Posted by Ruth Ellen Gruber
I spent part of this weekend at a bluegrass workshop in the little town of Male Svatonovice, in the north of the Czech Republic, near the Polish border. I was only there to observe, not to join the hundred or so students learning banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass, so I took time to drive half an hour through the back roads to revisit one of my favorite Jewish cemeteries -- the isolated walled graveyard at the tiny hamlet of Velka Bukovina.
The village is too small to appear even on many large scale maps. The Jewish population disappeared in the early 20th century as Jews moved out to bigger cities.
When I first visited, six years ago, while doing the update for my book National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel, I stayed at a charming pension that was sort of near by. The son of the family who ran it helped me find the cemetery -- it is set alone in the middle of farm fields. There did not seem to be any way actually to reach the cemetery other than tramping across the field, so that is what I did. It was the height of summer, and I waded through maybe half a mile of waist-high weeds, grass, and, I guess, hay. (Thankful that I was wearing my cowboy boots.)
This time, the going was much easier. First, I could see the cemetery int he distance from the main road. And I easily found the one-lane paved road that led up near by it. I parked at the side, and found a sort of vehicle track through the grass leading to the cemetery. It was an easy path to walk. Could I have totally missed it when I went there the first time? Or is it new since I was there?
Whatever. I easily reached the cemetery and found the gate latched but not locked. Inside the absolute rectagular wall, it was just as I remembered -- a secret garden of a place, rather well maintained (I saw a wheelbarrow propped in a corner of the space) with irregular rows of gravestones exhibiting vividly carved inscriptions and decorations, many with a decidedly rustic touch -- the oldest date back to the mid-18th century. In the distance, I could see the autum colors in the nearby forest.
What I still consider one of the most moving aspects of this cemetery is also still there -- a park bench placed outside the gate, looking out at the fields. Does anyone ever ever ever come to use it? To sit and remember the community? To reflect on a world of changes?
All photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber
6.13.13 at 11:46 am | Two synagogues in Poland open after renovation --. . .
6.9.13 at 4:25 pm | Links to all the sessions at the Managing Jewish. . .
4.22.13 at 2:23 am | The opening session of an international. . .
4.16.13 at 3:16 am | Museum of the History of Polish Jews finally (and. . .
4.16.13 at 3:00 am | Hadassah Magazine publishes my long piece on. . .
2.13.13 at 6:10 am | A long interview with longtime Jewish travel. . .
6.13.13 at 11:46 am | Two synagogues in Poland open after renovation --. . . (80)
4.16.13 at 3:16 am | Museum of the History of Polish Jews finally (and. . . (10)
4.22.13 at 2:23 am | The opening session of an international. . . (6)
October 8, 2012 | 7:33 am
Posted by Ruth Ellen Gruber
Here's a bit of a cross-post from the Jewish Heritage Europe web site.
When we think about Jewish heritage attractions and history in London, it's usually the East End -- the historic immigrant neighborhood -- or Golders Green, or somewhere like that....(even the northern districts where many Haredi Jews live today).
But here’s an article that discusses a lesser known neighborhood — in the West End, near Regents Park, an area sometimes described as “Fitzrovia.” The article, a blog post by Adam Samuel, focuses on two synagogues: The Hallam Street synagogue, originally dating from 1870 and rebuilt after World War II, and the West Central Liberal Synagogue.
It is easy to say that the Jews have left Fitzrovia. They are certainly less numerous and conspicuous than before 1939. After the War, Jews led the post-war exodus to the suburbs. However, standing on a street corner a reasonable distance from Hallam Street after a Saturday morning service reveals rather more people walking home afterwards than one might expect. There are more Jews in this part of the West End than people think.
Jews have always played a prominent role in the many Universities, film, music, media and rag trade businesses in the area. Adding the resident population to the working one, one might find rather more Fitzrovian Jews than people think. This does not reflect itself in the stock carried by supermarkets or other suppliers. Kosher food counters are minimal in Tesco and non-existent in Sainsburys. The nearest Kosher Restaurant is in Baker Street. Jewish shopping generally involves a trip on the Northern Line! It sometimes seems like after the mass folding of Soho Synagogues after 1945 into the Dean Street Synagogue which closed in the 1990s, people are scared to proclaim a Jewish presence in Fitzrovia for fear of announcing a false dawn.
