I’m quoted in the Wall Street Journal

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

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

Europe Tunes In to Its Own Country Music Scene

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

By

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

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

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

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

[…]

Read the full article

 

 

 

 

The Czech 10 Stars project — my article and links

Interior of restored synagogue in Brandys nad Labem, CZ.

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

Uniting Jewish Heritage Sites Across Czech Republic

Ten Points of the Jewish Star

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Here are links to a couple of my most recent articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading 

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

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

 

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

Becoming saints: Two popes who revolutionized Jewish-Catholic relations

 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

It’s a coincidence but a notable one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full article 

 

 

 

Remembering Jiri Fiedler

 

This past week the terrible news came that Jiri Fiedler, a pioneer in Jewish heritage research in the Czech Republic,  had been found murdered, along with his wife, in their Prague apartment. Apparently they were killed around the end of January, but not found until a couple of weeks later. Police are investigating, but as of today, few details have emerged.

Jiri was one of my first guides when I began exploring Jewish heritage issues nearly 25 years ago, and he served as a guide and mentor to many others. His 1991 book “Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia,” was a milestone in the post-communist rediscovery of Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic, and he continued his work as a director of research at the Prague Jewish Museum, contributing to a growing online database of Jewish heritage.

The news left the Jewish heritage world in shock. I wrote a tribute to him in Tablet Magazine:

[…] I first met Fiedler in 1990, when I was just embarking on the research that led to my first book, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe. I had been given his name (and the name of another Czech researcher, Arno Pařik) to look up in Prague as I sent out on my own exploration.

Fiedler and Pařik sat me down and told me exactly where to go. Somewhere in my files I still have the handwritten notes, diagrams, and lists from our first meetings—just as I have saved the emails he wrote to me over the years in his charmingly fractured “Czenglish.”

Fiedler was finally able to publish his own work in a book, Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia, in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution. He went on to compile and analyze material at the Jewish Museum, and his work has since been digitized as part of a regularly updated electronic encyclopedia of Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic.

“At a time of destruction, Jiří Fiedler did what specialist institutions should have devoted their time to,” the Jewish Museum statement said. “At a time when the Jewish cultural heritage in Bohemia and Moravia was treated with utter contempt, he produced a trove of work that can be drawn on by future generations of researchers in the area of Jewish topography.”

Fiedler’s death was reported by the writer Helen Epstein, who also met him in 1990, when she was researching her memoir, Where She Came From. Epstein remembered Fiedler in a lovely piece titled “Eulogy for a Source,” published Sunday in the New York Times.

Epstein’s eulogy is a sensitive and very moving tribute, but its headline, I believe, sells Fiedler short. Jiři Fiedler was much more than a source. He was a guide, a mentor, and an inspiration. A modest man with an impish sense of humor, he was also a mensch. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life; may their memory be for a blessing.

Read full article here 

 

 

 

 

Pete Seeger and Czech Bluegrass

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve written  about this before, but, with Pete Seeger’s death on Monday at the age of 94, I wrote a little piece for Tablet Magazine on the impact of Seeger’s 1964 concerts in communist Czechoslovakia on the development of the Czech bluegrass scene — the Czech Republic probably boasts more banjo-players and bluegrass bands per capita than any other country — the new documentary film Banjo Romantika, in which I appear as a “talking head,” goes into this phenomenon.

My Tablet piece was pegged not just to Seeger’s death, but to the fact that over the weekend I took part in the launch of a new CD by the Czech bluegrass-fusion band The Malina Brothers — banjoist Lubos, guitarist Pavel, fiddler Pepa and non-brother bassist Pavel Peroutka, all of whom are veterans of the scene and play in other major groups. Lubos, Pavel and Pepa visited me in Italy last year and gave a house concert to enthralled neighbors.

Back in September, I helped out in the studio in Prague with the band’s English language singing.

