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.
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.
Banjo picker Eric Lindberg loves with a passion the distinctive harmonies of the acoustic country music known as bluegrass. However, he says, as a Jew, he long felt “a bit out of the loop.
“Much of the work from the inception and early days of bluegrass is deeply spiritual and Christian based,” says the dark-haired, darkbearded 30-something Lindberg, who also plays guitar. “Musically, I could connect with the songs on every level, but my identity as a Jew from Brooklyn always kept me from truly identifying with them.”
The solution? He and his wife, singer Doni Zasloff, formed a bluegrass band called Nefesh Mountain whose original songs meld bluegrass and old-time licks with lyrics reflecting Jewish traditions. “Nefesh is a Hebrew word which loosely translates as the soul or animating spirit of all living things,” they explain on the band’s website. “The mountain is a cross-cultural symbol used widely in Jewish text as well as in bluegrass and old-time musical forms.”
Bluegrass and old-time are two different approaches to traditional 20th-century American roots music, performed by ensembles made up mainly of stringed instruments such as fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar.
Nefesh Mountain’s 2016 debut album featured bluegrass greats Sam Bush, Mark Schatz, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes and Gary Oleyar, and it included songs called “Singin’ Jewish Girl” and “Adonai Loves Me.” Lindberg and Zasloff are among the current crop of musicians who blend their deep-seated Jewish identities with an equally deep connection to traditional roots music—a fusion that some performers and critics dub “Jewgrass.”
New Orleans-based Mark Rubin, 51, a veteran of both the American roots and klezmer scenes, takes a different tack on his new album, Songs for the Hangman’s Daughter. In songs such as “Southern Jews Is Good News” and “Teshuvah,” Rubin, who was born in Stillwater, Okla., bluntly attempts to reconcile his experience as a culturally Jewish musician in the American South.
“It is not religious music in the usual sense,” says music critic Ari Davidow. Rubin “is in-your-face about who he is and how he doesn’t fit stereotypes. He is not just making a statement to anti-Semites who see Jews as aliens, but also to Jews of the coasts who find it alien to imagine that there are Jews who live in redneck territory, proudly embracing redneck values.”
Nash Holos radio has published an article and podcast about my work by Peter Bejger –– based on a lectures I gave in Lviv and Glasgow on the “dark tourism” aspects of Jewish heritage tourism, as well as on my recent posts on Jewish Heritage Europe from my day trips to Jewish heritage sites in western Ukraine.
Let’s take a moment to consider “dark tourism.”
The concept is elastic, and quite multi-faceted. And it has a distinguished historic pedigree. Evidently there are assertions that Thomas Cook, yes the Thomas Cook that founded the famous international travel agency, took people to see public hangings in England with some of his very first tour groups in the 19th century.
And there is even an academic Institute for Dark Tourism in England that promotes ethical research. Research into a social scientific understanding of sites of death and disaster. And how these sites have, or can, become tourist sites, whether appropriate or inappropriate.
The world offers so many options for dark tourism: the horrifying, like now visitor-thronged concentration camps; the easily accessible, like Ground Zero at the 9/11 memorials in Lower Manhattan; the far-flung and harder to reach, like the haunting ruins of lovely ancient Armenian churches in the isolated reaches of what is now northeastern Turkey. Reflecting on those ruins brings up uncomfortable questions on what happened to those people who once worshipped in those churches.
There is also the edgy. People are usually impressed when you’ve told them you were able to tour the radioactive zone around Chornobyl.
Which brings us to the endless supply of dark tourist sites in Eastern Europe, and specifically Ukraine.
The first edition of Ruth Ellen Gruber’s book Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe was published twenty-five years ago. This was the first, and is still considered the most complete, Jewish travel guide to the region.
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.
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 published lengthy posts on some of these sites on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site — here are the links:
I’m delighted and excited to have been asked to write the Foreward to “Reiten Wir!” — an anthology of new short stories based on Karl May characters to be published in October as part of events and initiatives marking May’s 175th birthday.
Proceeds and royalties will go to support the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany.
Gojko Mitic as Winnetou at the Bad Segeberg Karl May festival
Since its launch five years ago,Jewish Heritage Europehas 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 theBratislava 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 theJHE 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.
RG and REG – at the launch of my first book, in New York in 1992
My namesake, the noted author and photojournalist Ruth Gruber, has died at the age of 105 after a remarkable life and career.
In a JTA article, I reminisced about how for decades people had confused us and conflated our biographies.
One Ruth Gruber Says Goodbye to Another
November 21, 2016
(JTA) — When you share a name with someone you respect and admire, you always try to live up to the connection, because sometimes outsiders aren’t aware of the difference.
That’s how it was for decades with me and Ruth Gruber, the noted photojournalist, reporter and author who died last week at age 105 after a remarkable life and career.
From my first international byline, when I was a young intern at the Associated Press in Rome in the 1970s (when Ruth was already in her 60s), right up to a Facebook comment just a couple months ago, our names, and also our shared focus on Jewish affairs, have led to confusion.
It didn’t matter that she was decades older than I was, or that she had written largely about Israel and Holocaust matters and I mainly write about European Jewish affairs and Jewish heritage. Our biographies have often been conflated, and articles even ran with the picture of the wrong person.
Ruth received checks in the mail that were actually due to me, and a major Jewish organization once sent me an official letter announcing an award – except as I read through the letter I realized that the award was meant for her, not me.
