Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Negative Space" and the Synagogues of Eastern Europe

Recently I gave a talk in conjunction with a show of artwork by Andrea Strongwater at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery. Andrea is a NY artist who is focusing on the lost synagogues of Europe ( . She has created a series of paintings based on black and white photographs. Her vibrantly colored paintings bring these synagogues back to life. The narrative that accompanies each painting is like a drumbeat with the relentless repetition of the Nazis setting fire to synagogues across many cities in Europe. Before they murdered the Jewish people they sought to rip the heart out of the community as a synagogue is far more than just a building. Countless buildings were destroyed, many dating back many centuries.

I was asked to share some comments based on my travels in Eastern Europe and thought I’d share some of my comments within this blog.
During my travels in Eastern Europe I was struck with the sense of “negative space”. Negative space is an artistic concept. You may have seen the image of two silhouettes of faces facing each other. First you see the faces, but if you look at the area between them you see a vase or a goblet created by the edges of the face. Negative space is what you see in the absence. In Eastern Europe there is a great deal of negative space. Synagogues together with whole communities of people have been destroyed. Former synagogues have been re-purposed into other functions, but seldom is there any mention of what they once were. Similarly many people have no knowledge of the significant presence within their city that was once filled by the Jewish community.
The synagogues in Eastern Europe fall within three categories. There are those which are still functioning as synagogues. Unfortunately that number is small as is that of the remaining Jewish community. There are those that have been re-purposed into other functions and there are those that are in negative space. They exist no longer, destroyed by the Nazis in flames. Often they required the Jews to pay for the removal of the debris.

In Latvia there is one synagogue that remains. The major synagogue was destroyed in flames with 300 Jews locked inside. Today there is a memorial on the site of that synagogue which appears to be in the footprint of the synagogue. A red and white cracked floor has grass growing through it. One cannot stand in that space without thinking of those 300 Jews and wondering if the floor cracked from fire.
The synagogue which survived exists only because the local priests went to the Nazis and protested that burning the synagogue would also destroy the church and the neighboring buildings, too much collateral damage. Today a van sits in front of the synagogue up on blocks. Two policemen guard the synagogue 24/7 as there was a bombing some years ago. While I was there the synagogue was being refurbished and there is now a youtube video which shows the interior in its refurbished state.
In Vilnius the great synagogue survived the war, but was badly damaged. It was torn down by the Soviets after the war. It was located on Zydu Street (Jew Street) and in 1938 was celebrating its 500 year anniversary. When they built the synagogue they were not permitted to build it taller than any church so they dug down to get the required height. Its doors were armored so it could serve as a place of safety for Jews during times of pograms although as we saw in Latvia, the synagogue was not always a place of safety.

While I was in Vilnius I visited with the owner of a local restaurant which sits in front of the area where the synagogue once stood. She noted that when they renovated they discovered a tunnel under their restaurant which ran across the street and out the ghetto gates, so presumably there was an escape route from the synagogue. Today a building stands on the site of the old synagogue and interestingly its windows are filled with photographs of sections of the old synagogue.
Once there were over 100 synagogues in Vilnius with 30 in the small ghetto alone. They were organized by guild so there was a dressmakers’ synagogue, a shoemakers’ synagogue. The synagogue which survived in Vilnius survived because the Nazis took over the Jewish hospital across the street and used the synagogue for storage. After the war many Jews came back from Russia. They had gone there out of fear that their daughters would be conscripted into forced labor. Little could they have imagined. After the war they gathered at the synagogue to see who had survived. Under the Soviets they had a matzo bakery and a kosher butcher secretly housed in the synagogue as they were not permitted to have either. Today you can still see the matzo making machinery off of the women’s balcony.

In Kaunas you will find the second remaining synagogue in Lithuania. It survived because the Nazis used it for storage of the clothing they took from the Jews before they murdered them. There was a thriving business in used clothing in those days.
There is also a synagogue in Kaunas which has been turned into an autobody shop. The only giveaway that it was once a synagogue are the arched windows in the back. The middle window is bricked in as that was where the Torah ark was located.

In Mariampole there is a repurposed synagogue with a sculptural detail of the ten commandments at the top of the structure.

 In Siauliau there is a building which I found interesting and took a photo of it only to learn later that it was the former synagogue. A wide plank way enters the building crossing over a waterless moat. A religious statue caught my eye through the window. It now serves as a church.
Next door stands the Chaim Frenkel house. Chaim Frenkel owned the tannery business and the shoe factory. He built many of the important Jewish buildings including the hospital and the synagogue. As an orthodox Jew who walked to the synagogue, he made sure to build it conveniently next door. The building has the double arched windows that resemble the Ten Commandments and are found on many Jewish buildings.

I have an upcoming trip to Budapest-Warsaw-Krakow and Prague and anticipate that I will encounter many more synagogues, past and present, so more to come. I’ve been deeply engaged in a wonderful book called The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe by Eli Valley. The book addresses the four cities I’ve noted above and shares much of the history and legends from the Jewish communities as well as the synagogues that once stood and those that remain.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Buried Truths

My trip planning progresses with most of my hotels booked and transportation in Eastern Europe yet to be determined. In the process of planning this trip, I've connected with a 15 year old girl who lives in Radom. She had reached out to people through the Family Finder on as she was writing a paper on the Jews of Radom. I shared some information with her and advised her that I was planning a trip to that area. She has kindly invited us to come to their home for dinner. That should add an interesting personal experience to our travels.

