Friday, May 29, 2015

USA: On This Day in 1909 President Taft Went to Synagogue

 President Taft arrives at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh. May 29, 1909.

 President Taft, center, flanked by Secret Service agents on the left and Congregational President Abraham Lippman on the right. Photo: Historic Pittsburgh, Rodef Shalom Congregation Photograph Collection, 1900 - present

USA: On This Day in 1909 President Taft Went to Synagogue
by Samuel D. Gruber
(expanded May 29, 2016)

(ISJM) Now that presidential election season is already upon us,it is important to remember that pandering for votes has long been a staple of American politics - and democracy. Today is the anniversary of President William Howard Taft's visit to Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh in 1909, a brief but historic moment in the relationship between presidents and American Jews. 5,000 people waited for Taft to arrive for a brief stop in the busy day, and he entered the sanctuary and spoke for just ten minutes. But it was the very first time an American president had spoken from the bimah in the midst of Jewish service rather than at some ceremonial event, such as a synagogue dedication.

Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom Congregation sanctuary. Henry Hornbostel, arch., 1907. Historic postcard. The bimah is little changed since President Taft's visit in 1909.

 Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom Congregation sanctuary. Henry Hornbostel, arch.,1907. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

Just this week President Barack Obama gave a speech celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. (Watch the speech here). Now it is noteworthy but not uncommon when presidents go to synagogues. A recent blogpost by Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington curator Zachary Levine lists many of the visits of sitting presidents to synagogues in that city. Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication of the new Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC in 1876.  In 1898 President McKinley attended the cornerstone laying of Washington Hebrew Congregation at 8th & I Streets, NW.  McKinley also attended Passover Sabbath eve services at
Congregation Bnai Jeshurun, in Paterson, New Jersey in 1900.  Harry Truman helped lay the cornerstone at Washington Hebrew Congregation’s new building at Massachusetts & Macomb Streets, NW. in 1952 and his successor Dwight Eisenhower spoke at the dedication in 1955.

Elsewhere, in 1963 President Lyndon Johnson spoke at the dedication of Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, where his good friend and adviser Jim Novy was an active member. Johnson's close relation with the synagogue and the Austin Jewish community is described in a 2013 Tablet Magazine article by Cathy Schechter. As Vice-President, Johnson lent his Lincoln Continental convertible to carry the Torah scrolls to the new suburban synagogue.

  Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom Congregation. Henry Hornbostel, arch.,1907. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

 Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom Congregation. Henry Hornbostel, arch.,1907. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

 Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom Congregation. Henry Hornbostel, arch.,1907. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

But when Taft spoke in Pittsburgh, it was a  time of massive Jewish immigration to America, but also growing anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiment in the country. The Reform movement championed the idea of the American ":melting pot," and Taft spoke of about religious tolerance at Rodef Shalom, one of Reform's oldest outposts.  The new building, recently completed to designs of Henry Hornbostel, also architect of the nearby Carnegie Technical Schools (today's Carnegie Mellon University), was the already the third home of the congregation which was founded in 1860.

President Taft emphasized his intention to be the President of all the American people: “I esteem it a great privilege to appear before this intelligent and patriotic audience,” said Taft said  “at the instance of your leader, your rabbi, who was a warm friend of my predecessor (Theodore Roosevelt), and whom, I am glad to think, has transferred his friendship for the time being to me.” Rabbi  Levy had traveled to Washington and persuaded him to add a visit to Rodef Shalom Congregation to his itinerary.

 Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom Congregation. Henry Hornbostel's presentation drawing with text of Taft's remarks and picture of the president. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

He continued "The prayer which we have just listened, full of liberality and kindness and humanity, makes one feel ashamed of all narrowness and bigotry in religion, and it makes me glad to say that never in the history of the country, never under any circumstances or in a crisis have the Jewish people failed to live up to the highest standard of citizenship and patriotism.” Following the president's remarks, Levy had the congregation rise to sing “America.”

