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As an American journalist, author, editor and researcher, I’ve published and lectured widely and won awards for my work on Jewish heritage and contemporary Jewish issues in Europe, as well as my work on the European fascination — and embrace — of the American Wild West, its mythology and its music.

I’ve chronicled European Jewish issues for more than 25 years — I  coined the term “Virtually Jewish” to describe the way the so-called “Jewish space” in Europe is often filled by non-Jews — and am Coordinator of the web site www.jewish-heritage-europe.euan online resource for Jewish heritage issues that is a project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. I had a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on my project “Sauerkraut Cowboys, Indian Dreams: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe.” 

Among my other awards is Poland’s  Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the highest awards that Poland grants to foreign citizens. And I was the Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC, for Spring Semester 2015.

 

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.

 

 

 

My new article in the Jewish Quarterly: Yellow Starlight in Bp

Me at the map of the Budapest Ghetto, at the Ghetto Memorial in the city's 7th District

Me at the map of the Budapest Ghetto, at the Ghetto Memorial in the city’s 7th District

 

My article on my (sort of) personal connection to the Yellow Star Houses in Budapest has been published in the Jewish Quarterly.

Yellow Starlight in Budapest

Ruth Ellen Gruber

November 4, 2016

In 1999, I bought a small apartment in Budapest. It was on the top floor of a building located at the edge of the city’s downtown Seventh District, just off Király Street and opposite the lavishly ornate Academy of Music.

I was spending a lot of time in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe—and still do; I bought my little place in order to have a convenient base for travel.

It pleased me to have found a flat in the Seventh District—Budapest’s historic downtown Jewish neighbourhood.

Király Street, the border between the Sixth and the Seventh Districts, was Budapest’s downtown Jewish main commercial avenue, and the inner part of the Seventh District is anchored by three grand synagogues that form the so-called “Jewish Triangle”. Even today, my flat is within a fifteen minute or so walk from most of the city’s main Jewish institutions: several active synagogues, the Jewish Museum, the Rabbinical Seminary, the Jewish Community Centre, Jewish and even kosher restaurants, not to mention the new clubs, “ruin pubs” and cafes that since the mid-2000s have become hangouts for secular young Jews (as well as tourists and other young people).

When I bought my flat, the Seventh District was one of the poorest and least developed districts in the city. I spent hours walking through the run-down streets, photographing the decaying tenements ripe for urban renewal—or the wrecker’s ball. Today, the district is still grimy, but piecemeal gentrification has turned it into a sprawling hub for youth-centred and “alternative” clubs and cafes, as well as a burgeoning restaurant scene. My apartment has given me a first-hand opportunity to observe and chronicle the changes.

According to plaques affixed to the outer wall, my building dates from 1896 and was designed by an architect named Antal Schomann. It has a typical Budapest layout: you enter through an outer street door, walk through a foyer, and then the flats are arranged on four tiers of balconies that encircle an open courtyard.

I never thought much more than that about the history of the building until I was asked to write this article. It was only then that I learned that it was one of the 1,944 apartment buildings in the city to which more than 200,000 Budapest Jews were forcibly relocated in the summer of 1944. […]

Access full article

 

 

Spaghetti (& Meatballs) Cowboys

This is a cross post from my blog sauerkrautcowboys.blogspot.com

In late October I spent an afternoon at a country western festival in Bologna, Italy. It was the very last day of the two weekends that the festival took place, and I was eager to see what it was like: though I have been to wild west and country festivals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, I have only been to a couple of them in Italy.

This one, called “Festival Country,” took place at the Bologna Fairgrounds, and it shared space in a cavernous hall with a sort of “October Fest” beer festival (featuring what was presented as German food). In a separate cavernous hall there was a so-called “Irish Festival:” vaguely Celtic music, and stalls that mainly seemed to sell “Lord of the Rings” type clothing…..

The path to all three led through the grim industrial landscape of the Fair buildings…..

Once there, what did I find?

The scene — at least on the day I was there — was a sort of distillation of all the most common stereotypes associated with “the west,” “the frontier,” “country-western,” and, in a certain way, “America.”  It was almost “paint-by-numbers”– but refreshingly, in contrast to festivals in other countries, I only saw one Confederate flag.

bologna-country-fest-192

I was hit by a fist of sound as soon as a entered — from a band (whose name I didn’t get) playing on a stage in the middle of the hall: playing so loud that that the sound was utterly distorted, with only the bass and the beat discernable.

