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The East: Neglect Threatens Historic Jewish Sites

  • Lindsay Percival-Straunik

Prague, 12 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The rich Jewish cultural and architectural heritage in Central and Eastern Europe has faced countless threats down the centuries. Today, the perils are more likely to be neglect or environmental damage than deliberate destruction.

From Berlin to Budapest, many synagogues have been restored to their former glory over the past decade. Celebrations of the life and death of Jewish communities have been held, cemeteries reconsecrated and monuments erected.

But, in many areas, the diverse cultural and artistic legacy of the Jewish people remains under threat.

The destruction of World War II and the hostility of Communist governments to religion have taken their toll, and many other important Jewish sites still lie abandoned and decaying.

The U.S.-based International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM) is one of several organizations that has been working to document and preserve Jewish sites in the region since the collapse of Communism.

Sam Gruber, ISJM's acting president, told RFE/RL that often it is the memory of a nation decimated by the Holocaust that needs to be preserved rather than a functioning religious building or site.

"It does not make sense to preserve most synagogues as synagogues if there is no one left to pray in them," says Gruber.

But, he argues, besides historical reasons for art's sake, preservation is still important. The preservation of cemeteries is called for under Jewish law.

Inevitably, says Gruber, the work is not without problems given the difficult history of the Jewish people.

Open hostility between preservation activists, who are often survivors of the Holocaust or children of survivors, and members of the local community is common. Confrontations arise and anti-Semitic prejudice is rekindled.

But, Gruber says, there are also many examples of successful cooperation

He cites the efforts to restore the Tempel synagogue in Poland, the only nineteenth century synagogue to have survived virtually intact in the country.

A magnificent building located on the edge of Cracow's historic Kazimierz district, it combines elements of the Romanesque, Neo-Classical Gothic Revival and Neo-Renaissance styles.

At the invitation of Cracow's Jewish Community, which owns the building, the World Monuments Fund (WMF), a non-profit organization based in New York, began restoration work in 1994. Funds are now needed to repair the interior.

When finished the Tempel will continue to serve as a synagogue for local and visiting Jews. It is one of severaral sites on the WMF's list of Endangered Historic Jewish Sites. Others include the Subotica synagogue in Vojvodina, Serbia, one of the finest Jugendstil buildings in the Balkans. It was built in 1902 by the two Hungarian architects Komor and Iacob.

The Jewish community sold the synagogue to the municipality in the early 1980's. It was briefly used as a theater. The onset of war halted restoration work begun by the Yugoslav government. Now funding is needed to complete the job.

In Belarus, a Baroque synagogue in the town of Slonim is also listed for immediate attention by the WMF, which began its international Jewish Heritage Program in 1988.

Built in 1642, it was one of the grandest synagogues in the country. Although dilapidated and now used as a warehouse, it is still the best preserved synagogue of its kind in Belarus. The government has expressed interest in restoring it.

Another organization active in the field is the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad. It was set up in 1985 by Congress in response to growing concerns about the deterioration and destruction of cultural sites in Eastern and Central Europe of importance to U.S. citizens.

It comprises 21 commissioners appointed by the President of the United States and responds to problems reported directly to them by U.S. citizens or by members of Congress on behalf of constituents.

Problems listed by the Commission include:

Actions by governments or individuals to limit access to Jewish sites.

Damage caused by refuse dumping.

Vandalism and misuse.

Today, the Commission has agreements with six countries in Eastern and Central Europe for the preservation of historic sites.

The first accords were signed in 1992 with the Czech and Slovak Republics. Subsequent agreements have been signed with Romania, Ukraine, Poland and Slovenia.

Among other projects, the Commission has helped restore an old Jewish cemetery discovered at Babi-Yar in Ukraine near the site where 200,000 Jews, Ukrainians and others were massacred by the nazis during World War II. The Commission also sponsored a 50th anniversary memorial service in New York for those who died there.

In Nova Mesta, in the Slovak Republic, the Commission was able to halt the destruction by local authorities of a cemetery important to U.S. citizens who trace their cultural heritage to the area.

The matter was brought to the attention of Slovak President Michal Kovac. Representatives of his office and U.S. Embassy officials traveled to Nova Mesta and the problem was resolved.

Gruber says that the willful destruction of Jewish sites in Central and Eastern Europe is still a cause for concern. In addition to harmful actions taken by local authorities, arson attacks on synagogues and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries have taken place across the region in recent years.

But, says Gruber, such problems are often exaggerated. He points out that such attacks are not confined to the region and also affect other ethnic communities as well.

Where preservation is concerned it is clear that not every Jewish site can be saved. Instead, Gruber says, the aim of most groups and individuals is to preserve a representative sample of the region's great Jewish artistic and cultural wealth for future generations to enjoy.

(This is the last in a series of four articles about historic preservation in Central and Eastern Europe and the former USSR. See Saving The East's Architectural Heritage.)