Taft was in Pittsburgh to speak at an alumni reception at the Associated Western Pennsylvania Yale Clubs at the Fort Pitt Hotel, but he filled his day with many other events including a baseball game at Exposition Park between the Pirates and the Chicago Cubs. the president's brother  brother, Charles was a part owner of the Cubs while the Pirates were owned by Barney Dreyfus, a member of Rodef Shalom.

The expression of patriotism as part of the synagogue service and as part a Jewish community's public presentation has a long history in Judaism. As early as the 18th century it became fashionable among many nobles, including some royalty, to visit synagogues, especially in Holland and England, where they would listen to Jewish cantorial music.  For more on synagogue patriotism see my recent essay and illustrations in "Life of the Synagogue." 

Rodef Shalom archivist Martha Berg tells the story of the visit here .

Read more about Taft's visit at: The Jewish Chronicle - Centennial of historic speech at Rodef Shalom.

For more historic photos see Rodef Shalom Congregation Photograph Collection, 1900 - present.

For further information about the history of Rodef Shalom consult the congregations excellent archives maintained by archivist Martha Berg who so kindly shared many of the congregation's remarkable holdings when I visited last fall. The Archives collects, preserves, and makes available for a variety of uses the institutional records of the congregation, the oldest and largest Reform Jewish congregation in Western Pennsylvania. The Archives is open to the public by appointment. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Poland: New Jewish Cemetery Monument at Police School in Pila

Pila, Poland (formerly Schneidemühl, Germany). New monument on Jewish cemetery. Photo: Anna Fons

Poland: New Jewish Cemetery Monument at Police School in Pila to be Unveiled June 2, 2015
by Samuel D. Gruber

(n.b. some information is adapted from a text in Polish by Anna Fons) 

(ISJM) Summer is the time for new monuments in Central and Eastern Europe. I recently reported on the vandalism of new Jewish cemetery monument in Poland. Here is a new monument which will soon be unveiled next week. It is doubtful it will be harmed - as it is on the grounds of the Pila Police School.

Next week a new monument will be unveiled  on the site of the Jewish cemetery in Pila (near Poznan), Poland, which is now occupied by the local Police School. The school occupies part (or all?) the Jewish cemetery which was probably founded in the early 17th century and was completely devastated by the Nazis in 1939. It subsequently used as a park, and then as the site for a kindergarten and the gymnasium of the Police School.  All visible components of the cemetery, with the exception of a fragment of brick cemetery wall (in the courtyard of the house at ul. Konopnickiej 5 and Wiązów alley) were removed by the end of World War II and by the 1970s and 80s structures had been erected on the site. Basketball courts and a parking lot were also on the area. Presumably, however, many of the burials remain intact and undisturbed, and this remains a cemetery despite its subsequent use and present appearance.
Art Nouveau metalwork at Jewish cemetery of Schneidemühl (Pila) before its destruction in 1939. Photo from Shetlinks.

More photos of the cemetery before its destruction courtesy of M. Cohen can be seen here.

Before 1945 Pila, was Schneidemühl, Germany and was home to a Jewish community from the 17th century. Until now, there have been no visible remains of that community or  markers commemorating their passing. Peter Cullman has documented the history and fate of the town's jews in his book  History of the Jewish Community of Schneidemühl: 1641 to the Holocaust. A burial register of the community, based on a booklet by Martin Rosenberg, head of Schneidemühl's Chevra Kadisha and safely taken to Chile in 1940, can be found at the Leo Baeck Institute, NY.  No doubt, the remains of many of the individuals listed in the register are still buried beneath the school grounds.
One can also read about the community on the page of the International Jewish Cemetery Project, which includes information form the first site survey in 1991 by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, when the site of the cemetery was identified. 

Before new work began to remake and expand the sports facilities, Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and Alicja Kobus, Vice-President of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland and the President of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poznan Branch, visited the school and met with officials. Following additional consultation with the Committee of Protection of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, the Pilska Police Academy eventually received approval to carry out their planned expansion but with provisions to protect and commemorate the cemetery.

