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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 Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary 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 in 48 European countries 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’ve been named the Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC, for Spring Semester 2015.

 

Pilgrimage to Lipot Baumhorn’s grave

LB-wm1

At the end of September I made one of my occasional pilgrimages to the grave of the architect Lipot Baumhorn in the vast Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest.

Baumhorn designed or remodeled about two dozen synagogues in central Europe: in Hungary, and in what are now Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. You can read about them in a travel article I wrote some years back. He is reckoned to be the most prolific synagogue architect in Europe before World War II.

I wrote a section of my 1994 book “Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today” about him and his work.

Baumhorn's gravestone bears a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and also a list of more than 20 other synagogues he designed or remodeled. It also has a very flowery poetic epitaph.

Baumhorn’s gravestone bears a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and also a list of more than 20 other synagogues he designed or remodeled. It also has a very flowery poetic epitaph.

 

In the course of research for it, in 1992, I discovered his gravestone, totally overgrown with vines.

LB-1992-wm1

 

Cleaning it was a spiritual — or at least highly emotional — experience.

Photo © Edward Serotta

Photo © Edward Serotta

This is what wrote (in “Doorposts”) about cleaning the grave: “I felt like a liberator, and I guess I was, restoring to the light of this cold, gray day the chiseled memory of this man. It was a highly personal liberation. For more than three years I had followed a trail of monumental buildings whose style number and significance had made Lipot Baumhorn successful in life and more than just a footnote in the history of his profession. His synagogues were his survivors; he was honored on gilded plaques in their entryways …. the person was here, shrouded in ivy. I tore at the clinging vines…”

Lipot Baumhorn

 

My section about Baumhorn in “Upon the Doorposts” is called “Synagogues Seeking Heaven.”

The name derives from  the complex poetic epitaph on his gravestone. In the chapter I tell how various Hungarian friends of mine tried, with difficulty, to translate it for me. The end version was:

Our inspired artist: His inspiration and heart gave birth

To the lines of synagogues that look toward heaven and awaken piety.

Above his peaceful home hovered devotion;

The soul of a father and husband gave birth to heaven-seeking consolation.

 

Some years back I was delighted to find a monument to him outside one of his synagogues, in Szolnok. The monument is positioned so that Baumhorn seems to gaze at the synagogue, which is now used as a concert hall.

reg-lb szolnok 2006

 

 

 

 

 

A conversation with history

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Today I had the first of what I hope will be a series of interviews/conversations with a man who will turn 103 years old on Thursday. His mind is sharp, but he can’t hear very well; his son (with whom he lives) is helping talk with him. He was born in the house at the top of my hill into a contadino family, on Sept. 18, 1911. When he was a boy, they ate meat only on holidays like Xmas and Easter; pasta maybe only on Sundays. A typical meal was beans, chickpeas, bread; maybe polenta. Six to eight people slept in a room; two to three in a bed. “It wasn’t like it is today.”

 

 

The Night I Spent in Jail in Hitler’s Hometown

Braunau cell

Here’s my latest in Tablet Magazine:

Reports that Adolf Hitler’s childhood home in the Austrian town of Braunau am Inn, where the future Nazi leader lived for several years, may be turned into a Holocaust museum triggered memories of my own two visits to the town: once as a student when I spent the night in the local jail; and once nearly 25 years later when I searched out the police log booking me in to the cell.

My first visit to Braunau was when I was 20 and hitchhiking around Europe with my college roommate. It had nothing to do with Hitler—other than the fact that our visit was so long ago that we, two Jewish girls, were reluctant to spend the night in Germany. We caught a ride in France with a driver who took us all the way across to Braunau, a border town near Linz. (Apparently the fact that this was Hitler’s birthplace didn’t faze us… Or maybe we simply didn’t know.)

It was dark when we arrived. European borders were not open then; crossing frontiers meant immigration and customs controls. The young border police had a field day with us. Perhaps as some form of weird flirtation, they picked apart our backpacks, holding aloft underwear, Tampax, and other intimacies as we stood there and cringed.

By the time they let us go, it was after 10:30 p.m. The youth hostel, where we had hoped to stay, was closed for the night. Our hitchhiking driver, who had remained with us, took us to a local hotel, but it was too expensive for our tiny student budgets.

I thought for a moment and then asked him to take us to the police station—where, rather amazingly, I talked the officer on duty into allowing us to sleep in the jail.

“I’ll have to book you in,” he told us. And he did. Then he locked us into a cell with a couple of cots, a toilet in the corner, and graffiti on the wall.