In truth, Jewish Fitzrovia is not going back to the pre-war population and that is a good thing. The grinding poverty and sweat shops were not healthy for anyone. The new Jewish Fitzrovia is middle class, generally quite comfortable, and either living, or with roots, in the suburbs. It may have consciously or otherwise adopted the view of a well-known politician’s PA who was fond of saying: “don’t look back; you’re not going there.”
October 3, 2012 | 3:38 am
Posted by Ruth Ellen Gruber
The Bosnia-Herzegonia National Museum in Sarajevo, where the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah is kept, is being forced to close for lack of funds -- the latest in a number of major cultural institutions in Sarajevo forced to shut their doors due to political wrangling and the central government's halting of funds for culture.
In my JTA story I write that Jakob Finci, the longtime leader of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, said the museum, founded in 1888, would close on Thursday due to “lack of money, financing and support from the State.”
He called the decision “tragic,” but said he did not fear for the Sarajevo Haggadah, which, he said would be kept in a safe place.
The haggadah, handwritten in Spain in the 14th century and brought to Sarajevo after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, has been owned by the museum since 1894.
During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, the lavishly illustrated, 109-page book became a symbol of the shattered dream of multi-ethnic harmony in Bosnia. After the war ended in 1995, the U.N. Mission, along with the Bosnian Jewish Community, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the Yad Hanadiv and Wolfenson Foundations, facilitated a $150,000 project to restore the Haggadah and prepare a secure, new, climate-controlled room in which to put it on display.
This was opened with a gala ceremony in December 2002. But Finci told JTA that, in recent years, the actual Haggadah was only displayed on four days a year – all the rest of the time a facsimile was shown.
Before it went on public display, I had the rare opportunity of viewing the Haggadah in the underground bank vault in Sarajevo where it was kept, when I accompanied a JDC delegation to Bosnia in 2001.
A bank functionary led us through corridors and down narrow stairways into a basement vault lined with safety deposit boxes.
Wrapped in white tissue paper, the Haggadah was removed from a sealed, blue metal lock box and placed on a table.
Wearing clean, white gloves, a staff member from the Sarajevo national museum then opened the book, turning over page after page to reveal the elegant Hebrew calligraphy and brilliantly colored and gilded illustrations.
An article in April in The Art Newspaper provided some background to the museum crisis.
The National Gallery closed to the public last September. It had been without a director and chief financial officer since May. The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also in Sarajevo, was forced to shut its doors on 4 January after running out of money for maintenance and heating. Staff at both institutions have worked without pay since the respective closures.
The National and University Library, which has had no heating since early January, is next on the list of anticipated closures.
The current crisis is a result of national elections held in 2010, which failed to create a coalition with a parliamentary majority. Without a functioning government, there was no funding for cultural institutions last year.
Museum administrators in Sarajevo say that grants from the new government, formed this February, will not solve the structural problem affecting the institutions. They believe that the institutions need to be funded at a national level if they are to operate effectively in the future. They also want a national cultural ministry to be created.
For further information about the museum and culture crisis in Bosnia see the web site www.cultureshutdown.net
October 2, 2012 | 7:40 am
Posted by Ruth Ellen Gruber
With still a week to come in the autumn holiday season, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish all my readers a sweet, satisfying and stimulating new year -- and beyond!
I've taken a break from posting this past month or so, but I look forward to getting back into the swing of things very soon and posting regular reports, commentaries, images and links.
Meanwhile -- for a growing range of resources and news reports, please take a look at the web site that I am coordinating as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Europe: www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu
August 28, 2012 | 1:51 am
Posted by Ruth Ellen Gruber
In my last post I took note of the candlesticks motif that is often used to mark the gravestones of Jewish women—it is very widespread in parts of Eastern Europe but also found elsewhere.
