Back on the map

A guide to Jewish Eastern Europe takes travelers outside the big cities and into the villages.

jewish heritage book 88  (photo credit: )
jewish heritage book 88
(photo credit: )
Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe By Ruth Ellen Gruber National Geographic 352 pages; $18.95 Traveling around Eastern Europe with her brother in the late 1980s, Ruth Ellen Gruber found dozens of synagogues and hundreds of Jewish cemeteries, "and no one knew about these places," she says in a telephone interview from her home in central Italy. "Each one of these remaining places was like a memorial to the Holocaust. In Jewish homes there is a mezuza, and in many places I could see scratches on doorposts where mezuzot used to be." In Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, an updated version of Gruber's 1992/1994 Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe, she details hundreds of Jewish heritage sites in 14 Eastern European countries. "I wrote the book because I was angry. You would go to any town and look in a guidebook. They'd point out the 19th-century castle or the 17th-century cathedral, but an 18th-century synagogue would not be written about. I was angry that Jewish heritage was ignored and I wanted to put these subjects back on the map," she says. While the majority of people associate Eastern Europe's Jewish past strictly with the Holocaust, Gruber wanted to change this narrow viewpoint. "[Eastern Europe] shouldn't be defined only as death, rather also as the life that the Jews lived there hundreds of years before and are now trying to rebuild," she says. "Each synagogue, cemetery and old Jewish town was like a memorial to places where Jews used to live and where they created a rich culture for many years before the Holocaust. They are reminders of the past that shouldn't be forgotten." Ever since the the end of communism, Jewish heritage has become a subject researched by both Jews and non-Jews. Extensive inventories of most of the sites have been made and Jewish heritage tourism has become "a rich market," says Gruber. "Eastern Europe is the historic Jewish heartland, where most Jews trace their ancestry and the place where the Holocaust destroyed everything," Gruber explains. She describes how sections of old Jewish towns and synagogues have been restored. When asked about the exquisite synagogue that is displayed on the cover of the book, Gruber points it out as the main synagogue in Budapest and an example of restoration. Over the past few years, various guidebooks have been published about the different countries. Yet, Jewish Heritage Travel "is the only one like it published outside of the local countries," says Gruber. "It deals with so many countries all together and takes a regional look at Jewish heritage." While other Jewish heritage guidebooks tend to focus on the big cities, Jewish Heritage Travel takes the traveler into the small and often unknown villages. The book covers sites in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bulgaria. The book begins with an explanation and description of different types of sites that will be covered as well as some general tips for travelers. It then provides some history on Jewish heritage in each country, tips on visiting, a brief review of each site mentioned (categorized according to city) and contact information in the countries along with additional resources in order that the reader can find out more on his or her own. While visiting every place mentioned in the book could take many months, Gruber explains that the places are just a sample of what is out there. "I only skimmed the surface," she says. "I wanted to give a representative sample of what is actually there. People have to explore on their own, as well, and I gave them some resources to do this." When asked what her personal favorite sites are out of the many hundreds mentioned in the book, Gruber has a hard time deciding. "I would say that my favorite places probably are the Jewish cemeteries and painted synagogues in northern Romania. Also the massive synagogues in ruins and extraordinarily sculpted cemeteries in Ukraine. I like all of the little villages." Gruber has authored two additional books, Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today (John Wiley & Sons, 1994) and Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe (University of California Press, 2002). Her writings and articles have also appeared in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Today she writes for a number of publications on a freelance basis, is a consultant for the Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation ( and serves as senior European correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. While Gruber's first Jewish heritage travel book was published by John Wiley & Sons, her new book was published by National Geographic. "The fact that National Geographic published [a book like this] shows how important Jewish heritage is," she says.