On Sunday night, at a sold-out concert in the brothers’ home town of Nachod, in northern Bohemia, they brought me up on stage for the “krest” — christening — to toast the new release with sparkling wine.

I wrote in Tablet:

It was almost exactly 50 years ago that Seeger performed a series of concerts in the then-communist Czechoslovakia in March 1964. For the first time, people saw a five-string banjo being played, an instrument whose distinctive twang they’d heard while listening clandestinely to the American Forces radio broadcast from across the Iron Curtain. Seeger’s performance electrified music fans, who ended up launching a Czech bluegrass scene. (The first Czech five-strings were made from photos of Seeger’s; today, Czech banjo-makers export their instruments worldwide.)

 

Marko Cermak, who half a century ago built a five-string banjo based on photos of Pete Seeger’s. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

Seeger’s 1964 tour was booked by the official Czechoslovak concert agency. Pete’s longtime friend Gene Deitch, a Chicago-born, Academy Award-winning animator and illustrator who has lived in Prague since the 1950s, organized the Prague concert. Deitch, now 89, also recorded it and it was later issued as a CD.

Seeger, Deitch recalled in the CD notes, was—as far as the Czech authorities were concerned—”an example of a ‘progressive’ American performer, singing for the rights of the ‘oppressed American masses,’” and “all those living in the darkness of [the] ‘imperialist’ American society.”

Deitch has posted the entire recording on his web site—among the songs Seeger performed that night was the Israeli folk song “Tzena Tzena,” which he sang in Hebrew.

Seeger’s influence in the Czech music scene stretches well beyond bluegrass. The Malina Brothers CD launch was my second in the country in recent weeks. In December, I helped pop the bubbly in Prague for the launch of a CD of Ladino tunes called “Songs from the Sephardic Tradition” by the new band Kon Sira, another project with which Lubos Malina, the award-winning banjoist of the Malina Brothers, is involved.

Malina, who turned 55 the day Pete Seeger died, was only a boy when Seeger played Prague in 1964, but he first heard bluegrass and banjo music from the generation of Czech musicians that Seeger had directly influenced. In a way, this makes the Kon Sira Sephardic project, too, a direct legacy of Pete’s performance half a century ago.

Read the full article

In the Czech Republic, the launch of a CD is called a “křest” or “Christening.” Kon Sira’s leader, the Ladino scholar and singer Katerina Garcia, thought this would not be good form for a CD of Jewish music — so in the video below you can see her explaining this in Czech to the audience at the launch, and then me reciting the Shehehiyanu prayer.

Plans for new Holocaust memorial museum in Budapest spark controversy

Tablet Magazine published my article last week about plans for a controversial new Holocaust memorial museum in Budapest. It was a real pleasure to work with Tablet’s editor for the piece, Allison Hoffman.

The article prompted a lot of interest and feedback — it’s a complex and very fraught situation, and I am very pleased that people praised it for being “measured,” “insightful,” and “objective”!

The facility, which is to combine a permanent exhibit with an interactive learning center and other services, will be a centerpiece of a nationwide effort to mark the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary, but almost ever facet of the project has come under criticism or question.

 

Plan To Open Another Holocaust Museum in Budapest Faces Criticism—From Jews

Many worry it will be window-dressing for politicians who want to be seen remembering the Shoah but ignore today’s anti-Semitism

By Ruth Ellen Gruber (Jan. 10, 2014)

The Hungarian author György Konrád is arguably one of the best-known child survivors of the Holocaust. By a stroke of luck he narrowly avoided being deported to Auschwitz in 1944 along with the Jews of his hometown, Berettyóújfalu, in eastern Hungary. He, his sister, and two cousins survived the war in a Swiss-protected Budapest safe house. His parents, who had been deported to Austria, also survived and were reunited with their children in Berettyóújfalu after the war—the only Jewish family from the town to survive intact.

