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.

 

 

 

Pope Francis and Catholic-Jewish Relations

My article for JTA previewing Pope Francis’s visit to the Rome synagogue January 17.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

January 15, 2016

(JTA) – When Pope Francis crosses the Tiber River to visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue on Sunday, he’ll become the third pontiff in history to do so. But his 1.5-mile journey to the towering Tempio Maggiore shows that what was once unthinkable is now the norm.

“Our meeting,” Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni told the Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire, “aims to convey a very topical, important and urgent message — that belonging to a faith, a religion, should not be a cause of hostility, hatred and violence, but that it is possible to build a peaceful coexistence, based on respect and cooperation.”

John Paul II’s visit 30 years ago marked a dramatic watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. By crossing the threshold of the Tempio Maggiore, warmly embracing Rome’s then-chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and famously referring to Jews as Christianity’s “older brothers,” the Polish-born pontiff broke down barriers that stretched back nearly 2000 years.

The visual impact alone of the pontiff and the chief rabbi embracing sent out a powerful message of reconciliation.

Formal dialogue between Catholics and Jews had begun only two decades before Pope John Paul II’s visit, with the Vatican’s 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration that repudiated the charge that Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus, stressed the religious bond between Jews and Catholics and called for interfaith contacts.

For centuries before that, as Brown University historian David Kertzer wrote in his 2001 book, “The Popes Against the Jews,” the Vatican “worked hard to keep Jews in their subservient place — barring them from owning property, from practicing professions, from attending university, from traveling freely.” Jews were confined to ghettos and often subjected to expulsions, forced conversions and other persecutions. In Rome, the Great Synagogue stands where the papal rulers kept Jews confined to a crowded ghetto until 1870.

John Paul made fostering relations between Catholics and Jews a cornerstone of his papacy.

“What he did was to assert that one could not be a Christian without recognition of one’s roots in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, a longtime participant in Catholic-Jewish dialogue and a former vice president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

Pope Benedict XVI, who had been a key advisor to John Paul and an architect of his theological policy, followed John Paul’s lead. But Pope Benedict lacked his predecessor’s charisma, and some of his policies strained relations with the Jewish world.

His visit to the Rome synagogue in January 2010 reaffirmed the continuity of the Vatican’s commitment to Jewish-Catholic dialogue. But it came amid tensions sparked by his decision to move controversial World War II era Pope Pius XII — whom critics accuse of having turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust — closer to sainthood.

Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, the then-president of the Italian rabbinical assembly, even boycotted the synagogue ceremony in protest.

Argentine-born Francis had a close relationship with the Jewish community even before his election to the papacy, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Since he became pontiff in March 2013 he has consistently demonstrated attention to Jewish issues and has won over many skeptics with his warmth. He visited Israel, along with Jordan and the West Bank, in 2014.

His visit to the synagogue “will not be marked by a novice stepping foot in an alien place and saying that I need to find my connection, as John Paul II did,” said Bretton-Granatoor. Pope Francis, he told JTA, “is wholly at ease with the Jewish community and Jewish life. His entrance into that synagogue will not be dissimilar to a Jew entering a synagogue in a new place — new, yet familiar.”

In May 2014, Pope Francis defused the Pius issue to some extent by making clear that he had no intention of fast-tracking his sainthood. And a Vatican document released in December to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate reiterated at length how Christianity is rooted in Judaism. It also renewed pledges of cooperation and stated that the Church as an institution should not try to convert Jews.

“Francis’s visit to the synagogue will be far closer to a family reunion precisely because the blessed new positive Catholic-Jewish relationship has become almost normative, and Francis is overwhelmingly seen as a true friend of the Jewish people, which indeed he is,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs.

Rosen added, “Three in Jewish tradition is a hazakah — that is, a confirmation. And now,” after this third papal visit, “it will almost be impossible for a pontiff not to visit the Rome Great Synagogue as well as to visit the State of Israel.”

Read article on JTA

 

 

 

 

 

Auschwitz: Balancing Memory and Mass Tourism

Auschwitz July 2015-wm1

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

Auschwitz ‘showers’ highlight challenge of balancing tourism and memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Kosher vegetarian dining hall at CofC

 

I’m about to leave Charleston after a wonderful semester as the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies.

Here’s my JTA story about the new kosher vegetarian vegan dining hall that’s under construction.

IMG_0595

CHARLESTON, S.C. (JTA) – Renowned for its gracious architecture and signature Southern charm, Charleston is increasingly celebrated as a foodie heaven.
The trouble is, in a city whose culinary specialties embrace (and glorify) oysters, she-crab soup, and shrimp and grits, the burgeoning restaurant scene is nearly off limits to those who keep kosher.

But things are set to improve for the kosher-observant later this year, when the College of Charleston opens a $1 million kosher vegetarian dining hall in a new wing of its Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center, home to the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program.

