International Survey of Jewish Monuments

From the President...

Report from Paris: State of Jewish Heritage in Europe

by Samuel Gruber


It was a heady week in late January for those of us who care about Jewish Monuments. So much of what ISJM and others have been talking about, dreaming about and working hard to get done was the focus of three days of presentations and discussions at the new Museum of Jewish History and Art in Paris at the international conference "The Jewish Patrimony in Europe" organized by Max Polonovski and the French Ministry of Culture and held at the new museum. The conference brought together scholars, researchers, museum directors, government officials, Jewish representatives and tourism consultants from throughout Europe, as well as from Israel and the United States.

This was an important event - not since the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund (WMF) organized its "Future of Jewish Monuments" Conference in New York in 1990 had so many people come together to talk about so many different Jewish heritage documentation and preservation projects. Unlike the biennial conference on Jewish Art organized by the Center for Jewish Art (CJA) in Jerusalem, this was not a scholarly enclave. Rather, it was a meeting of activists, conservators, arbiters of cultural property, and to some extant, philanthropists. Thirty speakers from a dozen countries reported on progress and problems regarding the state of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, Jewish quarters, and archaeological sites.

There was much to cheer about - such as the amazing progress of the Jewish Community in the Czech Republic; WMF's successful restoration projects in Poland and Greece; and the CJA's extensive documentation projects in almost a score of countries. Information about new excavations revealing medieval remains; of new museums; and of new tourism initiatives were all evidence of how far the movement to save Jewish monuments has come in a decade. Nonetheless, it was also clear that we are still just scratching the surface. Unlike ten years ago, however, we seem to know where we are going; the outline of the puzzle is put together. We have developed successful methodologies, proven strategies, and produced credible and popular results.

An indication of how far the acceptance of Jewish heritage has come was expressed by French Culture Minister Catherine Trautmann, who spoke to the conference on the closing day: "Jewish heritage in France is also the heritage of all the French people, just as the cathedrals of France also belong to France's Jews." This theme was echoed in presentations and conversations by (non-Jewish) representatives of other governments, including Germany and Romania.

One of the most effective presentations concerned the widespread efforts of local governments and regional tourism agencies in France, especially in Alsace, to include Jewish sites within the broader regional heritage, and to promote tourism to these sites for the broad public - not just for Jews.

Not surprisingly, given the sponsorship of the conference, there were several presentations about Jewish monuments in France. Gilbert Weill reprised his presentation of ten years ago, but this time he was able to add information on successful projects such as the newly opened museum at Bouxweiller, established in the restored classical style synagogue, and the nearly complete restoration of house-style synagogue at Pfaffenhoffen. Weill also reported on the vicissitudes of the project to dismantle the 1895 Romanesque Revival synagogue at Balbronn and ship it to Israel. Shifting interests and intentions by local officials have made this an on-again off-again project. Dominique Jarrassé, who has written several books on the synagogues of France, gave a spirited presentation on the current state of French Jewish sites - and noted that despite the interest evidenced in the conference, the commitment of government to the Jewish heritage of France remained ambiguous. There were also talks about the archival sources in France (Georges Weill) and medieval Jewish sites in Montpellier (Alain Gensac and Danièle Iancu), and medieval settlement patterns in Normandy, with special emphasis on the excavated Rabbinic Academy in Rouen (Norman Golb) discovered 25 years ago and which is still not easily accessible to the public, nor is it competently maintained, interpreted or presented.

Two of the most interesting talks (perhaps because they were so different in content from the others) were reports on groups of non-religious buildings, but which should be included in any definition of "Jewish heritage". Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy spoke about the social housing projects undertaken by Jewish patrons, such as the Rothschilds, throughout France in the 19th and 20th centuries. Alla Sokolova, of the Jewish University of St. Petersburg, presented her work on documenting the traditional Jewish domestic architecture in Jewish quarters of towns in Podolia, Ukraine. An article of Ms. Sokolova, to be translated into English with help from a grant from ISJM, will appear in a future issue of JHR.

