Monday, February 4, 2013

New book chapter on Jewish Museums under Communism

By Ruth Ellen Gruber
I’m delighted  to report that an essay I wrote about Jewish museums in Europe under communism has been published in the latest volume of Studies in Contemporary Jewry: Visualizing and Exhibiting Jewish Space and History (edited by Richard I. Cohen, Oxford University Press).
The OUP web site notes that the volume is probably the first in English that is devoted to Jewish museums and exhibitions in the 20th century, with special attention given to the period after the Holocaust.
[It] examines the visual revolution that has overtaken Jewish cultural life in the twentieth century onwards, with special attention given to the evolution of Jewish museums. Bringing together leading curators and scholars,Visualizing and Exhibiting Jewish Space and History treats various forms of Jewish representation in museums in Europe and the United States before the Second World War and inquires into the nature and proliferation of Jewish museums following the Holocaust and the fall of Communism in Western and Eastern Europe. In addition, a pair of essays dedicated to six exhibitions that took place in Israel in 2008 to mark six decades of Israeli art raises significant issues on the relationship between art and gender, and art and politics. An introductory essay highlights the dramatic transformation in the appreciation of the visual in Jewish culture. The scope of the symposium offers one of the first scholarly attempts to treat this theme in several countries.
I’m proud to be part of this!
In my essay I describe the role played by Jewish museums under Communism in Poland, Czech Republic, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria: they were, I wrote, “often political places of memory shaped by both the absence of Jews and the pressures of Cold War ideology.”
These museums, I wrote,
fulfilled several roles, consciously or not. Though they differed in size, administrative status, and type of location, they all served to conserve the “precious legacy” of the past, to memorialize (if only for a limited audience) the destroyed Jewish people and their world, and (in some cases) also to portray and/or illustrate the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. They were often among the few if not the only institutions to do so in countries whose Jewish populations were, for the most part, annihilated during the Second World War—and where, to varying degrees, postwar Jewish life and expression were suppressed by the Communist state and “collective amnesia” about Jews and the Jewish past generally “seemed to be much stronger than collective memory.” Yet these museums were often inadequately funded and understaffed. Moreover, given official pressures, their exhibits and/or operational policies implicitly and sometimes overtly reflected the prevailing party lines toward Jews, though these lines changed somewhat over the years depending on local developments or external “anti-Zionist” and other directives from Moscow.
Table of Contents:
The Visual Revolution in Jewish Life — An Overview, Richard I. Cohen
Displaying Judaica in 18th-Century Central Europe: A Non-Jewish Curiosity, Michael Korey
Collecting Community: The Berlin Jewish Museum as Narrator between Past and Present, 1906-1939, Tobias Metzler
Jewish Museums in the Federal Republic of Germany, Inka Bertz
Post-trauma “Precious Legacies”: Jewish Museums in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust and before the Fall of Communism, Ruth Ellen Gruber
From Wandering Jew to Immigrant Ethnic: Musealizing Jewish Immigration, Robin Ostow
Six Exhibitions, Six Decades: Toward the Recanonization of Contemporary Israeli Art,Ruth Direktor
In Between Past and Future: Time and Relatedness in the Six Decades Exhibitions,Osnat Zukerman Rechter
A Matrix of Matrilineal Memory in the Museum: Charlotte Salomon and Chantal Akerman in Berlin, Lisa Saltzman
Between Two Worlds: Ghost Stories under Glass in Vienna and Chicago, Abigail Glogower and Margaret Olin
Thoughts on the Role of a European Jewish Museum in the 21st Century, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek
“The Forces of Darkness”: Leonard Woolf, Isaiah Berlin, and English Antisemitism,Elliott Horowitz
Review Essays
It’s Not All Religious Fundamentalism, Chaim I. Waxman
One Step before the Abyss: Recent Scholarship on the Jews in Occupied Soviet Territories during the Second World War, Kiril Feferman