At 6 a.m., an officer unlocked the door and set us free. We ambled around the open market (I bought a nightgown and clogs), then we picked up another ride and continued on our way—I think we were headed for the Dalmatian Coast.

I didn’t return to Braunau for nearly a quarter of a century. By that time, I was a journalist and published author. In the middle of a research and reporting trip to Poland and the Czech Republic, I detoured to Braunau to coincide with Hitler’s birthday, April 20—a date that frequently draws nostalgic neo-Nazis and other “pilgrims.”

I photographed Hitler’s house and the “never again” monument in front of it—and also the local cinema where, in a bizarre coincidence, Schindler’s List was playing. And I was pleased to be able to afford the hotel that had once seemed so expensive. But what I really wanted to do was find out what the police had booked me into jail for back when I was 20…..

Read more

 

 

I’m quoted in the Wall Street Journal

A French country music fan wears Hank Williams on his arm…Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’m quoted in the Wall Street Journal in an August 11 article about European country music by Ginanne Brownell. She writes about a new, more mainstream trend in locally produced country music. But her statement that “many events are moving away from exclusively featuring big-name American acts, opening their stages to local talent” isn’t really right. Yes there are now (or I should say again) more big events by big-name American stars. But most of the scores of country music and bluegrass festivals and other events across Europe have already long  mainly featured local groups. The article doesn’t mention veteran European artists like Truck Stop, Tom Astor, Gunther Gabriel, Michal Tucny, Lonstar, etc….

Europe Tunes In to Its Own Country Music Scene

After years of importing country artists from the U.S., Europe is finally listening to home-grown music

By

Ginanne Brownell
Updated Aug. 11, 2014 1:22 p.m. ET
[...]

Country music has been a niche genre in Europe since the 1950s, when American GIs stationed in Europe brought it with them. (It didn’t hurt that Elvis Presley was stationed in Germany from 1958-1960). During the Cold War, in countries such as Czechoslovakia, a bluegrass scene developed as a form of rebellion against communism. The subculture is still thriving today, thanks to bands such as Druhá Travá, who have released over 20 albums internationally and have been touring the U.S. nearly every year since 1993.

“Bluegrass festivals in the Czech Republic are among the best in the world,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, an American journalist and writer based in Italy who runs the European blog “Sauerkraut Cowboys.” The Czech town of Kopidlno has been hosting an annual bluegrass festival since 1973.

A plethora of country music festivals have been held across Europe for many years. They range from small local festivals to large annual events. For example, France’s La Roche Bluegrass Festival draws 12,000 people, and London’s Country to Country Festival drew 18,000 fans last year and 30,000 this, its second, year. Lately, however, many events are moving away from exclusively featuring big-name American acts, opening their stages to local talent.

[...]

Read the full article

 

 

 

 

The Czech 10 Stars project — my article and links

Interior of restored synagogue in Brandys nad Labem, CZ.

I have an article in The Forward on the  Czech 10 Stars project of revitalizing Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic, an ambitious project that I have been following for the past few years. I’ve posted a lot about this project on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site, including Photo Galleries of seven of the 10 Stars sites.

Uniting Jewish Heritage Sites Across Czech Republic

Ten Points of the Jewish Star

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

NOVA CEREKEV, CZECH REPUBLIC — No Jews have lived in this nondescript little town 80 miles southeast of Prague since the Holocaust, but driving in, you can’t miss the synagogue.

Rose-pink and ochre, with fanciful arched windows and a central peaked roof flanked by two squat towers, it rises dramatically over the rooftops, dominating the otherwise drab surroundings.

Inside, chandeliers glow above cream-colored walls and graceful arched galleries.

Though built in the 1850s, the synagogue looks brand-new — and in some ways it is. Derelict for decades, it has been painstakingly restored, inside and out, over the past few years.

This summer it was opened to the public as part of one of the most ambitious Jewish heritage revitalization projects in Europe — the Czech 10 Stars.

Carried out by the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities and financed by an approximately $14 million grant from the European Union, with further funding from the Czech Culture Ministry, the 10 Stars project links newly restored historic synagogues and other Jewish buildings in 10 towns, cities and villages widely scattered over all parts of the country.

Each site hosts a permanent exhibit focusing on one specific aspect of Jewish history, culture, religious life or traditions. There is space for concerts and other cultural events, and in several places Jewish cemeteries dating back centuries (and even a couple of mikvehs) lie within an easy walk.

