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.
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.
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.
Hadassah Magazine runs two articles by me about Venice — one on the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Venice Ghetto, and one on general sight-seeing tips for the Lagoon City.
By Ruth Ellen Gruber, August 2016
Venice university professor Shaul Bassi stops beneath an elegant marble plaque affixed to an inner wall of the Jewish community building just off the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the secluded, vaguely fan-shaped main plaza of the historic Venice Ghetto.
The flowery Italian inscription extols one Giuseppe Bassi, a local rabbi who died in 1916. He was, it declares, “incomparable” as a teacher and religious leader; a man who “spent his life in works of enlightened charity, elevating the humble; educating young people to follow in his stead.”
Above the inscription, in Hebrew, appears a line from Psalm 145: “One generation shall commend your deeds to the next.”
Shaul Bassi looks up at the plaque and smiles. “He was my great-grandfather,” he says.
Venice is currently in the midst of a year of events marking the 500th anniversary of the imposition of Europe’s first official Jewish ghetto. And Bassi—who traces his Jewish ancestry here back to the 16th century—is the coordinator of the Venice Ghetto 500 anniversary committee set up by local Jewry and the city.
Dozens of concerts, conferences and other initiatives—the most publicized was a July staging of The Merchant of Venice—were officially kicked off on March 29, 500 years to the day after Venetian rulers under Doge Leonardo Loredan ordered the 700 or so Jews confined to the site of a former foundry, known as geto in Venetian dialect. Jews remained segregated there until 1797, when Napoleon’s forces broke down the gates. At its height, some 5,000 Jews lived amid the cramped alleyways and piazzas. They constructed tenements as tall as seven stories high to conserve space and built five synagogues whose jewel-like sanctuaries are hidden behind austere façades.
Despite economic and other strictures, Jews here lived rich, creative lives. Venice became a renowned center of Hebrew printing, and leading personalities such as Rabbi Leon Modena and the poet Sara Copio Sullam, both of whom died in the 1640s, were well known outside the ghetto walls.
“The story of the ghetto is the story of segregation, but also the story of an enormous quantity of cultural exchanges,” says urban historian Donatella Calabi, who curated an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, “Venice, the Jews and Europe 1516-2016,” which is the centerpiece of quincentennial events. “The 500th anniversary should be an occasion to reflect on history, but also to [reframe] things for the future,” she adds.
How to do that is a major challenge for today’s Venetian Jews.
By Ruth Ellen Gruber, August 2016
Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, has enchanted visitors and inspired artists for centuries with its shimmering fusion of water, stone and light. Tourists and poets alike vie for superlatives to describe the atmosphere of an enchanted city built on more than 100 tiny islands in the midst of a lagoon.
The attraction, however, has its downside. More than a century ago, the German Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann was already describing the floating city as “half fairy tale, half tourist trap.”
Indeed, millions flock to Venice each year, putting a strain on the fragile infrastructure. On any given day in the summer high season, tourists—as many as 80,000 in a 24-hour period—crowd the city’s historic center, outnumbering the people who actually live there.
There’s good reason, of course, for Venice’s overwhelming popularity. Its unique architecture is stunning; the museums and churches display renowned artistic treasures; the cuisine is divine. And the experience of getting lost amid the dense, shadowy network of canals, alleyways, bridges and plazas is the stuff of romance.
So don’t let the crowds put you off. Sights on the well-beaten track may see you joining thousands of others. But it is possible to escape the crowds, especially after nightfall, when day-trippers have returned to the mainland or their cruise ship.
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.
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.
Here’s my recent article for JTA on how commemoration and mass tourism collide at Auschwitz.
(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.”
A long article on Jewish roots travel by Hilary Danailova in New York Jewish Week quotes me at length about changes in the Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage travel scene over the past quarter century.
After a career traveling widely and often, Marshall Katz retired from the U.S. Air Force and a series of high-level government posts — and embarked on a new odyssey of sorts: researching the lost Jewish heritage of Sub-Carpathia, his ancestral homeland. Katz now makes regular trips between Pennsylvania, where his father was a kosher butcher near the West Virginia border, and Eastern Europe, where the Katz family’s forbearers had lived in what is today part of Hungary.
Undaunted by language barriers and unfazed by “atrocious” roads, Katz has since logged trip reports — along with practical travel advice, cemetery photos and recovered Jewish history — for hundreds of villages throughout Hungary, Western Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He posts them on the website JewishGen.org, an encyclopedic Jewish-genealogy resource with a half-million registered users worldwide.
“I’m trying to make a contribution,” Katz said recently by phone from Ukraine. In addition to cataloguing copious amounts of data for the Sub-Carpathian Special Interest Group site, which he founded on JewishGen, Katz communicates personally with many of his fellow heritage seekers — searching out a family’s tombstones or vital records in a particular village he plans to visit, for instance, or advising travelers on everything from hiring a car service to reliable tour guides.
A few decades ago, Katz’s travels would have been virtually impossible, or at least extremely difficult. But Jewish travelers today have access to myriad online resources — and a global community of fellow genealogy enthusiasts — that have transformed heritage travel. Whereas a “roots” trip might once have been an informative but generic organized tour of Jewish districts, major cemeteries and Holocaust sites in Poland or the Baltics, today’s travelers are going online to zero in on a great-grandparents’ shtetl, family tombstones and the very streets where the European Jews of yesteryear prayed and shopped.
“People today want to be more specific,” said Avraham Groll, director of business operations for JewishGen. “They want to know where their grandfather was actually from.”
