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As a 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 more than 30 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 other 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.

 

New Video — New Realities of Jewish Heritage

Back in July I was the focus of “New Realities of Jewish Heritage in Europe,” an online program of the National Library of Israel.  It was pegged to the 10th anniversary this year of the Jewish Heritage Europe web site. I was interviewed by my brother, the architectural historian Dr. Samuel D. Gruber, the president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments — he had also taken part in the New Realities of Jewish Heritage conference in Krakow, June 26-27, that also marked the JHE anniversary. (Click here and here to see the recorded live stream of the conference.)

In our hour-long conversation, we discussed the origin and development of JHE, and, looking back on our more than 30 years’ involvement in the field, we explored a range of issues regarding Jewish heritage sites and monuments in general — from their destruction during and after the Holocaust to the “Jewish archaeology” of their documentation and rediscovery; to the multiple challenges and strategies for their preservation and future use: for religious purposes, education, tourism, culture, commemoration, and more.

Watch the video of the conversation here:

Zoom , Zoom, Zoom

During the pandemic, I’ve been taking part in a number of online Zoom webinars, lectures, discussions, and round-table projects.

Here’s the most recent:

“Synagogues: The State of Preservation and Future Prospects – possible approaches and challenges in heritage protection” — December 7th 2021

A conversation with me;  architect, artist and designer, Natalia Romik; the director of the Okopowa Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Witold Wrzosiński; and the CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, Piotr Puchta. This webinar was part of the Virtual Connections to Material Jewish Heritage in Poland project of FODZ (Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland) which features virtual tours of historic synagogues and other sites.

Here’s an example of the “Jewish Heritage Hard Talk” project I’ve been involved in, with Helise Lieberman of the Taube Foundation, and Victor Sorenssen of the AEPJ.

It’s a round-table discussion among the three of us, and always a fourth person (different each time) about Jewish heritage strategy, pegged to the provocative article “10 Commandments for the Care of Jewish Heritage by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe CEO Sally Berkovic.

We’ve done a number of Hard Talks, hosted by different platforms and organizations, with different guests.   This one took place in June 2021, hosted by the AEPJ — the guest was Jeremy Leigh, who teaches Israel Studies and Modern Jewish History at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religions in Jerusalem.

 

“Unfinished Business” — I’m quoted in an article on Jewish cemetery preservation

Me documenting in the Jewish cemetery in Szydlowiec, Poland, in 1994

B’nai B’rith magazine quotes me in a lengthy and unusually comprehensive article that summarizes initiatives to preserve, protect, and restore Jewish cemeteries in Europe.

Written by Linda Topping Streitfeld, the article is called Unfinished Business: Restoring Eastern Europe’s Desecrated Jewish Cemeteries.

She quotes me (and many friends and colleagues):

Author and scholar Ruth Ellen Gruber runs the website Jewish Heritage Europe, with deep resources on Jewish monuments and heritage sites. She has documented the resurgence of interest in Jewish culture and history over three decades. After the fall of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe, she said, “People wanted to fill in the blank spaces, and Jewish heritage was one of them.”

Click here to read the full article

 

 

I’m quoted in an article — A Pilgrimage Through Ancestral Lands

Hilary Danailova has written an article in Hadassah Magazine about Jewish genealogy — and travel, in which I’m quoted, about the impact of digital resources. Her article is called A Pilgrimage Through Ancestral Lands.

“The revolution in genealogy travel is Facebook,” observed Ruth Ellen Gruber, a veteran journalist and Jewish travel authority […]. “There are a million Facebook groups, with subgroups for individual cemeteries, synagogues, shtetls and so forth. People can ask questions and get immediate answers from across the world.” Gruber oversees what is arguably the most comprehensive resource for Jewish heritage tourists: the web portal Jewish Heritage Europe, with daily updates on Jewish heritage-related sights, events and people across the continent, along with genealogy and travel insights.

Adventures in the Real Imaginary

I gave an illustrated lecture — via Zoom — on Nov. 12 as part of a program organized by the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.

In it I looked back over my experience in Poland, dating back to 1980, when I was a correspondent for UPI covering Solidarnosc and martial law (including when I was jailed and expelled from the country because of my coverage) and discussed how throughout my career I’ve observed how people create lived experience via dreams and desires: whether it was Solidarnosc activists aiming for civil society, or emerging Jews and Jewish communities claiming, reclaiming — or creating — identities, or fans of the American frontier finding identity in country music and home-grown swinging door saloons. There was a lot more I would have wanted to say in response to questions in the very brief discussion afterward, but that can be for another time.

Virtual travel in COVID times

I’m quoted in an article by Sophie Panzer in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, titled: Can’t Travel Due to COVID Restrictions? Take a Virtual Tour of Jewish History
(June 26, 2020), discussing how, at a time when the pandemic has curtailed most travel, I presented on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site a wide variety of links a suggestions for virtual tours ….

