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Ruth Ellen Gruber
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From Rychwal to Belzec

In Poland, a renewal of memory, an attempt to get it right

WorldPublished: 04 July 2014

BELZEC, Poland — Two very different events I attended, hundreds of miles apart, demonstrated the wide range of ways in which the memory of Jews and the Holocaust are commemorated in Poland.

One was a simple grassroots ceremony to dedicate a monument at the site of the destroyed Jewish cemetery in a small town called Rychwal, in central Poland.

The other was a high-level international event marking the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the vast memorial at the site of the Nazi death camp at Belzec, on the Ukrainian border in southeast Poland, where about 500,000 Jews were murdered.


Man with a mission

Italian pianist revives music created in concentration camps

MusicPublished: 04 October 2012

TRANI, Italy – Francesco Lotoro resurrects the music of the dead.

Since 1991 the Italian pianist has traveled the globe to seek out and bring to light symphonies, songs, sonatas, operas, lullabies, and even jazz riffs that were composed and often performed in Nazi-era concentration camps.

“This music is part of the cultural heritage of humanity,” Lotoro, 48, told an interviewer after a concert in Trani, a port town in southern Italy, that featured surprisingly lively cabaret songs composed in Westerbork in the Netherlands and in Terezin (Theresienstadt) near Prague.


Italy in transition

As new era begins, an uptick in anti-Semitism

WorldPublished: 02 December 2011

ROME – Crowds on the streets of Rome jeered and cheered late last month when their long-serving, scandal-plagued prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, stepped down. A choir even sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in front of the presidential palace as he handed in his resignation.

Italy’s Jews do not expect Berlusconi’s ouster to have specific repercussions on their community, or on Rome’s close relations with Israel. Indeed for many, these questions are largely secondary to deep-seated concerns over the general impact of the government shake-up as Italy struggles to regain financial footing and restore a tarnished international image.

“Will something change in respect to the Jews?” asked Laura Quercioli Mincer, a Jewish intellectual and university professor. “I didn’t even ask myself this.”


Europe’s Jewish revival

Is Jewish life in Hungary and Poland sustainable?

Cover Story Published: 07 October 2011

BUDAPEST, Hungary — It is not easy to decipher the complicated trajectory of Jewish life in post-communist Europe.

“There are claims and counterclaims about contemporary European Jewish life,” said Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of London’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR). “At one end of the spectrum there are reports of a remarkable renaissance of activity; at the other, there is a strong narrative of decline.”

Boyd’s institute recently published a pair of reports written by local researchers in Hungary and Poland that offer a more nuanced view. The reports looked at the development of Jewish life in these two countries since the collapse of communism and examined the challenges their Jewish communities face going forward.


‘Were there Jews here?’

In Slovakia, strategizing about preserving Jewish past

WorldPublished: 02 September 2011

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia—In 1989, on the eve of the fall of Communism, the American poet Jerome Rothenberg published a powerful series of poems called “Khurbn” that dealt with the impact of the Holocaust on Eastern Europe.

In one section, he recorded conversations he had had in Poland with local people who had little recollection of the flourishing pre-war Jewish presence.

“Were there once Jews here?” the poem goes. “Yes, they told us, yes they were sure there were, though there was no one here who could remember. What was a Jew like? they asked.


At Maccabi Games in Vienna, symbolism — and girls

WorldPublished: 15 July 2011

VIENNA, Austria - The symbolism was unmistakable.

Four thousand Jews stood just a few hundred yards away from the spot where a quarter-million Austrians cheered Adolf Hitler in March 1938 as he announced Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria.

This time, however, the Jews had come to celebrate, as athletes from around the world gathered July 6 for the lavish opening ceremony of the 13th European Maccabi Games.

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At Maccabi Games in Vienna, symbolism — and girls

For native Austrians, a symbolic swim ‘to show the Nazis’

WorldPublished: 15 July 2011

VIENNA, Austria - John Benfield didn’t return to his native Austria to win medals.

“I’m not a competitive swimmer,” said Benfield, 80, of Los Angeles. “But when I heard that the European Maccabi Games were being held in Vienna, I knew it was something I needed to do.”

Sitting next to him on a sofa off the lobby of the Austrian capital’s elegant Hotel Imperial, Benfield’s lifelong friend Arthur Figur, also 80, nodded in agreement. “It’s a symbolic return to a country that could have annihilated me if I hadn’t escaped,” said Figur, of New Rochelle, N.Y.

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Landmark study provides snapshot of new Jewish identity in Central Europe

WorldPublished: 01 June 2011

BUDAPEST, Hungary – A generation after the fall of communism, Jews in Central Europe feel comfortable where they live but are concerned about anti-Semitism.

They like to visit Israel but don’t want to move there. And they feel that they don’t have to be religious to be a “good Jew.”

These are some of the findings in Identity a la Carte, a landmark study of post-Communist Jewish identity, affiliation and participation released Monday.

“The most important feature for the post-Communist generation is that Judaism is no longer experienced as a stigma that needs to be concealed,” said Marcelo Dimentstein, operations director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s International Center for Community Development, which commissioned the study.

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Egypt uprising carries echoes of Poland’s Solidarity movement 30 years ago

WorldPublished: 18 February 2011

The day after Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a widespread public uprising, I found myself presenting a lecture about Solidarity, the mass trade union movement that convulsed Poland 30 years ago and paved the way for the collapse of the Iron Curtain a decade later.

It also helped land me in jail in 1983, eventually resulting in my expulsion from Poland.

I had covered Solidarity — Solidarnosc in Polish — as a correspondent for United Press International, and my lecture came at the opening of an exhibition at Yale University about the dramatic strikes and public protests that gave birth to the movement in August 1980.

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Cantors sing in Rome

WorldPublished: 26 November 2010

Can Jewish sacred music sung in a Roman Catholic basilica help relations between Christians and Jews?

For the Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors, the answer is a resounding yes.

Twenty Reform cantors from across the United States traveled to Rome this month for just that purpose, performing a unique concert of Jewish prayers and sacred texts at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a cavernous church adapted by Michelangelo from the ancient Baths of Diocletian. Among them was Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro of Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia.

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