Monday, August 13, 2012

Poland's Southeast Corner

Travel piece for, Summer 2011

By Ruth Ellen Gruber (all pics by Ruth Ellen Gruber)
When I look at a map, I always feel that the most remote part of Poland is that little triangle of territory in the far southeast of the country that forms a wedge between Ukraine and Slovakia.
It's not really that far away -- just a three or four hour drive from Krakow. But it's a fascinating part of the world at the gateway to the Carpathian mountains, a region of lush hills, rushing streams and all the bucolic beauty that goes with it, combined with a complex and often cruel history of war, strife and ethnic cleansing.
Historically, the region was home to a mix of Jews, Poles, and other ethnic groups including the Lemkos and Boykos. The vital Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust. After the war, Poland's borders were shifted westward. Following a bloody Polish-Ukrainian conflict in 1944-47, Poland's Communist authorities deported the region's Ukraininan minority, including the Lemkos and Boykos, and resettled them in the west and north of the country. Villages were depopulated and many local traditions vanished.
Today, this borderland area is one of the least developed parts of Poland. But in recent years there has been a spurt of growth aimed at bolstering tourist infrastructure and attracting visitors: prices remain moderate, but there are some fairly upscale hotels, good local restaurants and even big, modern supermarkets.
I recently spent nearly a week there, driving through the lovely landscape to visit some of the many traces of the historic Jewish presence that still survive.
Several of these site form part of the "Chassidic Route" itinerary devised by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage, or FODZ, and before I set off I downloaded the brochures for several of the sites, which are found here
south east poland - Sanok
SANOK -- An exhibit in the Judaica exhibition in the Sanok Skansen
I based myself in Sanok, a charming, slow-paced town centered around a hilltop castle and pleasant little main market square. Thanks to its history (and perhaps because of its good tourist infrastructure) Sanok is a stop on the Chassidic route, even though there are few traces left of its Jewish past. The town was a center of Chassidism in the 19th century, and before the Holocaust, Jews made up between 40 ad 50 percent of the local population.
Two former synagogues stand in the town center, but both have been rebuilt for other purposes and are scarcely recognizable as former synagogues. The one surviving Jewish cemetery dates from the 19th century and is located next to the Catholic cemetery. Only a few gravestones remain, but there is a Holocaust memorial.
The most interesting Jewish attraction is the small but valuable collection of Judaica, photographs, paintings and other material on display at Sanok's wonderful open-air folk architecture museum, or skansen. The skansen was established in the 1950s and is the biggest in Poland, a sprawling collection of wonderful wooden village architecture -- houses, churches, shops, workshops -- brought in from villages in the region whose ethnic populations had been deported. Buildings are arranged by both geography and ethnic group, showcasing different vernacular architectural styles and forms.
A new section of the skansen replicates a village market square -- and there are plans to include a replica of one of the region's many ornate wooden synagogues. Virtually these synagogues, which dated back centuries, were destroyed in World War II. My visit to Sanok, in fact, coincided with a project to build an 85 percent scale replica of the roof and ceiling of one of them, from the town of Gwozdiec, that will form a key installation in the Museum of Polish Jewish History now under construction in Warsaw.
Sanok has several moderately prices hotels, but I was very frugal and stayed at the Dom Turysty hotel/hostel. A single room with bath cost the equivalent of about 20 euro a night -- and there was free WiFi internet! (See
Here are other places I visited, all within an hour's drive or less of Sanok.
south east poland - Rymanow
RYMANOW -- Inside the partially restored synagogue, showing frescoes.
The hulking ruins of the synagogue in Rymanow long symbolized to me the power embodied in devastation. The Baroque-style building, believed to date from the beginning of the 17th century, was a mournful shell, its roof gone and its windows gaping, trees growing out of the walls. Inside, fading frescoes on the walls depicted biblical animals -- the tiger, lion, eagle and stag -- and a view of Jerusalem. The pillars of the central bimah stood stark.
I wished then that it could be preserved in that state to serve as a monument to the Holocaust and its destruction.
