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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 Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European Jewish issues for 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 in 48 European countries 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 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 am the Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC, for Spring Semester 2015.

 

Anti-Jewish attacks in Europe: Keep it in perspective — My op-ed on CNN.com

The main synagogue in Rome has been heavily guarded since 1982

The main synagogue in Rome has been heavily guarded since 1982

In the wake of terror attacks on Jews (and others) in Paris and Copenhagen, I was asked  to write an op-ed for CNN.com about anti-Semitism — and particularly about anti-Semitic terror attacks and violence. So I did. My aim was not to discount or minimize the recent attacks, but to provide some perspective — looking back at 40 years of anti-Jewish and other terror attacks in Europe and cautioning not to let legitimate alarm and fear be distorted into alarmism and fear-mongering.

Read the article online here

Anti-Jewish attacks in Europe: Keep it in perspective
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
March 2, 2015

Charleston, South Carolina (CNN)Thirty years or so ago, the synagogue in Washington DC where I was attending Yom Kippur services received a bomb threat. As we evacuated the building, I was concerned that people didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.

I was visiting from Europe, where terrorism was a fact of life, and I was scared.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Europe, and even beyond, far-left and far-right extremists, the IRA, radical Palestinians, and a variety of other groups carried out thousands of terror attacks, big and small, that left thousands dead or injured.

Jewish, Israeli — and American — sites were targets of some of the most notorious attacks: from the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, to plane and cruise ship hijackings, to attacks on airports, synagogues, and simply places where Jews congregated, such as the Jo Goldenberg kosher deli in Paris, where six died and 22 were wounded in a bloody attack in August 1982.

In Rome, where I lived for parts of the 1970s and ’80s, we tended to avoid certain streets where El Al and U.S. airlines had their offices.

The first big story I helped cover as a young reporter was a bloody attack at the city’s Fiumicino airport in December 1973. A dozen years later, the daughter of friends was killed in another Palestinian attack there. The main synagogue in Rome has been under tight guard since Palestinian attackers threw hand grenades and sprayed machinegun fire at worshippers after services in October 1982, killing a toddler and wounding dozens.

I don’t want to discount the gravity and horror of recent terror attacks against Jewish targets in Europe, such as in Copenhagen and Paris. I just want to add some perspective.

Many things have changed over the decades. Post-Cold War power vacuums and Middle East upheavals have given rise to radical Islamism and globalized Jihadist terror networks whose message, fanned out via the internet and social media, strikes a chord in disaffected youth.

To be sure, Jews are being targeted. But it is important to recognize that Jews are being targeted as part of a violent campaign against western democracies and western values in general. Today’s victims of Islamist terror include Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. In the Middle East and Africa, women, children, students, and cultural heritage — history — are also directly targeted.

In some ways, today’s Jihadist terrorists can be seen as harnessing various types of terrorism we saw in earlier decades: the anti-Jewish/anti-Israel terrorism of radical Palestinian groups and the anti-establishment, even anarchistic terrorism of homegrown groups whose aim was to sow fear and destabilize society as a means to bring down the system.

Anti-Semitism takes many forms. Criticism of Israel is legitimate (and sometimes necessary), but it can, and sometimes does, cross the line.

This isn’t new either, however. Jews in Europe have been regarded — and scapegoated — as surrogates for Israel for decades.

In 1967-68, after Israel defeated Arab states in the Six-Day War, Poland’s communist regime staged an “anti-Zionist” campaign that forced most of the remaining Jews out of the country. At least 13,000 Jews emigrated, according to Dariusz Stola, who is now the director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Other experts put the figure as high as 20,000. This was — and remains — by far the most widespread episode of anti-Semitism in post-Holocaust Europe.

Twenty years later, in 1988, a report by the Anti-Defamation League warned that a significant number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States now reflected “a politically-related anti-Israel component.”

A JTA news report at the time quoted ADL National Director Abraham Foxman as noting that the phenomenon was new in the United States, but “it’s been a common occurrence in European countries.” Particularly worrisome, the report said, were Israel-related anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses. Sound familiar?

After the Holocaust, it was common to view Jews in Europe as sitting with their suitcases packed, just in case.

