“Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe” has comprehensive information about 14 countries in Central and Eastern Europe for those interested in synagogues, cemeteries, museums, and meeting Jews who still live in the region.
But with hundreds of sites to choose from, how to know what are the must-see attractions?
Ruth Ellen Gruber, the book’s author, recently released in its third edition by National Geographic, shared her list of favorites.
As she puts it, “Most people visiting Jewish heritage in Central and Eastern Europe see what’s in major cities such as Prague, Budapest and Krakow, or visit major Holocaust memorial sites such as Auschwitz in Poland, Terezin in the Czech Republic or Babi Yar in Kiev. But there are fascinating and important sites all over the region, in small towns and even remote villages.”
Here are Gruber’s choice of the Top 10 sites worth a detour:
* The historic Jewish cemeteries and painted synagogues in northern Romania. The tombstones feature elaborate carving and the synagogue interiors boast beautiful decoration. The most impressive cemeteries are the three in Siret, on the border with Ukraine. Nearby towns with painted synagogues and cemeteries include Botosani, Suceava, Radauti and Piatra Neamt.
* The Jewish cemeteries and ruins of fortress synagogues in Ukraine. In Sataniv, the synagogue hauntingly retains some of its interior decoration and the tombstones feature elaborate carving, including rare examples of a mystical motif showing three hares joined by the ears chasing each other in a circle. The village of Sharhorod has a fortress synagogue, fascinating cemeteries, extensive remains of shtetl architecture and a small Jewish community.
* The baroque synagogue and Jewish cemetery in the village of Mad, in northeastern Hungary. The synagogue recently underwent a full restoration.
* The synagogues in Lancut, in southeastern Poland, and in Tykocin, in n! ortheast ern Poland. Both have been restored and are used as Jewish museums.
* The old Jewish quarters, synagogues and cemeteries in the towns of Boskovice, Trebic and Lomnice, near Brno in the Czech Republic.
* Anything to do with the Hungarian architect Lipot Baumnhorn (1860-1932), modern Europe’s most prolific designer of synagogues. Particularly recommended are the grand synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and a ruined synagogue in Lucenec, Slovakia; Baumhorn’s tomb in the Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest; and the monument to him outside the former synagogue he designed in Szolnok, Hungary.
* Wooden synagogues. Eastern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine once boasted elaborate wooden synagogues, all of which were destroyed by the Nazis, but about a dozen simple wooden synagogues survive in out-of-the way villages in Lithuania. Most look like barns. The ones in the villages of Kurkliai, Pakruojis and Ziezmariai are particularly striking.
* The elaborate synagogue in Subotica, Serbia, is an extraordinary example of Hungarian art nouveau architecture.
* The Holocaust monument complex in Belzec in southeastern Poland. Opened in 2004, this is a breathtaking and overwhelming memorial that uses the entire death camp site as a sculpture. It includes an excellent little museum.
* The Holocaust memorial in Plunge, Lithuania, features a profoundly moving installation of massive wooden sculptures by the Jewish wood-carver Jakob Bunkas and his artist friends.