is the online community-and-research extension of the recently opened POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which has quickly become one of Europe’s scholarly hubs for Jewish heritage.

An up-and-coming resource is World Jewish Heritage, an organization launched four years ago that describes itself as “a cross between UNESCO, Wikipedia and Fotopedia” connected by Jewish heritage and culture. WJH is in the process of launching a smartphone travel app that allows users to locate sites of Jewish interest in major cities around the world; a new series of eBooks and online articles highlighting topics such as Israel’s top 10 restaurants or Jewish historical sites throughout Spain. As with other travel portals, WJH hopes to draw on user input as it grows.

Online resources are, of course, too numerous to mention here — and as technology expands, so does human connection. That connection, concludes Gruber, is what remains at the heart of Jewish roots travel: “It’s a very emotional adventure.”

 

RIP Pierre Brice, the eternal Winnetou

The French actor Pierre Brice has died. Much of Europe is in mourning; few Americans have ever heard his name.

Brice, who was 86, starred as Winnetou, the Apache chief who was the hero of a series of movies shot in the 1960s based on the wild west stories of Karl May, the German hack writer who died in 1912 and never set foot in the American west but who thrilled the Old Continent with his tales.

I fell in love with Brice, like (almost) every other girl in central Europe, when as a teenager I spent the summer of 1966 in Prague and saw my first Winnetou movie. It was called “Old Shatterhand” and also starred the American actor Lex Barker as Winnetou’s blood brother, the German adventurer Charlie, AKA Old Shatterhand.

My then-10-year-old little brother and I went to see a 10 a.m. showing at the Sevastopol movie theatre in downtown Prague. After that I was obsessed. I bought a postcard of Brice in his Winnetou costume — darkened skin and long black locks held by a head band — and I cut out photos of him from Czech magazines.

As I wrote in an article about Karl May festivals more than a decade ago:

With his long hair and good looks, Brice set the mold for how a stage Winnetou should look and act, just as the late American actor Lex Barker, the original Old Shatterhand in the movies, set the standard for that role with his rugged features and trademark fringed buckskins.

 

I regret that I never got to interview Brice for my ongoing Imaginary Wild West project.

But Dana Weber and I did interview another Winnetou — Gojko Mitic, a Yugoslav-born actor who won fame during the Communist era playing Native Americans in East German-made Westerns, Mitic played Winnetou at the oldest and biggest summer Karl May festival, that in Bad Segeberg, Germany, where Brice himself had long been associated.

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou at the Bad Segeberg Karl May festival

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou at the Bad Segeberg Karl May festival

Dana Weber, Gojko Mitic, and me at the Karl May festival in Radebeul, 2008

Dana Weber, Gojko Mitic, and me at the Karl May festival in Radebeul, 2008

 

Kosher vegetarian dining hall at CofC

 

I’m about to leave Charleston after a wonderful semester as the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies.

Here’s my JTA story about the new kosher vegetarian vegan dining hall that’s under construction.

IMG_0595

CHARLESTON, S.C. (JTA) – Renowned for its gracious architecture and signature Southern charm, Charleston is increasingly celebrated as a foodie heaven.
The trouble is, in a city whose culinary specialties embrace (and glorify) oysters, she-crab soup, and shrimp and grits, the burgeoning restaurant scene is nearly off limits to those who keep kosher.

But things are set to improve for the kosher-observant later this year, when the College of Charleston opens a $1 million kosher vegetarian dining hall in a new wing of its Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center, home to the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program.

The dining hall, funded by several private donors, is an integral part of the college’s comprehensive $10 million fundraising campaign for the Jewish studies program. The three-story brick wing will double the size of the Jewish studies center, which is in the city’s historic peninsula district. The dining hall, set to begin operations around Hanukkah, will occupy the ground floor, with an open-plan design featuring curved ceiling details, cool pastel colors, an entry wall of Jerusalem stone and seating options for up to 75 people.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the dining hall will be run by the college’s dining services and cater to students on the school’s dining plans. But it will also be open to the public for a la carte meals, with an eclectic menu using organic and local ingredients. One of the aims, according to the dining hall’s vision statement, will be to attract “an eager and emergent audience of student and community members by sourcing ethical, sustainable and local food in an energized, hip facility that will utilize recycled and local materials.”

All the food will be kosher and vegetarian, and some will be vegan (containing no eggs or dairy). Mark Swick, the Jewish studies program’s community liaison, said the food will be certified by Charleston’s Kosher Commission, which is comprised of local Orthodox rabbis.
Some 800 Jewish students attend the 12,000-student school, and the college is using the new dining facility as a recruiting tool to attract more.

