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Jewish Heritage Travel and Travel Writing in Eastern Europe - Dissertation Sample

07 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

Travel has been an important part of Jewish life since ancient times. Israelites would make pilgrimages to the Temple in Ancient Jerusalem; following the destruction of the Second Temple, visiting Jerusalem or living out ones last day there remained an important aspiration of pious Jews and in the Diaspora other venues such as the graves of Hasidic rebeyim or of the zaddikim among Moroccan Jews have been destinations of devotional travel before Eastern Europe has been accessible. In modern times, travel remains an important part of Jewish life.

In particular, since the fall of communism and the access to the former Eastern bloc countries that has been available since the early 1990s, Eastern Europe has become a popular destination. With a long history of Jewish community, its links to the Holocaust and the effects of communism on society to discover, Eastern Europe has quickly become a prime location for Jewish heritage travel. This dissertation examines Jewish heritage travel in Eastern Europe, why people undertake trips based on Jewish heritage and the travel writing genres that accompanies this type of travel. 

Chapter two attempts to define what Jewish heritage travel actually is and the different forms that it takes. At its most basic level, heritage travel may be undertaking basic walking tours around the old Jewish quarters of Eastern European cities such as Prague or Budapest. There are also forms of heritage travel that delve much deeper than this however – some Jewish travellers are on journeys to discover about their ancestors or their roots, others on journeys to discover more about the Holocaust, whilst for some the fall of communism and the freedom to travel in the region is as important as the Jewish heritage aspect of travel. The concept of ‘virtual Jewishness is also examined in this chapter. The phrase, coined by Ruth Ellen Gruber, is a term used to describe the interest in simply the tourist venues and depiction of previous Jewish communities in the like of Poland and the Czech Republic, as opposed to an actual interest in or understanding of Jewish life in these countries today. Jewish heritage travel will often be undertaken by non-Jews that identify with Jewish culture –  Gruber examines this in her study of virtual Jewishness.

Chapter three examines the genre of Jewish travel writing in the context of Eastern Europe. There is now a wide range of literature on the subject with a variety of perspectives. Whilst Gruber is acknowledged as one of the world’s authorities on areas of Jewish interest in Eastern Europe, a number of other writers have produced books detailing their own personal experiences travelling across Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. A number of these books delve a good deal deeper into Jewish heritage than simply listing sites of interest and describing synagogues and cemeteries.

Writers such as Anna Reid, Anne Applebaum and Eva Hoffman have undertaken serious analyses of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and their own journeys in writing these books are an example of searching form of heritage travel. The personal accounts written since the early 1990s tend to concentrate on the oppressive regimes under communism and how all aspects of life, not just Jewish life, were affected. This chapter also looks at some of the personal travelogues posted on the Internet – the views of the amateur can sometimes be as revealing as those of the professional travel writer. Again, many of these accounts detail journeys in which non-European Jews are travelling across the continent in a search for their own roots.

Chapter four looks at how Eastern Europe itself has addressed the relative explosion of Jewish heritage travel to the region. Are the people of Eastern Europe merely interested in the tourist dollar or are they expanding the range of Jewish culture available due to a genuine concern for the future of Jewish culture in Europe? Is there a common bond between the people of Eastern Europe, oppressed for so long under communism and those of the Jewish faith who throughout the ages have often been seen as an oppressed race? This chapter looks at some of the Jewish cultural attractions that have sprung up in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and attempts to assess the motives for them.
Chapter Five provides a conclusion to the dissertation.

Chapter Two – What is Jewish Heritage Travel?

Jewish heritage travel to Eastern Europe can be undertaken at a number of different levels. The most basic form of this travel is that which takes a traveller to a new and interesting part of the world that has an element of Jewish history and culture that can be included in the trip. It is a form of travel that can be undertaken by both Jews and non-Jews. Jewish heritage travel is increasingly popular – as Gruber states: “Jewish theme tourism, meanwhile, has become a well-established niche in the vast tourist market, promoted on the private level, and also strongly backed by the state, city or regional authorities.” 

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this type of travel but, as we shall examine, it can lead to a more commercialised, even tacky presentation of Jewish life and one that brings little real benefit to the Jewish communities around which is based. For many travellers, an understanding of the holocaust is an important part of travel to Eastern Europe – both Jews making pilgrimages to holocaust sites and European non-Jews trying to make sense of events just over half a century ago. The are numerous sites of interest across Eastern Europe, from the ghettos in the large cities and the places of mass deportation, to the concentration camps and the gas chambers themselves. It is important to understand that Jewish heritage travel is not solely experienced by Jews; it can also be driven by the intellectual, spiritual, social and political agendas of European non-Jews who are discovering their own past and that of their ancestors.   

There is also a more intellectual type of Jewish heritage travel as encouraged by the likes of travel writer Ruth Ellen Gruber that looks at not simply encouraging the more commercialised type of Jewish themed tourism but “literally, at putting synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, old ghettos and former Jewish quarters, long ignored or forgotten back on the map – at ‘filling in the blanks’ and thus reintegrating Jewish history and memory into contemporary mind-sets.”  There is certainly a danger that heritage tourism can reduce the small Jewish communities of Eastern Europe to little more than a side-show as local tourist boards and businesses rake in the profits from portrayal of Jewish life in the past. It is important, as Gruber argues, that the interest in Jewish culture is used also to breathe back life into ailing Jewish communities. 

Finally, there is a more personalise type of heritage travel, often taken alone or in small groups to the less popular parts of Eastern Europe by travellers making journeys to see where there ancestors came from and to rediscover, or indeed discover, their Jewish roots. The journeys taken by writers such as Applebaum, Reid and Hoffman, covered in chapter three are examples of this. 