The web site promised shows, concerts, food and drink, “pioneers and westerns”, Indian traditions, games, and handicrafts.

At the entrance to the cavernous hall stood a manikin of a Native American, posed outside a tepee as if to pounce.

Or of course pose for pictures.

bologna-country-fest-191

 

Nearby, there were basic-type mock ups of a Saloon, a bank, and a corral — which is where, I believe, shows were staged.

All around the edges there were stands selling cowboy boots, cowboy hats, T-shirts, “western attire” and the usual type of wild west tschotsches — most of which I rather assume were made in China or somewhere. Unlike at some other festivals I’ve been so, there was not much of the participatory or performative dress-up.

bologna-countryfest20

There was a dance floor for line-dancing (increasingly popular in Italy) in front of the band-stand.

And beyond this were  lots of tables where people could eat — the “western” fare included a variety of (mainly) meats, giant hamburgers and other dishes that to me seemed pretty unappetizing (I ate fish & chips in the Irish festival). This being Italy there was also pasta — but thanks to the Americanness of it all, it was the first time I have ever seen “spaghetti and meatballs” in Italy.

One thing that was different from some of the festivals I’ve gone to elsewhere was a series of lectures given on “western” topics, such as western movies. I dropped into one of them — where an Italian from an organization called Sentiero Rosso (Red Trail) that supports Native American rights was talking about how his group brings aid to Native American families.

 

I was planning to stay at the festival until evening (the last train back to Florence was at something like 9:30 p.m.), but in fact, I only lasted a few hours….I’m sad to say that was it all so empty,  stereotyped, and  superficial — and that, despite the razzle dazzle and noise, there was such a lack of energy — that it wasn’t really fun.

I’ve won a Rockower award

Along with a team of other writers, I’ve won a first-place Rockower award — the annual award for Jewish journalism — for a Hadassah Magazine report on anti-Semitism in Europe. The awards will be presented November 15 in DC.

Category 11: Award for Excellence in Special Sections or Supplements

All Newspapers; Broadcast; Magazines; Special Sections and Supplements; Web-based Outlets.

First Place
Hadassah Magazine, New York, NY

“Europe Through the Lens of Anti-Semitism” by Abraham H. Foxman, Miriam Shaviv, Natasha Lehrer, Ruth Ellen Gruber, Nathalie Rothschild, and Toby Axelrod
Click Here to Read Submission

Comments: Well written, excellent reporting on a burning topic.

I’ve previously been awarded third-place and honorable mention Rockowers for articles in JTA and B’nai B’rith International magazine.

Two new articles in Hadassah Magazine

Hadassah Magazine runs two articles by me about Venice — one on the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Venice Ghetto, and one on general sight-seeing tips for the Lagoon City.

venice july 16-18

 

Venice, 500 Years of the Ghetto

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, August 2016

Venice university professor Shaul Bassi stops beneath an elegant marble plaque affixed to an inner wall of the Jewish community building just off the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the secluded, vaguely fan-shaped main plaza of the historic Venice Ghetto.

The flowery Italian inscription extols one Giuseppe Bassi, a local rabbi who died in 1916. He was, it declares, “incomparable” as a teacher and religious leader; a man who “spent his life in works of enlightened charity, elevating the humble; educating young people to follow in his stead.”

Above the inscription, in Hebrew, appears a line from Psalm 145: “One generation shall commend your deeds to the next.”

Shaul Bassi looks up at the plaque and smiles. “He was my great-grandfather,” he says.

Venice is currently in the midst of a year of events marking the 500th anniversary of the imposition of Europe’s first official Jewish ghetto. And Bassi—who traces his Jewish ancestry here back to the 16th century—is the coordinator of the Venice Ghetto 500 anniversary committee set up by local Jewry and the city.

Dozens of concerts, conferences and other initiatives—the most publicized was a July staging of The Merchant of Venice—were officially kicked off on March 29, 500 years to the day after Venetian rulers under Doge Leonardo Loredan ordered the 700 or so Jews confined to the site of a former foundry, known as geto in Venetian dialect. Jews remained segregated there until 1797, when Napoleon’s forces broke down the gates. At its height, some 5,000 Jews lived amid the cramped alleyways and piazzas. They constructed tenements as tall as seven stories high to conserve space and built five synagogues whose jewel-like sanctuaries are hidden behind austere façades.

Shaul Bassi. Photo by Ruth Ellen Gruber.
Shaul Bassi. Photo by Ruth Ellen Gruber.