But — unlike Poland’s “anti-Zionist” campaign — terrorism did not prove an existential threat to Jews and did not prompt a mass exodus.

Nor should — or will — it now.

The Nazis, followed by Communist rule in half of the continent, almost succeeded in making Europe Judenrein.

Following the most recent terror attacks, Jewish and European national leaders have made clear that this is not an option. Moreover, despite the terrorist threat, European governments have refused to budge in their defense of democratic values.

It is wise to be on guard, of course, and there is indeed ample cause for alarm — even fear.

But we should also be on guard against something else — against a facile temptation to cry wolf that can all too easily distort alarm into alarmism — and fear into fear-mongering.

 

 

 

 

 

Quoted in article on Poland’s Jewish cultural revival

Joanna Zajaczkowska quotes me in her recent lengthy article on the revival of Jewish culture in Poland.

The very visible revival of interest in Jewish cultural heritage that has taken place in recent decades in Poland seems to many observers to be especially remarkable, even shocking. “Poland was long considered the quintessential ‘Jewish graveyard’, so many observers found Jewish and Jewish cultural revival there hard to believe or accept. For years, many people did not acknowledge or trust these developments,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, European-based American journalist and author, specialist in contemporary Jewish affairs. “The revival of interest in Jewish culture and history was a symbol of the fall of communism and return to democracy 25 years ago, in Poland and in other post-communist countries. Finally, people could “recover” a part of the past that had been virtually taboo in some places”- claims Ruth Ellen Gruber.

Read the full article

Charleston, Charleston

streets-wm2I arrived last week in Charleston, South Carolina to begin a semester teaching as the Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

It will be an adventure, as I have never taught a course before…. I’ve taught my first two classes and so far, it seems to be going well: engaged students (a mix of undergraduates and community auditors), interesting discussion.

Meanwhile, I’ve been exploring Charleston — where I have never been before. So far, I have not been off the Peninsula, or old town; but I’ve spent hours walking around the streets. And, of course, stopping off in some of the excellent restaurants….today I had my first “she-crab soup” and “shrimp and grits.”

As it happens, I love grits. I often bring them back from the states to Europe with with me. Oddly enough, the first time I remember eating grits was not in the south — but on the French Line ocean liner the SS Liberté, sailing from New York to France, when I was about 12. We had them for breakfast; it seemed a rather exotic dish.

Today, I visited the Slave Mart Museum, whose small exhibition space was quite crowded with visitors (I’ll be writing about this more); also I made a second visit to the central market, a sort of covered crafts market non unreminiscent of the Sukiennice in the main market square of Krakow, though of course with different merch.

And I took pictures of the paving.

streets-wm4 streets-wm3 streets-wm1

 

 

Country Roads — in phonetic transliteration

This is a cross-post from my Sauerkraut Cowboys blog. I love it!

 

Received from Roman Ac

A Slovak bluegrass friend, Roman Ac, posted this picture on Facebook — it’s wonderful, and I just have to post it here.  It’s the lyrics of John Denver’s 1971 mega-hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads” spelled out in Czech (or Slovak) phonetic transliteration.

I’ve posted here in the past about how in Europe “Country Roads” is probably the most popular (and most covered) country-style song by local singers.

Denver, born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. in 1943, died in a plane crash in 1997. “Country Roads” lives on; it’s omnipresent, everywhere.

Here it is in Slovenian:

“My first country song which I heard was ‘Almost Heaven, West Virginia,'” a German truck driver told me in 2004. “… Henry John Deutschendorf… it was fantastic, yeah? And so I fell in love with country music. [...] He gives us beautiful songs. John Denver. His grandfather was German, and he was one of the best. But he died too early.”

I’ve heard the song (which is NOT one of my favorites) sung in a variety of languages — and a variety of accented English. Here’s an English cover by a young Italian trio:

In then-Czechoslovakia, the definitive Czech version was recorded in 1975 by the late, great Pavel Bobek as “Veď mě dál, cesto má” — it became one of his signature songs. Bobek passed away just one year ago.

The Czech translation was quite a bit far, geographically, from West Virginia — this YouTube video is of Bobek singing in Czech, with a re-translation of the Czech lyrics back into English.

