Polish Radio Hebrew service on the Krakow conference

Conference participants visit the recently restored synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska, now a town museum and culture center. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Hagay HaCohen has written a long, informative article about the Managing Jewish Immovable Heritage Conference in Krakow, for Polish Radio’s Hebrew language service.

Click here to view the story (in Hebrew — but google translate gives pretty much of the gist)

Following is an English translation, provided by Hagay.

Krakow responds to the question how to manage immovable Jewish heritage

 

In a special seminar that took place in Krakow, academics, cultural activists, and representatives of Jewish communities from around the world met to discuss the present questions that are at the heart of the effort to preserve and promote Jewish heritage in Europe and the world.

On Tuesday (April 23) the Temple synagogue in Krakow hosted the first lecture in a series of panels, educational trips, and presentations that took place during the three days that composed the seminar. The aim was to meet head on one of the greatest challenges of the Jewish people today. The question of how to take care of material heritage, the kind that can’t be put in one’s pocket and taken from Europe to Israel or the New World. The definition of immovable heritage is a wide one and encompasses synagogues, bathing houses, Jewish cemeteries, and houses in which Rabbis and Tzadikim, mystical figures that inspired their communities and the greater Jewish world to this very day, used to live and pray in. All of these sites are dear to the hearts of still living Jews who remember their home-towns and now, often at the dismay of their non-Jewish neighbors who stayed behind, are falling down or deteriorating when the people whom they once served dwindle away as is happening in Turkey and Egypt today or disappears in a sudden, horrible, event as the destruction of the Jewish people in Europe that took place during the Holocaust.

The fact that this first lecture was held in a synagogue which was in an appalling condition before it was restored and now is being used as a prayer space on special occasions and a home to various cultural event that seek to promote diversity and tolerance demonstrates that in many ways Poland is seen as a success story. As Dr. Samuel Gruber said in his lecture: “Twenty one years ago I stood here and introduced the Warsaw Philharmonic in a charity event that was aimed to raise money to restore the synagogue. The question we were all asking was how can a concert save a building and how can a building save a community? I remember I had to smuggle with me to Poland American dollar bills taped on my body to pay the musicians” (because the value of the Polish currency at the time was very low). In his lecture Dr. Gruber emphasized that the change in Poland had been immense and almost unimaginable. From a poor, neglected, and quite hostile part of the city the quarter of Kazimierz in Krakow (which was, historically speaking, where most Krakow Jews used to live in since it was removed from the old town) became a vibrant, teeming, urban spot that appeals to tourists from all over the world as well as local city residents in search of a good pub or the latest musical shows. Not only that, the home of the Jewish Community Center which is directed by the … Queens native Jonathan Ornstein is nestled near the Temple Synagogue and serves as a home to various Jewish cultural events and those interested in them, among them the writer of these lines.

It was not only the small Jewish communities in Poland, that have just recently come back to life, that brought about this change. One of the speakers, Ms Lesley Weiss, who was recently appointed by U.S president Barak Obama to serve as the Chair of the U.S Commission for the preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, shared with the audience a little of the history of the commission and the ways in which it operates. She said that the U.S has a commitment to preserve the legacy of American citizens in their countries of origins. The commission was created in the 1980s after the depth of the destruction caused by the Holocaust were better understood, but while the historical drive behind the commission was the need to defend Jewish legacy in Europe the commission serves all American citizens and had also done meaningful work to protect Roma and Muslim sites of heritage. The commission could not operate without the aid of the U.S. State department that facilitates agreements between the various countries and the commission regarding the fate of such sites. Ms Weiss named more than twenty countries that have signed agreements of co-operation with the commission as well as countries that so far refused to do so such as the Russian Federation and Turkey. At one point, when Ms Weiss described her mother who survived the Holocaust and the Auschwitz death camp to which she was deported from Hungary, she was visibly tearful. This universal element is needed to fully comprehend what is taking place in the Jewish world today. Mr. Mark Weber, the field projects director of the World Monuments Fund shared his experiences from working in North India on the restoration of ancient Buddhist monasteries. “People from that part of the world believe that by cleaning monasteries or racking leaves they gain merit,” he said, “this deeply impressed me and I would love it if we could give that feeling anywhere in the world we are working in.”

The American effort does not take place in a vacuum but often meets other trends in the Jewish world as well as the non-Jewish world. Ms Judith Kiriaty–Matalon from Israel explained how the Jewish synagogues of Izmir, Turkey, had recently gained academic attention in the Turkish field of architecture and Mr. Marcus Roberts of Jewish Trails Britain presented his charity, which is devoted to present the nearly unknown Jewish heritage of the British Isles to which Jews first came with William the Conquer ( 1027-1087). This greater non-Jewish interest in Jewish legacy and culture is accompanied by a different drive in countries like Poland and Ukraine where the goal is often to document, preserve, and research the remains of the Jewish civilization that existed there before the Second World War. This goal is an urgent one since a lot of these sites are crumbling after more then six decades of neglect and ill-usage.

