Jews hope to reclaim their architectural legacy in Eastern Europe

Christian Science Monitor 25 June 2009
By Michael J. Jordan

The region's Jewish communities are now largely gone, but a growing movement seeks to restore and protect the synagogues, cemeteries, and other remaining landmarks.

For architectural historian Maros Borsky, the story begins five years ago.

He was documenting the synagogues of Slovakia, which, like the rest of post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, saw its countryside depopulated of Jews, with most provincial synagogues abandoned. Slovakia itself has seen a war-time community of 137,000 shrink to some 3,000 Jews today, with only five of 100-plus synagogues functioning.

In the course of his work, Mr. Borsky came across a donor who wanted to renovate a rural synagogue. But which one?

"I realized it's important to create an audience for these synagogues, for Jews, non-Jews, locals, and tourists to learn there once was a community here – and what happened to it," he says.

The result of Borsky's work, the "Slovak Jewish Heritage Route" will soon connect 23 restored synagogues.

The Slovak project will be just one of scores discussed this weekend in Prague as representatives from 49 countries convene for the landmark Holocaust-Era Assets Conference. The agenda ranges from charting the progress made in returning Nazi-looted artwork and restituting Jewish property to caring for elderly survivors of the camps.

The inaugural conference was held in 1998 in Washington. This weekend's gathering will be the first held in Europe, where the genocide took place. The event is also being staged against a backdrop of rising extremism, highlighted by several far-right successes earlier this month in elections for the European Union parliament.

"People are still promoting racial and religious hatred in today's world, in today's Europe," says conference spokesman Jiri Schneider. "Not only do we want to mitigate injustices of the past, but also to prevent them from repeating."

Restoring the sacredness

Of all the agenda items, none is more sensitive than restitution of Jewish property, whether privately owned factories, shops, and homes, or formerly Jewish schools, hospitals, and orphanages. After the war, communist authorities seized the property and countless thousands are now in private hands, or they remain important sources of municipal revenue.

But it's the thousands of derelict cemeteries and synagogues – familiar to any off-the-beaten path traveler in Central and Eastern Europe – that are the most visible remnant of the region's once-thriving Jewish life, from the 16th-century fortress synagogues of Ukraine and wooden synagogues of Lithuania, to the Moorish, Gothic, Baroque, and Art Nouveau styles of Central Europe. Those not bulldozed were allowed to erode, or defiled as everything from warehouses and wine factories to discos and movie theaters.

"When the cost to maintain or restore them is so prohibitive, governments are usually happy to get rid of them, asking the Jews to clean up their mess," says Samuel D. Gruber, president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments. "But if the synagogue is in the downtown of a larger municipality, where it's revenue-producing, you can bet they'll resist."

Yet Jewish communities in the region are themselves pressed for funds, relying on Western donors.

For these communities, "It's not just a question of 'Do we reclaim it or not,' but 'If we reclaim it, what do we do with it?" says Herbert Block, of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a prime funder of Jewish life in the ex-Communist world.

If the walls could talk

Some debate if Jewish law allows revenue-generation from leasing a synagogue for commercial purposes, even if the cash supports a community's survival. The consensus is that it should minimally serve a more "dignified" role, as a museum, arts, or cultural center.

Regardless, preservation of architectural gems should not be seen as a "Jewish issue," but of world heritage itself, says Mark Weber, of the New York-based World Monuments Fund, which is helping restore the elaborate synagogue in Subotica, Serbia.

"Tangible heritage left behind," Mr. Weber says, "is an artifact that helps tell each culture's story, with its own lessons to teach us."
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