One thing that is certain is that that there is a demand and a growing market to satisfy the demand for Jewish heritage travel. As Gave Levenson, travel writer for the New York Jewish Week wrote as early as 1990 “Berlin walls fall, iron curtains rise and suddenly the vast expanses of Eastern Europe are open to view for increasing numbers of travellers eager to explore its riches and/or to investigate their own specific roots in the area. Tour operators are developing programmes to satisfy a pent-up hunger for general information, and others are creating itineraries whose very particularity makes them exciting and newsworthy” 

Over the past decade and a half, Europe has seen a massive growth in interest in Jewishness as a whole, whereby anything to do with Judaism, Jews, Jewish culture, the Holocaust and Israel has increasingly been recognised as part of national history and culture and embraced by mainstream culture. As a result of this, Jewish culture, or what non-Jews believe to be Jewish culture has become a visible and popular cultural attraction in countries where Jews themselves are so small in numbers as to be invisible. Jewish heritage travel is closely associated with this often-false portrayal of Jewish culture.

Heritage travel itself has been the focus of academic study in recent years and some of the definitions given can be useful in assessing why do people undertake Jewish heritage travel. A recent definition by Poria et al looked at the motivations of the tourists and stated: “heritage tourism is a phenomenon based on tourist’ motivations and perceptions rather than on specific site attributes…heritage tourism is a subgroup of tourism, in which the main motivation for visiting a site is based on the place’s heritage characteristics according to the tourists’ perception of their own heritage.” 

Another approach, perhaps more applicable to the Jewish heritage tourism in Eastern Europe is that heritage tourism is a type of tourism that allows opportunity to display the past in the present. Sigala and Leslie also attempt to define what is that people actually get out of heritage travel. Whilst heritage tourists may spend time, money and other resources on a trip to heritage sites, there is rarely a tangible return on their investment. What they do receive is an experience that provides mainly psychological benefits.  From the viewpoint of the tourist venue hosting the visitors, a positive experience is also an important factor: “happy and satisfied customers are more likely to return, and more likely to say positive things about the service they have experienced.” 

A quick glance on the Internet reveals the growing availability of Jewish heritage tours, catering for different types of travellers. advertises kosher cuisine and personal service on guided tours of Eastern Europe, offers a wide range of trips to sites of Jewish heritage more general websites such as offers information on Kosher restaurants, Jewish communities and cultural information of interest to Jewish visitors to Eastern Europe.

The national tourist offices in Eastern European countries have also begun to advertise specialised Jewish heritage tours in their advertisements and on websites. For example offers a 10 day heritage tour of the country offering a wide ranger of escorted trips to heritage sites including: a tour of the historic ghetto area; visits to the Korczak Orphanage, the Janusz Korczak Memorial, the Noszyk Synagogue and the memorial to the Heroes of the Ghetto; a visit to the Umschlagplatz, site of the deportation of the Jewish Community to Treblinka; a day trip to Lodz including visits to the Lodz ghetto and the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe; a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau; a visit to Schindler’s factory; meals in Jewish restaurants with Klezmer music and; trips to Lublin, seat of the Jewish Parliament from the 16th century and the Majdanek Concentration Camp. Many of the trips organised by tour companies will be similar – standard sights to see will include old Jewish quarters in the cities, cemeteries and synagogues and invariably a trip to one of Easter Europe’s former concentration camps. They are aimed at the relatively inexperienced traveller, rather than the more adventurous visitors, determined to get off the beaten track to discover their own roots,

Similarly, tourist websites for Prague advertise walking tours around the city’s Jewish Quarter, stating “this deeply moving story embraces the traditions, customs and legends of the Jewish people in Prague from the poverty of the pogrom refugees to their glittering successes.”

The walking tour advertised here, serves as a typical example of the usual type of heritage tour, covering:

• Development of the Jewish ghetto, its synagogues, Old Cemetery and Town Hall
• Jewish communities in Prague from the earliest records in 965
• The changing status of Jews over time
• The redevelopment of the ghetto 100 years ago
• The fate of Jews over the centuries and the tragedy of the Holocaust
• Remnants of a community – Prague’s Jewish community today 

One of the most telling lines here is ‘remnants of the Jewish community’, practically an admission that the Jewish Quarter in Prague is now more of a museum and focal point for heritage tourists than location of a thriving Jewish community. 

One of the issues that has arisen from the growth in popularity of Jewish heritage travel is how true a reflection the primary tourist areas give of Jewish life and whether or not they are beneficial to the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. There is certainly some falseness in the way some aspects of Jewish life are presented. Whilst Jewish life had thrived in the great cities of Eastern Europe a little over sixty years ago, today numbers of Jews are much smaller and many of the Old Jewish quarters host klezmer festivals, Yiddish language classes and Jewish walking tours without any real involvement from the local Jewish communities.

As Gruber writes, the results can sometimes be tacky: “kiosks, shops and markets overflow with new Jewish kitsch; souvenir T-shirts and postcards sport imagery ranging from candlesticks and tombstones to caricatures of Franz Kafka. There are painted wooden carvings of hook nosed, bearded Jews for sale In Poland and Golem statuettes and side locked Jewish puppets for sale in Prague. In Krakow, a Ukrainian band at one ’Jewish-style’ café dresses up in Hasidic attire and plays Yiddish tunes for patrons sipping chicken soup and kosher vodka, while local travel agencies takes visitors on ‘Schindlers List’ and other Jewish tours” 

Gruber’s argument is that with the standard heritage travel, designed to guide inexperienced travellers comfortably through the established areas of Jewish heritage there is little being done towards the actual reinvention of Jewish community. Much of the activity in terms of Jewish culture is carried out without the Jews themselves. This scenario is not necessarily due to any particular resistance by the surviving Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, but rather due to the fact that there is a new form of Jewish culture that does not need Jews for its actual realisation. A walking tour through the old Jewish Quarter of Prague for example does not need to be conducted by Jews.  Gruber quotes Jewish scholar Amos Luzzatto on this topic: “We are building museums where there is no longer Jewish life. It seems as if we are witnessing two phenomena that are parallel but go in opposite directions: the number of museums is growing; the communities disappear”  

Gruber’s description for the developments in the Jewish centres of Eastern Europe is, as encapsulated in the title of her book, virtual Jewishness. She draws a distinction between the tourist venues and the associated interest in Jewish culture in the likes of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic and actual Jewish life in these countries. There are of course positives and negatives to the effects of heritage travel and the virtual Jewishness that it can produce. A positive effect is that fact that there is an apparent desire for Eastern Europe to at least attempt to right some of the wrongs done towards its Jewish community under fascism and communism. The fact that there is a genuine interest in Jewish culture should also be taken as a positive development. The stereotyping and commercialisation of Jewish culture may be unwelcome but the impetus behind virtual Jewishness would appear to have the right intentions at least. 