I find “Take Me Home Country Roads” almost unbearable sappy; sugary sweet and bland at the same time.

But audiences in Europe love the song — they invariably sing along, swaying and smiling. The idea of “home” translates into a sense that we (they) are all at home in America — or the America of dreams, where is here. Other songs popular in the European country scene also play on this sense of the universal “home” somewhere in the mythical West (or South) — “Sweet Home Alabama,” for example.

Here’s another video I posted before — of John Denver himself, singing “It’s Good to Be Back Home Again” — at a concert in Germany, land of his ancestors. It’s about a truck driver coming home.

My articles on the opening of the POLIN museum in Warsaw

"The forest" -- entry into the core exhibit

“The forest” — entry into the core exhibit

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

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

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

Ruth Ellen Gruber

October 28, 20114

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the core exhibit is only part of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Highlights of the exhibition include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postwar images of the rebuilding of Poland and Jewish life.

Click here to read story at LA Jewish Journal

 

Polin-wm24

 

New museum reflects growing Polish interest in all things Jewish

Ruth Ellen Gruber

November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polin-wm13

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

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

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

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

 

Pilgrimage to Lipot Baumhorn’s grave

LB-wm1

At the end of September I made one of my occasional pilgrimages to the grave of the architect Lipot Baumhorn in the vast Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest.

Baumhorn designed or remodeled about two dozen synagogues in central Europe: in Hungary, and in what are now Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. You can read about them in a travel article I wrote some years back. He is reckoned to be the most prolific synagogue architect in Europe before World War II.

I wrote a section of my 1994 book “Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today” about him and his work.

Baumhorn's gravestone bears a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and also a list of more than 20 other synagogues he designed or remodeled. It also has a very flowery poetic epitaph.

Baumhorn’s gravestone bears a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and also a list of more than 20 other synagogues he designed or remodeled. It also has a very flowery poetic epitaph.

 

In the course of research for it, in 1992, I discovered his gravestone, totally overgrown with vines.

LB-1992-wm1

 

Cleaning it was a spiritual — or at least highly emotional — experience.

Photo © Edward Serotta

Photo © Edward Serotta

This is what wrote (in “Doorposts”) about cleaning the grave: “I felt like a liberator, and I guess I was, restoring to the light of this cold, gray day the chiseled memory of this man. It was a highly personal liberation. For more than three years I had followed a trail of monumental buildings whose style number and significance had made Lipot Baumhorn successful in life and more than just a footnote in the history of his profession. His synagogues were his survivors; he was honored on gilded plaques in their entryways …. the person was here, shrouded in ivy. I tore at the clinging vines…”

Lipot Baumhorn

 

My section about Baumhorn in “Upon the Doorposts” is called “Synagogues Seeking Heaven.”

The name derives from  the complex poetic epitaph on his gravestone. In the chapter I tell how various Hungarian friends of mine tried, with difficulty, to translate it for me. The end version was:

Our inspired artist: His inspiration and heart gave birth

To the lines of synagogues that look toward heaven and awaken piety.

Above his peaceful home hovered devotion;

The soul of a father and husband gave birth to heaven-seeking consolation.

 

Some years back I was delighted to find a monument to him outside one of his synagogues, in Szolnok. The monument is positioned so that Baumhorn seems to gaze at the synagogue, which is now used as a concert hall.

reg-lb szolnok 2006

 

 

 

 

 

A conversation with history

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Today I had the first of what I hope will be a series of interviews/conversations with a man who will turn 103 years old on Thursday. His mind is sharp, but he can’t hear very well; his son (with whom he lives) is helping talk with him. He was born in the house at the top of my hill into a contadino family, on Sept. 18, 1911. When he was a boy, they ate meat only on holidays like Xmas and Easter; pasta maybe only on Sundays. A typical meal was beans, chickpeas, bread; maybe polenta. Six to eight people slept in a room; two to three in a bed. “It wasn’t like it is today.”

