Lost generations – the challenges of preserving Jewish heritage

As the European Year of Cultural Heritage, 2018 reminds us that there are very real connections, problems and research agendas that will continue to exist whatever happens in the wake of Brexit.

For towns and cities across the UK and Europe, the issue of how to protect, preserve and sensitively valorise the heritage of the Jewish people is a pressing one. Synagogues and prayer houses are abandoned and falling into disrepair; there is a real danger that centuries-long histories of Jewish communities will lose the material remains of their culture as testimony to their existence.

This is particularly the case in Eastern Europe where the Holocaust, 45 years of communism and the ebbs and flows of economic migration have meant that urban and rural areas are left with no Jewish communities and, consequently, no constituencies which would normally ensure the protection, use and meaningful interpretation of Jewish heritage.

While there have been successful instances of the preservation of Jewish heritage, particularly in the large tourist cities of Prague, Krakow and Berlin, there remains a series of critical research questions which the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage, working with the Foundation of Jewish Heritage, are starting to address.

How do the cities of Europe address the historical significance of Jewish culture in the narratives they present to present-day communities and visitors? How do towns and cities address the issues of absence, particularly the absence of Jewish communities? How does this absence manifest itself in the interpretation of Jewish heritage? These are challenging questions – often intensified by conflicting positions within the Jewish community itself and among local policy-makers and communities, which, at best, struggle with a heritage that is orphaned and, at worst, are content to emasculate the heritage of the Jewish people.

As a starting point in addressing these questions and as an official contribution to the European Year of Cultural Heritage, the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage, in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, brought together over 140 academics, policy-makers and practitioners from over 30 countries for a conference – Urban Jewish Heritage: Presence and Absence.

The event was held in Krakow, supported by the City of Krakow and the Villa Decius Association – an organisation dedicated to orchestrating cross-cultural and inter-faith dialogue. Attended and addressed by two European Commissioners and with a keynote address by Professor Daniel Walkowitz from New York University, the conference, the largest to focus on Jewish heritage in the urban context, has created an important network of researchers and practitioners to move forward on researching the dialectic that exists between the heritage of both presence and absence.

Jewish heritage transcends both the tangible and intangible. For despite very different policy approaches, it is difficult to separate these two categories. If we over-reach the identity-shaping power of the movable and intangible, we risk the neglect of the physical structures capable of wider social and cultural recognition. At the same time, if we over-privilege the built heritage we risk essentialising, commodifying and reducing Jewishness to something that only existed in the past and continues only to exist in a museum-like state.

The challenge is to utilise the physical structures – synagogues and prayer houses, as well as shops and dwellings, quarters and neighbourhoods and also museums – as entry points for public understandings of the past but also, the continuities and evolution of Jewishness as still articulated in the present.

We are now working on the production of a volume that will examine various approaches to negotiating Jewish heritage – its presence and absence. We are also developing a policy framework to be adopted by the towns and cities of Europe that recognises the contribution of the Jewish voice in urban narratives which can assist in generating new approaches to some sticky research questions and practical issues of heritage management.

Professor Mike Robinson

Director, Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage, University of Birmingham