Re-discovering the lives of central Europe's Jews

02-08-2003

Much is known about how Jews and opposers of the Nazi regime were driven out of Central and Eastern Europe - but what about the ones who remained or returned to - Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary ...? An organisation called Centropa has set out to find these elderly Jews and document their stories. They'll be placed on the Internet - providing a kind of "live link" between Jewish past and present.

Itzac Perlman plays Klezmer, a musical style that originated in the "shtetls" or small Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe. Today there are very few living witnesses to talk about life in these communities as it was before - and after - the Holocaust.

But American photo-journalist Ed Serotta has set out to find them. To do this he founded an organisation called Centropa and the project "Witness to a Jewish Century", which combines oral history with modern technology to archive the stories and photos of elderly Jews on the web.

Centropa has interviewers in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary among other countries, and the main office is in Vienna. Ed explains why.

"Because of that old Austro-Hungarian mentality that sits with lets say the nostalgic part of a lot of brains in this country. If I say I'm interested in projects on Jews in Czernitz or Bukovina - if I said this to a German foundation, no interest. But mention those same things in Austria and they say 'sit down and let's talk' "

Tanja Eckstein is an interviewer in the Austrian capital, where her father was born. She never knew her grandparents, who were killed in Auschwitz. Speaking in one of Vienna's old coffee houses, she says her work is teaching her a lot about the city they must have known.

"What I found really fascinating is that no matter how much money people had, even the really poor who lived in or near Vienna, they went to the Opera, to the Music Verein, to concerts, the theatre. They were really obsessed with culture."

Ed Serotta believes his project can reveal a lot about the different forms of daily Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe during the last century.

"Jews in Slovakia, not the Czech Republic, but Slovakia, which was northern Hungary for something like 900 years - they lived in small villages where there were only a few Jews in each village and they were the shop owners in the village. But they maintained their orthodoxy, which is highly unusual and still had very good relations with their neighbours. Where as in Hungary, especially in Budapest you really come face to face with assimilated university educated Jewish conservatives, who were completely middle class or even upper middle class and lived a very integrated Jewish life in normal Hungarian society."

When the "Witness project" is complete, over 2,000 biographies and 85,000 photos from over 14 countries in Central and Eastern Europe will be online. The project organisers hope each account will show less how Jews died in this part of the world than how they lived.

02-08-2003