The dining hall, funded by several private donors, is an integral part of the college’s comprehensive $10 million fundraising campaign for the Jewish studies program. The three-story brick wing will double the size of the Jewish studies center, which is in the city’s historic peninsula district. The dining hall, set to begin operations around Hanukkah, will occupy the ground floor, with an open-plan design featuring curved ceiling details, cool pastel colors, an entry wall of Jerusalem stone and seating options for up to 75 people.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the dining hall will be run by the college’s dining services and cater to students on the school’s dining plans. But it will also be open to the public for a la carte meals, with an eclectic menu using organic and local ingredients. One of the aims, according to the dining hall’s vision statement, will be to attract “an eager and emergent audience of student and community members by sourcing ethical, sustainable and local food in an energized, hip facility that will utilize recycled and local materials.”

All the food will be kosher and vegetarian, and some will be vegan (containing no eggs or dairy). Mark Swick, the Jewish studies program’s community liaison, said the food will be certified by Charleston’s Kosher Commission, which is comprised of local Orthodox rabbis.
Some 800 Jewish students attend the 12,000-student school, and the college is using the new dining facility as a recruiting tool to attract more.

“A lot of students are looking for kosher possibilities,” Jewish student recruitment counselor Helen Slucki said. “For some it is a need – they keep kosher and couldn’t come here without it. But for a lot of them it is a symbol. They don’t keep kosher, but like the Jewish studies program, it is a symbol that the college is welcoming to Jews.”
Dara Rosenblatt, the college’s Jewish student life program coordinator, said the new dining hall is “already making waves” among students. Buzz has also begun to build outside the college — Charleston’s City Paper placed the dining hall on its list of 20 new eateries set to open in town this year.

But Paige Lincenberg, a Jewish studies major from Atlanta, said she wasn’t sure yet what impact the new facility would have on her eating experience. She already eats “kosher style,” separating meat and dairy and avoiding pork and shellfish.
For the strictly kosher observant, she said,  finding kosher meat tends to be more of a challenge than finding vegetarian food.

“It’s possible to buy vegetables and cook them,” she said.

Jewish history in Charleston dates back more than 300 years, and the city, which in 1800 had more Jewish residents than New York, was a cradle of Reform Judaism in the United States. Charleston’s first organized congregation, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, was founded in 1749, and its current synagogue, a graceful Greek revival building dedicated in 1841, is the second-oldest synagogue building in the United States. Today, approximately 6,500 Jews live in the Charleston area.

The college’s Jewish studies program, established in 1984, offers majors and minors in Jewish studies, but outreach to the Jewish community at large is also a priority. The program hosts numerous events open to both students and the public, including film screenings and lectures. Many local senior citizens audit academic courses.
The College of Charleston’s new dining hall is modeled on Grins Vegetarian Cafe, a popular kosher eatery at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Courtesy of Grins Vegetarian Cafe)

The College of Charleston’s new dining hall is modeled after Grins Vegetarian Cafe, a popular kosher eatery at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Courtesy of Grins Vegetarian Cafe)

Swick said that in designing the new dining facility, “We paid close attention to what other colleges across the country have done in offering kosher and vegetarian options.” (It is not known how many Charleston students are vegetarians, but the school hosts a vegan student group.) A model, Swick said, is Grins Vegetarian Cafe at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Opened more than a decade ago in the Shulman Center for Jewish Life, Grins offers kosher vegetarian meals both on student dining plans and to the community at large, and is consistently ranked as one of Nashville’s top vegetarian restaurants.

The intention in Charleston, according to the dining hall’s vision statement, is to “help create an environment in which diversity is represented, not only by appealing to the observant Jewish (Muslim and Hindu) students, but reaching out to a constituency that sees eating choices as a manifestation of deeply held ethical and environmental values.”

Ghazi Abuhakema, director of the Asian studies and Arabic programs at the college, said the dining hall, which would meet the standards of most halal-observant Muslims, is “a very good project,” and that the local Muslim community is likely to patronize the facility if it is advertised “properly and adequately.”

The new dining hall will be named in honor of philosophy professor Martin Perlmutter, who has been director of the Jewish studies department since 1991 and who helped develop the idea for the dining hall. His championing the dining hall as a way to promote ethical eating and “coming together through food” led the city’s Charlie Magazine to name Perlmutter last year one of Charleston’s “50 most progressive people.”

“A vegan diet is a statement about values and lifestyle, whether it is because of concern for the environment, interest in one’s health or caring about the well-being of animals,” Perlmutter said. “So, too, keeping kosher or observing halal requirements is a commitment to traditions of religion and culture. Representing that diversity in a vegan/vegetarian kosher/halal dining hall is a physical way for the College of Charleston to become more diverse and progressive.”

 

 

My articles on the opening of the POLIN museum in Warsaw

"The forest" -- entry into the core exhibit

“The forest” — entry into the core exhibit

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

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

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

Ruth Ellen Gruber

October 28, 20114

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the core exhibit is only part of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Highlights of the exhibition include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postwar images of the rebuilding of Poland and Jewish life.

Click here to read story at LA Jewish Journal

 

Polin-wm24

 

New museum reflects growing Polish interest in all things Jewish

Ruth Ellen Gruber

November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polin-wm13

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

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

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

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

 

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

Here are links to a couple of my most recent articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Becoming saints: Two popes who revolutionized Jewish-Catholic relations

 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

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

It’s a coincidence but a notable one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full article