Article profiles me and my heritage work

Me in front of the abandoned synagogue in Hostice, CZ

Me in front of the abandoned synagogue in Hostice, CZ

 

The New York Jewish Week runs a (rather blush-worthy!) article by travel writer Hilary Danailova about me and my Jewish heritage work, including the Jewish Heritage Europe web site.

 

Heritage Tourism In Europe
 
10/13/15
 
 

From Poland to Portugal, nobody knows Jewish Europe like Ruth Ellen Gruber.

On a given week, the Philadelphia-born journalist might be checking out a newly opened museum, inspecting the restoration of a prewar synagogue, or picking her way through forest brambles in search of long-lost tombstones. That explains how Gruber found herself recently in the wilderness south of Prague, where she stumbled onto an 18th-century Jewish cemetery in a clearing near a faded sign marking “Synagogue Street.”

“Here’s this place in the middle of nowhere, and actually, there used to be a synagogue here,” recalled Gruber, who was sleuthing with the aid of locals. “It gave me that sense of discovery that I used to find everywhere. When I find a place that thrills me or makes me feel that sense of wonder again … I loved it.”

The thrill of discovery is something Gruber shares with a growing number of enthusiasts through the website she oversees, Jewish Heritage Europe. A project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, JHE is a comprehensive web portal for all things Jewish overseas: festivals, institutions, scholarship, synagogues and cemeteries.

Under Gruber’s direction, JHE has evolved into an essential travel resource. With an engaging redesign and the recent launch of “Have Your Say,” a feature that invites interactive commentary, JHE makes Jewish Europe more accessible — and more communal — than ever.

Gruber has long occupied a front-row seat for the show that is modern Europe. Since the 1970s, she has reported from abroad for many major news outlets in North America; currently JTA’s senior European correspondent, next summer she will lead her first European Jewish heritage tour for The New York Times.

When we caught up last week by phone, Gruber was back at her home in an Umbrian village after spending Yom Kippur in Budapest, where she also keeps an apartment. I asked Gruber if she had witnessed any of the migrant turmoil that had put Central Europe in the headlines.

She hadn’t; by the time she’d reached Hungary, the migrants had moved on. Driving east from Bratislava, Gruber saw humongous traffic jams on the road to Vienna. But Budapest appeared devoid of any trace of the human drama that had enveloped it just days earlier. “It was beautiful late summer weather, lots of tourists, open-air cafés,” she recalled. “It all looked perfectly normal — weirdly so.”

Fresh off a semester-long stint as Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, Gruber was eager to talk up another September happening: the European Day of Jewish Culture, a Continent-wide celebration of local Jewish life — past and present — that draws huge crowds, mostly non-Jewish. Gruber participated in the event’s founding 20 years ago, and as the klezmer concerts and synagogue tours spill over a whole week in many cities, she wishes American Jews would get more involved.

I pointed out that the first week of September is a hard sell for Americans — but those who do go are profoundly moved by the sight of Europeans, many of whom have never met a Jew, cherishing a part of their collective culture that until recently was ignored or shunned. That goes to the heart of Gruber’s philosophy, which holds that Jewish heritage is everyone’s heritage; historic synagogues are no more sights for Jewish tourists only than cathedrals are for Christians only.

Europe’s newfound appreciation for Jewry explains what Gruber cited as the most exciting trend — the proliferation of Jewish museums, many of which employ novel formats to engage travelers along with wider audiences.

The best known of these is the 2-year-old Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, whose “virtual shtetl” has created a worldwide online community and established a model for 21st-century outreach. “It has a tremendous amount of impact; it’s a social network,” said Gruber.

But other new museums deserve attention, including those in Bratislava, the Portuguese Azores, Bavaria, Padova. This last one, in an overlooked but stunning city, is among a series of destinations travelers can investigate on the Italian Jewish Community’s new “virtual tours.”

And the recently unveiled Czech 10 Stars Project offers travelers a Jewish itinerary that, in covering 10 far-flung destinations, is a comprehensive look at a little-seen land. “It’s kind of like a national museum project,” said Gruber. “And it’s a way to see the country. I love traveling in the Czech Republic, because there aren’t any tourists outside of Prague, really. Those little villages are gorgeous.”

Gruber has enormous affection for the modest, out-of-the-way markers of Jewish life found throughout rural Europe — something that most Americans, who tend to hit the cities by train, never see. In Lithuania, Gruber is excited about the restoration of one of the last prewar wooden synagogues: “They survived by being nondescript,” she explained. “People thought they were barns and ignored them. It’s a whole story of survival, anonymity, neglect, near-death in a fire, and now resurrection.”