I tried to underscore my individuality by using my middle initial or middle name – Ellen – in my byline and in other professional dealings. But it hasn’t always helped.
In January 1983, when, as a UPI correspondent, I was arrested on trumped-up accusations of espionage, jailed overnight and expelled from communist Poland, Ruth’s answering machine ran out of space because of calls from anxious friends and family.
I frankly can’t remember now if we met when I returned to the U.S. briefly after my expulsion from Poland, or if our first meeting came nearly a decade later, in 1992, when, wearing a striking broad-brimmed hat, she attended the launch of my first book, “Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe.”
But we stayed in touch over the years, and every time we got together or spoke on the phone we laughed about our common – if sometimes frustrating – problem of confused identity.
Over the decades, I have received scores of emails meant for Ruth, especially before she herself had an email account.
A particular flood of them came after a two-part CBS mini-series based on Ruth’s book, “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America,” aired in February 2001.
Scores of viewers who were moved by the story of how Ruth in 1944 escorted 982 refugees from 19 Nazi-occupied countries to safe haven in Oswego, New York poured out their hearts in sometimes very emotional terms.
Even five years later a non-Jewish viewer in Colorado wrote to Ruth at my email address: “Shalom!!” he began. “There are no words to express how your story has impacted our lives! […] Do you have any suggestions as to how we might embrace and love the Jewish population where we live? With all the hatred that has been afflicted on your beautiful people and culture there are so many obstacles to overcome. Any advice you could give would be priceless!!”
Perhaps the funniest example of our identity mix-up took place in person, not in cyberspace.
At an American Jewish Committee annual meeting in the late 1990s, I gave my name when I asked a question during one of the sessions. As I went back to my seat, a woman stopped me.
“It’s so good to see you again!” she exclaimed. “You came to our house in the ‘40s!”
I stared at her for a few seconds before I could gather myself to respond.
“Look at me,” I finally told her. “I know I’m tired, but do you really think I could have come to your house in the ‘40s?”
Farewell, Ruth! I hope I can continue to honor your example.
Venice university professor Shaul Bassi stops beneath an elegant marble plaque affixed to an inner wall of the Jewish community building just off the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the secluded, vaguely fan-shaped main plaza of the historic Venice Ghetto.
The flowery Italian inscription extols one Giuseppe Bassi, a local rabbi who died in 1916. He was, it declares, “incomparable” as a teacher and religious leader; a man who “spent his life in works of enlightened charity, elevating the humble; educating young people to follow in his stead.”
Above the inscription, in Hebrew, appears a line from Psalm 145: “One generation shall commend your deeds to the next.”
Shaul Bassi looks up at the plaque and smiles. “He was my great-grandfather,” he says.
Venice is currently in the midst of a year of events marking the 500th anniversary of the imposition of Europe’s first official Jewish ghetto. And Bassi—who traces his Jewish ancestry here back to the 16th century—is the coordinator of the Venice Ghetto 500 anniversary committee set up by local Jewry and the city.
Dozens of concerts, conferences and other initiatives—the most publicized was a July staging of The Merchant of Venice—were officially kicked off on March 29, 500 years to the day after Venetian rulers under Doge Leonardo Loredan ordered the 700 or so Jews confined to the site of a former foundry, known as geto in Venetian dialect. Jews remained segregated there until 1797, when Napoleon’s forces broke down the gates. At its height, some 5,000 Jews lived amid the cramped alleyways and piazzas. They constructed tenements as tall as seven stories high to conserve space and built five synagogues whose jewel-like sanctuaries are hidden behind austere façades.
Despite economic and other strictures, Jews here lived rich, creative lives. Venice became a renowned center of Hebrew printing, and leading personalities such as Rabbi Leon Modena and the poet Sara Copio Sullam, both of whom died in the 1640s, were well known outside the ghetto walls.
“The story of the ghetto is the story of segregation, but also the story of an enormous quantity of cultural exchanges,” says urban historian Donatella Calabi, who curated an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, “Venice, the Jews and Europe 1516-2016,” which is the centerpiece of quincentennial events. “The 500th anniversary should be an occasion to reflect on history, but also to [reframe] things for the future,” she adds.
How to do that is a major challenge for today’s Venetian Jews.
Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, has enchanted visitors and inspired artists for centuries with its shimmering fusion of water, stone and light. Tourists and poets alike vie for superlatives to describe the atmosphere of an enchanted city built on more than 100 tiny islands in the midst of a lagoon.
The attraction, however, has its downside. More than a century ago, the German Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann was already describing the floating city as “half fairy tale, half tourist trap.”
Indeed, millions flock to Venice each year, putting a strain on the fragile infrastructure. On any given day in the summer high season, tourists—as many as 80,000 in a 24-hour period—crowd the city’s historic center, outnumbering the people who actually live there.
There’s good reason, of course, for Venice’s overwhelming popularity. Its unique architecture is stunning; the museums and churches display renowned artistic treasures; the cuisine is divine. And the experience of getting lost amid the dense, shadowy network of canals, alleyways, bridges and plazas is the stuff of romance.
So don’t let the crowds put you off. Sights on the well-beaten track may see you joining thousands of others. But it is possible to escape the crowds, especially after nightfall, when day-trippers have returned to the mainland or their cruise ship.