Numerous factors have converged to make that possible. “Travel is so easy these days,” noted Ruth Ellen Gruber, the renowned journalist and coordinator of the web portal Jewish Heritage Europe, who also writes the Jewish Heritage Travel blog and has explored Jewish sites across the Continent for decades. “When I started out, nobody knew what was there. Nobody knew where these places are.”
Gruber pointed out that most ancestral Jewish homes were located behind the Iron Curtain — so prior to the early 1990s, travel would have been difficult or outright impossible, and archives were sealed under Communist rule. Today Americans not only travel freely within Eastern Europe; they frequently do so without the need for visas or even border checks. Infrastructure is also vastly improved (though Katz has horror stories about Ukrainian roads), with discount airlines making it cheap and convenient to hop between cities. A generation ago, Americans would have struggled with a near-insurmountable language barrier — but today, many Europeans speak English, so it’s far easier to hire a driver or query locals about Jewish sites.
And most obviously, the Internet has opened up a world of information that was previously inaccessible. Everything from vital records and historical data to detailed maps and trip-planning services is literally a click away.
JewishGen — which was launched in the 1980s and is now affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City — remains an invaluable resource for travelers. The website organizes the research of more than 80,000 volunteers worldwide; online archives (some 22 million records and counting) help families find relatives, ancestral hometowns and each other. JewishGen also has a Holocaust database of victims and survivors, including ghetto records and census lists; special area groups, like Katz’s Sub-Carpathian site, with maps, photographs and local travel links; and a portal called KehilaLinks, with a detailed website for each community — kehila in Hebrew — where Jewish members’ families once lived.
Beyond this, travelers have more sophisticated tools at their disposal than ever before. Unsure of how a family name or town was spelled? Special phonetic-matching technology can match surnames or places by sound. Not even sure of the town’s name? “Let’s say you don’t know exactly where the town was, but it was within a day’s horse ride from a major town,” said Groll. “If you look at the right side of our page for a city, we list every nearby Jewish community.”
Not even sure which part of Europe you come from? Those with questions about their origins may start — or complement their research — with DNA testing services such as 23andMe or Family Tree DNA. For a fee typically in the low three figures, these online companies analyze saliva samples to determine national and ethnic origin. Jewish users can confirm ties to particular countries or Ashkenazic roots, then take advantage of online community resources to connect with others from similar backgrounds.
All of which points to new dimension in heritage travel: modern sojourners seek to connect not only with their ancestors, but also with each other. On sites like Tracing the Tribe — a popular genealogy blog that recently relocated to Facebook — virtual communities have formed; distant relatives or descendants of neighbors find each other, Europe-bound travelers recommend custom tour guides for far-flung shtetls, and returning heritage pilgrims get help translating tombstones.
“People make recommendations and write about their own experiences,” said Gruber, who advises that such networks are the key to lining up reliable services overseas. “There’s a tremendous amount of research, and people who can help you.”
A lot of that research has been done by Gruber herself for Jewish Heritage Europe, arguably the most comprehensive web portal for guidance on Jewish destinations, historical sites and cultural events throughout the Continent. The site — a project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe — is constantly updated with country-specific information, links and news from Lisbon to Minsk.
For the many American Jews with roots in modern-day Poland, there’s also the Virtual Shtetl. The bilingual Polish-English website is the online community-and-research extension of the recently opened POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which has quickly become one of Europe’s scholarly hubs for Jewish heritage.
An up-and-coming resource is World Jewish Heritage, an organization launched four years ago that describes itself as “a cross between UNESCO, Wikipedia and Fotopedia” connected by Jewish heritage and culture. WJH is in the process of launching a smartphone travel app that allows users to locate sites of Jewish interest in major cities around the world; a new series of eBooks and online articles highlighting topics such as Israel’s top 10 restaurants or Jewish historical sites throughout Spain. As with other travel portals, WJH hopes to draw on user input as it grows.
Online resources are, of course, too numerous to mention here — and as technology expands, so does human connection. That connection, concludes Gruber, is what remains at the heart of Jewish roots travel: “It’s a very emotional adventure.”
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.”
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.”
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At the end of September I made one of my occasional pilgrimages to the grave of the architect Lipot Baumhorn in the vast Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest.
Baumhorn designed or remodeled about two dozen synagogues in central Europe: in Hungary, and in what are now Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. You can read about them in a travel article I wrote some years back. He is reckoned to be the most prolific synagogue architect in Europe before World War II.
I wrote a section of my 1994 book “Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today” about him and his work.
In the course of research for it, in 1992, I discovered his gravestone, totally overgrown with vines.
Cleaning it was a spiritual — or at least highly emotional — experience.
This is what wrote (in “Doorposts”) about cleaning the grave: “I felt like a liberator, and I guess I was, restoring to the light of this cold, gray day the chiseled memory of this man. It was a highly personal liberation. For more than three years I had followed a trail of monumental buildings whose style number and significance had made Lipot Baumhorn successful in life and more than just a footnote in the history of his profession. His synagogues were his survivors; he was honored on gilded plaques in their entryways …. the person was here, shrouded in ivy. I tore at the clinging vines…”
My section about Baumhorn in “Upon the Doorposts” is called “Synagogues Seeking Heaven.”
The name derives from the complex poetic epitaph on his gravestone. In the chapter I tell how various Hungarian friends of mine tried, with difficulty, to translate it for me. The end version was:
Our inspired artist: His inspiration and heart gave birth
To the lines of synagogues that look toward heaven and awaken piety.
Above his peaceful home hovered devotion;
The soul of a father and husband gave birth to heaven-seeking consolation.
Some years back I was delighted to find a monument to him outside one of his synagogues, in Szolnok. The monument is positioned so that Baumhorn seems to gaze at the synagogue, which is now used as a concert hall.