In a way, the wooden synagogue is also a metaphor for European Jewry — and it explains the passion Gruber brings to a tangible heritage that compels, not only with its grandest temples, but in its quietly vivid corners as well. 

Read article on Jewish Week web site

 

 

 

Auschwitz: Balancing Memory and Mass Tourism

Auschwitz July 2015-wm1

Here’s my recent article for JTA on how commemoration and mass tourism collide at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz ‘showers’ highlight challenge of balancing tourism and memory

(JTA) – Pawel Sawicki gets to his desk every morning by 7, but he works no regular office job.

Sawicki is an information officer at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum, the sprawling complex in southern Poland that encompasses the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp. More than 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there.

“I look out my window and see barbed wire and barracks,” Sawicki told JTA. “It’s never just a job. You have to find ways to deal with the emotions.”

Auschwitz is a place where history, commemoration and, increasingly, mass tourism collide. The iconic symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz is also a major tourist attraction — the most-visited museum in Poland. Its complex identity — Auschwitz is also a sacred site of martyrdom for Catholic Poles — has made it an emotional, and sometimes political, battleground of memory since the end of World War II.

The latest instance erupted last week, when the museum’s effort to help visitors during an extreme heat wave by installing misting showers provoked outrage among those who felt they invoked the fake showers at Birkenau that spewed poison gas.

Facing a storm of criticism, the museum defended its actions. “Something had to be done” to help visitors cope with the sweltering temperatures, museum officials wrote in a Facebook post. The museum also pointed out that the Nazi gas chamber showers where nearly 1 million were killed by Zyklon B poison gas looked nothing like the misting sprinklers.

“Zyklon B was dropped inside the gas chambers in a completely different way – through holes in the ceiling or airtight drops in walls,” the museum said.

As the heat wave abated, the misting showers at Auschwitz were removed.

“The site is so complicated, with so many conflicting aspects, that nothing is easy,” said Tomasz Cebulski, a historian, tour guide and educator whose doctoral work was on the museum’s political and international aspects.

Created by an act of the Polish Parliament in1947, the memorial museum comprises two parts – the Auschwitz I camp, entered through the iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate, and the vast area of Auschwitz II, at Birkenau, about two miles away.

The museum’s permanent exhibition, displayed in several of the brick barracks in the Auschwitz I camp, opened in 1955 and has changed little since. It includes displays of original artifacts and masses of material left by victims: suitcases, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, clothing, kitchen utensils, even hair shorn from victims’ heads.

Birkenau is a memorial site, a vast open area marked by the grim ruins of the crematoria and barracks and bisected by railway tracks. At one end stands a large monument to victims erected in the 1960s; at the other, the looming entry tower and siding where trains carrying victims were unloaded.

One of the museum’s key challenges is conserving the site’s deteriorating buildings, ruins, archival holdings and artifacts. The museum is a state-run entity. The Polish government provides more than one-third of the approximately $15 million annual budget, and the European Union also contributes some funding. But more than half of the budget is generated by the museum itself through visitor fees for guides, sales of publications, onsite business concessions and other income sources.

In 2009, a special Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was established to “amass and manage” a perpetual endowment fund of $120 million whose income is specifically earmarked for long-term conservation. Some 35 states have pledged or donated funds to the endowment, including more than half of the sum from Germany alone.

The museum employs 339 staffers, including security personnel, educators, archivists, preservationists and technology specialists. They face a daunting task, said Emory University Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt.

“They are both a museum to educate and also a memorial. And they are the major site of destruction,” she said.

“There are very tough questions about preservation that are being dealt with in a most professional and sensitive manner,” Lipstadt said. For example, “the remnants of the gas chambers are collapsing. Do you go in and shore them up? Or let them collapse? Do you stop the hair from disintegrating or not?”

A dramatic upsurge of visitors in recent years has put serious strains on the fragile infrastructure at the site.

A record 1.53 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2014, up from less than 500,000 in 2000. This year, more than 1 million toured the site in the first seven months of the year.

The growing numbers of visitors prompted the museum to implement new visitor regulations and security measures in January. For the first time, there is a ban on bringing backpacks or other large bags into the site.