In the mid-2000s, the synagogue was restituted to Jewish ownership and then passed to Congregation Menachem Zion, a Chassidic group in New York whose members are followers of Menachem Mendel of Rymanow (1745-1815), the Tzaddik who founded a Chassidic dynasty in the little town.
They carried out partial, and controversial, restoration work -- a new roof protects the interior and its fresco decoration, but there is an ugly modern tile floor and a toilet stall in the sanctuary, and it's clear that the restoration did not follow standard practices when dealing with a historic building.
The Jewish cemetery is on Slowackiego street, on a slope above town. Peaceful and meditative now, it was almost totally destroyed during World War II and many of the surviving stones are damaged. Ohels, however, now protect the tombs of Menachem Mendel and other rabbis.
south east poland - duska
DUKLA -- the ruined synagogue.
Dukla stands just north of the Dukla Pass, the lowest and easiest north-south route through the western Carpathians and already by the 16th century a major artery of trade, including the wine trade north from Hungary. During World War II the area was the scene of bitter battles, and disabled tanks and artillery have been left to stand as memorials to the 100,000 soldiers killed in the fighting.
The somber ruins of a once-imposing synagogue stand in a grassy hollow behind a chain link fence just off the rather rundown main market square: four thick, roofless walls, an arched portal and tall, empty windows. The synagogue was built around the middle of the 18th century and torched by the Germans and severely damaged in World War II.
There are two Jewish cemeteries, right next to each other, at the edge of town, marked from the road with a sign that indicates a war memorial site. Both cemeteries were devastated in World War II and both were cleaned up by students in 2005. The Old Cemetery, dating from the 18th century, is said to receive regularly care, but when I visited in early summer, I found the stones almost buried by vegetation.
Just across the dirt road, though, I was pleased to see that the new Jewish cemetery, dating from around 1870, had just had its grass and weeds cut short. Entry is through a rusting open gate, and the surviving stones stand in neat if straggling rows.
south east poland - Lesko
LESKO, POLAND -- Close up of the facade of the former synagogue.
This sleepy little town has one of the most important complexes of Jewish heritage sites in southern Poland: a synagogue dating from the mid-17th century just up the road from a large and relatively well preserved (if overgrown) Jewish cemetery whose oldest stones date from the 16th century.
The synagogue is a very graceful and impressive building just off the sleepy main market square near a towering church. It is now used as a gallery displaying and selling local arts and crafts.
There has long been an information panel outside identifying it as a former synagogue and describing its history: before World War II, nearly two-thirds of the local population was Jewish. The synagogue is the only one of five prayer houses to survive World War II. It was wrecked during the war and rebuilt in the 1960s -- the reconstruction added baroque gables (which a booklet on sale there said had been removed in the 19th century). The reconstruction also extended the height of the tower so that it now extends above the roof level.
The cemetery sprawls up a steep hill: you enter at the bottom, where the oldest stones are located. These are massive slabs whose only decoration are the vividly carved Hebrew inscriptions. One of the oldest and most historically important Jewish cemeteries in Poland, it is also on many tourist itineraries -- when I visited this time, a Polish tour group was also there. Few people venture up the hill beyond the oldest stones. The higher you go, though, the more, and more recent, and more vividly carved stones there are. But also, the more overgrown and untended do you find them..... in early summer, I found it a jungle; I have to say, I felt both glad to see people (like the tour group) visiting, but rather lonely and depressed that so much of the cemetery was forgotten.
south east poland - Baligrod
BALIGROD -- An elaborate tombstone.
About 20 km due south of Lesko, Baligrod is on the Chassidic Route. It has a nice hilltop Jewish cemetery with a great view and is well signposted. It is regularly maintained and the gravestones were restored a few years ago -- there is even a red plastic trash bin on-site. But when I visited, the grass and weeds had not been cut for awhile (I know how quickly the can grow in late spring/early summer). The chest-high vegetation hid many of the 200 or so stones -- I followed the narrow beaten trail made by a previous visitor but didn't feel like wading through untrammeled areas myself. Still, I found many beautifully carved stones, with a variety of styles ranging from crude but delicate incised images to more elaborate carvings.