Jewish heritage travel of course is not just for Jews – many non-Jews also take part in tours of and visits to Jewish heritage sites. Gruber suggests that in these cases Jewish heritage travel is being driven by the intellectual, social and political agendas of European non-Jews who are attempting to discover both their own past and that of their ancestors.  Non- Jews also play a major role in the promotion of Jewish heritage. In Eastern Europe, non-Jews will wear Star of David’s, assume Jewish sounding names, attend synagogue, eat kosher food and send their children to Jewish schools in attempts to establish a Jewish style of identity. It is writes Gruber, a process “that in turn encompasses a ‘virtual Jewishness’, a ‘virtual Jewish world’ populated by ‘virtual Jews’ who perform – or as Bodemann put it, enact – Jewish culture from an outsider perspective, alongside of often in the absence of local Jewish populations.” 

The Holocaust is a major part of Jewish heritage travel and the sites of the ghettos in Eastern European cities along with the concentration camps across Germany and Poland are at the heart of heritage trips by Jews discovering their roots and also non-Jews who seek an understanding of what has happened in previous generations. It is obviously difficult to manage tourism to such places with sensitivity – the museums based at the concentration camps to date appear to be achieving this, but these places remain one area that much never succumb to the commercialisation that has crept into other areas of Jewish heritage travel.

The idea of humanitarian struggle and the sense that the Jewish faith somehow represents the oppressed also ties into Jewish heritage travel. Janusz Makuch, a young Polish, non-Jewish intellectual that founded Krakow’s annual festival of Jewish Culture explains this when telling of his discovery of the treatment of the Jews in his country: “It was like a discovery of Atlantis that people lived here and created their own original culture and had such a deep influence on Polish culture”  Makuch goes onto explain that he felt is his duty to attempt to resurrect the Jewish culture as a homage to the three million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust and also as testimony to the thousand year history of the Jews in Poland. 

Today’s heritage travel to Holocaust sites and memorials represents a change in the type of remembrance of the Holocaust. As survivors become older and fewer, in the same way that we see war veterans become fewer each year – there are less and less real recollection of events and a need for new types of representation for future generations. The museums and memorials found in heritage sites appear to be the best way of realising this. Again however, some heritage travel can obscure the reality of what has gone before – Schindler’s List tours in Krakow for example take tourist to sites where the events depicted actually took place and also to the places where the movie was filmed. It is as Gruber describes “a mixture of celluloid and reality, in which each is given equal weight.” This is a disturbing trend – that tourist are as interested in seeing the sites of filming rather than the scene of real and terrible events suggests that the future may hold almost a dumbing down of the Holocaust into a Hollywood event.

Jewish heritage travel is now firmly established in Eastern Europe, for better or worse. There is a danger that it can go down the road of belittling Jewish culture in the most popular venues – the emphasis though, must be with the existing Jewish communities to become involved in heritage tourism and help shape how their community and way of life is portrayed.

Chapter Three - Travel Writing on Eastern Europe

As in any genre, the style and quality of travel writing about Eastern Europe and Jewish heritage in particular is varied. Writing on the subject varies from standard format travel guides that guide would-be travellers would use to navigate them around particular sites of interest to more personalised accounts of particular journeys made to trace the author’s roots or to examine particular historical issues – the Holocaust and the effects of Communism on Eastern European Jews are most commonplace.

Ruth Ellen Gruber is one of the more prolific writers on the subject, adding detailed guides on sites of Jewish interest to her other work on virtual Jewishness and the reason behind heritage travel. Much of Gruber’s travel writing focuses on encouraging travellers to move slightly off the beaten track when looking for sites of Jewish interest. An article on the Czech Republic for example focuses less on Prague but rather on the small town of Boskovice, home to one of the most extensive old Jewish ghetto areas in Eastern Europe. Gruber looks not just at the history of Jewish areas during the war and under communism but also how they have fared since the political changes in the early 1990s. She appears as concerned as concerned about the future of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe as with the past. She writes of Boskovice: “Back in 1990, the buildings in the Jewish Quarter were crumbling and abandoned, the 17th century synagogue was little more than an empty shell…what a difference a decade and a half makes…the Jewish quarter too has undergone extensive gentrification.

Many of the little crooked houses have been renovated and painted soothing mint and ochre, and some of them have even been converted into boutiques, upmarket cafes (such as the Makkabi and the Herman Ungar Tea Room) and even a fast food falafel restaurant.”  Gruber also advises her readers of other Czech towns with a Jewish heritage – Trebic, with its two historic synagogues, Velke Mezerici with its two former synagogues and a small Jewish museum, Polna with a well-preserved Jewish quarter and Loumnic with an 18th century synagogue that has been converted to a gallery and a culture centre and a beautiful Jewish cemetery.

Gruber excels from other writers about Jewish heritage travel in that she provides an in depth background to the Jewish history in all of the towns that she writes about. For Polna for example, she tells the story of the Hilsner affair, a famous episode in Czech and Jewish history. Leopold Hilsner, a local shoemaker was arrested for the murder of a local woman. He was accused of committing the rime with the complicity  of the local Jewish population in order to drain the girl’s blood and use it to make Passover matzos. The affair drew a wave of anti-Semitic violence at the time, but Hilsner was eventually amnestied years later in a case that had echoes of the Dreyfus affair in France. It is this attention to detail that marks out Gruber’s travel writing – she deals with the subject in far more detail than the standard travel guide and her books would be the most useful source of information for anybody travelling to areas of Jewish heritage outside the big cities in Eastern Europe.

