Jewish Heritage Europe

Dr. Samuel D. Gruber’s Keynote Address (text)

Dr. Samuel Gruber delivers keynote address. Photo courtesy Krakow JCC

Preservation of Jewish Heritage: Past, Present, Future

Keynote to Managing Jewish Immovable Heritage in Europe

23rd – 25th April 2013, Krakow, Poland

by Samuel D. Gruber

Good afternoon, Dzien dobry, Shalom. 

It’s an honor to be here, to open this important gathering of Jewish leaders and preservation professionals, all of whom care deeply about the need to document, protect and preserve the physical remains – the immovable property – of Jewish culture. Many of you must struggle day to day with the hard decisions and hard work of just how those tasks can be accomplished. I’ve been here before. Twenty-one years ago I stood in this magnificent but yet-to-be-restored sanctuary – with the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra, which was about to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw.” That nationally televised concert, one of three produced in 1992 in the Tempel by the World Monuments Fund, kicked off the restoration program for this building, and was one of several initiatives that led to the rediscovery and restoration of the buildings of Kazimierz, and in many cases, throughout Poland.

Truthfully, at the time, we had little idea how those tasks could be accomplished. How could a concert restore a building, and help rebuild a community? Times have changed. Not only was the sanctuary dark and dirty, still blackened from the ammonia in horse urine from when the Nazis used it as a stable, but, coming here, I had to strap wads of small bills — all U.S. Dollars — to my body in order to pay the orchestra since banking (and the zloty) were still unreliable. The euro was unheard of. We had to bring in kosher airline food from Switzerland to serve at the post-concert reception.

Much more has happened in the two decades since that concert than the availability of bancomats and kosher dinners. You’ve seen today how Kazimierz has changed – in ways good and bad that no one quite predicted. A more integrated approach to Jewish heritage properties has developed more slowly than high-priced apartments in Kazimierz, so that much remains to be achieved to continue the work of protecting Jewish cultural heritage – and in particular the material cultural heritage – in a meaningful and lasting way – not just in Poland, but in all of the countries which have sent participants to this conference.

It may be hard for a new generation to realize the extent of change. They can look at restored buildings, renewed urban centers and reinvented governments and economies and only imagine a time, just a few decades ago, when discussion of Jewish history, culture, and the fate of Jews in the Shoah was clandestine, and buildings like this one were locked and mostly forgotten. In the same way my generation, looking at the ruined synagogues and cemeteries, could only imagine, but never know, the great Jewish culture and civilization that had thrived before the Shoah and built the many monuments that today we hope to save. They were built and used over centuries, and destroyed in just a few years. Our task to pick up the pieces and make sense of the past is a long one, to be measured in decades, perhaps generations.

Each generation inherits its own particular past, and makes its own future. In 1992 we confronted the legacy of the Shoah, and of a half century of just-ended Communist rule. Together it was a history of destruction, neglect and willful denial. As great progress has been made in the former Communist countries, the gap in needs and opportunities between what we once called the West and East has narrowed – narrowed so much, in fact, that now many of the successes of the former East are the new inspirations in the West. Italy learns from Poland and England learns from the Czech Republic, and so on.

This week, at this truly international gathering, we all will learn of old problems — but new successes — from Latvia and Slovakia, and Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Spain, England and elewhere. Exemplary restoration projects, new museums and cultural centers, religious life returned to once vacant buildings, repaired cemeteries, Heritage travel routes, multilingual signage, interactive websites and a wealth of new publications all attest to the remarkable work done by teams of remarkable people since the reunification of Europe.

Government Partnerships

Throughout Europe, the 1990s was the period of government-sponsored preservation – not all it could have been or should have been, but still it was largely government money that saw the restoration of several flagship synagogues. Weak local Jewish communities and lack of progress on restitution laws made it difficult for Jewish communities to take the initiative. But pressure on governments that wanted to join the EU and NATO created an environment where it was in the governments’ political interest to give some support – however limited at times – to Jewish heritage projects, and we are still grateful for the results. Reclaiming Jewish history – and Jewish properties – was also tied to still-ongoing international efforts for greater recognition of the Holocaust and the creation of commemorative monuments, ceremonies and educational programs. Remembering Auschwitz, Majdanek, Terezin, Panerei, Rumbula and other camps, ghettos and killing sites took precedence but gave impetus to also document and remember the culture that had been destroyed.