A new granite monument shaped like the Star of David has been installed on the school premises (reached from the Konopnickiej street) has been inaugurated.  It was designed by Professor Janusz Marciniak from the University of Arts in Poznan, working with Eng. Arch. Eugene Skrzypczak from the same university.  Marciniak said  "I tried to make the monument simple and minimalist in form, and at the same time full of content. The granite's color is reminiscent of human ashes. The disc was mounted on a steel frame to create the impression that the star floats above the ground. The monument is an open book, which invites you to read. The top of the star was slightly raised  - according to tradition - facing east (towards Jerusalem). On its smooth surface, like a mirror, is reflected the sky and trees. Under the star is a concrete replica of its shadow. This is the basis of the monument and at the same time symbolic seal the memory of the people buried in this place and to emphasize the permanence of this memory."

On the monument is an inscription telling the religious and historical character of the site with the message "As we remember, that will be remembered." Sponsors of the monument are the Police School in Pila and the Pila City Council.

There was once another Jewish monument in Pila. According to Peter Cullman,"an impressive monument, dedicated to the Russian-Jewish soldiers of the First World War, was erected in the post-war years by the Jewish community of Schneidemühl. Alas, as early as 1934, in an orgy of anti-Semitic hatred, Schneidemühl’s own Nazis saw to its destruction."  Apparently the monument was built (according to the International Jewish Cemetery Project) "with massive, rectangular columns crowned by a Magen David. Most gravestones were identical, displaying a Magen David. The gravestones from this cemetery were used to shore up the river banks. Only three gravestones remained including two restored in the 1990s, but later destroyed by local vandals. The place where the monument stood is still clearly visible."  

The unveiling of the monument is scheduled for June 2, 2015 (next Tuesday) at. 10.00 a.m. The ceremony will begin in the auditorium of the School Police with a lecture by Prof. Marysia Galbraith of the University of Alabama. Then, at about 10.30 the participants will head to the monument  for the unveiling of the monument, with the (usual) speeches, and a recitation of Kaddish. The ceremony will be attended by representatives of various  religious groups, institutions, organizations, uniformed services and county authorities and municipalities, the media and citizens. 

For further information contact the Section Head of School Executive Deputy Inspector of Police in Pila. Dorothy Witkowska, Tel. 67 352 21 60, tel. Kom. 695 820 161, e-mail:

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Poland: Rajgród Holocaust Monument Vandalized

Poland: Rajgród Holocaust Monument Vandalized 
by Samuel D. Gruber (ISJM) 

Last September I wrote about an attractive new monument erected on the site of the Jewish cemetery of Rajgród, in northeastern Poland, which is now overgrown with forest. I wrote:"In July 1941 the Germans established a ghetto for all local Jews. During this period approximately 100 Jews were murdered in Rajgród. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942, the remaining Jews were sent first to Grajewo, than to the Bogusz transit camp and then later to their deaths at Treblinka. There were no survivors." 

The dedication of the monument was a significant event in the Jewish history of the region. The monument, designed by noted Israeli sculptor Chen Winkler was made in Israel and shipped to Poland. Sadly, the monument was recently vandalized. The damage was discovered about a month ago and since then an investigation has been ongoing. The marble Star of David, an important component of the piece, has been smashed to pieces. Because the monument is located in an area that is under the authority of the Polish National Forest Authority it is not technically the responsibility of the local municipality (Rajgród). So far, the attacker is not known. Presumably, because the perpetrator smashed the stone some heavy equipment - at least a sledge hammer - was used in the attack. Therefore, it seems to have been premeditated. 