Gruber, regardless of her views on virtual Jewishness remains convinced that Jewish heritage sites do have an intrinsic historic, artistic and architectural value but remains concerned that in the most popular sites at least, a theme park style future awaits. As she describes: “By 1998, the old Jewish quarter of Trebic, where no Jews live, boasted Jacob’s Snack Bar, the Synagogue Guest House, the Jewish Grocery and Rachel’s Wine Cellar.” It is a valid point.

There are other writers who tend not to dwell on the commercialisation of all things Jewish and gently direct people around the main cultural centres, whether the culture portrayed is genuine or not. Yale Strom’s A Wandering Feast: A Journey Through the Jewish Culture of Eastern Europe takes a more simplistic view on travel and Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. His account portrays a happy world of vibrant Jewish communities, klezmer music recitals and traditional Jewish food. It is perhaps the vision that those putting together heritage tours would like to portray, yet Strom does not really dig under the surface of the sometimes artificial Jewish culture that he encounters. His book is largely a travelogue for the traveller on a guided tour to follow – there is little in terms of self-discovery or real understanding of the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe included.

Other accounts of travel in Eastern Europe have been more personalised and reflected travel outside the popular destination of Prague, Krakow and Budapest. Anne Applebaum’s Between East and West, Across the Borderland’s of Europe is an account of her travels through Poland, Lithuania and Belarus shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the hope of tracing her own Eastern European roots. Applebaum’s grandparents had lived in the Polish town of Krobrin, which prior to 1939 had seen Jews make up half of its 11,00 inhabitants, many owning building and running shops.  

Applebaum attempts to unravel the complex changes of authority in the region that have both stirred up ethnic tensions whilst leaving others unsure as to their true nationality. She writes in her introduction that “a traveller can meet a man born in Poland, brought up in the Soviet Union, who now lives in Belarus – and he has never left his village.”  This is the sort of travel writing that will appeal to the more adventurous traveller – for the coach party traveller around Prague and Krakow, there is little need for this type of information.
Unlike the heritage traveller hotspots to the west, the history of the holocaust is harder to trace this far east.

There was little need for the Germans to hide the deaths of Jews or to export them off to extermination camps. Applebaum writes about the scene of a massacre of Jews by Germans and Lithuanians in the town of Radun in 1942. There is no Jewish memorial in the town. A monument to the dead states simply “here lie buried 1,137 peaceful Soviet citizens, shot in1942 by fascists” Applebaum’s questions to a survivor as to why the monument doesn’t say why the dead were Jewish receives the simple reply “they were peaceful Soviet citizens. That was what they were.”  

Applebaum also examines another recurrent theme in Jewish heritage travel – the oppression of people in Eastern Europe under communist rule. She visits Minsk, a small town in Belarus before the War with an active Jewish population. After the war, the Jewish population had all but been destroyed and Applebaum describes the city’s quick transformation into a large, soulless Soviet industrial city. Interestingly, even in Minsk, Applebaum finds some evidence of the popularisation of Jewishness amongst non-Jews that is so prevalent in the more tourist-friendly areas of Eastern Europe.

Applebaum meets a non-Jew who loves the idea of traditional Jews; he speaks Yiddish and Hebrew and even teaches it to the remaining Jews in the region that are preparing to move to Israel. Applebaum writes: “what Vitaly loved were the Jews of the past: the Jews with caps and ringlets around their ears, the Jews in long black coats, the Jewish women in wigs, the Jewish children who studied Talmud and Torah by candlelight, the Jews whose culture once dominated Minsk.” 

There is little to see in Minsk in terms of heritage – her guide can point out the sites on now non-existent houses or overgrown burial places –  the overall impression is of a city in which Jewish culture was effectively destroyed by the Nazis and given little opportunity to reinvent itself under communist role. In some ways, the same could be argued of the Jewish cultural hot spots such as Prague and Krakow – the difference being that, post-communism, these cities have made active attempts to market their Jewish past as a tourist cultural attraction. Applebaum concludes her visit to Minsk with a depressing summary of the recent past on Minsk, writing of the Jewish population that “when they had been alive, Minsk had been a different kind of city, a better city, a city of prayer and study, not a city of factories and smog.”  

Applebaum finds little in Krobrin, the home of her grandparents. The old synagogue is now a disused brewery and in terms of discovering her roots, there is little for Applebaum to draw upon. Perhaps this explains some of the success of the Eastern European venues that offer an obvious Jewish heritage – there is more to offer the visitor and more to satisfy the desire that people have to discover the Jewish ancestry. Sadly, in many parts of Eastern Europe, there is little if anything in terms of heritage or an ongoing Jewish culture. for people to discover in the birth places of their ancestors. Arriving at the small town or village where their ancestors once lived may be as much as a roots finding journey can offer. Of course, for some, this may suffice. Applebaum nonetheless finds some positives in her writing. In the introduction to her book she writes that she made the journey to look for evidence that differences and variety of cultures and religions can outlast war, communism and Russification, “testimony in fact that people can survive any attempt to uproot them.”

She does find some evidence of this. Some small Jewish communities still exist in areas where Jewish culture had all but been wiped out, whilst in other regions, Jewish culture lives on more strongly – perhaps sometimes the virtual Jewishness that Gruber defines, but a Jewish culture nonetheless. Applebaum’s writing focuses less on the physical sights of Eastern Europe but rather on the people who have lived under communist rule and how they have adjusted to their newfound freedom. It is also represents an account of non-European Jews attempting to find their roots in the new Eastern Europe – for anybody planning an independent journey it provides an excellent guide as to the type of experiences one can expect.