 

 

The Night I Spent in Jail in Hitler’s Hometown

Braunau cell

Here’s my latest in Tablet Magazine:

Reports that Adolf Hitler’s childhood home in the Austrian town of Braunau am Inn, where the future Nazi leader lived for several years, may be turned into a Holocaust museum triggered memories of my own two visits to the town: once as a student when I spent the night in the local jail; and once nearly 25 years later when I searched out the police log booking me in to the cell.

My first visit to Braunau was when I was 20 and hitchhiking around Europe with my college roommate. It had nothing to do with Hitler—other than the fact that our visit was so long ago that we, two Jewish girls, were reluctant to spend the night in Germany. We caught a ride in France with a driver who took us all the way across to Braunau, a border town near Linz. (Apparently the fact that this was Hitler’s birthplace didn’t faze us… Or maybe we simply didn’t know.)

It was dark when we arrived. European borders were not open then; crossing frontiers meant immigration and customs controls. The young border police had a field day with us. Perhaps as some form of weird flirtation, they picked apart our backpacks, holding aloft underwear, Tampax, and other intimacies as we stood there and cringed.

By the time they let us go, it was after 10:30 p.m. The youth hostel, where we had hoped to stay, was closed for the night. Our hitchhiking driver, who had remained with us, took us to a local hotel, but it was too expensive for our tiny student budgets.

I thought for a moment and then asked him to take us to the police station—where, rather amazingly, I talked the officer on duty into allowing us to sleep in the jail.

“I’ll have to book you in,” he told us. And he did. Then he locked us into a cell with a couple of cots, a toilet in the corner, and graffiti on the wall.

At 6 a.m., an officer unlocked the door and set us free. We ambled around the open market (I bought a nightgown and clogs), then we picked up another ride and continued on our way—I think we were headed for the Dalmatian Coast.

I didn’t return to Braunau for nearly a quarter of a century. By that time, I was a journalist and published author. In the middle of a research and reporting trip to Poland and the Czech Republic, I detoured to Braunau to coincide with Hitler’s birthday, April 20—a date that frequently draws nostalgic neo-Nazis and other “pilgrims.”

I photographed Hitler’s house and the “never again” monument in front of it—and also the local cinema where, in a bizarre coincidence, Schindler’s List was playing. And I was pleased to be able to afford the hotel that had once seemed so expensive. But what I really wanted to do was find out what the police had booked me into jail for back when I was 20…..

Read more

 

 

I’m quoted in the Wall Street Journal

A French country music fan wears Hank Williams on his arm…Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’m quoted in the Wall Street Journal in an August 11 article about European country music by Ginanne Brownell. She writes about a new, more mainstream trend in locally produced country music. But her statement that “many events are moving away from exclusively featuring big-name American acts, opening their stages to local talent” isn’t really right. Yes there are now (or I should say again) more big events by big-name American stars. But most of the scores of country music and bluegrass festivals and other events across Europe have already long  mainly featured local groups. The article doesn’t mention veteran European artists like Truck Stop, Tom Astor, Gunther Gabriel, Michal Tucny, Lonstar, etc….

Europe Tunes In to Its Own Country Music Scene

After years of importing country artists from the U.S., Europe is finally listening to home-grown music

By

Ginanne Brownell
Updated Aug. 11, 2014 1:22 p.m. ET
[...]

Country music has been a niche genre in Europe since the 1950s, when American GIs stationed in Europe brought it with them. (It didn’t hurt that Elvis Presley was stationed in Germany from 1958-1960). During the Cold War, in countries such as Czechoslovakia, a bluegrass scene developed as a form of rebellion against communism. The subculture is still thriving today, thanks to bands such as Druhá Travá, who have released over 20 albums internationally and have been touring the U.S. nearly every year since 1993.

“Bluegrass festivals in the Czech Republic are among the best in the world,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, an American journalist and writer based in Italy who runs the European blog “Sauerkraut Cowboys.” The Czech town of Kopidlno has been hosting an annual bluegrass festival since 1973.

A plethora of country music festivals have been held across Europe for many years. They range from small local festivals to large annual events. For example, France’s La Roche Bluegrass Festival draws 12,000 people, and London’s Country to Country Festival drew 18,000 fans last year and 30,000 this, its second, year. Lately, however, many events are moving away from exclusively featuring big-name American acts, opening their stages to local talent.

[...]

Read the full article