“A lot of students are looking for kosher possibilities,” Jewish student recruitment counselor Helen Slucki said. “For some it is a need – they keep kosher and couldn’t come here without it. But for a lot of them it is a symbol. They don’t keep kosher, but like the Jewish studies program, it is a symbol that the college is welcoming to Jews.”
Dara Rosenblatt, the college’s Jewish student life program coordinator, said the new dining hall is “already making waves” among students. Buzz has also begun to build outside the college — Charleston’s City Paper placed the dining hall on its list of 20 new eateries set to open in town this year.

But Paige Lincenberg, a Jewish studies major from Atlanta, said she wasn’t sure yet what impact the new facility would have on her eating experience. She already eats “kosher style,” separating meat and dairy and avoiding pork and shellfish.
For the strictly kosher observant, she said,  finding kosher meat tends to be more of a challenge than finding vegetarian food.

“It’s possible to buy vegetables and cook them,” she said.

Jewish history in Charleston dates back more than 300 years, and the city, which in 1800 had more Jewish residents than New York, was a cradle of Reform Judaism in the United States. Charleston’s first organized congregation, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, was founded in 1749, and its current synagogue, a graceful Greek revival building dedicated in 1841, is the second-oldest synagogue building in the United States. Today, approximately 6,500 Jews live in the Charleston area.

The college’s Jewish studies program, established in 1984, offers majors and minors in Jewish studies, but outreach to the Jewish community at large is also a priority. The program hosts numerous events open to both students and the public, including film screenings and lectures. Many local senior citizens audit academic courses.
The College of Charleston’s new dining hall is modeled on Grins Vegetarian Cafe, a popular kosher eatery at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Courtesy of Grins Vegetarian Cafe)

The College of Charleston’s new dining hall is modeled after Grins Vegetarian Cafe, a popular kosher eatery at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Courtesy of Grins Vegetarian Cafe)

Swick said that in designing the new dining facility, “We paid close attention to what other colleges across the country have done in offering kosher and vegetarian options.” (It is not known how many Charleston students are vegetarians, but the school hosts a vegan student group.) A model, Swick said, is Grins Vegetarian Cafe at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Opened more than a decade ago in the Shulman Center for Jewish Life, Grins offers kosher vegetarian meals both on student dining plans and to the community at large, and is consistently ranked as one of Nashville’s top vegetarian restaurants.

The intention in Charleston, according to the dining hall’s vision statement, is to “help create an environment in which diversity is represented, not only by appealing to the observant Jewish (Muslim and Hindu) students, but reaching out to a constituency that sees eating choices as a manifestation of deeply held ethical and environmental values.”

Ghazi Abuhakema, director of the Asian studies and Arabic programs at the college, said the dining hall, which would meet the standards of most halal-observant Muslims, is “a very good project,” and that the local Muslim community is likely to patronize the facility if it is advertised “properly and adequately.”

The new dining hall will be named in honor of philosophy professor Martin Perlmutter, who has been director of the Jewish studies department since 1991 and who helped develop the idea for the dining hall. His championing the dining hall as a way to promote ethical eating and “coming together through food” led the city’s Charlie Magazine to name Perlmutter last year one of Charleston’s “50 most progressive people.”

“A vegan diet is a statement about values and lifestyle, whether it is because of concern for the environment, interest in one’s health or caring about the well-being of animals,” Perlmutter said. “So, too, keeping kosher or observing halal requirements is a commitment to traditions of religion and culture. Representing that diversity in a vegan/vegetarian kosher/halal dining hall is a physical way for the College of Charleston to become more diverse and progressive.”

 

 

Dark Tourism: A Comparative Perspective

Drayton Hall "big house"

Drayton Hall “big house”

 

I wrote this piece for the web site of the Drayton Hall plantation outside of Charleston. It grew out of a session with descendants of both the enslaved people and slave-owners who lived there. I touch on parallels between presenting and interpreting Jewish history and heritage in post-Holocaust Europe and presenting and interpreting African American history and heritage in the Lowcountry.

 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies, College of Charleston

April 28, 2015

More than 20 years ago I wrote a book called Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today. The title referred to the mezuzah—the encased prayer scroll Jews place on their doorposts, indicating a house as the home of a Jew.