Matthew Reisz has also written travel material about Jews in Eastern Europe, focussing on the aspects of oppression and survival that are so central to the history. His introduction to Europe’s Jewish Quarters, whilst accepting that the great Jewish centres of the world today are Israel and the United States, emphasises the importance of Europe in Jewish history “It was on European soil that the bulk of world Jewry lived until the Holocaust, on European soil that Maimonides wrote his Guide for the Perplexed, on European soil that Zionism was forged, on European soil that the great Jewish thinkers and artists of Paris, Vienna and the Weimar Republic largely created the modern agenda in music, physics, psychoanalysis and many of the arts…”   This is an important point – for those interested in Jewish culture, Europe is massively important even outside of roots and ancestry. Many heritage travellers may not have family that have lived in Eastern Europe but are drawn to the region anyway simply by its rich Jewish heritage.

Like many other Jewish writers on Eastern Europe, Reisz does so from a personal perspective. His grandparents were transported to death camps from Terezin, as were several other relatives and he acknowledges that in writing the book “I had far deeper motives; although my mother is not Jewish, the book was produced partly as a search for my own roots, in sympathy and celebration and with a far more than professional interest.”  Reisz also avoids what are seen as what he terms the “heartlands of the Holocaust” , partly because there are a number of books already written on these areas but partly because he understands that there is little in the way of real Jewish life in these areas – the old Jewish quarters or the concentration camp locations are there for the heritage travellers and cater for a different type of traveller – Reisz wants to concentrate on a combination of Jewish history and life as it is today. He clarifies this markedly, writing “I have tried to avoid places where there is little to say except: here there was once rich and vital Jewish life – and now there is nothing.” 

Reisz writes admiringly of Prague’s Jewish Quarter, marvelling at the fact that its has survived at all after Nazi occupation and the indifference and sometimes hostility of the communist regime. He also addresses the issue of the barely functioning Jewish population in Prague today. Whilst acknowledging that there are two functioning synagogues in the city, Reisz points out that outside of the tourist season there are not always enough Jews for form a minyan  He also comments on the population of Czech Jews, writing: “Like other Czechs, they have always had a reputation for lukewarm religious commitments; the terrible losses of the War years, ageing congregations and the difficulties of obtaining an education in Judaism have all had their impact; yet it is heartening that the Jubilee is still a functioning synagogue.”  
Much of Reisz’s description of Prague focuses on its past. Indeed he write “the past is a constant presence in Prague” and his descriptions of Prague’s old buildings and narrow lanes give the prospective traveller a good indication of what to expect.

As is to be expected however from any Jewish writer writing about Eastern Europe, some of Reisz’s most effective prose comes when he deals with the Holocaust. It is an issue at the heart of practically all writing on this part of the world and understandably so. Reisz describes Prague’s Memorial Hall that now houses the Jewish Museum and the most effecting of the Holocaust images. He describes scenes of everyday life in the ghetto and the barracks: “hangings, cramped bunk beds, tightly shut gates, soldiers herding crowds of tiny children away while others look down from a window above. Almost more moving are the utterly normal pictures of forests, butterflies, bouquets, Christmas trees, princesses and dragons, all painted by children destined for deportation to the East.” 

Reisz also writes about Terezin, small town close to Prague that is tainted by the Holocaust to a greater extent than Prague itself. Whilst Prague remains a beautiful and cultured tourist venue over and above of its Jewish past, the same cannot be said for Terezin. Reisz describes it as “a strange and haunting site of wartime Jewish suffering and a particularly blatant example of a successor regime’s attempt to distort the past”  Terezin consists mainly of a macabre tourist attraction known as the Little Fortress and the barracks, established in the 1870s as a defence against Prussia. Its most famous inmate was Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who sparked off World War I when he shot Franz Ferdinand. The fortress was re-opened and used by the Nazis in 1940 to hold politicians, officers of the former Czech army, relatives of those who had fled abroad, captured British pilots and some genuine criminals. As in all the concentration camps the words Arbeit macht Frei (Work will make you free) appears above the entrance. 

For Reisz however, just as disturbing as the evidence of the Nazi past in Terezin is the evidence that the communist regime used the site as a method of propaganda rather than a memorial to those that were imprisoned or died there. Until the fall of communism visitors were shown what Reisz describes as an “unpalatably one-sided” film about Terezin, stressing the glorious Russian role in its liberation and the bright Communist future. Reisz’s work appears to strike exactly the right balance in terms of Jewish heritage – de gives vivid descriptions of some of the old Jewish quarters and notable building, yet expands on this with an investigation into the past and how Eastern Europe today is reflecting its Jewish heritage.

Eva Hoffman’s book ‘Exit into History’ describes her journey through the new Eastern Europe as she tries to analyse what the social and political changes will mean for the people living there. Hoffman’s book is less a narrative on Jewish heritage travel than an analysis of post-Communist Eastern Europe, yet shestill discovers Jews with fascinating stories to tell. 

Again, Hoffman can put aside political and historical issues to deliver excellent descriptive prose. Her description of Prague serves as a reminder that whatever the Jewish history may be in Eastern Europe, it is still simply a beautiful part of the world to visit for any traveller: “Nothing I know about this other city of seven hills has prepared me for its extravagance and abundance and endless visual surprises, as if, somewhere beneath its ground, there were a constantly replenishing reservoir, or a geyser, from which beauty springs. The eye cannot move without encountering a stunning piece of statuery, or painted decoration, or ornate architectural details, or a Cubist thicket of chimneys.” It is easy to overlook when reflecting on travel writing on Eastern Europe that, for all of its history, many of the towns and cities provide architectural sights that are worth the visit alone. The simple aesthetics of travel to wonderful cities should not be forgotten.

Like several others, Hoffman journeyed around Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, short after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Much of her writing investigates how it was for people both Jewish and non-Jewish to live under the communist regimes. She argues that history in this part of the world is somehow thicker, more pressing and oppressive than in Western Europe. The live of ordinary people have been affected to a much greater extent by politics than of those in the West. Hoffman notes that, much as under Nazi occupation, under communism people at one point or another have been forced to make some kind of ethical choice or decision: “to decide, at one time or another, whether he or she was for or against…whether to inform on a neighbour, sign a dangerous petition, stand by silently during an anti-Semitic campaign, or risk imprisonment by protest.”