south east poland - Lutowiska
LUTOWISKA, POLAND -- A tourist visits the Jewish cemetery.
The hamlet of Lutowiska is about as far as you can get in this part of Poland -- way down toward the very end of the triangular tip, very close to the Ukrainian border. It was once a major trading center, with a large Jewish population that made up the majority of residents from the late 19th century.
I had a wonderful and surprising experience here, finding that the surviving local Jewish heritage has been included in a well organized touristic/educational route in and around the town that focuses on the three cultures that coexisted here before World War II -- Jews, Poles and Ukrainians. The itinerary is aimed at bringing back awareness of destroyed local history (Holocaust as well as post-war expulsions and population and border shifts) and also highlighting the landscape and environment. Other sites on the Three Cultures itinerary include the Greek-Catholic cemetery, with a replica of the wooden church that no longer stands here.
The well maintained Jewish cemetery is enclosed by a rustic fence on a hill behind the town's big school, immersed in lovely rolling landscape. There are dozens of gravestones, some with fairly elaborate carving; many tilted, some eroded.
In the center of the hamlet are the ruins of the synagogue. And scattered information panels, as well as material available at the tourist office, provide details about local history.

Read story at

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Staying in Krakow

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've just been to Krakow for the last few days of the annual Jewish Culture Festival - the best party around. This year I did a couple of lectures to groups who were attending (and observing) the festival. It led to some reminiscing with friends who -- like me -- have been going to the Festival since the early 1990s.

One of the things we talked about what where we had stayed in Krakow in those early years -- because, until the late 1990s, there were very few if any places to stay in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter where the Festival now takes place.

In the early years, the artists at the Festival used to be put up at the Forum Hotel -- I should say, the late Forum Hotel, because the Forum as it was then does not exist anymore. It is a hulking empty relic that serves as a prop for huge advertising posters....

I used to stay at the Hotel Pollera, an old-fashioned place in the Old Town near the main market square, or Rynek, about a 20-minute walk (or more) from Kazimierz.

For the past dozen years, though, I've stayed in Kazimierz itself whenever I've been in Krakow -- usually at one of two hotels that, I have to say, are run by friends.

One is the Klezmer Hois, operated by Wojtek and Malgosia Ornat, the couple who founded the first Jewish-style cafe in Krakow. I still remember vividly sitting with Wojtek in 1992 or so, at an umbrella-shaded wicker table, eating strawberries and looking out at the devastation of Szeroka street, the main square of Jewish Kazimierz, which then was a ring of dilapidated buildings.

The Ornats opened Klezmer Hois -- their third locale -- in the mid-1990s, in a building that once housed a mikvah. It evolved into a hangout for Krakow Jews and visiting Jewish artists and others -- and it still fulfills that purpose, at least for us older crowd. Sitting in the garden during Festival time, is a delight, a constant round of people dropping by, conversing, eating, drinking. Klezmer Hois is, actually, the one "Jewish style" cafe in Krakow that I go to. The Ornats also run the Austeria Jewish publishing house (which has published my book "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)") and the associated Austeria bookstore.

The hotel rooms are old-fashioned and up creaking flights of stairs -- and the breakfast is spectacular, a delicious combination of table service and partial buffet.

Breakfast at Klezmer Hois Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The other hotel in Kazimierz that I stay in is the Hotel Eden, on Ciemna street, a wonderfully friendly place, founded in the mid-1990s by the American Allen Haberberg, that started out as a kosher hotel. Though no longer kosher, the Eden still caters to Jewish travelers and has a mikvah -- which has been used for conversions as well as ritual baths. Each room has a mezuzah on the door, and there is also wifi throughout the building. I asked Allen not long ago why the Eden was no longer kosher (although it will still provide kosher food for those who ask) -- he told me one reasons was that there are now good kosher caterers as well as an upscale kosher restaurant (the Olive Tree) in Krakow.

Rabbi Edgar Gluck and Allen Haberberg outside the Hotel Eden Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Also on this trip though, for the first time in a long time, I stayed for a couple of nights near the Rynek, at the Hotel Saski -- where I think I stayed with my mother in about 1992./

It doesn't seem to have changed much -- but the Old Town has.... Krakow is the city that doesn't sleep ... at 3 a.m. the streets were as lively as in the middle of the afternoon.

Lobby of the Saski. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Corruption Probe in Budapest

In Budapest, Corruption Probe in Budapest Amplifies Calls for Reform of Jewish Institutions

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Jan. 10, 2012

BUDAPEST (JTA) -- A whistle-blowing rabbi and a reform-minded lay leader are at the forefront of new efforts to shake up Hungary’s entrenched Jewish establishment.

Late last year, Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti alerted authorities to complaints that reportedly include embezzlement and tax fraud in the operation of Budapest’s main Jewish cemetery on Kozma Street. This led to a police investigation and an unprecedented raid on Dec. 1 on both the cemetery and the Jewish community offices that house the burial society, as well as a public airing of the scandal in the mainstream media.

“Many people in the Jewish community administration attacked me for airing internal affairs to the outside,” Radnoti, 40, told JTA. “I was told that I draw a salary from the Budapest Jewish Community, so I was disloyal to my employers.”

But, he added, “You have to fight for the truth no matter what. I think this could become the beginning of the cleaning-up of Jewish communal affairs.”

Joining Radnoti is Andras Heisler, a former president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, or Mazsihisz, the official umbrella of the Neolog community, a moderate reformist movement to which the vast majority of affiliated Hungarian Jews belong. The Jewish community in Budapest, home to 90 percent of the country’s Jews, is the largest member of Mazsihisz.