Yet in mid-December, Konrád, now 81, pointedly declined an invitation to take part in an advisory session for a new $22 million state-sponsored Holocaust memorial museum and education center focusing on child victims that is slated to open next spring. “It would be hard to shake the feeling that the hasty organization of this exhibition is not about the hundreds of thousands of children murdered 70 years ago, but rather about the Hungarian government of today,” Konrád wrote in anopen letter to the museum’s director. “If the government wanted to devote such a large sum to the memory of these children, then in the spirit of the children’s spiritual heritage I would suggest they turn this amount over to feeding the badly nourished, living Hungarian children of today.”

Konrád’s words reflected the powerful mix of political, emotional, and ideological passions that the plans for the new complex have ignited in this sharply polarized country since they were announced in September by the nationalist Fidesz party government, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The new institution is to center mainly on the experience of children during the Holocaust—but also on Hungarians who rescued Jews. It will be located in the disused Józsefváros train station in Budapest’s rundown Eighth District, once a teeming Jewish neighborhood, and will be called “House of Fates,” a name that harks back to Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness, which narrates the experiences of a teenaged boy during the Shoah. Continue reading…

 

See more site plan pictures of the museum

 

 

Start of the olive harvest

Just one thought at the start of the annual olive harvest: I love the little tug and the almost inaudible sound — phut! — when I pull the olives off the branch.

This year, I seem to have double the usual amount of olives. Hope the weather holds.

Here’s  an article I wrote about the harvest a few years ago, in Tablet Magazine:

Dec. 17, 2009

It’s surely just a coincidence that in Italy, where I have a home, the olive harvest generally takes place in the month or so before the most oil-centered of Jewish holidays.

For me, though, the olive harvest and subsequent production of oil provide a parallel seasonal ritual, in which bruschetta, or grilled bread drenched in dense new oil, provides the ceremonial flavor.

My family and I have property in an olive-producing area of Umbria, in central Italy, where the landscape is a hilly mix of forest and farmland, and many of the slopes are covered with groves of olive trees.

Umbria is home to several big olive oil concerns, with huge groves comprising thousands of trees. But many people, like me, have small private holdings that provide enough oil for their own needs, as well as a portion left over for sale.

On our land, we have several dozen olive trees. I keep most of them pruned, but otherwise, I admit, I’m a very poor farmer. I don’t plow or fertilize or do much else to care for them; I regard what they produce as something of a gift, and only about half of the trees, in fact, bear fruit.

Still, each November sees me out in the field, gathering olives and then having them taken to a local frantoio, or olive press, where they are turned into oil.

The picking process is hard, repetitive work, but it’s simple. I spread a net on the ground at the base of each tree and then strip the branches, using my fingers or an orange plastic hand-rake specially made for the job.

In Umbria we pick olives before there are overly ripe, so that you have to really pull them off. They are green and purple and brown as well as a mature black, and I love the little tug and the sound they make as they detach from their stems. The ripe black olives look luscious, but there is no temptation to sample them: raw olives are intensely bitter, inedible unless dried, salted, or processed in brine. […]

Read the full article

 

 

 

 

The nights Lou Reed partied at my house

Lou Reed’s death has made me think back — yipes — more than 40 years to the two times I met him: when he partied at my parents’ house twice after shows in Philadelphia….. I wrote about it, of course….(The editor, alas, took out the lines noting that  there was another soon-to-be celebrity at the second party: my friend Ray Seifert, who became Ray Benson and the next year founded the multiple Grammy-winning western swing band Asleep at the Wheel….)

 

The night Lou Reed came to my house 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber
JTA

Lou Reed’s death on Sunday has made me think not just of his music but of his life, and specifically about when his life and mine briefly intersected, back when my brother Frank and I entertained him at our parents’ Philadelphia home, unbeknownst to mom and dad.

It was 1969 and Frank, then in high school, was covering rock music for a local underground paper, The Distant Drummer, a paper that I, too, used to write for.

The Velvet Underground used to play fairly regularly — every six weeks or so, Frank says — at a club called the Second Fret. Frank was friendly with the house band and its manager and got to know Lou Reed and the rest of the Velvets.