Many of the efforts at documentation and restoration that were presented have previously been reported upon in JHR. In addition to Dr. Parik's report on Czech Jewish sites, ISJM member Sharman Kadish presented the full-scale survey of Jewish heritage sites in Britain being carried out with funding from the national lottery; Aliza Cohen-Mushlin presented an overview of the Center for Jewish Art's documentation projects in Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and other countries, where teams of experts have carried out detailed art and architectural documentation of synagogues and abandoned cemeteries. ISJM member Eleonora Bergman gave an overview of the current state of Polish synagogues; András Román (of ICOMOS) described the status of synagogues in Hungary and Boris Khaimovitch discussed the decorative schemes found in Romanian synagogues during surveys carried out under the auspices of the Center for Jewish Art.

Several speakers also addressed cemeteries: Valery Dymshits discussed the documentation of Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine and Moldova, focusing on the artistic legacy many of these sites still preserve. Using photos taken by David Goberman over many decades, Dymshits demonstrated how many great works of gravestone carving are now lost - stressing the urgency for conservation programs for the most important sites, such as Satanov (see article on page 30). Michael Brocke, professor of Jewish studies at the university of Duisberg, and a pioneer in post-war documentation of German Jewish cemeteries, described the heroic effort of documenting and piecing together the shattered remains of the cemetery in Frankfurt. Peter Honigman described efforts to consolidate information and standardize methods for cemetery documentation throughout Germany.

I was struck by these presentations, and in subsequent conversations, as to how the study and conservation of Jewish sites in Germany remains divorced from similar efforts in other countries. With the exception of recent efforts by the Center for Jewish Art, the study and care of Jewish sites in Germany remains, for the most part, outside the realm of contemporary Jewish life. A remarkably diverse and talented group of researchers have emerged in Germany - remarkable both for their dedication, and for their non-Jewish roots.

Happily, throughout the meeting ISJM was repeatedly referred to as a reference point, and in the a post-conference gathering organized by Laurence Sigal, director of the newly opened Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaisme in Paris, and Ruth Zilkha, of the European Council of Jewish Communities, it was explicitly suggested that Jewish Heritage Report and the ISJM website should remain the primary communication link for information about Jewish sites, and that both these organs should be strengthened by the participating individuals and organizations. There are plans to publish the papers delivered at the conference, and in the meantime, ISJM has invited participants to post their papers on the ISJM website (www.isjm.org) as well any additional materials about their work. Excerpts from the conference will be published in the Jewish Heritage Report over the course of the next year.

Max Polonovski, who organized the conference (with the able assistance of ISJM grant recipient Isabelle Meidinger) summed up the situation of Jewish heritage in Europe: "Jewish heritage is an orphan, a victim in a generalized form of neglect and dereliction. We are fighting against time."

It was in recognition of this urgent fact, and of the fact that the structure of the conference did not allow for formal strategic discussions on how to proceed in the coming decade, that more than twenty conference participants gathered the following day for the informal consultation hosted by Zilkha and Sigal. The aim of this session was to establish the focus of efforts in Europe to preserve and promote Jewish Heritage over the next 10 years.

An attempt was made, deftly moderated by ISJM member Ruth Zilkha, to define European-wide long term priorities and particularly to define what can be done in a coordinated way. Among preliminary recommendations of this group, which will be refined in coming months, are the following:

1) Accelerate the inventory, documentation and preservation of Jewish Heritage

2) Create a coordinating body of information/clearing house for funding of Jewish Heritage projects in Europe

3) Complete all inventories currently underway, with a description of the environment

4) Expand the exchange of information, mainly channeling information through the International Survey of Jewish Monuments

5) Involve young people in the awareness, preservation and promotion of Jewish Heritage.

6) Organize training programs for preservation and documentation work using the Center for Jewish Art and others as models

7) Organize a Day of Jewish Heritage in Europe (using the Alsace model)

8) Broaden the concept of Jewish Heritage from solely religious understandings to include spiritual, intellectual, artistic etc. foundations as well.


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last update: 10/29/99