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  • Writer's pictureShelly Sanders

#VirtualTravelTuesday #JewishBookReview by Shelly Sanders

Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

Published by the National Geographic Society, 2007; 326 pages

The title of this book evoked my first Jewish heritage trip, a couple of years ago, to Latvia. I stood in front of my great-grandfather’s house, as well as my great-great grandfather’s place, discovered how my ancestors lived at the Jews in Latvia Museum, and trod the same cobblestones as my great-uncle and his family in the Riga Ghetto, before they were marched to a mass grave in the Rumbula Forest and shot. 

​It was overwhelming, the depth of information, and the strangeness of being in the city where my great-great grandparents worked, where my great-grandparents wed, and where my grandmother visited from her family’s exile in Siberia. Which is why I was a little surprised Gruber didn’t include Latvia in her travel guide. Apart from this oversight, Gruber’s book offers a far-reaching exploration of 14 Eastern European countries, including Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Western Balkans, and Bulgaria. 

​An engaging combination of personal anecdotes and history, Jewish Heritage Travel is organised into ten chapters, an introduction to Jewish travel followed by nine journeys to specific countries. A sobering comparison of the Jewish population before WWII and today marks the beginning of every chapter. This book actually germinated in 1978, when Gruber and her brother joined “Romania’s then chief rabbi, Moses Rosen, on his annual Hanukkah pilgrimage to Jewish communities scattered around Romania.”

​Since Romania was controlled at the time by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, there was the added excitement and complication of how to behave without causing or getting into trouble. In her overview of the core of this book, the significance of Jewish ancestry travel, Gruber writes: “It is a journey particularly important now, as the Holocaust recedes into history and the new, post-communist  democracies—more than half of them now members of the European Union—continue their development in a world where religious, ethnic, and political extremism remain powerful and worrisome forces.”

​As an author of Jewish historical fiction, I was captivated by Gruber’s attention to details from the past, especially her haunting descriptions of some of the places she’s been, like the cemetery in Kazimierz Dolony in Poland, where Jews settled in medieval times: “In the mid-1980s, hundreds of recovered gravestones and fragments were built into an immense, mosaic-like wall, split by a jagged vertical rock, symbolizing the sudden extinction of the Jewish people. Stepping through the crack, you find yourself in a dense, peaceful forest, where the remnants of the New Cemetery stand amid the trees that have grown up over the past 60 years. The physical (and symbolic) transition from sunlight to deep shadow makes you catch your breath.”

​There is a story about courageous Jews meeting their death during the Holocaust with bottles of vodka and dancing as the Nazis fired shots at them. Another one about the last Jew in a Polish village, who put a mezuzah on his doorpost, because he wants, “to cultivate the traditions of my ancestors. I am left here as the only guardian, the only memory of the Nowy Korczyn community.” And there’s a disturbing reminder of the ever-present anti-Semitism, when Gruber comes upon a derelict Holocaust memorial covered with a green, spray-painted Swastika.

​Black and white photos are sprinkled through the pages, glimpses of happy Lithuanian students in a 1930’s Hebrew gymnasium, an elderly Jewish couple with nine grandchildren in the Ukraine, and a Jewish community in Transylvania standing in front of their wooden synagogue in the 1930’s.

​I was struck by how much I learned from Gruber’s guide, beyond useful visiting information, summarized at the end of chapters, with websites and additional reading. I had no idea, for instance, that the Prague Jewish Museum has, “perhaps the greatest collection of Judaica in all Europe—a collection that was put together, with cruel irony, by the Nazis, who gathered material from 153 destroyed Jewish communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia.” Or how Avigdor Kara, a poet, scholar and Kabbalist who survived an Easter massacre in 1389, wrote a moving elegy about the attack that is still recited in Prague on Yom Kippur. Or that Jews were expelled from Gorizia, Slovenia in 1534, yet were “deemed so vital to the economic life of the town that local officials pressured the imperial authorities to lift the ban. A ghetto was established in 1698, and local Jews developed a flourishing silk industry.”

​In these troubling times, where a pandemic has temporarily spoiled plans for international travel, Jewish Heritage Travel gives readers the chance to travel vicariously, seeing events and places through Gruber’s sharp eyes. It is an escape to the past, as well as a present-day journey, uncovering poignant shadows and modern communities that are blooming. As for Latvia, there may be a good reason it was left out. Maybe the time wasn’t right, or Gruber wasn’t interested. No matter. I have been twice and can’t wait to go again, to continue my ancestral research, and to embark on a new project—a Jewish travel guide for a country which, like the places Gruber has toured, has its own, inimitable stories to tell.


Shelly Sanders resides in Ontario, Canada. She is the author of three novels and was a finalist for the prestigious Vine Award for Jewish Fiction in Canada. As a freelance journalist, she has published articles in both mainstream and Jewish periodicals and newspapers.

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