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Jewish Heritage Sites in Europe Focal Point of Growing Attention

February 11, 1999
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In the Alsace region of eastern France, local tourist authorities cooperate with B’nai B’rith to sponsor Jewish culture festivals and help organize tourist trips to Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, ancient mikvahs and museums.

In Britain, a full-scale survey of Jewish heritage sites is being carried out with funding from the national lottery.

In Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and other countries, teams of experts from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem are carrying out detailed art and architectural documentation of synagogues and abandoned cemeteries.

As the scope of these initiatives, most of which were started during the last decade, clearly shows, more than half a century after the Holocaust and nearly 10 years after the fall of communism, the fate of Jewish heritage sites has become an issue of growing concern in Europe.

Indeed, the federally funded U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad has sponsored inventories of Jewish sites in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and elsewhere, and dozens of synagogues and cemeteries are being restored and protected throughout Europe.

Once virtually ignored, Jewish heritage sites are increasingly recognized as an important component of Europe’s culture heritage.

“Jewish heritage in France,” French Culture Minister Catherine Trautmann said in Paris last month, “is also the heritage of all the French people, just as the cathedrals of France also belong to France’s Jews.”

Trautmann spoke at an international conference that demonstrated new concerns and shifts in attitude.

Sponsored by the French government and held at the newly opened Museum of the Art and History of Judaism, the conference brought together scholars, researchers, museum directors, government officials, Jewish representatives and tourism consultants from across the Continent, as well as from Israel and the United States.

The purpose was to compare notes, describe individual projects and brainstorm about strategies in confronting challenges and charting future policy.

Speakers described conditions of Jewish monuments and ongoing preservation and documentation projects throughout Europe, addressing several questions:

What should become of these monuments, which include thousands of abandoned cemeteries and neglected or ruined synagogues?

In the absence of Jewish communities in many places, what purpose should these monuments serve?

Which sites should be restored, how should they be paid for and who should care for them?

What do Jewish monuments represent vis-a-vis local cultural heritage in general?

Is it possible — or necessary — to devise a global strategy for the conservation and protection of Jewish monuments?

Officials have to overcome a mind-set in order to convince people to focus on these questions, said Valery Dymshits of the European University of St. Petersburg, who has carried out documentation of Jewish sites in Ukraine and Moldova. “Jews and non-Jews think we are the People of the Book, and no one has been interested in physical heritage. Now we have to convince people that Jews produced architecture, art and the like.”

For decades after World War II, there was little interest — among Jews and non-Jews alike — in preserving or documenting Jewish sites that had survived both the destruction of the Holocaust and demographic shifts of Jewish populations. Many Jews wanted nothing to do with sites that they believed were vestiges of a closed chapter in Jewish history.

As recent as 10 years ago, information was hard to come by in many countries and little systematic documentation existed. Few publications addressed the issue. Centuries-old synagogues were used as warehouses or left to crumble, and even the location of many cemeteries had slipped out of memory.

But since the late 1980s — and particularly since the fall of communism opened up Eastern and Central Europe to tourists and scholars — Jewish heritage has become increasingly recognized as a rich legacy for Europe as a whole and embraced as an important component of multicultural society.

As Pope John Paul II noted, in a speech in Poland in June 1997, Jewish cemeteries in Poland indicate the common past between Jews and Poles.

“These places are of particularly deep spiritual, eschatological and historical significance. Let these places join Poles and Jews, as we are together awaiting the day of Judgement and Redemption,” he said.

Despite the increased attention, the vast majority of Jewish heritage sites, particularly in former communist states, still remain in perilous condition.

But, as the Paris conference showed, the historic preservation of Jewish sites is now on the agendas of national monuments authorities and local organizations, including tourist bureaus, in most European countries.

It is also of growing concern to many Jewish organizations and communal bodies — particularly in former communist states where Jewish communal property seized during and after the Holocaust is being returned to Jewish ownership.

Cities, states, regions and private organizations are stepping in to inventory, survey, restore and display Jewish sites in both Eastern and Western Europe.

U.S.-based organizations, such as the World Monuments Fund, also sponsor restorations and inventories.

But given the large numbers, scattered geographical locations and poor condition of Jewish heritage sites, urgent challenges remain.

“Jewish heritage is an orphan, a victim in a generalized form of neglect and dereliction,” said Max Polonovsky, the French Culture Ministry official in charge of Jewish heritage issues. “We are fighting against time.”

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