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

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

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

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

She quotes me (and many friends and colleagues):

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

Click here to read the full article

 

 

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

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

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

Virtual travel in COVID times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to read the full article

A podcast and article about my “Dark Tourism” work

During my lecture in Lviv on July 27, 2017

 

Nash Holos radio has published an article and podcast about my work by Peter Bejger– based on a lectures I gave in Lviv and Glasgow on the “dark tourism” aspects of Jewish heritage tourism, as well as on my recent posts on Jewish Heritage Europe from my day trips to Jewish heritage sites in western Ukraine.

Let’s take a moment to consider “dark tourism.”

The concept is elastic, and quite multi-faceted. And it has a distinguished historic pedigree. Evidently there are assertions that Thomas Cook, yes the Thomas Cook that founded the famous international travel agency, took people to see public hangings in England with some of his very first tour groups in the 19th century.

And there is even an academic Institute for Dark Tourism in England that promotes ethical research. Research into a social scientific understanding of sites of death and disaster. And how these sites have, or can, become tourist sites, whether appropriate or inappropriate.

The world offers so many options for dark tourism: the horrifying, like now visitor-thronged concentration camps; the easily accessible, like Ground Zero at the 9/11 memorials in Lower Manhattan; the far-flung and harder to reach, like the haunting ruins of lovely ancient Armenian churches in the isolated reaches of what is now northeastern Turkey. Reflecting on those ruins brings up uncomfortable questions on what happened to those people who once worshipped in those churches.

There is also the edgy. People are usually impressed when you’ve told them you were able to tour the radioactive zone around Chornobyl.

Which brings us to the endless supply of dark tourist sites in Eastern Europe, and specifically Ukraine.

The first edition of Ruth Ellen Gruber’s book Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe was published twenty-five years ago. This was the first, and is still considered the most complete, Jewish travel guide to the region.

….Read more

 

Click to listen to the podcast

 

 

 

 

 

In an interview, I reflect on Jewish Heritage Europe

Me in front of the ruined Great Synagogue in Kalvarija, Lithuania — the town my great-grandparents came from. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

February 2017 marks the fifth anniversary that www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu — the web site that I run as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe — has been online.

In a lengthy interview with Liam Hoare of eJewish Philanthropy, I reflect on developments since I’ve been involved with Jewish heritage work — where we’ve been, and where we may be going.

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

Since its launch five years ago, Jewish Heritage Europe has become an essential one-stop shop for news, information, and resources concerning, as the name indeed suggests, matters of Jewish culture and built heritage in Europe: museums; synagogues; cemeteries, and so on. Ruth Ellen Gruber, the author of Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe who has chronicled Jewish life in Europe for over twenty-five years for the JTA among other places, edits the site, which is supported by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Here, I talk with Gruber about the site’s development and how European attitudes towards Jewish heritage have changed in the time she has been reporting on these issues.

*

What was the impetus behind setting up Jewish Heritage Europe five years ago?

JHE builds on and expands a previous version of the site that was launched after a major conference on the Future of Jewish Heritage, held in Prague in 2004. The decision by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe to relaunch and expand came as a follow-up to a conference held in Bratislava, Slovakia in March 2009 that discussed the state of Jewish heritage sites in Europe as well as strategies for their restoration, use, and upkeep. That seminar, attended by international Jewish heritage experts as well as by representatives from Jewish communities in more than a dozen countries, also resulted in the Bratislava Statement, a major statement of specific ‘best practices’ about how to deal with Jewish heritage sites.

JHE’s aim is to facilitate communication and information exchange regarding projects, initiatives, and other developments such as restoration, ongoing projects, best practices, advisory services and more. Its primary focus is Jewish built heritage: synagogues, cemeteries, mikvaot, Jewish quarters and other physical traces that attest to a Jewish presence on the continent stretching back to Antiquity, but it also includes material on Jewish museums and other cultural institutions.

Is there anything that stands out for you in terms of how Europes Jewish heritage is discussed, studied, and cared for in the five years since you’ve been running the site?

Jewish heritage and particularly Jewish built heritage is a field that has been continually developing over the past few decades. When I first became involved with Jewish heritage issues in eastern and central Europe nearly thirty years ago, I was entering largely unexplored territory. Little was known about what still existed in those countries – I felt I was ‘filling in blank spaces’ and literally putting Jewish heritage sites back on the map. At that time, even in western countries, Jewish built heritage was often ignored or overlooked.

That is no longer the case. In post-communist Europe, many Jewish heritage sites are still empty or in ruins, and most Jewish cemeteries are neglected or abandoned. But there are lists, inventories, databases, and online resources that tell us where they are. Surveys have documented synagogue buildings and Jewish cemeteries. Projects have mapped old shtetls to position destroyed buildings, and other projects have digitally recreated destroyed buildings or have even recreated them in replica form. Moreover, projects of various sorts have restored, cleaned up, fenced, preserved, or protected hundreds of sites.