Despite economic and other strictures, Jews here lived rich, creative lives. Venice became a renowned center of Hebrew printing, and leading personalities such as Rabbi Leon Modena and the poet Sara Copio Sullam, both of whom died in the 1640s, were well known outside the ghetto walls.

“The story of the ghetto is the story of segregation, but also the story of an enormous quantity of cultural exchanges,” says urban historian Donatella Calabi, who curated an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, “Venice, the Jews and Europe 1516-2016,” which is the centerpiece of quincentennial events. “The 500th anniversary should be an occasion to reflect on history, but also to [reframe] things for the future,” she adds.

How to do that is a major challenge for today’s Venetian Jews.

[…]

Click to read entire article

 

venice13

 

Venice, Sights Beyond the Ghetto

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, August 2016

Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, has enchanted visitors and inspired artists for centuries with its shimmering fusion of water, stone and light. Tourists and poets alike vie for superlatives to describe the atmosphere of an enchanted city built on more than 100 tiny islands in the midst of a lagoon.

The attraction, however, has its downside. More than a century ago, the German Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann was already describing the floating city as “half fairy tale, half tourist trap.”

Indeed, millions flock to Venice each year, putting a strain on the fragile infrastructure. On any given day in the summer high season, tourists—as many as 80,000 in a 24-hour period—crowd the city’s historic center, outnumbering the people who actually live there.

There’s good reason, of course, for Venice’s overwhelming popularity. Its unique architecture is stunning; the museums and churches display renowned artistic treasures; the cuisine is divine. And the experience of getting lost amid the dense, shadowy network of canals, alleyways, bridges and plazas is the stuff of romance.

So don’t let the crowds put you off. Sights on the well-beaten track may see you joining thousands of others. But it is possible to escape the crowds, especially after nightfall, when day-trippers have returned to the mainland or their cruise ship.

[…]

Click to read entire article

 

 

Symposium: New Jewish Museums in 21st Century Europe

NYC symposium

I took part in a symposium Jan. 10 at the Center for Jewish History in New York that celebrated the publication of a special double issue of the journal East European Jewish Affairs that was devoted to new Jewish museums in the 21st century.

Post-Communist Eastern Europe is experiencing a museum boom as it explores new definitions of national identities not possible under communism. This has generated a wholesale revival of interest in Jewish culture and institutions on the part of non-Jews, paradoxically, in the near absence of Jewish populations. The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow and Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw are prime examples of this trend, but there are many others.

 

I have an article in the journal called “Reportage: Beyond Prague’s “Precious Legacy”: post-communist Jewish exhibits and synagogue restorations in the Czech Republic.” In it I describe the Czech 10 Stars project, dedicated in 2014, and also describe the strategic process of renovation and Jewish exhibits that led up to it.

At the symposium, I was on a panel along with Olga Gershenson (who spoke about the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (who spoke about the POLIN museum in Warsaw) and Anna Manchin, who spoke about museums connected with Jews and Jewish history in Budapest.

In an article in the New York Jewish Week titled “Jewish Museums Leave Nostalgia in the Dust,” Elizabeth Denlinger wrote, about my talk, which I dedicated to the memory of the late Jiri Fiedler:

Ruth Ellen Gruber’s portrayal of the Ten Stars program, a series of ten single-themed exhibitions in significant Jewish sites across the Czech Republic, left me wanting to visit immediately.

She described the session as a whole as

A lively, sometimes contentious symposium [that] emphatically showed that Jewish museums in Central and Eastern Europe have reached a state of fruition worthy of celebration and vigilance […]  Its participants threw themselves into exploring the move of Jewish museums “away from nostalgia and toward … a new self-definition,” as Judith Siegel, director of academic and public programming at the CJH put it.

 

Read the Jewish Week article

See publication page of the EEJA double issue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Banjo Romantika to be broadcast on American TV

banjo-romntika-poster

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

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

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

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

See a 30-second teaser for the movie here:

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

Article profiles me and my heritage work

Me in front of the abandoned synagogue in Hostice, CZ

Me in front of the abandoned synagogue in Hostice, CZ

 

The New York Jewish Week runs a (rather blush-worthy!) article by travel writer Hilary Danailova about me and my Jewish heritage work, including the Jewish Heritage Europe web site.

 

Heritage Tourism In Europe
 
10/13/15
 
 

From Poland to Portugal, nobody knows Jewish Europe like Ruth Ellen Gruber.