In post-Holocaust Europe you could often find the grooves or scars where mezuzahs had been removed or painted over during or after the Shoah—thus forming symbolic mezuzahs that indicated a house where Jews once lived. In my book, I extrapolated further, suggesting that the surviving physical relics of pre-war Jewish life—synagogue buildings, Jewish cemeteries, even if abandoned, in ruined condition or transformed for other use, also served as symbolic mezuzahs to mark towns, villages, cities, and even countries where Jews once lived and do not live now.

My intent was to show how buildings and other physical sites can be talismans and touchstones, opening the way into memory and history.

George McDaniel made this same idea explicit in his introduction to the panel of Drayton Hall descendants. “History did not happen to someone, somewhere else, but to you,” he said. “You grow up a product of history. Preserving buildings means also preserving the story behind the buildings, making a connection with people. Why is a place important? How do you feel connected?”

From the Jewish perspective, visiting Jewish historical sites in post-Holocaust, post-Communist Europe can be a very positive experience, emphasizing Jewish life, history and culture; but the experience also falls under what is now known as Dark Tourism—tourism to sites of what we can call “negative” history, “negative” experience: death, destruction, war.

Sites of slavery also fall under Dark Tourism, though this aspect of a historic site (such as a plantation or genteel antebellum home) often becomes masked, elided, or simply footnoted in the presentation of beautiful buildings and gardens for tourist consumption.

Much of this boils down to “who controls the narrative”—and to whom is the narrative directed: issues that we have been dealing with in the class I have been teaching, “Memory, Heritage, Renewal.” Although the main focus of our class is Jewish heritage and memory and their role and representation in Europe, we have been able to draw parallels with the way that African American heritage, history, and culture are presented here in Charleston and the Lowcountry.

I was delighted that students from my class were in attendance at the panel presentation featuring the descendants of Drayton Hall, as the discussion clearly demonstrated the parallels we have been dealing with, touching on issues such as the point of view of interpretation and interpreters; messages and signage; how the same place can have different symbolic meanings and generate different memories for different people.

I found particularly compelling a part of the film about Drayton Hall’s African American descendants that parallels the post-Holocaust Jewish experience in Europe. People were filmed sitting in the African American cemetery at Drayton Hall, speaking about how many of the deceased buried there had no markers for their graves, no one to talk about their history. In Eastern Europe, when I visit an abandoned Jewish cemetery, I often ponder the fact that most of the thousands and thousands of people buried in these places are also forgotten, with no descendants to tend their graves or even remember who they were.

Drayton is not alone in trying to present a more inclusive past in the plantation context. Boone Hall has installed an extensive presentation on slavery and African American history centered on the nine preserved slave cabins there. Magnolia Gardens features special programs to bring to life its recently renovated row of cabins. And Middleton Place, which I have not yet visited, presents a permanent exhibit titled “Beyond the Fields” in a two-family tenant residence called Eliza’s House, in memory of Eliza Leach, a South Carolina African American born in 1891, and the last person to live in the building. The much less elaborate Hampton Plantation also incorporates the site’s slave history in well researched text panels, both in the Big House and along the path leading to it.

After the Drayton Hall panel, I was excited to visit McLeod Plantation with Mary Battle, public historian at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, and her class. McLeod, which served as local headquarters of the Freedman’s Bureau following the Civil War, has the potential to interpret not only slave life but the postwar experience of the newly freed men and women. McLeod’s signage uses a phrase that could be the site’s “slogan”—describing it as a place of both “tragedy and transcendence.” I found it interesting that this formulation echoes what we sometimes call sites of Jewish heritage in Europe—“sites of tragedy and sites of triumph.”

 

 

 

Anti-Jewish attacks in Europe: Keep it in perspective — My op-ed on CNN.com

The main synagogue in Rome has been heavily guarded since 1982

The main synagogue in Rome has been heavily guarded since 1982

In the wake of terror attacks on Jews (and others) in Paris and Copenhagen, I was asked  to write an op-ed for CNN.com about anti-Semitism — and particularly about anti-Semitic terror attacks and violence. So I did. My aim was not to discount or minimize the recent attacks, but to provide some perspective — looking back at 40 years of anti-Jewish and other terror attacks in Europe and cautioning not to let legitimate alarm and fear be distorted into alarmism and fear-mongering.

Read the article online here

Anti-Jewish attacks in Europe: Keep it in perspective
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
March 2, 2015

Charleston, South Carolina (CNN)Thirty years or so ago, the synagogue in Washington DC where I was attending Yom Kippur services received a bomb threat. As we evacuated the building, I was concerned that people didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.

