In Eastern Europe, Jewish communities are woven with memory and culture

In Eastern Europe, Jewish communities are woven with memory and culture

Legend has it that Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, was founded by Jason and the Argonauts. The heroes of Greek mythology stole the Golden Fleece from King Aetes and fled across the Black Sea and up the Danube until they rested on the modest Ljubljana River.

The way Robert Waltl figures it, if legend is anything like life, there undoubtedly were Jews among the Argonauts. In the lands of Eastern Europe, you never know who will turn out to be a Jew.

Waltl, an actor and activist, is director of Ljubljana’s Mini Teater and Jewish Cultural Center. I met him in Berlin last month on a weeklong tour of Jewish Germany sponsored by the German Foreign Office. Waltl was one of four participants from Eastern Europe. In conversations and in emails following the tour, they described Jewish life that was tenuous, fragile, yet surprisingly resilient. Surprising, at least, to an American Jew accustomed to abundance in all things, including the number of Jews.

Slovenia, tucked between Austria, Italy and Croatia, lost 90 percent of its Jews in the Holocaust. It emerged from the war with 200 Jewish souls. Most left the country, Waltl says. In Slovenia’s 2002 census, 99 citizens declared themselves of Jewish religion, he says, although unofficially the number is believed to be higher.

Waltl tries to knit this community together through culture — “theater and puppet performances, concerts, literary evenings, exhibitions, lectures, educational programs about Holocaust, Hebrew lessons,” he says. The Chanukah menorah lighting in front of the center at 3 Križevniška St. attracts public officials as well as interested citizens. Holocaust Remembrance Day and an International Festival of Tolerance are also on the annual calendar.

“I see culture as an instrument for creating tolerance,” Waltl says. “Culture, unlike religion, offers the gift of discussion about various issues with different people. Our Jewish center provides opportunities for cultural enriching and acquiring knowledge, openness and generosity.”

Not everyone in this community who is drawn to Jewish culture is a Jew. That includes Waltl, a burly 50-year-old with short-cropped graying blond hair. Born in Austria, he came to Ljubljana as a young man to study theater. A few years ago, he learned that his great-great-grandfather may have been Jewish. Around that time he found out that a Jewish actress friend was a relative of his.

He began studying about Judaism, learning Hebrew, collecting Judaica. He attends religious services, although he is not religious.

“I even started to wear a kippa to all bigger events in order to raise the awareness among fellow citizens about the existence of Jews in Slovenia,” he says. “Since I discovered my Jewish roots, I felt obligated as a public figure to make sure that Jewish culture that left behind its traces here in Slovenia regains its deserved importance.”

Ghosts of old Bukovina

Bukovina is one of those Eastern European territories with large Jewish populations that changed hands several times in the 20th century, going from bad to worse at each turn. At the end of World War I, Bukovina passed from Austria-Hungary to Romania. A part, including the city of Chernivtsi, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

The Soviets exiled bourgeois Jews to Siberia. The next year the Nazis invaded. Today Chernivtsi is in western Ukraine, with a Jewish population of perhaps 1,300. At the Chernivtsi Museum of the History and Culture of Bukovinian Jews, Anna Yamchuk helps preserve the memory of the lives snuffed out in the Holocaust.

Yamchuk, 27, is the museum’s PR and program manager. Walking between meetings one day in Berlin, she told me how terrifying it is for her as a Ukrainian that Russia’s Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and continues to threaten the country militarily. The West is just watching, she said. It is doing nothing.

It’s easy to draw parallels between the latent threat to this region and the devastating war that was fought here 70 years ago. The museum in which Yamchuk works calls up the ghosts of old Bukovina, where many nationalities mingled and Jews lived with relative freedom until Austria lost the war.

“I believe that the work that we do is important for Jews, for the people of Chernivtsi and Ukrainians in general,” says Yamchuk, who is not Jewish. “Here we are preserving the memory about the history and culture of a great community — Bukovinian Jews. The memory that cannot be lost.”

Here, as in Ljubljana, one can join the Jewish community by remembering it. The national act of remembering what happened to the Jews, liberals believe, will promote tolerance.

The museum also promotes a living culture, she adds. “We do some projects with students and young people. These projects aim not only at discovering important historical facts, but also at promoting tolerance, understanding and friendship. This is a small contribution into forming open-minded civil society.”

The sky of Belarus

My Eastern European tour mates left me with the impression that, although they came from nearby, their Jewish communities were a world away. They needed support from the West to give them the oxygen necessary to flourish.

“Communities in Eastern Europe don’t feel secure and this is for several reasons,” says Marcin Wodzinski, director of the Center for the Culture and Languages of Jews at the University of Wroclaw, in Western Poland. “With the exception of Ukraine, they are tiny, suffering from extensive out-migration, either in the past or very recently. Simply, they feel very fragile and rightly so.”

Wodzinski is neither Jewish nor a specialist in contemporary Jewish life — the 19th century is his field of study — but his deep knowledge of Jewish subjects is obvious.

Eastern European Jews suffer from an identity crisis, he says in an email. “It is rooted in the Holocaust, frozen through the communist times and actually aggravated by the post-communist transformations.” At the same time, it’s easier to be a Jew in Eastern Europe.

While walking in Frankfurt, we passed a group of 22 Stolpelsteine — so-called stumbling stones embedded in the pavement that memorialize spots where Jews had lived before the Holocaust. Galina Levina, an architect from Belarus, saw them and froze. The tiles stated the Jews named on them had been deported from Frankfurt to Minsk, where Levina lives.

“During the Second World War, Jews from Germany, Austria, the former Czechoslovakia and Poland were deported to and killed in the Minsk ghetto and the Maly Trostenets extermination camp,” she explains in an email.

“I was at the end point, where the fates of the 22 names listed on these tiles had been broken,” she says. “The last thing these people saw was the sky of Belarus.”

It is a great responsibility for those who live freely under the sky of Belarus today “to preserve the memory of the names and fates of the Holocaust victims and all the events of the Shoah.”

Levina, 53, has a quiet, disciplined presence. She carries out that responsibility as an architect and as first vice-chairman of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities, an umbrella group for the ex-Soviet republic’s 60,000 Jews.

She also acts as the daughter of Leonid Levin, the union’s chairman until his death in 2014 and a prominent architect and artist. Levin’s work included designing Holocaust memorials around Belarus.

“Father had planned to carry out the project of a monument in Trostenets, in the place where the Jews from Minsk and European countries, partisans and civilians were exterminated,” Levina says. “I am working on this project together with a group of architects and sculptors. It is the duty of memory for me. Not only is it a monument — it is also great public activity to preserve the historical memory and explore the fates of the perished.”

Levina says that her Jewish community, while different than it was before the Holocaust, “is different nowadays, but it is developing after passing what seemed to be the point of no return.”

Wodzinski, watching Jewish life unfold from Poland, agrees.

“I’ve heard this story of the end of Eastern European Jewry so many times for nearly 40 years. It is certainly in process of transformation. It needs to reinvent itself, but I’m confident it will develop and thrive.”

When Eastern European economies improve, he predicts, they’ll act as a magnet for Israelis and other Jews, just as Berlin is today.

“There are also still East Europeans who search for their Jewish identity,” he says. “Even if not all of them become really Jewish, I’m confident some of them will and they will make a new chapter of Eastern European Jewry.”

David Holzel is a senior writer for Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at