Certainly, within Jewish heritage travel there is an element of reflecting not just on the Holocaust but also on the oppression of people across Eastern Europe for half a century. For many travellers the two may be combined – Jewish travellers seeking out their own roots may well combine their own heritage with looking for a greater awareness of political history in Europe. For non-Jews who see themselves as opposed to oppression in whatever form, the opportunity to explore both the location of the Holocaust and the political oppression under communism is an attraction of travel to the region.

Anna Reid’s Borderland – A Journey Through the History of the Ukraine, further east to examine Jewish history and finds, as in other areas of Eastern Europe, barely existing Jewish communities. There is little in the book to recommend the Ukraine to as a destination for Jewish heritage travel. Making up less than 1 per cent of the population 1989, the Ukraine’s’ Jewish population is gradually being assimilated into the Ukrainian population, attendance at synagogue is poor and many of the remaining Jews are planning to move to Israel. This is not to say that the Ukraine is an anti-Semitic nation – as Reid writes “There are few anti-Semites left in Ukraine because there are few Jews.” Reid’s work is far removed from the standard tourist guides to Eastern Europe – it is the story of a personal journey that ultimately finds relatively little in terms of Jewish heritage, yet is interesting nonetheless.

Heritage journeys can be made by people as Jews, Eastern Europeans, or both. One’s own background will have dictated a personal set of circumstances and an individual ancestry. The lifting of the Iron Curtain has given people an opportunity to make heritage journeys to explore their past. For people living in Eastern Europe both before and after the communist regimes, the support of those from elsewhere may give hope that repression will not return in the future.
Haim Shapiro’s series of articles in the Jewish Post newspaper give a well-balanced view of Poland both past and present. He is on a roots trip to discover the places that his family have come from in Poland and Belarus. Before addressing the Jewish past in the country he provides the reader, Jewish or non-Jewish, of what is it like to simply visit the country as a tourist: 

“The country is easy to visit. Public transport is convenient and cheap. There are plenty of coffee shops and Internet cafes. It has all the convenience of Western Europe at Eastern European prices. Along with that, the landscapes and towns are beautiful” Shapiro is aware however of Poland’s reputation as an anti-Semitic nation and comments: at one point “it is at times like this that we have come to Poland to enjoy ourselves. For many Israelis, Poland is only a country of death camps and anti-Semites.

I am aware of the tragedy, as when I see the paintings of the murdered artists, and I am aware of Polish anti-Semitism, although everywhere we have gone here, our reception has been warm and welcoming” Shapiro makes an important point about Jewish heritage travel here – wherever Jews travel to in Eastern Europe in search of heritage they will be faced with evidence of death and suffering of their ancestors or at least past generations of their own people. To be simply enjoying a holiday at the same time must sometimes seem somewhat paradoxical and is a reason that can separate Jewish heritage travel in Eastern Europe from other types of cultural and heritage travel in other countries.

Shapiro also writes about another important issue – the effect of Jewish heritage travellers on the lives of Jews still living in these areas. He describes an awkward gathering of Israelis youngsters at a Warsaw synagogue and quotes a local resident stating that Israeli groups can disturb the religious services: “when the Israelis come it’s a circus. The rest of the year it’s a normal synagogue.” Shapiro’s’ conclusion however is positive, and one that should be taken on board by any Jewish heritage travellers visiting Poland or Eastern Europe. He quotes a funeral director telling him to give the message to non-European Jews that they should come to Poland to celebrate their heritage, not treat the country as a graveyard. He says:  “Tell them, they should come to Poland, but they should do so to celebrate a thousand years of Jewish life here, and not just tragedy and destruction.” 

Wide ranges of travel guides now make specific reference to Eastern Europe’s Jewish heritage as do travel companies in the marketing material. The following paragraph from the website about travel to Poland serves as a typical example:

“It was the country most devastated by World War II in Eastern Europe, losing about a quarter of its population and almost its entire Jewish community. The aftermath of the War greatly affected the character of the country. Former Jewish cemeteries in the cities and the stark concentration camps where the Nazis carried out their extermination remain as the most stirring reminders of the nation’s tragedies. Cities destroyed by the war had to be rebuilt from scratch and many meticulously restored buildings and historic old towns are testimony to the pride and determination of a strong and durable nation.” 

Individual travelogues posted on the Internet by heritage travellers can also make interesting reading and give a perspective on the motivations for the average traveller as opposed to the professional travel writer. The opening paragraph of Gerald Sanders travelogue, Our Jewish Roots Tour, gives a good indication as to the conflicting viewpoints that non-European Jews can have about travelling to the region:

“On August 6, 1990 we began what turned out to be the most fascinating experience of our lives. My late wife, Joan, and I journeyed to find our roots in Poland as members of an organised group. Joan had anticipated the trip with unbridled enthusiasm since the idea of travelling to Poland first occurred to her about five years earlier. I was more than a little sceptical and had all the preconceived notions that most of the American Jewish community holds concerning Poland…’Why go there? It’s only a graveyard of our ancestors’ ‘you are not going to find anything of genealogical value, the Germans destroyed it all’ ‘the poles were the worst of the world’s anti-Semites’, ‘the accommodations and food will be unacceptable’” 

Sanders trip goes onto to be a hugely successful trip of self-discovery, making good use of Polish archives to trace family history, visiting sites of Jewish interest throughout the city and enjoying fine kosher food throughout the trip. There are moments on the trip where Sanders expresses his anger at what he sees: “No trip to Poland is complete without a trip to Maidenak and Auschwitz. The horror that our people experienced in those places can never be fully described or understood. The next time one hears a German saying that ‘we didn’t know’, don’t believe him. Maidenak alone had 7,000 German guards at any given time, and they had families who knew what they were doing!’ 

The overall theme of Sander’s trip though is one of learning. He states that for serious genealogists, a visit to Poland is mandatory for those with Polish roots. He also learns a little about the Jewish community in Warsaw today which at least moves away from the ‘virtual Jewish’ tours criticised by Gruber. Sanders writes in his account “the number of Jews in Krakow in 1990 was about 300. They were mostly elderly and, for the most part, very poor. Our group bought gifts for them, which we distributed at the Remuh Synagogue.” It is heartening to hear that at least one independent traveller has made the effort to interact with the real Jewish community in Eastern Europe – ideally this would be a much more common occurrence on heritage trips.