Mazsihisz officially represents the interests of Hungarian Jewry to the government and is responsible for the annual distribution of millions of dollars of government grants and Holocaust compensation funds to Jewish organizations. Critics have long called for a reform of its financial and administrative operations, accusing the organization of being undemocratic, unrepresentative, monopolistic and opaque.

Managing director Gusztav Zoltai, 76, has been in office for two decades and has come under particularly sharp criticism for his leadership style and firm grip on power.

“Zoltai manages to hold on to power by switching people in key positions who are somehow dependent on him,” Janos Gado, an editor at the Jewish magazine Szombat, told JTA. Gado and others say that many, if not most, of those who elect communal leaders are financially dependent on Zoltai and the other office-holders they are electing.

Zoltai, who along with current Mazsihisz President Peter Feldmajer declined to be interviewed, was elected managing director in 1991, when the organization was first established to replace the communist-era Jewish body. A child survivor of the Holocaust who lost most of his family in World War II, he had worked previously as the stage manager of a theater.

Last spring, in a case reported in the Hungarian media, Radnoti and Heisler charged that the election of Jewish community officials had been manipulated to prevent changes in the top leadership -- and specifically to prevent Heisler from becoming a delegate to the general assembly, the body that elects the top officials, including Zoltai.

Heisler had resigned as Mazsihisz president in 2005 following his attempts to overhaul the organization were thwarted and his calls for Zoltai’s resignation were rebuffed. But in December, with Radnoti’s support, he was elected to the Mazsihisz board, and now he is hopeful that, with allies like Radnoti, he can make a renewed push for reform.

“If Mazsihisz survives, it will survive in a different form,” Heisler said. “The way it operates now, it can’t continue. Zoltai must go; if he leaves there is a chance.”

Mazsihisz has come under particular criticism for a lack of financial transparency -- criticism the cemetery scandal seemed to bear out. Radnoti claims the investigation and police raid were sparked by material he furnished that document transactions without receipts, double-entry bookkeeping, sales of nonexistent grave sites and other abuses.

“It’s the tip of an iceberg,” said Gabor Miklosi, an investigative journalist who saw Radnoti's documentation and broke the story on the popular website.

After the allegations surfaced, Mazsihisz issued a statement saying that in its own internal investigation. the Budapest Jewish community had uncovered one case of abuse several months earlier that had involved a false receipt. The director of the cemetery was fired after repaying the money, the federation said.

“The irregularities that were committed did not involve the invoicing system of the funerary department” of the burial society, said the statement.

Sociologist Andras Kovacs, who co-authored a report last year that called for “urgent” reform of Mazsihisz, said the manner in which communal funds are distributed is “a totally dark area.” The report, issued in September by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, called for structural changes to ensure greater transparency and equitable distribution.

“There are a lot of rumors and gossip,” Kovacs told JTA. “Some former officials of the community suggested several times to launch an independent audit, but it never happened. It is always suggested that to raise questions about this could aid anti-Semites by putting the community in a bad light.”

In recent months, the government has been conducting negotiations that could lead to the withdrawal of some funding from Mazsihisz.

Under a new law, the state recognizes three official streams of Judaism corresponding to the three that existed prior to the Holocaust: Neolog, represented by Mazsihisz; Orthodoxy, whose presence in Hungary is tiny; and the so-called “Status Quo,” now known as the Unified Hungarian Israelite Community, or EMIH. Of the three, only Mazsihisz can currently receive direct government subsidies and collective compensation for unclaimed Jewish assets seized by the communists.

Several Jewish groups are now pressing to obtain direct government funding rather than be obliged to obtain funding doled out by Mazsihisz, which says it will fight any such reallocation.

RUTHLESS COSMOPOLITAN: Czech Jews Remember Havel

RUTHLESS COSMOPOLITAN: At Hanukkah, Czech Jews Marvel at Blessings of Havel's Revolution

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

December 22, 2011

PRAGUE (JTA) – On the first night of Chanukah, I stood in the splendid reception hall of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague as the ambassador himself lit the first candle in an imposing gilded menorah and chanted the blessings over the flames.

Since it was the first night of the holiday, these included the Shehecheyanu – the thankful blessing recited when reaching a special or long-awaited moment: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this occasion.”

How strangely fitting to recite this, I thought, at this very time and in this very place. Two days earlier Vaclav Havel had died, and many people were still in shock at the loss of the shy dissident playwright who had led the Velvet Revolution that ousted the communist regime in 1989 and gone on to become Czechoslovakia’s – and then the Czech Republic’s – first democratic president and enduring moral compass.