For example, for the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, with which I was associated from 1990 through 2008, documenting Jewish cemeteries – and advocating for their care – went hand-in-hand with Holocaust commemoration. That period has largely passed. Since 2000, more and more responsibility has passed from international organizations such as the WRJO, and from government agencies, and fallen on local Jewish communities. As we know, not all requested properties have been returned and many returned properties have not been restored; but selected properties have been restituted in most counties. In all but a few instances, however, limited or no resources for restoration have been allocated with returned sites, and only a small number of income-producing properties have been returned. Thus, communities have been faced with the dilemma of ownership – often having a building but insufficient means to restore it for use. As Ilya Lensky from Riga put it to me yesterday – it was like having a suitcase without a handle.

Any belief that the international Jewish community – whatever that means exactly – could or would fund this work, was at best wishful thinking. True, many individuals and some private foundations have made generous donations to individual projects, and a few foundations – some of which, like the Rothschild Foundation, we thank for co sponsoring this conference – have consistently supported many projects over the last decade. But this is a drop in the bucket to what is needed overall. Private contributions will always remain important – especially as catalysts; and I certainly believe Jewish institutions can still offer greater, more varied, and more creative financial support. But overall, Jewish communities are now largely responsible for their own resources … though not entirely alone.

That is why we meet here again this week – to learn from each other’s experience, to support each other’s problems, and to continue our professional network.

Threats to Jewish Heritage

Sometimes it seems the more that is accomplished, the more there is to do. The achievement of what once seemed impossible: the restoration of enormous synagogues, the repair of hundreds of cemeteries, the creation of new museums — just raises the bar for what can still be achieved. The pioneers in the protection and presentation of Jewish properties – and some of you are here today – have proven the rewards (and not a few headaches and heartaches) of creativity, partnerships, and perseverance. The best success has come in two ways, through the creation of organizational structures and long range planning (and that includes training the next generation of leaders), and the persistent step-by-step interventions – one cemetery and synagogue at a time. Both approaches are needed. Good planning and hard work.

Most projects take a long time. The restoration of this building took at least six active years of planning, construction and restoration – not counting the subsequent care and maintenance every restored building requires. Jews know how to stick to a task. After all, it took forty years to cross the Sinai. It took three hundred years to knock down pre-modern ghetto walls. It took two millennia to re-establish a Jewish state in Israel. We know that a real achievement takes time. Our work is not only for today, but for future generations. It is not only about fixing properties – it is about adjusting attitudes; fixing history. As it is said “We are not free to desist from trying.” You are not just owners of Jewish buildings and cemeteries, you are their stewards. You are curators of Jewish history. That care is a public trust – for a public of the dead, of the living and of future generations.

The other evening in Warsaw I had a conversation with a young man about time travel. As a mathematician and logician he doubted it could happen. Too many paradoxes. I on the other hand, as an historian and planner, time-travel every day. I live in the past and the future. We all do that.

In the next decades – in our future – we still have to stick to these tasks:

— Protection of synagogues – active and former

There are close to 1,000 historic synagogues buildings in Europe and hundreds of them are vacant, and most of these are in poor repair or ruin. In some countries where Jewish communities own the synagogues, as in Romania, they are overwhelmed. Elsewhere, as in Belarus and Western Ukraine, every aspect of most buildings’ futures remain in flux – ownership, use, funding .

We must find good uses for as many of these Jewish buildings as we can, or secure the buildings safely so that the next generation will have the chance. What is a good use? Preferably one that is Jewish, or cultural – but ultimately almost any that will maintain the building integrity, and even better, pay for itself.

Selling buildings, destroying buildings, and neglecting buildings – especially to pay operating expenses, is an escape from responsibility – not a curator’s solution. In some cases empty buildings can be leased, but even then funds are usually needed to improve the property. In extreme cases, synagogues can be successfully preserved as ruins – as in Dzialoszyce – which we will visit tomorrow.

