Auschwitz is closed for business. Jewish heritage sites are not immune to COVID-19 and the impact of their closure is yet to be fully calculated. However, as some slowly start to open, the digital tools offering online tours of Jewish sites encourage virtual tourism without the hassle of a plane ride.
We also travel virtually to Mount Sinai on Shavuot to receive the 10 commandments – these are conceptually divided as commandments between God and Man (e.g. loving God, obeying God) and those between Man and Man (e.g. not to kill, steal or commit adultery) Another term for God is Makom, literally ‘place’ and based on my experience as CEO of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, I’d like to suggest that caring for Jewish heritage inspires a complementary set of 10 commandments that are between the Place and Man, and between Man and Man (and of course, Woman).
BETWEEN PLACE AND MAN
- Thou shalt not treat every old, derelict synagogue as sacrosanct
Throughout Europe, there are empty synagogues, abandoned by their communities through death, dislocation or disinterest. A synagogue is known as a Beit Knesset – a house of gathering for the community – but if there is no community, then who is it for? It is also referred to as a Beit Tefillah – a house of prayer – but if there is no-one who knows how to conduct the services, if the Sifrei Torah are not kosher, and if no-one is coming to pray, then what is the purpose of the synagogue? Sometimes a synagogue can be transformed for commercial gain – for example, in Newcastle, England a former synagogue is now a block of apartments or for cultural purposes such as the restoration of the White Stork synagogue in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) which is now used as a popular concert venue. The Hungarian National Committee of ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) recently awarded its annual restoration prize to the historic, Moorish-style Rumbach Street Synagogue in Budapest. In Turkey, an ambitious project to restore nine synagogues in the old city of Izmir is intended to contribute to the regeneration of the area, highlight the diversity of Jewish life that dominated that area and ultimately attract significant tourism. To identify those synagogues in greatest need, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage commissioned the Center for Jewish Art, based in Jerusalem to map historic synagogues across Europe while the Foundation itself has focused on saving several buildings including the Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus. The complexities of synagogue renovation, the ongoing issues of maintenance and the spiraling costs of these projects mean that difficult, and often unpopular, decisions need to be made regarding synagogue survival. It’s probably even more challenging in Syria and Iraq where Jewish historical sites are in grave danger.
2. Thou shalt draw on the stores of knowledge contained in Jewish cemeteries and be programmatic about their ongoing preservation
COVID-19 hasn’t stopped dedicated volunteers cleaning Jewish cemeteries in Slovakia – they’re just wearing masks. Cemeteries are replete with the sorrows and achievements of the people that lie within; mass graves are the final indignity where individuality is erased and burial rites are denied. Barely a week goes by without news of another vandalised cemetery in Europe and usually, the host country is quick to condemn such attacks, paying for the cleaning and restoration of any desecration. At the same time, there is a steady stream of visitors to celebrity cemeteries such as the Chatam Sofer memorial, and the burial site of the Maharal of Prague, the creator of the infamous Golem. Religious pilgrimages to Uman and Lizhensk are popular for men, while women are particularly interested in Krakow’s memorial site for Sara Schneirer, the founder of the Beit Ya’akov network of schools for girls that revolutionised Jewish education for women. In the UK, Willesdon Jewish Cemetery, home to much of the Jewish aristocracy, recently received a £1.7 million grant from The Heritage Lottery Fund to develop an exhibition centre on the site.
Although there are many unmarked cemeteries without fencing or appropriate signage, strewn with overgrown weeds and filled with faded or chipped tombstones, the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative aims to address this issue, erecting fences to protect cemeteries from vandalism. Cemeteries without advocates fall prey to the property developers who want the land to build upon, and without legal representation or communities to defend the cemetery, it may prove difficult to prevent their use for other purposes. Cemeteries are also a source of rich information and genealogists think nothing of spending their weekends wandering through cemeteries collecting family history data that is eventually shared online. Ruth Ellen Gruber has done fascinating work documenting the iconography of Jewish headstones which can be seen at candlesticksonstone.wordpress.com while at www.billiongraves.com, you can collect photos of the headstones in your local cemetery with a phone app and upload the photos to their site which then becomes part of a vast global resource.