Masses of candles in Havel's memory were glowing on Wenceslas Square, site of the huge demonstrations that had toppled the regime. And plans were going ahead for the somber state funeral.

Why at this sad moment of mourning did I feel that the Shehecheyanu was fitting?

It was because, in a way, I felt it was a blessing that honored Havel himself, for without him and the impact he had had, this Chanukah evening -- and what it represented -- could not have taken place.

Joined by his family and a few guests, Ambassador Norman Eisen lit the first candle ahead of his official holiday reception for hundreds of diplomats and political and cultural figures. Throughout the evening, the menorah blazed at one end of the hall, while a huge decorated Christmas tree, placed there by the U.S. government as part of its decoration of this public space, glittered at the other.

“It’s my first Christmas tree ever,” Eisen, the son of an Auschwitz survivor from the former Czechoslovakia and an observant Jew who had had the residence kitchen koshered, joked to the crowd as waiters threaded through with trays of latkes.

Eisen opened his welcoming remarks by asking for a minute of silence in Havel’s honor. Then he told the story of the residence – a mansion that had been built by a wealthy Jewish family, the Petscheks, in the late 1920s. The family left in 1938, before World War II broke out. During the war it served as the residence of the head of the German army occupying Prague. Afterward, the mansion became Czechoslovak property until 1948, when the United States purchased it.

There were quite a few Jews at the reception, old friends of mine from the Prague Jewish community such as Leo Pavlat, the director of the Prague Jewish Museum, who delightedly told me how he and Eisen had seats next to each other in synagogue. I was there to make a formal presentation of a big website project I am coordinating on Jewish heritage in Europe.

I couldn’t help but think back.

The postwar communist regime had carried out a policy of persecution aimed at stifling Jewish life, and the state-appointed community leadership had followed the party line, routinely issuing statements critical of Israel. In May 1989, Pavlat had spearheaded a group of young Prague Jews who sharply criticized these regime-approved aparatchiks. He and his friends warned that Jewish life in Czechoslovakia was “in danger of extinction.”

The Velvet Revolution, with Havel as its reluctant hero, changed everything.

One of Havel’s first acts as president was to reinstate full religious freedom. And one of his first state trips abroad was to Israel – bringing with him an entourage of 180 Prague Jews. By the end of 1990, Pavlat was serving as a diplomat in the Czechoslovak embassy in Israel. He remained there until 1994, when he returned to Prague and took up the directorship of the Jewish Museum.

At the ambassador's reception, I reminisced about those heady days, and about Havel’s impact, with Tomas Kraus, who has served as executive director of the Federation of Czech Jewish communities since 1991. Kraus had helped organize Havel’s first trip to Israel and had been part of the Jewish delegation that accompanied him.

“It was exciting,” Kraus recalled. “It was part of the ‘Velvet Europhoria.’ Everything that we had not dared to dream of was immediately possible. The Holy Land had been a philosophical term for us, an image of something that you would never be able to reach – only in a dream. And then, overnight, it was a reality.”

That trip to Israel, he said, was “a very symbolic way to show what Czech foreign policy would be. It was a very important sign of what his priorities would be.”

On the domestic front, too, Kraus recalled, Havel had been extremely important. Not just with his condemnation of anti-Semitism, but with the active role he played in addressing issues such as restitution of Jewish property and in awarding one of the highest state honors to Nicholas Winton, who organized the Czech kindertransport to rescue some 669 main Jewish children on the eve of World War II.

“Today we can look back into history over these past 22 years,” Kraus said. “Sometimes you don’t realize that you are living through history.”

He went on, “Havel’s passing will leave a very big gap. Since he left office, he was in a position without concrete power. But sometimes a moral authority is stronger than armies.”

Preserving Remains of Death Camps

Auschwitz's Future Secure, Preservationists Worry About Forgotten Nazi Death Camps

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

October 12, 2011

ROME (JTA) -- Auschwitz, the most notorious camp in the Nazi killing machine, may soon claim success in its campaign to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust.

The foundation supporting the site in southern Poland has attracted tens of millions of dollars from donor countries, and the camp’s barracks and other buildings seem set to be preserved for decades to come. The museum memorial at the former Nazi death camp attracts more than 1 million visitors per year.

Some fear, however, that the concentration of resources and attention on Auschwitz could overshadow other preservation efforts and threaten the integrity or even the existence of the memorials and museums at lesser-known camps and Holocaust sites in Poland.