I have an ongoing project about the Candlesticks motif, which I have been working on for several years—and which has its own website: candlesticksonstone.wordpress.com
I have photo galleries and individual pictures from Jewish cemeteries in Romania, Ukraine, Poland—and even the United States—showing the wide variety of ways that the candles have been portrayed by stonemasons who, in some cases, created real works of sculpture that combined religious tradition and folk art. Some, especially in parts of northern Romania, show hands raised to bless the candles. I encourage readers to go to the site and take a look at some of the many, many remarkable images!
I worked on the project with the help of a research grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute (HBI) and as a Scholar in Residence at the HBI last year. I have supplemented the pictures on the web site with a blog, links to resources and other material.
From the web site:
In Jewish tradition, Sabbath candles are a common, and potent, symbol on women’s tombs. That is because lighting the Sabbath candles is one of the three so-called “women’s commandments” carried out by female Jews: these also include observing the laws of Niddah separating men from women during their menstrual periods, and that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread.
The first time I saw a Jewish woman’s tombstone bearing a representation of candles was in 1978, when for the first time I visited Radauti, the small town in the far north of Romania near where my father’s parents were born. The tombstone in question was that of my great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, who died in 1946 and in whose honor I received my middle name. Her gravestone is a very simple slab, with a five-branched menorah topping an epitaph.
Since then, and particularly over the past 20 years, I have visited scores if not hundreds of Jewish cemeteries in East-Central Europe, documenting them, photographing them, and writing about them in books and articles.
Carvings on Jewish tombstones include a wide range of symbols representing names, professions, personal attributes, or family lineage — as well as folk decoration. In northern Romania and parts of Poland and Ukraine in particular, cemeteries include a variety of wonderfully vivid motifs, and some stones still retain traces of the brightly colored painted decoration that once adorned them.
Candlesticks on women’s tombs are more or less a constant: sometimes they are very simple renditions, yet they can be extraordinarily vivid bas-relief sculptures. In some instances, broken candles represent death. And in some cemeteries, the carving is so distinctive that you can discern the hand of individual, if long forgotten, artists.
August 26, 2012 | 8:04 am
Posted by Ruth Ellen Gruber
The elegant and informative riowang blog runs a very nice, and poetic, post—with lots of photos—about the Jewish cemetery in Tekovo/Tekehaza in Ukrainian Transcarpathia.
I have linked in the past to the very detailed and richly illustrated riowang posts about the Jewish cemetery and synagogue in Lesko, Poland - and since the author gave me permission to use his photos, I am including a photo from Tekovo/Tekehaza here.
The riowang post comments in particular on the large number and variety of gravestones marked by candlesticks.
Riowang noted that in Tekovo/Tekehaza
it is worth noting a special gravestone motif, which almost has its own school in the cemetery of Tekeháza: the large and diverse number of geometric candelabra. The presence of candelabra – as we have already seen in the cemetery of Lesko – is not unique in itself. We meet with them almost only on women’s graves, praising the Friday night candle-lighting and, beyond that, the light and warmth of the family home as well as the virtuous woman maintaining it. What is interesting in Tekeháza, however, is the large number and many variations of stylized, geometric candelabra.
The many photographs on the post show candlesticks that are geometric and braided at the same time, as well as some that look like plants:
Once speaking about the candelabra, it’s worth to point out a special local form of this motif. About these gravestone decorations it is difficult to decide whether they are three-branch candelabra or stylized three-leaved plants.
For the stone pictured here, it notes:
On the top, two doves with their heads turned back surround a richly decorated seven-branch candelaber of an intertwined stem. The dove is a symbol of piety, while the candelabra of Friday evening and of the family home. At the bottom of the gravestone a snake is waving. The snake is a relatively rare motif on Jewish graves. In the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw we find an example of the snake biting its own tail, a symbol of eternity, while in the likewise Polish Jewish cemetery of Żabno, the snake attacking the lion on one of the stones represents the death. It is likely that the snake in Tekeháza is somehow related to this latter one.
