In June, I spoke at the big conference on Jewish Cultural Heritage held at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw — it was three days after my eye operation so I wasn’t 100 percent, but here is the full talk.
In June, I spoke at the big conference on Jewish Cultural Heritage held at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw — it was three days after my eye operation so I wasn’t 100 percent, but here is the full talk.
I took part in a symposium Jan. 10 at the Center for Jewish History in New York that celebrated the publication of a special double issue of the journal East European Jewish Affairs that was devoted to new Jewish museums in the 21st century.
Post-Communist Eastern Europe is experiencing a museum boom as it explores new definitions of national identities not possible under communism. This has generated a wholesale revival of interest in Jewish culture and institutions on the part of non-Jews, paradoxically, in the near absence of Jewish populations. The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow and Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw are prime examples of this trend, but there are many others.
I have an article in the journal called “Reportage: Beyond Prague’s “Precious Legacy”: post-communist Jewish exhibits and synagogue restorations in the Czech Republic.” In it I describe the Czech 10 Stars project, dedicated in 2014, and also describe the strategic process of renovation and Jewish exhibits that led up to it.
At the symposium, I was on a panel along with Olga Gershenson (who spoke about the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (who spoke about the POLIN museum in Warsaw) and Anna Manchin, who spoke about museums connected with Jews and Jewish history in Budapest.
In an article in the New York Jewish Week titled “Jewish Museums Leave Nostalgia in the Dust,” Elizabeth Denlinger wrote, about my talk, which I dedicated to the memory of the late Jiri Fiedler:
Ruth Ellen Gruber’s portrayal of the Ten Stars program, a series of ten single-themed exhibitions in significant Jewish sites across the Czech Republic, left me wanting to visit immediately.
She described the session as a whole as
A lively, sometimes contentious symposium [that] emphatically showed that Jewish museums in Central and Eastern Europe have reached a state of fruition worthy of celebration and vigilance […] Its participants threw themselves into exploring the move of Jewish museums “away from nostalgia and toward … a new self-definition,” as Judith Siegel, director of academic and public programming at the CJH put it.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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
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. […]
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….)
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.
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
On Saturday, I attended a ceremony in the outrageously beautiful Umbrian hill town, Polino, where the local authorities named a newly built piazza in honor of Giovanni Palatucci, a World War II Italian fascist police official who is reputed to have saved thousands of Jews by giving them false documents.
Palatucci, who died in Dachau, is revered as a popular hero in Italy (he was also honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem and honored by the ADL, the Roman Catholic Church, the Italian Jewish community and others) — even though recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on the extent of his rescue efforts. He is known to have worked to save at least some Jews, but the generally quoted figure of 5,000 seems inflated….
Anyway, it was a lovely ceremony that mixed hagiography with true sincerety.
A representative of the Jewish community in Rome was invited — but declined because it took place on Shabbat.
I myself attended mainly because my friend, Mario Carletti, sculpted the memorial that marks the new piazza. It shows a bust of Palatucci, with barbed wire gates and the “arbeit macht frei” slogan.
Still, listening to the priest, the mayor, the police band, the prefect, I felt that there needed to be a Jewish voice — so I more or less invited myself to say a few words, stressing the need to honor those who did what the majority of people did not, and reminding of the teaching that whoever saves one life saves the world.
Local Italian TV ran a spot — it starts at minute 8:00, and I can be seen (in a white linen suit) walking in the procession at 8:52 . CLICK HERE FOR THE LINK
Banjo Romanitka, the documentary about Czech bluegrass that I helped out on is about to launch!
Produced and directed by Lee Bidgood and Shara K. Lange, it will have screenings in the Czech Republic in June.
Here’s the schedule:
1) Screening and lecture, American Center at the American Embassy, Prague – 20.06.2013 – 17:30 – 19:00
Americké centrum, Tržiště 13, Praha 1 – Malá Strana http://www.americkecentrum.cz/
2) Screening, Banjo Jamboree Festival, Cáslav – 21-22.6.2013 (time tbd)
x) Closed screening and lecture, Jerome College of Prague – Monday 24.6.2013
3) Screening and lecture, Moravian Library, Brno – Thursday 27.6.2013 18:30-20:00
Conference hall of the Moravian Library, Kounicova 65a Brno
4) Screening, White Stork Festival, Luka nad Jihlavou – Friday – Saturday 28-29.6.2013
I’m in London, well, in Richmond, just off Richmond Park… en route to Oxford tomorrow, where I’ll be taking part in a conference at the Yarnton Manor Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies on The Place of European Jewry in the Global Jewish Community.
It is often felt that contemporary Jewish life in North America and Israel eclipses that of European Jewry, which seems mostly concerned with the security agenda and the perception that Europe is becoming more hostile to Jews. Equally, though, European Jewish society is experiencing a renaissance through immigration, new identity patterns and innovation.
The conference will investigate the political, economic and social contexts of European Jewry, the demographic and sociological data, and the extent to which Jewish life in Europe is indeed threatened and/or experiencing a renaissance. The data will focus on the four communities in Europe that comprise 80% of European Jews – the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Hungary.
I haven’t been in the UK for about 7 years, so it’s been fun walking around this beautiful part of town…. tomorrow, before heading to Oxford, plans are to take a walk in Richmond Park, where (as a longtime fan of W.H. Hudson) I’m hoping perhaps to see a Hind…. Hudson’s book (A Hind in Richmond Park) is available for download on archive.org — I recommend it!
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
(This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal)
I had the pleasure and privilege Sunday of giving a presentation about the Jewish Heritage Europe web site project in Florence, in one of the city’s most prestigious and spectacular venues — the Salone dei Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of Florence, a massive building with a distinctive tower that was originally built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries.
I was part of a five-person panel speaking on various aspects of “Developing Jewish Cultural Heritage in Europe.” Our round-table was part of a huge, weeklong biennale on Cultural and “Landscape” Heritage sponsored by the Fondazione Florens. Other people on the panel included Giuseppe Burschtein, an IT specialist and Jewish heritage activist in Florence; Renzo Funaro, an architect who heads the “Opera del Tempio” project of restoration and promotion of Jewish heritage in Florence and elsewhere in Tuscany; Dora Liscia Bemporad, the director of the Jewish Museum in Florence; and Annie Sacerdoti, a pioneer of Jewish heritage documentation and activism in Italy and one of the spearheads of the European Day of Jewish Culture.
The moderator of our panel was the journalist Wlodek Goldkorn — who pointed out at the start of the event that this session was probably the first time that a Jewish program (other than a commemorative event) had taken place in the magnificent hall, a grandly huge space dating from 1494, richly decorated with a gorgeous painted ceiling, sculptures and paintings from the 16th century.
We had a pretty good crowd — and nobody left in the middle! Given the mix of people on our panel, presentations included both local and Europe-wide issues — and none of us had more than 10 minutes or so to speak.
For my talk, I had an internet connection projected on two immense screens. I presented Jewish Heritage Europe as a tool that is already functional, attracting 4,000-5,000 people a month. I took the audience on a tour of the site, describing both the static content for 48 countries — and also the dynamic content — the newsfeed, calendar, and the In Focus section.
You will just have to go to all those web sites and explore!