Basic entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau is free. But during peak hours entrance is now limited, and visitors must pay to tour the site in groups led by one of the nearly 300 guides, working in 18 languages, who have been licensed by the museum after specialized training programs, often in cooperation with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

Because of their large numbers and new regulations, some visitors must wait hours before they can enter the site. That has helped bolster visits to the nearby Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and prayer and study center established in 2000 and located about two miles away in the town of Oswiecim. Before the Holocaust, most of Oswiecim’s residents were Jews, and part of the center’s complex is located in Oswiecim’s sole remaining synagogue, Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot.

The Oswiecim center is dedicated to educating about the Holocaust and Polish Jewish heritage, and the center cooperates with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum on educational programs, including for university fellows, U.S. cadets and midshipmen, and law-enforcement personnel.

But the center at Oswiecim gets only a small fraction of the visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, according to the center’s director, Tomasz Kuncewicz.

“It is a logistical challenge – how to handle the immense numbers so that they can see the exhibits comfortably,” Sawicki said of Auschwitz-Birkenau. “With so many visitors, enhanced security measures were inevitable. We think of both the security of the site and the security of visitors.”

A $26 million off-site visitors’ center, due to open in the next two years, is expected to help, and a new education center is also planned.

The museum also has embarked on an 11-year, government-funded project to revamp its permanent exhibit in a way that will modernize the presentation and reflect current scholarship while at the same time preserve the authenticity of the site and material on display.

“I was for years very critical of mass tourism to Auschwitz,” said Cebulski, the historian. “But lately I’ve come to feel that we should see it as an opportunity. To have 1.5 million people be exposed to this original historic site, even if they spend only 10 minutes thinking of what Auschwitz is, it accomplishes something.”

 

 

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

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.”

 

Click to access article on Drayton Hall web site

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

My articles on the opening of the POLIN museum in Warsaw

"The forest" -- entry into the core exhibit

“The forest” — entry into the core exhibit

The long-awaited core exhibition of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened Oct. 28. I attended the gala opening events and also wrote a couple of articles — one on the opening itself and one of the broader context. I also posted a photo gallery of the museum on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site. Click here to view the photo gallery.

Here below are my two articles, as well as some of the pictures.

Amid growing European anti-Semitism, new Jewish museum in Poland ‘reveals hope’

Ruth Ellen Gruber

October 28, 20114

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — In a Europe wracked by fears of rising anti-Semitism, and in a country whose Jews were all but annihilated in the Holocaust, a dazzling new “museum of life” celebrates the Jewish past and looks forward to a vital future.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday jointly inaugurated the long-awaited core exhibit of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a more than $100 million complex first conceived more than 20 years ago.

“It is not a museum of the Holocaust, it is a museum of life,” Rivlin, who was making his first trip abroad since his election this summer, declared at the opening ceremony. “It is the place that commemorates everything that is gone and will never return. And it reveals hope for a different future.”

Komorowski stressed the same hopes, declaring that the museum opening was a history-making event that bore witness to Poland’s development into a democratic state since the fall of communism.

“One of the central themes in our drive to freedom was to put right the account of history that had been corrupted, manipulated and distorted in so many ways during the non-democratic communist era,” Komorowski said.

Before the Holocaust, some 3.3 million Jews lived in Polish lands. Thousands of survivors fled anti-Semitism in the postwar period. The fall of communism sparked a remarkable revival in Jewish life and identity, but the Jewish population today is still tiny, estimated at 15,000-20,000 in a country of nearly 40 million people.

“We are here!” Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski, chairman of the Council of the Jewish Historical Institute, one of the institutional founders of the museum, said in an emotional speech at the opening ceremony. “That is the message: We are here!”

The reconstructed painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec, a key installation in the core exhibit of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

The museum is housed in a shimmering glass building erected on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto facing the dramatic monument erected atop the rubble left when the Nazis crushed the ghetto uprising in 1943. Described as a “theatre of history,” the core exhibit uses state-of-the-art technology and multimedia installations to narrate 1,000 years of Polish Jewish history.

The exhibition’s eight thematic and chronological galleries detail the complex ebb and flow of Jewish life in Poland from the early middle ages to the present, including periods of prosperity as well as persecution.

They recount grand events but also use letters, diaries, photos and other intimate material to provide personal viewpoints. This is particularly notable in the Holocaust gallery, which narrates the history through the words and deeds of the people who experienced it.

Other highlights include the reconstructed and elaborately painted ceiling and bimah of the now-destroyed wooden synagogue in Gwozdziec (in present-day Ukraine) and a painted animation of 24 hours in the life of the famous yeshiva in Volozhin (now Belarus).