3. Thou shalt acknowledge the complex role of museums and encourage their on-line presence
Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Moscow… it seems that every self-respecting European city has a prominent Jewish Museum and they all have active educational programmes for school children in addition to their ‘core business’ of exhibitions and preservation. In a 2016 survey of over 60 Jewish museums in Europe questions of their viability, sustainability and qualified staff are always on the agenda. In Europe, many museums exist where there is virtually no Jewish community and a study contrasting the impact of Jewish museums in America with its vibrant Jewish population and those in Europe (excluding obvious cities such as Paris and London with large Jewish populations) would be interesting. Jewish museums have an important socio-political role to play in exploring the tensions between universalism and particularism, i.e. other communities could learn to reflect on their own experiences of immigration, acculturation and assimilation from the Jewish experience. However, events in the last few months, including the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, should make us wary of platitudes that museums are a panacea and a cure-all for peace between nations.
Jewish museums and heritage sites across Europe are slowly starting to open – Ruth Ellen Gruber is compiling a running list. The Association of European Jewish Museums has been convening its members to discuss the impact of COVID-19 although it will take a while for its full implications to be understood and it will vary from country to country.
4. Thou shalt be constantly surprised while travelling the Jewish world
Until the recent lockdown, Jewish tourism was a bourgeoning business. A range of kosher cruises, luxury hotels offering Passover in the Swiss Alps, and tour groups to countries where there was, or is, a strong Jewish presence are all popular. There are ‘family roots’ tours to Eastern Europe (and let’s not forget that many Sephardi families would like to explore their roots in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Algeria or Yemen) that take young people back to their grandparents’ home in the little villages and towns throughout Europe. A cadre of professional translators, drivers and local ‘fixers’ are available to help families piece together their personal story, and savvy government officials are closely monitoring the revenues generated by Jewish sites and their spin-offs such as hotel rooms.
But Jewish tourism is also being actively marketed to non-Jews – with the energetic leadership of Victor Sorenssen, Jewish heritage engagement including walking tours and exhibitions such as those promoted by the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage are gaining ground. The Czech Ten Stars programme and the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route provide information that allows visitors to curate their own tours and there are phone apps offering visitor guides for Jewish sites in many different cities. In 2017, Jewish Heritage Europe and Beit Venezia co-ordinated a conference, Jewish Heritage Tourism in the Digital Age, to explore issues that have become increasingly relevant as we take virtual tours and binge on zoom lectures.
5. Thou shalt ensure appropriate,sensitive and multi-lingual signage
The first stolperstein, a bronzed cobblestone-sized plaque commemorating Nazi victims, was laid in Cologne in 1992, As of December, 2019, 75,000 stolpersteine dotted around more than 1200 towns and cities are deeply embedded in the Jewish tourist landscape. Conceived by Gunter Demnig, they are set in the streets, usually placed outside the homes of victims, with minimal information pending what’s known about the person e.g. name, date of birth, date of deportation, place of death. In Budapest, the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial is a row of shoe sculptures to remember the Jews who killed by the Arrow Cross militia in Budapest during World War II. They were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The memorial represents their shoes left behind on the bank. In Paris and Amsterdam, the names of Holocaust victims from those cities are etched into dedicated memorial walls.
There’s no shortage of signage, and the attempts to give some physical form to memory seem to grow every year. There are hundreds of Holocaust memorials and museums dotted around the world and a plethora of books and PhD theses attempting to understand the rise and role of memorialization in the collective conscience. In Europe, abandoned buildings that were once Jewish schools, ritual baths, yeshivot, alms houses or community centres deserve some recognition. Designing thoughtful signage in at least two languages is an artful responsibility as that plaque is a micro-history lesson and the story it tells may be the only one that the visitor ever reads. Local government needs to take responsibility for the signage, if only to acknowledge that they are duty-bound to recognise that Jewish life was deeply entwined within local society and is part of the country’s heritage.