Travel writing around heritage travel to Eastern Europe is an expanding genre. As with any tourist location, the style and standard of the writing will vary. The main hope should be that writers see the distinction between the tourist traps and real Jewish culture. The promotion of genuine Jewish life in Eastern Europe should always be encouraged.

Chapter Four – Eastern Europe’s response to Jewish Heritage Travel

For Eastern Europe, Jewish heritage travel has been first and foremost another string to the bow of the tourist industry that is so important to cities such as Prague and Krakow as they have moved out of the communist era. Jewish heritage can ensure a healthy influx of money into Eastern Europe and locals have been quick to make the most of this. Again whether the positive response to Jewish travellers and other Westerners with an interest in Jewish culture is beneficial to the long-term growth of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe remains to be seen. At present, much of the economic benefit seems to be heading towards the non-Jews in Eastern Europe who are successfully marketing its Jewish heritage.

There are a number of examples of the positive promotion of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. In Berlin in 1992, an exhibition of Jewish culture described as the world’s largest and most expensive ever was held at Martin Gropius Bau museum. The event, Judische Lebenswelten (Patterns of Jewish Life) cost the city over $6 million and saw over 350,000 people attend Jewish performances, concerts, films and readings.  In Poland, the city of Krakow, with a population of 200 Jews in 1993,  opened its Centre for Jewish Culture, operated and staffed by non-Jews. In the three years from its opening the Centre has been prolific in the number and scale of events that it has produced.

Krakow would seem to serve as a perfect example of Gruber’s ‘virtual Jewishness’ theory – it is a city with a rich Jewish heritage, that sells its Jewish culture as one of its main tourist attractions, yet is actually home to a tiny number of Jews, few of whom play any part in the heritage industry that has grown in the city. Across Poland as a whole in fact, over 500 ‘serious titles’ on Jewish history, literature and culture were published in 1995-96 , showing a voracious appetite fro information on Jewish culture in the country.

Undoubtedly. Eastern Europeans have embraced the more commercial side of Jewish heritage travel wholeheartedly. Gruber, again somewhat critically, refers to the fact that new Jewish bookstores in Vienna, Berlin and Krakow attract a large clientele , and goes on to describe the main attractions that Eastern Europeans are opening up for visitors – Jewish quarters and tourist attractions with ‘Jewish style restaurants’ and Jewish sounding names, signs in Hebrew or Hebrew style letters and food, including pork named after rabbis of Old Testament prophets. Clearly Gruber has a valid point here.

It may be acceptable for non-Jews to be involved in the Jewish heritage industry and to profit even from the commercialisation of Jewish culture but the lack of respect shown for central tenets of the Jewish faith, the naming of cheap dishes in tacky restaurants after important religious figures is a step too far. Commercialisation at this level will only further ostracise the small Jewish communities remaining in Eastern European cities. There is already evidence that there is a division between the heritage travel industry and the genuine Jewish communities. Crass insensitivities to the Jewish faith will only exacerbate this division.

The popularity of Jewish culture has manifested itself in a number of more scholarly guises as well. Numerous conferences are now held across Eastern Europe each year on all aspects of Jewish culture, history and tradition and similar numbers of academic study programmes, courses and lecture series have also been established. 

Jews that have lived in Eastern Europe both before and in the immediate aftermath have openly expressed reservations about the intrusion from heritage travellers. There is evidence that members of the Jewish community can sometimes be made to feel like some type of museum exhibit, particularly Hasidic Jews, whose style of dress confirms with the stereotypical Jew marketed as puppets or figures in souvenir shops and on market stalls. Eli Valley, a young American Jew who lived in Prague at around the time of the Velvet revolution comments:  “In the five summers since communisms collapse, Prague’s Jewish quarter has become a veritable Jurassic Park of Judaism, a Williamsburg for the conscience of Europe…. on the street you can purchase a Jewish doll, complete with black robe and jumbo nose for $50. In the eyes of the tourists, Prague is a circus of the dead. On the infrequent occasions that a Hasidic family visits the area, visitors abandon the dead religious objects and take out their cameras”  

Heritage and cultural tourism of course is not limited to Eastern Europe and there are examples from elsewhere in the world that countries such Poland and the Czech Republic can learn from in developing their heritage travel industries. One of the most encouraging facts for the Eastern European nations is that heritage travellers can be a profitable type of visitor. Research based primarily in America or on Americans travelling to Europe suggests that cultural tourists are older, better educated and more affluent than the travelling public as a whole.. Furthermore, cultural tourists are travellers who tend to stay longer at a destination, spend more while there and join in more activities than other tourists. 

This in itself who appear to be good new for the Eastern European tourist centres but there is also research that suggests that the heritage travel market will continue to grow. Ageing baby boomers, who are the biggest single growth market in tourism today, are also seen as the largest potential market for heritage tourist attractions. As people age, they take a greater interest in their cultural roots, in history and in understanding the past. This would certainly appear to be the case with heritage travel to Eastern Europe. The complex history of Europe’s Jews would appear to add to the attraction of heritage travel, over and above the general interest in heritage travel that already exists across the world.

The rapid economic, social and political changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe in the post-Communist era have also been a factor in the growth of Jewish heritage travel to the region. As Gruber writes: “with the final fall of communism, the uncovering of Jewish history and heritage became a counterpoint to the burying of the communist past. The toppling of monuments to Marx and Lenin, the renaming of streets, and the transformation of communist buildings for other uses were also seen as acts that re-consecrated a desecrated landscape”  Evidence of this can be seen across Eastern Europe – historic buildings, both Jewish and non-Jewish have been cleaned up and restored over the past decade and, recognising the power of the tourist dollar, schemes to lure business and investment have been put in place to encourage heritage travellers. Another noticeable trend has been for streets and squares with names from the communist era to be renamed to reflect the Jewish historical recovery.