But the core exhibit is only part of the story.

The museum’s impact “stretches way, way beyond the building,” said Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. “And it’s not about a museum of the history of Polish Jews — it’s about Polish Jews. History means past, and it’s not about the past.”

Hundreds of thousands of people — Poles and Jews, locals and foreigners — have visited the museum in the 18 months since the building was opened to the public. Organizers expect a half-million or more each year now that the core exhibit has been opened.

The museum is part of a wider movement since the fall of communism “to reconnect with the past, including the Jewish past,” said Dariusz Stola, the museum’s director. “The museum is the most visible element in this movement. But without the broader movement it wouldn’t have happened.”

This broader movement includes a number of new Jewish studies programs at Polish universities, new or revamped museums, permanent exhibits and memorials on Jewish or Holocaust themes in a number of provincial towns and scores of grassroots initiatives ranging from Jewish cemetery cleanup actions to Jewish culture festivals. This year alone, some 40 Jewish culture festivals took place in Poland, mostly in places where no Jews live today.

“The Jewish presence in Polish consciousness is vast, vast,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the program director of the core exhibit. “It means that there is a kind of inverse relationship between the numbers of Jews living in Poland and what we call Jewish presence in Polish consciousness.”

The POLIN museum was built as a public-private institution, with the Polish government and the city of Warsaw providing $60 million for construction and more than 500 private and institutional donors, many of them Jewish, contributing $48 million for the core exhibition.

“Though Europe has seen a recent rise in anti-Semitism, in Poland we are seeing a revitalization of Jewish life and culture that is being experienced by – and truly driven by – both Poland’s Jewish and gentile communities,” the San Francisco-based philanthropist Tad Taube, head of Taube Philanthropies and the Koret Foundation, said in a statement.

The two organizations were the largest private donors to the museum with a total contribution of $16 million.

“The opening of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a game changer that will break down negative stereotypes about Poland,” Taube said.

The hope, his statement added, is that its lessons “will have ripple effects throughout Eastern Europe as Poland’s neighbors seek to develop their own major modern cultural institutions and broader, more inclusive narratives of their multicultural histories.”


The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki. The building itself was opened to the public in April 2013. The core exhibition, which opened Oct. 28, uses state-of-the-art interactive technology to tell the 1,000-year-history of Jewish presence in Poland in eight galleries that cover 45,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Its name, Polin, means “Poland” in Hebrew, but also derives from a legend that when the first Jews reached Polish lands they heard birds chirping the welcoming expression “Po-lin.” In Hebrew, Polin means “Here you should dwell.”

The core exhibit’s galleries are arranged by both chronology and theme: Forest, First Encounters (the Middle Ages), Paradisus Iudaeoreum(15th and 16th centuries), Into the Country (17th and 18th centuries), Encounters With Modernity (19th century), The Street, Holocaust and Postwar.

Described by its director, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, as a “theater of history,” the exhibit contrasts the grand sweep of epochal events with intimate glimpses of individual joy, pain, fear and reflection.

Highlights of the exhibition include:

The dazzling “Jewish Sistine Chapel,” the reconstructed and elaborately painted ceiling and bimah of the now-destroyed wooden synagogue in Gwozdziec (present-day Ukraine), built by hand using traditional tools and techniques by volunteers and students under the leadership of the Massachusetts-based Handshouse Studio.

A larger-than-life-sized painted animation of 24 hours in the life of the famous yeshiva in Volozhin (now Belarus) founded at the beginning of the 19th century by a disciple of the Gaon of Vilna.

A cartoon-like animation telling the story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.

“The Jewish Street,” a multimedia mock-up of a typical street in pre-World War II Jewish Warsaw, with exhibits on Jewish life between the two world wars. Its layout in the museum corresponds to the exact prewar location of Zamenhofa Street, the heart of the prewar Jewish neighborhood of Muranow.

Evocative shifting video installations of field and forest Polish landscapes where Jews settled.

Hundreds of quotations by and about Jews culled from public documents, official decrees and intimate letters and diaries.

Interactive installations that allow visitors to “mint” a medieval coin, “print” pages from historic books, and “trace” and translate the epitaphs of centuries-old Jewish gravestones.

The Holocaust gallery, which narrates the story of the Shoah in the words of people who experienced it.

Postwar images of the rebuilding of Poland and Jewish life.