Continue readinghttp://forward.com/articles/203640/uniting-jewish-heritage-sites-across-czech-republi/?p=all#ixzz3A6qWEYA0

 

 

My new favorite building in Budapest

My new favorite building in Budapest is the National Pension Insurance Administration Building on Fiumei st, which was built in two stages, 1911-12 and 1929-31. The chief architect was Marcell Komor — with Dezso Jakab and Aladar Sos. (Komor & Jakab designed the synagogue and other buildings in Subotica, as well as many other great buildings.) The Pension building has a series of 24 wonderful relief sculptures by several wellknown sculptors of the period, illustrating workers getting injured on the job and then being cared for (by social insurance, natch).
I stopped to photograph the reliefs yesterday, after attending services (and having post-services unch) at the Teleki ter synagogue around the corner — a little pre-war shtiebl whose congregation has been revitalized (and premises renovated) in large part due to the efforts of brothers Andras and Gabor Mayer.
The post-services lunch boasts some of the best sólet (cholent) in the city…..
 Here are some more pictures of the reliefs. See detailed info on the building, and more pix, HERE

2 recent articles: on the pope in Israel and a Jewish poet sleeps in Hitler’s bedroom

Here are links to a couple of my most recent articles

The Jewish Poet Who Slept in Hitler’s Bedroom. Tablet Magazine, April 28, 2014

At a dinner following a very fine public reading in Syracuse last week, the distinguished poet Jerome Rothenberg told the story of how he once slept in Hitler’s bed—or, at least, in his bedroom.

It happened in 1988, when Rothenberg visited Poland, the country from which his parents emigrated to the United States in 1920. He was accompanied by his wife Diane and their son, who was then 19, and en route from Krakow to Wroclaw the family stopped at Auschwitz. “Our son wouldn’t get out of the car,” Rothenberg told the table.

It was raining when they arrived in Wroclaw, in southwest Poland, and checked in to the Monopol Hotel. Instead of the suite they had reserved, however, the hotel at first could only come up with two separate rooms. Then, finally, the desk clerks said they had found a suite that was free. “An elderly bellhop took our bags and led the way,” Rothenberg recounted. “At the suite he threw open the doors, then he turned to us and said: ‘You know who slept here? Hitler!’”

That wasn’t all: “He added, Hitler had made a speech from the suite’s very balcony,” Rothenberg went on. Indeed, the balcony was specially built to accommodate the speech, made by Hitler in 1938. At the hotel, Rothenberg and his family had paused to confer. “We decided,” he said, “he’s dead, and we’re alive. So that night, so to speak, we slept in Hitler’s bed.”

The story was a perfect coda to Rothenberg’s reading, sponsored by the Syracuse Downtown Writer’s Center and held in a cozy room at the YMCA. Now 82, Rothenberg read from works collected in his latest book, Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, a compilation that was published last year and includes poems ranging from the 1950s to the present.

Throughout much of his career, Rothenberg has delved deep into explorations of Jewish identity, Jewish traditions, Jewish roots, Jewish mysticism. Years before setting foot in Poland, he brilliantly conjured an imaginary vision of the country of his immigrant parents in an important collection of poems called Poland/1931, published in 1974.

And in his powerful Holocaust cycle, Khurbn, Rothenberg—born in Brooklyn—visits the town near Treblinka that his parents had left and records conversations he had with local people interspersed with his own reflections on the destruction of local Jews.

“…were there once Jews
here? Yes, they told us, yes they were sure there were, though
there was no one here who could remember…”

In Syracuse, Rothenberg read “The Wedding,” a poem from Poland/1931 that encapsulates the way Poland looms large in Jewish myth and memory—and which I first heard him read when we first met, at a poetry conference in London in the mid-1970s. “my mind/ is dreaming of poland stuffed with poland,” it reads in part. It goes on:

“… o poland o sweet resourceful restless poland
o poland of the saints unbuttoned poland repeating endlessly the triple names of mary
poland poland poland poland poland ….

On pope’s trip to Israel, rabbi and sheik will be traveling companions. JTA, May 19, 2014

ROME (JTA) – With a rabbi and a Muslim sheik as his travel companions, Pope Francis is heading to the Middle East with what he hopes will be a powerful message of interfaith respect.

It will be the first time that leaders of other faiths are part of an official papal delegation. The aim is to send “an extremely strong and explicit signal” about interfaith dialogue and the “normality” of having friends of other religions, chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters.

Starting Saturday, the three-day pilgrimage will take the 77-year-old pontiff to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. The packed agenda includes courtesy calls on government leaders; open-air Masses; meetings with Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious authorities; and visits to holy sites of the three religions.

The two men joining Francis are friends with whom the pope frequently collaborated when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires: Rabbi Abraham Skorka, former rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Sheik Omar Abboud, a former secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina.

