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NEWS FEATURE: Recovering Jewish heritage a growing movement in Europe

c. 1999 Religion News Service PARIS _ More than half a century after the Holocaust and nearly a decade after the fall of communism, the fate of thousands of disused synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish heritage sites has become an issue of growing concern in Europe. For decades after World War II there was little […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

PARIS _ More than half a century after the Holocaust and nearly a decade after the fall of communism, the fate of thousands of disused synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish heritage sites has become an issue of growing concern in Europe.

For decades after World War II there was little interest _ among Jews and non-Jews alike _ in preserving or documenting Jewish sites that had survived both the destruction of the Holocaust and demographic shifts of Jewish populations.

Even just 10 years ago, information was hard to come by in many countries and little systematic documentation existed. Few publications addressed the issue. Centuries-old synagogues were used as warehouses or left to crumble, and even the location of many cemeteries had slipped out of memory.

Since the late 1980s, and particularly since the fall of communism opened up Eastern and Central Europe to tourists and scholars, however, Jewish heritage has become increasingly recognized as a rich legacy for Europe as a whole and embraced as an important component of multicultural society.

Pope John Paul II, for example, noted in a 1997 speech in Poland that”the Jewish cemeteries, which are so numerous on Polish soil, speak of (the) common past (between Jews and Poles) …. These places are of particularly deep spiritual, eschatological and historical significance. Let these places join Poles and Jews, as we are together awaiting the day of judgment and Redemption.” The vast majority of Jewish heritage sites, particularly in former communist states, still remain in perilous condition, often neglected and abandoned to the elements.

But their historic preservation is now on the agendas of national monuments authorities and local organizations, including tourist bureaus, in most European countries. It is also of growing concern to many Jewish organizations and communal bodies _ particularly in former communist countries where Jewish communal property seized during and after the Holocaust is being returned to Jewish ownership.

Cities, states, regions and private organizations are stepping in to inventory, survey, restore and display Jewish sites in place of vanished or small Jewish communities in many countries, in both eastern and western Europe.

U.S.-based organizations, too, such as the World Monuments Fund and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad sponsor restorations and inventories. And since the early 1990s, the Jerusalem-based Center for Jewish Art has sent teams of researchers throughout former communist states to carrying out detailed artistic and architectural surveys.

But given the large numbers, scattered geographical location and poor condition of Jewish heritage sites, urgent questions remain.

What should become of these monuments? In the absence of Jewish communities, what purpose should they serve, and for whom? Who should care for them? Which sites should be restored? Who should choose? Who should finance surveys and restorations? What do Jewish monuments represent vis-a-vis local cultural heritage in general? Is it possible _ or necessary _ to devise a global strategy for Jewish monuments conservation and protection?

These and other questions underlaid a landmark international conference on Jewish heritage that took place in Paris at the end of January.

Sponsored by the French government and held at the newly opened Museum of the Art and History of Judaism, the conference brought together scholars, researchers, museum directors, government officials, Jewish representatives, and tourism consultants from across the continent as well as from Israel and the United States.

The purpose was to compare notes, describe individual projects and brainstorm about strategies in confronting challenges and charting future policy.

Specific topics included documentation and inventories, protection and conservation, and how to present and utilize Jewish heritage, including how to integrate them and promote them as part of tourist itineraries and festivals.

Participants described individual restoration projects, such as work being carried out on the Tempel synagogue in Cracow, Poland, and on the synagogue in Veroia, Greece, and on a number of synagogues in the Czech Republic. Others outlined the methodology of Jewish monuments inventories or surveys of various types in England, France, Ukraine, Romania, Poland, and Germany.

The role of Jewish museums in France, Germany and elsewhere was discussed. How to encourage cooperation among local authorities and Jewish communities in safeguarding Jewish heritage was also a topic, along with raising funds for projects and sensitizing people at a grassroots level about the importance of Jewish heritage.”The problem of Jewish heritage is a mental problem,”said Valery Dymshits of the European University of St. Petersburg, who has carried out documentation of Jewish sites in Ukraine and Moldova.”Jews and non-Jews think we are the `people of the book’ and no-one has been interested in physical heritage. Now we have to convince people that Jews produced architecture, art and the like. And we have to think about how to inventory sites, devise criteria on which to conserve, and to what use they should be put.” The wide variety of initiatives detailed by participants in Paris, as well as the high level of official support, demonstrated dramatic recent changes in attitude.”Jewish heritage in France,”French Culture Minister Catherine Trautmann told the meeting,”is also the heritage of all the French people, just as the cathedrals of France also belong to France’s Jews.” Eds: An updated edition of Ruth Ellen Gruber’s book”Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe”will be published this month by Jason Aronson, Inc.)

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