So much so that twice Frank brought Reed over to our parents’ Center City brownstone after their gig to party. I don’t recall anything raucous on either occasion. In fact, the first time our parents slept through the whole thing.

It was the end of the summer and I had just returned to Philadelphia after a cross-country drive. Some friends I had traveled with were staying at our house before moving on. I’m not even sure that I went to the Velvets’ gig that night, but Frank was there. Afterward he turned up at home with Lou Reed and (I think) Doug Yule, another member of the band. Frank still can’t figure out why they came.

“I have no idea how that even happened,” he told me. “Why go over to this high school kid’s place were there was no dope and not much to do?“

Sill, we broke open jugs of my father’s probably ghastly homemade wine and finished it all. And it was on this occasion that Lou Reed told us that he didn’t do drugs.

“He told me that that ‘Heroin’ was him being a reporter,” Frank recalls.

In the morning, I’ll never forget our folks’ reaction when we revealed what had been going on as they slept. “What!” my mother said. “You had the Velvet Underground here and didn’t wake us up?”

The second Velvets party was a few months later. Again, Reed and maybe someone else from the band came over after a show. It was a real party this time, with other friends invited. One memory stands out from that night. The Rolling Stones album “Let it Bleed” had just come out, and for almost the entire evening Reed stayed upstairs, away from the other guests, in the room where my parents had a stereo, a real piece of furniture with speaker consoles the size of upright trunks.

The whole night (or so I remember) he stayed there, crouched down, his ear glued to the speaker, playing one track over and over and over: “Gimme Shelter.” I never hear that song without thinking of that night.

Read more: http://www.jta.org/2013/10/29/news-opinion/the-night-lou-reed-came-to-my-house#ixzz2j9HvHuwY

 

 

 

 

 

I have the cover story in Hadassah Magazine

 

Detail of the painting on the Gwozdziec ceiling. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’m delighted to have the cover story in the current Hadassah Magazine — an article about the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

I’ve followed the development of this museum, which opened its doors in April but minus its core exhibition, since the mid-1990s, when the idea of such a museum was first broached, and I’ve written about it on various occasions — including a JTA piece when the building opened.

Since the core exhibition won’t be open to the public until probably next fall, I focused my Hadassah piece on the borader context of the museum.

The museum is not an isolated institution, nor is its mission totally unique. Though its scope and prominence far surpass other initiatives, it is representative of a new crop of Jewish exhibits and venues that focus not on static displays of Judaica and not on the Shoah but on the living Jewish world that was destroyed.

This trend has been exemplified most recently by the new permanent installation “Shoah,” curated by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and opened in the Block 27 barracks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This, like “Letters to Afar,” employs a variety of prewar film clips showing Jews carrying out all sorts of activities. Its soundtrack merges spritely music with sounds of celebrations, street life and snippets of conversation.

Nearby, in Oswiecim, the town where the Auschwitz camp was built, a small museum at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, located in the town’s one surviving synagogue, presents prewar Jewish life in a town that before the Holocaust had a predominantly Jewish population. “No one knows that there were Jews here before the war—they only know the death camp,” noted Shlomi Shaked, a volunteer at the center. His mother, born in Oswiecim in 1949 and a resident there until her family immigrated to Israel in 1962, is featured in the exhibit. “I think people who visit Auschwitz should come here first to see the life before they visit the camp,” he said.

A new Jewish museum housed in a restored synagogue in the small town of Chmielnik, north of Krakow, also showcases prewar Jewish life: After all, noted local historian Piotr Krawczyk, before the Holocaust, 80 percent of Chmielnik’s population was Jewish. That means, “local history is Jewish history,” he said.

One of the key roles of the Warsaw museum will be to support local initiatives. “Until our museum was established there were no proper models in Poland for what to do,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “We can open a new perspective on how Jewish history and heritage can be presented to the public.”

 

Read the full article here