Eastern Europe has developed a varied market of attractions to attract heritage travellers. Potential tourists will include Jewish roots seekers, pilgrims to Holocaust sites and Hasidic tombs, local schoolchildren and foreign study groups, mainstream and Jewish heritage package tours, casual observers and even local residents looking for nostalgia or explanations in relation to events in the past. Obviously what may work for some targets may not work or even offend others. Michael Reisz, writing in The Independent, refers to an Israeli satirical sketch about a travel agent offering packages like “a week in Poland which features seven concentration camps in thee days – no, there’s no free day for shopping”

It is important for those involved in heritage travel in Eastern Europe to realise that such tourism can easily become ghoulish or exploitative and discourage Jews from meeting Czechs, Germans or Poles. This is where the fact the few Jews are involved in heritage tourism can become a problem – if Jewish travellers arrive in these countries to be shown around concentration camps by a series of non-Jewish guides, it can only add to any previous preconception that Poland, for example is just a Jewish Cemetery and all Poles are anti-Semites.

Large numbers of locally produced guides to Eastern Europe’s Jewish heritage were produced in the years following the fall of communism. Jiri Fiedler produced a guidebook in 1991, Jaroslav Klenovsky was producing pictures and postcards of Morovian synagogues in 1991 and in Poland more than a dozen or more guides to Jewish sites had been produced by the early 1990s. Indeed in Poland, German journalist Katherina Osche was prompted to write: “Considering the number of publications, exhibits, and the large focus on Jewish topics in the media, one could get the impression that the country had a few hundred thousand Jews and a blossoming German Jewish culture.”  Mainstream guides also began to include Jewish heritage information both in print and on the Internet. The following passage from the Time Out Guide to Prague serves as an example:

“The streets north-west of the Old Town Square are strangely vacant of residents. This is Prague’s Josefov neighbourhood, once the city’s teeming Jewish ghetto…begun in the 13th century, this was the spiritual heart of Prague’s Jewish community for some 700 years…The haunting Old Jewish Cemetery was created in the 15th century and was used until 1787…. On the far side of the cemetery is Pinkas Synagogue where the interior walls are covered with the names of the 80,000 Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia. The synagogue also has a heartbreaking display of drawings by children made in the Terezin concentration camp.”  Local regional and states tourist offices in Poland and the Czech Republic have also begun to produce brochures, maps and pamphlets on Jewish heritage.
The general reaction to Jewish heritage travel in Eastern Europe has certainly been positive. This has undoubtedly partly stemmed from the financial rewards that Jewish heritage travel can bring in some areas, but general trend towards interest in Jewish culture would suggest an overall positive attitude towards Judaism.

Chapter Five – Conclusion

Jewish heritage travel to Eastern Europe is now a firmly established sector within the tourist market and likewise, a genre of travel writing to accompany such travel has also developed. The journeys are made for a number of reason – roots discovery primarily, but also a reflection of a growing interest in Jewish culture amongst non-Jews and a simple interest in the political changes that have affected the region in recent decades. The Holocaust as well remains a focal point for travel to the region and the writing that follows. 

One of the main issues around such travel is its impact on Jewish communities across Eastern Europe.

Gruber points out that as well as the embrace of all things Jewish by non-Jews in Eastern Europe, there has also been an internal Jewish rediscovery of roots and heritage as well. As she states: “Indeed, the embrace of Jewish culture by mainstream society has gone side by side (and at times hand in hand) with efforts by Jews themselves to recover or redefine personal Jewish identities and to revive or enrich Jewish communities, Jewish life and internal Jewish culture in Various countries”.

Quite rightly, there is a growing sense of urgency among Eastern Europe’s Jews that for all the benefits that Jewish heritage travel might bring, if they do not themselves take positive action to maintain their own culture and community, the virtual Jewishness that has developed may overtake real Jewish culture – in effect, false and stereotypical Jewish products would replace genuine Jewish culture. It is important that the Jews and Jewish communities of Eastern Europe do not become some form of obsolete museum relics, or simple object of curiosity, even fun, for travellers, Jewish and non-Jewish from elsewhere. Gruber quotes British scholar Jonathon Webber on the subject: “There is a problem of representation. There is a difference between official, established Judaism and how Jews actually live. And there is an imagined Judaism, created ex nihilo. How do we Jews represent Jewish culture in relation to ourselves, to non-Jews, in the media? Should we participate or stand by? 

The future will hopefully bring a further expansion of Jewish heritage travel. If managed correctly it should bring benefits to the economies of the countries involved, it should promote an awareness of Jewish culture and a determination amongst both Jews and non-Jews that the repression of the 20the century should not happen again in Europe. Heritage travel should also benefit the small Jewish communities still surviving in Eastern Europe and encourage their involvement in the promotion of Jewish culture.

The travel writing genre will no doubt continue to combine standard formatted travel guides with more detailed personalised accounts. Web logs and other more amateur accounts of trips around Eastern Europe are also likely to flourish in the years ahead as the trend for self publication grows. There is little benefit for the standard guides to address the issues around Jewish life today but hopefully the more detailed accounts by Jewish travellers will continue to examine Jewish life as it is today and, like Gruber, try to ensure that 21st century Jewish life is not ignored.

Jewish heritage travel should, ultimately, be about more than visiting old Jewish quarters and buying Hasidic puppets from a market store. It should be about exploring the past, appreciating life as it was in the past, paying homage to those that suffered in the Holocaust and under communism, but also celebrating a Jewish community that lives on. A vibrant way of Jewish life continuing in Eastern Europe for generations to come would be the best possible legacy for today’s Jewish heritage travel and the writing that accompanies it.

Bibliography

  • Applebaum Anne, Between East and West, Across the Borderlands of Europe, Papermac, London 1995
  • Gruber Ellen Ruth, Virtually Jewish – Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, University of California Press, London 2002
  • Gruber Ruth Ellen, A Virtually Jewish World

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