This post (with other pictures) also appears on my Jewish Heritage Travel blog.
July 25, 2012 | 1:28 pm
Posted by Ruth Ellen Gruber
Hannah Rosenthal, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism took time out on a trip to Poland and Germany this month to honor her ancestors at sites of her own family history.
Rosenthal’s family came from what is now Bytom, Poland. All were murdered at Auschwitz in 1942 except for her father, who was the last Rabbi in Mannheim, Germany, and survived interment in Buchenwald.
In a post Tuesday on the State Department’s official blog, Rosenthal recounted that she visited sites in Bytom where her family had lived and also visited the Jewish cemetery there, hoping to find the graves who her grandmother and uncle, who had died before World War II “and therefore would have graves.”
Visiting Bytom, she wrote, was “both exhilarating and devastating.”
When we went to see the gorgeous synagogue, where Dad had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and loved to tell us great stories about, there was no synagogue. Just a dilapidated gray apartment building. When we went to the cemetery, we hoped to find the graves of my grandmother and uncle who died before the war—and therefore would have graves. But Polish activist Wlodzimierz Kac had something else in mind. He had researched my family and ended up showing us 18 Rosenthal graves. My grandmother Selma, my uncle Martin, great and great-great grandparents, great and great-great uncles, and aunts and cousins. Eighteen Rosenthals who we could honor. I am the last Rosenthal in my family.
Bytom now has not a single Jew and hardly any Jewish presence. Where once a bustling community thrived, there is not one single survivor. We visited two of the places Dad’s family had lived. He had described his home’s music room and parlors. Now the buildings are dark, dank, depressing. And mostly empty. We wondered how we could help restore a school or a prayer house, or clean up the cemetery, when there is no one to keep it up. The absence is profoundly present.
During her trip to Poland, she wrote, she met Jewish community leaders and representatives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, and the Judaica Foundation.
I learned about the present-day Jewish community in Poland and civil society engagement on Jewish history and culture. These organizations are doing important work, fostering interaction between Jews and non-Jewish Poles through dialogue, education, and cultural exchange. Several programs focus specifically on fostering interaction among Polish non-Jewish and Jewish youth. It was moving to meet the extraordinary people working to keep the memory and spirit of Poland’s absent Jews alive.
On July 9, during her visit to Germany, Rosenthal took part in a ceremony in Mannheim at which a “stumbling stone” memorial was dedicated to her father. Stumbling stones are plaques the size of cobblestones that are placed on the street in front of houses in which Holocaust victims and survivors lived.
July 24, 2012 | 1:00 pm
Posted by Ruth Ellen Gruber
I’m already posted on this blog about the new ITunes app called Oshpitzin that uses smart phone technology to teach and tour pre-WW2 Jewish Oswiecim—the town where Auschwitz was built—which before the Holocaust was a majority Jewish town.
In this JTA story I write about how this project and the Lost City project in Bratislava—which puts back on the map the old Jewish quarter of the Slovak capital, which was utterly demolished by the Communist authorities in the late 1960s to built a new highway and bridge across the Danube. Centerpiece of the Lost City project is a replica of the destroyed Neolog synagogue, on the spot where it really did once stand.
In Poland and Slovakia, restoring awareness of a forgotten Jewish past
By Ruth Ellen Gruber · July 23, 2012
KRAKOW, Poland (JTA)—Thanks to a new iTunes app, new tourist routes and a towering replica of a destroyed synagogue, two “lost” Jewish cities in Europe are back on the map.
One is the historic Jewish quarter of Bratislava, the Slovak capital, which survived World War II only to be demolished by communist authorities in the late 1960s. The other is Oshpitzin—the prewar Yiddish name for Oswiecim, the once mainly Jewish town in southern Poland where the Auschwitz death camp was built.
The two projects differ in scope and structure, but their goals are the same: to restore awareness of the forgotten Jewish past in an effort to foster a better understanding of the present—for tourists and the locals.