I see all this on a day-to-day basis as I compile the JHE News Feed. Probably the site’s most powerful asset, it’s essentially a ‘wire service’ about what’s going on the Jewish heritage world today. To date, I have posted more than 1100 articles from dozens of countries, which probably constitutes the most extensive searchable database on contemporary Jewish built heritage issues. Thus, running JHE has enabled me to recognize the widespread reach, range, and scope of Jewish heritage initiatives all over Europe, as well as the challenges and controversies, from protection and preservation issues to religious concerns, the uses of new technology in research, to the various ways that Jewish heritage sites are used – and also abused.

Of course, Jewish heritage work, and the situation of Jewish heritage, is different from country to country, city to city, and is dependent on many factors: Jewish community organizational matters; local and national politics; funding shortfalls, and actual on-the-ground possibilities. My feeling is that seeing what’s going on in other countries, or in other projects, can be useful to help inspire activists or help them in creating strategies for their own work. I think it is important for activists today, though many are still working on their own or in relative isolation, to realize that they are not as alone as were the Jewish heritage activists who, often on their own, blazed the trail in earlier decades.

Click here to read the full interview

 

 

My farewell to the other Ruth Gruber

RG and REG - at the launch of my first book, in New York in 1992

RG and REG – at the launch of my first book, in New York in 1992

 

My namesake, the noted author and photojournalist Ruth Gruber, has died at the age of 105 after a remarkable life and career.

In a JTA article, I reminisced about how for decades people had confused us and conflated our biographies.

One Ruth Gruber Says Goodbye to Another

November 21, 2016

(JTA) — When you share a name with someone you respect and admire, you always try to live up to the connection, because sometimes outsiders aren’t aware of the difference.

That’s how it was for decades with me and Ruth Gruber, the noted photojournalist, reporter and author who died last week at age 105 after a remarkable life and career.

From my first international byline, when I was a young intern at the Associated Press in Rome in the 1970s (when Ruth was already in her 60s), right up to a Facebook comment just a couple months ago, our names, and also our shared focus on Jewish affairs, have led to confusion.

It didn’t matter that she was decades older than I was, or that she had written largely about Israel and Holocaust matters and I mainly write about European Jewish affairs and Jewish heritage. Our biographies have often been conflated, and articles even ran with the picture of the wrong person.

Ruth received checks in the mail that were actually due to me, and a major Jewish organization once sent me an official letter announcing an award – except as I read through the letter I realized that the award was meant for her, not me.

I tried to underscore my individuality by using my middle initial or middle name – Ellen – in my byline and in other professional dealings. But it hasn’t always helped.

In January 1983, when, as a UPI correspondent, I was arrested on trumped-up accusations of espionage, jailed overnight and expelled from communist Poland, Ruth’s answering machine ran out of space because of calls from anxious friends and family.

I frankly can’t remember now if we met when I returned to the U.S. briefly after my expulsion from Poland, or if our first meeting came nearly a decade later, in 1992, when, wearing a striking broad-brimmed hat, she attended the launch of my first book, “Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe.”

But we stayed in touch over the years, and every time we got together or spoke on the phone we laughed about our common – if sometimes frustrating – problem of confused identity.

Over the decades, I have received scores of emails meant for Ruth, especially before she herself had an email account.

A particular flood of them came after a two-part CBS mini-series based on Ruth’s book, “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America,” aired in February 2001.

Scores of viewers who were moved by the story of how Ruth in 1944 escorted 982 refugees from 19 Nazi-occupied countries to safe haven in Oswego, New York poured out their hearts in sometimes very emotional terms.

Even five years later a non-Jewish viewer in Colorado wrote to Ruth at my email address: “Shalom!!” he began. “There are no words to express how your story has impacted our lives! […] Do you have any suggestions as to how we might embrace and love the Jewish population where we live? With all the hatred that has been afflicted on your beautiful people and culture there are so many obstacles to overcome. Any advice you could give would be priceless!!”

Perhaps the funniest example of our identity mix-up took place in person, not in cyberspace.

At an American Jewish Committee annual meeting in the late 1990s, I gave my name when I asked a question during one of the sessions. As I went back to my seat, a woman stopped me.

“It’s so good to see you again!” she exclaimed. “You came to our house in the ‘40s!”

I stared at her for a few seconds before I could gather myself to respond.

“Look at me,” I finally told her. “I know I’m tired, but do you really think I could have come to your house in the ‘40s?”

Farewell, Ruth! I hope I can continue to honor your example.

 

 

 

Symposium: New Jewish Museums in 21st Century Europe

NYC symposium

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.

 

Read the Jewish Week article

See publication page of the EEJA double issue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banjo Romantika to be broadcast on American TV

banjo-romntika-poster

Banjo Romantika, the documentary about Czech bluegrass music in which I appear (as the main talking head) will be broadcast on public PBS television stations around the United States in December.

You can see the growing list of stations on the film’s web site — click HERE.

Broadcast venues include channels in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Tennessee, California, Virginia, Kentucky….

I spent a few days earlier this month in Johnson City,TN, with the filmmakers — Lee Bidgood and Shara Lange. We recorded a commentary track for the film, which will be included in the new DVDs that are being prepared. We discussed the making of the film, but also the history of Czech bluegrass, and the music and musicians featured in the movie.

See a 30-second teaser for the movie here:

Banjo Romantika: American Bluegrass Music & The Czech Imagination from Light Projects on Vimeo.

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