Click here to read story at LA Jewish Journal

 

Polin-wm24

 

New museum reflects growing Polish interest in all things Jewish

Ruth Ellen Gruber

November 19, 2014

KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) — Crowds have been streaming to Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews since its core exhibition opened Oct. 28 at a high-profile ceremony led by the presidents of Poland and Israel.

Thousands of visitors have toured the museum’s eight interactive galleries that tell the 1,000-year story of Jewish life in Poland and have flocked to events like the recent Warsaw Jewish Film Festival, some of whose screenings took place at the museum. Some 7,000 people visited the museum on a single Monday when admission was free.

But POLIN is not the only Jewish-related museum in Poland to win recent recognition. At the end of October the Polish version of TripAdvisor listed the much more modest Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow as one of Poland’s 2014 top 10 museums. The Holocaust memorial museums at the former Nazi camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, as well as the Auschwitz Jewish Center — a museum, study and prayer center in Oswiecim — also made the roster.

The TripAdvisor list is based on user reviews and is by no means a scientific study. But it reflects the widespread interest in Jewish heritage, culture and history that has been growing in Poland since before the fall of communism. In many ways, POLIN is the high-profile tip of a very big iceberg.

“It is a symbolic representation of all the changes that have taken place,” said Galicia Jewish Museum Director Jakub Nowakowski. “It could not have been created if not for this. There is a genuine interest in Jewish culture and Polish-Jewish relations in Poland.”

The Galicia museum is one of more than a half-dozen Jewish cultural and educational institutions and initiatives in Krakow alone, a city that is home today to only a few hundred Jews. Established 10 years ago, it showcases photographs of Polish Jewish heritage sites taken by its founder, the late British photographer Chris Schwarz. It also hosts temporary exhibits and other events that celebrate Jewish culture from a contemporary viewpoint.

Other Jewish institutions in Krakow include the Jewish studies program at the city’s Jagiellonian University, the Judaica Foundation Center for Jewish Culture and the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, a nine-day event founded in 1988 that draws tens of thousands to concerts, workshops and exhibits.

The city also has three Jewish bookstores, a Jewish publishing house and a Jewish branch of the Krakow History Museum. A modern Jewish community center opened in 2008 and attracts local Jews, non-Jews and tourists alike to classes, courses, holiday events and kosher Shabbat dinners. Most of the dozens of young volunteers who staff the reception desk and help run JCC activities are not Jewish.

“The huge amount of interest in Jewish topics has created an incredibly pro-Jewish environment where people feel comfortable taking steps to explore their Jewish roots,” said JCC Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein.

Nationwide, there are various academic Jewish studies programs, new or revamped Jewish museums and permanent exhibits, and hundreds of grassroots initiatives ranging from Jewish cemetery cleanups to more than 40 annual Jewish culture festivals. Given that only 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Poland today, most of these are run by non-Jews — about 200 of whom have been honored by the Israeli Embassy since 1998 for their role in preserving Jewish culture and heritage.

“The number of these initiatives is really impressive,” said Edyta Gawron, a Jewish studies professor at Jagiellonian University who said about 95 percent of her students are not Jewish. “It is not just in the big cities, but also in small towns, where people are trying to build the future of Jewish heritage. And it is important and unusual that most of the people behind these initiatives are not Jewish.”

The more than $100 million POLIN museum, which draws about 60 percent of its funding from the city of Warsaw and the Polish government, is dramatically larger than the other Jewish projects around the country. It aims now to use its clout to reach out far beyond its walls to lead the process of integrating Jewish history into Polish history.

“With its very public and very prominent place in Poland, the POLIN museum validates local initiatives,” said Brandeis professor Antony Polonsky, the museum’s chief historian. “We want to find out what’s going on and give them encouragement and expertise.”

Polin-wm13

In early November, the museum convened more than 100 local Jewish heritage and culture activists from around the country to exchange experiences, network and meet with museum experts. And POLIN’s Museum on Wheels project takes material, information and educational programs prepared by the museum curators to far-flung communities all over the country.

“It is very important. It goes everywhere — to towns where people never saw a Jew, or that they didn’t know that they did,” said Krzysztof Bielawski, director of POLIN’s interactive web portal Virtual Shtetl. The site posts news and information about Jewish heritage and history in more than 2,300 towns, cities and villages — and attracts 5,000 unique visitors a day.

“There are many myths about Jews,” Bielawski said.

“If you don’t know about something, you can be afraid of it. The first step is knowledge, and we are providing knowledge. Our museum shows that Jews are normal people,” he added. “It demystifies Jews.”
Click here to read story on the JTA site 

 

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