“I don’t expect Francis to wave a magic wand and bring together Jews and Palestinians,” Skorka told the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire. “But his charisma and his great humility can give a powerful message of peace for the whole Middle East.”

Since being elected to the papacy in February 2013, Francis, the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years, has become known — and widely hailed — for breaking protocol, shunning the grand trappings of papal power and reaching out to the faithful on a personal level.

On his upcoming trip, Francis has insisted that he will not travel in a bulletproof vehicle or special Popemobile. Rather, he’ll get around in “a normal car or open-topped jeep” in order to be closer to the people who come out to greet him, according to the Vatican spokesman.

Eric Greenberg, the director of communications, outreach and interfaith for the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, said Francis’ ability to captivate world media means every step of his visit will be watched closely.

“There will be opportunities to deepen the important bilateral relationship between Catholics and Jews, and to boost the larger dialogue among Catholics, Jews and Muslims,” Greenberg said.

Continue reading 

My article on the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II

Here’s a picture of me meeting with Pope John Paul II back in the mid-1990s….

 

Rome is bracing for millions of pilgrims coming to attend to canonization on Sunday of popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Here’s my JTA article about how these two popes revolutionized relations between Catholics and Jews.

Becoming saints: Two popes who revolutionized Jewish-Catholic relations

 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

(JTA) — Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are being declared saints of the Roman Catholic church on April 27, the day that is also the eve of Yom Hashoah.

It’s a coincidence but a notable one.

These two post-Holocaust pontiffs revolutionized relations between Catholics and Jews, fostering interfaith dialogue and embedding respect for Jews and Judaism in official Catholic dogma.

“These two popes transformed not just the church, but made a bigger impact on the outside world — and on us,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, a vice president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism and longtime participant in Jewish-Catholic dialogue. “As a Jew, my life, and the safety and security of Jews, have been improved by the actions of these two individuals.”

Pope Francis, who took office little more than a year ago, will preside over the solemn ceremony at the Vatican, taking place on the day Catholics celebrate as the Second Sunday of Easter. It was Francis who decided to canonize the two former popes in an unprecedented joint ceremony.

Rome is bracing for millions of the faithful to converge on the Eternal City for the event, which will also be attended by representatives of the Jewish community including Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni; the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, Rabbi David Rosen; and Francis’ personal friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina.

John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 until his death in 1963, initiated policies that changed nearly 2,000 years of church teaching.

Pope John XXIII delivers a message to the world appealing for peace. (Keystone/Getty Images)

First, he canceled the words “perfidious Jews” from Good Friday prayers. Then, to reform and update the church, he convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. This Council in 1965 issued the Nostra Aetate declaration, a landmark document of less than 1,600 words that called for Jewish-Catholic dialogue and rejected the ancient Christian stigma against Jews as killers of Jesus.

Click here to read the full article 

 

 

 

Story of a Sardinian folksinger murdered in Rome’s Ardeatine Caves

Gavino De Lunas, and files. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

How did a Sardinian folksinger by the name of Gavino De Lunas end up murdered by the Nazis in Rome’s Ardeatine Caves 70 years ago — the most notorious Nazi atrocity in WW2 Italy?

Here’s my March 21, 2014 story about it in Tablet Magazine.

 

70 Years Later, Memory of Nazi Massacre Still Divides Some Italians—and Unites Others

The victims of the Ardeatine Caves murders included partisans, Jews, and a Sardinian folk star named Gavino De Lunas

[...]

In December, I visited a woman named Barbara Cole, who lives part-time near the small town of Todi, in central Italy. Over lunch, she told stories about her family and especially about her grandfather, a colorful Sardinian folk hero whose life history she has been piecing together from family documents and other sources.

Cole’s father was a British airman who met her mother, a local beauty queen, while he was stationed in Sardinia after World War II. Cole herself was raised in England and has only begun exploring her Sardinian heritage in recent years.

Her mother’s father, she told me, had been a well-known Sardinian poet and folk singer named Gavino Luna, who had gone by the stage name Gavino De Lunas. Though little-known outside Sardinia, he was famous on the island, especially in his hometown of Padria. Gavino cut records, played guitar, was photographed wearing traditional Sardinian folk costume—complete with tasseled hat—and published his lyrics in print.

As a day job, he worked for the Italian postal service, based in post offices in Cagliari, L’Aquila, and Rome. He was wounded fighting for Italy in World War I, and during World War II he worked in Rome for the underground anti-Fascist resistance. In early 1944, Gavino was employed at the main post office in Rome, but he also secretly helped carry out acts of sabotage—such as cutting phone lines and laying explosives. “He had great passion and hated that the Germans were taking over his country,” Cole told me.

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