The big question, and one to which no one quite has an answer to, is where the money to clean desecrated Jewish cemeteries, repair and repaint synagogues and bathing houses, and place memorial plaques will actually come from. Dr. Gruber himself confessed to the situation being something like a suitcase without a handle, meaning that national governments, charity foundations, and local Jewish communities can work together to see to it one particular project is done – but to manage it, to lift that suitcase, someone who is there full time is needed. The biggest question of the Jewish people today is who should this someone be. Dr. Gruber also allowed himself a comment which is a little critical for those who know the finer points of modern Jewish life in Poland. He argued publicly that: “Selling historical buildings to finance operating costs solves nothing.” Such a case got a lot of media coverage in Poland last year when the Jewish Community of Warsaw decided to sell the White Building. One of the first houses to be rebuilt in post-war Warsaw the White Building is to be torn down and a developer is to build a more profitable asset in its place. This is the White Building that the late Abraham Levinsion described in Hebrew in 1948 in his piece “A Journey in Poland”: “Among the skeletons of ruined decapitated houses stands a white building, splendid, lonely in its perfection. This is the home to the central committee of the Jews of Poland. Here is the center of the Jewish autonomy, a network of social institutions, as well as educational and cultural ones. The living pulse of the surviving remnant. In the offices in this building, in its corridors and yard – one can find activists, clerks, teachers, officers, and medal-bearing soldiers as well as plain Jews. The change of the Jewish types one sees is apparent. Gone are the black beards, the black hat, and the traditional look of Jewish peoplehood. Gone is the religious type with his sorrowful eyes, they were slain during the Holocaust. Select few chosen by fate remain. Those returning from Soviet Russia, Jews who were in the underground and hid in the ‘Aryan’ side, those who survived the concentration and death camps, Polish Jewry had vanished, Jews in Poland remain.” Those who wish to see the White Building better hurry, an official announcement about the sale was already published in the Warsaw Jewish Community bulletin.

One of the repeated claims during the seminar, in lectures as well as in private talks, had been that no amount of clean-ups and restoration work will suffice if the majority culture, especially people who reside near the sites, doesn’t take interest in them. Along with successful examples of such projects like the Temple Synagogue in Krakow and the White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw, which was restored by the Bente Kahan Foundation, other projects, in which the results had not been so impressive, were also presented. Ms Sarah Sher of the World Monuments Fund gave the example of the Paradesi  synagogue in South India in which the bell tower had been restored in 2006 only for the work to be neglected and the bell tower to deteriorate back to its previous condition. Most South Indian Jews opted to leave India and go to Israel when the state was founded, as a result, when there are no living people who are using a material asset, it is often neglected and brought to ruin in the passage of time. During the Krakow seminar scaffolds were erected to handle the pressure so many tourists cause the structure of the Temple synagogue when they come to admire it.

Since this claim was often made it was surprising to note the complete lack of official Polish representatives in the Seminar. There were no people there to present the city of Krakow or the Polish Ministry of Culture. To my question why this is so an old hand in Polish-Jewish relations spoke under the condition that anonymity should be kept: “I think they were simply not invited. Surely you heard Dr. Gruber state that all those here are either Jewish or honorary-Jewish, but this same mind-set does not allow in Poles who wish to be equal partners in the work of preserving and promoting Jewish heritage in Poland.” Another element, one that would resurface in my talks with Meylakh Sheykhet from Ukraine, was also introduced: “Preserving buildings is really a form of tourism. And tourism is a very shallow and comfortable way to gain a Jewish identity. If in 2013 the meaning of being a Jew is to look at a 19’th century bathing house then we are doing quite poorly. One does not need to be religious since we really do have many Jews who are not religious, but to build a Jewish identity around restored buildings, which are sometimes poorly reconstructed or poorly explained by a hastily trained guide, is going to cause a lot of problems in the future.”

On Wednesday those attending the seminar got to see two examples of restoration in Poland. In  the town of Dąbrowa Tarnowska, where the great synagogue was fully restored and magnificent wall paintings were created to make it into a museum and cultural center. And the small town of Działoszyce where the decision was to maintain the synagogue in its current state as a ruin. On the bus ride I meet Jason Guberman of the Diarna Geo-Museum, an extensive and awe-inspiring digital effort to document and preserve the Jewish heritage in the Muslim world. This effort includes digitalizing data on no-longer existing synagogues like the Jobar Synagogue in Damascus Syria that was recently destroyed during the armed conflicts taking place in that country. Thanks to the work done by Mr. Guberman and his team Google earth now has an on-line model of the site which allows anyone in the world to visit it, at least when using a computer. Another element of his work is to bring Jews and Muslims back into a dialogue since many Jewish people need the help of those living in their previous homelands to send them a photo of the grave of a departed relative or look into the health of an old friend who stayed behind. Those Muslims who are in touch with Diarna (which means “our homes” in Jewish–Moroccan) are also happy to learn more about the Jewish legacy of their own cities and countries. Mr. Guberman claimed that we are now in the third wave of Jewish studies. After the first wave created Jewish studies as a discipline with a focus on German-Jewish culture and the second wave placed the Jewish cultures of Central and Eastern Europe back in their proper place as worthy of scholarly attention now the third wave seeks to re-locate the histories and cultures of Jews who lived in the Muslim world for generations. To do that, Diarna maintains a web-presence in Farsi, Arabic, and French as well as English.