I was visiting from Europe, where terrorism was a fact of life, and I was scared.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Europe, and even beyond, far-left and far-right extremists, the IRA, radical Palestinians, and a variety of other groups carried out thousands of terror attacks, big and small, that left thousands dead or injured.

Jewish, Israeli — and American — sites were targets of some of the most notorious attacks: from the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, to plane and cruise ship hijackings, to attacks on airports, synagogues, and simply places where Jews congregated, such as the Jo Goldenberg kosher deli in Paris, where six died and 22 were wounded in a bloody attack in August 1982.

In Rome, where I lived for parts of the 1970s and ’80s, we tended to avoid certain streets where El Al and U.S. airlines had their offices.

The first big story I helped cover as a young reporter was a bloody attack at the city’s Fiumicino airport in December 1973. A dozen years later, the daughter of friends was killed in another Palestinian attack there. The main synagogue in Rome has been under tight guard since Palestinian attackers threw hand grenades and sprayed machinegun fire at worshippers after services in October 1982, killing a toddler and wounding dozens.

I don’t want to discount the gravity and horror of recent terror attacks against Jewish targets in Europe, such as in Copenhagen and Paris. I just want to add some perspective.

Many things have changed over the decades. Post-Cold War power vacuums and Middle East upheavals have given rise to radical Islamism and globalized Jihadist terror networks whose message, fanned out via the internet and social media, strikes a chord in disaffected youth.

To be sure, Jews are being targeted. But it is important to recognize that Jews are being targeted as part of a violent campaign against western democracies and western values in general. Today’s victims of Islamist terror include Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. In the Middle East and Africa, women, children, students, and cultural heritage — history — are also directly targeted.

In some ways, today’s Jihadist terrorists can be seen as harnessing various types of terrorism we saw in earlier decades: the anti-Jewish/anti-Israel terrorism of radical Palestinian groups and the anti-establishment, even anarchistic terrorism of homegrown groups whose aim was to sow fear and destabilize society as a means to bring down the system.

Anti-Semitism takes many forms. Criticism of Israel is legitimate (and sometimes necessary), but it can, and sometimes does, cross the line.

This isn’t new either, however. Jews in Europe have been regarded — and scapegoated — as surrogates for Israel for decades.

In 1967-68, after Israel defeated Arab states in the Six-Day War, Poland’s communist regime staged an “anti-Zionist” campaign that forced most of the remaining Jews out of the country. At least 13,000 Jews emigrated, according to Dariusz Stola, who is now the director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Other experts put the figure as high as 20,000. This was — and remains — by far the most widespread episode of anti-Semitism in post-Holocaust Europe.

Twenty years later, in 1988, a report by the Anti-Defamation League warned that a significant number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States now reflected “a politically-related anti-Israel component.”

A JTA news report at the time quoted ADL National Director Abraham Foxman as noting that the phenomenon was new in the United States, but “it’s been a common occurrence in European countries.” Particularly worrisome, the report said, were Israel-related anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses. Sound familiar?

After the Holocaust, it was common to view Jews in Europe as sitting with their suitcases packed, just in case.

But — unlike Poland’s “anti-Zionist” campaign — terrorism did not prove an existential threat to Jews and did not prompt a mass exodus.

Nor should — or will — it now.

The Nazis, followed by Communist rule in half of the continent, almost succeeded in making Europe Judenrein.

Following the most recent terror attacks, Jewish and European national leaders have made clear that this is not an option. Moreover, despite the terrorist threat, European governments have refused to budge in their defense of democratic values.

It is wise to be on guard, of course, and there is indeed ample cause for alarm — even fear.

But we should also be on guard against something else — against a facile temptation to cry wolf that can all too easily distort alarm into alarmism — and fear into fear-mongering.

 

 

 

 

 

Quoted in article on Poland’s Jewish cultural revival

Joanna Zajaczkowska quotes me in her recent lengthy article on the revival of Jewish culture in Poland.

The very visible revival of interest in Jewish cultural heritage that has taken place in recent decades in Poland seems to many observers to be especially remarkable, even shocking. “Poland was long considered the quintessential ‘Jewish graveyard’, so many observers found Jewish and Jewish cultural revival there hard to believe or accept. For years, many people did not acknowledge or trust these developments,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, European-based American journalist and author, specialist in contemporary Jewish affairs. “The revival of interest in Jewish culture and history was a symbol of the fall of communism and return to democracy 25 years ago, in Poland and in other post-communist countries. Finally, people could “recover” a part of the past that had been virtually taboo in some places”- claims Ruth Ellen Gruber.

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