— Care for cemeteries

We must continue work to secure, maintain and restore Jewish cemeteries. We can increase use of the internet to accelerate documentation and studying of gravestones, and also to raise more funds for care and restoration. Here, genealogists can lead the way. There has been much progress, but hundreds of cemeteries – perhaps even still thousands – require local recognition, clear boundary definition and demarcation, regular cleaning and the restoration of stones.

For most communities recovering and restoring a cemetery can be an enormous financial and technical challenge – and often a distraction from seemingly more immediate concerns. Fortunately international organizations such as Avosaynu / Heritage Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries, have been available in several countries to assist with this task. Local communities should still stay involved as partners – and participate in decisions regarding methodologies and aesthetics. For larger cemeteries, the work should be regular and on-going. Many communities now involve local residents – Jewish and Christian – in clean-up and other non-specialist work to create a better sense of community ownership and responsibility. When these are regularly scheduled and publicized they offer great religious and social rewards, and can also lead to financial and political support.

Jewish cemeteries are consecrated places and should not be violated with new construction or other destructive intrusions. For those cemeteries that have been built over, every effort should be made to stop all new construction and remediate the situation by removal of buildings. This is not always practical – political, social and economic situations can make this near impossible. Still, it should be the goal.

— Maintaining vigilance about inappropriate use of Jewish sites, and reacting quickly when there is vandalism of Jewish monuments, cemeteries and other sites.

There continues to be intermittent vandalism of cemeteries and public monuments. As a community we need to understand when this is the result of anti-Semitism, of just incidents of thievery and hooliganism. In any case, when Jews show more respect for sites, others will, too. When local partnerships are created, more people will watch out for a site and react quickly when vandalism occurs.

— Identifying archaeological resources; and improving contact and training about archaeology of Judaism for Jewish communities, archaeologists and government agencies.

Recent digs in Lorca, Spain; Belz, Ukraine and the remarkable finds in Cologne, Germany all demonstrate how archeology adds a significant historical dimension to heritage sites. Jewish communities and qualified Jewish scholars need to engage more in decisions about where excavations take place, who does the work, and how results are presented. Archeology is not only scholarship – the visibility of excavations and new historical interpretations based on finds can have an impact on a contemporary Jewish community in many ways — good and bad.

— Providing better signage

at Jewish sites of all types with historical and commemorative information; and better educational material overall.

— Encouraging responsible tourism

Formerly, visits to Jewish sites were limited to just a few well-known places, and most other Jewish visitation was done for religious reasons – either pilgrimage to a venerated synagogue or grave site, or just by observant travelers searching for a synagogue for daily or Shabbat prayer. But all of the initiatives I’ve just mentioned contribute to ever more interest in and visits to Jewish sites.

In the past twenty years, Jewish tourism has grown tremendously. There have been many Jewish guidebooks and in many countries travel agencies specializing in Jewish tours. Some of you will remember that one of the very first of these – The Jewish Information and Tourist Bureau, publisher of the Our Roots guides, which were among the first of their kind, opened here in Poland in 1990.

Individuals, school and synagogues groups, official delegations, and genealogists have all joined in this new cultural pilgrimage – all over the world. Only if Jewish communities embrace this trend will they be able in some way to manage it, and also engage it to their advantage. If they do not, they leave it to others to tell their story, and to exploit their resources. Hospitality to strangers is expected Jewish behavior – but handling busloads of tourists, whether Jewish or not, requires serious planning and organization. Tourism must be managed to aid the care of Jewish sites, not add stress.