The synagogue in Dąbrowa Tarnowska is quite beautiful and inspires a quiet sort of respect once one considers just how much work went into it. The mayor of the town, Stanisław Początek, makes it clear that it was a variety of grants and funds from many different sources that made all this work possible. Since the site now serves as a local museum he claimed more tourists had arrived to Dąbrowa Tarnowska since the site opened last year. However, the small band of experts around me is quick to point out errors that could have been avoided. The Hebrew words that adorn the walls and the painted ceiling are often misspelled, the workers lifted the original floor up by four meters (around 13 feet) and in doing so damaged the original perspective in which the wall paintings were seen. Also, the colors selected for the artwork were not always of the same quality. Many of them expressed, while talking to me, dismay at the fact that despite all this work no expert on Jewish studies was consulted to accompany the process. On the one hand this is an unusual, highly impressive feat, on the other hand, it also sheds light on the difficulties created when those who manage the cultural objects are foreign to the culture they wish to honor.

Meylakh Sheykhet, whom I mentioned before, is only saddened by visiting the museum. In his own words: “What hurts me when I come here is that I see that we as Jews have no continuity. The Jews of Poland did not make compromises, they came here to pray. And we make compromises. I am very sorry to say that many Jewish tourists who come here arrive only to have their picture taken alongside the art display and they move on. They do not take Judaism into their everyday lives, this is what is important, how many of us do that?” The figure of Meylakh Sheykhet, a religious Jew from Ukraine who walked with the group in the garb of an Ultra-Orthodox Jew and passionately argued in favor of what he called Jewish respect, will become a lasting motif during the seminar. All those who believe that it is mostly secular Jews and non-Jews who are taking an interest in preserving Jewish legacy might do well to speak with Vasyl Petryk of the Lviv Polytechnic National University in Ukraine. In his presentation, he explained that it is the Belz Hasidim (ultra–orthodox Jews), now living in Jerusalem, that lead the efforts to rediscover and put into usage two old bathing houses that used to serve their pre-war forefathers in the town of Belz. One bathing house was based on collecting rain water and the other on a living spring.

However we have now arrived to Działoszyce where it is not the mayor who greets us but his secretary Christina Ciczak. Inside the ruin of the vast synagogue she explains that most of the funds for this project of preservation were given by the European Union. When asked about the house of study (Beit Midrash) that existed right next to the synagogue she claimed it had to be torn down due to its poor condition. Those who wish to see how the house of study looked like now must go to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw where the department of documentation of Jewish heritage in Poland can present you with photographs taken years ago. She also said that a memorial plaque is to be placed on the site and debates are now being held on the issue of what exactly should be written there. The town is far from being wealthy and it is obvious that the ruin of the synagogue is simply to big to ignore and too demanding to rebuilt. The band of experts is quick to find faults here as well. Supporting beams that were not in the original building were added to keep it from collapsing and cement rather then mortar was used in the preservation process. Later, while looking up for more information on the Hebrew site run by the Dynów based Center for the Legacy of Polish Jews, I find the following information on the ruined house of study. In 1940 Zionist youth groups lead opened a free kitchen in that location and gave out two hundred daily meals for the poor. In August 1941 one thousand and two hundred meals were given daily to the Jews of Działoszyce. In September 1942 between one thousand two hundred and two thousand Jews were shot to death in the Jewish cemetery of Działoszyce, which we have not seen. The site makes it clear that the Germans used local Poles to guard the Jews and to transport them to the site of execution. Only time will tell what will be written on the memorial plaque once it is put in place.

On Thursday, the last day of the seminar, we are visited by representatives of the various charities that funded it. They include the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, the David Berg Foundation, and the American Joint Committee. Another successful project, that of the Foundation for the preservation of Jewish heritage in Poland, is mentioned. The restoration of the Zamość Synagogue, the only example of a Renaissance synagogue in Poland. The expert behind me softly utters to himself: “I don’t understand why the leaflets insist on calling it a part of the Hassidic route, there was never a big Hasidic court associated with Zamość.”

In those few moments before the various participants return to their homes I catch a word with Ms Bente Kahan before she returns to Wroclaw. “Say,” I ask her, “what even brought you to Poland before you became involved with saving the White Stork Synaguge?” “It was love,” she tells me, “my husband was a Solidarity activist and had to flee Poland to Norway, where I was born, in the 1980s: without love I would not be here.”

Hagay Hacohen  (April – May 2013, Ijar 5773 )