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Ruth Ellen Gruber
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Startup continent: European Jewry

WorldPublished: 12 November 2010

ROME – When I was in the United States recently, I gave a series of talks on contemporary Jewish life in Europe. One of my aims was to shed light on some of the creative new initiatives that are shaping the Jewish experience here, often against considerable odds and expectations.

“My eyes were opened to a Jewish world I had no idea existed,” one woman told me.

Having written about the Jewish experience in Europe for many years, I sometimes forget how surprised people can be by developments that by now I take for granted.


Introducing non-Jewish Europeans to Jewish life

WorldPublished: 03 September 2010

PITIGLIANO, Italy – In Italy, where there are only about 25,000 affiliated Jews in a population of 60 million, most Italians have never knowingly met a Jew.

“It’s unfortunate,” said the Italian Jewish activist Sira Fatucci, “but in Italy Jews and the Jewish experience are often mostly known through the Holocaust.”

Fatucci is the national coordinator in Italy for the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, an annual transborder celebration of Jewish traditions and creativity that takes place in more than 20 countries on the continent on the first Sunday of September — this year, Sept. 5.


Reaction to tragedy showcases changes in Polish-Jewish relations

WorldPublished: 23 April 2010

ROME – The Jewish reaction to the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other senior Polish officials in an air tragedy highlights a remarkable change in how the Jewish world views Poland.

The prayers, public statements, and personal tributes, including a special remembrance during the March of the Living, were normal expressions of grief and solidarity for a close friend and ally — in short, heartfelt sentiments that probably could not have been made 20 or even 15 years ago.

Poland looms large in the collective Jewish consciousness. Huge numbers of North American Jews trace their ancestry to Poland, and before World War II Poland was Europe’s Jewish heartland. Some 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust.


Nazi past haunts Austria

WorldPublished: 23 April 2010

ROME – Austrians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote for president after a volatile campaign that focused in part on right-wing extremism and raised the ghosts of Austria’s Nazi past.

Incumbent President Heinz Fischer, a Social Democrat, is expected to win a landslide victory over his main rival, Barbara Rosenkranz, a regional leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which once was led by the late Joerg Haider.

Two weeks ahead of the election, two public opinion polls showed Fischer, 71, with more than 80 percent of voter support, compared to 12 to 14 percent for Rosenkranz and 4 to 6 percent for Rudolf Gehring of the small Austrian Christian Party.


Rise of conservative right alarming Hungary’s Jews

WorldPublished: 02 April 2010

PRAGUE – The radical far-right Jobbik party is poised to emerge in this month’s elections in Hungary as a potent force in Parliament, and the prospect is ringing alarm bells in Central Europe’s largest Jewish community.

“It’s scary,” said Vera Szekeres-Varsa, a Holocaust survivor and former chair of the Hungarian branch of Amnesty International. “It’s not like 60 or 70 years ago, but it’s still scary.”


iMussolini app flap restirs debate on Il Duce’s legacy

WorldPublished: 26 February 2010

ROME – Over the past few days I’ve been watching online videos of “Il Duce,” Italy’s World War II fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

There are hundreds on YouTube, and some of the clips have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Most are taken from the fascist-era newsreels that were part of Mussolini’s powerful propaganda machine. They show military parades and motorcades, or Il Duce, with his jackboots and jutting chin, orating before enormous adoring crowds. Quite a few are pro-fascist tributes posted by admirers who even today regard Mussolini as their ideological guide.

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Pope seeks to mend ties in synagogue visit

WorldPublished: 22 January 2010

ROME – When Pope Benedict XVI visited this city’s main synagogue, sparring between the pope and Jewish leaders over Pope Pius XII’s role in the Holocaust grabbed headlines.

But the emotion-charged visit Sunday held broader significance, as Jewish leaders and the German-born pontiff sought to mend strained relations and reaffirm a commitment to Christian-Jewish dialogue.

“Despite a dramatic history, the unresolved problems, and the misunderstandings, it is our shared visions and common goals that should be given pride of place,” said Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, speaking to packed sanctuary from in front of the ornate ark. “The image of respect and friendship that emanates from this encounter must be an example for all those who are watching.”

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Evolution of International Holocaust Day reflects changing times

WorldPublished: 22 January 2010

ROME – On the same day next week, Israeli President Shimon Peres will address the German Parliament and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel will appear before a special session of the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome.

The timing is not coincidental.

The events are focal points of international Holocaust Memorial Day, an annual observance on the anniversary of the Soviet army’s Jan. 27, 1945, liberation of Auschwitz, which is marked by the United Nations and more than two dozen individual countries.

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Benedict practices delicate dance

WorldPublished: 08 January 2010

ROME – For at least the third time in his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI is doing the Jewish dance that takes him one step back, one step forward.

The step back came when Benedict made a move in mid-December to bring Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII a bit closer to sainthood. The step forward — the penitence, some might say — will come in mid-January, when Benedict visits Rome’s main synagogue.

The question is whether this bid to smooth over Catholic-Jewish relations will work.

“It is an important event, a milestone in the dialogue,” Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, told Vatican Radio about the planned synagogue visit. “We have great expectations for what it can mean in terms of the general climate.”

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Swiss minaret ban recalls synagogue bans of past eras

WorldPublished: 18 December 2009

VILNIUS, Lithuania – A week after the Swiss referendum banning the construction of new mosque minarets in Switzerland, I flew to Vilnius, Lithuania, for a seminar that focused on the destruction of Jewish heritage in Lithuania during the Holocaust.

The timing was coincidental. And I realize that the Swiss voters who overwhelmingly approved the minaret ban were responding to scare tactics that raised the specter of an extremist Islamic takeover in their country.

Yet in a certain way, the Swiss vote Nov. 29 and the Lithuanian seminar were connected.

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