I returned to the studio yesterday where I finished a painting that has been challenging, but which I am pleased with now. It is called "Buried Truths" and is based on an image derived from the book " Diary 1941-43 by the journalist Kazimierz Sakowicz. Sakowicz lived near the forest where he witnessed and documented the murders of the Jews of Vilnius. Each day he buried what he wrote in a jar in the forest. In his book he writes of how local Lithuanians performed the murders. After the war these pages began to surface in archives until Dr. Rachel Margolis got access to them and was able to piece them together for the first publishing in Polish. The publication of the book was edited by Yitzhak Arad, Yad Vashem Chairman emeritus. Interestingly the Lithuanian government filed charges against Arad for "war crimes" against Lithuanians and sought Dr. Margolis for questioning. Obviously not too comfortable with what these pages told. Hence the title "Buried Truths".

I found the image of bottles buried in the forest to be an interesting one, but found it challenging to paint. There are no reflections on bottles that are underground so I had to figure out how to suggest bottles and build a sense of layering that conveyed something hidden. I wanted a few bottles near the top to be sprouting pages as if they were plants. I relied on medium to build up the form of the bottles and to create layering. I find that I am departing from my more figurative work to work more semi-abstractly out of my imagination.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Artwork Site and Travels to Radom

This week I’ve put together some web pages to share the artwork I’ve completed on my Lithuanian travel. Completed is a relative term. Some reworking may yet occur. You can find it at or click on Lithuanian artwork on the links to the right. Some of that artwork has already been shared in this blog, but these pages gather it all together along with some discussion of what I was trying to capture.

I’ve also been deep into trip planning as I will be traveling back to Eastern Europe in early summer together with my husband. Our travels will take us to Budapest, Warsaw, Radom (the town my grandfather came from), Cracow and Prague. I’ve gotten to know Radom quite well in putting together the Shtetlink site, but felt it was time to visit the town and do some research in the archives. I have no idea how I will respond to being there. Of all the places in Eastern Europe from which my family came, this is the city which is closest to the Holocaust for me personally. I have a list of at least 50 family members who died, many as close as second cousins. They all have names, ages and family histories that make them real. My grandfather immigrated to the US in the early 1900s, but everyone else remained in Poland only to perish in the Holocaust. Based on my experience in Lithuania, I know how intense this type of visit can be so sought to mitigate it with travels to other areas where I don’t have a personal connection.

I do my own trip planning and it involves considerable research that may prove helpful to others planning similar travels. The hardest part is figuring out the itinerary. I briefly considered going to both Radom , Poland and Kamenetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine where the rest of my family came from. Ultimately I decided that I needed to focus on one region at a time. Preparing to do research is even more time consuming than planning a trip and I want to make sure I allow sufficient time and focus to do it justice.

I’ve been fortunate in that a friend who had traveled to Radom advised me on how he would put a trip together in hindsight. Our travels will begin with five days in Budapest, then on to Warsaw by train. We will rent a car in Poland and travel from Warsaw to Radom where I will go to the archives to do research and put in an order. While they gather the information that I will request, we will head down to Krakow for several days. From there we will visit Auschwitz, a visit I feel I must make, but also dread. We then come back to Radom for a few days to gather the information from the archives. My friend suggested I leave enough time to make any additional requests that might be spurred by the information that the archives provide. Also while in Radom, we may do a side trip to Majdanek, a well preserved concentration camp that the Nazis didn’t have time to destroy. From there we head back to Warsaw for a few days and then on to Prague for six days. All total a trip of three weeks.

While in Radom I plan to visit both archives, the Polish State Archives (PSA) has information older than 100 years ago and the civil registration office (USC) which has the records from the last 100 years. I’ve been told that for the USC, I need to document my relationship to the people for whom I am requesting information. Not much clarity on how to do that, but I should be able to put a chain of birth and death certificates together that will take me as far back as the 1700s on one side of the family. I have ordered many records from the PSA and anticipate sending them an e-mail advising them of my arrival and what I hope to see while there.

I am especially interested in records that they have of identity papers that were required by the Nazis in 1941, the year before they murdered the Jews. Identity papers frequently have photos attached, often the only family photos that people have. I have gotten some identity papers in the past from the PSA although it seems those should be at the USC as they are more recent.

Understanding what information is where will be one of my challenges and I’ve been told that what I find in one archive may send me looking for information at the other. My other challenge will be language. I do not speak any Polish and based on my one phone call there, English speakers are a scarce commodity. They do accept e-mails in English, but respond in Polish, so I assume there are some English speakers. My friend who traveled there was able to manage without the language skills and found people who spoke English or enough that he could be understood.

The records present yet another language challenge, but one I’ve been able to contend with successfully in the past. Written Polish is somewhat decipherable in official records, but the Russian records remain challenging despite a few courses in Russian. I’ll need to brush up on my Russian before I leave as records from the 1860s through World War I are in Russian.

I am also interested in a file that sounds as if it has name changes for the Jews who first took last names around 1822/23. Prior to that time Jews had patronymics, the father’s last name with an ending added to it. It is possible that I can find the fathers’ names for my great-great-great grandparents David and Sura.

I’ve been watching the recent TV series on Who Do You Think You Are and thinking how much easier it is when you have a crew of genealogists doing your legwork. At the same time I am often glad that I’ve never found that a family member has already documented our family tree. Instead they left to me the wonderful opportunity to discover my family through my own efforts. Those efforts imbue the discoveries with much greater satisfaction than if someone had handed me the information. The search is itself a great gift for a mind that loves to solve puzzles.