“Museums and other operations have been creating virtual tours and digital recreations and online exhibits for a long time. Since no one can travel, there’s been an explosion of digital experiences of all sorts,” Gruber said. “JHE is an online operation, so I just wanted to bring more useful and expansive content to people who were stuck at home. People want to be entertained, to see beautiful things.”

She started in early March with a series of virtual tours of 11 European towns that included digital recreations of buildings where people could learn local history. After getting a positive response from visitors, she continued to post more virtual experiences in Italy, Hungary, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries.

In addition to cemeteries and art exhibitions, site visitors can explore “Atlas of Memory Maps.” Mounted by Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre in Lublin, Poland, the online exhibit features maps of pre-war cities, towns and shtetls drawn from former inhabitants’ memories after World War II.

The JHE website also hosts an exhibit of papercut art by the Polish artist Monika Krajewska commemorating Jewish sites that were destroyed during the Holocaust.

“They’re really fabulous, we got a good response,” Gruber said of the artwork.

She said the challenge for tour guides and organizations is monetizing those experiences to help sustain workers in the tourism industry during coronavirus shutdowns.

Click to read the full article

Video — my presentation at Slovenia Jewish heritage conference, September 2019

I took part in a conference on Jewish Heritage in Slovenia, held at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in September 2019.

My presentation was “Notes” from the survey of Jewish heritage in Slovenia that I carried out in 1996 — the first full survey of Jewish heritage in the country, and an endeavor that in many ways underlay the scholarship presented by the other participants in the conference.

That survey was carried out for the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, and was published in downloadable form. Click here to access it.

The conference was filmed — here is a video of my presentation.

Music — and the Imaginary Wild West in CZ

In Brno

In Brno, Czech Republic, the Imaginary Wild West leaps off a wall…. advertising “the best steaks” in the city at an eatery called “U Starýho Bill” (At Old Bill’s) that calls itself “a real ‘TEXAS’ restaurant.”

The wall here was a few steps away from the Sono Center, a major Brno venue for contemporary music — where I was headed to attend a concert by the Czech bluegrass band The Malina Brothers, with guest appearances by Charlie McCoy, the Nashville-based harmonica virtuoso and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Czech singer Kat’a Garcia. The concert was sold out, and got a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd. And it was being filmed for a live show DVD.

Malinas concert Sono Center

The Malinas are old friends of mine. Banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Lubos Malina was one of the founding members of the great Czechgrass group Druha Trava, and I met him (amazingly) nearly 15 years ago, at one of the many summer bluegrass/country festivals in CZ, when I first started exploring the Imaginary Wild West in Europe.

Guitarist Pavel Malina used to play with DT, and fiddler Pepa Malina still sometimes plays with them. The Malina Brothers band came together informally at first, but over the past five years or so has developed a remarkable following in CZ — as the concert in Brno demonstrated.

The three brothers visited in Italy six years ago and gave a house concert at the home of a friend. It was the first of a series of house concerts anchored by Lubos. We’re looking forward to the entire band (the three brothers plus bass player Pavel Peroutka) coming next month. The brothers  played this arrangement of Smetana at the house concert in 2013 — and at the concert in Brno.

On the night after the Brno concert, Pepa Malina performed with Druha Trava at the start of a a week-long tour with Charlie McCoy — a sold-out, standing-ovation gig in the town of Ceska Trebova.

Here’s a video of the run-through before the Ceska Trebova concert:

Charlie McCoy has had a standout career in the USA and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

I’ve written about him in the past, on my Sauerkraut Cowboys blog, because he is quite wellknown in the country music scene outside the USA. He tours regularly in Europe and elsewhere (i.e. Japan), and he makes a point to play with European bands and also records with them; he has released albums in France, Denmark, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Later this summer he will be touring in Sweden in England.

Onstage at the concert in Ceska Trebova, he recalled how he met up with Druha Trava — it was at the festival in Strakonice, CZ, where he was performing in 2001. DT was also on the bigg and asked if he would join them for a few songs — since then he has toured with them half a dozen or more times in CZ, released a live album with DT and also released a CD with The Malina Brothers.

Here’s a promo video about the Malina Brothers album (partly in Czech, partly in English):

I met Charlie back in 2005 during one of his tours with Druha Trava — the concert I saw was at a “Days of Texas” festival in the little town of Roznov pod Radnostem, in eastern CZ.

The festival, I wrote in an article

highlighted the fact that from the mid-19th century until World War I, thousands of people emigrated from Roznov and other towns and villages in the region to Texas. Today, Texas has the largest ethnic Czech community of any state in the United States.

There were demonstrations of 19th-century farming customs used by the emigrants and performances by American-style Czech country-western groups, as well as local folk groups performing Wallachian songs and dances. An exhibition of quilting featured a big patchwork quilt reading “Texas,” hung prominently from the upper floor of the old Roznov Town Hall.