A number of recent reports show that visitation to Jewish sites remains high, especially to museums in major cities, and also to sites that only open occasionally, such on the annual European Day of Jewish Culture. Interest is generated in many ways – media events, creative programming, good partnerships, and a strong web presence in multiple languages. Jewish museums, especially those in already well-visited places – continue to be among the most popular culture destinations in all of Europe. Last year Spain’s Sephardic Museum, in Toledo, attracted more visitors than any other state-run museum. Housed in the historic Samuel Ha-Levi synagogue, it was visited by more than 295,000 people during the year. High numbers of visitors also continue for the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam and the Jewish Museum in Prague, both of which are strategically located and are comprised of historic and contemporary exhibits housed in former synagogues. The Jewish Museum in Berlin anchored by the still popular Daniel Libeskind-designed wing, also attracts large crowds, and based on what I witnessed in Warsaw this weekend, it seems that the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will follow this trend.

It is not clear, however, how the attraction of these central well-funded museums affects other sites throughout those countries, but one assumes that the attendance at the museums – mostly by non-Jews (both observant and non-professing Christians) at least raises awareness about Jewish religion and culture so there is greater interest and acceptance about other places. But will presenting a replica of the Gwozdziec synagogue ceiling in Warsaw encourage visitors to seek out actual former synagogues such as Lancut and Zamosc, too? Only time will tell – but the chance is there to be seized.

Tracking visitors at smaller sites is irregular. Though one can count those who pay admission and enter those sites that serve as museums, many people come to former synagogues for whatever everyday purpose they may now serve, or for special events, and others only view the buildings from the outside. Despite discussion among professionals for many years, there has not been to my knowledge much effort to systematically count the visitors to Jewish sites – nor to understand who they are, where they come form and why they are interested in a particular place or in more general aspects of Judaism and Jewish culture. Can we expect that a one-time visitor to one Jewish site will want to visit others? We just don’t know.

In the past, the incentive of tourism – and tourist euros, pounds, or dollars – was always part of the enticement to engage municipalities to support, and even sponsor, Jewish heritage projects. If issues of cultural diversity, historical accuracy, human rights, and religious freedom were not potent enough arguments politically to persuade governments to commit – then the economic argument about the potential benefits of Jewish heritage preservation could make the case. Of course, the danger has always been over-promising. Many good people have invested in Jewish projects and then expected the tour buses to role in – and they did not; or when they did, they rolled out just as fast without spending money in the local community. It is certainly not true that “if you build it – or restore it – they will come.” Tourism depends on much more than that. It requires organization, promotion, and adequate infrastructure, as well as providing a rewarding experience – however that might be defined. Jewish communities must ask what do tourists want and need, and what can our communities gain in return?

No Single Solution

When it comes to the protection and preservation of Jewish heritage sites, there is no one size that fits all – there can be no unanimity nor uniformity in the treatment of Jewish heritage sites. We do have proven organizational and technical processes and methodologies, but since sites themselves are so different in size and form, in history, and in location and condition – there will be many different responses and final results.

Overall, variety is good. The more variety, the more complete the understanding of what the past was like. Jewish life was never uniform nor predictable. We must resist the easy temptation to perpetuate our favorite stories and ideologies at the expense of others. We must resist the temptation to perpetuate myths and stereotypes. We must resist the temptation to homogenize the Jewish experience – among Jews and amidst local cultures and national movements. `

Not all Jews were Hasids, and not all were Communists. Not all were scholars and not all were tailors. Not all listened to Klezmer, and not all played in the Philharmonic. Not all synagogues were big and beautiful like this one, and not all were old and venerated like the Remu synagogue on Szeroka Street.

Jews used, built, bought and sold humble and grand buildings, religious and institutional structures, their own cemeteries and city halls. The greater the variety of these we can document and preserve — the truer (and much more interesting) the history we tell, the lives we remember. There are many stories and these can be told in many ways. Not every former synagogue needs to be a museum, not every exhibit needs to be high-tech.

Can we bring some order to this variety? Perhaps, since taken together, the heritage sites we preserve support each other in telling the varied history of Judaism, and the Jewish people. We are now at a point in a few countries where so many sites are open, so many exhibits have been mounted, and so many websites activated, that this information can now be better presented, as is being prepared in the Ten Stars program in the Czech Republic. We can move from sharing online links to sharing research materials, conservation and promotional tools, as well as funded and produced videos, exhibitions, and publications. Bigger museums are already doing this and religious communities already share educational and recreational resources – even if not always agreeing on proper religious observance and behavior. At this conference we can carry this work further to create new partnerships that create stronger programs, that might provide new economies.