"Because Auschwitz is treated as the symbol of the Holocaust and the whole world is supporting only this museum, everybody in Poland, including the government, seems to think that this is enough," said historian Robert Kuwalek, a curator at the state-run Museum at Majdanek, the Nazi concentration camp and killing center near Lublin in eastern Poland. "The problem is deeper because it is the lack of basic knowledge that the Holocaust happened in forgotten sites like Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Chelmno.”

Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were the three killing centers of the so-called Operation Reinhard plan to murder 2 million Polish Jews in 1942 and 1943. During that operation, Kuwalek said, "more people were killed in a shorter time than in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the whole period that that camp functioned."

Despite their importance in the history of the Holocaust, these and other sites -- such as the forced labor camps at Stuffhof and Gross-Rosen -- are overlooked by the vast majority of visitors who want to learn about the Holocaust or pay homage to its victims firsthand. All are marked by memorials or even museums. But some are located in remote parts of the country, and most are in serious need of upkeep and preservation.

The museum at Sobibor, for example -- the site of John Demjanjuk's crimes -- was forced to close in June when funding from local authorities ran out. An estimated 167,000 to 250,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered at Sobibor, which is located in a remote part of eastern Poland. In May, a German court convicted Demjanjuk, now 91, of complicity in the murder of 28,000 Jews there.

"We simply realized that we could not afford to pay our bills this year, maintenance costs included," Marek Bem, a Sobibor museum spokesman, told the Krakow Post. "Without a stable budget we can't make any plans for the future."

The museum reopened July 1 after the Polish Culture Ministry announced that it would be reorganized as a state-run institution funded by the ministry.

"Auschwitz is the great exception to the rule," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Baker was the point man for the AJC in its cooperation with the Polish government to build a large and impressive monument and museum at Belzec, where 500,000 Jews were killed. The center opened in 2004.

"With all the focus on Auschwitz, there's a kind of irony," he added. "It is coming that Auschwitz is becoming a universal symbol. It is raising money from scores of countries. When the survivors pass on, one question will be how to retain the identity of Auschwitz as a place where Jews were killed. It can become a universal place of lessons about genocide."

The Auschwitz Foundation was set up in 2009 with the goal of raising $163 million and thus guaranteeing an annual interest income of about $6 million for the much-needed conservation of barracks, the ruins of gas chambers, and other artifacts and material.

To date, nearly 20 countries have announced support for the effort, bringing the total pledges to more than $122 million. Germany alone pledged about $82 million. Israel was the latest country to pledge funds, with a $1 million contribution pledged to the foundation a few days before Rosh Hashanah.

In a statement quoted by the Auschwitz museum website, Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev explained why the investment was seen as so important.

"The site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where over 1 million Jews were murdered during the Shoah, has become a key symbol of the Holocaust and of absolute evil," he said. "It is therefore a moral imperative to preserve the site's authenticity and legacy, and it is meaningful that Israel is participating in meeting that imperative."

The success to date of the Auschwitz fundraising campaign has been greeted with a cautious sigh of relief by scholars and preservationists who for years had raised the alarm about the threats to the site.

"It seems that the future of Auschwitz with regard to preservation is mostly secured," said Tomasz Kunciewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, an educational institution in the town of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located. "Several governments have already made significant contributions, and others are expected to follow suit.

"However, regarding the more 'forgotten' death camps, such as Sobibor, the situation seems to be acute and there should be similar international efforts made regarding fundraising as in the case of Auschwitz."

In contrast to the 1.3 million visitors to Auschwitz last year, only about 30,000 go annually to Belzec, in southeastern Poland, and 20,000 visit Sobibor. Even Majdanek, which has a large museum and many more original buildings and other infrastructure than Auschwitz, attracts only about 100,000 annual visitors. The Majdanek museum is still coming to grips with a 2010 fire that destroyed one of the original barracks, where some of its key collections were stored.

"Everybody talks about the problems at Auschwitz," Kuwalek said. "Nobody pays attention to the other places. I'm really afraid that they were forgotten and will be forgotten."

Determining how to deal with these sites, he added, "will be a discussion that is more and more important. There is a recognition that something has to be done, but no one knows how and what."

Jewish Life in Poland and Hungary

Is Jewish Life in Poland and Hungary Sustainable?

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

September 20, 2011

BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) -- It's not easy to decipher the complicated trajectory of Jewish life in post-communist Europe.