Like the Malina Brothers concert in Brno, the Druha Trava/Charlie McCoy concert in Ceska Trebova drew a standing ovation from an energized crowd — and lots of autograph-seekers and CD-buyers afterward.

And here we are in Ceska Trebova, backstage.

 

 

On the power of built heritage — my op-ed

Holocaust memorial outside restore synagogue in Subotica, Serbia

In the wake of the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, I wrote an op-ed for JTA discussing the transcendent symbolism of built heritage.

JTA gave the essay the title “Notre Dame will be rebuilt – but most European Jewish sites never will be” — but the essay goes well beyond this idea.

 

Read it below:

 

BUDAPEST (JTA) – Architecture and built heritage can be powerful symbols.

Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the most famous and familiar buildings in the world, visited by an astonishing 30,000 people a day, or 13 million people a year. It is embedded in global collective consciousness and immortalized around the world in a zillion holiday snaps, videos, works of fine art  and memories.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds this week have been full of posts grieving over the great cathedral’s fiery fate and heaving sighs of relief that most of the 800-year-old building and its treasures apparently will be saved.

But they have also been full of posts questioning why so much emotion – and money – is (or will be) spent over the fate of one building, however old or iconic, while myriad other important heritage sites are under threat worldwide and millions of people are homeless or go hungry.

My most recent visit to Notre Dame, last October, was for the opening event of an international conference about how to save the thousands of abandoned or endangered churches, synagogues and other sites of religious heritage in Europe. I’ve been working to document and preserve crumbling Jewish heritage sites for three decades, and it’s often been an uphill battle.

Inside Notre Dame during conference opening, October 2018

Unlike the damage incurred by the vast majority of vulnerable heritage sites, the Notre Dame fire happened dramatically, in real time, as thousands watched by the Seine and millions followed online or on TV. Millions of those who watched the flames had a direct, tangible connection with the building, even if just as a tourist who visited once with a group. What’s more, the fire was sudden, unexpected and – unlike so many other cases – it was not due to war or, as far as we know at this point, attack.

People need symbols, and the world needs culture, beauty and art. Notre Dame was and is a symbol of all such things – and an important symbol of continuity and connection.

The global response shows how built heritage can transcend the specific and become a potent symbol for society at large.

Back in 1999, the then-French culture minister, Catherine Trautmann, sought to make this point in an address to an international conference on Jewish heritage in Europe held in Paris and sponsored by the French government.

“Jewish heritage in France is also the heritage of all the French people, just as the cathedrals of France also belong to France’s Jews,” she said.

Her statement was a noteworthy expression of a new way of thinking that has still not fully permeated society – namely that Jewish built heritage is part and parcel of European heritage, not distinct from it.

During the Holocaust, Jewish heritage sites were more than symbols – they were surrogates: In addition to the mass murder of Jews, the Nazis deliberately targeted the physical places that Jews held dear. Untold hundreds of synagogues, prayer houses and Jewish cemeteries were destroyed during World War II, and following the war, hundreds more were either destroyed, left derelict or converted for other uses that totally obscured their original identity.

In the decades that I’ve been involved in the Jewish heritage field, many once-ruined synagogues have been restored, and some have been rededicated with high-level ceremonies: in Berlin, Budapest and Krakow, as well as smaller towns and cities. Some are used again (or still) as places of worship. Others now play prominent roles as cultural landmarks.

In Warsaw, once home to 350,000 Jews and the most important pre-Holocaust Jewish center in Europe, only one prewar synagogue remains standing today. No synagogues were rebuilt when parts of downtown Warsaw, primarily its war-leveled Old Town, castle and cathedral, were reconstructed from rubble after World War II. As far as I know there are no plans to rebuild any in the future.

A year ago, however, a powerful public installation in the heart of Warsaw elevated the symbolism of Jewish built heritage in a way aimed at touching the city as a whole.

Held on the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the failed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the installation, with a second edition planned for this year on April 18, entailed the public “virtual reconstruction” of the Great Synagogue, the most imposing of the city’s destroyed shuls.

A stately domed building that seated 2,000, the Great Synagogue was blown up by the Nazi occupiers on May 16, 1943, following the destruction of the ghetto. A sleek skyscraper known as the Blue Tower now stands on the spot.

Directed by the artist Gabi van Seltmann and organized by the Open Republic Association Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia, the “virtual reconstruction” featured a multifaceted sound collage integrated with a visual centerpiece – an animated projection onto the walls of the Blue Tower of a shimmering, ghostly image of the grand synagogue that once stood there.

The huge projected image, organizers said, was “animated in such a way that the viewer will have an impression that the building is rising from the ruins.”

Warsaw’s Great Synagogue will never be physically reconstructed.

I look forward, though, to the day when Notre Dame is.

A ceremonial virtual reconstruction of the Great Synagogue Warsaw from Otwarta Rzeczpospolita on Vimeo.