Different treatment of sites is also due, of course, to different constituencies – those who own or control the sites, those who use the sites, and those who fund the sites. Different players have different – but usually complementary – roles to play.

We have public authorities, including the historic monuments offices that are the official arbiters of national history and culture.

We have a variety of religious communities – in some parts of Europe mostly reconstituted or entirety new with new religious, social and political agendas.

We have an ever-changing international audience of survivors, genealogists, students, tourists, Israelis, Americans – each group wanting through intervention at a heritage site to make some sort of statement.

We have institutional guardians – such as the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODZ) in Poland, or MATANA in the Czech Republic.

We have museums, such as the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews or the Prague Jewish Museum, and smaller but still effective Jewish museums in Latvia, Slovakia, Italy and elsewhere, but also many smaller regional and municipal museums that often care for and present Jewish heritage alone, or as part of their larger local mission.

And we have now a new cyber-frontier, where monuments can exist all over the world through the internet – but be hardly visited in their physical reality. How can we effectively harness this new online presence to sustain Jewish heritage sites?

Bratislava Statement

There are standards, procedures and ultimate goals that are shared throughout Jewish and the historic preservation communities. Many of these are summarized in the Bratislava Statement adopted by the participants in the 2009 seminar that preceded this gathering. I think it worth reviewing the Statement – to remember these points, and it is in our interest to assess what progress – if any – we have made in the past four years in maintaining these ideals and achieving these goals.

The Bratislava Statement proclaims the following guiding principles:

• Jewish heritage is the legacy of all aspects of Jewish history – religious and secular.

• Jewish history and art is part of every nation’s history and art. Jewish heritage is part of national heritage, too.

• Documentation, planning and development of sites benefit and enrich society at large as well as Jews and Jewish communities.

• Jewish historic sites and properties should also be developed where possible within the context of diverse histories – Jewish, local, national, art, etc.

• Jewish tourism and tourism to Jewish sites should be part of every country’s tourism strategy.

The statement continues with these principles about documentation

• All past and present Jewish communal properties, and all Jewish properties and sites deemed to have historic, religious and/or artistic significance, should be documented to the fullest extent possible.

• Inventories must be made and maintained of all properties in each country, and more substantial documentation should be made of historically and architecturally significant properties, especially all synagogues, institutional buildings, cemeteries, monuments, and Judaica and archival materials.

• Jewish communities and institutions should cooperate and collaborate in this process to the fullest extent possible, and should welcome the assistance of other public and private institutions and individuals in pursuing these documentation goals.

• Information on Jewish sites is most useful when it is most widely available. Efforts should continue and expand to make documentation available in publicly accessible research centers and through publications and on-line presentation, all the while considering safety, security and privacy concerns.

• Materials relevant to Jewish history and properties in public, state archives and Jewish community archives should be open for everyone for historical and legal research.

• Good documentation must be accurate and complete in its description, and it must be historically informed so that it presents something of the significance of what is recorded.

To me, this means we require the maximum amount of documentation of sites and when possible, careful archaeological excavation and recording. We expect speedy scholarly publication in print or online of documentation results and the integration of this information into public history efforts including on-site signage, local books, tourist and travel brochures, and websites.

Good documentation serves many purposes. It obviously helps transmit information to the future, but it also collects, collates and categorizes information for the here and now – information necessary for planning, legal actions, fund raising, tourism promotion, economic development, and other pressing and pending needs. The success in documentation is demonstrated since 2009 by recent publications from Hungary, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and elsewhere, and well as many new and rich websites.

Private foundations such as the Cahnmann Foundation have generously assisted to make this work available. Still, given the importance of this work, not enough money is being invested in documentation, and the editing and publication of collected material.

About Synagogues and Former Synagogues the Statement declares:

• Synagogues and former synagogues should retain a Jewish identity and or use whenever possible, though each one does not necessarily need to be restored or fully renovated.