“There are claims and counterclaims about contemporary European Jewish life," Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of London’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research, said. "At one end of the spectrum there are reports of a remarkable renaissance of activity; at the other there is a strong narrative of decline."

Boyd's institute recently published a pair of reports written by local researchers in Hungary and Poland that offer a more nuanced view. The reports looked at the development of Jewish life in these two countries since the collapse of communism and examined the challenges their Jewish communities face going forward.

The reports, Boyd said, "illustrate that both perspectives are correct: While Jewish life has undoubtedly been reinvigorated since the collapse of communism, considerable investment is required to ensure the long-term sustainability of Jewish life in both places.”

Hungary, with an estimated 100,000 Jews, has the largest Jewish population in post-communist Europe outside the former Soviet Union. In Poland, the European Jewish heartland that was home to more than 3 million Jews before the Holocaust, the Jewish population today is estimated at only 8,000-15,000.

The reports were prepared on the basis of personal interviews with a range of Jewish community activists in each country, followed up by focus-group discussions. Their results highlight similarities in the post-communist Jewish revival process but also illustrate the differences between various Jewish communities.

They also demonstrate the increasing importance of alternative forms of engagement in nurturing identity among younger Jews. These include Jewish community centers, Jewish studies programs, grassroots educational projects such as Limmud, and even initiatives such as Jewish cafes and culture festivals.

The research in Hungary showed a community reinvigorated over the last 20 years but facing the challenge of low engagement in communal life, with only 10 percent of the Jewish population affiliated with a Jewish organization.

Young people especially appear alienated from established Jewish communal structures, such as the umbrella Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities -- or Mazsihisz, to use its Hungarian acronym.

The JPR Hungary report calls for an urgent overhaul of Mazsihisz and the entire institutional system of organized Hungarian Jewry to ensure that decisions on issues affecting the whole community are made in a democratic and transparent fashion.

It also calls for greater religious pluralism and more cooperation and coordination among the plethora of often competing local Jewish groups and initiatives. This, it said, could help foster the emergence and training of a new generation of leaders "who recognize that success in any part of the community should be regarded as success for the whole community."

"One of our purposes was to present conflicting views on every issue we considered," sociologist Andras Kovacs, an expert on Hungarian Jewish issues who was one of the co-authors of the report, told JTA. "We wanted to provoke debate."

In Poland, research bore witness to the rebirth of a community that remains tiny but has a disproportionate impact both at home and abroad, in part due to the importance of Polish Jewish history and heritage to world Jewry.

Because of this, the report said, and "because of the remarkably positive reaction of the Polish state and most of civil society to Jewish interests and concerns," Jewish programs in Poland "have a very high multiplier effect," with a direct impact "both on the world community of Jews of Polish origin, and on Jewish and non-Jewish Poles alike."

Therefore, it said, preservation and study of Jewish heritage -- from cemeteries, synagogues and Holocaust sites such as death camps, to archival, museum and library collections -- "are of great importance."

Moreover, it said, while Orthodox Jewry remained the primary established religious stream, only a minority of the community identified with Orthodoxy.

The report urged greater investment in programs supporting Jewish cultural initiatives and non-Orthodox alternative forms of Jewish engagement.

"There is a future for the Jewish community in Poland, but the community will remain small," Konstanty Gebert, a leading Jewish intellectual and writer who co-authored the report, told JTA. "While the Orthodox part will remain a core of it, it represents only a minority," he said.

"Culture is a main identity factor for young Jews," he went on. "The most important things are happening on the interface between the Jewish community and society at large."

Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said the report gave a good overall picture of Jewish life in Poland today and many of its complexities.

"It accurately portrays Polish Jews as being optimistic and not overly concerned with anti-Semitism, which stands in marked contrast to the rest of Europe," he told JTA.

But he added, "I would have liked to see more focus on the somewhat unnatural structure of the community, where official religious life is Orthodox but few of the members are. Polish Jewry coming to terms with that situation, and having its institutions more accurately represent the people is to me the greatest challenge we face moving forward."

The reports were the first two of a series of JPR investigations into contemporary Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe funded by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Future reports will deal with Ukraine and Germany.

“This research highlights the importance of avoiding generalities about Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe," Sally Berkovic, the chief executive of the Rothschild Foundation Europe, said in a statement. "Despite some shared experiences, each Jewish community, with its distinctive characteristics, has responded differently to the challenges precipitated by the fall of communism."