Jewish heritage signage in northern Romania

New signage marking the Old Jewish Cemetery in Siret, Romania. Photo © Julie Dawson

New tri-lingual signage has been put up to mark the historic Old Jewish Cemetery and the synagogue, as well as other historic sites, in Siret, Romania, a small town in the Bucovina region on the border between Romania and Ukraine.

The signage, in Romanian, Ukrainian and English, has been placed as part of an EU-funded cross-border development project involving Romania, Ukraine and Moldova, apparently aimed to highlight shared heritage, culture and history in a region that has been carved up over time. This specific facet of the project aims to improve the tourism potential of the Siret-Hlyboka area — Hlyboka is a town in Ukraine, just over the border about 18 km from Siret.

Julie Dawson, a scholar carrying out archival research in northern Romania on behalf of the Leo Baeck Institute, visited Siret, described the signage and sent the pictures posted here. (It is not clear whether only Siret’s old Jewish cemetery, founded in the 16th century and listed as a national monument, is sign-posted, or whether the two later Jewish cemeteries nearby, from the 19th and 20th centuries, are also so marked.)

Signage marking the synagogue in Siret; fails to mention Holocaust. Photo © Julie Dawson

As Ms. Dawson notes, the new signage is a very welcome development in a region where there are numerous important Jewish heritage sites that have co-existed almost without recognition the Bucovina’s Christian heritage — the famous painted monasteries. (See an article by JHE coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber about this mixed spiritual heritage, on the New York Times online.)

However, as she notes in her blog, there is a troubling omission in the new signage that reflects a still-uneasy relationship with history — omission of any mention of the fate of local Jews in the Holocaust. Most Siret Jews died after being deported to labor camps/ghettos in Transnistria:

This effort to encourage tourism and an awareness of local history should be applauded, but I was shocked to find that the synagogue sign made absolutely no mention of the thousands of local Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Instead, after mentioning some prewar Jewish personalities the sign reads “After World War II the Jews of Siret emigrated to Israel or the United States.” Such galling silence may have been par for the course during communism and the immediate post-communist years, but it is disappointing and, frankly, astonishing to see such phrasing used on signage dated 2013.

She adds, in a note to JHE:

I can only hope this was due to pure ignorance and not a conscious decision. The former is entirely feasible since, as you well know, in all of these places (Ukraine, Moldova, Romania) so little is said or taught about the multiethnic past and the “Holocaust” remains something done by the Germans far away. Whoever is responsible for these signs may have been genuinely trying to increase interest in and awareness of the Jewish history of the town – and simply doesn’t know what happened or how to write about it. 

Indeed, it is important — and desired — to place signage and markers of Jewish heritage sites, as well as Holocaust sites and mass graves, both as information and as commemoration.

But the wording is extremely important.

Some Holocaust memorials, for example, exhort visitors to “Remember” or to “Never Forget” — without any explanation of what they should be remembering. Wording on Communist-era markers at mass Jewish grave sites in Ukraine, Lithuania and elsewhere frequently spoke only of generic victims, failing to mention that the Jews were killed because they were Jews, and also failing to mention any local complicity. Even the memorial at Auschwitz scarcely mentioned that the vast majority of people killed there were killed because they were Jews.

Dr. Samuel Gruber, who has long been involved in Jewish heritage issues and who gave the keynote address to the recent Managing Jewish Immovable Heritage conference in Krakow, has reflected extensively on these issues and has taken part in sometimes difficult negotiations over wording.

He recalled in 2009:

In my experience with the US Commission [for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad], it has always been part of the mission that monuments should be not only be symbolic, but that they must help tell a story. They need to be witness – clear voices in languages that local people can understand – and they must be as forthright and truthful as possible. Sometimes one could do this in Hebrew, Yiddish or English…local officials didn’t mind. But increasing there has been a push to get truth told in local languages, and that has meant sharp clashes with local Holocaust deniers, or with those who want to protect local reputations. These conflicts have slowed many monument projects…but ultimately they are very good…because it makes the education and commemoration process an active and forceful one, not just a passive act.

In Latvia, at Rumbula, it took the personal intercession of the President of Latvia to make sure language was included on the inscription that mentioned Latvian collaborators. Another problem is using numbers – as in 10,000 Jews were killed. Frequently initial drafts of monument texts are changed to avoid that level of specificity. It is feared that if a number is contested and even disproved, even just by a bit, that such misrepresentation could be used to discredit the entire project, and by extension to paint an entire massacre, or even the entire Holocaust, as false.

 

 

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