The local forest authority, which reports to officers in Bialystok, has informed sponsors of the monument that in the future increased security measures will be put in place. Local authorities have apparently apologized and expressed concern personally to the monument sponsors but to my knowledge no formal written statement has been released. Meanwhile, a local construction company has volunteered to fix the damaged monument. It cannot be made as good as new, but the cracks of repair in the once monolithic stone will now be part of the complicated and sad narrative of the local Jewish (and anti-Jewish) history of the area. 

In a statement to ISJM, FODZ Director Monika Krawczyk wrote "We were deeply saddened and concerned to hear that one of the most beautiful monuments relating to the Jewish heritage in Poland, which was recently installed to commemorate the Jewish community of Rajgrod, was destroyed. This destruction demonstrates an utter and ugly attack on Holocaust victims and their families, who took tremendous care and effort to finance this beautiful piece of art. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland – FODZ (established by the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and the World Jewish Restitution Organization), which assisted in the erection of the monument, calls upon the Polish authorities to take determined steps to find the perpetrators and to protect this and other such monuments in Poland." 

There are obvious lessons to be learned from this destruction. First and foremost, commemoration of the Holocaust is not a passive or neutral event but an active present engagement of often raw and violent attitudes and emotions. Monuments are but one step on the road of commemoration. Education and engagement are ingredients in public confrontation and reconciliation with unpleasant truths about the past. As part of this process an event was already planned in Rajgród for this May 28th, when American Karen Kaplan, daughter of Holocaust survivor Arie Kaplan, and author of Descendants of Rajgrod - Learning To Forgive will be presenting the book to the town's mayor. The violence against the monument makes Ms. Kaplan's visit and book all the more meaningful. 

There are other more practical lessons to be learned. All public art, and especially isolated monuments - of any sort - are always at risk, for many reasons. Drunken football fans recently damaged Rome's Barcaccia Fountain, and even artworks in well guarded museums have been defaced and even slashed. Teenagers regularly are known to topple cemetery gravestones, and countless statues in public parks across the world now stand handless and headless. Bronze plaques and even entire statues are sometimes ripped from their settings to be sold as scrap metal by those in need of quick cash. Still, while we don't yet know the motive of the Rajgrod vandal, this seems more than youthful hijinks and a crime for gain. The violence in Rajgrod - a literal smashing attack on the symbol of Jewish resilience - is a challenge to historic truth, collective memory and continuing efforts at Jewish-Polish reconciliation. It is a special shame that such a beautifully carved and imported monument was attacked. Perhaps it was too tempting. 

Sadly, for this reason and not aesthetics, many projects in which I have been engaged or have observed have settled for nearly indestructible boulders or big blocks of stone with incised lettering. But even these get attacked - though more often with paint than with hammers. We are in period where the destruction of art, monuments and historic sites for religious and ideological purpose is on the upsurge. The destruction of museums and historic sites in Iraq and Syria by ISIS is the worst instance of cultural destruction since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, though the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in the Holocaust was still much worse. ISIS's ravages are certainly the worst case of religious inspired iconoclasm since the French Revolution. 

But violence against Jewish sites, especially cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, has been a ongoing problem for a long time. State sanctioned destruction of Jewish heritage sites ended with the fall of Communism but individual acts of violence that cannot by attributed to youthful high spirits regularly occur. These are deliberate - though cowardly - political acts of anti-Semitic defiance. No amount of security will stop these attacks altogether and given the number in Europe of Jewish cemetery repairs and restoration and of new Holocaust memorials, the actual number of acts of vandalism is small, but still terribly painful. For example, the Rajgród monuments was just one of seven similar projects in which the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) was engaged in 2014. 

Still, such acts cannot be ignored. In the case of Rajgród, and also in the recently vandalized cemetery of Gyöngyös, Hungary, these acts of violence become opportunities for governments and law enforcement to step forward to investigate and prosecute these crimes, and also to quickly repair the damage; but also opportunities for Jews and local communities to work together collaboratively through action and education to ensure that these acts are not supported and will not be representative of most people. At Gyöngyös, the vandalism led directly to a community-wide clean-up the overgrown cemetery.