Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, No. 2 / Summer 1997
News Briefs and Follow-Ups


Ziar nad Hronom, Slovakia
Paintings Discovered in Slovak synagogue

Photo: Ziar nad Hronom, Slovakia. Painted decoration. © Tomasz Stern 1997.

Tomasz Stern of Bratislava reports that substantial traces of wall paintings have been discovered in the former synagogue of Ziar nad Hronom in Central Slovakia, a town ill-famed for its aluminum factory and recent attacks against Gypsies. Stern has been visiting and documenting Slovak Jewish sites for the past five years, sometimes accompanied with his father. It was the elder Stern who discovered, in the attic rooms of the Ziar nad Hronom synagogue, remains of the decorative program. Inside a small room , which had been created by inserting a newer ceiling into the sanctuary interior, was the well-preserved upper part of an Ark decorated with a Decalogue and a Hebrew inscription. More unusual, were wall paintings of faux-Ionic columns with capitals decorated by human faces. Stern identified five such painted columns.

The first written records about Ziar nad Hronom come from the year 1075. The Turkish army was defeated here in 1667, marking the end of the Ottoman threat in the region. In 1919, there were 1337 citizens living in Ziar nad Hronom, only 36 of them registered as Jews. There were, however, more Jews living there in those times. The Jewish settlement itself was probably created in the first half of the 19th century, given the year of the founding of the rabbinate (1848) as well as many inscriptions in the devastated cemetery, situated on the so-called Gallows Hill. Recent information suggests the synagogue was built in 1889. According to oral testimonies, the Jews of the town survived the Holocaust by hiding in the surrounding mountains, but all moved abroad after the war. The synagogue now has an uninteresting exterior, and houses an Institution of Youth Social Care and a canteen for retired people. The representation of human faces is unusual, but not unheard of, in synagogue art. In addition to ancient instances such as Dura-Europos, Gaza and Beth-Alpha, modern Reform synagogues have included pictorial representation of the human form. In Central Europe, however, such decoration has been unknown. Nineteenth-century synagogue decorators preferred geometric or vegetal stencil designs.

Ellis Island Named to Endangered List by National Trust for Historic Preservation
The National Trust for Historic Places, the premier Historic Preservation organization in the United States, has listed the south side of Ellis Island on its list of 11 "most endangered historic places" in the United States. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund listed the site on its World Monuments Watch List of 100 most endangered sites in the world.

Ellis Island in New York Harbor was the principal immigration station in the United States from 1892 to 1954. The main building for immigration inspection was opened in 1900. Over the next half-century the island was enlarged to 27.5 acres, and thirty-three structures were erected. Today, the US National Park Service maintains the island as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Most of the island’s northern half has been restored over the past fifteen years but due to lack of funding and a viable use for the complex, no buildings on the southern half have been restored, and they are barely maintained. The twenty-eight interconnected buildings that comprised the hospital and isolation wards have stood empty for over forty years. Unheated and exposed to harsh conditions, their situation worsens each year. Preservationists have proposed conserving the buildings as ruins to help evoke the full past of the island – the apprehension, excitement and joy of the new arrivals, and the sadness and despair of the many arrivals refused entry and held in the south buildings. Government officials from New York and New Jersey, which have both claimed the island, have proposed commercial development solutions which would effectively destroy the existing complex. So far, however, these plans have been rejected.

National Yiddish Book Center Opens in Massachusetts
On June 15, 1997, the National Yiddish Book Center in South Hadley, Massachusetts opened its 37,000 square-foot home – consisting of connected work, exhibition, storage and performance space designed as an homage to the vernacular wood architecture of the Eastern European shtetl, but also recalling the rustic familiarity of an Adirondack summer camp. The new 7.9 million dollar Center, the dreamchild and creation of Aaron Lansky and his 30,000 member organization, began as an ad hoc effort to rescue thousands of Yiddish books that were routinely being discarded by an increasingly non-Yiddish speaking American Jewish population. As word of the effort has spread, in large part to Lansky’s own charismatic sense of mission, and his ability to articulate his passion for others to follow, the salvage effort has turned from a movement to rescue books to one set on retrieving the essence of a lost literary culture. The current book collection totals 1.3 million volumes with 120,000 housed at the new Center and the rest stored in a warehouse in Holyoke. Of the estimated 45,000 works published in Yiddish between 1864 and 1939, the Center now has about 25,000 titles. New titles which arrive are first offered to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and then to the Library of Congress. Additional copies are distributed to university libraries. In some cases individuals can obtain specific books for a modest price.

