Ruth Ellen Gruber Reflects on Five Years of Jewish Heritage Europe

Ruth Ellen Gruber in Kalvarija, Lithuania, where her great-grandparents came from, in front of the ruined great synagogue. Photo © Samuel D. Gruber.

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

Since its launch five years ago, Jewish Heritage Europe has become an essential one-stop shop for news, information, and resources concerning, as the name indeed suggests, matters of Jewish culture and built heritage in Europe: museums; synagogues; cemeteries, and so on. Ruth Ellen Gruber, the author of Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe who has chronicled Jewish life in Europe for over twenty-five years for the JTA among other places, edits the site, which is supported by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Here, I talk with Gruber about the site’s development and how European attitudes towards Jewish heritage have changed in the time she has been reporting on these issues.


What was the impetus behind setting up Jewish Heritage Europe five years ago?

JHE builds on and expands a previous version of the site that was launched after a major conference on the Future of Jewish Heritage, held in Prague in 2004. The decision by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe to relaunch and expand came as a follow-up to a conference held in Bratislava, Slovakia in March 2009 that discussed the state of Jewish heritage sites in Europe as well as strategies for their restoration, use, and upkeep. That seminar, attended by international Jewish heritage experts as well as by representatives from Jewish communities in more than a dozen countries, also resulted in the Bratislava Statement, a major statement of specific ‘best practices’ about how to deal with Jewish heritage sites.

JHE’s aim is to facilitate communication and information exchange regarding projects, initiatives, and other developments such as restoration, ongoing projects, best practices, advisory services and more. Its primary focus is Jewish built heritage: synagogues, cemeteries, mikvaot, Jewish quarters and other physical traces that attest to a Jewish presence on the continent stretching back to Antiquity, but it also includes material on Jewish museums and other cultural institutions.

Is there anything that stands out for you in terms of how Europes Jewish heritage is discussed, studied, and cared for in the five years since you’ve been running the site?

Jewish heritage and particularly Jewish built heritage is a field that has been continually developing over the past few decades. When I first became involved with Jewish heritage issues in eastern and central Europe nearly thirty years ago, I was entering largely unexplored territory. Little was known about what still existed in those countries – I felt I was ‘filling in blank spaces’ and literally putting Jewish heritage sites back on the map. At that time, even in western countries, Jewish built heritage was often ignored or overlooked.

That is no longer the case. In post-communist Europe, many Jewish heritage sites are still empty or in ruins, and most Jewish cemeteries are neglected or abandoned. But there are lists, inventories, databases, and online resources that tell us where they are. Surveys have documented synagogue buildings and Jewish cemeteries. Projects have mapped old shtetls to position destroyed buildings, and other projects have digitally recreated destroyed buildings or have even recreated them in replica form. Moreover, projects of various sorts have restored, cleaned up, fenced, preserved, or protected hundreds of sites.

I see all this on a day-to-day basis as I compile the JHE News Feed. Probably the site’s most powerful asset, it’s essentially a ‘wire service’ about what’s going on the Jewish heritage world today. To date, I have posted more than 1100 articles from dozens of countries, which probably constitutes the most extensive searchable database on contemporary Jewish built heritage issues. Thus, running JHE has enabled me to recognize the widespread reach, range, and scope of Jewish heritage initiatives all over Europe, as well as the challenges and controversies, from protection and preservation issues to religious concerns, the uses of new technology in research, to the various ways that Jewish heritage sites are used – and also abused.

Of course, Jewish heritage work, and the situation of Jewish heritage, is different from country to country, city to city, and is dependent on many factors: Jewish community organizational matters; local and national politics; funding shortfalls, and actual on-the-ground possibilities. My feeling is that seeing what’s going on in other countries, or in other projects, can be useful to help inspire activists or help them in creating strategies for their own work. I think it is important for activists today, though many are still working on their own or in relative isolation, to realize that they are not as alone as were the Jewish heritage activists who, often on their own, blazed the trail in earlier decades.

What are you looking to do with the site over the next couple of years?

We hope to continue to expand and to further engage our readership. I would like to see more interaction: comments, discussion, sharing of projects and expertise. We’ve had good feedback and response to the ‘Have Your Say’ op-ed section that was launched a year ago. At present, they run about once a month, but I hope to be able to increase their frequency. I would also like to publish more in-depth articles, book reviews and the like.

Also, we have just launched a separate section of the web site, the JHE Jewish Cemetery Forum, dedicated specifically to Jewish cemeteries, gravestone studies, and related topics. It pulls together links and resource material on a wide range of issues and also allows readers to post news and information about their own cemetery projects.

This new cemeteries section ties in with another new initiative on Jewish cemeteries that was launched at the same time by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe: the European Jewish Cemetery Advisory Network (EJCAN), comprised of more than thirty international experts on the widest variety of issues relating to Jewish cemeteries. They are ready to comment on questions directed to them by Jewish communities, NGOs, civic authorities, individuals, and others on issues ranging from how to reset a gravestone to how to interpret the poetry of epitaphs.

If you were recommending to the eager traveller the best of Jewish heritage in Europe, where would you point them to and why?

There is so much to see, that that’s a difficult question! For one, the 10 Stars Network in the Czech Republic: restored synagogues and associated Jewish buildings in ten towns around the country, with monothematic exhibitions that make the network a ‘nationwide Jewish museum.’ I led a Jewish heritage tour last summer, and I think the place the group found most interesting was the one 10 Stars site we visited: Boskovice.

Also, I love the historic Jewish cemeteries and painted synagogues in northern Romania, where the tombstones feature elaborate carving and the synagogue interiors boast beautiful decoration. The most impressive cemeteries are the three in Siret, on the border with Ukraine. Nearby towns with painted synagogues and cemeteries include Botosani, Suceava, Radauti, and Piatra Neamt, which has a rare wooden synagogue. The seventeenth century synagogue in nearby Iasi is undergoing important restoration work.

And finally, anyone who knows me knows that I would recommend the ‘Lipot Baumhorn’ trail: the surviving synagogues designed by the Budapest-based architect Lipot Baumhorn, modern Europe’s most prolific designer of synagogues. They include the grand synagogue in Szeged, Hungary and the long-ruined but recently restored synagogue in Lucenec, Slovakia; there is also Baumhorn’s tomb in the Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest; and the monument to him outside the former synagogue he designed in Szolnok, Hungary.

This interview has been edited and condensed.