In a compelling essay for Moment Magazine, Phyllis Myers, a conservation policy and politics adviser to governments and private groups, returns to consider a question she first addressed some 25 years ago — a question that we at JHE feel has long been answered: “Are the old synagogues of eastern Europe worth saving?”
Focusing her essay on Poland (as Poland was the focus of the issue of the magazine), her answer is a resounding YES:
The question seems commonplace today, given the extraordinary efforts in the past 25 years by growing numbers of people in and beyond Poland–scholars, foundations, officials, educators, conservators, museum professionals, travel companies, journalists, preservationists–whose impact on the revival of Jewish life and culture has surpassed what could have been imagined in 1989. While many difficult questions of funding, governance, ownership, priorities, and use remain in a country with so few Jews, the answer is, clearly, yes.
Myers was the co-author, with Samuel D. Gruber, of the ground-breaking surveys of Jewish historical monuments carried out in the 1990s in the Czech Republic and Poland on behalf of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
In her Moment article, before affirming her conclusion, she provides important historical context.
She bluntly reminds readers what the conditions — physical conditions of buildings but also the mind-sets of both Jews and local officials — were regarding Jewish built heritage back in 1989, when she first traveled to central and eastern Europe on behalf of the the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund.
Conditions were, in short, dire. No-one knew what was left — and, frankly, not too many cared, she recalls.
At a time when the world was still absorbing information about the horrific loss of Jewish lives during the Holocaust, many of my American colleagues were puzzled and skeptical, even hostile: There’s nothing left, they typically said. Or if there is, so what? There are no Jews left. Money is needed for people, not places. References to Poland met with especially bitter responses.
She writes of her visits to devastated sites as well as her meetings with those few individuals who had made documentation of Jewish heritage their mission during the years of communist rule.
I also met with Polish cultural officials in Warsaw to inquire about the protections of the much-vaunted Polish monuments law and realized the chasm between tough regulatory language on paper and the real world. I hid my dismay when shown a thin folder that contained the documentation of landmarked Jewish sites. A numerical system ranked each site’s importance: most Jewish sites were rated 3 or 4, a signal to local officials that the site was not a priority for protection or funding. The paltry group reflected outdated narrow views of historic preservation and national patrimony as well as stretched funding, if not necessarily anti-Semitism.
The articles, likes, posts, photographs and other material on Jewish Heritage Europe and other web sites, and the discussion and reports presented at the conference we co-oganized in Krakow in April 2013, demonstrate the vast changes that have taken place over the past quarter century, both on the ground and in the ways that Jewish built heritage is regarded.
Myers’s article is a telling reminder of these changes, but also of the work that still needs to be done.