• Former synagogues, no matter what their present ownership or use, should be sensitively marked to identify their past history.

This is an area where we have seen considerable progress in many countries and this should continue. We also need very basic signage – like direction markers and highway signs and more Jewish monuments listed on maps and in guides. In the future, signs in some localities can be linked to information obtainable via cellphones or other electronic devices.

The Statement continues:

• As part of the effort to restitute communal and religious property, when a property of historic value – such as a synagogue – in disrepair or otherwise in a ruined condition (while in the government’s possession) is returned, States should help either by modifying laws which impose penalties for not maintaining properties in reasonable condition, or by providing financial and material assistance to undertake necessary repairs and restoration.

When a building is substantially intact, every effort should be taken to preserve the building in some way. This varies with each situation. Some can be restored to original use; some should be left as conserved ruins to remind the viewer if the history of destruction. Descriptive historical signage, and sometimes even small exhibitions, should be included in the redesign and reuse. The same should be done, whenever possible for public spaces where Jewish buildings once stood – but were destroyed in the Shoah.

We must remember that demolition is forever. The memories and associations of a destroyed building are hard to recover. True, in Jewish imagination, a few vanished buildings have assumed special meaning. But most are assigned, with all their associations, to oblivion.

Lastly, the Statement concludes with these statements about Cooperation and Trust, addressing some of the points I have already raised:

• Honesty and transparency are Jewish values and should be especially apparent in the handling of all matters concerning Jewish property, which is held as a communal trust.

• Jewish communities should manage their properties to maximize their use for present and future generations.

• Jewish communities and institutions should work together as much as possible to share existing information, methodologies and technologies, and they should work together to develop new and compatible goals and strategies to optimize the care and management of historic Jewish properties.

• Regular meetings of Jewish community leaders, members, staff and expert professionals to discuss property issues is encouraged within single communities, and between communities. Regional, national and trans-border meeting sare useful for the exchange of information and ideas, and for effective planning purposes.

• Any sale or development of communal property must be to meet identified community needs.

• Wherever possible, proceeds from the sale or development of some properties should be allocated to the care and maintenance of other properties including, but not exclusively, cemeteries.

• Jewish communities and museums should work together to develop historic, descriptive and exhibition materials that can be shared.

• Jewish communities and local heritage, cultural and tourist bodies should work together to develop regional, national and trans-border heritage routes.


Over the next two and half days you are going to hear a lot of stories. You’ll be reminded of persistent problems, hear about significant progress on serious long-range work, and learn about all sorts of new initiatives from a wide range of participants. Unfortunately there is just too much going on for one person to hear it all but I’m told all sessions are being recorded!

The world of Jewish heritage has grown, and there are more partners at the table than ever before. A new generation is bringing fresh ideas and technologies. These may not be the salvation some yearn for (only lots of money will bring that), but they allow the stewards of Jewish properties to keep up, and expand their work, their vision and maybe their constituency. In a world of limited cultural heritage resources, but many cultural heritage choices, these things matter. Our purpose is altruistic – but our methods must be competitive.

So I wonder – before our next meeting: Which synagogue restoration will be the first successful kick-starter project? Which community will be the first to raise a million euro online to start a cemetery preservation fund? Which web site will list the most Jewish graves, with photos of the gravestones and transcriptions of the epitaphs? Which former synagogue will host the most concerts and lectures this year? What cemeteries will be fenced, and which buildings will get new roofs? And which communities will successfully use their cultural heritage assets to attract young Jews as active members?

To each of these I would like to respond with a Dayenu – it would be enough!

But it is not….we need to work on all these fronts, together when possible, at least together in purpose when not.

I challenge you to be fully engaged and open throughout the conference – and to make new friends and find new working partners. All of us here are Jews – actual or honorary – so of course, we’re not going to agree with everyone and on everything. But these are family arguments – lets move forward with our common goals. Nowhere else will you find people so in tune with your mission, so inclined to help. Introduce yourself to everyone – you never know who holds the key to your problem.

Thank you for your attention, and your participation. I look forward to learning from all of you this week.

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