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Old Shuls Never Die by Eric Silver - Jerusalem Report - 25.9.00

(September 25, 2000) An enterprising Jerusalem couple have devoted 12 years and all their savings to documenting the defunct synagogues of Central Europe

Rivka and Ben-Zion (Benny) Dorfman, veteran American immigrants now in their mid-70s, started their life’s work about the time many people take up macram? or nine-hole golf. She had just retired as a Jerusalem kindergarten teacher, he was about to retire from his genetics laboratory at the Hebrew University. Now — 12 years, 30,000 motoring miles, 20,000 photographs, tens of thousands of dollars of their own savings later — they are about to see the fruits of their efforts. The Jewish Publication Society is bringing out their “Synagogues Without Jews,” 368 large-format pages with 300 color photographs, on September 28.

The silver-haired couple, who were among the leftist Hashomer Hatzair founders of Kibbutz Sasa, near the Lebanese border, in 1948, spent a total of 54 weeks on the road over five summers, finding and cataloging 350 abandoned, small-town synagogues, dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, in nine countries of southern and central Europe. Their book profiles 34 of them and their forgotten congregations, decimated by Hitler’s Final Solution. Some buildings were destroyed later during the four decades of Communist rule.

To keep costs down on their two longest trips, they shipped their 1986 metallic-gold Audi from Haifa to Greece by ferry, then drove through there, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. Financial constraints prevented them from exploring further afield in Russia or Poland. They slept in the spare bedrooms of hospitable strangers. They took food with them, bought basics like tomatoes and eggs, made themselves soup. “We didn’t live grand,” smiles Benny, “but we didn’t skimp on the photography.”

They rushed from place to place, frequently logging three or four shuls a day  — some single rooms, others ornate prayer halls grand enough to serve now as cultural centers or auditoriums. On a peak day, they notched up seven. Many were derelict, others had been turned into dwellings or warehouses. Only two or three times did they meet outright hostility. In Kamena, Bohemia, a woman, living in a former synagogue, yelled, “We bought this  house!” and slammed the door on them. Elsewhere, another invited them in, led them to the attic and proudly showed them the decorated ceiling.

“We grew up in America,” Rivka reflects. “The Holocaust didn’t touch us directly. But in these places we felt we were in direct contact with what had been. From the shards, we tried to imagine this empty building, where now  there are no Jews, as a meeting place for a community of 1,500. It was as if, by documenting them, we were reconstructing these communities.”

If they traced an unoccupied synagogue, the loquacious, bird-like Rivka and chunky, square-jawed Benny tried to climb in through a broken window or a half-open door. If that didn’t work, they sought out a cleaning woman with a key, or the parish priest. In Levice, Slovakia, a Roman Catholic father fetched a ladder so that the couple could climb over a wall, then waited to make sure they got out again safely.

“There was no plaster on the brick walls,” recalls Benny “The place was a shambles. It had been vandalized.” But on the outside, high above the portal,  they spotted stone tablets of the 10 Commandments, engraved and decorated. Benny set up his tripod and one of their two Nikon cameras, then waited more than 10 minutes for a breeze to blow aside the thick foliage of a chestnut tree so that he could photograph them.

In Osijek, northern Croatia, the synagogue with its adjoining school and rabbi’s house had become a Pentecostal church. The few surviving Jews had sold it to the church, which retained and restored the Holy Ark. The school and rabbi’s house are now a seminary. Some students invited the Dorfmans into their quarters for a meal.

“We met a young woman there called Ruzica Maras,” Rivka recounts. “She said she believed her father was Jewish, though she was raised as a Christian. She had taught herself Hebrew and offered to help us. Every few months, she mailed us photographs and documents from other synagogues in the former Yugoslavia. When the church sent her to work in Romania and Hungary, she continued sending material from there.”

In Rychnov, northeastern Bohemia, the mayor, Jaroslav Kos, waited for them in the rain, then drove them to a synagogue being used by a plumbing-supplies merchant. Kos said it was the first time he’d been in the building and apologized for the toilet bowls and bathtubs. As a result of their visit, the town restored it as a Jewish museum.

The Dorfmans’ synagogue project is literally a cottage industry. Their modest, four-room apartment in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood has been taken over by it. Hundreds of documents, slides, negatives, prints and audio tapes, meticulously numbered and labeled, spill over from metal cabinets into a cluttered laundry room. The only significant funding they have received was a $13,000 prize from the Israeli Education Ministry and $1,000 from a private donor.

Unlike a comparable project undertaken by the Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art, which concentrates on architecture, the Dorfmans document people as well as places. It all began in the 80s, when Rivka audited a course in Jewish art at the university, then went on a study tour of Italian synagogues. “Since then,” she says wistfully, “it has taken all our spare time. It would have been nice to have seen more of the grandchildren.” They have two daughters and five grandchildren, aged four to 23, all living in Israel.

Rivka and Benny — she with a master’s from Columbia, he with a doctorate from Yale — are a complete, interchangeable, team. They cut in to supplement each other’s explanations, even on the phone. They have total recall of names and places, but can’t always remember who took which pictures. Both of them speak English, Hebrew and Yiddish. Rivka knows German, which was invaluable in distant reaches of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

Where that wasn’t enough, they prepared questionnaires in seven languages. “We held up a card,” says Benny, “and taped what people had to say.” Back in Jerusalem, they recruited 40 polyglot volunteers to translated the tapes, as well as documents they brought back. Jana Mihurova, a young, English-speaking woman who acted as the mayor’s interpreter in Rychnov, came to stay with them for six months in Jerusalem, translating material from Czech and Slovak.

With the help of the Yad Vashem Holocaust archives in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum, they delved into survivors’ testimonies and memorial books on the communities they were researching. The  “Acknowledgments” section at the end of their book runs to 3,000 words over five pages.

f they could raise the money, their final goal would be to digitalize the 20,000 photographs and put their files on disk for future researchers. One thing’s for sure. They won’t drop their life’s work and take up macram? or golf. “We do it,” insists Rivka, “because there’s a drive, there’s a need for it. We feel it as a mission.” A mission handsomely accomplished. 

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