Restoring Jewish Identity in Europe
By Sarah Ann Haves
Over the past several years, under the direction of Israeli Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, there has not only been a focus on encouraging Jews to immigrate to Israel, but also on educating Jewish communities right where they are located, specifically about their Jewish identity. This has been particularly true in France.
Sharansky revealed last year in the agency’s Board of Governor’s meeting that when Jews in France decide to emigrate, their first choice destination is Israel. This seems to be a trend with European Jews who are educated to the benefits of their Jewish heritage, especially in connection to the Promised Land.
Another trend that is encouraging Jewish identity has to do with countries that want to extend passports to citizens who have an ancestry of relatives who fled either the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust. Both Portugal and Spain have passed laws welcoming Jews living in other nations to become citizens. The criteria has to do with proving that some past relative was indeed a Portuguese or Spanish Jew, had some connection to the Jewish community, possibly spoke Ladino, had Jewish customs in their family, or today has a distinct last name that is obviously Jewish in nature. One of the reasons that Portugal and Spain are welcoming Jews back is because they are hoping Jewish business ties will boost their economies.
|This offer of citizenship
is part of the healing
process for Jews worldwide.
Recently, Lithuania joined the ranks of those countries encouraging Jews to obtain Lithuanian passports. The Lithuanian parliament just passed an amendment to a law which now allows Jews to restore their citizenship.
In South Africa, a large Lithuanian Jewish Diaspora exists. Many are interested in the new amendment, but while they may apply for a second passport, they will probably not return to live in Lithuania.
Most of the Jews of Lithuania died in the Holocaust (95%), and others fled. The ones that may return are more interested in retracing the steps of their ancestors to see where they came from and what life was like in Lithuania pre-Holocaust times. In fact, businessmen from South Africa are bringing Jewish historical life back to Lithuania, building synagogues, Jewish libraries, cleaning cemeteries, and even reconstructing the shtetls where their forefathers once had homes. As Jews reconnect with their heritage, they will also be strengthening their Jewish identity, preserving their Lithuanian traditions and customs. Like the governments of Portugal and Spain, the government of Lithuania wants to correct the sordid past that caused Jewish people to flee during the tragic time of the Holocaust.
This offer of citizenship is part of the healing process that extends to Jewish people worldwide whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents suffered in Europe under anti-Semitism, persecution and death during Hitler’s reign.
In Greece, Thessaloniki was a city that Sephardic Jewish refugees settled in after fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. Despite political struggles and a 1917 fire that caused Jewish emigration from the city, the Jewish community there remained strong. During the Holocaust, more than 95% of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki was taken to death and labor camps by the Nazis. Today, a majority of Greeks hold anti-Semitic views. But, Yiannis Boutaris, the current mayor of Thessaloniki, recently signed an American Jewish Committee pledge against anti-Semitism, along with 580 European and American mayors. He wants to change Greek attitudes in his city towards Jewish people. He is looking to build a Jewish cultural center that will cost about $25 million. Most of the money has been raised already. His focus is to encourage Jewish heritage and to restore Jewish history to his city. It is another measure of strengthening Jewish identity in a city that once had a flourishing Jewish community before the Holocaust.
In Macedonia a cemetery was built in 1497 by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition. The oldest cemetery in the Balkans, it represented what was once a flourishing Jewish community in Bitola/Monastir. That community all but disappeared in one day when 7,144 Macedonians (3,000 from Bitola) were rounded up and taken to Treblinka Death Camp. About 97-98% of all Macedonia’s Jews vanished.
Until recently, the cemetery was neglected by the gentiles living in Bitola (no Jews are living in the city now). Last year there were only a few tombstones sticking out of the ground that had not been covered over by many years of dirt and grass. Today, through a cooperative effort between Macedonia and Israel, extensive cleaning of the cemetery is being conducted. Young and old; Israelis, Europeans, and Americans; a variety of internationals and local multi-ethnic groups; are working daily on discovering the tombstones of Sephardic Jews buried in this cemetery.
So far, about 1,700 tombstones have been found, and it is expected that up to a total of 8,000 will be uncovered in the clean-up process. In addition, there are plans to build a cultural educational heritage center in the city, along with modern Israeli-Macedonian innovations and technology. Businessmen, tourists, and interested citizens in the Balkans region are hearing about these plans, and there are hopes that they will eventually come and discover their ancient Jewish heritage and identity in this historic city. Already, bus loads of Sephardic Jews have visited the cemetery, looking for the graves of their forefathers buried there. It is another sign of an awakening going on in Europe after the tragic sad stories of the Holocaust.
|There were not
to hold Shabbat services.
Last year, this writer was in Auschwitz during the 70th anniversary of the liberation of that death camp. While there, I was taken to the town of Oswiecim, next door to Auschwitz. In that town, I discovered a cultural heritage center packed with young people who were learning of the Jewish history that once existed there. As I entered the rooms where archival photographs were displayed, I could hear the sounds of what the city streets must have been like at that time. There was also Jewish music playing, and songs from a cantor. I saw beautiful exhibits of Judaica that were revealing to me what was once a flourishing Jewish community in this significant part of Poland. There was a synagogue that had been built in the cultural heritage center and the torah scrolls were present. Yet, while people were being educated about what once existed in this town, there was no minion to hold a religious service. There were not enough Jews living in Oswiecim to consider the presence of a rabbi or to hold Shabbat services. Next door to the heritage center was a kosher café. At the café was a little store where I eagerly purchased a map of the Jewish heritage routes in Poland.
The draw for me and many other visitors was the discovery of European Jewish roots in this educational center that exhibited Jewish history in a palatable way. The displays of religious artifacts, archival photographs, music and sounds took on greater meaning in a Polish town that would otherwise be considered a dismal place. Millions of Jews died in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Nazi terror of World War II. This was a small center that gave honor to the Jews that had lived in the area, and also helped turn some of the sorrows of those visiting into living memories.
Throughout Europe this phenomena is taking place – a revival of Jewish history so that those who want to, can come and spend time remembering their families and honoring the traditions that were part of millions of lives cut short by the Holocaust. This is a curious interest in what life was like for relatives who lived, worked, and enjoyed the benefits of community life in Europe before tragedy set in. It is the appreciation, honor, and recognition of these loved ones that are drawing many in the global Jewish community to discover new meaningful ways of connecting the past to the present and to the future.
For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD,’ plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 (NASB)
(c) 2015 Messianic Vision all rights reserved. This article is not reproducible except with permisson from Messianic Vision.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues in Israel and the nations.