BETWEEN MAN AND MAN
6. Thou shall not make it cool to visit the death camps
‘Holocaust tourism’ including the week-long tour of concentration camps by Israeli high-school children, the day-trips to Auschwitz under the auspices of the Holocaust Educational Trust in the UK or the global March of the Living programme that re-enacts the 3 kilometre march from Auschwitz to Birkenau gets bigger and bigger each year. Arguably, this is about a commandment to do with ‘place’ – the epicentre of death, but the Holocaust was really about the annihilation of one people by another people -the place was merely the tool. Handled sensitively, and placed within a context, there is great educational value in many of these trips. However, the psychologically manipulative nature of some of these trips to Poland (which is beyond the scope of this article and has been addressed by others) that uses the Holocaust for building and affirming Jewish identity is problematic, if not perverse. Anxious teenagers are suffering FOMO (fear of missing out) if they haven’t been to Auschwitz by the time they’re 18 – since when did visiting the dead become such a cool thing to do?
Having said that, March of the Living was cancelled this year, and I heard from several young people that they were disappointed not to have this opportunity as the chance to be accompanied by Holocaust survivors on the trip was one of the main drawcards, A virtual march has little resonance, and unfortunately, we know that there will be less survivors next year.
7. Thou shalt guard your archives and implement an effective collection policy
Buried in the detritus of attics of abandoned old synagogues, hidden in the locked cabinets of government bureaucracy, stored in shoeboxes in a kitchen cupboard shelf, or haphazardly filed in the papers of Jewish communities are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of documents that form the architecture of our institutional memory. Communal newsletters, government correspondence with Jewish communities, pinkassim detailing demographic data on each community, rabbinic letters, and Jewish military records are just some of the many documents reflecting organised, and disorganised, Jewish life.
The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People was established in 1939 and holds the archives of hundreds of Jewish communities, as well as of local, national and international Jewish organizations and the private collections of many outstanding Jewish personalities. Scheduled to launch in late 2020, Yerusha is an online hub regarding Jewish and Jewish-related archival materials in Europe, bringing archival descriptions together onto a single, searchable online platform. The Scottish Jewish Archives or the archives of the Institute for the History of German Jews focussing on Hamburg’s Jewish history are two examples of localised archives. Two Holocaust-related projects were recently awarded the 2020 European Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards honor: the Arolsen Archive Online and the exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away
While archives are particularly important for researchers studying the past, it takes prescient community leaders to organise archives for the future. Ephemeral items such as bar mitzvah invitations, community newsletters, flyers for film festivals and Jewish greeting cards form their own archival collection within a community. For example, the Jewish European Ephemera is chronicling the emergent forms of post-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe, not because of fear that it will be lost, but rather because it is intrinsically noteworthy and that scholars in the future will be able to draw on the material to construct a slice of social history.
In the digital age, there are challenges regarding born digital archives and ephemeral material. Are emails an archive? Should Jewish memes sent on whatsapp be collected and are the online menus from the wide array of kosher restaurants worth saving so that, in time, someone will be able to write a social history of the food Jews used to eat? As COVID-19 reconfigures aspects of Jewish life, a number of institutions including the National Library of Israel, Yeshiva University and the American Jewish Archives are in the throes of collecting digital ephemera, meaning paper ephemera will become even rarer.
8. Thou shalt listen, record and document the voices of experience
Recording the story of people’s lives allows us to enter their world on their terms and through the collected diaries of travellers, prominent communal personalities and essayists, we develop some understanding of daily life. Concerted efforts by University of Southern California Shoah Foundation to make audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust has had an international ripple effect, and there are many other important projects interviewing survivors. Arguably, the stories of Jews from Arab Lands have not receive comparable attention and projects such as Sephardi Voices seeks to redress this imbalance.