The Center, with its extensive holdings and its expansive audience outreach, is designed to reach an audience of specialists and the broader public. Non-Yiddish speakers, who will make up the vast majority of visitors, will be able to absorb much of the offering of Yiddish culture – learning the history of the language and the people who spoke and wrote it. In addition to the retrieval and care of books, the Center’s mission includes educational exhibitions and programming about the language, literature and culture of Yiddish. Exhibition halls will be open in December.

Major grants for the National Jewish Book Center have been made by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation ($1 million), the Kresge Foundation ($600,000) and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation ($250,000).

For further information write the National Yiddish Book Center, 48 Woodbridge St., South , MA 01075 (USA), tel. (413) 535-1303, fax (413) 535-1007.

Jewish Theological Seminary Announces Seven Million Dollar Gift to Restore Entrance Tower
In December of 1996, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, home of American Conservative Judaism, received an unprecedented gift of seven million dollars to restore the Seminary’s entrance tower, seriously damaged in the fire of 1966 that gutted most of the building and destroyed much of the Seminary Library. The library has been substantially replenished over the years, but the tower has remained unused. The gift, from Rabbi and Susie Kripke of Omaha, Nebraska will allow restoration to take place this summer. Rabbi Kripke attended JTS in the 1930s and the Kripkes were married there in 1937. As reported in The New York Times (May 9, 1997), Rabbi Kripke made a fortune through investment advice from longtime Omaha friend, Warren Buffett.

Located at the corner of Broadway and 122nd St., the JTS red-brick Georgian style tower is one of the most prominent landmarks on New York’s Morningside Heights. The tower contained eight floors of library stacks over a vaulted entranceway into a spacious courtyard. The structure will be remodeled for classroom space. Founded in 1887, JTS moved into its new building in 1930. Originally designed by William Gehron, of Gehron, Ross, Alley, with David Levy, the complex was expanded in 1985 to include a new library designed by Gruzen & Partners. The neighborhood, home of many important religious and educational institutions, was developed at the turn of the century as the "acropolis of New York." JTS arrived in a second wave of institution building, which included the erection of the Gothic-style Riverside Church and Union Theological Seminary. Also nearby are the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Columbia University including Barnard College, St. Luke’s Hospital, and the Manhattan School of Music (former Julliard School campus).

Telsiai (Lithuania) Jews Seek Help
The small Jewish community of Telsiai, Lithuania seeks aid to restore its yeshiva founded in 1873 by Eliezer Gordon and closed in 1940 at the time of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. After 1945, the building was used as an auto repair garage and later as a folk art factory. It suffered damage in a fire in 1978. The building is now in disrepair and risks collapse. Rafaelis Genys, chairman of the 14-person Telsiai community would like to see a Jewish Museum founded in the structure and seeks assistance to develop this project.

For more information contact R. Genys at Rambyno 10a, Telsiai, Lithuania. (tel. 51839).

Kress Foundation Funds CJA Georgia Survey
The Samuel H. Kress Foundation has awarded a $25,000 grant to the Center for Jewish Art of Hebrew University for their survey of Judaica in Georgia (see JHR, March, 1997 for story). Congratulations to the CJA! JHR will report results from the survey when available.

Jewish Grave at Australian War Cemetery
ISJM thanks Stuart Klipper for sending a photograph of the only Jewish grave in the Australian war cemetery at Adelaide River, Northern Territory, Australia.

Haberman Institute in Lod Plans Restoration of Tunisian Synagogue
The Haberman Institute, the Center for Oriental Jewish Culture, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lod, Israel intend to repair and restore the abandoned synagogue in Nabeul, Tunisia. Plans are to make the synagogue a Tunisian Jewish Museum.

For more information contact Dr. M. Saraf, Director, Haberman Institute, 20 Shederot David Hamelech, Lod, Israel.. fax 08 249466 / tel 08 9241160.

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Updated: 24-Jul-98