On a given week, the Philadelphia-born journalist might be checking out a newly opened museum, inspecting the restoration of a prewar synagogue, or picking her way through forest brambles in search of long-lost tombstones. That explains how Gruber found herself recently in the wilderness south of Prague, where she stumbled onto an 18th-century Jewish cemetery in a clearing near a faded sign marking “Synagogue Street.”

“Here’s this place in the middle of nowhere, and actually, there used to be a synagogue here,” recalled Gruber, who was sleuthing with the aid of locals. “It gave me that sense of discovery that I used to find everywhere. When I find a place that thrills me or makes me feel that sense of wonder again … I loved it.”

The thrill of discovery is something Gruber shares with a growing number of enthusiasts through the website she oversees, Jewish Heritage Europe. A project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, JHE is a comprehensive web portal for all things Jewish overseas: festivals, institutions, scholarship, synagogues and cemeteries.

Under Gruber’s direction, JHE has evolved into an essential travel resource. With an engaging redesign and the recent launch of “Have Your Say,” a feature that invites interactive commentary, JHE makes Jewish Europe more accessible — and more communal — than ever.

Gruber has long occupied a front-row seat for the show that is modern Europe. Since the 1970s, she has reported from abroad for many major news outlets in North America; currently JTA’s senior European correspondent, next summer she will lead her first European Jewish heritage tour for The New York Times.

When we caught up last week by phone, Gruber was back at her home in an Umbrian village after spending Yom Kippur in Budapest, where she also keeps an apartment. I asked Gruber if she had witnessed any of the migrant turmoil that had put Central Europe in the headlines.

She hadn’t; by the time she’d reached Hungary, the migrants had moved on. Driving east from Bratislava, Gruber saw humongous traffic jams on the road to Vienna. But Budapest appeared devoid of any trace of the human drama that had enveloped it just days earlier. “It was beautiful late summer weather, lots of tourists, open-air cafés,” she recalled. “It all looked perfectly normal — weirdly so.”

Fresh off a semester-long stint as Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, Gruber was eager to talk up another September happening: the European Day of Jewish Culture, a Continent-wide celebration of local Jewish life — past and present — that draws huge crowds, mostly non-Jewish. Gruber participated in the event’s founding 20 years ago, and as the klezmer concerts and synagogue tours spill over a whole week in many cities, she wishes American Jews would get more involved.

I pointed out that the first week of September is a hard sell for Americans — but those who do go are profoundly moved by the sight of Europeans, many of whom have never met a Jew, cherishing a part of their collective culture that until recently was ignored or shunned. That goes to the heart of Gruber’s philosophy, which holds that Jewish heritage is everyone’s heritage; historic synagogues are no more sights for Jewish tourists only than cathedrals are for Christians only.

Europe’s newfound appreciation for Jewry explains what Gruber cited as the most exciting trend — the proliferation of Jewish museums, many of which employ novel formats to engage travelers along with wider audiences.

The best known of these is the 2-year-old Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, whose “virtual shtetl” has created a worldwide online community and established a model for 21st-century outreach. “It has a tremendous amount of impact; it’s a social network,” said Gruber.

But other new museums deserve attention, including those in Bratislava, the Portuguese Azores, Bavaria, Padova. This last one, in an overlooked but stunning city, is among a series of destinations travelers can investigate on the Italian Jewish Community’s new “virtual tours.”

And the recently unveiled Czech 10 Stars Project offers travelers a Jewish itinerary that, in covering 10 far-flung destinations, is a comprehensive look at a little-seen land. “It’s kind of like a national museum project,” said Gruber. “And it’s a way to see the country. I love traveling in the Czech Republic, because there aren’t any tourists outside of Prague, really. Those little villages are gorgeous.”

Gruber has enormous affection for the modest, out-of-the-way markers of Jewish life found throughout rural Europe — something that most Americans, who tend to hit the cities by train, never see. In Lithuania, Gruber is excited about the restoration of one of the last prewar wooden synagogues: “They survived by being nondescript,” she explained. “People thought they were barns and ignored them. It’s a whole story of survival, anonymity, neglect, near-death in a fire, and now resurrection.”

In a way, the wooden synagogue is also a metaphor for European Jewry — and it explains the passion Gruber brings to a tangible heritage that compels, not only with its grandest temples, but in its quietly vivid corners as well. 

Read article on Jewish Week web site

 

 

 

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.”