Based in Vienna, Centropa interviewed 1,200 elderly Jews still living in the 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean (from Estonia and Russia to Greece and Turkey). As their site explains, ‘we collected and digitized thousands of family photos. Our interviewers spent up to twenty hours with each respondent, asking them to paint for us a picture of the world they grew up in – as well as the world they rebuilt for their families after the war.’ The Institut Europeen des Musiques Juives is dedicated to the recording and documentation of Jewish music, and earlier this month, YIVO received a Recordings at Risk Grant to help preserve and document Yiddish song. Building on decades of expertise in oral history, the Jewish Women’s Archive created Story Aperture, ‘a robust story collecting project that captures and preserves Jewish women’s stories from around the world.’
And what of the lives being lived now – who is documenting these stories? The leaders of Jewish youth movements, prominent Israelis who built the country, the women inspiring change within Orthodoxy, the Ethiopians in Israel, the last Jews in a village, the list is endless. And in what language? Despite the miraculous revival of the Hebrew language, it’s clear that English is increasingly the lingua franca of the Jewish people. Yet, there are other languages that must be captured as part of the story. In small numbers, Jews are still speaking to each in Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Median (Iran), Bukhori, and Juhuri. The Jewish Languages Project is collecting information on other past and present Jewish languages helping to preserve it for generations to come. We are a mobile people and those journeys and languages mean that we have interacted with so many others over time and capturing these stories complements the view we get only from the buildings we inhabit or the ritual objects that we use.
9. Thou shalt integrate a broad understanding Jewish heritage into the contemporary Jewish educational landscape
The challenges of Jewish heritage are a valuable educational tool that can be creatively used to as a bridge between the religious and secular groups, between the engaged and unaffiliated within a Jewish community. Synagogues have historical, cultural and artistic value and they also have spiritual and religious values – the Place can be used as a tool for developing educational programmes that place relationships between people and an understanding of Jewish practice at the centre. Jewish community centres can help members of the community to learn more about their own local Jewish heritage by developing walking tours, engaging in oral history projects or learning from archival material. The use of Jewish heritage to engage young Jewish people is only limited by imagination.
10. Thou shalt acknowledge and support the selfless individuals caring for Jewish heritage
Throughout Europe, we owe a debt of hakarot hatov (gratitude) to the people who are the stewards of Jewish heritage, many of whom are not Jewish. The old man in a small village with the only key to the Jewish cemetery, the enthusiastic archivist toiling in a dusty basement, the museum curators dedicating their professional interests to explaining Jewish life to their visitors, the historians gathering oral testimonies – they are all helping to ensure that the historical presence of Jewish life is respected. Developing their skills and professional capacity should be a priority on the Jewish heritage agenda. Without a dedicated cadre of trained people, Jewish museums will have poorly identified objects, educational programmes will have gaps in knowledge, libraries will have collections gathering even more dust. Networks of expert mentors, training opportunities and online technology can help to motivate and encourage isolated staff caring for Jewish heritage. Across Europe, Jewish Heritage Europe offers a central repository of information about sites, but also pays tribute to the people who have dedicated their lives to preserving Jewish heritage. Its co-ordinator, Ruth Ellen Gruber, is a recognised authority who has single-handedly built this invaluable resource that has thousands of loyal readers.
No doubt, it’s hard to keep the commandments – whether it be the original ones, or these suggested alternatives. But this Shavuot, as you study the texts that inspire you, perhaps you can consider Jewish heritage as another form of text, compelling you to ponder its meaning and its relevance to your life. What might move you to ensure that your personal heritage and your community’s synagogue, music, archives, memoirs, cemetery, folklore or museum is not forgotten and not lost for generations to come?
This is a revised and significantly updated version of my article in ejewishphilanthropy.com first published in 2015.